31 Dec 2010 @ 6:00 AM 

Friday Minute
No. 204 | December 31, 2010

It’s Kind of a True Story

Our theme this week
Recent movies based on stories of real people

Featured this week (theme introduction)
Monday         —   The Social Network:  Mark Zuckerberg
Tuesday         —   Nowhere Boy:  John Lennon
Wednesday    —   Conviction:  Betty Anne Waters
Thursday        —   Fair Game:  Valerie Plame Wilson

The King’s Speech:  George VI

the king's speech_new

Even if you don’t know the story of George VI, The King’s Speech offers few surprises.  You can tell where the movie is headed from the first scene on.  Yet it hardly matters.  It may not be the most ambitious of films, but it’s effective, providing two hours of comfortable entertainment, and nothing at all shocking (unless a few salty words from the mouth of a duke is more than you care to hear).

The King’s Speech is this year’s film about the British royals.  There must be a new one every twelve months.  That’s the bargain the English have made for putting up with a monarch all the way into the twenty-first century.  Having kings and queens gets pricey after a while, but those blokes are good for a few laughs at that local cinema.  Sometimes they’re good for an Oscar.  Something to be said for that.

Colin Firth plays the duke who becomes George VI after his father dies and brother abdicates.  It’s a job many would kill for (and over the years, some have), but one that this particular royal has dreaded his whole life.  The king may not do much but he must give speeches.  That’s a problem for George, a lifetime st-st-st-stammerer.

Lucky for George, Lionel Logue, a commoner from Australia, renders his unorthodox speech therapy services, and the crown, at the hour of its greatest peril, is saved.

The acting, as you might expect with the royalty of British acting on board, is wonderful.  Geoffrey Rush (the non-Brit here) plays Logue with a charming mix of duty and irreverence.  Helena Bonham Carter is Elizabeth, the devoted queen whose support for her husband never wavers.  If not for her, the Brits may have rid themselves of monarchs long ago.  Firth shines as the hapless king who finally finds his voice.

There’s an interesting back-story to the making of this film, an idea that began with writer David Seidler.  You can read about it in my preview of the film from October.

The King’s Speech (2010)
Tom Hooper, director
David Seidler, writer
Danny Cohen, cinematographer


The King’s Speech (2010)
Colin Firth, Helena Bonham Carter, Geoffrey Rush

Quote of note
Queen Elizabeth (as “Mrs. Johnson”)
:  My husband’s work involves a great deal of public speaking.
Lionel Logue:  Then he should change jobs.
Queen Elizabeth:  He can’t.
Lionel Logue:  What is he, an indentured servant?
Queen Elizabeth:  Something like that.
—Queen Elizabeth (Helena Bonham Carter), Lionel Logue (Geoffrey Rush), The King’s Speech (2010)

Final Friday Five, the monthly mini-quiz

1.  The following actors earned Oscar nominations for playing British royals.  Name the role that each played.

Charles Laughton, 1932-33*
Laurence Olivier, 1946
Peter O’Toole, 1964
Robert Shaw, 1966
Peter O’Toole, 1968
Katharine Hepburn, 1968*
Richard Burton, 1969
Genevieve Bujold, 1969
Vanessa Redgrave, 1971
Kenneth Branagh, 1989
Nigel Hawthorne, 1994
Helen Mirren, 1994
Judi Dench, 1997
Cate Blanchett, 1998
Judi Dench, 1998*
Helen Mirren, 2006*
Cate Blanchett, 2007
* Won Oscar.

2.  The film location of the year is Beantown (and environs).  Name the one film that is not set in Boston or Massachusetts.

Edge of Darkness
Shutter Island
The Ghost Writer

Knight and Day

The Town
The Social Network
Let Me In
The Fighter
The Company Men
(coming soon)

3.  Place these David Fincher films in order of release.

Fight Club
Panic Room
The Curious Case of Benjamin Button
The Game
The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo
The Social Network

4.  Name the three films in which both Sean Penn and Naomi Watts costarred.

21 Grams (2003)
The Assassination of Richard Nixon (2004)
The Interpreter (2006)
The International (2009)
Fair Game (2010)

5.  Name the best film of 2010 selected by each of the following critics’ groups.

National Board of Review
New York Film Critics Circle
Los Angeles Film Critics Association
Chicago Film Critics Association
Boston Society of Film Critics
San Francisco Film Critics Circle
Washington, D.C., Area Film Critics Association

Answers here.


