Norman Lear: Just Another Version of You


Little Norman at the lectern.

Little Norman at the lectern.

(2015) Documentary (Music Box) Norman Lear, Rob Reiner, Amy Poehler, John Amos, Russell Simmons, George Clooney, Louise Lasser, Mel Brooks, Bob Saget, Carl Reiner, Bill Moyers, Jon Stewart, Lyn Lear, Kate Lear, Keaton Nigel Cooke, Jay Leno, Martin Mull, Jimmie Walker, Bud Yorkin, Sally Struthers, Mary Kay Place, Valerie Bertinelli, Adrienne Barbeau. Directed by Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady

Florida Film Festival 2016

One of the giants of the television landscape is Norman Lear. While there are those who criticize his politics (he’s an unabashed liberal who brought progressive thought to the airwaves back when it was dominated by conservative sorts) nobody can deny the success that he enjoyed (the only man to have six shows in the top ten simultaneously) nor the legacy he left behind.

This documentary is mainly aimed at the glory days of Lear’s career in the 70s, as we follow the creation and execution of shows like All in the Family, Maude, Good Times and The Jeffersons among others. There are some interesting things worth noting, like Carroll O’Conner had a very hard time reconciling his own liberal beliefs with the racist dialogue his character had to say. He often fought Lear on certain elements of dialogue because he felt so uncomfortable about saying it, even as a character not himself. Generally, Lear prevailed and as such we got Archie Bunker, America’s favorite bigot as TV Guide once termed him.

While there are plenty of talking head interviews, the most interesting are with Lear himself who even as a nonagenarian is clear-eyed and a charismatic raconteur. While some of the interviews come a bit close to fawning, certainly if anyone warranted such treatment its Lear. As we hear from such modern comedy icons as Amy Poehler and Jon Stewart (as well as Everybody Loves Raymond creator Phil Rosenthal) one gets a real sense of just how influential the man continues to be. Certainly the modern television landscape would be a very different place without him.

Best of all, we get to see a goodly amount of clips of some of the various shows’ best moments. For those like myself who grew up in that era, the sense of nostalgia is palpable, and very welcome. While I didn’t religiously watch these shows (I grew up in a conservative household with a dad who thought Lear was too political and certainly too much of a leftie for his tastes), I did watch them often and enjoyed them.

There is a bit of a misstep; there are some linking devices here with a young boy, wearing a hat similar to the one that Lear has become known for wearing (for more than 50 years, no less) apparently playing Lear as a young man re-enacting some of the events of Lear’s life on a bare stage. While I give the filmmakers props for at least trying to get out of the typical talking head/archival footage mode that characterizes most profile documentaries, it just doesn’t work.

What does work is Lear himself. He had a difficult relationship with his own father, who was jailed when Lear was just nine years old. One of the more powerful moments is when Lear unexpectedly breaks down when discussing his relationship with his dad. It’s one of the times we get to see inside the inner Lear.

And there’s the rub. I don’t think we get a very complete view of who Lear the man is, but you’re not really going to do that in an hour and a half in any case. Thinking that any documentarian can do so is simply unrealistic. We do get a good sense of Lear’s accomplishments and what he means to modern television in general. We also come to the understanding that as influential as Lear is, and as much as his work echoes into the modern day small screen ethos, nobody makes ‘em like the master anymore and there is a hint of the bittersweet in that fact that is inescapable. There will never be another quite like him.

REASONS TO GO: Some very powerful emotional moments. A trip down memory lane. Really gives you an idea of how influential Lear is.
REASONS TO STAY: Not sure we needed Little Norman.
FAMILY VALUES: A little bit of profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Lear was 93 years old when interviewed for this film.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 4/17/16: Rotten Tomatoes: 80% positive reviews. Metacritic: No score found.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Kid Stays in the Picture
FINAL RATING: 8/10
NEXT: Wrestling Alligators

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Tim’s Vermeer


Tim Jenison plays a little rock and roll viola.

Tim Jenison plays a little rock and roll viola.

(2014) Documentary (Sony Classics) Tim Jenison, Penn Jillette, David Hockney, Philip Steadman, Martin Mull, Colin Blakemore, Teller. Directed by Teller

The paintings of Johannes Vermeer are exercises in light and color, virtually photorealistic. They were painted at a time when photographs didn’t exist and artists painted their subjects by what they saw alone. In the intervening years, it has been a subject of considerable debate in the world of art as to how Vermeer did it.

Tim Jenison is not a painter. He’s a computer geek and a tinkerer, making his fortune as the CEO of a company that revolutionized both home and professional videography. His company, NewTek, has won Emmys for the Babylon 5 television show. He became intrigued by Vermeer after reading Philip Steadman’s book Vermeer’s Camera: Uncovering the Truth Behind the Masterpieces which opined that Vermeer must have used a mechanical aid, specifically a Camera Obscura (essentially a box with a pinhole or lens through which an image is reflected against the back wall of the box upside down but with the color and perspective intact) in order to get his images. Artist David Hockney’s book Secret Knowledge: Rediscovering the Lost Techniques of the Old Masters further fueled his fire on this.

