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Trump: An American Dream

As Balanced a Portrait as Anyone Could Expect
Given it source (UK Channel 4) I assumed that this would be a rather one-sided hatchet job on Trump and, while it comes across as negative (even the comments from his supporters are hardly flattering), it is as balanced as any portrait of this man can be.

Anyone trying to understand Trump should watch this series to realize that what we have now as President is the same package that has been served up to the American public for more than 40 years. He hasn't changed a bit. He remains a shameless and occasionally charming BS artist, a bully, a womanizer and an ill-informed opportunist with no fixed political or moral principles. Even the guys who created Trump as a political commodity - Roger Stone, Sam Nunberg and the rest, who are interviewed extensively - recognize that what you see in Trump is what you get.

We'll get through the next 3 years, and it will be hard, but we should know that Trump is incapable of self-reflection. Even when he tells us that Citizen Kane is his favorite movie, he cannot see the irony in that. Sad!

Chasing Trane: The John Coltrane Documentary

Tribute to a genius
We live in horribly divisive times. Racially, politically, culturally, economically, Americans have rarely been more divided. Coltrane was a uniting force in America, a man who struggled with his own demons and emerged to deliver a message of hope and redemption - all through the most sublime music -a message that we would do well to remember today.

This film is a wonderful tribute to one of our greatest artists. When most of us were content to bask in his artistry, Coltrane was already 10 miles down the road to some other achievement.

We use the word genius too liberally, but Trane was a genius.


Yes, it is the best ever
Having devoted two weekends to immersing myself in Borgen, I can only echo the pervasive sentiment here that this is the best political and media drama series ever made. No need for political rivals to be shoved under subway trains to sustain dramatic tension. No one-dimensional heroes and villains. Borgen achieves the almost inconceivable (at least from an American vantage point) by taking complex (Sudan) and even arcane (pig farming?!) political issues and presenting them with as much nuance as a 1-hour TV episode can allow.

The degree to which Borgen can interweave politics, journalism (TV and newspaper) and human drama is extraordinary. The characters are all complex, all flawed (as we all are) and almost all sympathetic, even when they are at their worst. The writing is sophisticated, leavened by the right amount of humour.

And the acting is uniformly first rate. It is unfair to single out just one from an extraordinary cast, but Sidse Babett Knudsen, as Birgitte Nyborg, really does merit some kind of lifetime achievement award for her role. I'm not damning with faint praise when I say that she is the most believable politician that I have ever seen portrayed on screen.

By the end of the third season I was genuinely saddened to think that we'll never see these immensely interesting characters again.

The Martian

Been there, seen that
I am mystified by the overwhelmingly positive reaction that this film received, not only among moviegoers but critics as well. To be sure, Matt Damon is his normally engaging self, to the point that, if it weren't for him, The Martian would be almost unbearably tedious.

Let's start with the fact that there is really no dramatic tension here whatsoever. Was the fact that the stranded astronaut would be heroically rescued in the last five minutes ever in the remotest doubt? This is a Hollywood movie, after all. Sure, there is the usual internal dissension - heartless management vs. compassionate colleagues. We know who is going to win that battle. There is Mark Watney's ongoing struggle to stay alive, through an increasingly unbelievable series of stratagems, despite things repeatedly blowing up around him, all the while making endearing wisecracks (for the most part to no one in particular).

The special effects are pretty good, though nothing that is much beyond what Kubrick was able to accomplish almost half a century ago.

The script has a few bright moments, but is so replete with clichés that it frequently verges on parody. The cheering crowds in Times, Trafalgar and Tiananmen Squares, the ubiquitous CNN news feed, the "unconventional" but brilliant young NASA engineer/math whiz who saves the day (along with the Chinese, this being 2015), the selfless, bantering and bonhomie among the properly gender-balanced crew of astronauts, the hard-ass "suit" who runs NASA and runs up against the "old guy" who has one last act of defiance left in him - and on and on and on. Really, there is not an interesting or nuanced plot twist or character among the lot.

