Films that opened in America, October 4-6 2015


The Martian (IMDB rating 8.4) – This much anticipated  sci-fi film has delivered commercially and critically so far; so much so that there’s some talk it could be a Best Picture Oscar nominee. It’s certainly the most acclaimed Ridley Scott film for a long time. Despite a typically overly-detailed trailer, it’s a film I’ll probably look to catch over the next few weeks.

The Walk (8.0) – This true story of Frenchman Philippe Petit walking on high-wire between between the World Trade Center towers was covered to great acclaim late last decade in the documentary “Man On Wire”. It had so much acclaim that I think I was the only person not care for it too much when I reviewed it for this site! In part because I saw that, I’m not particularly interested in seeing this film.

Singh Is Bling (6.5) – Light-hearted Indian film that did pretty decent box office in its opening weekend in North America

Talvar (8.6) – An atypical Indian film in that instead of being light-hearted and musical it’s a serious murder mystery, this film has been getting good reviews

Hell & Back (4.6) – A stop-motion animated film with ‘adult’ humour is something that could potentially catch on, but very poor reaction from audiences and critics alike looks to have sunk it. Trailer is fairly uninspiring as well.

He Named Me Malaka (5.4) – Doco on a Pakistani schoolgirl surviving a Taliban attack after speaking out on education

Freeheld (5.9) – Considering topical subject matter – recent true story of a dying woman in a lesbian relationship looking to have benefits passed on to her female partner against legal obstruction before gay marriage was legalised – and a stellar cast, you’d think this could be an awards contender. But a tepid critical response appears to have ended that.

Shanghai (6.5) – Set in 1940s China this is an apt summation of how John Cusack’s career has declined recently – it’s only getting a small US release now even though it was released in China in June 2010

Labyrinth of Lies (7.4) – German film of the role German business and other sections of the establishment played in covering up Nazi crimes in WW2.

This Changes Everything  (7.5) – Based on a Naomi Wolf book, this documentary looks at the issue of climate change and how to tackle it. Amongst the producers are Danny Glover, Pamela Anderson and Seth MacFarlane!

Going Away (6.4) – French drama released in 2013 finally gets a US running. Notably has Dominque Sanda in the cast who was in some notable 1970s films.

Northern Soul (6.4) – Film set in 1970s England about local lads discovering American soul music. Steve Coogan has a supporting role. Trailer is appealing and it got good reviews when released in England last year

Shout Gladi Gladi (4.0) – Documentary narrated by Meryl Streep about African women overcoming stigmatising medical conditions

Spike Lee


The announcement of this year’s Academy Governor’s Awards totally went under my radar. For those who also missed it, the Jean Hersholt Humanitarian Award goes to Debbie Reynolds. Lifetime Achievement Awards go to Gena Rowlands and Spike Lee.

Lee is 58 years old, certainly still the prime of a director’s life and very young to be receiving this kind of career award. He is certainly the most well-known black director in America, and forgive me if I think that has something to do with him getting this award now. His is one of the most interesting of any current directors, in that the quality of his films are all over the map.

In looking over his filmography, I see that I have seen about half of his films. Some are great, like Do the Right Thing, some are near great, like Malcolm X and The 25th Hour, some are solid entertainments, like Inside Man, and some are completely forgettable, like Girl 6 (I saw it, and remember almost nothing about it other than it was about phone sex). I recently saw Oldboy and kind of like that, though I know it’s blasphemy even to think to compare it to the original.

I find that Lee’s best work, other than Do the Right Thing, is when he makes a standard film without any particular “message” to it. The 25th Hour, Inside Man, Summer of Sam, Oldboy, all of these are just good films, and one would never know that Lee made them. It’s kind of odd to say, but Lee is best when he he suppresses his instincts to stand up and shout like he does at Knick games. Then again, some of his genre pictures, like Miracle at St. Anna, are supposed to be god awful.

What’s everyone’s opinions of Lee? Best film, worst film?

Opening in Las Vegas, September 25, 2015


Interesting grab bag of films this weekend, although I’m not inclined to see any of them theatrically.

The best reviewed wide release this week is Sleeping With Other People (64), starring Jason Sudeikis and Alison Brie. I like her, but he annoys me. He seems so smug in all his roles. It seems very Apatovian, as two sex addicts try to find love. I don’t know for sure, but I have a feeling the sex addict stuff isn’t clinically accurate–in the trailer Sudeikis is going to a meeting to meet people. I’ll bet people who show up at these meetings are the kind of people you don’t want to have sex with. David Edelstein: “Sleeping With Other People is a rare American non-homogenized rom-com, and it’s delightful even when you’re not sure what you’re watching.”

