Jennifer Lawrence and Amy Adams in "American Hustle"

Jennifer Lawrence and Amy Adams in “American Hustle”

Release date: December 20, 2013
Directed by: David O. RusselL
Written by: Eric Warren Singer and David O. Russell
Cast: Christian Bale, Bradley Cooper, Amy Adams, Jeremy Renner, Jennifer Lawrence
Rating: R; Running Time: 137 minutes

Think Casino meets The Grifters, shot through with a hefty dose of the off-kilter … and that’s American Hustle. Between the surprisingly wacky performances and a twisty screenplay bristling with wit, soaked to a fare-thee-well in the pop culture explosion of the late 70s, filmmaker David O. Russell (Silver Linings Playbook, The Fighter, Three Kings, Flirting with Disaster) delivers a movie that’s not to be missed.

Rather than a dry retelling of the facts, Russell and co-writer Eric Warren Singer used the FBI’s 1978-1980 Abscam operation as a jumping-off point, fashioning their plot around five primary characters who all believe that they’re experts in the art of deception. Except that there’s a slight wrinkle — it turns out that the deceivers all suffer from their own particular self-deceptions. Consequently, sometimes they do the hustle … other times, the hustle does them.

The Weinberg con man gets a fictional re-do as Christian Bale’s Irving Rosenfeld, replete with an atrocious comb-over, chunky gold jewelry hanging on his hairy arms and even hairier chest, and a protuberant belly. (A stickler for authenticity, Bale gained 43 pounds for the role.) As Irving’s wife Rosalyn – a shrill, sexually-manipulative yet lovelorn Long Island housewife – Jennifer Lawrence is utterly delicious. The actual Camden mayor (Angelo Errichetti) has been reimagined as Jeremy Renner’s Carmine Polito, a well-meaning, Rat Pack-esque civil servant sporting a pompadour and sideburns that could make Elvis weep. (It seems as if the film’s outrageous panoply of hair pieces is a character unto itself.)

Two fictional characters join the fray: the eager FBI agent, Bradley Cooper’s Richie DiMaso and the stripper turned expert con artist, Amy Adams’ Sydney Prosser.

There isn’t a weak performance in this wild cast of zanies. (Reminiscent of a repertory company, four out of five of the principals are Russell alumni from his last two films). First, there’s the surprise of Jennifer Lawrence, breaking all prior expectations — à la Mia Farrow’s turn as the Brooklyn mafia widow in Woody Allen’s marvelous Broadway Danny Rose. Cooper is perfect as the overly-zealous DiMaso, his tiny pink hair curlers energetically dancing on his head as he attempts to flirt with Sydney over the phone in his mother’s greasy kitchen, his fiancé looking on in angry confusion. And Renner adds a generous amount of flavor as the mayor who juggles personal interests with the good of his city.

[For the remainder of Kimberly Gadette’s review on Doddle, please check out this link: American Hustle on Doddle]

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Ninjas 2Release date: July 26, 2013
Directed by: James Mangold
Screenplay by: Mark Bomback and Scott Frank, Christopher McQuarrie
Cast: Hugh Jackman, Hiroyuki Sanada, Famke Janssen, Will Yun Lee, Rila Fukushima, Tao Okamoto, Svetlana Khodchenkova, Haruhiko Yamanouchi
Rating: PG-13; Running Time: 126 minutes

Note to the producers and filmmakers of The Wolverine: Not everyone is an X-Men aficionado. Though rabid devotees of the series know their lore from A to X, the rest of the audience may be perplexed by the film’s timeframe, or lack thereof. Or why such fascinating characters as Victor Creed (Liev Schreiber) and Colonel Stryker (Danny Huston) from 2009′s X-Men Origins: Wolverine have disappeared into the cinematic haze.

While this Logan-centric movie gives us one elaborate fight scene after another, couldn’t any of the three credited screenwriters have thrown the viewers an informative bone? Guess not – too many battles to stage, too much unnecessary 3D to layer on in post-production.

Without further ado: The film occurs several years after 2006′s X-Men: The Last Stand in which Jean Grey (Famke Janssen) had died. Think of X-Men Origins: Wolverine and this current movie as bookends to three of the four X-Men installments (X-Men, X2 and X-Men: The Last Stand). [The outlier is 2011′s X-Men: First Class in which the early lives of Xavier/Professor X (James McAvoy) and Erik Lensherr/Magneto (Michael Fassbender) are explored.] To make things even more complicated, this koi-out-of-water story is based on a four-issue mini-series created in 1982 by writer Chris Claremont and graphic artist Frank Miller (Sin City, 300). Whew. Let the onslaught begin.

Flashing back to a virtual flash: While Nagasaki goes up in flames from the A-Bomb, Hugh Jackman’s Logan/Wolverine is hanging out at the bottom of a deep well, ultimately protecting a young Japanese soldier named Yashida from the nuclear fireball.