I wanted to like this movie, mostly because, despite its thin story, Blade Runner still holds a special place in my heart. But I do now understand why Ridley Scott didn't get his Oscar nomination for best director.

Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb

A landmark and a masterpiece
Among the manifold injustices in the history of the Academy Awards are the facts that Dr. Strangelove did not win for Best Picture and that Peter Sellers did not win for Best Actor for any one of his three (and it could have been four) roles. Much as I enjoyed Rex Harrison in My Fair Lady, and even recognizing the narrow-minded conservatism of Hollywood in 1964, it is a gross indictment of the Academy. In fact, Sellers should have won for both Best Actor and Best Supporting Actor, such is the magnitude of his accomplishment here.

I first saw this film in 1968, when I'd just turned 14. I can't count the number of times I've seen it since and, now that my own kids have come to recognize that Dr. Stangelove is the greatest comedy ever filmed (City Lights not too far behind), my work here is done.


This is a classic, nothing less
I was not a huge fan of Richard Linklater's "Before" movies. I found them too self-consciously precious for my taste and, frankly, Julie Delpy just annoys me. Still, the notion of the passage of time and how we all change, even though we so often deny it, is fascinating. It's why Michael Apted's "Up" series of documentaries have been so compelling.

In that context, I approached Boyhood with mixed feelings, but there was no need to be ambivalent. I have very rarely had a more rewarding experience in the movie theatre. Virtually everything about this film is pitch perfect. The concept itself was pretty audacious. So much could have gone wrong and ruined the whole thing - Ellar Coltrane could have simply abandoned the project or he could have turned out to be a lousy actor (as could Lorelei Linklater). The producers could have lost faith in what must surely have seemed a fool's errand. The fact that is is just so beautifully, and believably, put together is nothing short of a small miracle.

I watched the film with my 21 year-old son and we lost track of the number of times we turned to each other in silent recognition of our own journey together as father and son. As with life itself, Boyhood has its moments of unintended humour, of awkward attempts to connect, of unexpressed anger, alienation and love. There are no artificially manufactured scenes of overt drama. Nothing really bad happens, despite what I found to be a prolonged sense of foreboding.

In short, this is a movie that know I will watch again and again, each time taking something more away from it. It is an unforgettable experience.


This Year's King's Speech
As several critics have observed, this wonderful film, just shown at TIFF, is destined to become this year's King's Speech (which began its Oscar run in Toronto too, though Philomena has already picked up accolades in Venice). Both British films have strongly emotional undercurrents leavened by wry humour, feature outstanding performances from the leads and are based on true stories.

Judi Dench, as the Irish woman whose out-of-wedlock son is taken from her by Catholic nuns and sold to a rich American couple in the 1950's, has never been better. She imbues the role with a mix of wisdom (after all, as she reminds us repeatedly, she was nurse for 30 years) and naiveté that would seem to be impossible were it not so deftly handled. While the cynical atheist portrayed by Steve Coogan rarely misses an opportunity to poke fun at her, more often than not she enjoys the last laugh.

Despite the consummate acting, and Frears' slick directing, the greatest treat of the film is Steve Coogan's screenplay. Given its subject matter, the story could easily have veered into melodrama, but just when it is on the verge of doing so Coogan pulls us back from the edge. Thankfully, Coogan himself is there to convey precisely the proper blend of sarcasm and compassion.


Exquisite and moving
It's no surprise that Amour garners strong and polarized emotions from viewers. As both a director and writer, Haneke plumbs the dividing line - often the gulf - between what do and say, and what we feel. As someone about to turn the corner into what some consider to be old age, and perhaps overly daunted by the subject matter, it took me some time to build up the courage to watch this film. As a good friend said after he'd seen it, Amour is a film that you must see, but that you will probably only want, or need, to see once. But see it you must.

The genius of this film lies in the fact that it doesn't rely on any cheap cinematic or emotional shortcuts. We see this elderly couple for what they are: refined, often distant from one another and from their daughter and their star pupil, perhaps a bit smug, even snobbish. Their relationship is not the stuff of teary-eyed sentimentality.