Eli Roth is back with another horror film, The Green Inferno (38) which is not impressing people. It’s also apparently racist. Inkoo Kang: “At best, The Green Inferno is a reliable shock and disgust-delivery system. At worst — and it certainly veers toward the worst — it’s a racially reprehensible work that exploits one of the world’s most powerless peoples. And no number of movie-geek references to “Cannibal Holocaust” is going to change that.”

For the pint-size set is Hotel Transylvania 2 (43) I didn’t see the first, and will not be seeing the second, but I probably would have liked this when I was about eight, as I was into monsters. Roger Moore: “It skews very young, and for that crowd, Hotel Transylvania 2 works well enough. If this is Sandler’s sentence for all the awful, lazy live-action fare he’s fed his fans over the years, he and we can say he got off easy.”

Pawn Sacrifice (66) sounds intriguing–it stars Toby Maguire as chess master and psycho Bobby Fischer, and deals with his match with Boris Spassky in Iceland. Movies about chess sound like a disaster, but there have been good ones, such as Searching for Bobby Fischer and Dangerous Moves. Directed by Edward Zwick, which in some cases means beware. Stephanin Zacharek: “Pawn Sacrifice clicks along with crisp efficiency. Zwick, the director behind movies like Glory and Blood Diamond, is old-school in his attention to craftsmanship, alive to telling details.”

The Intern (52) is the film that will likely be the highest-grossing new film this week. Robert De Niro stars as a widower who takes an internship and works for Anne Hathaway, who has graduated from personal assistant in The Devil Wears Prada to her own big wig. It’s a Nancy Meyers films, which for my money means it’s terrible. Ann Hornaday: “Meyers seems content to make a nice movie about nice people doing their best to be nice to each other despite one or two not-nice things that happen along the way. That’s all very nice, but not particularly the stuff of potent or rousing entertainment.”

Finally, there’s Stonewall (31). Those hoping for a Selma-like treatment of gay rights are sorely disappointed, as the film is getting some of the worst reviews of the year. Roland Emmerich, who should stick to blowing things up, directs. Marc Mohan: “It’s also a real shame that such a fascinating reminder of how far civil rights have come in the last five decades has been reduced to such a turkey of a film.”

Review: Black Mass


Black Mass is an entertaining, vibrant film, but as I watched I couldn’t help but think of it as Scorsese-lite. There are a lot of things that will be familiar to those who have seen Goodfellas and especially The Departed, including a scene in which a person can’t tell if a guy is really mad or just joking, and a festival of Boston accents. We even hear the word “wicked.”

Movies about gangsters never go out of style, not since James Cagney and Edward G. Robinson first popularized the genre. I think secretly we who are law-abiding citizens envy organized crime bosses, because they get away with things with such impunity, but then are always punished, which takes away our guilty feelings.

This time the figure of evil is James “Whitey” Bulger, who ruled the rackets in South Boston for a decade. He is played with steel-eyed brilliance by Johnny Depp (the blue contacts seem both piercing and dead at the same time) a career criminal who has done time at both Leavenworth and Alcatraz but in 1975 runs the Winter Hill Gang, battling for turf with the Mafia of North Boston.

He is the approached by an old Southie friend, John Connolly (Joel Edgerton, hyped as if smoking crank) now an FBI agent, with an amazing offer: Connolly will get the feds to let Bulger alone if Bulger will give them info on the Mafia. Connolly talks his skeptical boss (Kevin Bacon) into the deal, and Bulger runs wild, taking over the city. It’s only when Bulger goes too far, and commits murder in broad daylight, that Connolly’s plan crumbles and Bulger has to go on the lam.

Along with The Departed, Mystic River, Gone, Baby, Gone and The Town, the Boston crime film has become it’s own subgenre. All of these films deal with the devotion felt in the Irish community. Bulger is shown as loving his mother and being a dutiful father (although he tells his young son, “If nobody sees it, it didn’t happen”) but also one who arranges a shipment of guns to the IRA. The accents provide a panoply of nasal squawks, and I’ll leave it to Boston natives to sort out the good ones from bad–I suspect Edgerton’s was good, Bacon’s not so good.

Directed by Scott Cooper, who has not shown any particular flair before (he directed the simpy tolerable Crazy Heart) seems to have watched his fair share of organized mob films. There are several scenes here that we have all seen–when a person is drawn into an empty lot or back room and then viciously snuffed. My recommendation would have been never turn your back on Whitey Bulger.