Such heroics no longer interest the moody Wolverine of today. We meet up with the mangy mutant as he sulks his way through a bleak wintry forest, preferring the company of a grizzly bear over humankind. When Logan’s Jeremiah Johnson act is interrupted by a sprightly, sword-wielding waif named Yukio (Rila Fukushima), he can’t help but acquiesce to her mysterious demand that he fly with her to Japan in order to bid farewell to someone who knew him way back when, circa Nagasaki, 1945. Natch, it’s that soldier Yashida, now a rich and powerful corporate magnate, living out his last days in a hyperactive, neon-lit Tokyo.

And Jean Grey is still dead.

It’s not that the filmmakers aren’t talented. But as reflected in this particular project, no one shines. Not director James Mangold (Walk the Line, 3:10 to Yuma), or initial screenwriter Christopher McQuarrie (The Usual Suspects), or ensuing writers Mark Bomback (Unstoppable) or Scott Frank (Minority Report, Out of Sight, Get Shorty). Did we really need the screenwriters to tell us not once but three times that Svetlana Khodchenkova’s Viper messed with Wolverine’s recuperative abilities?

As for Jackman, a 126-minute scowl is a poor substitute for a character. The fact that this is Jackman’s sixth tour of Logan – constituting the most times one particular actor has portrayed the same comic book hero – suggests that the actor could capitalize on Logan’s 100-plus-year story arc, ultimately delivering a performance of greater complexity and depth. Certainly not less.

Like the mutants themselves, this movie is neither fish nor fowl. It’s not an ensemble of X-Men, nor a singular X-Man. Instead we get a story centered around Wolverine with a feeble side serving of the mutant villainess Viper. Who is she? What’s her story? Anyone? And though the self-ascribed bodyguard Yukio has a mutant-like way of sensing the future, it’s a slight skill at best. If only Jean Grey weren’t so goddam dead.

[For the remainder of the review and Gadette’s rating, please click here]

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Movie Review: PACIFIC RIM

Release date: July 12, 2013
Directed by: Guillermo del Toro
Screenplay by: Travis Beacham and Guillermo del Toro
Cast: Charlie Hunnam, Idris Elba, Rinko Kikuchi, Charlie Day, Rob Kazinsky, Max Martini, Ron Perlman, Clifton Collins, Jr., Burn Gorman, Diego Klattenhoff
Rating: PG-13; Running Time: 131 minutes

Let’s face it: We can’t exactly hope for something completely new in the action/adventure/sci-fi genre. Given the decades of movies portraying alien take-overs, giant monsters and apocalyptic mano-a-mano scenarios in which humans snatch Earth away from the dripping maws of invading species at the last minute, all we can hope for is a wild and riveting diversion. And as we watch, if we can’t help noticing references from such previous films as The Abyss, Alien, Avatar, Independence Day, Iron Man, Transformers, etc., well, that can be part of the fun as well.

And does Pacific Rim ultimately entertain? Particularly since the director is none other than the brilliant Guillermo del Toro who, with his 2006 Pan’s Labyrinth, introduced some of the most fantastical creatures this side of H.P. Lovecraft?

Happily, the movie does indeed offer thrilling escapist entertainment. It may have its flaws but given this summer’s cinematic elephant graveyard of Flaccid Origin Story this, and Desiccated Sequel #6 that, Pacific Rim stands twenty-five stories tall above the rest.

Speaking of twenty-five stories, this is the supposed height of the manmade robot Jaegers, the human pushback to the assault of the Kaiju (gigantic sea beasts who, due to a breach in the Pacific Ocean, are rising from their underworld empire, employing all manner of the customary smash and pillage). The filmmakers have crafted a panoply of oversized lizards, crustaceans and insects — think a smorgasbord of multi-eyed creatures in the mode of Godzilla, Kraken, Rodan and Stegosaurus – rising from the Neptunian bowels, spewing acidic blue goo out of multiple cavities. And just as monsters often do, the Kaiju have every intention of wiping out mankind and taking over the planet. In this, the first quarter of the twenty-first century, the war’s been waging for twelve years … and the good guys are losing.

