First Man Never Takes Off

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A movie which should lift the spirits, providing a rip-roaring adventure, man overcoming seeming impossible odds to achieve one of history’s most significant achievements, stays earthbound. The film focuses on Neil Armstrong but never gets us to really care about him or the events that shaped in into the First Man. Too bad, because in the context of other heroic real-life space adventures such as Apollo 13, The Right Stuff, one would think this would be prime source material, a film that would take its rightful place among the others. Oh Well, The IMAX experience is vastly over-hyped there is perhaps 5 minutes of 70mm footage of the moon walk at in the last quarter (beware that many “IMAX”-labeled theaters don’t show the film in its true aspect ratio). Running time is nearly two and half hours and you will feel every minute of it. Sound mix is awfully loud yes we get what it must have been like for the astronauts during take off. You’ll be exhausted at the end of this mission.

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The Jungle Book (2016)


One of the best films of 2016 is Jon Favreau’s remake of Disney’s Jungle Book cartoon. The CGI is astonishing; not since Babe and Avatar will you be able to suspend disbelief, totally embracing the computer-generated jungle. I feared that this reboot would be a politically-correct, phony-baloney eco-scare “message” movie. Nothing can be further from the truth. True, the story has been updated to modern sensibilities and the jungle and its inhabitants are presented as awesome creations to be admired and feared rather than mere resources to be conquered and exploited. Bill Murray is amazing as Baloo the bear. Scarlett Johannesen is perfectly cast as the voice of the snake, and Christopher Walken has never looked and sounded so good as he does in CGI-form since The King of New York. The actor playing the man-cub Mowgli, Neel Sethi, is nowhere near as good as the rest of the cast, but is charming and athletic enough and is a talent to be watched. Run, swing, or climb, but see it!

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The Theory of Everything


The Theory of Everything ****. What a wonderful movie! Don’t get put off by the physics, which is handled at a very high level (you may want to Google “relativity vs. quantum physics”, “black holes”, or “Hawking Radiation”, before you see the film, but only to deepen your enjoyment). The film provides a fairly balanced portrait of this brilliant man who defied doctors’ prediction that Hawking had “at most 2 years to live” and went on to become one of the legendary contributors to cosmology theory. Eddie Redmayne’s acting is astonishing; he manages to capture the unfortunate physical deformities and suffering of ALS patients while at the same time letting Hawking’s brilliant mind and humor show through. Felicity Jones is up to the task of portraying Hawking’s wife and lover, Jane Wilde. While, I am reluctant to spoil the ending for you, I must say their relationship took an unfortunate yet unsurprising turn that left me feel a bit uncomfortable and sad. However, so does life’s turn of events and the movie is based on Jane’s book. Highly recommended!

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Leonard Nimoy: I Am (Not) Spock


I had a chance, in 1978 to see Leonard Nimoy perform as Dr. Martin Dysart, the psychiatrist in the play Equus. As a NYU grad student, I was eligible for special seating for students at a reduced rate and a special location, i.e. bleacher-type seats right on the stage. This was a great perspective to watch Nimoy perform. He did a wonderful job but you could sense how he struggled to ensure his character did not come across as a variation of Mr. Spock. This might be difficult to appreciate now, but in the late 70’s Star Trek conventions were all the rage and the series was going through a bit of a revival. Even now, Mr. Nimoy seems to be remembered solely for his Spock characterization. However, like Riggan (Birdman), over the last few years Leonard Nimoy seems to have accepted his place in history as having created one the greatest SciFi characters of all time. Live long and prosper, you shall Mr. Nimoy!