Black Mass is violent fun, but it’s only really worthwhile for Depp’s performance. He’s been wallowing in big payday, cartoonish roles for a while now, so it’s good to have him back in the land of serious acting. While the script does not give us much depth to Bulger, Depp supplies it. I loved a couple of scenes in particular. One, in which he is torturing a man who informed him on, he ever so slightly blinks when the man says he had no choice. “You always have a choice,” Depp says , “you just made the wrong one.” Then there is a scene with Edgerton’s wife, played by Julianne Nicholson. Bulger senses she doesn’t like what her husband is up to, and in a scene so filled with creepiness it will make your skin crawl, he threatens her subtly by running his hand across her face, caressing her with menace.

The film could have done without Benedict Cumberbatch as Depp’s brother, who in a stranger-than-fiction turn of events, is a powerful state senator. His appearance in the film seems to be only because it happens to be true. And then we have Peter Sarsgaard as a sniveling hit man. He seems to be only doing parts that require him to be completely repulsive.

Go to Black Mass to see Depp and stay for the old-fashioned, if cliched, gangster fun. It’s no Goodfellas, but what is?

Oscar 2015 Preview: Best Actor

“Nominate me or else.”

Now that the Toronto Film Festival is just about done, and prestige pictures are being released, the Oscar race starts to make some sense. Many films have not been seen yet, but educated guesses can be made, especially in the acting categories.

For Best Actor, Oscar ninnies can use a combination of actors’ track records, the role played, and the quality of the film. Oh, and there’s also the excellence of the performance, but many times we don’t know it because we haven’t seen it.

These five performances figure to be the front-runners headed into the fall. Some will no doubt fall by the wayside if the movie is no good, but two or more seem likely.

Bryan Cranston, Trumbo: Best known as a TV actor, Cranston has earned the Emmy and the Tony, and seems ready to conquer film as well. Add to the mix that he’s playing a legendary Hollywood figure, blacklisted screenwriter Dalton Trumbo, and it seems like a gimme, but only if the film doesn’t slip through the cracks.

Johnny Depp, Black Mass: Depp, who was once one of our best “serious” actors, has frittered away the better part of a decade playing cartoon characters while making millions. In his early 50s, he’s already making a comeback. The transformation into notorious gangster Whitey Bulger, via makeup and other affectations, can’t hurt. My early call is that he will win the award.

Leonard DiCaprio, The Revenant: One of these days DiCaprio is going to win an Oscar. This would be his fifth nomination, and if Depp doesn’t get it he just might. The role is a physical one, of a wounded mountain man tracking down his betrayers. Unless the movie is an absolute bomb, he should be in.

Michael Fassbender, Steve Jobs: Fassbender is an intriguing actor, and when the material is right, he can be magnificent. So whether he gets nominated as the founder of Apple depends highly on the reception of the film. It certainly has all the earmarks, as the Academy loves guys who play geniuses.

Eddie Redmayne, The Danish Girl: Last year’s winner should be back this year for playing what is thought to be the first man to undergo gender change surgery. This role is grooved for so many Oscar cliches that unless voters figure that he’s already won, he’s in.

A second tier of possibilities: Tom Hardy, Legend; Tom Hiddleston, I Saw the Light; Idris Elba, Beasts of No Nation; Michael Caine, Youth; Matt Damon, The Martian.

Opening in Las Vegas, September 18, 2015


After the dog days of summer and all those superhero films, it’s finally Oscar season, and the prestige films have begun rolling out. There are two prime candidates for Oscar statuettes in this week’s openings.

First there’s Black Mass (68), starring Johnny Depp as Boston gangster Whitey Bulger. The film is not getting the kind of reviews that could propel it to a Best Picture nod, but right now Depp is the frontrunner for Best Actor. The script has kicked around Hollywood for several years, and finally landed with Scott Cooper, who I wouldn’t exactly call A-list. Jessica Kiang: “There is nothing underneath the glossy surface and no real insight into what made this man tick — and despite how creepy he looks here, Bulger was a man, not a devil.”

A possible favorite for Best Actress is Lily Tomlin in Grandma (78), where she plays a woman helping her granddaughter get an abortion. The film is very low profile but this could be a career-type honor for Tomlin. Ty Burr: “It’s predictable in many places and acerbic in others, sentimental when you expect it and poignant when you don’t. But it stars Lily Tomlin, and that’s all you really need to know.”