For virtually the entire film we live with Georges and Anne in their comfortable but decidedly stuffy Paris apartment. The claustrophobia that they must feel, confined to a small space by Anne's deteriorating health, is reinforced by the fact that we never even see out their window, though the window does play a pivotal role in the film symbolic motif. Contrast that with another one of cinema's greatest apartment-bound films, Rear Window, in which we spend virtually all of our time looking out onto other people's lives. Here, we're forced to look relentlessly inward. We asked, in effect, to examine our own feelings towards love and death, to decide what we would do, how we would respond.

Jean-Louis Trintignant and Emmanuelle Riva give astonishingly restrained and sensitive performances. There are lengthy passages in this film in which they live their lives in utter silence, but what eloquence there is in that quietness. There is not a single false note, not a turn of the head, or a word of dialogue, that rings false.

Haneke has made three of my favourite films of all time - Cache, White Ribbon and now this. They couldn't be more different. Amour is the work of a true artist.


Implausible, Cliché-Ridden Twaddle
Thankfully, Gary Oldman can make almost any film bearable and his portrayal here of a ruthless, corrupt CEO is just about the only thing that this derivative movie has going for it. He manages to infuse a one-dimensional character with at least one more dimension.

The script is so full of hackneyed clichés that I felt like I was watching a Dan Brown novel. You have to assume that the writer's entire experience of the corporate world is based on a combination of Occupy Movement manifestos and Oliver Stone movies. Liam Hemsworth has evidently starred in something call the Hunger Games where, I have to assume, he was hired for his looks and not his acting chops.

August is usually the doldrums when it comes to movie releases and this dud simply proves the rule to which Blue Jasmine is the exception.

The Act of Killing

You must see this movie, you simply must
It seems almost trivial to "rate" a movie that is this important but like some of the tothers i have given it a 10 because people need to see it.

I have never been as completely chilled by a film in my life, and I have seen plenty of brutal documentaries. The atrocities committed by the Indonesian death squads, and so vividly re-enacted, are not easy to watch and I expect that many people would rather just turn away and ignore them, but you owe it to yourselves to sit through them.

I have just finished reading Steven Pinker's excellent book The Better Angels of Our Nature in which he argues that humanity is far less violent now than we have ever been. That may be so, but if you are looking for a compelling counter-argument you can start with this film. I can assure that that you will never forget it.

Moonrise Kingdom

(Very) old-fashioned comedy
Whenever I see a movie that I truly admire I always like to look at the most negative IMDb reviews before posting my own. In the case of Moonrise Kingdom it is apparent that Wes Anderson is very much an acquired taste. Many of our greatest artists are.

It's interesting to see so many people who don't regard this as a comedy simply because (it seems) it isn't paced like a Judd Apatow movie. Without trying to sound too pretentious, Moonrise Kingdom is a comedy in the Shakespearean sense: more Midsummer Night's Dream than The Hangover.

Anderson has an extraordinary ability to turn the most mundane subject matter into a magical, even mystical experience. The story here is simple, but the treatment captivates the viewer (well, many of us anyway) because he approaches the story with such a unique combination of innocence and style. Every shot in Moonrise Kingdom is designed to dazzle us visually. Yes, it is calculated and the acting can appear stilted, but there is simply no one in modern cinema whose vision is as clear-headed.

In some ways Anderson is to comedy what Hitchcock is to the suspense genre. Every frame (or pixel) is the emanation of a unique personality. We should be grateful that there remains a place for such filmmakers in a world where individualism has a difficult path.

Beasts of the Southern Wild

On the one hand...
I cannot recall ever feeling more ambivalent about a film. Having read the reviews and seen the trailer, and having heard nothing but praise from those who'd seen this movie, I was really looking forward to seeing it myself.

So let's start with the good things, of which there are several. The atmosphere of the film is literally marvellous. We are immediately transported to an almost post- apocalyptic environment - the Bathtub - that is a steamy, waterlogged, mucky place and that is a wonderland for a young girl with a vivid imagination and an adventurous spirit. Able to move around with little or no adult supervision, but for the intermittent intrusion of a drunken, dying father, Hushpuppy can revel in nature and create fantasies that sustain her in her squalid surroundings.