 27 Dec 2010 @ 6:00 AM 

Monday Minute
No. 200 | December 27, 2010

It’s Kind of a True Story

“But William Randolph Hearst never even had a sled.”  As far as I know, no one ever made that complaint about Citizen Kane.  Orson Welles and Herman J. Mankiewicz may have modeled their main character on Hearst but they had the good sense to call him Kane.  They could take liberties with the story and sidestep certain criticism.  Of course, that didn’t stop Hearst from trying to destroy the film and Welles’s career, but others gave the movie a more generous reception.  Not everyone expected it to be a true story.  It never claimed to be.

Lots of films do claim to be “based on a true story.”  I’m not sure what others think when they see a movie billed that way.  Do people believe what they’re seeing onscreen really happened?  I tend not to have that expectation.  I assume that dialogue, events, characters, and more have been invented for the film, and whatever passing resemblance the final product has to the life or lives it was based on is not a great concern for me.

That depends, of course, on the kind of movie I’m watching.  A documentary better get its facts right.  A biopic has a looser standard but still ought to capture something of the true character and events of the real-life figures it depicts.  Other films adapting “true” stories have less of a need to stick to the so-called facts.  There are greater truths to be told, and the success of films based on true stories should be measured by how well the films capture the larger story.  Some of the best include Lawrence of Arabia, Raging Bull, and Schindler’s List.

Yet quibbles arise, and sometimes an outcry, and it’s fascinating to watch the reaction to certain films.  Oliver Stone’s JFK was attacked for telling a different history than the history that some politically influential interests would like to have told.  For the record, I don’t believe Stone’s particular account of the Kennedy assassination, but I do commend his questioning of the official story, and it’s a brilliant film, in any case.

Shakespeare’s histories took liberties with history too, but nobody today cares much if Richard III is true to the life of the fifteenth-century English monarch.  We go not to discover historical fact, but to experience Shakespeare.

Like the Bard, filmmakers are drawn to real-life stories for dramatic purposes.  So go for the drama, not for history.  It works better that way, and that’s a truth older than film itself.

Adapting true-life stories may be an age-old practice, but one that accounts for a lot of work these days in Hollywood.  The past few months have seen a glut of movies of this kind, more than I’ll be able to cover in one week.  I plan to highlight five of the films, all late-2010 releases, and as we close out year one at MAD About Movies, we’re still on holiday hours, so you can expect a briefer write-up than usual for the rest of the week.

Our theme this week
Recent movies based on stories of real people

The Social Network:  Mark Zuckerberg

the social network

The Social Network tells the story of the founding of Facebook.  Jesse Eisenberg plays Mark Zuckerberg, the Harvard sophomore who started the soon-to-be-famous website in 2004.  You’ll find Zuckerberg’s green-eyed visage staring at you from the cover of Time magazine’s recent issue on Person of the Year.  His meteoric rise is quite a story.  He made a few friends along the way, and a few enemies.  You may have heard.

If you have not yet seen the film, what you think about it may depend on whom you listen to.  The critics have been overwhelmingly positive:  scores of 95 and 96% at Metacritic and Rotten Tomatoes, and top end-of-year honors so far from the National Board of Review and critics groups in Boston and Washington.  Some other voices have been less enthusiastic—Newark Mayor Corey Booker and some writers at the Huffington Post come to mind.  I find the dissenters usually fall into one of a few groups:  people who do business with Zuckerberg, people who would like to do business with him, and the social media utopians who see Zuckerberg at the forefront of the greatest revolution since Gutenberg.

But like the movie or not, most people agree that the depiction of Zuckerberg is negative.  The popular word to describe his film character is “jerk” (here, here, and here; Frank Rich spares the word but says that the film offers a “harsh portrait”).  I don’t see it that way.