Everest (63) seems like it could be a decent film, especially on the big screen, as it details a disaster on the tallest mountain in the world. It’s kind of a four-quadrant film, appealing to men and women and young and old; we’ll see how it does. Kenneth Turan: “Though there is heroism as well as love here, because it involves the deaths of people we have come to care about, Everest is finally a sad story, though not always a dramatically involving one.”

There is also multiplex fodder this week, such as Captive (40), a thriller that has a built-in advertisement for a book by Rick Warren. I pass. Barbara VanDenburgh: “Oyelowo and Mara try to bring humanity and tension to the testimonial thriller of two lost souls finding their way together, but they only succeed in bursts, hampered by marketing copy masquerading as dialogue.”

FInally, there’s another of a series of YA dystopian novels, with one of those complicated titles: Maze Runner: The Scorch Trials (43). I didn’t see the first one, so I can comfortably pass on this one. Frankly, I don’t remember the first one doing so great that a sequel was bankable. John Willams: “The Scorch Trials adds nothing new to the unkillable dystopian genre, but it’s at least less ponderous than its predecessor. The many chases and ludicrous narrow escapes offer respectable doses of adrenaline.”

Review: Days of Wine and Roses (1962)



The trailer for the 1962 film ‘Days of Wine and Roses’ (link) has an unusual event halfway through as instead of the usual selection of scenes, it switches to star Jack Lemmon as himself says this was a role he wanted to play more than any other he’d played previously.

Considering he’d already had great roles in memorable films such as Mister Roberts, Some Like It Hot and The Apartment, it seems a surprising claim to make. But it’s only when you see the film and Lemmon’s performance you understand why Lemmon says this.

In DOWAR, Lemmon plays Joe Clay a PR man who largely hates his career and seems full of self-loathing, which only seems to be contained by his constant alcoholic drinking. One day during his work he meets Kirsten Arnesen (Lee Remick) and after a rocky beginning they fall in love and get married.  But Joe’s drinking and Kirsten’s non-drinking causes tension on their marriage which – instead of Joe becoming sober – sees Kirsten decide to drink with him… a decision that leads to disastrous long-term consequences.

Films about alcoholism haven’t been uncommon in cinema over the years but it’s doubtful that few of them have been as uncompromising  emotionally as DOWAR. When released in 1962, the level of its intensity would’ve been like a bolt of electricity to an American cinema

That DOWAR came from a TV play isn’t surprising as live US television dramatic productions was a significant provider of authentic realism (starting with 1955’s Marty) from the mid-1950s to early 1960s to an American cinema that was dominated by big budgets, safe subjects and conventional filmmaking.

There are several reasons for the film’s success and prime amongst them are the performances of Lemmon  and Remick. This film was a significant moment in Lemmon’s career as while he’d already produced a lot of great work, it was generally of the lighter, comedic variety and he always carried with him a level of charm and likability that made even flawed characters he played in ‘The Apartment’ appealing.

But Joe Clay is a different story. Here Lemmon’s charm has turned rotten and seedy so that Joe is always vaguely pathetic and self-loathing (although never unsympathetic) as his attempts to be likable seem rather desperate and needy. It was the first film that showed what Lemmon was capable of in straight dramatic roles and what he’d be capable of on occasion for the rest of his career. When he spoke in the trailer, Lemmon could clearly sense this.

Equally is good is Remick and she has arguably the more difficult role as she has to make Kirsten transition through various phases. In the early scenes she seems haughty and stuck-up, then becomes loving and considerate and then begins a path of self-destruction that is even more severe than Joe’s. It’s a highly challenging role and Remick (an underrated and underappreciated actress) handles it with aplomb.

Also deserving of credit are the writer JP Miller (who also wrote the 1958 original teleplay this is based on) and director Blake Edwards. In the context of Edwards’ long film career, DOWAR is certainly appears to be an atypical film as his career was littered with bold, brash, comedies. But he quite often displayed an adeptness for dramatic interplay between characters in films such as ‘10’ and he showcases throughout DOWAR.

As intense and emotional DOWAR is the film at times, it isn’t especially sensationalist or melodramatic.  Edwards has the confidence in Miller’s script to let scenes develop at their own pace and rhythm (and indeed the entire narrative itself) so that the climax has maximum impact. Take for example Joe’s breakdown into total hysteria in the greenhouse; the scene is actually quite a protracted one as at first it seems Joe is being his usual immature and reckless self. But gradually as see Joe’s increasingly desperate search for the hidden bottle of liquor the true horror of the situation is revealed before us and we see how much of an alcoholic wreck Joe is.

