My year at the movies, part 2

download (1)December 30, 2013 – Here is part two of my favorite movies of the year. I’ve rated them from worst to first, but that doesn’t necessary mean the movies that appear higher on the list are bad. I simply avoided most of the rotten ones.

On Friday, I featured 16 through 9. See you next year at the movies…

8. Austenland
“Austenland” is a story about those who not only love Jane Austen, but are obsessed with the lifestyle she writes about and the characters she’s created. The concept of a theme park aimed at lonely women comes to life in this pleasant romantic comedy. Jane (Keri Russell), a thirty something single gal, decides to spend her savings on a life-changing Jane Austen experience in England, much to the disapproval of her friends. The plot is charming and a lot funnier than I expected, and the cast, led by Russell is exceptional.

7. The Secret Life of Walter Mitty
Based on James Thurber’s imaginative short story, Ben Stiller directs and stars as a day dreamer who escapes his mundane life by slipping into a fantasy world. When Walter is faced with a losing his job, he takes off on a real journey filled with more action and heroism than his fantasies could imagine. The movie is so much fun, I look forward to watching the original 1947 version with Danny Kaye that played on TCM last week and is recorded on my DVR.

6. 42
The movie “42”, which stars Harrison Ford as Branch Rickey, the man who drafted Jackie Robinson, and Chadwick Boseman as the man himself, did an admirable job depicting the horrors the first African-American ball player in the majors endured to realize his dream. Robinson’s courage paved the way for others to follow in his footsteps, finally putting an end to segregation in Major League Baseball. They movie doesn’t gloss over the fact that Rickey wanted to bring a black player into an all-white league to attract African-American fans, which would bring in more money. Still, he comes across as a genuine man who grows to care about Robinson, and wants to help him through his fight.

5. Saving Mr. Banks
“Mary Poppins” is the first movie I remember seeing in a theater, so I credit it with my love of movies because it began a wonderful journey. I loved everything about “Saving Mr. Banks” from Emma Thompson’s performance as PL Travers, the author of the Mary Poppins series of books, to the all of the wonderful performances in this movie, and the touching back story that gives us a glimpse of where the idea for the story came from. Kudos also go out to a scene stealing Paul Giamtti, who plays PL Travers’ chauffeur, and to Jason Schwartzman and BJ Novak who play the talented songwriters for the Disney team. It was loads of fun to see them try to woo Travers with their music and lyrics.

4. August: Osage County
“August: Osage County” is the story of a bitter mother (the glorious Meryl Streep) and her daughters (Julia Roberts, Julianne Nicholson and Juliette Lewis). The clan gathers together after a family crisis calls them back home, and plenty of barbed conversations occur, especially from the mouth Streep’s character. It is the first pairing of Streep and Roberts, and it is rumored that the two had words on the set. I wonder if it has anything to do with an interview I remember reading years ago where Streep suggested that “Pretty Woman”, one of the most loved romantic comedies of all time that starred a young Roberts, was stupid because it glorified prostitution. Unfortunately, I can’t find reference to it anywhere, but I remember it and I certainly agree. Differences aside, all of the performances are terrific in this star packed film, which makes it a must see.

3. American Hustle
“American Hustle” tells a fictional story based on the real life Abscam sting in the 1970s. Irving Rosenfeld (Christian Bale) plays a genius con man who finds his equal (Amy Adams), and together they make their fortune until the FBI catches on and forces the couple to work for them. Bradley Cooper (the FBI agent) and Jennifer Lawrence (Rosenfeld’s wife) round out the stellar cast that also features a cameo by Robert DeNiro. Not only is the soundtrack great, but also the 1970s clothing and hairstyles are characters themselves. The story is filled with twists and turns, clever dialogue, a lot of laughs, and a smart ending that really satisfies. I can see why it is catching a lot of Oscar buzz.

2. Inside Llewyn Davis
The Coen Brothers, who wrote and directed this interesting story that plays out like a small indy film, take us back to 1961 and the Greenwich Village Folk scene. Newcomer Oscar Isaac plays Llewyn Davis, a folk singer who has lost his singing partner to suicide and is struggling to make it as a solo act. The audience is treated to a week in the singer’s life, as he tries to make ends meet by sleeping on friends’ sofas, borrowing money from friends and family members, and trying to figure out the next move in his life. He also meets a few crazy characters along the way. Being a Coen Brothers’ movie, it also features a compelling character played by John Goodman. The movie is well acted, imaginative, has an awesome soundtrack, and provides a thought-provoking conclusion complete with a very well-known folk singer that you’re sure to recognize.