The movie portrays Zuckerberg as a complex character, the good mixed with the bad.  We don’t always get nuance in films, but it’s one reason why the character seems so believable and why the movie succeeds as it does.  Zuckerberg, in fact, is the most sympathetic character in the film.  He has true talent, unlike his rivals, the Winklevoss twins; he has a clear vision of what his invention may become, unlike his friend Eduardo; he has the discipline to serve that vision, unlike fellow entrepreneur Sean Parker.  Within the story of the film, Zuckerberg pays a price for his success, losing friendships as he builds his company.  He may even be complicit in betraying those close to him, but still the audience’s sympathies are with him, not the others.  Near the end of the film, when Zuckerberg says to one of the lawyers, “I’m not a bad guy,” it has a definite ring of truth.

How much of the film is faithful to the “truth” of what really happened?  I don’t know and I’m not sure it matters.  I suspect Zuckerberg in real life is a better person in many ways, as others have claimed.  And I suspect he is a worse person in some ways, also.  He is no doubt talented, and no doubt flawed.  College is often a time of turmoil, and can any of us look back at those years and be proud of all our moments?  Add the pressures of a new business, especially one with tremendous potential, and it’s no surprise relationships were stretched beyond the breaking point.

The film captures the life of students at an elite college—the glamour and the genius—as well as with the combustible pressures of starting a business, the class tensions between old money and new, and the terrible price paid by those who follow their ambition. 

The critics are worth listening to this time around.  The Social Network is a superb movie, the best I’ve seen so far this year.  The accolades for director David Finch and writer Aaron Sorkin are well-deserved, and Eisenberg and Justin Timberlake do especially good work, leading a top-notch cast.

The Social Network (2010)
David Fincher, director
Ben Mezrich (book), Aaron Sorkin (screenplay), writers
Jeff Cronenweth, cinematographer


The Social Network (2010)
Jesse Eisenberg as Mark Zuckerberg

The Social Network (2010)
Justin Timberlake as Sean Parker

“The Social Network” Press Conference
New York Film Festival
David Fincher, Aaron Sorkin, Jesse Eisenberg, Andrew Garfield, Justin Timberlake
September 24, 2010
Part 1 (below)
Parts 1, 2, 3, 4, 5

Director’s Dialogue
New York Film Festival
David Fincher
September 25, 2010
Part 1 of 6 (more at the link)

Quote of note
“If you guys were the inventors of Facebook, you’d have invented Facebook.”
—Mark Zuckerberg (Jesse Eisenberg), The Social Network (2010)


Posted By: John Farmer
Last Edit: 27 Dec 2010 @ 09:24 PM

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 29 Sep 2010 @ 6:00 AM 

Wednesday Minute
No. 169 | September 29, 2010

Late for the Show

Our theme this week

Actors with posthumous nominations for Oscars

Featured this week (theme introduction)
Monday         —   James Dean (1931-1955):  East of Eden, Giant
Tuesday         —   Spencer Tracy (1900-1967):  Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner

Peter Finch (1916-1977):  Network

peter finch_2network

A British-born Australian, Peter Finch began acting on stage and in film during the 1930s.  Recruited by Laurence Olivier, Finch traveled to England in the ’40s, where he earned critical acclaim for his performances.  He won multiple BAFTA nominations and awards from the ’50s on.  Finch was known as a hell-raiser off screen, but he’ll always be remembered for the hell he raised onscreen as the madman anchorman Howard Beale in the 1976 film Network.

In contrast to Tuesday’s featured film, Network may be more relevant now than when it was made.  The television landscape was far different in 1976—a few networks, no cable as we know it, loads of mindless entertainment but news operations that had a less-warped definition of “fair and balanced.”  Yet along came Paddy Chayefsky who found plenty to parody.  He wrote an over-the-top send-up of the industry, lampooning TV’s obsession with ratings above all else, fueled by his outrage at the state of the world.  It was a biting satire.  The joke was on us, of course, because today we realize the movie wasn’t a satire after all—but a documentary ahead of its time.

Howard Beale is a longtime news anchor who’s dismayed that he’ll be replaced because of poor ratings.  He declares, on the air, that he’ll kill himself on television during the next week.  After he agrees to apologize for his outburst, his bosses allow him on for another show.  It sets up a classic scene, beautifully written, beautifully directed, and beautifully performed.  Beale goes on without a script.  “Everybody knows things are bad….  I’m not going to leave you alone.  I want you to get mad!”  He tells viewers to open their windows and shout along with him.  “I’m mad as hell, and I’m not going to take this anymore.”  It’s a moment of madness, but one of the great rallying cries in the history of movies.  Beale’s tirade is a sensation, and the network has a hit.

