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MOSES, PETER AND MEL

Before I put one finger to type, I acknowledge this may be heresy to some people. On this day of days, one simply doesn’t make fun of religious movies. But I do.

Last night, Marilyn and I had our traditional viewing of “The Ten Commandments”. Marilyn has already posted a piece on this event which expresses our sentiments about Mr. Demille’s final epic. Cecil B was, once again, going for life altering moments. He gave us, instead, much-needed laughter.

Today’s lineup of movies on our favorite cable station includes almost all of the familiar biblical movies. Few stand the test of time. Some are really well intended like George Stevens’, “The Greatest Story Ever Told”. But the man who gave us classics like “Shane”, “A Place In The Sun” and “Giant”, wound up with a ponderous and static film in “The Greatest Story”. It’s biggest sin? It is boring!

As I write, we are watching Mel Brooks’, “History of the World-Part One” which is the perfect antidote to historical films that have become parodies or that were really never good. The ironic thing is that we have a greater appreciation of history because of Mel’s equal opportunity insults than the cardboard epics which play fast and loose with facts.

I must admit I love watching gladiator movies. It’s a guy thing like war films.  I also enjoy seeing semi clad (or even less clad) young women engaging us in erotic dances before evil monarchs who are not playing with a full deck. But we’re not talking about great cinema here.

HistoryOfTheWorldPartI

Charlton “call me Chuck” Heston was really honest when he talked about playing Moses. He told me it was a good gig. Working with Cecil B. DeMille (for a second time) was nice for his résumé. It actually gave him a boost for a religious film he really wanted to do. “Ben Hur” is one of the best religious films out of Hollywood. It stands the test of time because of William Wyler’s fine direction. And, yes, the chariot race alone is still worth the price of admission.

This really is obviously subjective. If you love Cecil B’s forceful (?) narration of his take on the old testament, so be it. So let it be written, so let it be done,

We’re back with Mel. Now, it’s the French Revolution and those girls in their generously cut costumes.

It’s good to be king!

MY HOLLYWOOD FANTASY – GARRY ARMSTRONG

I love movies. Old movies  Movies from the 30′s, 40′s and 50′s. I grew up watching these films. They were movies from Hollywood’s golden age when fantasy really trumped reality. These were films seen in theaters. First, second and the beloved third run or neighborhood movies houses.

This was before television. The movie theater experience was as much fun as seeing the film. That’s where the fantasy began.

HollywoodSign

I saw my first movie in 1946. I was four years old. The movie was “The Best Years Of Our Lives”. My Mom and Dad took me to see the film in a big glittery theater in Manhattan. New York. The city that never sleeps. My Dad, in his Army dress uniform with ribbons and medals, had just returned from Europe. World War Two had ended less than a year earlier. I vaguely remembered the headlines. My Dad seemed ten feet tall in his uniform. My Mom was more beautiful than I could ever recall. She looked like a movie actress in one of those popular magazines of the day. I felt as if we were in a movie that evening. It was magical!

The_Best_Years_of_Our_Lives_film_posterI don’t remember much about the movie. I remember some of the scenes. The returning GI’s looking down at their hometown from the air. The scenes of the town as the taxi took the men to their respective homes. The family reunions. The men looked like my father and yet they didn’t. I was vaguely disturbed but didn’t understand. I dreamed about the movie that night. My Dad was the star. My Mom was the lady played by Myrna Loy. I was the son receiving souvenirs from my Dad. Yes, I could see myself in the movie.

That fantasy would replay itself many times over ensuing decades. But it grew with the films of my youth. The westerns, especially. I adored westerns. I liked seeing the good guys always beat the bad guys. I liked the way the good guys dressed and the horses they rode. Curiously, none of the guys — good or bad — looked like anyone in my family but that didn’t matter to me. Didn’t think much about it. I was  all of those good guys! Most of all, I was John Wayne. Later, I was so much John Wayne I enlisted in the Marine Corps right out of high school. Another story.

As my fantasy grew, I also discovered I was a romantic. This is a guy secret. I liked romantic movies with happy endings. I was Joseph Cotten pursuing Jennifer Jones in “Love Letters” and “Portrait of Jennie”. I was Spencer Tracy, the underdog to Clark Gable, vying for the affections of Myrna Loy and Claudette Colbert.

Somewhere, stashed away, I have an old notebook. One of those notebooks with lined pages used for compositions in grade school. I used to write imaginary castings for movies with myself as the star opposite Hollywood legends. Actually, I added some reality. I worked my way up from “and introducing Garry Armstrong”, to co-star and finally star. Fortunately, that notebook was never discovered in class.

Duke and Lone

Marilyn and I have been watching (again) a series, “MGM – WHEN THE LION ROARED”. It’s a fascinating look at the rise and fall of Hollywood’s most prestigious studio. As we look at the series, I fantasize again, now at age 72, about being there in Hollywood during its golden age.

Fantasy dissolved into a dream last night. I was in 1930′s Hollywood. I was at MGM. I saw the legends. Gable, Tracy, Garbo, Crawford and all the others. The dream unfolded rather skillfully. I was a freelance writer working under a pseudonym in separate quarters. This is how I, a man of color, could exist in that world. It was perfectly splendid. My work was excellent. Others took credit but all knew who I was, especially Louis B. Mayer. I never asked for a raise. My scripts all had the MGM touch.

In real life, I’ve had the chance to meet many of those legends who’ve been part of my dreams. As a TV news reporter, I’ve actually had the opportunity to socialize with some of the legends. You’ve read about some of them in other blogs. It’s funny when reality meets your dreams and fantasies.

I’ve done some extra or background acting. It’s been interesting but the hours are too long, like those I logged for almost 40 years in television. I don’t like getting up early anymore. I haven’t quite closed the door, mind you. I hang onto the fantasy I’ll get “the call” for a lead role in a major movie.

And, the Oscar goes to …

REMEMBERING GOLDEN BOY

This is a juxtaposition of a montage equal to pure cinema.

What? It’s a line from my professor in a college film appreciation course a thousand years ago. I’m able to write about two subjects today because Marilyn is blogging for the first time since her return home from complex heart valve surgery last week. She’s actually writing two blogs. One for today and one for tomorrow. This should be breaking news for all in Marilyn’s extensive bloggers’ family. We’re talking world-wide, pilgrims. It’s a wonderful sign. Marilyn’s energy level is higher and longer than it’s been since her return home. And, as I write, I think that burst of energy is fading. Still, big strides for my fair lady.

Yesterday mostly we watched movies. Funny movies. “Airplane!,” “Hot Shots, Part Deux” and several Mel Brooks classics. No taxing the brain. Last night our viewing included several segments of “Carson on TCM.”

Our favorite cable station is running some of Johnny Carson’s classic interviews. Johnny’s 1975 interview with William Holden was memorable. Holden was doing publicity for “Network” which had opened a couple of weeks earlier. Carson was clearly impressed with the film’s audacious take on network television. William Holden said he was drawn to the film by Paddy Chayefsky’s brilliant script. While both admired the film, neither really knew how accurate “Network” would turn out to be. But I’m getting away from my subject.