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“Boyhood” ****
Around the age 50 or we look back and realize life did not quite turn out the way we expected. At 8, it was just a big playground filled with friends, bullies, teachers, parents, siblings, pets, and endless summers. Around 20, the horizon was limitless and there was nothing that couldn’t be achieved. By 30, we realize that our choices, both good and bad, have constrained us and by 40, we have to pretty much live within those constraints; our happiness now depends upon us coming to grip with our lives. By 50 we’ve reached a point that we’ve dreaded; we’re old and our life as we know it is going to come to its inevitable end. So how will we deal? Do live our lives by “seizing the moment” or, as one character puts it, “letting the moments seize us”? Richard Linklater’s Boyhood is an incredible feat of filming, following a family over the course of 12 years, as we watch them inevitably grow older. Boyhood is not so much a linear story but a collection of mundane life experiences, i.e. marriage, divorce, visiting grandma and grandma, school bullies, graduations, etc. No explosions, no special effects. As such it may very well resemble your life, drawing you to self-reflection like no other film in recent memory has done.

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Model Shop and Don Draper’s Dilemma


Early in Episode 3, Season 7 of Mad Men, Don Draper sits in a nearly deserted Manhattan cinema smoking and watching Model Shop (perhaps it’s the Loew’s Orpheum, 86th Street, near 3rd Avenue,  where it played when it opened in February, 1969 and near Don’s apartment).  On screen we watch with Don as Gary Lockwood drives his little red MG in pursuit of Anouk Aimee (who wouldn’t?).  The clip is all a couple of minutes, if that, yet Mad Men writer/producer/director Matt Weiner wouldn’t include any situation that doesn’t somehow explicate a character trait or inform a plot vector.  So there must be a reason for referencing Model Shop, and it’s my job to discover what it might be.

Model Shop was filmed in 1968, in L.A., California and released in 1969, and the current season of Mad Men takes place in and around February 1969 and in both L.A. and NYC, a proper alignment showing once again that Mad Men’s producers are sweating the small stuff.  The film was directed by Jacques Levy, one of the biggies of the French New Wave, and best know for Lola, also starring Ms. Aimee, and The Umbrellas of Cherbourg.  One of the features of New Wave is their self-contained story-telling along with their subversion of traditional genres.  If you are not familiar with French New Wave Cinema, poor you, and poor Martin Scorsese, Francis Ford Coppola, Quentin Tarantino, Woody Allen, Joel and Ethan Coen, and all the rest whose films are the descendants of Levy, Truffaut, and Godard!

In one of his first reviews after joining the New York Times in 1969, the influential critic Vincent Canby, wrote that Model Shop “is really quite a bad movie, but also a sometimes interesting one. You aren’t likely to forget—immediately anyway—a movie in which someone speaks of the “Baroque geometry” of Los Angeles. I know that I won’t.”  If that sounds a bit contradictory it’s because Model Shop is really not a bad movie.  It captures the cultural quandary of the late 60’s: should we pursue our dreams right away  “pay our dues”, perhaps accepting something less until the time is right?  You see, society was changing in a big way in the ’60s with the older “establishment” generation not giving up the reigns and seats of power they built during the post World War II era of American prosperity.  Now it’s 1969 and the world, both inside and outside of America, seems more chaotic than ever before.  The current generation, brought up not knowing want and largely privileged is fraying: there are hippies, yippies, establishments types, revolutionary wanna-bees, etc.  The Vietnam War and the draft beckon.  Life seems so unpredictable and short, so why sell out?

The protagonist, George, is an idealist.  He studied architecture in college and searches for the opportunity to create and surround himself with beauty in a world filled with destruction.  Unfortunately, he lacks the maturity to harness his idealism into a workable plan.  At the same time, his friends manage to find a way to work toward their dreams; one becomes part of a successful rock ‘n’ roll band (the real life LA band Spirit), while the others work at the local progressive newspaper.   We learn as the film opens that George has quit his junior architect’s job because he “doesn’t want to spend his days designing gas stations”.  Without any money for the rent and the payments on his shiny red MG sports car, he resorts to sponging off his beautiful blonde girlfriend and his employed friends.