One sad irony, in recent years Beale’s brilliant and scathing rant has been appropriated by messianic messengers who stand counter to the kind of change that Beale was talking about.  Today the object of vitriol is grossly misplaced.  Television, along with the rest of the corporatized media—the great molders of public opinion—have scammed us with a bait-and-switch, willing to get us mad as hell but pointing our attention at the wrong targets, and never at themselves.  Chayefsky is no longer with us, but we could use another like him.

Network was nominated for ten Oscars, including Best Picture and Best Director (Sidney Lumet).  Five of the nominations were for acting, and the film is one of only two (the other, A Streetcar Named Desire) to win three acting awards, including a posthumous Best Actor prize for Peter Finch, who had died while on tour to promote the film.

Network (1976)
Sidney Lumet, director
Paddy Chayefsky, writer
Owen Roizman, cinematographer
“Mad as Hell”

Network (1976)
“The Howard Beale Show”
Peter Finch

Quote of note
Max:  Howard, I’m taking you off the air.  I think you’re having a breakdown, require treatment.
Howard:  This is not a psychotic episode.  This is a cleansing moment of clarity.  I’m imbued, Max.  I’m imbued with some special spirit.  It’s not a religious feeling at all.  It’s a shocking eruption of great electrical energy.  I feel vivid and flashing, as if suddenly I’d been plugged into some great electromagnetic field.  I feel connected to all living things.  To flowers, birds, all the animals of the world.  And even to some great, unseen, living force.  What I think the Hindus call prana.  But it’s not a breakdown.  I’ve never felt more orderly in my life.  It is a shattering and beautiful sensation.  It is the exalted flow of the space-time continuum, save that it is spaceless and timeless and…of such loveliness.  I feel on the verge of some great, ultimate truth.  And you will not take me off the air for now or for any other spaceless time!
—Max Schumacher (William Holden), Howard Beale (Peter Finch), Network (1976)


Posted By: John Farmer
Last Edit: 30 Sep 2010 @ 08:33 PM

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 24 Sep 2010 @ 6:00 AM 

Friday Minute
No. 166 | September 24, 2010

On a First-Name Basis

Our theme this week

Film titles that are first names of women

Featured this week (theme introduction)
Monday         —   Laura (1944)
Tuesday         —   Gilda (1946)
Wednesday    —   Lolita (1962)
Thursday        —   Frances (1982)

Juno (2007)


Juno was a surprise hit a few years ago, a low-budget comedy that did blockbuster business.  No comic book characters, no sci-fi storyline, no CGI wizardry—just a teenage girl with a big belly—yet people flocked to theaters to see the film that everyone was talking about.  Critics did a lot of that talking, giving the film many mentions on end-of-year top ten lists, and helping the film earn four Academy Award nominations, including Best Picture.  Juno won one Oscar, for newcomer Diablo Cody’s original screenplay.  The story of the film’s success became part of its appeal.  It was the little film that could.

Juno is an enjoyable comedy, delivering not only laughs but some tender, sweet moments as well.  The chararcters are very likable, and none more than Juno herself, the sharp-tongued, cynical teen played by Ellen Page, who gave a smart, funny, and truly wonderful performance.  J.K. Simmons and Allison Janney, as Juno’s father and stepmother, are also terrific.

Juno’s dilemma:  she’s sixteen, pregnant, and needs to decide what to do about it.  An abortion?  That seems to be the solution, but then she reconsiders.  The film then follows her growing waistline as she searches for adoptive parents.  A well-off, suburban couple, Mark and Vanessa Loring (Jason Bateman and Jennifer Garner), are an appealing option, but Mark goes nuts, leaving his wife and leaving Juno without a home for the soon-to-arrive bundle of joy.  Meanwhile, Juno’s friendship with Paulie (Michael Cera), her classmate and the father-to-be, develops into a loving relationship, which they come to realize just as the baby and a happy ending are due.