The story is always interesting, taking bizarre and unexpected twists and turns. The other side of that assessment (and here comes my ambivalence) is that the plot seems to be made up as it goes along. There is certainly no clean narrative thread, and the unifying motifs - the oryx (aurochs?), the heartbeats of the beasts (humans most certainly included), the Gatsby-like lighthouse to which Hushpuppy speaks as if it were her absent mother - can seem more or less forced.

And there is fact that these are not professional actors. Even if we were unaware, the performances of the two leads are truly extraordinary. Wallis in particular, who is in virtually every scene, is riveting and has a greater screen presence than any number of top Hollywood actors I can think of. An Oscar nomination is, or ought to be, inevitable.

Parenthetically, it's interesting that two films this year - this one and What Maisie Knew which I saw recently at TIFF - are both tales of dysfunctional families told from the constant perspective of precocious six-year old girls, both of whom provide unbelievably fine performances.

So what's wrong with Beasts? Maybe it is just my own political correctness, but I couldn't help feeling throughout that we were watching the most reprehensible stereotypes of the Southern poor. The characters in the Bathtub with whom we are asked to empathize are, to a person, illiterate, shiftless, violent, besotted rubes who are too dumb to get out of the way of a freight train. I exaggerate, of course, but not by that much. Making it worse is the knowledge that we're not watching professional actors, but rather the residents who are called upon to play caricatures of themselves.

It may take me a while, and another viewing, to reconcile my feelings about this movie. One thing I will say, though: this is a remarkable achievement for a first-time 29 year-old director and we should all be looking forward to his next work.

The Company You Keep

Sure he keeps good company, but...
Robert Redford can certainly muster an impressive list of acting talent, but this film is a reminder that there is more to a good film than that.

Like many others at TIFF this year, particularly baby boomers like myself, I was keen to see how Redford would go about dealing with an especially controversial aspect of recent American history. The premise here is compelling: members of the Weather Underground who are accused of murder after what appears to have been a bungled bank robbery have gone to ground, have built lives with varying degrees of success and respectability, only to have it all reopened years later when one of them decides to turn herself in. An earnest young reporter at a small newspaper is given (or seizes) the opportunity to dig into the story and finds out more than he bargained for.

There are several problems, though. For one, the film pulls its main punch, and telegraphs that move so early on that the natural tension is never allowed to build. I know that Redford is an old-fashioned movie star, and the prospect of his having actually been guilty is perhaps just not in the cards, but knowing this in the first few minutes makes the rest of the story rather unsuspenseful. Instead of wondering whether this (frankly rather dull) single father really did what he was accused of, we are left with watching him try to exonerate himself in a cross-country odyssey that is implausible and often tedious.

To be sure, there are some fine performances. The scene between Susan Sarandon and Shia LaBeouf in prison, as she tries, with only limited success, to explain herself to a sceptical and ambitious young journalist from such a different era, is very convincing.

Redford himself, though, does not really command our attention or interest. If you're going to star in your own movie, you should be sure that you really are the best choice for the role. At the age of 76 (and yes, despite being fit and well put together, he really does look his age), Redford is at least ten years older than his role would demand. And he has a 12 year old daughter!

Moreover, he fails to infuse the role with any real passion. Now, raw emotion has never been Redford's strong suit. He is just too cool for that. But here is a role that really calls out for something other than his typical calculated, rational, "nice guy" approach.

As a director, Redford is more successful. For movie buffs, it's fun to watch the train scene, for example, (how many directors have train scenes anymore?) which pays homage to some of the great train scenes from older suspense films like North by Northwest.

With this subject matter, The Company You Keep could have been an edgy and provocative political thriller, with a resonance that makes connections between the student terrorism of the 1970's and the burning economic and social issues of today. The fact is that many of the same underlying problems that led to the formation of the Weathermen - foreign military involvement, economic disparities, reactionary social policies - remain with us. Instead, however, the film never really brings itself to confront these issues except in the most oblique and politically correct fashion. It is an opportunity squandered.