[For the remainder of this review on doddle, and Kimberly’s rating, please click here]

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Silver and Johnny Depp as Tonto, foreground; Armie Hammer as John Reid/Lone Ranger, background

Silver and Johnny Depp as Tonto, foreground; Armie Hammer as John Reid/Lone Ranger, background

Release date: July 3, 2013
Directed by: Gore Verbinski
Cast: Johnny Depp, Armie Hammer, Tom Wilkinson, William Fichtner, Barry Pepper, James Badge Dale, Ruth Wilson, Helena Bonham Carter
Rating: PG-13; Running Time: 149 minutes

Though The Lone Ranger first debuted as a Detroit radio show 80 years ago, the program’s accompanying musical theme – Rossini’s 1829 William Tell Overture — is instantly recognizable today. Strong, clear and optimistic, trumpeting the arrival of the pure-hearted hero galloping to the rescue, the theme’s tone is unmistakable. If only this latest incarnation of the lone Texas ranger and his Comanche companion managed a similar unifying tone. Instead, the filmmakers dip into a cacophonous medley of warring notes: silly one minute, heartfelt another, wacky, tragic, rude, mystical, wicked, sophomoric and, given that this is a Jerry Bruckheimer project, rigged with enough special effects to blast the Four Corners to kingdom come. Certainly the history of the American Indian’s disenfranchisement is sobering … no, wait, it’s played for laughs by a white actor in white face (Johnny Depp) as a Pidgin English-muttering Tonto. It’s as if Gore Verbinski’s prior film, 2011′s marvelous Rango, got lost amid the Trail of Tears in a buddy comedy served up with a side of Hannibal Lecter.

Sometimes something for everyone results in nothing for no one.

Which isn’t to say that the 149 minutes of whipsaw schizophrenia isn’t at times somewhat engaging. Armie Hammer does fine as the well-intentioned lawyer John Reid turned masked lawman, though the character might have benefitted from more depth from screenwriters Justin Haythe, Ted Elliott and Terry Rossio (the latter two credited with the first four Pirates of the Caribbean series). Tom Wilkinson as the 1869 version of a Wall Street venture capitalist fits the bill nicely, and William Fichtner is grotesquely convincing as the outlaw cum cannibal. In an inspired bit of casting, the filmmakers employed British actress Ruth Wilson — best known to American audiences as the sexy sociopath in the BBC series Luther – to play the love interest. But Depp’s ever-growing predilection for costumes is bordering on the excessive; perhaps with big Hollywood projects turning so stale, Depp has taken to the mask to mask his own ennui.

Speaking of masks, Depp also plays a Little Big Man-esque version of himself at a 1933 fair, recounting his earlier adventures in the 1860s to a young boy (Mason Cook) who’s costumed in a Lone Ranger get-up. This storytelling device is an unnecessary schtick, interrupting the flow as the scenes frenetically bounce between 1869 and 1933. What made the dual concept work so well with, say, 1987′s The Princess Bride, was the fact that the relationship between the Grandfather/Narrator (Peter Falk) and the Grandson (Fred Savage) grew in tandem to the friendship, trust and affection unfolding within the primary adventure tale. Here, there is no relationship. Depp overacts to beat the tom-tom and Cook, a dullish boy, is tasked to utter such lines as, “Go on.” In short, the 1933 scenes are as unnecessary as the film’s fortieth train derailment.

[For the remainder of this review on Doddle and Kimberly’s rating, please click here]

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Movie Review: IRON MAN 3

Iron Man suit and Robert Downey Jr as Tony Stark

Iron Man suit and Robert Downey Jr as Tony Stark

Release date: May 3, 2013
Directed by: Shane Black
Screenplay by: Drew Pearce & Shane Black
Cast: Robert Downey Jr., Gwyneth Paltrow, Don Cheadle, Guy Pearce, Rebecca Hall, Jon Favreau, Ben Kingsley, James Badge Dale, Stephanie Szostak, Paul Bettany
Rating: PG-13; Running Time: 130 minutes

Iron Man 3 brings us a new twist on the buddy film. Here, Robert Downey Jr. teams up with his Kiss Kiss Bang Bang writer/director Shane Black … and the combo gives us quite the bang bang for the buck. With Black’s irreverent style and Downey’s breezy wit, this high-concept third chapter — with nods to The Terminator franchise, A.I. and X-Men Origins: Wolverine – shows no signs of rusting out.

Underscored with hefty acting chops (Downey, the amazing Ben Kingsley, Guy Pearce and, big surprise, even Gwyneth Paltrow’s prim Pepper Potts gets to rage against the machine), Iron Man 3 boomerangs us right back to the thrill ride of 2008′s seminal film.

Opening with a flashback to 1999 that sets certain plot elements in motion, the movie delivers a present-day Tony Stark who ultimately wrestles with multiple demons: Those he recklessly created due to his overweening ego; those thrashing through his mind in the guise of frequent anxiety attacks due to his brush with alien invaders in last year’s The Avengers; and those go-to maniacal villains bent on the destruction of the U.S. In this last instance, it’s Ben Kingsley as the Osama Bin Laden-like Mandarin who threatens American soil, zeroing in on the President as well as Iron Man.

As in the first film, Tony again finds himself isolated in unfamiliar surroundings, removed from his supercharged toys, tools and robots, forced to rely solely on his brains as well as strangers who he must quickly mold into able assistants. Enter Ty Simpkins as the kid who Tony befriends out of necessity in a small backwoods town in Tennessee. Simpkins is a surprisingly good foil, sidestepping those deadly movie tropes of the precocious and the pink-cheeked cute. And playing off a scrappy child introduces a new dynamic for Iron Man, further enriching his character.