As appealing as the movie is, it’s probably gotten more praise than it rightfully earned.  The film does take a fresh approach to what could have been an obvious, by-the-numbers story, but its attitude-above-all slant gets tiring after a while.  Like its central character, the film’s worldview is limited, seeing only through young eyes.  Juno, and the film, find easy targets to mock in the adult world, but ironic detachment works better in smaller doses.  At least for me, the snarkiest-girl-in-the-room pose feels overdone.  Films, inevitably, are products of their time, so perhaps these shortcomings should be no surprise.

Another sign of the times, the film has been promoted by people with a political agenda as a statement supporting the conservative position on abortion.  It’s not.  My simple rule:  don’t trust people pushing politics when it comes to movies.

Juno (2007)
Jason Reitman, director
Diablo Cody (screenplay), writer
Eric Steelberg, cinematographer


Juno (2007)
Diablo Cody and Ellen Page on their favorite lines

Quote of note
:  And this, of course, is Juno.
Mark:  Like the city in Alaska?
Juno:  No.
Mark:  No?  Shall we sit down and get to know one another?
Vanessa:  Oh, I thought I would get some drinks.  What would anyone like?  I have Pellegrino, or vitamin water, or orange juice, or—
Juno:  I’ll have a Maker’s Mark.  Up.
Mac:  She’s kidding.  Junebug has a wonderful sense of humor.  Just one of her many genetic gifts.
—Mac MacGuff (J.K. Simmons), Mark Loring (Jason Bateman), Juno MacGuff (Ellen Page), Vanessa Loring (Jennifer Garner), Juno (2007)

Final Friday Five, the monthly mini-quiz

1.  Walter Matthau starred in two movies that were directed by actors who directed one film only.  Who are the one-time actor-directors?  (For extra credit, what are the films?)

2.  Here are five movie titles that (appear to) use married women’s surnames.

Mrs. Brown
Mrs. Doubtfire
Mrs. Miniver
Mrs. Parkington

Mrs. Soffel

Here are your questions:

a.  Who’s the actress who played the title role in two of the films?
b.  In which film did a man play the title role?
c.  Which title does not refer to the name of a character but to the queen of England?
d.  Which film was directed by a woman?

3.  Our list of notable films of 1957 included three directed by Billy Wilder.  For each set of stars, name the film.

a.  Tyrone Power, Marlene Dietrich, Charles Laughton, Elsa Lanchester
b.  Gary Cooper, Audrey Hepburn, Maurice Chevalier
c.  Jimmy Stewart, Murray Hamilton, Patricia Smith

4.  TIFF, the Toronto International Film Festival, wrapped this week.  The festival doesn’t have a jury that selects award winners, but it does have a People’s Choice Award.  This year’s honoree is a British production directed by Tom Hooper, starring Colin Firth as a stammering George VI who is preparing for war.  What’s the name of the film?

5.  Name that Zucker!  Match the correct Zucker(___) with the descriptions below.

Barry Zuckerkorn
Buck Zuckerman
David Zucker
George Zuckerman
Jeff Zucker
Mark Zuckerberg
Mort Zuckerman
Nathan Zuckerman

a.  Billionaire publisher of the New York Daily News and editor-in-chief of U.S. News & World Report
b.  1940s-50s Hollywood screenwriter best known for his collaborations with director Douglas Sirk (Written on the Wind, The Tarnished Angels)
c.  Birth name of the actor-writer known as Buck Henry
d.  Philip Roth character played by Gary Sinise in the 2003 film The Human Stain
e.  Elder brother in a trio of collaborators best known for Airplane! and The Naked Gun
f.  President and CEO of NBC Universal
g.  Henry Winkler’s character on Arrested Development
h.  Co-founder of Facebook and subject of The Social Network, the new David Fincher movie opening October 1

Answers here.