William Holden. He was my favorite actor of the 1950s. John Wayne was my favorite movie star but Holden was the consummate actor of the period. He was a handsome every-man who could handle drama, action and comedy.

SOB3

William Holden, from S.O.B. (1981)

I’m skipping a lot of detail because this is more of a personal take on William Holden than a full bio. Beginning with his film début in “Golden Boy” (1939), Holden never gave a bad performance in a career that spanned a quarter of a century. Matter of fact, he got better as he got older. Holden (William Beedle, Jr.) honed his craft while under contracts at Columbia and Paramount during the 1940s. His best performance during the early years was probably the newspaper columnist who falls in love with Judy Holliday’s Billie Dawn in “Born Yesterday” (1949).

Holden was on a roll with memorable films including “Sunset Boulevard,” “Stalag 17″ (Best Actor Oscar), “Sabrina” (great comedic role), “Executive Suite”, “The Country Girl”, “Bridge On The River Kwai” (rumor has it Sam Spiegel wanted Cary Grant for the Holden role) and “The Moon Is Blue.” That’s just the 1950s. A career for many other actors. I always enjoyed the wry touch William Holden brought to his characters. It was as if the handsome, golden boy leading man wanted you to know he didn’t take himself seriously. I think life mirrored art.

Fast forward to the 1970s. William Holden was now in his fifties but looked much older. It was no secret he had a drinking problem born of insecurity despite his continuing success. “Network” married the skilled actor and insecure man. It bothered me as a fan and a student of movies. Obviously, it was a familiar story but it struck home because I liked William Holden so much.

June 1981. A lazy Saturday in Boston. It was a slow news day. I got a call from a PR agency. William Holden was available for an interview. Turns out Holden and several prominent cast members of “S.O.B” were available. Blake Edwards’ scathing indictment of Hollywood and the movie industry was in trouble. Within the biz, word was that they were trying to freeze the movie out. So, Holden and his fellow stars volunteered to go on a nationwide PR blitz to promote the hell out of “S.O.B.” and not mince any words about their predicament.

So that Saturday I sat in a room with a handful of reporters, maybe fewer than a handful. Those seated at a long table in front of us included William Holden, Julie Andrews, Robert Preston, Richard Mulligan and Robert Vaughn, among others. A lot of B-roll, setup and cutaway shots were done as we warmed up to each other. William Holden personally made sure the pitchers of bloody Marys kept coming.

I got some quality time with Holden alone because the PR agency liked me. I’d done interviews with supporting actors ignored by other media over the years.  The other media people were focused mainly on Julie Andrews and Robert Vaughn. William Holden was alone, working his way through another pitcher of bloodies when I approached.

We hit it off immediately with the drinks helping. I used my familiar shtick of mentioning some of Holden’s lesser known work, including “The Dark Past”, a late 40′s film noir-ish melodrama in which Holden played a psycho killer. Somewhere in our conversation, Holden said he missed William Beedle, Jr. I nodded. He looked at me oddly. I told him Garry Armstrong was my real name. He smiled and said it was a good name. We talked a little about the “S.O.B.” script. He suggested his speech to the suicide-bent director in the movie could be his own eulogy. I nodded again. We finished the pitcher of bloodies.

William Holden looked around the room as the media folks were packing up their gear. He smiled at me, shook my hand warmly and said, “So long, Pal.”

He would die in a motel room five months later — alone.

REMEMBERING RICHARD JAECKEL – GARRY ARMSTRONG

Boston, 1973.

I don’t remember the exact date, but it was warm. We shot in shirtsleeves in the lobby of the TV station. I couldn’t get a studio and was being urged to get the shoot finished as quickly as possible. The “suits” were unimpressed with Richard Jaeckel. James Coburn was the hot interview on the circuit as “Pat Garrett and Billy The Kid” was being pushed by publicists. Richard Jaeckel was very pleasant and friendly even before we rolled the camera.

jaeckel -1He asked about what I did. I gave him a snapshot biography back to my radio days and shooting my own film at a previous TV station. He grinned and said it was good to be working with a “grunt”. The rapport was established.

I mentioned having interviewed Gregory Peck a decade earlier, how well we got along. Jaeckel segued into working with Peck in one of his earliest films, “The Gunfighter” (1950).

As Jaeckel talked, I nodded for my cameraman to begin shooting. He smiled. He’d been shooting since Jaeckel and I began swapping war stories. The interview flowed smoothly.

It was more like a conversation between friends than an interview to promote a film. We chatted more than 10 minutes before I mentioned “Pat Garrett” and Jaeckel again smiled, saying he’d forgotten he was supposed to be promoting the film.

He discussed working with the quirky Sam Peckinpah and scene-stealers like Chill Wills. I asked about Bob Dylan, also in the film. Jaeckel’s smile got bigger as he recalled the folk singer’s kid-like behavior working with “movie stars”.

About 20 minutes later, we wrapped the interview. I asked Jaeckel what was next on his schedule. He said he was free for the afternoon. I suggested a pub near the station might be fine for lunch. He quickly agreed.

Drinks and meals ordered, Jaeckel and I began a three-hour conversation touching on family, movie making and the business of promoting movies. We found a common thread in our roots in New York, in our frustration with management and “the suits.”

I mentioned how I was always “the kid” at every stop in my career. He nodded and jumped in with stories about working with Richard Widmark, John Wayne, Karl Malden and Richard Boone in some of his very early movies. He said they all treated him well but he was always called “the kid”.

richard-jaeckel-dirtydozen-7Jaeckel broke into guffaws when I asked about working with character actors like Jack Elam, Lee Van Cleef and Jack Lambert — all well established screen villains. He said they were the easiest and nicest people to work “jobs” (films) in the business. Jaeckel slid into a brief note about his son, Barry who was a rising tennis player. I quoted some stats which prompted a very pleased grin and a final round of drinks. We ended the afternoon with him picking up the tab, saying he had really enjoyed the day and would check me out on the tube before leaving Boston.

The next evening, just after the 6 pm newscast, I got a call. It was Richard Jaeckel. He’d caught me doing a news piece.

“Good job, Kid”, he said.

“Thanks, Kid”, I replied. We both laughed and wished each other well.

More

“Chisum” is a goodie directed by Vic McLaglen’s son, Andrew. Jaeckel had made it 3 years before “Pat Garrett and Billy The Kid.” It was, he said, fun working with Wayne and a many from the John Ford stock company.

BanacekS1During our lunch,  Jaeckel recounted the off-camera sparring between vets like Bruce Cabot, Ben Johnson,  Forrest Tucker and Duke Wayne versus “kids” like Andrew Prine, Geoff Duel and Christopher George. There were drinking contests with the old guys daring the younger guys to match them shot-for-shot of the hard stuff. The old guys won.

Jaeckel said by the time he made “Chisum” he was regarded as a “tweener” by Wayne and his buddies. He wasn’t harassed like “the kids” but wasn’t quite accepted by the old guys.