Filmmaker Black (who made his first splash as sole screenwriter for 1987′s Lethal Weapon) and co-writer Drew Pearce nod to the concept of well-intentioned innovators losing their way, with Tony stating, “We create our own demons.” This idea telescopes outward, expanding on the flawed hubris of the individual into a global construct, looking at how a self-righteous America — enflamed by its own sense of moral imperative – continues to trip itself up as it inadvertently engenders legions of enemies throughout the world. This isn’t exactly a new idea, but as it darts in and around the storyline of a struggling albeit brilliant superhero, surrounded in full by state-of-the-art CGI, the concept carries effective heft.

The kinetic quipfest is well constructed, even down to the opening voice over. [Note: Wait for the bookended cinematic button after the final credits.] But there are a few false notes, such as when a particular villain indulges in a theatrical monologue in which he claims full credit for the mayhem … a fact that we’d previously gleaned quite a few scenes earlier. Another surprising oops: although Tony discovers a scientific flaw in the madman’s invention, that flaw isn’t exploited as we’d been cued to expect.

But Downey’s Tony relentlessly carries the day. With his urbane humor and sparkling intelligence, calling to mind an American James Bond crossbred with a card-carrying member of Mensa, Downey continues to infuse his Tony Stark with charismatic ease. While the idea of making our hero face struggle with emotional fracture is a good one, the choice of New York and wormholes is a bit farfetched. Sure, devotees of The Avengers will recognize that plot point, but it might be too “inside baseball” for others. Couldn’t Tony experience an iron deficiency in a more effective manner? Such as, say, a sudden allergy to ferrous oxide? Or catching Pepper Potts in flagrante delicto with a younger, iron-jawed superhero?

Speaking of age, there’s something to be said for the crime fighting protagonist who is most decidedly middle-aged. Rather than playing on a tired Schwarzenegger-like schtick, Iron Man 3 quietly notes that while such characters as Tony and Don Cheadle’s sidekick Rhodey are far past their twentysomething prime, they can still kick ass with the best of them. For that alone, any viewer standing on the other side of twenty-five can appreciate the fact that brains and brawn are not solely the purview of the young. No wonder Tony Stark is so darn popular.

[A friendly warning: Since the movie has previously been released in other countries, this reviewer suggests that avid Iron Man filmgoers avoid perusing multiple articles about the film prior to viewing. Spoilers are piling higher than the Eiffel Tower! Look away if you can!]

As compared to the overwrought, too-many-irons-in-the-fire second installment of this franchise, Iron Man 3 proves its metal, oops, mettle, once again.
Rating on a scale of 5 tin gods: 4

[as published on doddle, May 2, 2013: review of Iron Man 3
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Bibi and Me

the young Benjamin "Bibi" Netanyahu

Mr. Ambassador: In 1984, Bibi caught the eye of his typist.
Credit: Getty Images

Prime Minister’s Girl Friday Ponders What Might Have Been

[published in The Forward, March 22, 2013]

Twenty-nine years, and not one phone call from the man. Not one flower. Not one letter. Sure, a VIP like Bibi can’t be expected to remember the comings and goings of every temporary secretary over the past three decades. Still, I thought we’d shared a moment. Then again, I thought I’d marry a Rothschild and own a small country. Go figure.

n 1984, I was the ever-auditioning musical comedy star-to-be, a cabaret singer/bartender by night, temp secretary by day. Like most women who’d grown up on Rodgers & Hammerstein and Disney, I dreamed of a Broadway career and a Jewish husband. When I got word that I had a two-day temp assignment for the newly appointed Israeli ambassador to the United Nations, I thought it might be a sign from my yidishe forebears. Could it be? A Jewish bachelor of note in Manhattan politics, just for me? (Or so I conjectured. Netanyahu divorced his second wife, Fleur Cates, in the mid-1980s.)

Outfitted in an ensemble suitable for the role of secretary, I reported to a drab office at 42nd Street and Second Avenue and introduced myself to a tall, broad-shouldered man, his brown hair prematurely threaded with silver. “I’m Benjamin Netanyahu,” he said, the clouds of self-importance swirling around him. “Here’s your desk.” The man barely looked at me. So much for my flights of fancy.

At the end of that first uneventful day, Netanyahu had instructions. I can still recall his fluid diction mingled with a touch of throaty Hebrew. “Tomorrow, meet me in front of the Regency Hotel. 8:30 a.m.”

The Regency? Was there something going on between us after all? Then, forgetting the fantasy, it hit me: My other secretarial costumes were at the cleaners. While dressing like Mae West was perfectly acceptable after the sun went down, among the 9-to-5 mover/shaker crowd, feather boas didn’t work. Ever.