Posted By: John Farmer
Last Edit: 24 Sep 2010 @ 08:30 AM

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 22 Sep 2010 @ 6:00 AM 

Wednesday Minute
No. 164 | September 22, 2010

On a First-Name Basis

Our theme this week

Film titles that are first names of women

Featured this week (theme introduction)
Monday         —   Laura (1944)
Tuesday         —   Gilda (1946)

Lolita (1962)


Lolita is a woman’s name, though in the movie Lolita is hardly a woman.  She’s fourteen years old (in the book, just twelve), and controversially, the object of affection for middle-aged professor Humbert Humbert.  The original source, of course, is the book by Vladimir Nabokov.  Lolita has been ranked among the great novels of the twentieth century by groups ranging from the Modern Library to Time magazine.  It’s a classic of literature, and also a popular favorite.

Two film adaptations have been made, Stanley Kubrick’s in 1962, and Adrian Lyne’s in 1997.  Neither is completely successful in bringing Nabokov’s story to the screen, or on its own terms.  Kubrick’s added challenge was fighting the censors at a time when the Production Code was still in effect.  (If you want a peek into what it was like in 1962, see the story next to Andrew Sarris’s review in the Village Voice.  The New York Board of Regents had gone to the State Supreme Court to try to censor the film The Connection, claiming it was “obscene” for using the word shit eleven times.  You sure you want to make a movie about a pedophile?  Okay, Stanley.)  For Kubrick’s film, as you can imagine, the material was toned down.  Lyne could get away with more.  But the bigger difference between the two is that Kubrick treats the story as a darkly comic tale, and Lyne as more of a romance.  (It’s been too many years since I read the book, so better not to comment on how they compare with the Nabokov version.)

Kubrick’s film begins near the end of the story, an odd scene involving a vengeful Humbert Humbert (James Mason, in his fifties at the time) and a drunk Clare Quilty (Peter Sellers, the man of many disguises, warming up for Dr. Strangelove), with the professor finally killing his nemesis.  Then, in flashback, we get the rest of the story:  Humbert’s arrival in Ramsdale for a summer stay, finding a room to rent with the widow Charlotte Haze (Shelley Winters), falling for her daughter, Dolores (Sue Lyon, the “discovery” of the day), who is affectionately known as Lolita and beginning to enjoy the attractions of men. 

Winters is wonderful, but she is doomed (you knew that already if you’d seen her as Alice Tripp or Willa Harper).  Once the mother is out of the picture, Humbert has his way with Lolita.  They go on a road trip, publicly as father and daughter, privately as lovers, then arrive at Beardsley College, where Humbert had taken a teaching position.  Eventually their relationship raises suspicions.  Humbert flees with Lolita, but before long she leaves him.  Years pass.  When he hears from her again, she is married, pregnant, and in need of money.  She tells him what had happened:  she had run off with Quilty, the playwright from Ramsdale, prompting Humbert to go settle the score.

I can only speak for myself, but I’d say the appeal of the Lolita story is no longer what it used to be.  Perhaps the times have changed, or perhaps I’m just older and see things differently.  Becoming a parent can do that to you.  It’s not that I have a problem with unsavory characters; they’re a basic ingredient for drama, and even child molesters have their place.  I don’t have a problem with their sympathetic portrayal, either; that’s welcome if done right .  But how the characters are treated matters, and there’s something about Lolita that seems a little off.  The characters care for each other while exploiting each other, and that seems to be the filmmakers’ approach to the audience.  We get a very well-done film, mixing everything from slapstick comedy to tender love story, but in the end it doesn’t all add up.

One other note, the film seems to have a blind spot in how the sexes are handled.  Both writer and director, Nabokov and Kubrick, are men, and that may account for why a certain perspective, a certain empathy, is missing.  Maybe this wouldn’t have been a problem in the hands of other men, but if a woman had told the story, no doubt we’d have a different movie.

Lolita (1962)
Stanley Kubrick, director
Vladimir Nabokov (novel, screenplay), writer
Oswald Morris, director of photography

Lolita (1962)
James Mason, Shelley Winters, Sue Lyon

Quote of note
“What drives me insane is the twofold nature of this nymphet, a veteran nymphet perhaps, this mixture in my Lolita of tender, dreamy childishness and a kind of eerie vulgarity.  I know it is madness to keep this journal, but it gives me a strange thrill to do so.  And only a loving wife could decipher my microscopic script.”
—Humbert Humbert (James Mason), Lolita (1962)


Posted By: John Farmer
Last Edit: 22 Sep 2010 @ 07:59 AM

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