Jaeckel said Bruce Cabot was a mean drunk and was reprimanded by Wayne, who himself wasn’t always friendly when he was loaded. Ben Johnson was a friendly, easy-going guy who wasn’t intimated by Wayne who tried to goad his old pal. Christopher George who I met on another occasion confirmed Jaeckel’s stories.

Another Meeting

The second meeting with Richard Jaeckel occurred when “Banacek” was shooting in Boston. We used to have a charity softball game on Boston Common. This time, it was the media all-stars versus George Peppard, the “Banacek” crew and the Playboy Bunnies.

Kegs of beer were set up for both benches. The drinking began before the game and never stopped. Before the first game, the flacks were introducing Peppard to media folks. Jaeckel was a guest star on the “Banacek” series. He pulled Peppard over and introduced me as his buddy, a “grunt” who knew his stuff a holdover from our initial meeting.

Peppard grinned broadly, shook hands and led us behind the bench where he had a carton of his private stock of “the good stuff.” I don’t remember much about the game. I do recall we did justice to the carton of the good stuff. The following day, Peppard –notoriously difficult with the press — turned up for an interview I hadn’t scheduled.

Richard Jaeckel was his driver.

OSCAR ISN’T SACRED BUT WE WATCH ANYHOW

72-oscar-statue

Daily Prompt: Time After Time

We don’t have a lot of traditions. We have a lot of intentions, but they don’t always pan out. But we have one that’s sacred. Okay, not exactly sacred, but we do it every year.

Garry and I watch the Oscars.

We watch them when they are boring. We watch them when we are tired and would like to go to bed. We watched them one year in the pilot’s lounge at the top of a cruise ship on the biggest screen television I’ve ever seen.

Last year, we watched them in Connecticut with friends. For my money, Seth McFarland was the absolutely funniest-ever host.

Ellen DeGeneres was good this year. Pleasant. A kinder, gentler host. But McFarland made me laugh more and laughter always wins the day with me. Her selfie with the stars crashed Twitter and broke all retweet records with more than 2 million retweets.

Garry and I have been together 25 years — officially. Longer unofficially. Much longer entirely off the books. And we always watch the Oscars.

I suppose I should say something about why. I mean, mostly, the show is pretty dull. Insipid speeches thanking everyone the awardee has ever known since birth or even before birth in a previous life. Ho hum productions of the songs of the year. They used to have really bad dance numbers, but eliminated them this year. Drat. That was always good for a groan.

Ellen at oscars

Lacking the bad production numbers, we could gawk at the hideous examples of “one plastic surgery over the line.” Kim Novak was terrible to see. A lovely woman who fixed what didn’t need fixing. We barely recognized her. Then there were all the rest of them, so full of Botox that their faces were all zombified. Rigid. Men and women alike, terrified to be seen getting old.

Garry and I looked at each other and whatever problems we have, we look a lot better than they do. Without plastic surgery, thank you.

And one more thing. How come, since they have the financial wherewithal to buy whatever they want, are so many of them so badly dressed? Can’t buy good taste, eh?

So that’s why we watch the show. To see the new stars, the old stars, the gorgeous dresses from fabulous designers worn by aging stars who should know better. The awful dresses worn by beautiful young starlets who should look in the mirror rather than take the advice of designers.

Ugly tuxedos, terrible hair, bad makeup and some stomach-wrenching plastic surgery. And at least one or two wins for the actors, directors and others who’ve done an amazing job and deserve a victory lap.

The good, the bad and the ugly — it’s all part of the magic of the Oscar night.

Lupita-Nyongo-Oscars-2014

It gives us a chance to yell “Ew!!” yet we are ever-ready to praise those who come through the Oscar experience nicely dressed, not surgically remodeled, with some grace and dignity remaining.

We can hardly wait until next year.

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THE LAST STAND (2013) – BEST MOVIE EVER STARRING A FORMER GOVERNOR

Last_Stand_2013Starring Arnold Schwarzenegger, Forest Whitaker, Johnny Knoxville, Rodrigo Santoro. Jaimie Alexander and lots of other people, this is absolutely the best movie ever made by a former governor of California. Or any former governor.

I’m not a very intellectual movie reviewer. That’s just as well, since there is nothing intellectual about this movie.

It’s pretty good. Lots of shooting. Blood spurting. Vicious bad guys. It has the grace to not take itself too seriously, with enough humorous moments and entirely predictable but nonetheless funny lines to make it easy to watch.

“I’m The Sheriff!” growls Arnold and by golly, he is, though Garry and I simultaneously pointed out that he used to be The Governor.

There are a lot of car chases … or maybe not really chases. More accurately, it is exceptionally good stunt driving. They actually did some stunts I’ve never seen before and I really thought I’d seen them all.

Plot? Oh, right. Plot. Okay. Think “High Noon” with a strong whiff of “Terminator.” Or any western movie where the sheriff stands up to some incredibly evil guys and whups their collective asses with the help of his faithful deputies and one old lady with a shot-gun. You’ll be glad to know that Arnold Schwarzenegger, senior citizen, ex-governor gets shot, stabbed and beat up, but walks away proudly in the end. Not into the sunset, but into the local diner. Irv’s Diner. Killing people and catching malevolent drug lords gives him an appetite. I’m just sorry I forgot to buy popcorn. It’s a beautiful, deeply touching, moment.

If you need a violence fix, this is a pretty good choice. It’s well made. Moves right along. Some great artillery and the aforementioned stunt driving.

It’s available on Amazon — free for Prime members. Probably on Netflix too. I haven’t checked but usually if it’s on one, you’ll find it on the other.

MARILYN MEETS MOSES AND MR. ROBERTS – GARRY ARMSTRONG

midway-poster“Call me Chuck”,  Charlton Heston beamed down as Marilyn stared up. Manhattan, 1976 and a gathering for the world première of “Midway”. Marilyn and I were in the middle of what they used to call a “gang bang” press conference to publicize the new blockbuster movie. There were scores of writers and columnists from around the world seated at dozens of tables in the posh mid-town restaurant. Everyone wanted scoops from the handful of super stars assembled to meet and greet the media. Think of a wedding where hundreds of people want quality time with the bride and groom. Never happens. Almost never.

“Chuck” Heston and I had met several times in recent years when he stopped in Boston to promote films. Somehow, we became “friends” of a sort. He was fascinated by the TV film equipment we used. I scored a few points when I told him I used to shoot my own film earlier in my career. I never mentioned the mediocrity of my work at a small station where I had to shoot my stories.

We compared notes about film style. He’d shot film when he was in college. I segued to Heston’s first film, “Dark City” and – voila – the “friendship” began. When I mentioned “Will Penny”, an underrated western classic, Heston beamed and we were on a roll. We swapped stories about working for “suits” and laughed a lot. He would always ask for me whenever he visited Boston.

