Movie review: Argo

October 31, 2012 – The more things change, the more they stay the same.

That could have been the tagline to the movie “Argo”, the North American / Middle East drama surrounding the Iranian hostage crisis that unfolded 1979 and 1980. It’s also much like the stories that continue to occur in that part of the world today.

Ben Affleck stars in and directs this compelling story that is far more entertaining than any spy or action movie I’ve ever seen, but with a lot less gore. The story is tense, exciting and sometimes darkly humorous filled with edge of your seat action. It also proves that good ideas can come from anywhere, “even if it’s the best bad idea you have.” And while the Hollywood stuff included in the movie is funny, I’ve read that it is deadly accurate.

“Argo” definitely makes you want to stand and cheer at the end, and hug a Canadian next time you meet one. Considering the script claims that the British and New Zealand embassies turned away the six Americans who escaped the American embassy that day, the Canadians took a real chance when they allowed them to hide inside their walls.

The supporting cast is top-notch in this movie, as well, with both John Goodman, Alan Arkin and Brian Cranston in standout roles. It is high drama at its best but without any overacting on the part of the incredible cast.

I know I’m late in reviewing this movie, but I just got to see it on Sunday. With the Philadelphia Film Festival running over the past two weeks, I’ve been pretty much wrapped up in that.

For those of you who haven’t seen “Argo” yet, go now. You won’t be disappointed. Be sure to stay for all of the credits, as well. They tell a story themselves.

The calm before the storm: more autumn splendor

October 29, 2012 – The epic storm of the century is coming.

If you’re reading this on Monday, and if you have power, southeastern Pennsylvania is probably getting hit with it now.

I took off on Friday realizing it would be the last nice day in October, my favorite month to do autumnal things, or at least one of the last days with leaves on the trees due to the Frankenstorm and high winds predicted. Mother Nature kept the rain away during my visit to Linvilla Orchards in Media, Pa., just south of Philadelphia’s city limits, but alas the sun did not shine.

Movie review: Hyde Park on Hudson

October 26, 2012 – If anyone told me a movie would be made about our 32nd president, Franklin D. Roosevelt, the man who led the United States during the Great Depression, and the only American president elected for more than two terms, and that he would be played by Bill Murray, I wouldn’t have believed it for a second.

Murray did a fine job crossing over to dramatic edgy roles that have a comic or odd/unique twist, yet there are times I still see him as the lounge lizard from “Saturday Night Live”. Still, that’s not his fault even though it was his impersonation of that character that made an impression on me.

“Hyde Park on Hudson”, last night’s centerpiece gala selection at the 21st annual Philadelphia Film Festival, was the surprise movie of the century for me, and I’m glad I was a part of it’s Philadelphia premier. It began like an episode of “Masterpiece Theater”, but quickly evolved into a charming story about one surprising weekend at FDR’s home away from the White House in upstate New York.

How could a movie go wrong with taglines like this? The President. The First Lady. The King. The Queen. The Mother. The Mistress…One weekend would unite two great nations…After cocktails of course.

Now, that’s intriguing.

Aside from Murray, whose performance is stunning, the film stars Olivia Williams, as the First Lady in a role that has her totally embracing the uniqueness and strength that was Eleanor Roosevelt, and the equally talented Laura Linney as FDR’s distant cousin, Margaret (Daisy) Suckley. I’ll admit it took me a little while to adjust to Bill Murray in the role, but he captured it and made me believe.

The story is told through Daisy’s eyes, and the premise is rather wild and yet based on true events; it’s a love story of sorts about FDR’s affair with his distant cousin in 1939, centered on the very weekend King George, the same one written about in “The King’s Speech” and Queen Elizabeth, also known as the Queen Mum, visited New York to ask for America’s help in the war they knew was coming.

Richard Nelson’s dramatic, charming and often witty script is loaded with zingers that tell the story huge culture clashes and of a few unusual friendships that form along the way. It certainly makes FDR seem like a likeable man, with a childlike playfulness, and not at all like the president I learned about in history class, who was supposedly anti-semitic (he refused a ship of Jewish passengers entrance to the U.S. when they tried to dock in Florida, and sent them back to Europe and concentration camps, and it’s been said that he often told Jews and Catholics alike that the U.S. was a protestant country, and that they were only guests in it. He was also the same president that clashed with Winston Churchill and voted with Stalin against Churchill, which some say gave Russia eastern Europe after the war. Still, fans of Murray won’t be disappointed, and I’d bet that fans of history wouldn’t be either.

So, let the Oscar buzz begin. This is the kind of script and cast of actors that Hollywood loves to celebrate with its highest honor.

“Hyde Park on Hudson” opens in limited release on December 7, and in wide release on December 26.