1. Blue Jasmine
Perhaps Allen is a great admirer of playwright Tennessee Williams. At times, “Blue Jasmine” bears a striking similarity to “A Streetcar Named Desire”, and could be considered a modernized version of the story. Cate Blanchett’s Jasmine, a fading Park Avenue wife who loses her wealth and everything else when her husband is arrested for fraud and a multitude of other charges, is forced to move in with her working class sister. She shares similar personality traits to Southern belle Blanche DuBois, and Blanchett gives a stunning performance in the role. By far, my favorite movie of the year.

My year at the movies, part 1

download (1)December 27, 2013The beginning of the year started well, but towards the second half, my movie theater appearances slowed dramatically. Still, I took in an impressive 16 this year, which is less than the 24 from 2012. That had more to do with my lack of interest in most selections rather than my desire.

I’ve rated them from worst to first, but that doesn’t necessary mean the movies that appear higher on the list are bad. I simply avoided most of the rotten ones. Here are 16 through 9. Be sure to catch 8 through 1 on Monday.

16. We’re the Millers
I ventured out to see “We’re the Millers” despite all of the critical condemnation it had received. I imagined it as a big screen version of the Showtime series “Weeds”, only with Jason Sudeikis and Jennifer Aniston. What I didn’t realize is that it plays out like the “Weeds” of later seasons, when the show ran off track and lost the spark and imagination of its earlier episodes. The movie is unnecessarily crude and predictable, and the crudeness is what passes for laughs. It may be shocking, but it isn’t funny.

15. Oz the Great and Powerful
The previews of “Oz the Great and Powerful” thrilled me like no other because as a writer and reader, I love back-story. I also decided to fork up the extra bucks and see it in 3D since I never experienced it before, and it was a magnificent visual banquet. The story itself was flat and predictable. Aside from the visual, the only bright spot was Michelle Williams and her understated role as Glinda the Good Witch. Many other actors might have turned in a hammy performance because of the type of role it is, but Williams was soft and serenely bathed in light.

14. Zero Dark Thirty
“Zero Dark Thirty” is a military term for 30 minutes after midnight, when the Bid Laden raid happened in Pakistan. The graphic violence of the torture scenes in this movie, and the humiliation the Al Qaeda prisoners endured while under CIA watch made it difficult to take in, so Kathryn Bigelow, the film’s director, almost achieved the unthinkable. She made me feel sorry for them. I hope I ever have to deal with the CIA.

13. The English Teacher
the Indy comedy-drama “The English Teacher” staring Julianne Moore, Greg Kinnear and Nathan Lane, premiered at the Tribeca festival. Moore plays the English teacher, fortysomething year old Linda Sinclair, whose humdrum life makes the likes of Dickens’ character Miss Havisham look exciting. Linda finally finds a purpose outside of the classroom when she helps former student Jason Sherwood (Michael Angarano) realize his dreams of becoming a playwright. But things get way out of hand when the two become romantically involved and the school wants to take out some questionable scenes in the play.

12. The Incredible Burt Wonderstone
Magicians don’t entertain me because there isn’t any magic involved, and I don’t like to be fooled. Yet, I enjoyed “The Incredible Burt Wonderstone”, the comedy that tells the story of superstar magicians (Steve Carell and Steve Buscemi) working along the Las Vegas strip. The duo earned popularity and huge paychecks over the ten years they headlined, until one day their magic begins to look stale because of a new street magician (Jim Carrey) willing to go to extremes. Alan Arkin co-stars as an old-time magician who inspired Burt as a child, along with James Gandolfini as the owner of the hotel where they perform, and Olivia Wilde as the magician’s assistant.

11. Good Ol’ Freda
Imagine this. At the tender age of 17, you are offered the most coveted secretarial position in the world, which involves working for quartet of musicians known as the Beatles. That’s what happened to Freda Kelly, a timid teen from Liverpool who was thrown into the whirlwind of what would become Beatlemania in 1962. Kelly was a fan first, before the Beatles became famous, and before she accepted the position offered to her by Brian Epstein, whom she called Eppy. Ryan White’s lively documentary shines the spotlight on the behind the scenes star who breaks her silence after 50 years.