As we follow George making the chow-rounds to raise $100 for the back payments on the car loan, Demy treats us to some very striking sights and sounds of 60’s Los Angeles.  The urban sprawl and decadence is already underway yet from atop the surrounding hills, the lights of LA twinkle and beckon like piccolos evoking that “baroque geometry” George described.  Demy captures both the sprawl and the splendor of LA in the soundtrack by juxtaposing classical and contemporary music, and in the cinematography by lushly saturating the colors.  George lives in a small bungalow near the coast, literally next to an oil-pump and close to LA International where planes seem to takeoff and land every ten minutes.  Levy does not suppress the grittiness of the pumps nor the jet noise and the cacophony is used to add tension to the scenes between George and his girlfriend.

George ultimately succeeds in wringing $100 from his successful musician buddy who even tells George he won’t have to pay it back.  But along the chow-train, he meets Lola (Anouk Aimee) a stunning, older French woman to whom he is immediately attracted.  Lola’s statuesque and angular beauty mirrors the classical architectural structures he hopes one day to create.  Following her, he is led to the eponymous Model Shop which is not quite a peep-show and not quite a “massage” parlor.  Customers pay to photograph models in various stages of undress and poses.  George promptly blows a quarter of his money on a couple of sessions with Lola and the two strike up a tentative, initially uncomfortable relationship (apparently, this Lola is subtly connected to the same character from Demy’s earlier film Lola but I’ll save that for another article).  George learns that Lola is just a stage name and that she working at the model shop so that she can earn enough money to return to Paris to be with her 14-year old son from a previous marriage.  As one can imagine, the two characters embody the conflict of deferred gratification.

Interestingly, George’s idealism blinds him to Lola’s compromise; he cannot comprehend how she could work in what he considers to be such a demeaning job.  As a result, he offers what remaining money he has to fund the gap between the price of a ticket to Paris and Lola’s savings, knowing that there is a real risk she will accept and that he will lose her.  In George’s mind, the offer is an act of true love which Lola will recognize and reward by choosing to stay with him.  Of course that is a fantasy.  The very next morning, George finds that Lola has already left for Paris, his car is being repossessed, and his girlfriend, fed-up with his lack of ambition and disillusioned by his unfaithfulness, has left him.  Oh, by the way, did I forget to tell you that he needed the MG to drive to San Francisco and report to the Selective Service office as he’s been called up by the the draft?  When it rains it pours!

By the roll of the end credits, I can’t help but think of Don Draper watching and thinking, “Is this the future that awaits me?”  George, living in denial of what it means to be true to ones ideals, refuses productive work, lives for the moment, and is insensitive to the people who love and respect him.  In the end George loses it all.  Don has several choices in front of him, any one of which will set the direction of the rest of his life.  And that my friends is why Matt Weiner included Model Shop.

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The Great Gatsby (2013)



Hello Old Sport,

I saw Baz Luhrmann new version of The Great Gatsby last night (finally). It was both exhilarating and disappointing, apparently due to Luhrmann’s desire to infuse the film with his sense of “hyper-realism”, (overly saturated colors, frenetically paced editing) weird film score which anachronistically jumbles hip-hop and jazz diminishing the power of both, over-reliance on digital special effects which were all too apparent, and a screenplay which finds it necessary to spell out for the audience the exact nature of just how Gatsby fell bass-ackward into all that money. Having said that, there is much to like about the film. Most of the casting is spot-on, leagues ahead of the disasterous Redford/Farrow film of 1974. One could not ask for a better Jay Gatsby than Leonardo DiCaprio who perfectly captures the slightly off-center charisma of the character, projecting confidence and authenticity while somehow leaving the impressions that something’s not quite adding up. Carrie Mulligan captures the radiant beauty of Daisy Buchanan, convincingly, and the audience readily succumbs to the infatuation that motivates Gatsby’s every move. The Tom Buchanan of Joel Edgerton is convincingly brutish and seductive; a perfect “bad boy”. Jordan Baker is portrayed with suitable vacuousness by Elizabeth Debicki. A special mention should go to Amitabh Bachchan as Meyer Wolfshein, a shady character with an unsettling quality of bringing a dark chaos to his one-on-ones with Gatsby and Nick. Which brings me to the one misfire: the casting of Nick Carraway. Tobe McGuire is easily outgunned in this film often shooting blanks when live acting-ammo is needed. The result is a washed-out, pitiful Nick instead of the young idealist against which the corruption of the principal characters stands in contrast.