London: The Modern Babylon

This is a wonderful, kaleidoscopic and quirky portrait of the city of which one can never tire. The past 100 years are presented in roughly chronological order, but with ample allusions that tie contemporary events to those of the past. The message is clear: London is not its monuments, its parks or even its history, but rather its people. And what a diverse, determined and fascinating people they are.

Temple does a masterful job in putting the widest possible range of London on display: from the race riots that have permeated the city's modern history to the jazz and gay clubs of Soho, from the dockyard workers to the City bankers, from Brixton to Mayfair. In the two hours that sweep by so quickly, you feel like you have yourself lived through a century of what, you become convinced, is the world's most remarkable and resilient metropolis.

The editing of the film, both visually and musically, is brilliant, with connections and juxtapositions made boldly and, just as often, subtly. The technique of using London's extensive closed circuit camera system as a unifying device is both effective and subversive: you frequently feel like you are a voyeur, intruding on some of the most personal moments while being propelled unrelentingly forward.

I saw several films at TIFF this year, many with a lot more buzz, but in the end this is the one that will stay with me the longest and the one that I really look forward to seeing again.


Very good 80's style thriller
I'm a sucker for a good adultery thriller, just like the classic ones from the 80's, and this one doesn't disappoint. The premise here is pretty familiar: rich New York tycoon is having an affair with a younger woman, he has business troubles and then his dalliance goes horribly wrong at the worst possible time. The plot, especially, the corporate shenanigans, can stretch credibility, but the film is sufficiently well written that the holes in the storyline don't really get in the way.

What distinguishes Arbitrage is the superb acting. Susan Sarandon is, as always, right in character as the society wife who knows more than you think, but in the end has her own set of priorities. Britt Marling plays the daughter who aspires to build her own career only to be forced to confront disillusionment in the "real world" and make some tough choices. Richard Gere, as Robert Miller, is the epitome of a Wall Street "master of the universe" whose finely balanced life is on the verge of collapse. Much has been written about the psychology of self-destruction that leads someone in power (almost invariably male) to risk so much for so little. Gere captures that mindset beautifully. Nate Parker is the black kid, whose father has a history with the family, and whom Miller shamelessly embroils in the mess that he has created. Parker gives a great performance. Finally, Tim Roth is outstanding as the NYPD detective who is sick and tired of the big Wall Street guys escaping justice and is desperate to nail Gere - too desperate as it turns out.

Arbitrage is slick, American filmmaking that delivers on what it promises. No more, but no less.

Salmon Fishing in the Yemen

Swept away - but not in a good way
There is the kernel of a great movie here. If only the tone of the first third had been maintained throughout it would have made for a wonderful satire of British politics and diplomacy. But something went horribly wrong and the worst clichés of romantic comedy were allowed to take over. The career-driven wife who alienates her man; the ridiculously good looking soldier who is eventually thrown over for the hapless, earnest, naive everyman; the "unexpected" plot twist that brings the reluctant couple together in the end. It's all here.

Ewan McGregor and Emily Blunt struggle valiantly against the rising waters for a while, but before long the dam bursts and the preposterousness of the plot simply sweeps this film away. Look, I know that this is hardly intended to be a documentary, or even very realistic, but at some point and at some level you have to get some buy-in or it just doesn't work.

To cite but one example, how are we to believe that, regardless of his wealth and resolve, the sheik was able to conceive, design, engineer, build and put into service a massive dam in the middle of nowhere in a matter of weeks? It would take years, yet he plot depends on such a flimsy device - it is the very premise of the film. I'm all for the willing suspension of disbelief, but the writers do have to meet us part way.

And, though I hate to say it because she is one of my favourite actors, Kristin Scott Thomas ends up practically chewing the scenery here (and there is lots of lovely scenery to devour, to be sure).