Edwards also is excellent at framing scenes so that what could easily have been conventional  two-character conversation scenes compelling and insightful. With the help of Phil Lathrop’s stylish cinematography, the film truly transcends the TV play it was based on and feels cinematic. Watching this, it’s regretful that Edwards didn’t direct more dramatic and suspense films during his career.

The film is largely flawless… but not quite. The final third of DOWAR is a shade weaker as once Joe going to Alcoholics Anonymous occurs, it goes from being an insightful socio-economic look at why Joe and Kirsten fall into the abyss, it becomes a rather abstract take that alcohol is the only factor in their downfall and not to bother looking into the reasons why people turn to alcohol. Not only does this weaken the film but it leads to some rather trite dialogue like, “You remember how it really was? You and me and booze – a threesome. You and I were a couple of drunks on the sea of booze, and the boat sank.”

As well, the title song with its syrupy lyrics seems jarring and out of place with the realism and intensity of the rest of the film. Naturally, that song was the only part of the film to win an Oscar.

Neverthless, despite these issues DOWAR is a significant triumph for Lemmon, Remick, Edwards and Miller and even over 50 years since its release has quite an impact. For once, a trailer was a viable guide to the film.

Opening in Las Vegas, September 11, 2015


I was thinking this was the worst week for openings since this blog has been in existence, but the M. Night Shamalyan movie is actually getting decent reviews.

That film is The Visit (56), which finds Shamalyan scaling back for a simple horror story that recalls fairy tales. I’m surprised Shamalyan can even get films made after The Happening and The Last Airbender, but so be it. Roger Moore: “A faintly-creepy, lightly amusing horror comedy that promises a surprise twist and a hint of heart.”

The Perfect Guy, (39) judging by the reviews, shows once again that films marketed toward African Americans are too often duds. At least there’s someone out there other than Tyler Perry making these things, and this one is a thriller, not another romantic dramedy. BIlge Ebiri: “The kind of movie you keep wishing would just cut loose and go off the deep end. Nobody goes to these “Fatal Attraction” retreads anymore for serious drama. But this one is a movie torn — too grim and self-important to go truly nuts, but too silly and slipshod to work on a more somber level.”

Ben Kingsley and Patricia Clarkson star in Learning to Drive (59), about a white woman who, after being dumped, takes driving lessons from an Indian man. I’m sure cultures are bridged as they learn fundamental truths, blah blah. Tasha Robinson: “Learning To Drive has harmless sweetness, many revealing speeches about life, and a Kingsley performance that shades strongly into a “Robin Williams as a straight-faced foreigner” routine.”

Like films for African Americans, films for Christians always get panned. The latest is 90 Minutes in Heaven, (24) with Kate Bosworth and Hayden Christiansen. Gary Goldstein: “Although this well-meaning film may appeal to its intended audience on a spiritual level, the result is a sluggish, clinical, largely dreary portrait that tends to mistake trauma for drama.”

Review: Mistress America


I’ve found Noah Baumbach to be a hit-and-miss director, but his two team-ups with Greta Gerwig, Frances Ha! and now Mistress America are his best two films. Let’s hope they don’t break up.

Again this film casts Gerwig as a free spirit on the loose in New York City. In fact, the Big Apple is just as much a character as anyone else in Mistress America, from the Morningside Heights of Columbia to Times Square, where Gerwig’s Brooke lives. “I never knew anyone who lived in Times Square!” her new friend says. When I think about it, I haven’t either, but Gerwig says she got off the bus from New Jersey and found her home.

Her opposite in this film is Lola Kirke as a lonely freshman at Barnard. She’s the smart, pretty girl I would have gone over the moon for, but she’s clinging to a melancholy, unable to fit in. She wants to join a snobbish literary society–“They serve wine and cheese and carry briefcases,” she marvels, and befriends a boy who also wants to join.

Her mother is remarrying, and the man has a daughter who lives in New York. Kirke is advised to call her, and she finally does. Brooke is about 30, a whirling dervish of activity, who treats Kirke to the night of her life, ending with a sleepover in Gerwig’s commercial loft. They immediately bond as sisters, and Gerwig shares with her her dream–to open a restaurant called “Mom’s.”

As with Frances Ha!, American Mistress is very much a movie about the relationship between two women, even more so here. There are slight echoes of romance–Gerwig’s boyfriend is in Greece, “betting against the country,” but the film is more about their friendship. This film sends the Bechdel Test up in flames, as almost the entire film is these two talking, mostly about subjects other than men.