Autumn splendor, scarecrows and Fox Chase Farm

October 24, 2012 — Spectacular weather in the Southeastern Pennsylvania on Sunday provided a perfect opportunity to visit Buck’s County’s picturesque Peddler’s Village to snap a few photos of the annual scarecrow contest. On the way home, I made a stop at Fox Chase Farm, Philadelphia’s only working farm right across the street from my own backyard. Early arrival in both places allowed me to walk the grounds peacefully, before the crowds arrived.

The scarecrows:

Fox Chase Farm: 

Movie review: Not Fade Away

October 22, 2012 – Chances are you haven’t heard of the movie “Not Fade Away”, David Chase’s rock and roll story focused on suburban kids in northern New Jersey forming a band and trying to make it big during the 1960s. The film made its Philadelphia debut as a centerpiece gala selection at the 21st annual Philadelphia Film Festival this weekend, so the buzz has just begun.

Chase, the same writer/director who created “The Sopranos”, pays homage to the music of the 1960s, a time that he says shaped his thinking and artistic mission.

“It’s not an autobiography,” Chase says. “But it’s suggested by the way I felt at the time, and my loves and hates at the time, but not incidents per se. I started writing a primitive version of this screenplay 25 or 30 years ago, but I only got eight or nine pages into it. So I had the idea for a long time, but not many pages. So I really only started writing this movie after The Sopranos.”

“Not Fade Away” is also a tender coming of age drama that is as realistic as it is familiar. It stars a list of newer Hollywood actors led by John Magaro in the role of Douglas, the high school nerd who dreams of making it big in the music business. His father, played by veteran actor and Soprano’s lead, James Gandolfini, and his friend and band mate, played by Jack Huston, currently starring in “Boardwalk Empire” as Richard Harrow, the masked man, are the only two actors easily recognized. But Chase explains that casting relatively unknowns was done purposely due to the musical demands of some of the roles.

The story takes place over five years, 1963 to 1968, and opens just as John F. Kennedy is assassinated. It’s nothing we haven’t seen before – older teens arguing with their parents over Vietnam and other social issues that were plentiful during the decade, and parents urging their sons to cut their hair and stay in college to avoid the draft, but it’s true to the times.

The script also shows signs true imagination, with a unique opening scene depicting a young Mick Jagger and Keith Richards on London’s tube discussing forming a band of their own, and the closing scene, which I won’t ruin, leaving you to wonder.

What might be slightly different about this script is the band’s passion for rock and roll, namely the British invasion of the Beatles and the Stones, and the blues. Most other young folk in those northern Jersey neighborhoods were obsessed with the other Jersey Boys – Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons to be exact – a total different sound altogether.

It’s hard not compare “Not Fade Away” to other movies that pay homage to the music industry, such as “Almost Famous”, which was much more personal and a better movie overall. Still, if you’re a fan of realistic period pieces, and music of the 1960s – the soundtrack is the brainchild of Steven Van Zandt, also of Sopranos fame – you will most likely enjoy it. It’s far from a great movie, but equally distant from a terrible film, easily making it an enjoyable 95 minutes.

“Not Fade Away” opens in theaters nationwide in December.

Jane’s World: The top ten Hitchcock films

Cary Grant and Ingrid Bergman in Notorious.

October 19, 2013 – To honor the Philadelphia Film Festival, which opened this week and runs through October 28, and “The Girl”, premiering on HBO tomorrow night, this week’s blog theme was all about movies and Alfred Hitchcock.

It’s only fitting to close out the blogging week with my picks for the top ten Alfred Hitchcock movies. Considering the man directed 53 films from 1924 through 1975 – and I haven’t seen them all, but I did see more than half – this was a bit more difficult than I expected.

10. Psycho – Anthony Perkins and Janet Leigh star in a spine-tingling horror film that focuses on a young man tormented by his past and his mother. Not my favorite Hitchcock film by far, but arguably his most popular or at least his best known, so it earns a #10 spot on my list. That, and it’s still hard not to think about this movie, especially whenever I step into the shower while traveling.

9. The Birds – Rod Taylor and Tippi Hedren are headliners in this Hitchcock classic, but those nasty birds are the real stars. The plot has the feathered creatures mysteriously attacking anyone and anything in their way. This was the first Hitchcock movie I remember seeing as a child, and it had a huge impact on me. Just like the Night Galley earwig episode that had me sleeping with cotton in my ears, this movie made me wary of our feathered friends for a long time.

8. Rear Window – This film, starring James Stewart and Grace Kelly, takes spying on your neighbors – and who doesn’t enjoy that – to extremes. Long considered one of the Master’s finest, a photographer (Stewart) is laid up with a broken leg, which leaves him plenty of time to watch from his rear window, and allow himself to get caught up in the drama that his is neighbors’ lives. And what drama that becomes.

7. Vertigo – In this strange film, both James Stewart, with Kim Novak this time, find themselves caught in a never-ending spiral of deception and obsession. Stewart plays a private detective who must search for the truth behind the death of a woman he loved. One of the most interesting characteristics of this movie is the way Hitch filmed it in a dreamlike haze.