Regarding the score, it seemed that Luhrmann mixed the music for two purposes: (1) commercial, to attract millennials to the movie, and (2) artistic, to show the universality of movie’s themes. The former succeeded but not so much the latter. One can think of Woody Allen using iconic Gershwin and jazz standards in many of his films to unhook his films from the contemporary setting they are often placed in. In a Woody Allen film this works since his scores are classical and iconic.  Unfortunately, this cannot be said of the music used in the Gatsby film, and the artistic motive, if it even existed, is not realized.

In summary, Baz Luhrmann hasn’t made the definitive The Great Gatsby, but ups the ante considerably, mostly capturing the combustiable mixture of decadence, passion, and ambition that fueled F. Scott Fitzgerald’s imagination. Oh well, perhaps in another 40 years. But until then, we’ll beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.

Best regards,

t.j. eckleburg

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Oscar Night 2014

It was a tough decision, Walking Dead or Oscars.  I choose “The Walking Dead” over Oscar. I think it was turned out to be a fair trade; last night’s episode hand the sense of marking time although it delved a bit more deeply into the characters of Darryl and Beth (Hershel’s other daughter).  It was a bit boring.  However, having a few zombies to knock around is not as boring as watching two actors read lines from a teleprompter as they present “Best Achievement in Makeup and Hairstyling”.  Returning to the Oscars at 10pm revealed that save for best actor / best actress in a supporting role, no major awards had been handed out. So what were they doing for an hour over there? Clearly not killing off a few walkers!
Ellen Degeneres pulled off a few good lines as she made fun of the academy members in a way that I thought was far more biting than McFarlane’s sophomoric  “Show me your boobs” bit.  Many of her jokes went over their heads and I think it will take the Academy Members a few days to realize what fools she made of them!  It has been said that 2013 was a poor year for films; I think there were fewer really good risky independents than previous years, ( “The Artist”, “The Untouchable” come to mind).  Just look at the year in review: “American Hustle”, “Gravity”, “The Butler,” “Captain Philips”, “Saving Mr. Banks”, “Her”, “Blue Jasmine”, “The Gatekeepers”, “The Grand Master”, “Fruitvale Station”, “All is Lost”, + all the other Oscar nominees not already mentioned!  If we have the feeling that it was not a strong year, than it is likely because they’re were so many bad, boring, franchised and sensationalized  films which, competing for projector time, shunted many finer films to “Arts” cinema and/or to Video On Demand.  In addition there were a few eagerly awaited films from normally exciting directors that ultimately disappointed, big-time: “Inside Llewyn Davis” from the Coens, and Almodovar’s “I’m So Excited” come to mind. In short, I have no problem with 2013, cinema-wise.
I think the Academy played it very safe this year, and I have no objection to the winners.  Hardly anybody saw “12 Years As Slave”, yet Ellen cleverly reminded the Academy of what the consequences of a snub would be.  “Gravity” clearly earned every award it received; it was truly ground breaking in the sense that it told more of a story with two actors than all of the other nominees put together.  From a technical standpoint, it was the first essentially 3-D film; it cannot be seen and fully appreciated any other way.  This can be said of no other film, including Scorsese’s flawed attempt with “Hugo”.  I do think that “American Hustle” was gypped.  It was probably the most entertaining example of fast-paced, old-school style of film-making in the bunch and thus suffered accordingly. Same for “Captain Phillips”, a rip-roaring action tale probably not ironic enough and too vaguely patriotic for modern Academy sensibilities, especially given the controversy surrounding “Argo”.  
The Oscars did stir my interest in seeing many of the winning films I had already not, all of whom seemed to deserve the honor: “12 Years a Slave”, “Dallas Buyer’s Club”, and “Philomena”, for example; on the other hand, “Nebraska”, even with Bruce Dern, did not seem especially appealing.
So with 2013’s films fast receding in the rear-view, I’m looking forward to catching up on what I’ve missed and reviewing  some terrific films in 2014; until then, the balcony is closed
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Do the “American Hustle”

Nifty film captures the feel of America in the mid to late ’70’s. A fictional story set in the midst of a notorious government investigation known as Abscam, the movie raises the same questions we are asking about our government today: at what point does the investigative end justify its means? Directed with wit and style reminiscent of the early Scorsese films, the characters seem to pop off the film as they move from one increasingly outrageous scam to the next, seducing the audience along the way.