You don't get do-overs in the movie business. It's too bad, because I would have loved another hour or so of what we saw in the first 30 minutes.


A masterclass in dialogue with wonderful acting
The travails involved in getting this movie released at all are well enough known by now that the fact that it is a flawed masterpiece shouldn't come as a surprise. Above all, it is a masterclass in how to write dialogue. Virtually every character is given a credible and compelling voice, from the bus driver to the lawyer, from the mother's suitor to Lisa's "boyfriend". As the father of a daughter, now in her early 20's, I can say that Lisa Cohen's character is as realistic a portrayal of the insecurities and self-righteousness of female adolescence as I have seen. All aspiring screenwriters should be forced to watch this movie and then be given a 3-hour oral and written exam before being allowed to put pen to paper (or finger to keyboard).

The acting is also superb. The feel is more of a stage play, an ensemble piece, than a film. Perhaps the fact that one of the characters - Lisa's mother - is a stage actress struggling to support her daughter is partially responsible. But you can tell that this team of seasoned actors relished the opportunity to stretch out with an intelligent well-written script and a supportive director.

The only flaw in Margaret has already been well expressed by others. The film does meander and, while I recognize that this is partly the point of the exercise, there are times at which you long for a more conventional, and taut, storyline. I would gladly have spent more time in the company of these well-drawn, articulate and interesting people. Maybe next time HBO wants to do a miniseries it will let Kenneth Lonergan loose on a story rather than subject us to another preachy, wordy effort from Aaron Sorkin.


Time for an Oscar Do Over
In a just universe, no one would get cancer and 50/50 would have been nominated for at least four Oscars: Best Picture, Best Original Screenplay, Best Actor and Best Supporting Actress. Why does it matter? It doesn't; or at least it shouldn't. But Hollywood owes it to the future of the industry to support slightly daring and off-beat films like 50/50 rather than smugly liberal (and covertly racist) movies like The Help or yet another Tom Hanks or Brad Pitt star vehicle.

For anyone who has had to deal with cancer themselves or in a loved one (and sadly, that probably means most of us), you owe it to yourself to see this wonderful film. When she heard about the subject matter, my wife refused to see it, having just recently lost her sister to the disease. It took me months to persuade her and she is now so taken by it that she's talked about little else since.

I assure you that, despite what you may think, you simply don't know how you're going to react to news like that received by Adam until you actually receive it. Posts on IMDb complain that he didn't cry enough, to which I have just one response: it's a two hour movie that covers a year in his life but the film chooses (very wisely) to focus on the many other ways in which he contended with his diagnosis. That is what makes this film such a joy to watch.

Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Anna Kendrick are so beautifully cast that it is like that were made for these roles. Still in their 20's, at first neither of them - neither the patient nor the "expert" - fathoms that the world can present such difficult challenges. They're young, they have good jobs, they have good friends and are going to live forever, aren't they? Neither one has ever experienced deprivation or hardship.

I think part of the reason why Hollywood has had a hard time with 50/50 is that it doesn't fit neatly into any of the boxes that the industry machine has created. It was marketed badly and inaccurately, largely, one suspects, on the basis of that fact that Seth Rogen is in it (and he's very good, by the way). It deals with a subject that instinctively makes the audience uncomfortable, and it plays on that discomfort in an original way, without ever exploiting it.

An 8.5.

The Help

This Movie Left a Bad Taste in my Mouth
The Help has two outstanding performances: one from Viola Davis and the other from Octavia Spencer. Beyond that, I felt like I was fed a slice of Minny Jackson's pie. When the emotional apex of the film is a young, prosperous and coddled white woman agonizing about whether to leave the racially charged Jackson for a glamorous life in the literary swirl of New York,you know that something has gone very wrong indeed. This film did not need Skeeter and the fact that she became its centre-piece, no matter how "enlightened" she may have been, is a subtle form of racism in its own right. The maids in The Help are more interesting, more compelling and much more deserving of the film's unwavering attention.