The climax of the film takes place in the large Greenwich, Connecticut home of Gerwig’s nemesis, the woman who stole her t-shirt idea, her fiance, and her cats. But she needs money for her restaurant, so a motley crew heads into the enclave of the one percent and a mini-screwball comedy takes place, with Gerwig pitching her ex, who is interested. “I’m not just an asshole bankrolling your fitness plan,” he barks at his wife, Gerwig’s nemesis.

Things take a sour turn when Gerwig finds out that her father will not be marrying Kirke’s mother, and then even worse when the extremely jealous girlfriend of Kirke’s male friend reveals to Gerwig that her new “sister” has written a short story about her, warts and all.

The character of Brooke can be added to the pantheon of great New York characters, like Holly Golightly and Annie Hall. She is effervescent, her face shining like a moon, her enthusiasm unbridled and infectious. Certainly it must be Gerwig’s contribution the script that has a young woman not chasing after a man but a business, which in itself is a reflection of a dream.

The script also sparkles with many laugh out loud lines. Here are just a few:

“It’s funny how a guy who studies rocks can be so into Jesus.”

“In L.A. I qualify as well-read.”

“I heard that television was the new novel.”

If you love New York, or just love smartly-written, well-acted films, go see Mistress America.

AGEBOC – Where do we go from here?


Congratulations to perennial winner Jackrabbit Slim!

Participation & excitement waned throughout this season, so I’d like to open up a dialogue below to find out what can (or should) be done to remedy this going forward. Thanks to everyone who played!

To find out the rules of the game, go to the main thread for AGEBOC 09.

Final Rankings:

Jackrabbit Slim – 52.5

James – 44.5
Rob – 40
Joe – 25
Marco – 21.5
Juan – 16.5
Nick – 6.5

Book Review: Citizen Welles


This year is the centenary of Orson Welles, born in 1915 in Kenosha, Wisconsin. To honor this I looked for a good biography of the man, who lived a life that almost seems too incredible to be true. I found the right one with Frank Brady’s Citizen Welles, originally published in 1989. It covers the life of Welles from soup to nuts, from his early years as a child prodigy, to his astounding successes as a young man in the theater and then radio, to his making the greatest movie ever to come out of Hollywood, and then the pathos of his later life, when the man was lauded as a genius but no one would give him money to make films.

“Orson Welles had a remarkably complex life, filled with contrasts and extremes, and just getting down the bare facts of his various adventures and many careers over a half-century of relentless activity spanning several continents,” writes Brady, and he’s not kidding. It’s interesting to note that Welles only directed 12 films, but almost all of them were classics (some identified as so only years later) but also directed many plays; wrote, directed, and acted in countless radio scripts, as well as acting in many films directed by others. To those in a later generation, he may have been best well-known as a wine pitchman.

Welles seems not to have been born so much as emerged fully-formed from the forehead of Zeus. At a very young age he was putting on puppet shows, which led to a fascination with the theater. He attended a boarding school and and learned to love acting. He was orphaned as a teenager (his father was an inventor, who many say was the model for Joseph Cotten’s character in The Magnificent Ambersons) and went to Ireland, where he managed to get work with in a Dublin theater company. Then he went to London and had some success there before returning to New York.

Welles’ life on Broadway in the ’30s is enough for a book in itself, and in fact has been made into two films. He and John Houseman partnered for the WPA to mount several landmark productions, including the “Voodoo” Macbeth, the modern-dress Julius Caesar, and Marc Blitzteins’ opera, The Cradle Will Rock. Brady’s chapter on the latter reads like a thriller, as the theater where the show was to take place was closed by the government. Houseman and Welles found a different theater, and lead a march down the New York streets. In order not to violate union rules, the performers sang from the seats, not the stage, with Blitzstein playing on stage. After reading it I felt like I’d been there.

The most lucrative career Welles had was for the radio. He was an immensely popular radio star, trading quips with Charlie McCarthy and producing, writing, and directing adaptations of classic works. The most famous, or infamous, was his 1938 Halloween broadcast of H.G. Wells’ The War of the Worlds, which created a panic among the citizenry. For many years I lived a short walk away from Grovers Mill, the purported landing of the Martians, and there’s a water tower still there that someone took a shot at, thinking it was a Martian spacecraft.