CharltonHeston6X9

Chuck held Marilyn’s hand tightly at the “Midway” press luncheon. She stared up at him. His teeth were yellow. His white turtleneck looked worn and his plaid sports jacket was a bit frumpy. No matter. He looked directly at Marilyn as if no one else was at our table. The well-known entertainment scribes around us seemed a bit agitated. No matter. Chuck told Marilyn he was tired and felt like these PR luncheons were meat markets. Marilyn stared and nodded. He patted her hand, glanced at me and told Marilyn that I was ‘a good man and a fun guy who knew his stuff ‘. I beamed. The other people grew more agitated. Marilyn’s stare turned into a smile. Chuck excused himself for a moment saying he wanted us to meet some friends.

“Hank, I want you to meet a couple of friends”, Chuck introduced Henry Fonda to Marilyn and me. The familiar, laconic gait was very real. “Hank” Fonda took Marilyn’s hand looking a little like Wyatt Earp meeting Clementine.

henry-fonda

Marilyn stared up at the film legend. He had incredibly thick, gray eyebrows and, like Chuck Heston, looked very tired. But he smiled as he chatted with Marilyn and said something about how nice it was meeting Chuck’s friends. My, oh, my!!

A notoriously reclusive man who disdained doing publicity things, “Hank” actually seemed at ease as he chatted with Marilyn and acknowledged me. The other people at the table had moved from agitation to resentment while pretending to enjoy the attention we were receiving. Marilyn seemed a bit more relaxed as Fonda continued to chat with her. Chuck nodded in approval as Hank talked briefly about dealing with the press. He talked about the “Mr. Roberts” publicity campaign two decades earlier. That had been personal for him because “Mr. Roberts” had been his baby from stage to screen.

“Hank” looked down at Marilyn and said something about getting too old for ‘this stuff’. He did look very thin and sallow. Fonda’s smile and good humor covered up his physical weariness. Little did we know that his body would give out five years later. Hank and Chuck said goodbye to Marilyn (and me), waved to the others at our table, and walked into the crowd. Marilyn was beaming.

REVIEWING THE AMERICANIZATION OF EMILY, 1964

Cover of "The Americanization of Emily"

The Americanization of Emily (1964) is an American comedy-drama war film written by Paddy Chayefsky and directed by Arthur Hiller, loosely adapted from the novel of the same name by William Bradford Huie who had been a SeaBee officer on D-Day.

With a brilliant script by Paddy Chayefsky, it features impeccable direction by Arthur Hill and a radiant Julie Andrews in her first non-musical feature role. James Coburn displays his comedic chops,  which are considerable, and James Garner is perfect as the Admiral’s dog robber … a role he also played in The Great Escape, released the previous year (1963). Chayefsky put a strongly anti-war slant on the story and the film includes some of the most memorable monologues in any movie ever made.

I first saw this in the theatre when it was newly released. It was a powerful experience and stayed with me since. It was a premium time for anti-war sentiment here and abroad, but the movie still suffered from being seen as unpatriotic.

This isn’t a movie that you hear about much although it was nominated for two Oscars – Best Art Direction – (George W. Davis, Hans Peters, Elliot Scott, Henry Grace, Robert R. Benton and Best Cinematography – (Philip H. Lathrop). Julie Andrews was nominated by BAFTA for Best Actress.

It is not available on DVD at the moment, but is available as a download from Amazon.com. It will probably become available again at some point. How and when movies are released or dropped seems whimsical and without any particular logic.

Right before it stopped being available, I made sure to get a copy for us. Many of my favorite movies from the 60s and even through the 1990s are no longer available. I know that downloading and streaming video is all the thing, but I don’t want to be limited to watching movies on my computer nor do I want to be entirely dependent on the whimsical technical capabilities of my cable company. I prefer owning my own media and frankly, I neither like nor trust my cable company. They already have much too much power and charge much more money than they ought.

Garner’s role as Charlie Madison was originally slated for William Holden, with Garner set for the Bus Cummings role played ultimately played by Coburn. Holden dropped out of the project. This was great from Garner’s point of view. He viewed The Americanization of Emily as the best role he had in his long movie career. In interviews, Coburn echoes the sentiment. If one wanted to judge a role by the number of brilliant speeches the leads get to make, this has to be the top vehicle for Garner, Coburn and Andrews. Paddy Chayefsky wrote some of the best dialogue ever heard on stage or screen. He was an actor’s gift and well they knew it.

 

The actors in The Americanization of Emily were aware how important an opportunity the film offered. Great movie roles don’t come along everyday in any actor’s career.

If you can catch this on cable or anywhere, watch it. The script is brilliant, the kind of scriptwriting that’s becoming extinct. For me, the language, the words, will always be the best part of a great film. If you are a “word person,” this is your movie. The acting is first-rate, the photography is perfect. It’s everything you want a movie to be.

BEAUTIFUL MUSIC AND A FINE CAST MAKES A LOVELY FILM – A LATE QUARTET

A LATE QUARTET (2012)

Director: Yaron Zilberman
Writers (screenplay): Seth Grossman, Yaron Zilberman

The Cast:

Philip Seymour Hoffman, as Robert Gelbart
Christopher Walken, as Peter Mitchell
Catherine Keener, as Juliette Gelbart
Mark Ivanir, as Daniel Lerner
Imogen Poots, as Alexandra Gelbart
Wallace Shawn, as Gideon Rosen
Anne Sofie von Otter, as Miriam.

Garry and I watched A Late Quartet  the other day. I bought it after reading its reviews. It sounded like a movie for grown-ups and there have been a dearth movies that don’t star fresh-faced children, but aren’t entirely about getting old. Jokes about getting old begin to get old after a while, so we were ready for a grown-up movie about life and living.The reviews were right. It’s a fine movie.

If the movie has a “hero,” that would be Christopher Walken who plays against type with elegance and grace. Add Marc Ivanir — usually playing an Israeli CIA sort-of-bad-guy on NCIS (he actually is Israeli and a hero) — as the dedicated, haunted first violin. Phillip Seymour Hoffman does his usual excellent job as the quartet’s jealous second violin. Catherine Keener (on viola) is the “could be better” wife to Hoffman  It’s a great mix of characters and some of the best work done by Walken and company.

Their movie musicianship is realistic. They did not actually perform the music on the sound track, but it looked like they knew their way around string instruments. Some of them may have had some early training, the rest were coached for the movie. However it was accomplished, the cinematographer was able to follow the actors’ performances closely, without resorting to long shots to disguise their identities. Well done!

While doing a little reasearch on the stars, I discovered that Walken attended the same university as Garry and I. He was probably there during one of Garry’s years at Hofstra University. Walken was there for just a year, then left for a gig in an off-broadway show. It was news to us that he’d been there at all.

It is one of the many ironies of Garry and my education that most of Hofstra’s most famous graduates are not graduates, but attendees who left before getting a degree to begin highly successful careers in Hollywood. We had a very good drama department and perhaps the biggest measure of its success is how many of the students in the program were “discovered” before they got degrees and went on to fame and fortune without benefit of that piece of paper.

Although it doesn’t hurt if you know some classical music. The world of classical performance is as competitive — more competitive — than any of the performing arts. Understanding this helps you understand the characters’ behavior, but regardless, it’s a good story and a well-written script.

