Archive for November, 2010

Surely, Gire couldn’t forget meeting Leslie Nielsen

Tuesday, November 30th, 2010
Leslie Nielsen and Nicolette Sheridan from "Spy Hard" Leslie Nielsen hams it up with co-star Nicolette Sheridan during a 1996 appearance to plug the spoof “Spy Hard.”

I met Leslie Nielsen in 1988 when he came to Chicago to promote his comedy feature “Naked Gun: From the Files of Police Squad.”

“I love comedy!” he told me. “I love being an idiot!”

If you don’t believe that, Nielsen brought his own whoopie cushion to our interview. Talking to him went something like this:

“People have come up to me on the street and said, ‘Leslie, you’re pfffrooot! a sex symbol! But you can’t take that too seriously. You can’t get wrapped up in that pfffrooot! stuff!”

I remembered the theme song to his anthology TV series, Walt Disney’s “Swamp Fox,” and I faithfully sang it to him in his room at the Park Hyatt Hotel. He seemed to be impressed I knew the lyrics.

“I approached with great hesitation doing the role of Swamp Fox for Disney,” the then 62-year-old actor said. “I thought, ‘Well, I’m an actor! I’m not going to wear that hat with a fox tail on it, parading around and doing kiddie stuff.’ Boy, I was so stupid in my attitude.

“Today there are so many people who remember ‘Swamp Fox.’ You see, as an actor, you never know what will remain, what sticks with people.”

Nielsen died Sunday night in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., from pneumonia. He was 84.

What will stick with people even more than “Swamp Fox” will be Nielsen’s late-in-life evolution from a serious actor into a comedy icon of the silver screen, starting in 1980 with his role in the disaster film spoof “Airplane!” followed by a TV series and movies starring Nielsen as Lt. Frank Drebin, the dumbest, luckiest cop to ever walk a Hollywood beat. (Read more…)

‘Ahead of Time’ highlights a remarkable life

Sunday, November 28th, 2010

By any measure, Ruth Gruber is a most remarkable woman.

She wanted to get a closer look at Adolf Hitler, so she pretended to be a German citizen so she could sit in the area closest to Der Fuhrer.

At 15, she was accepted at New York University. At 20, she became the youngest student to receive a doctorate.

In 1944, she escorted 1,000 Holocaust refugees from Naples to New York during a secret war mission.

Above everything else, Ruth Gruber was a journalist working mostly for the New York Herald Tribune. It was a career she carefully chose, even though her skeptical father said at the time, “What kind of career is that for a nice, Jewish girl?”

Bob Richman, who photographed the docs “An Inconvenient Truth” and “My Architect,” makes Gruber’s fascinating life story his directorial debut in “Ahead of Time.”

It’s a straightforward, traditional doc with talking heads, archival footage and interviews with Gruber’s friends and relatives. But what a subject he has to work with. (Read more…) Not rated; suitable for general audiences. 73 minutes.

Now playing at the Renaissance Place in Highland Park.

‘Welcome to the Rileys’ slow but heartfelt

Sunday, November 28th, 2010
James Gandolfini and Kristen Stewart in "Welcome to the Rileys" Doug (James Gandolfini), a plumbing guy from Indiana, takes a New Orleans stripper (Kristen Stewart) under his Midwestern wing in Jake Scott’s slow, big-hearted “Welcome to the Rileys.”

This might well be the closest thing we get to an actual Christmas movie this holiday season.

Jake Scott’s family crisis drama “Welcome to the Rileys” boasts superlative, nuanced performances from its three main actors and a seasonally appropriate story of charity and good will toward all.

But it moves so slowly and deliberately that it fails to sweep us along with the damaged characters as they meander off to New Orleans for some healing and a greater understanding of themselves.

James Gandolfini and Melissa Leo star as the Rileys, Doug and Lois. They live in Indiana. Their teen daughter has been dead for eight years after a tragic auto accident.

Their marriage has been dead for a long time, too.

Lois has frozen herself in time. She probably has the same hair style she did when her daughter died. She clearly hasn’t left her home since then. (One telling scene shows Lois trying to use a key to open a car trunk that has no key hole suggesting she hasn’t driven a car since remote controls came along.)

Doug has become withdrawn and distant, and often goes into the garage to openly cry out his grief.

We soon realize that he has also been seeing a local waitress for companionship and other benefits. (Read more…)

Hathaway, Gyllenhaal make drama, not just another ‘Love’ story

Sunday, November 28th, 2010
Jake Gyllenhaal and Anne Hathaway in "Love and Other Drugs" Jamie (Jake Gyllenhaal) falls for Maggie (Anne Hathaway) in “Love and Other Drugs.”

Edward Zwick’s romantic drama “Love and Other Drugs” comes in three main parts: a torrid love affair, the explosive 1996 success of a new drug called Viagra, and a man’s search for a cure to his lover’s degenerative disease.

These disparate segments feel as if they’ve been rudely shoehorned into a single movie, and it falls to the magnetic performances of Jake Gyllenhaal and Anne Hathaway to make it all click, and click it does.