All along there was a mutual interest between Hollywood and Welles to make films, but it wasn’t until William Schaefer and RKO came along that Welles made a three-picture deal. He struggled to find the right property to be his first film. He had always wanted to make Cyrano de Bergerac, for example. He finally hit on the story that was first called American, about a man who becomes successful but loses his innocence. In what would prove to be unusual, it was based on an original screenplay (all of Welles’ films after that would be based on published works), co-written by Herman Manckiewicz (there would be, and perhaps still is some controversy about how much Welles actually contributed to the script). But what would cripple the film’s success, and Welles’ career, was how much Citizen Kane would end up being similar to the life of William Randolph Hearst.

Brady devotes two long and thrilling chapters to Kane, and it struck me that if Welles had started his career with anything else, perhaps the non-offensive Cyrano, how things might have been different. Hearst was not an easy man to anger. He controlled many of the newspapers in the country, and not one of them would issue take any advertisements or do any press on Kane, except for vitriolic columnist Hedda Hopper, who strafed the film. Although filmmakers who saw the film realized it was the most amazing thing they had ever seen, and would rewrite the way films were made, it was not a big success with the public. It’s interesting to note though that it did receive several Oscar nominations (four for Welles); he won only for screenwriting.

The Magnificent Ambersons followed, and what followed would be repeated several times throughout his career–the picture was taken away from him in the editing room. The released film is still great, but Welles was done as a golden boy. A documentary he was making in South America, It’s All True, had the plug pulled on it after Schaefer was removed at RKO, and Welles, for the rest of his life, would struggle to find financial backing for his films.

Instead he worked for hire, trying to raise money by acting to make his own films. The most famous of these roles was as Harry Lime in Carol Reed’s The Third Man, one of the most famous cameos in film history. I find it interesting that Brady glosses over the controversy of whether Welles wrote the “Cuckoo clock” speech–Brady says he did, and that nobody disputes it. Welles says he got it from a German play. What I didn’t know is that for years Welles had a hit radio show in England playing the character of Harry Lime.

Welles managed to somehow make films–The Stranger, The Lady from Shanghai, Macbeth, and a long gestating film of Othello, that was finally released in 1950 and won the Palm D’or at Cannes. In the ’50s he made a film I’d frankly never heard of–Mr. Arkadin, which was again taken away from him and there exist a multitude of versions. I have a copy right now ready to watched from Netflix. He also scored a great triumph with Touch of Evil, which he was able to direct because of the influence of Charlton Heston (despite his gun fetish, Heston did do some noble things). The film was indifferently released, being on the bottom half of a double feature, but again, over the years, people have understood its greatness, both in his direction and his performance as a corrupt sheriff.

There are several films that Welles tried to make but never came to fruition, including Don Quixote (which also proved to be a Waterloo for Terry Gilliam), a picture called The Big Brass Ring, which was never made because he couldn’t get a big star to play a homosexual character, and something called The Other Side of the Wind. He earned a living appearing on television talk shows and in commercials, known primarily for being fat, a somewhat sad existence for someone with so much talent. To the very end he was trying to raise money for film projects, notably King Lear.

Brady is clearly a fan, but the book is not a hagiography. I did find it interesting that while discussing Welles’ three marriages and his affair with Delores Del Rio, there is nothing to the rumors about bisexuality. What comes across most is Welles’ huge appetite, not only for food but in all the good things in life. His genius is also apparent. When he adapted Shakespeare, he often rewrote him, and incorporated lines from other plays (Julius Caesar contained lines from Coriolanus). One of his projects was called The Five Kings, which took several of Shakespeare’s histories and boiled them down into one, very long evening. The play was not a success, and closed early. He also directed a stage musical version of Around the World in 80 Days, which included elephants on stage.

Welles was also a charming man, a great storyteller. He had a regular table at Ma Maison where he would have lunches with people he hoped would give him money. A very interesting one of these occasions was when he lunched with Amy Irving, hoping she would appear in a film he was trying to make. She was at the time married to Steven Spielberg, who was riding high after E.T., and joined Irving at the lunch. Spielberg was such a Welles fan that he bought one of the sleds used as Rosebud in Citizen Kane, but Welles said it was a fake. Spielberg probably was aware that Welles might cast Irving to get him to invest, and Spielberg didn’t give Welles a penny. Welles even had to pick up the check.

The life of Orson Welles comes across as one of the great “might have been” stories of all time, even with him making the film acknowledged by most as the greatest of all time. He was a man whose success was front-loaded in life–Citizen Kane is at the halfway point of Brady’s book, even though Welles was only 25 when he made it and would live another 45 years. Not to dump on Spielberg, but I wish he would have said, “How much do you need and you have full creative control.” Brady notes the irony of Welles receiving very high honors, especially only the third AFI Life Achievement Award (following John Ford and James Cagney). He was surrounded by dozens of Hollywood greats, singing his praises, but he couldn’t get a film financed.