The Story

It’s the 25th anniversary of “The Fugue”, a classical string quartet. Time is catching up with them. Christopher Walken, their cellist and oldest member of the quartet has been diagnosed with Parkinson’s and needs to retire. The first violinist is in love with the second violinist’s daughter, and the second violinist wants to be the first violinist … and sex in the form of “oops” infidelity adds enough spice to imperil the survival of the quartet if the rest of their problems were not disruptive enough.

Walken as the sensible, down-to-earth member of the group, dealing with his own burdens and unwilling to tolerate the childish carryings-on by the other performers, is wonderful. “The Fugue comes first,” he says, or words to that effect. It’s interesting to see Walken cast as the stable, adult, not even slightly crazy, member of the group.

The Music

A Late Quartet refers to Opus 131, one of a group of string quartets written by Beethoven towards the end of his life. It is magnificent. I’ve rarely heard this piece performed at all. It’s challenging music, written when Beethoven had already lost his hearing, yet was still able to hear it in his head. It’s one of Beethoven’s most complex, intense pieces and it’s beautifully performed.

I love the music, studied classical music for many years. I love Beethoven. He is my favorite composer, whose music I play as I drift off to sleep at night and whose symphonies have been my companion on many journeys through my life.

It did not disappoint us. It’s not a light piece of fluff, nor is it depressing or hopeless. Problems come, problems are addressed, problems are resolved. Not everything has a happy ending but within the limits of what’s possible, these adults work out their problems — musical, health, personal and relationship — like … adults. How refreshing!

It’s worth a couple of hours of your time. The DVD is available on Amazon (which is where I got it). The soundtrack is available separately.

GAME CHANGER

Being a cast member on a movie set wasn’t exactly what I’d expected. Maybe I wasn’t sure what to expect since my experience with working on a film was altogether vicarious, drawn from depictions on television or movies. Even subtracting 95% of what I thought I knew to align my expectations with reality, I thought something should be happening. I guess it was, if you were one of the stars or co-stars.

movie-set-bostonBut extras? Which is what I was, though these days the term “extras” is out of favor and “background performer” is in. Whatever you care to call us, we got shuttled from set to set, fed three meals at lavish buffet breakfasts, lunches and dinners where everyone chowed down with extreme prejudice. Otherwise, we waited. And waited. And then, we waited some more. While we waited we were required to be silent. Don’t annoy the stars. Don’t be in the way. Don’t go anywhere — including the bathroom – without permission. Permission you had to get from one of the dozens of assistants, those attractive young people running around with headsets and clipboards.

It was confusing to say the least. You never knew if someone might decide you or your group were needed in a scene, but even if you were never in any scene — entirely possible — you had to act as if you were about to be “up” any moment and your presence or absence was life and death. On a movie set, it turns out everything is treated like life or death. It’s a Hollywood thing.

It was mid-November, night in Lowell, Massachusetts.  I hadn’t worn enough layers. Cold.

My feet hurt. Not to mention my back.

I needed to pee.

I was bored.

The director was on the 128th take. Before the night was done, he would close in on 250 takes of this particular scene. It was the turning point of the plot. It included every member of the cast except a bunch of us “background performers.” No matter. We still had to be there. Just in case. I wondered how much money I was going to make, just standing around. I didn’t think it was going to be enough especially since it seemed unlikely this would be the night Hollywood discovered me. I wished I’d brought a book, though in the dark I wasn’t sure if I’d have been able to read.

That was when I noticed the woman. She was standing just off to my right, leaning against a street light. It looked like she was reading, but whatever it was she was holding wasn’t a book. Something else. It had a light attached.

I sidled over.

“Hi.”

“Hi.”

“You’re reading? What’s that? I’ve never seen one.”

“It’s a Kindle.”

“OH,” I said, things clicking into place. “I’ve heard of them, but I’ve never seen one before.”

She looked up and smiled. “It’s wonderful. I don’t know how I lived without it. I can bring books with me everywhere, as many books as I want. See?” she said, and she began to show me all the cool stuff it could do. Like being able to bookmark passages, get definitions of words and phrases. And carry a whole library with her in just this little thing no bigger than a paperback.

I held it, turned it this way and that. “You know,” I said. “This might be exactly what I need.” Certainly my bookcases at home were bursting at the seams. Anything that let me buy books without finding someplace to put them sounded like a really good deal. And this thing would let me take books everywhere without hauling a trunkful of paperback. It seemed a good idea. But the price was still too high for me and I wondered if I would like a book that didn’t smell like ink and paper. It was convenient, but it lacked ambiance.

Nonetheless, that conversation stuck in my brain. Long after the movie — in which I did not appear, though I had one scene which was cut and left on the editing room floor — had faded into memory, I remembered the lady with the Kindle. When the new generation of Kindles was released and the prices dropped, I bought one. Then I bought one for everyone in my family who reads books. And I bought another one that plays movies and audiobooks and checks email. Finally, I got an even newer one that does the same stuff, but (supposedly) better and faster.

I can’t even imagine life without my Kindle. I’ve got hundreds of books on it. It goes everywhere with me … literally everywhere.

A week or two ago — don’t remember exactly when — I had to read a paperback. It was heavy. It was awkward. I couldn’t hold it in one hand.

And where was the light?

This may sound like no big deal.  After all, it’s just another toy, one more electronic doohickie. But it isn’t. For me, it was a life changer. Because finally, I could always have books with me.

If you were to take away everything else, all my toys, gadgets and widgets — but let me read, I’d be okay. I can live without TV, movies and games. I can’t live without books. My Kindle has become a magic doorway into that world of dreams called literature, the place where everything is possible. Where I go to live when life in the this world is too real.

THE DEVIL IN MISS JONES

Halloween was always a special holiday for my group of friends. From the early 1970s, we held an annual Halloween party. Each year, we descended on a friend’s parent’s summer house in the Berkshires. The house was not huge, but we were young and found places to sleep, even if it was on the floor or a hammock on the porch.

In the dark, glowing Jack O Lanterns

Those were the days before DVDs or even videotape — long before big screen televisions — so we rented a projector, screen and a movie. The occasion called for a horror movie. We tended to the classics: Frankenstein, Dracula, The Wolfman (poor Larry Talbot!). … but lacking that, any horror movie would do. It was the centerpiece of the weekend’s entertainment … in addition to the fun of getting together to see each other.

Devil Jones rubberThe last year we had the party in the mountains, just before most of us got married and settled down on Long Island,  the guys in charge of movie rental were late getting to it. All the familiar films were gone. So, in the spirit of trying something new, they rented “The Devil in Miss Jones.” It sounded like a horror movie to them. Devil? Halloween. Right?

Given the audience and its condition — drugs and alcohol flowed freely in those halcyon days of yore — the movie had predictable but hilarious (depending on what you find funny) results. I won’t go into lurid detail, but I think it was our absolutely best ever Halloween party. Subsequent parties were more elaborate, bigger, almost like virtual reality rides at theme parks … but the year we all watched “The Devil in Miss Jones” brought us closer in ways we would not forget. I certainly haven’t, especially since that party was when Garry and I grew really close. Now we are fused at the hip and share those special memories. Do you youngsters ever wonder what grandma and grandpa are giggling about over there on the recliner?