Structurally, the film bites off more than it can chew, or at least digest. There are too many characters, too many sub-plots, too much distraction from the two most important women in the story. Is it about Skeeter and the relationship with her old nursemaid (as nice as it is to see Cicely Tyson again)? How much ought we to really care about Skeeter's mother (the badly miscast Alison Janney)? Is it worth time and trouble to introduce and follow the Celia Foote character, who would have made for a pretty good lead character but in a different movie? And what are we to make of poor Sissy Spacek in her confounding, embarrassing and largely irrelevant role as the demented Missus Walters? All of these characters may have performed a valuable dramatic function in the novel, but in a two hour movie we just don't need them. The Help demonstrates one of the pitfalls to which inexperienced directors can fall prey in trying to adapt a novel to the screen.

All in all, The Help is the kind of film that you keep hoping will redeem itself. For my taste, I'd rather have had something with fewer ingredients and a lot more bite.

Up All Night

Much Better than I Expected
It's surprising that two of the best recent sitcoms both feature actors who first came to fame through that horrible 80's thing call Married With Children. It's even more interesting that they are both mining somewhat the same vein in their new shows - a sendup of the modern family.

Christina Applegate is wonderful in this role, unafraid to be unattractive and conveying the tribulations of new motherhood with an odd, but realistic, combination of grit, excitement, wonder and denial. Hers is the most believable portrayal of motherhood I've seen in a long time. Even Will Arnett (who was in that other show that explored modern families and that remains astonishingly over-rated)is at his best.

2 Broke Girls

Predictable and Juvenile
OK. I tried my best and watched last week's episode all the way through, having seen some reviews here and elsewhere that whetted my appetite.

First, it's 2011 so let's can the laugh track. Second, please try to come up with a line or a joke that we haven't already seen a dozen times on Laverne & Shirley or Green Acres or, where it actually worked, on I Love Lucy. Third, create some characters that aren't hackneyed racial and social stereotypes. Finally, find some actors who can actually act and deliver a line with at least some degree of subtlety and aplomb. The co-stars here are straight out of the MAD TV school of acting.

Have a look at Modern Family or Up All Night to see how it's done.

Peace, Love & Misunderstanding

Jane Fonda Rehippified
Six things about Peace, Love & Misunderstanding:

1. Yes, Jeffrey Dean Morgan really does look like Javier Bardem. So much so that I turned to my wife at one point and said: "I didn't realize that Bardem could speak English so flawlessly; too bad the strain of keeping that American accent has stunted his acting ability".

2. Great to see Rosanna Arquette, albeit in a bit part.

3. Woodstock looks like a really beautiful place.

4. The kids in this movie really can act, especially Elizabeth Olsen. Best Supporting Actress nominee: you heard it here first.

5. I grew up in the late 60's and early 70's and, despite some quibbles about the way in which the leftover hippies in this movie are portrayed, I was impressed by the ability of the young writers to steer away from some of the more obvious stereotypes (not completely, mind you - I don't think there is really a Kesey-esque psychedelic school bus anymore outside the props departments of the Hollywood studios). Perhaps they got the tone right because of the input from one of the era's cultural icons.

6. Thereby bringing us to Jane Fonda who, unfortunately, was ill and couldn't attend the world premiere last night in Toronto. She is just great in this film, in a role that could easily have fallen into parody (even self-parody). Sure, an ex-hippie in her 70's probably wouldn't be as heavily made up, but this is a Hollywood movie and she is a movie star. She is at once charming, spacey, provocative and slightly raunchy.

All in all, a really nicely written and lovingly directed and acted film. I hope it does well.


The business of baseball
There is no question that Moneyball should immediately be elevated to the already crowded upper echelon of baseball movies, but it is really more about business than it is about sport. The storyline is already familiar, and the good thing about it being, as they say, "based on a true story" is that we are spared a Hollywood ending in the form of a 7th game, extra innings victory in the World Series.