10. The Girl Most Likely
In “Girl Most Likely”, Wiig plays a down on her luck female who’s descending spiral forces her to move back in with her mother, and things get a lot worse before they get better. This formula works for Wiig because she’s a competent actress who plays this character type well, and is supported by the wonderful cast around her, namely Annette Bening and Matt Dillon, both in hilarious roles that add to the storyline. Perhaps the thing I like best about this formula is that Wiig is a woman of a certain age (she turns 40 next month), and she is still offered romantic, albeit quirky lead roles.

9. Sky Fall
The James Bond franchise celebrated its 50th anniversary on film, and chose “Skyfall” to imply that James is getting a bit long in the tooth and may be ready for retirement. Bond’s latest assignment doesn’t go as planned, agents around the world are exposed, the British agency MI6 is attacked, and their fearless leader M is forced to relocate the agency to a secret underground location. All of this leads the audience to believe that the super hero may be human after all. Daniel Craig’s Bond is charming as ever under the direction of Sam Mendes, and he manages to do what Bond does so well in the end.

 

Review: The Lost Christmas Eve

downloadDecember 23, 2013 –The Trans-Siberian Orchestra has come through Philadelphia during the Christmas season for the past 15 years, and I always say that I should have gone to see them. I enjoy their progressive style that mixes the musical sounds of rock and classical with Christmas, and I’ve been curious about their live performance ever since I heard them described as Pink Floyd meets Emerson, Lake, and Palmer meets The Who.  

This year, we planned ahead, bought tickets, and discovered TSO was worth the wait and the hype built up over these many performances.

TSO has a special place in their heart for Philadelphia, since their first concert played here. The unique group visited the city of brotherly love again on Saturday for two live concerts, to offer their last performance of “The Lost Christmas Eve”, the third part of their Christmas trilogy, which will retire after this tour.

The story as told by the narrator in between musical numbers is a little cheesy – a man loses his wife during childbirth, gives up the child, and lives a lonely, miserable life – but it plays well on stage with all of the pomp and circumstance, and lights, lasers, and fireballs, because the music is the main attraction. “The Lost Christmas Eve” includes such Christmas classics as “What Child is This”, “O Come All Ye Faithful”, and a jamming rock version of perhaps the most beautiful piece of music ever written, Pachelbel’s “Cannon in D”.

After the story finished, TSO played for another 45 minutes and treated the 13,000 plus in attendance to a variety of songs from their albums. Throw in a little Beethoven, music from the Nutcracker, “A Charlie Brown Christmas”,  and “Christmas Eve in Sarajevo”, a melody of “God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen” and “Carol of the Bells”, and the spirit of Christmas came to life for the grateful audience who appreciated TSO’s tremendous talent.

Now that their holiday trilogy is complete and retired, will they be back next year? Most likely. Performing in a city for 15 years straight is a hard habit to break.

Visions of hotcakes danced in our heads

thCAKY7EHODecember 20, 2012 – It wouldn’t be Christmas without thinking about my grandfather. This story is worth repeating… 

When I think of my grandfather – known lovingly as Pop Pop throughout our large extended family – lots of warm and comforting memories come to mind.

Most often, he’s standing in front of a microphone at a family party singing a favorite song from 1919 that begs, “Don’t put a tax on the beautiful girls, I won’t last a day without love…”

Or, he’s sitting at our dining room table playing Scrabble with my parents after one of our Thursday night dinners.

I also see him vividly standing in the kitchen preparing his famous hotcakes.

Pop Pop made hotcakes every Sunday for his kids before church. Then, he’d make them for us during our summer vacation at the beach because he usually came with us. He’d love to get up early, walk to the grocery store and buy what he needed to whip up a fresh batch. We’d wake to the sound of him whistling in the kitchen with the griddle sizzling.

“Who wants hotcakes?” he’d ask as soon as he saw our sleepy faces.

We all did. They were one of the things we looked forward to while on vacation. And we loved them the next day, too, and maybe even the day after that. By day four, we’d have rather eaten a simple bowl of corn flakes or a Pop Tart, but we never had the heart to say so, and we ate them anyway. It was a small price to pay to please a man who brought so much joy into our lives.

He also made hotcakes for us on Christmas mornings, and we’d eat them like we never had them before, then he’d fall asleep on the sofa while we opened presents.