The next morning, the Regency was swarming with Diplomatic Secret Service agents. This was years before the advent of the 24-hour news cycle, and I was oblivious to the fact that Israeli Prime Minister Shimon Peres was concluding a six-day visit to the United States.

Choosing the most sedate cabaret garb I owned, I arrived at the hotel dressed in a low-cut black matte jersey jumpsuit, supported by a well-constructed push-up bra and accessorized by a multicolored diaphanous chiffon throw. The Secret Service looked simultaneously confused and lecherous as I walked by: What was a hooker doing at the Regency at this hour of the morning? Before breakfast?

As for any background checks, identification requests, etc., once Netanyahu waved me in, I was unimpeachable. I guess the typing test that the temp agency gave me had covered all the bases.

I was escorted to a hotel room consisting of a double bed and a bare-bones typewriter. The room offered no fancy city views. What kind of suite might his full-time secretary have had? It was petty, I knew, but I cursed her. And I continued to curse her as I realized there was no coffee. If I had to slake my thirst, my only option was to cup my hands under the bathroom faucet. Shame on me; at least I had running water. Appalachian temps probably didn’t even get that.

Eventually Netanyahu appeared, carrying a stack of paper and a handwritten letter: “Type this in triplicate — it’s a rush.” He then hurried off.

Expecting the same letterhead as yesterday, I was shocked to see that it bore the name “Shimon Peres, Prime Minister.” I was now temping for the P.M.? If I’d known, maybe I would have done something nicer with my hair. As I prepared to type in triplicate, sandwiching two copies of carbon paper between three sheets of stationery, I considered negotiating an additional perk, such as, say, a goddamn cup of coffee.

A second shock followed: The letter was addressed to President Reagan. While only an obligatory thank-you note, it had to be error-free.

“Dear Mr. Persident” Damn! A typo! As I rolled in a second stack of stationery and carbon paper, I pictured the bigwigs ingesting great gourmet breakfasts, as opposed to me, the sequestered Dickensian temp, pounding out letters to heads of state on equipment reminiscent of the first Gutenberg press.

Typing out “Peres,” I couldn’t help thinking: How did the Jewish prime minister end up with a last name that made him sound so very Spanish? Buenos dias, Señor Peres. ¿Cómo está usted? I giggled, and then looked down. S—t! Another typo!

Suddenly, at Netanyahu’s request, an agent was at the door, checking on my progress. All I could say was, “Tell him I’m having problems with the typewriter; the ribbon keeps slipping.” Great; I was lying to foreign diplomats. Did the Mossad ever imprison duplicitous temps like me?

My nerves were shot; the typos rampant. Throwing away all secretarial pride, I pecked out the words one letter at a time. Success.

It was only after I’d reported to the agent that I noticed the piles of discarded drafts. I couldn’t just leave them! Weren’t they confidential? Worse, I couldn’t admit to being such a piss-poor secretary. After cramming wads into my purse, I turned myself into an object of rare taxidermy, stuffing drafts into my pockets and down my pantyhose. (If it had been a few years later, when women’s padded shoulders ballooned to the size of twin life rafts, I could have hidden veritable reams.) I felt like a frantic Lucille Ball, knowing that angry Desi/Bibi was about to burst in. I imagined his voice straining to stifle his ire: “You! Temp! What do you think you’re doing?!?” Desperate, running out of time and physical space, I ripped out the pads in my padded bra, and voila! Two chasms yawned open, providing a perfect fit for the last sheets of paper.

Netanyahu entered, took the letter without smiling and turned to leave. “That’ll be all for today,” he told me.

I draped my chiffon wrap over me and slowly, softly crinkled down the hall, down the stairs and out into the light of day. I started to breathe a sigh of relief — but the bunched-up paper was too rough. I stopped for fear of hurting myself.

On October 12, 1984, when Peres returned home, his agenda included advising his Cabinet of the newly formed American/Israeli Joint Economic Development Group, established to aid Israel’s rocky economy.

On October 12, 1984, when I returned home, my agenda included a lengthy nap. I curled up on my bed amid all those ruined drafts, and dreamed of the romance that was never, ever meant to, um, Bibi.

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Move Over ‘Girls;’ Time for Cable TV’s Real Women

unfit for paying job

There are the marvelously complex heroines of cable TV’s comedy/dramas . . . and then there’s Hannah Horvath.

Other than raindrops, April is showering us with the return of three smart cable comedy/dramas with fascinating female protagonists. HBO’s “Veep” (second season) and Showtime’s “Nurse Jackie” (fifth season) debut on April 14. HBO’s “The Big C” returns for its fourth and final season on April 29.

If only Lena Dunham, the creator/star of HBO’s “Girls,” which recently ended its second season, considered taking lessons from these other cable shows that present far more compelling, well-written and prismatic looks at the modern woman.

Sure, these heroines are a few decades older than the “Girls.” But age isn’t the big difference.