Zwick dumps Hollywood’s false and pretentious boudoir modesty where steamed-up stars keep the sheets around their necks (for females) and stomachs (for males).

Instead, Zwick opts for plenty of bold, yet tasteful nudity, so much of it that it might be jarring at first because it violates our chaste Hollywood expectations.

Give it time. Soon, the nudity becomes part of the romantic landscape, as it is, usually, in real life.

Based on James Reidy’s book “Hard Sell: The Evolution of a Viagra Salesman,” Zwick’s movie follows the relationship between a shallow, fast-talking and inept pharmaceutical salesman named Jamie Randall (Gyllenhaal) and an attractive, independent woman named Maggie Murdock (Hathaway).

He pretends to be an assistant to a potential customer, Dr. Knight (Hank Azaria), so he can sneak a peek at her breast during an exam.

She figures out the deception and clobbers Jamie with her bag. Ah, love at first fight. (Read more…)

‘Tangled’ goes to great lengths

Saturday, November 27th, 2010
Flynn and Rapunzel from "Tangled" Rapunzel (voiced by Mandy Moore) captures a good-hearted thief named Flynn (voiced by Zachary Levi) in “Tangled.”

Where Walt Disney/Pixar’s “Toy Story 3” sketched all-too human characters in an adult story about mortality and the unstoppable march of time, “Tangled” returns to classic Disney princess tales for kids, with the characters filtered through a “Shrek” sensibility of jokey punch lines, self-aware catchphrases and the physical laws of a “Roadrunner” cartoon.

“Tangled” begins with an unlikely homage to “Sunset Boulevard” when good-guy thief Flynn Rider (Zachary Levi) tells us in feeble voice-over narration that he died, and we’re about to see what happened before he did.

A magic flower saves the life of a pregnant queen who gives birth to Rapunzel (eventually voiced by singer Mandy Moore). The infant inherits the flower’s mystical restorative powers. So, a nasty woman named Mother Gothel (Donna Murphy) kidnaps the baby and raises Rapunzel as her daughter, just so she can use the girl’s glowing tresses to remain eternally youthful. Locked in a high tower until her 18th birthday, Rapunzel buys Mother’s view of the world as corrupt and terrible, until she meets the fleet-footed Flynn, fleeing two former associates after stealing a royal tiara from them. After she beats him up and stuffs him in a closet, Rapunzel makes a deal with the rogue: She’ll fork over the satchel with the tiara if he’ll give her a guided tour of the outside world.

“Tangled” is a musical (hey, why waste Mandy Moore?) with Alan Menken’s music and Glenn Slater’s lyrics supplying a few appealing songs, especially the spite-filled “Mother Knows Best.” (Read more…)

‘Burlesque’ is no ‘Cabaret’

Friday, November 26th, 2010
Christine Aguilera in "Burlesque" Ali (Christine Aguilera) is a small-town girl whose pipes and curves revive a dying nightclub in “Burlesque.”

Writer/director Steve Antin wants desperately to be Bob Fosse in his brassy, sassy musical “Burlesque,” but the laughably cliché dialogue and shallow characters sink any chance that audiences will mistake his film for Fosse’s Oscar-winning “Cabaret.”

We never know much about pop singer Christina Aguilera’s main character Ali, except that she has no friends, no family, no solid acting ability and no reason to stick around Iowa.

So, she heads to L.A. to find her destiny at a Sunset Boulevard nightclub called Burlesque, run by crusty showbiz veteran Tess (legendary singer and gay cult icon Cher).

The place is packed every night with drinking, enthusiastic clients.

Yet, Tess must be a terrible manager because she’s so far behind on the mortgage, the bank prepares to foreclose on the club.

(Gee, did Tess ever think of pink-slipping some of her kajillion employees or cutting back on those lavish sets?)

We already know that Ali can belt out a song like Christina Aguilera, because she does it at the film’s opening.

So it’s no surprise that when a jealous dancer shuts off Ali’s mic during a number, she carries on by blasting the club’s roof off with her natural, unplugged voice (in echo-chamber mode, too).

Tess sees potential in Ali as a headliner. (Read more…)

Crowe launches his own mission impossible in ‘The Next Three Days’

Thursday, November 18th, 2010
Russell Crowe and Elizabeth Banks in "The Next Three Days" John Brennan (Russell Crowe) springs his convicted murderer wife (Elizabeth Banks) from the big house in Pittsburgh during “The Next Three Days.”

The most significant contribution of Paul Haggis’ lengthy and occasionally intense crime drama “The Next Three Days” could be the elevation of community college literature professors to the hallowed ranks of action heroes.

Noted Australian tough guy Russell Crowe plays one in “The Next Three Days.”

His name is John Brennan and he teaches such works as “Man of LaMancha,” about a man who fights windmills and never cedes idealism to reality.

When Pittsburgh police arrest John’s wife Lara (Elizabeth Banks) and charge her with murdering her boss, John never stops believing in her innocence, and spends years trying to win her freedom after her conviction.

It takes a shout-out from his attorney (the briefly seen Daniel Stern) to force him to see the obvious: “She’s never getting out, John!”