So you see? Things can turn out fine, even when they apparently go awry. Thank you Georgina Spelvin and Harry Reems. It was definitely one of your finer efforts.

HOLLYWOOD BIZARRE – FLYPAPER AND OTHER WEIRD STUFF

A while ago, Garry and I watched what is I am sure among the lowest grossing movies of all time. I don’t say this lightly. In its theatrical run, it grossed exactly (according to both Wikipedia and IMDB) $1100, which even in our world is not a huge amount of money. No, there aren’t any zeroes missing. That’s the real number.

This is not the lowest grossing movie ever. The 2012 movie  Playback cost $7.5 million to film but only grossed $264 – the lowest-grossing film of 2012. And 2006′s Zyzzx Road, starring Katherine Heigl grossed $30

Flypaper only cost $5,000,000 to make, so they only lost $4,998,900 which, for a Hollywood bomb, is small potatoes. The movie was universally panned, opened in just one movie house (where?) on two screens, then disappeared, never to be heard from again until it popped up the other night on one of our cable movie channels.

Garry didn’t recognize it, so he recorded it on the bedroom DVR. One night, while I was reading in bed (my favorite indulgence), I noticed the bed was shaking. He was laughing. Really laughing. Garry doesn’t normally lay in bed laughing. He told me that he was going to save this one because he thought I’d like it. As a rule, there are many things I find funny that he doesn’t find amusing, but never has the reverse been true. If he thinks its funny, it’s funny.

Flypaper  is actually a good little comedy. It’s a spoof, a farce, a parody of bank heist movies plus slapstick, technobabble and a few good explosions. The dialogue is witty.

The cast features Ashley Judd and Patrick Dempsey. It’s directed by Rob Minkoff. The writers were the same guys who created the characters from The Hangover. Rob Minkoff is known for co-directing The Lion King. So they’ve got their bona fides in order.

My first thought, as the credits were rolling, was that it reminded me of the credits for the Pink Panther. And, it turns out, the movie reminded me of the Pink Panther too, minus Inspector Clouseau. The same sort of “What else could go wrong” humor. It’s not a great movie, but it’s fun. I would normally not write about it, but it’s gotten a bum rap: horrible reviews and no support from the studio. Showing it for one week in one movie theater on two screens, with no advertising or PR is not exactly a big opening. It deserved better.

The writeups in both IMDB and Wikipedia demonstrate that whoever wrote them never watched the movie. The descriptions are wildly inaccurate. Shame on whoever wrote them. I guess anonymity is not always a bad thing. I wouldn’t sign my name to that drivel either. Then again, I wouldn’t write about something I’d never watched. Call me old-fashioned, but it bothers me.

When I read movie reviews, I frequently wonder if the reviewer watched the same movie I did. Or watched any movie at all. They heap praise on movies that are boring and sometimes much worse than that. They pan movies that are creative, unique and interesting. They apparently take special pleasure in negative reviews, the more vicious the better. Meanwhile, they glorify obscure movies in which no one could possibly be interested.

Back in 1999, Garry and I were visiting friends in Michigan. Our group consisted of a lawyer, an engineer, a TV journalist, and a writer. We decided to rent the latest movie on which critics were heaping praise. It was the must-see  movie of the year: American Beauty.

Touted as a masterpiece, there were barely enough adjectives in the English language to say how wonderful it was. It was beloved of critics and grossed more than $350 million, won Best PictureBest DirectorBest Actor (for Spacey), Best Original Screenplay and Best Cinematography.

It stunk. It was affectedartsy, pretentious and incoherent. Did I forget annoying and dull?

Take this “interpretation” from Wikipedia as an example of just how thrilling it was:

Academics have offered many possible readings of American Beauty; film critics are similarly divided, not so much about the quality of the film as their interpretations of it. Described by many as about “the meaning of life” or “gender identification” or “the hollow existence of the American suburbs”, the film has defied categorization by even the filmmakers. Mendes is indecisive, saying the script seemed to be about something different each time he read it: “a mystery story, a kaleidoscopic journey through American suburbia, a series of love stories … it was about imprisonment … loneliness [and] beauty. It was funny; it was angry, sad.” (Translation: Mendes, the director, didn’t have a clue what the script was about.)

In essence, no one knew what, if anything, the movie was about, but it was so “au courant” no one was would admit they didn’t get it. After the fad ended, the movie disappeared. No one shows it on cable, no one rents it. It’s out of print. Because it was crap. Like in the story of the Emperor’s new clothing, no one wanted to be the first to point out the king was bare-ass naked.

About half an hour into the movie, our little group of well-read individualists looked at each other and briefly conferred. Was anyone enjoying it? No? Then why were we watching it?  We promptly popped the movie out of the machine and moved on with our evening. Pop corn goes well with conversation, too.

It reminds me of the Woody Allen movie Hollywood Ending. In it, a formerly prestigious director is broke and desperate for a movie project. He gets an offer to direct a big movie in New York. Because the offer comes from his former wife (Téa Leoni) and her current boyfriend (Treat Williams), he is reluctant to take the assignment, even though he needs the money and something to get his career on track.

He finally agrees to do it and is immediately struck blind by some kind of psychosomatic ailment probably induced by anxiety. The production hasn’t even started yet, but he decides to fake it.  It costs $60 million and flops. But, there is a “Hollywood ending.” The movie becomes a huge hit in France. He happily proclaims, “Thank God the French exist.” He knows the movie is awful, the worst thing he’s ever done. He had no idea what he was doing, but the French read all kinds of deep meaning into it. There will always be people to love things that don’t make sense because they figure it must be full of secret meaning. I went to school with these people. Didn’t we all?

My point is simple: Unless we are utterly lacking in critical judgment, I doubt the critics actually watched Flypaper. Maybe one guy watched it, didn’t like it, told the others who all followed his leader.

Flypaper is funny. We enjoyed it. It’s up there with some of the Zucker brothers nuttier comedies and a few of Mel Brooks’ later efforts. It’s as good as I’m Gonna Git You Sucka (1988) and the same genre.

We laughed. A comedy should make you laugh. This does.

Flypaper is every bank heist movie you’ve seen with Murphy’s Law running rampant. Absolutely everything that can go wrong does so in the most spectacular way. Parts of the film remind me of Wily Coyote cartoons. You know something’s going to happen, but it doesn’t spoil the joke. The bomb is going to blow everyone to kingdom come. The fancy electronic computer gadgets won’t work. The money in the vault will be drachma, not dollars. You don’t care. The pacing is appropriately frantic, the actors manage to keep straight faces. The dialogue is funny and well-delivered. You have to listen because good lines are easy to miss if you aren’t paying attention.

Our favorite bit of dialogue is between two of the older bank robbers complaining that they miss the good old days when all you needed was a gun and a brown paper bag. This in the midst of what could only be called the most catastrophically unsuccessful bank heist ever attempted.

The ending is predictable … or maybe not. It depends how your mind works. If you bump into it on cable or somewhere, give it a look. It’s pretty good. Really. I’m not kidding. I did watch it, including the credits.