- In “Veep,” Julia Louis-Dreyfus’s Vice President Selina Meyer takes on the glass ceiling in Washington, D.C.

- In “Nurse Jackie,” Edie Falco’s nurse Jackie Peyton takes on drug addiction while saving lives.

- In “The Big C,” Laura Linney’s teacher/housewife Cathy Jamison takes on terminal cancer.

- And in “Girls,” Dunham’s college grad Hannah Horvath takes on . . . what? Well, that’s the problem. Horvath sort of wants a boyfriend, sort of wants a writing career and sort of needs a job to survive in Brooklyn, N.Y. She wanders around with her three educated girlfriends who are also chasing their respective tails, all making half-hearted stabs at possible love and self-fulfillment.

Further, “Girls,” an embarrassment in shoddy storytelling and character development. In contrast to the tight plotting of the three above-mentioned shows, “Girls” specializes in missing links. Critical issues in one episode are often ignored in the following show. Horvath’s desperate need to get rent money in episode #6 of the first season is all but forgotten until episode #9. A stolen dog is consigned to oblivion; lovers split up inexplicably. While other characters state that Horvath is extraordinarily bright, during a scene in which she attempts to work in an office, she can’t figure out how to break down a cardboard box. For God’s sake, keep her away from the stapler …

For the remainder of this article, published at Women’s eNews, please click here 

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905_BC0040_cdl_v1259.1694 copyRelease date: March 8, 2013
Directed by: Sam Raimi
Cast: James Franco, Mila Kunis, Rachel Weisz, Michelle Williams, Zach Braff
Rating: PG; Running Time: 130 minutes

In the 1939 L. Frank Baum-based film, a young girl named Dorothy Gale flees from her Kansan environs in order to rescue another. In the 2013 Baum-based film, a young man named Oscar “Oz” Diggs flees from his Kansan environs in order to rescue himself. And that, in a 3D nutshell, makes all the difference.

While Dorothy (Judy Garland) didn’t get very far in her attempted escape to save her beloved Toto in The Wizard of Oz, at least she tried. Goodhearted Dorothy may not be perfect, but she’s loving and funny and courageous, a complex adolescent who wins us over completely.

On the other wand, Oscar a.k.a. Oz (James Franco) of Oz the Great and Powerful is a shallow cad, disappointing even to himself, habitually apologizing for his shortcomings. This self-awareness doesn’t allow him to change … instead, he uses apology as a cautionary device, suggesting that he’s a helpless victim of any and all feckless behavior to come. The filmmakers do this two-bit magician no favors, adding on an extra layer of blithe disregard. (Such as when Oz orders his simian sidekick Finley [Zach Braff, doing double duty as the human assistant turned CGI flying monkey] to haul Oz’ unduly heavy luggage. Not only does Oz disregard the monkey’s fatigue, but when Oz boards a horse-drawn carriage, he never thinks of inviting the beleaguered monkey to share the ride.) Oz looks to be living out his days as a small-town circus performer – but when the strongman discovers that Oz has cuckolded him, Oz flees for his life. Jumping into his hot air balloon, he hitches a ride into the great blue yonder, ultimately  splashing down to the Land of Oz.

Due to a prophecy, the citizens assume this stranger — with the word “Oz” inscribed on his balloon – is indeed their savior, sent to deliver them from the clutches of the evil witch. No fool, the elegant, alluringly clever Evanora (Rachel Weisz) tempts Oz with a throne and 5,000 coins of glittering gold if he indeed promises to dispatch the witch. In other words: She plays him like Pink Floyd’s “Dark Side of the Moon.”

[For the remainder of this review and Kimberly’s “enchanted” rating, please click here]

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The Wonderful Reinvented World of Disney

Toto and Dorothy (Judy Garland) in "The Wizard of Oz"

Toto and Dorothy (Judy Garland) in “The Wizard of Oz”

Poor Toto… his fate is still as much up in the air as a bunch of flying monkeys. You’d think that between The Wizard of Oz‘s five directors and twenty screenwriters (credited and not), some bright bulb on the MGM set might have noticed that the movie’s inciting incident, the plot point that starts the whole story a-twisting, was never resolved.

In case it’s been awhile since some viewers have seen this 1939 classic – deemed #10 in AFI’s Best American Movies, #1 in Fantasy and #3 in Musicals — here’s the issue: Dorothy runs away from home with her cherished Cairn Terrier Toto in an attempt to flee nasty neighbor Miss Gulch, who, suffering a bite from said canine, is intent on destroying him. But when a threatening cyclone forces Dorothy and Toto to return home, the wind’s kicking up too hard for Dorothy to open the storm cellar door; instead, she and Toto rush inside the farmhouse in the hopes of riding out the storm. Off they fly, house and all, to the Land of Oz. Adventures ensue. At the end of the film, Dorothy and Toto are back home, happily reunited with family and friends. But the terrible Miss Gulch isn’t mentioned … leaving us to wonder when the neighbor will once again be knocking at the door, ready to rid the world of Toto for once and for all.