Opening in Las Vegas, September 4, 2015


So is this the last weekend of summer or the first of the fall season. Judging by the releases this week, it’s neither–kind of a filler weekend, with movies nobody is likely to see in droves. Could a film making less than 10 million win the week?

I have never seen a Transporter film, and I’m not likely to start with Transporter Refueled (31), which should end the series. Jason Statham is a limited actor, but at least he brings a presence to his roles. I can’t say the same for Ed Skrein, who sounds like a cross between Ed Grimley and Ed Gein. Kenji Fujishima: “The titular Transporter is now but a blank slate serving the characters and mayhem surrounding him, a walking metaphor for a franchise that’s run out of gas.”

Robert Redford keeps working, and he’s back in A Walk in the Woods (51), based on Bill Bryson’s book about walking the Appalachian Trail. I think Redford’s fans don’t go out to movie theaters any more, but the trailer looked somewhat amusing, so I’ll probably catch in on DVD. Steve Persall: “A Walk in the Woods is a trifle compared to 2014’s Wild, which tracked a similar real-life journey toward self-discovery in richer detail. But darned if Redford’s easy charm and Nolte’s gravelly lack of it aren’t enticing throughout.”

If I go to the movies this weekend (I’m moving, so I may not have the energy) it will be to see Mistress America (75), Noah Baumbach’s second film this year and another teamed up with Greta Gerwig creating a kooky character (after Frances Ha!). I loved Frances, and though this seems like going to the well too often, I think Gerwig is interesting with almost everything she does. Calvin Wilson: “Mistress America doesn’t quite achieve the magic of “Frances Ha.” But it’s a fresh take on the comic possibilities of friendship among the young.”

Review: The Diary of a Teenage Girl


“I just had sex. Holy shit!” is the first words we hear in The Diary of a Teenage Girl, an amazingly frank movie about teen sexuality that, though a very good film, made even a perv like me feel uncomfortable.

Written and directed by Marielle Heller and based on a graphic novel, The Diary of a Teenage Girl is another film about younger women and older men, but this time from the female perspective. It is set in 1976, in San Francisco (as if the bell bottoms and platform shoes don’t give it away) but even though that was a very lax era, there is still an abiding creepiness about the whole thing.

Bel Powley is our teen, Minnie, who is fifteen and lives with her mother and sister. She is not exactly a beauty, bearing the facial characteristics of a troll doll (that sounds harsh, but she’s kind of cute) and is an artist, idolizing Aline Kaminsky. Her mother’s boyfriend, Alexander Skarsgard, a kind of dopey but handsome guy with a quintessential porn mustache who mostly sleeps on the couch, falls into a sexual relationship with Powley, completely with her consent. Based on the sex scenes, their sex is hotter than a Penthouse Forum letter.

Powley feels like she is an adult, and begins to get clingy with Skarsgard, even saying to him, “We have to talk about our relationship.” Meanwhile, she’s become fairly promiscuous, taking the virginity of a cute boy, sucking cocks in a bar bathroom with her friend, and experimenting with a girl. “The making of a harlot,” she announces on the voiceover.

Of course her mother, played boozily by Kristen Wiig, eventually finds out, and Powley’s world comes crashing down. Since it’s 1976, Wiig suggests Skarsgard marry Powley, but that goes nowhere. By the end of the film there’s that palpable sense that lessons have been learned and forgiveness is at hand.

This film is very sexual, and anyone with a teenage daughter should not see it, lest they break out in hives. There is a lot of nudity (Powley is well over 18, so there’s no laws being broken), such as a scene I imagine most girls go through–looking at their naked body in a mirror. But for the rest of us, this is a strong film, full of great performances and a kind of “fuck-it” demeanor. This is probably the most graphic and honest film about teenage sexuality ever made in America. You used to have to go see French films for this.

It’s not perfect–scenes with Christopher Meloni as Wiig’s ex fall flat. I liked that the soundtrack had period music but not the obvious choices–I was a fully sentient being in 1976 and I didn’t recognize any of the songs but they felt right.

I should add that Skarsgard somehow ended up with this role instead of Peter Sarsgaard, who usually plays creepy older men screwing younger women. But their last names are almost exactly alike, so perhaps the producers called Skarsgard when they meant to call Sarsgaard.