Director David O. Russell has assembled what may be the start of his cinema entourage: Bradley Cooper and Jennifer Lawrence from “Silver Linings Playbook”, Christian Bale and Amy Adams from “The Fighter”.  Cultivating an ensemble is not easy as it requires versatile actors who can slip seamlessly into any role regardless of the audiences’ expectations. The actors are obviously comfortable with each other and there’s chemistry between the couples that really draws you into the story. By the end I was sure that Mr. Russell had recorded the definitive version of the ABSCAM scandal, but nothing that outrageous could ever occur in our government. Correct?Image

*** */12 out of ****.

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Saving Mr. Banks: A worthwhile investment.

While a bit overly long, the dramatization of how Walt Disney secured the rights to P.L. Traver’s Mary Poppins in order to fulfill a 20-year promise to his daughter that he would bring the characters to the big screen, succeeds on the strength of its sharp writing and splendid acting.  Tom Hanks eerily captures the speech cadence and mannerisms of Walt Disney while Emma Thompson portrays a sharp-tongued if glamorized Miss Travers and both will most certainly be nominated for an Academy Award.  Paul Giamatti gives his usual wry performance as the chauffeur sent by the studio to shuttle Miss Travers to and from her Beverly Hills hotel, his attempts to engage her during the drive becoming more successful as the movie, and Miss Travers, progress. There is delicious repartee between Miss Travers (“Stop! Mary Poppins is not for sale! I won’t have her turned into one of your silly cartoons.”) and Walt Disney (“Says the woman who sent a flying nanny with a talking umbrella to save the children?”).  These exchanges are at the center of the film’s tension and are its most entertaining aspects. 

Where the film only partially succeeds is in its dramatization of Miss Travers’ childhood in Australia and the relationship with her father. Played by Colin Farrell, the free-spririted Travers Goff turns to alcohol to mediate his struggle with the discipline required to raise a young family and the fantasy world he imagines.  Told in flashback-style, these segment frequently interrupt the main story disrupting its pace without achieving the intended effect, which is to draw the connection between the Mr. Banks Mary Poppins character, Travers Goff, and ultimately Walt Disney himself. You see, if Ms. Travers forgave her father then she could forgive herself, letting go of the story’s characters and thus relinquishing the story rights to Walt Disney (and do I detect a bit of father-transference to Mr. Disney?). 

Whether or not Miss Travers really decided to assign the rights to Mary Poppins as the result of being convinced that Disney’s writers have “saved Mr. Banks” from being depicted on screen solely as a rarely-present, work-obssesed father as suggested by this film, or whether her artistic dilemma was resolved by the need to become financially solvent, we shall never know.  However, the film does suggest that there was little love lost between Walt Disney and Miss Travers; she was not invited to its premier and she attended anyway as a final tweak to Mr. Disney.  It has been reported that P.L. Travers ultimately loathed the film and anyone associated with it.  She refused to assign any further film rights to Disney and in fact forbade Cameron Macintosh from using anyone associated with the film for his 2004 theatrical adaptation. Thus, history seems to have undercut the basic premise that by “saving” the Mr. Banks character, Ms. Travers could thus be freed to let go of her literary creation.  All films of this type suffer from varying degrees of dramatic license which I can live with. For me, the question is does the film succeed in telling its story in the context of the world which it has created for itself? The answer is a qualified yes; if you cleave the early-childhood flashbacks from the main body of the film, what is left is approximately 90 minutes of a smartly-written, engaging story of the creative tension between two talented and strong-willed forces of nature, brought to life by two of the finest actors found in film today. And that’s a spoonful of sugar.

*** out of ****

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