6. The Man Who Knew Too Much – It’s Doris Day’s turn to star with Jimmy Stewart in this Hitchcock thriller about an American family accidentally caught up in an assassination plot. This was a remake of Hitchcock’s early 1934 movie, which is interesting on its own. How many directors get to remake their own movies? It also introduced the world to the Doris Day classic hit, “Que Sera Sera”.

5. Strangers on a Train – Hitchcock used a lot of trains and train references in his movies, whether actually filming on a train, or just used as a Freudian symbol, as in “North by Northwest”. “Strangers on a Train” starring Farley Granger and Ruth Roman in a must-see classic tells this tale of strangers who take on each other’s murders. It’s one of Hitch’s only movies to use all B list actors, but it’s still one of his most intriguing. It also inspired the Danny DeVito comedy, “Throw Momma from the Train”, and that doesn’t happen everyday.

4. Spellbound – Gregory Peck and Ingrid Bergman play the amnesic impersonating a famous psychologist and the doctor who wants to save him even if he is guilty of murder to perfection in this Hitchcock thriller. The fact that this is a black and white movie from the early 1940s, adds even more intrigue and suspense to the plot.

3. To Catch a Thief – When Hitch combines romance and intrigue with a seaside resort on the French Riviera, and stars Cary Grant and Grace Kelly, how could he go wrong? Grant plays a reformed jewel thief who is suspected of a rash of burglaries, and Kelly, the woman who is drawn to him, yet worried she’ll become his latest victim.

2. North by Northwest – Cary Grand and Eva Marie Saint star in a heart-stopping suspense tale with a little bit of everything mixed in. You’ve got your classic mistaken identity, a man who is falsely accused, a chance meeting on a train, and a beautiful blonde, a little voyeurism, and Hitchcock spins it all masterfully. Not to mention a nice trip across the U.S., from the streets of New York, to the cornfields of Illinois, and the majesty that is Mount Rushmore.

1. Notorious – Starring Cary Grant and Ingrid Bergman in a classic tale of love and betrayal. Grant plays a FBI agent who must send the woman he loves to seduce a Nazi conspirator. Like Casablanca, I can watch this movie over and over again and never get tired of it because it has everything from great acting to heart-wrenching romance, and plenty of suspense. Not only is it my favorite Hitchcock, but also it might be my favorite movie of all time.

Dissecting “The Master of Suspense”

October 17, 2012 – Plenty has been written / speculated about Alfred Hitchcock, one of the greatest directors of all time, and his obsessions with his leading ladies – often referred to Hitchcock’s blondes. Soon those behind the scenes tales will play out on television and on the big screen.

HBO’s “The Girl”, which focuses on Hitchcock’s obsession with Tippi Hedren while making “The Birds” premiers Saturday night. Like many HBO productions, it’s already generating plenty of award buzz for actors Toby Jones, who plays Hitch and Sienna Miller, who takes on Hedren.

Toby Jones as Alfred Hitchcock

You might call “The Girl” a horror movie within a horror movie, as it tells the story about how Hedren coped with Hitchcock’s obsession and erratic behavior, and why it was tolerated by Hitch’s wife, Alma who was always on the set. Hedren has publicly stated that she walked away from her contract with Hitchcock after just two movies, which caused her to lose her acting career in general, just to get away from him. Legally, he had the right to stop her from working with other directors and studios because she was under contract, and he did just that.

Anthony Hopkins as The Master of Suspense

A second film, “Hitchcock” is set to hit theaters in November. Starring Anthony Hopkins as the master of suspense, and Helen Mirren as his wife, the story focuses on their relationship during the filming of the 1959 classic “Psycho”. View the trailer.

As a fan of Hitchcock’s films, I’m anxious to see how these dramas play out, but after seeing both trailers, I’m a little disappointed that the actors do not share more of a resemblance to the director with the famous profile who was known for making cameo appearances in all of his movies. It is a point that should quickly disappear if the actors live up to the roles and the magic of the movies takes over.

Last year, I’d seen a screening of the Hitchcock classic “North by Northwest” in Philadelphia, and before the movie began, the female lead, Eva Marie Saint fielded questions from the audience. She talked about her experience working with Cary Grant, but focused more on Hitchcock, although she wouldn’t answer questions about whether or not she shared similar experiences as other actresses have claimed. She spoke only of him as a director, and how he didn’t direct like others who told actors what to do. He simply laid out the scene on storyboards and let the actors take over. Then he’d watch the dailies (film clips) without sound at the end of each day, as if he were watching a silent movie, and only then could he determine if they were good enough to go to print. According to Saint, Hitchcock did very little editing, and that formula obviously worked very well for him.

Regardless of his reputation, Hitchcock continues to thrill fans worldwide. With 53 films under his director’s belt from 1924 through 1975, you’d think he accomplished it all. But here’s a look at 13 films Hitchcock never made.