Available from Amazon on DVD, Blu-ray, and download, most people who actually watched it liked it. I’m still trying to figure out why the critics were so negative.

The more time I spend writing about movies, the less I understand critics.

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LOVING THE WESTERNS

Western movies. You love them or hate them. Hardly anyone is neutral. I’ve always loved them, since I was a little girl, pretending to be a cross between The Lone Ranger and Jesse James.

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But why? What is it about westerns that makes them so appealing to those of us that love them?

Let’s work this as a list, top to bottom. Remember, this is my list. You may have a completely different list and totally not relate to mine. That’s okay.

Why I love Western Movies

1) Horses. I love horses. The more horses, the better. You could leave out the riders and I would sit there and watch the horses, no problem.

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2) Scenery. The deserts, the mountains, the plains. The dusty trail as the wagon train rolls westward. The Rocky Mountains looming, challenging. Sunsets over Monument Valley. Some of the most incredible cinematography has been done for westerns. From Ride the High Country to almost anything ever filmed by John Ford. To the dusty streets of Tombstone … the big sky hangs over everything, a huge blue dome. Everything is bigger, brighter, younger. The beauty is hard to match and it goes so well with the eye of the camera.

Dusty Streets of Tombstone

3) Simple ethics, simple philosophy. There is something terribly appealing about a world where the excuse “He needed killing” is an actual defense at trial. You can put a lot of violence into a western and it’s just fine. The bad guys wear black hats, figuratively or literally. The good guys are the ones with the nice horses, better clothing … and white hats. No ambivalence. No confusion. Not at all like the real world made up of endless shades of gray. It’s a black and white world, black and white morality. “He needed killing. So I killed him.” I get that.

TombstoneOKCorral

4) Heroes. This is really a continuation of the previous, but Wyatt Earp kills a lot of people and it’s okay. I can cheer him on as he and Doc Holliday rampage through the west. “Yes!!” I cry, waving my fist in the air. I could never kill anyone, but I can be really grateful that someone else is doing it for me. In real life, I favor gun control. In westerns? Blast away!

Ghost Town by Apache Junction

If the movie also has a good plot, terrific sound track, great cinematography? Some wit, cleverness and even a few laughs? Bonus material.

That’s it. Pretty simple, eh? Horses, gorgeous scenery, good guys being good, bad guys being bad. Add music, dim the lights and pass the popcorn.

 

The Porcelain Unicorn – A Miniature Movie

unicornThe back story (thanks to Sharla  at catnipoflife). Usually I reblog such posts, but posts with embedded video don’t reblog or scoop properly.

British film director Sir Ridley Scott created an international film making contest titled “Tell It Your Way.” More than 600 aspiring directors entered.

Release Date – August 2010
Genre – Historical / Drama
Awards – Grand prize winner of the Philips Parallel Lines ‘Tell It Your Way’ international competition.

Starring – Trevor Teichmann, Fiona Perry
Directed By – Keegan Wilcox
Screenplay By  - Keegan Wilcox
Produced By – Anselm Clinard

The requirements were that the  film could be a maximum 3 minutes long, contain no more than six lines of dialogue or narrative, and present a compelling story. The winner was  “Porcelain Unicorn” from American director Keegan Wilcox.

It presents a lyrical, touching story of an act of conscience and kindness of a boy  to a girl in a time a great peril … and their reunion many years later.

To me, it’s the story of how a single act of conscience can change the course of lives. If this little movie doesn’t touch your heart, I don’t know what will.

True Grit (2010)

True_Grit_PosterHaving just watched the 1969 version of the film starring John Wayne, I thought it was time to see the remake. I usually avoid remakes of favorite movies, and the original True Grit is a favorite. I have always thought it was the Duke’s best performance, portraying a character full of life and humor.

I made an exception for this particular remake. I figured if anyone could do a credible Rooster Cogburn, Jeff Bridges was the guy to do it. So the day after watching the original, we fired up the Roku, popped over to Netflix and selected True Grit.

Ahead of shooting, Ethan Coen said that the film would be a more faithful adaptation of the novel than the 1969 version. It’s partly a matter of the perspective from which we see the story unfold. The book is written from the point of view of a 14-year-old girl. Thus, it has a certain feel to it, very different from th first movie which was clearly skewed to a John Wayne sensibility.

The book is known for being funnier than the original movie … but the remake is not lighter or more humorous than the original movie. It may be more faithful to the book in some ways, but honestly, I didn’t see a huge difference in attitude, perspective or even the story from the first movie. In fact, the two movies are different … but not hugely different. Different scripts, actors and so on with the differences that inevitably arise from these changes, but in fact, the remake is darker and more violent than the 1969 movie. It is not only darker in feeling, it’s visually darker and a great deal of the action takes place at night.

A Grievance – Slight Digression

This makes It hard on the eyes when viewed on television and I really wish the people who press the DVDs would take into consideration that watching on the big screen and watching at home are two very different visual experiences. Lighten it up when you put it on DVD please. And rebalance the audio so the sound effects and music do not completely overwhelm the voices … requiring closed captions to have any idea what anyone is saying. This is especially annoying, especially when I’ve just paid a premium for Blu-ray.

Television does not render darkness as well as big screens do. But movies these days don’t spend much time in theatres. They have them out on DVD faster than a speeding bullet, often before they’ve finished their first theatrical run. Considering that the majority of a movie’s life will be on DVD, shown at home on smaller screens, directors might take that into consideration and brighten these movies up a bit. I don’t want to put a damper on anyone’s art, but shouldn’t the actual viewing conditions under which most people will see the picture carry some weight? I’m just saying.

And now, back to our main feature, already in progress

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Much of the original movie’s dialogue is identical in the 2010 version. The best and most important scenes in both versions are word for word the same. Between those signature scenes, the dialogue is different. The character of Cogburn is very similar in some way, but very different in others. Wayne’s taciturn old marshal contrasts sharply with Jeff Bridges’ loquacious  version whose Rooster Cogburn talks a blue streak.

Hailee Steinfield’s Mattie Ross is more like her original character than Bridges’ Cogburn is like Wayne’s.

None of this is real criticism. This is a good movie on its own merits. It stands on its own legs. Obviously the two movies derive from the same source, but despite large amounts of identical dialogue, the two movies feel very different. If you had never seen the original and didn’t compare them, I would simply say the 2010 True Grit is a good western with fine performances.

But it’s a remake and there’s no avoiding comparisons. It may not be entirely fair, but it’s inevitable. Some of the scenes, when the dialogue is the same in both, are not only played the same way — Bridges even manages to do the “Duke’s walk” — they are shot the same way. Several key scenes are pretty much identical, frame by frame. Then, the movies diverge only to come together again a bit further down the  cinematic path. The convergence-divergence pattern can be disconcerting.

Regardless, you could never mistake this for an old-fashioned western.Its gritty, dark texture is typical of modern westerns. It isn’t necessarily an improvement, but it’s a constant visible reminder that this is a recent film, not an older one.