Pop Pop passed away in 1977, and I still think of him and his hotcakes every Christmas. My sister always says it wasn’t Christmas until he arrived at our house on Christmas Eve. Gone but not forgotten, poured but never duplicated, Pop Pop’s hotcakes were the centerpiece of our Christmas morning and our summer vacations for years.

Songs played at Christmas that have nothing to do with Christmas

imagesDecember 18, 2013 – ‘Tis the season to crank up the Christmas tunes. It’s also time to wonder why certain songs are played at Christmas that have nothing to do with the holiday, like the ones below:

Same Old Lang Syne – Dan Fogelberg
Singer/songwriter Dan Fogelberg weaves a touching story in a song that isn’t about the spirit of Christmas, the chance meeting simply occurs on Christmas Eve. While home for the holidays, he runs into an old girlfriend at the grocery store. They talk about their unfulfilled dreams and mundane lives, and it turns sadder when they say goodbye as the snow turns into rain, a gut-wrenching last line that’s enough to make anyone cry. The song touches us because we can all relate to it in some way. However, it doesn’t make you want to deck the halls with boughs of holly.

River – Joni Mitchell
In “River”, Joni Mitchell shares another love story gone wrong. Sad stuff, but why the play at Christmas, and why do many artists cover it on their Christmas albums? Sure, it’s a great song, and the first line indicates, “It’s coming on Christmas, they’re cutting down trees,” but that’s it. Mitchell wishes she had a river to skate away on in this song, to escape the sadness that has set in since she screwed things up with her lover. Sad situations occur year round unfortunately, but they are not typically the subject of the jolly Christmas tunes.

It Doesn’t Have to Be That Way – Jim Croce
“Snowy nights and Christmas lights, icy window panes, make me wish that we could be together again.” Are you starting to see a pattern here? Jim Croce’s sad little ballad is the third love gone wrong song on this list. Believing this is a Christmas tune is like believing “Die Hard” is a Christmas movie because it takes place on Christmas Eve. I suppose the Christmas season at times magnifies what is missing in your life, but let’s wait until January to obsess about heart-break. Christmas songs should be about joy and peace.

My Favorite Things – Various Artists
This song, from “The Sound of Music” is nice enough, but doesn’t remotely relate to Christmas, or even occur during the season like those above. If Christmas is one of the songwriter’s favorite things, he doesn’t mention it. Warm woolen mittens and brown paper packages tied up with string could be considered Christmassy if you stretch it, but it is not a holiday song, no matter how many artists record it on their Christmas albums. Julie Andrews, who is most associated with this song, didn’t include it on her Christmas recording. She knew better.

Any song about the cold weather  – Various Artists
“Frosty the Snowman”, “Let it Snow”, “Winter Wonderland”, “Baby It’s Cold Outside”, and even “Jingle Bells” may be associated with  Christmas and played throughout the season, but they have more to do with cold weather and snow than the holiday. In the Northern Hemisphere it makes sense. We associate cold and snowy weather with Christmas because it is cold and snowy in December. What about the folks in the Southern Hemisphere? Many celebrate Christmas in these countries, where it’s summer in December. Makes you wonder if they include “Catch a Wave” or “Surfer Girl” in their Christmas song repertoire.

Happy birthday, Ludwig

beethoven-1294417586-hero-wide-0December 16, 2013 – Today, we celebrate Ludwig van Beethoven’s birthday (born December 16, 1770, in Bonn, Germany.) For years, Beethoven thought he was born in 1772, which may have been a deliberate deception on his father’s part to make the talented musical prodigy seem more advanced for his age. His father may have been one of the first known stage parents in history.

Although often associated with the piano, he first learned to pay the violin as a young boy. He wrote his first musical piece at age 12, and began losing his hearing by age 25,  yet still continued to compose. Most of his best-known pieces and all of his nine symphonies were written after age 30, when he was deaf. He did so by feeling the vibrations of the piano.

Beethoven has been the topic of several films, and plays a huge role in modern pop culture, having been parodied on “Saturday Night Live” by both John Belushi and Jimmy Fallon, and by Monty Python and Dudley Moore, as seen in the clips below. Unfortunately, I was unable to find the entire Jimmy Fallon skit, entitled “Beethoven’s Orchestra”, which has the funnyman introducing his band while in concert, but the 17-second clip features the hilarious Kristen Wiig.