Moneyball is a classy production from start to finish. The script is tightly written, the casting is impeccable and the direction is slick and largely unobtrusive. Brad Pitt is competent in a role that doesn't demand too much of an actor. Philip Seymour Hoffman looks every inch (or pound) an old school baseball manager in his exasperated attempt to impose the "right way" of doing things on the hapless misfits he has been given to lead into battle. Stephen Bishop is a remarkably fine David Justice, the former superstar trying to come to terms with the vagaries of ageing and fading acclaim. The real star, though, is Jonah Hill, who, as a precocious young math whiz, and an Ivy League grad to boot, is a fish almost completely out of water amongst the cynical old guard of the baseball world.

It is a fine film, to be sure, but if there is any justice come Oscar time then at least two other films which were also featured this week in Toronto, The Descendants and The Artist, should be the front runners for best picture.

The Artist

Marvellous; one of the best movie experiences you'll ever have
The Artist arrived at the Toronto International Film Festival preceded by the accolades it received at Cannes, so expectations were high, but those expectations have been more than amply fulfilled. This film is an absolute marvel - charming, witty, surprising, moving, clever and beautiful. Filmmaking is about decisions, thousands and thousands of them, and everyone involved in The Artist makes every decision to perfection. The cinematography is ravishing in luminous black and white. The musical score, on which the film, being silent, is so dependant, is subtle when it needs to be subtle, dramatic when the occasion calls for it, and never overbearing or overwrought. The screenplay (yes, silent films do have screenplays) toys with the conventions of the silent era, paying homage to some of the greatest films of the first two or three decades of cinema history. The acting is flawless, extracting emotion and humour from a simple but classic storyline. The direction displays such self-assurance, and treats the audience with such respect, that it is almost like having a dialogue with the director.

The Artist is one of the most enjoyable movie experiences I have ever had. It deserves a wide audience and all sorts of awards. I can hardly wait to see it again.

And oh yes, if there is ever an Oscar for best animal performance, the dog in The Artist should receive a lifetime achievement award for this role alone.

It's Complicated

I don't like being a target
Hollywood is often criticized for failing to release movies for anyone over the physical or emotional age of about 16. Well, if this one is typical of what the studios think grown-ups want to see, then give me Judd Apatow any day.

My wife and I are probably in the bull's-eye of the target market for It's Complicated - we're mid-fifties, white, one a lawyer, the other the owner of a small business, with three grown children. Neither of us has smoked dope since before the kids were born, but we like our wine. One has been though a divorce. We could be Jane and Jake! Then why does this whole production ring so completely hollow from start to finish? Here are a few reasons: 1. These two are supposed to be highly, even ridiculously, successful yet neither one seems to have the least problem in taking off for hours at a time in the middle of the day. The Blackberry never interrupts to remind them that they have jobs; they have every evening off to pursue their liaison. Jane may drop in to her chic bakery (or, as it is no doubt called, her patisserie) from time to time to dip a well-manicured finger into a batch of croissant dough, but Jake seems to be completely idle - a rich lawyer, with two families to support, staying in suites at the Regency Hotel on Park Avenue, driving a Porsche, and no hours to bill. Nice work if you can get it.

2. Jane has a large house with a beautiful kitchen (two ovens, no less). Her kids are all out of the house, she's living alone and (despite rarely showing up at work) evidently a woman with a thriving business. Perhaps time to downsize, find a nice townhouse or even a condo by the beach somewhere? Maybe cash out and put aside some of the proceeds for an early and well-deserved retirement in the south of France? Not a bit of it. She wants to put on a huge addition, with an "enclosed" kitchen, to the tune of about $200K.

3. Meanwhile, Jake has left the literate, talented, independent and still quite beautiful Jane, for a woman with the personality of a piranha and no perceptible ability to carry on a conversation. And, with due respect, not a great looker either.

Were it not for Meryl Streep, this film would be utterly devoid of any redeeming merit. After about 10 minutes the only pleasure that can be derived from it is in watching a great actress, through the enormity of her talent, make a lousy movie tolerable.

There may be a decent movie to be made from this premise, but if there is it will be made in France or Italy, where they approach these things with a degree of sophistication and wit that seems to be well beyond Hollywood's grasp.

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