(Note: Miss Gulch is not a character in L. Frank Baum’s original 1900 children’s tale. Instead, Dorothy is waylaid when she tries to coax a frightened Toto to come out from under the bed, and ends up inside the house when the storm hits.)

While Walt Disney had planned to snap up the rights to Baum’s book as a follow-up to the success of 1937′s Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, MGM’s Samuel Goldwyn beat him to the punch. And though the beloved MGM film is firmly Technicolored into our collective minds’ eye, if the project had landed at Disney, purveyor of happy endings above all, the Toto/Miss Gulch problem would have melted away quicker than a water-soaked witch. After all, look what the sanitized wand of Disney has eradicated and re-fabricated over the decades:

Sleeping Beauty. Centuries before Princess Aurora dealt with a prick to her finger, she had to contend with a wholly different kind of prick … in the guise of a rapist prince. Written by Italian poet Giambattista Basile in 1634, his seminal Sleeping Beauty tale of “Sun, Moon and Talia” recounts the story of a beautiful maiden named Talia who falls into a coma due to a virulent piece of flax. Overwhelmed by Talia’s beauty, the prince violates her while she sleeps. Since condoms probably weren’t the rage in the seventeenth century, Talia, still dead to the world, gives birth to twins. (Begging the question: Who pushed them out?) The spell lifts when one of the bastard kids, searching for a nipple, sucks on Talia’s finger instead, inadvertently removing the poisonous flax splinter. Finally awake, Talia and her children travel to visit the prince, now king, who’s married to an evil queen. The queen attempts to cook and eat the children, and throw Talia into the fire. But good news, the queen dies instead.

Cinderella. In the original 1812 tale by the Brothers Grimm, Cinderella suffers humiliating abuse at the hands of her family. The gruesome comes into play when the wicked stepsisters attempt to fit their feet into the glass slipper; one sister cuts off her heel while the other cuts off her big toe. When the now-bloodied slipper fits Cinderella’s foot perfectly, all is well. Except that the lame stepsisters get their eyes plucked out by pigeons and must live out their days as blind beggars.

Ariel, "The Little Mermaid"

Ariel, “The Little Mermaid”

- The Little Mermaid. Hans Christian Anderson’s 1837 story is perhaps the most disturbing of all. Here, the mermaid rejects her oceanic life for a landlubber prince who she hopes to marry. A sea witch gives the mermaid a potion that replaces her tail with human legs. While they look perfectly normal, they make her feel as if she’s walking on knives. Additionally, the sea witch cuts out the mermaid’s tongue. If, now mute, she can’t win over the prince, her eternal soul will be lost to the ages. The prince does indeed marry another, and the Little Mermaid ultimately throws herself into the sea, where her body dissolves into the sea foam.

Gee. Given Disney’s reinvention of the above, how would the studio have handled the ending to Sophie’s Choice?

This time around, it’s not just a happy ending that’s required. With Oz the Great and Powerful releasing on March 8, Disney isn’t simply tasked with scrub-a-dubbing some centuries’-old children’s story clean of gruesome mythology, blanding it down for the PG crowd. This week, Disney is going where no lion, tiger or bear dare: to the hallowed yellow brick road. Can the studio truly succeed in taking on new adventures in Munchkinland? While the movie steers clear of a remake, the story will still hearken back to deeply ingrained memories of Dorothy and her friends. And her little dog, too.

Frankly, Frank (Baum), the venture seems as scary as some of those aforementioned fairy tales. The Toto problem notwithstanding, it’s going to take some huge crystal balls to revisit the land of Oz.

Maybe the Lion has a little extra courage to spare.

[For other articles by Kimberly Gadette, check out her doddle review page]

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Filmdom 2012: Best and Worst

(l to r) Jeremy Renner, Chris Evans, Scarlett Johansson

(l to r) Jeremy Renner, Chris Evans, Scarlett Johansson

Unlike so many of 2012′s films that took a slow, tortured walk to get to some dramatic kernel (e.g., CosmopolisThe Magic of Belle Isle and People Like Us), let’s jump right into the fray:

The Best: The U.S. box office, reporting $10.84 billion, versus the last record-breaking year of 2009, with $10.59 billion. (Additionally, the 2012 grosses scored a 6.6% bump over 2011′s $10.17 billion). It certainly didn’t hurt that increased ticket prices for 3D and IMAX upped the overall figures.