After his beloved and depressed Lara attempts suicide, John becomes desperate enough to consider the inconceivable: that a pudgy man of inaction like himself would plan and execute a daring prison break to honor a promise to Lara that incarceration “will not be your life.”

Strangely, “The Next Three Days” is a much more cinematic work than another current prison drama “Conviction,” yet far less gripping with less engaging characters. (Read more…)

Gloomy ‘Deathly Hallows’ sets the stage for Harry Potter’s final spell

Thursday, November 18th, 2010
Daniel Radcliffe in "Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 1" Harry Potter (Daniel Radcliffe) is on a quest for hidden pieces of Voldemort’s soul in “Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 1.”

Maybe Harry Potter could cast a magic spell over us before we see his new movie.

He could point his magic wand and utter an incantation like “NoDozeium Offem.” Or “RedBullium Energizus.”

That might help get us through “Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 1,” a mystical slugfest of gloom, doom, death and dysfunction, a wearying tale of color-bled, never-ending scenes of isolation and despair, mistrust and miscalculation.

Hard-core Harry fans will not be deterred by the meandering plot and bleak parade of expository sequences piling into each other.

But how else could “Deathly Hallows: Part 1” be anything beyond what it is: a beginningless, endless warmup act that lays the foundation for the climactic Battle of Hogwarts in Part 2, scheduled for release July 15?

Director David Yates has already supplied us with two well-crafted “Harry Potter” films: “The Half-Blood Prince” and ”The Order of the Phoenix.” Screenwriter Steve Kloves has performed a masterful job of translating and condensing J.K. Rowling’s epic novels to the silver screen.

Only after Part 2 comes out will anyone be able to gauge if breaking Rowling’s seventh and supposedly final Harry Potter novel into two movies was the best decision.

Meanwhile, Yates and his crew should be commended for sticking to Rowling’s literary vision and not dumbing down the material for “Harry Potter” neophytes, who won’t have a clue what’s going on in some of the character-driven plot developments. (Read more…)

‘Unstoppable’ a heart-pounding ride

Saturday, November 13th, 2010
James Franco in "127 Hours" Engineer Frank Barnes (Denzel Washington) takes on the dangerous job of trying to stop the “Unstoppable” in Tony Scott’s new action-thriller.

Seriously, how threatening and scary can a big, unmanned choo-choo be?

Let yardmaster Connie Hooper answer that one.

“A missile the size of the Chrysler Building!” she screeches.

OK. Now that sounds scary.

Tony Scott’s “Unstoppable” celebrates the old-fashioned disaster movie where human hubris and neglect conspire to threaten the lives of untold numbers of people.

“Unstoppable” represents the cream of the disaster movie crop, a smart and compressed dramatic experience pared down to its essentials.

It bends credibility just enough to bump up the action, but treats the whole story as one big Fox TV news report with a “You are There” approach that produces goose bumps.

“Unstoppable” is also a working-class hero tale, “inspired” by a 2001 incident in which an unmanned train zipped along the tracks in Ohio before being boarded and halted.

In Scott’s inspired nail-biter, a neglectful railroad engineer (“My Name is Earl” star Ethan Suplee) starts up an engine and lets it coast along while he jumps out, presumably to run ahead and switch the track.

Not being in great shape, he bumbles it and the train pulls out with nobody aboard.

How bad can this be? (Read more…)

Franco riveting in ‘127 Hours’

Saturday, November 13th, 2010
James Franco in "127 Hours" James Franco stars as a climber stuck in the Utah desert in Danny Boyle’s captivating drama “127 Hours.”

Several viewers keeled over while watching Danny Boyle’s fact-based drama at its Telluride Film Festival premiere earlier this year. That’s actually a testimonial for Boyle’s captivating survival movie and for James Franco’s phenomenal performance as an adrenaline junkie rock climber who spent 127 hours with his arm crushed between rocks in the Utah desert mountains.

Watching a single actor remain stationary for an entire movie might sound horrendous. But as anyone who saw Ryan Reynolds trapped in a coffin in “Buried” can attest, outstanding dramas can take place in the tiniest of spaces.

Boyle continues to astonish his fans and critics with another movie that Monty Python members might call “something completely different.”

He earned best picture and director Oscars for his India-inspired “Slumdog Millionaire.” Before that, Boyle showed us viral Armageddon in “28 Days Later,” the scary final frontier of space in “Sunshine,” neo-noir thrills in “Shallow Grave” and a wondrous children’s adventure in “Millions.”

Boyle isn’t about to start boring anyone now. He starts “127 Hours” with a rockin’, rollin’ soundtrack under vintage 1960s split-screen visuals showing Franco’s Aaron Ralston to be a loner and adventurer driven to finding that sweet spot called his comfort zone then diving merrily out of it.

Franco, perhaps best known as the Green Goblin’s spawn in the “Spider-man” movies, morphs into his real-life character without any of the fuss and pretension that usually comes with his performances. (He played legendary poet Allan Ginsberg earlier this year in “Howl.”) (Read more…)