Characters are less heroic and more ambivalent. True Grit makes a moderately successful attempt to integrate both old and new, moving back and forth, mixing John Ford with Clint Eastwood. Sometimes it feel a bit disconnected and jumpy, leaping from familiar dialogue common to both movies, to completely different dialogue and mood … with no bridge. Whoa, I cry … where are we now? The sudden shifts might actually be a continuity and/or editing issue, but as a member of the audience, I can’t tell the why of it, only discuss the result.

TRUE GRIT

There’s no cheery ending for the new True Grit. It’s not sad, but it’s not happy either.

If I had to choose, I prefer the original, but the remake is a good movie too. Jeff Bridges is a great actor. The entire cast is excellent. Perhaps the comparison is unfair and it’s better to take each movie on its own merits. That being said, I am not likely to watch the 2010 True Grit a second time. Too grim for my taste, though I appreciated the art that went into its making.

How you feel about each movie is of course subjective. Two good films, genetically related. Take your pick. You won’t go far wrong either way.

Garry Armstrong: The Movie Maven’s Take

Reading Marilyn’s review of the True Grit remake, the obvious occurred to me. I am a child of the old school of movies. My heroes and heroines are the stars from the 30′s, 40′s, 50′s and 60′s. My film morality sensibilities have been shaped and nurtured by movies from Hollywood’s “golden era” through the 60′s. Not surprisingly, John Wayne is probably my favorite movie star. “Star” not actor. I thoroughly enjoyed Wayne’s “True Grit”.

His “Rooster Cogburn” was a sum of all the heroes Wayne had played for 40 years. Older, fatter and more prone to corn liquor, Rooster’s sense of morality was still pretty simple. There was good and bad and few in-betweens. Wayne nailed all that with a self-deprecating sense of humor. Wayne was Rooster and Rooster was Wayne. The original’s end with Rooster frozen in frame and time as he and his horse leap a fence is “print the legend” stuff.  Veteran director Henry Hathaway (“The Sons of Katie Elder”, etc), is in familiar territory and gives the original “Grit” lots of traditional, old school western flavor.

All that said, Jeff Bridges’ Rooster Cogburn in the “True Grit” remake is also memorable and can stand alone. Jeff Bridges as an actor can stand alone. He invests his own irascible charm into “Rooster” while paying homage to the Duke. Matt Damon’s “LaBeouf” is much better and more complex than Glenn Campbell’s Texas Ranger in the original. Josh Brolin gives Tom Chaney much more depth and compassion than acting school guru Jeff Corey gave the original villain. I still prefer Robert Duvall’s “Lucky Ned Pepper” but Barry (“61″) Pepper is also pretty good in the remake.

The remake gives us an extended look at Mattie with an ending closer to the book than the original film. Hailee Steinfeld is her own Mattie — equal to Kim Darby’s offering in the original. So, while I can enjoy the “True Grit” remake, I am still very partial to the Duke’s original film. Arguments?? That’ll be the day!!

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A Late Quartet (2012) – A Review

A Late Quartet refers to one of a group of string quartets written by Beethoven at the end of his life, in this case, specifically Opus 131.

Director: Yaron Zilberman
Writers (screenplay): Seth Grossman, Yaron Zilberman

The Cast:

Philip Seymour Hoffman, as Robert Gelbart
Christopher Walken, as Peter Mitchell
Catherine Keener, as Juliette Gelbart
Mark Ivanir, as Daniel Lerner
Imogen Poots, as Alexandra Gelbart
Wallace Shawn, as Gideon Rosen
Anne Sofie von Otter, as Miriam.

Garry and I watched A Late Quartet the other day. I bought it from Amazon a few weeks ago after reading some good reviews. It sounded like a movie for grown-ups and there have been a dearth movies that don’t star fresh-faced children. It turns out the reviewers were right.

It’s a lovely film. If anyone is a “hero” in this film, it’s Christopher Walken who plays against type with elegance and grace. Add Marc Ivanir, who usually plays Israeli heavies on NCIS and other crime shows (he actually is from Israel and is an actual hero) as the dedicated and ever so slightly demon-haunted violinist, plus Phillip Seymour Hoffman doing his usual workmanlike job and Catherine Keener on viola and as “could be better” wife to Hoffman’s second violin  It’s a great mix of characters and some of the best work done by Walken and company.

Their movie musicianship is realistic. I know they were not actually the group used to produce the sound track but it looked to this ex-music major as if they knew their way around string instruments. Some may have had some early training, others were coached for the movie. Whatever the means, it enabled the cinematographer to follow the actors’ movement closely, without resorting to long shots that disguise the real identities of the performers. Well done.

While doing a little side bar reasearch on the stars, I discovered — entirely to my surprise — that Walken actually attended the same college as Garry and I and probably was there during one of Garry’s years at Hofstra University. He was only there for one year and left for a gig in an off-broadway show, but it was news to us that he’d been there at all.

It is one of the many ironies of Garry and my education that most of Hofstra’s most famous graduates are not graduates, but attendees who left before getting a degree to begin highly successful careers. We had a very good drama department and perhaps the biggest measure of its success is how many of the students in the program were “discovered” before they got degrees and went on to fame and fortune without benefit of that all-important piece of paper.

Although it doesn’t hurt if you know some classical music and particularly, if you understand the cutthroat world of classical performers, but if you don’t, you can still enjoy the movie.

The plot? It’s the 25th anniversary of “The Fugue”, a classical string quartet. The world is catching up with them. Christopher Walken, their cellist and oldest member of the quartet has been diagnosed with Parkinson’s and needs to retire. The first violinist is in love with the second violinist’s daughter, and the second violinist wants to be the first violinist … and sex in the form of “oops” infidelity adds enough spice to imperil the survival of the quartet if the rest of the problems were not enough.

Walken as the sensible, down-to-earth member of the group, dealing with his own burdens and unwilling to tolerate the childish carryings-on by the other performers, is wonderful. “The Fugue comes first,” he says, or words to that effect. It’s interesting to see Walken cast as the stable, adult, and not even slightly crazy member of the group.

The music — especially Opus 131, the late quartet — is magnificent. I’ve rarely heard this piece performed. It’s an exceptionally challenging piece of music, written when Beethoven was already swathed in silence by the loss of his hearing, yet still able to hear it in his head and write some of the most advanced, complex and intense music of his life.

I admit to being inclined in advance to like this movie. I love the music, studied classical music for many long years. I love Beethoven, probably my all time favorite composer, whose music I play as I drift off to sleep at night and whose symphonies have been my companion on many journeys throughout my life.

It did not disappoint us. It’s not a light piece of fluff, nor is it depressing or hopeless. Problems come, problems are addressed, problems are resolved. Not everything has a happy ending but within the limits of what is possible, these adults work out their problems, musical, health, personal and relationship, like … adults.

It is a nice change from watching stupid kids running around like stupid kids, clearly clueless about life and from the looks of things, not likely to become wiser assuming they manage to survive to grow older.

It’s very much worth a couple of hours of your time, if just for the music. But it is really better than just the music. The DVD is available on Amazon (which is where I got it) and the soundtrack is available separately.