The Worst: Hollywood’s treatment of December audiences. Coming upon a midnight, um, drear, the studios gifted us with an cinematic sleigh of buzzkill overload. Such as Amour, in which Grandma and Grandpa slip toward inevitable death; Django Unchained, with Quentin Tarantino delighting in more blood and mayhem than ever before; The Impossible, a true story reflecting one family’s survival in the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami that took 230,000 lives; Les Misérables, where the Wretched Poor are indeed just that, furthered by our own misery at having to listen to the ungodly warbling of Russell Crowe; and Zero Dark Thirty, opening with the voices of the actual victims of 9/11 crying out in the dark. As a counter-programming measure, we got feeble offerings via the Seth Rogen/Barbra Streisand vehicle, The Guilt Trip, and Billy Crystal attempting to yuk it up with his grandkids in Parental Guidance. It’s hard to say which was more difficult to watch.

Further Bests & Worsts, both silly and not:

Best Odd Couple:
Jonah Hill & Channing Tatum, 21 Jump Street
Additional nod to: Richard Jenkins & Bradley Whitford, The Cabin in the Woods

Worst Odd Couple:
Andy Samberg & Adam Sandler, That’s My Boy

Best & Worst John Cusack:
Best: The Paperboy
Worst: The Raven

Best & Worst Zac Efron:
Best: The Paperboy, Liberal Arts
Worst: The Lucky One

Best Promising Child Star:
Quvenzhané Wallis, Beasts of the Southern Wild

Worst Promising Child Star, All Growed Up:
From 2002′s Panic Room, Kristen Stewart (Twilight Saga, Snow White and the Huntsman, On the Road)

Best All-Around Body of Work:
Matthew McConaughey (Bernie, Killer Joe, Magic Mike, Mud [debuted in 2012 Cannes], The Paperboy)

Best Performance in a Film Other Than the One That’s Getting Award Buzz:
- Robert De Niro, Being Flynn
- Keira Knightley, Seeking a Friend for the End of the World
- Jennifer Lawrence, The Hunger Games

Best (and, at this date) Overlooked Supporting Performance, Male:
- John Cusack, The Paperboy
- Jude Law, Anna Karenina
- William H. Macy, The Sessions
- Ezra Miller, Perks of Being a Wallflower
- Bill Nighy, The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel
- Sam Rockwell, Seven Psychopaths
- Christopher Walken, Seven Psychopaths

Best (and, at this date) Overlooked Supporting Performance, Female:
- Emily Blunt, Looper
- Ann Dowd, Compliance
- Nicole Kidman, The Paperboy
- Aubrey Plaza, Safety Not Guaranteed
- Alicia Vikander, Anna Karenina/A Royal Affair
- Kristen Wiig, Friends with Kids

Best Performance by an Actor Leaping Out of his Comfort Zone:
Jack Black, Bernie

Worst Performance by an Actor Leaping Out of his Comfort Zone:
Tyler Perry, Alex Cross (aka the Worst Cross-Dressing Crossover Award)

Best Opening Murder:
Seven Psychopaths

Best (or is that Worst?) Bloat:
Les Misérables, in which our senses are bludgeoned without end for 168 minutes. And while we’re on the subject, why is it that every time Jean Valjean leaves town for good, he always turns up just a few blocks away?

Best Big Beautiful Cat Since MGM’s Leo the Lion:
Richard Parker, Life of Pi

Best Stiff Upper Lip:
To Toby Jones, who not only depicted the stiff upper lip physically, but emotionally as well, playing a #2 Hitchcock in HBO’s The Girl to the more heralded Anthony Hopkins in the big screen Hitchcock. Given that this is Jones’ second go-round as #2 (his Truman in 2006′s Infamous versus Philip Seymour Hoffman’s award-winning turn in 2005′s Capote), one wonders just how well that stiff upper lip is holding up.

Best & Worst Sequel:
Best: Skyfall (with an additional nod to Men in Black 3)
Worst: Taken 2, tied with Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance

Best Exciting New Filmmakers:
- Derek Connolly (writer) and Colin Trevorrow (director), Safety Not Guaranteed
- Drew Goddard (director, co-writer), The Cabin in the Woods
- Benh Zeitlin (writer/director), Beasts of the Southern Wild

Best Actor (tie):
-  John Hawkes, The Sessions
- Denzel Washington, Flight

Best Actress:
- Marion Cotillard, Rust and Bone

10 of the Worst Films of 2012 (in alphabetical order). Critic’s note: I sidestepped the thoroughly vilified A Thousand Words, One for the Money and Battleship. And yet, there was still plenty of bad to still go around:
Alex Cross
Lay the Favorite
The Lucky One
The Magic of Belle Isle
Peace, Love and Misunderstanding
Project X
Red Hook Summer
That’s My Boy
The Vow

And finally, 10 of the Best Films of 2012 (in alphabetical order):
The Avengers
Beasts of the Southern Wild
The Cabin in the Woods
The Hunger Games
Rust and Bone
Seeking a Friend for the End of the World
The Sessions
Zero Dark Thirty

Here’s to a New Year brimming with films that will inspire us all!

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