Much of the controversy stems from x-rays of Vermeer’s paintings revealing that no tracing lines were drawn which is standard with most artists. As narrator Penn Jillette puts it, “it’s as if Vermeer were some unfathomable genius who could just walk up to a canvas and magically paint with light.”  In any case, Tim went from intrigued to obsessive. After coming up with a simple device utilizing a mirror (the inspiration for which came in the bathtub), he discovered that he could match precisely the colors of the images reflected in the camera obscura. He determines to paint a Vermeer of his own.

He uses for inspiration the painting The Music Lesson which hangs in Buckingham palace. In order to duplicate the painting, he built the room and furnishings from scratch in a San Antonio warehouse. He learned how to grind pigments into paint and even learned to read Dutch in order to facilitate the process. He wanted everything to be as exact as he could make it using technology available in Vermeer’s day. When the room was ready, he sat down to paint.

The results are remarkable. His friends Penn and Teller – who met him when they started using Video Toaster as consumers – document this remarkable undertaking. Jenison himself is affable and entertaining, self-deprecating but curious as a child. We catch Jenison’s sense of wonder when after being refused admittance to see the painting, he at last is granted a 30 minute window to view it with the proviso that no recording equipment come in with him. He is visibly moved by the experience and reports that the painting is much more detailed and awe-inspiring in person than any reproduction could make it.

Some critics have sniffed that the filmmakers are forcing a particular theory down the throats of the audience and present it as fact, but those critics were probably surfing the internet rather than watching the film. The movie is clearly presented as a possible explanation as to how Vermeer may have achieved his remarkable achievements in art. That the painter may have also been a tinkerer no less diminishes his achievements as an artist. It must be said that no optical devices were listed among Vermeer’s personal effects when the artist died, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t possible that he didn’t use any during his lifetime.

We will never know how Vermeer achieved his style of painting because he left no notes behind explaining his technique. No master of any art, from Vermeer’s day right up to the present, is going to reveal their secrets easily. What this movie is about isn’t really about how Vermeer did it. It’s about how Tim Jenison did it. It’s his story, not Vermeer’s. It’s easy to lose sight of that when you don’t want to think that an icon of painting may have used non-standard means to create his art. At the end of the day, what matters is not how Vermeer painted his paintings but the paintings themselves, which are quite literally snapshots of a world three centuries gone. There is nothing that Jenison does here that diminishes the accomplishments of Vermeer; instead, it brings even more of a sense of wonder about them at least in my case.

REASONS TO GO: Absolutely mind blowing.

REASONS TO STAY: Might be a little too detail oriented to the easily bored.

FAMILY VALUES:  There are a few choice words.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Jenison was not a trained artist at the time he undertook the “Vermeer Project” which he chronicled via blog. He was best known for co-inventing the Video Toaster software bundle as well as the LightWave 3D computer animated graphics program.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 3/25/14: Rotten Tomatoes: 90% positive reviews. Metacritic: 76/100.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Girl With the Pearl Earring

FINAL RATING: 8/10

NEXT: Divergent

Top 5 Starfests


One of the big draws of The Expendables (see review) is the star power; many of the biggest stars in the action genre of the last 20 years make an appearance in the movie. Loading up a movie with as many stars as you can fit in is nearly as old as Hollywood is itself; having multiple stars draws across various fanbases and give the movie a wider potential audience to draw from. Some movies exist for little reason beyond just getting those self-same stars into the same movie; how many people would have seen Heat for example had it not had both Pacino and De Niro in it? At their best, Starfests can be a romp allowing big stars to shine in small little-more-than-cameo roles. These are my favorites.

HONORABLE MENTION

There are several movies that didn’t make the top five but were worthy of mentioning here. Robin and the Seven Hoods (1962) was ostensibly a Rat Pack movie with Sinatra, Deano and Sammy, it also boasted Bing Crosby, Peter Falk, Barbara Rush, Victor Buono, Tony Randall and Edward G. Robinson, along with a number of Borscht Belt comics of the day. The Towering Inferno (1974) followed the tried and true disaster film formula of throwing a bunch of stars into a disaster situation and then have the audience watch to see who survives. Not only did it pair up Steve McQueen and Paul Newman for the first time, the stellar cast included William Holden, Fred Astaire, Jennifer Jones, Robert Wagner, Richard Chamberlain, Faye Dunaway, Robert Vaughn and OJ. Yes, that OJ. Clue (1985) was based on the popular board game and had the gimmick of shooting three different endings which varied depending on which theater you saw the movie in. The cast of characters included Madeline Kahn, Martin Mull, Tim Curry, Eileen Brennan, Christopher Lloyd, Michael McKean and Lesley Ann Warren. Finally, Mars Attacks! (1996) was director Tim Burton’s homage to a series of collectable cards issued in the 1950s that depicted all sorts of gruesome killings perpetrated by rampaging Martians. Here, he set up a spectacular cast only to kill them off in some horrible way, including Jack Nicholson, Pierce Brosnan, Michael J. Fox, Danny De Vito, Annette Bening, Rod Steiger, Jim Brown, Glenn Close, Sylvia Sidney, Pam Grier, Joe Don Baker, Paul Winfield and Martin Short. Also cast in early roles were Jack Black and Natalie Portman before they were famous. 

5. THE GREAT RACE (1965)

 The Great Race

This Blake Edwards-directed ode to the daredevil motorists of the early1900s relied heavily on silent cinema conventions and star power to motor it along. The race from New York to Paris featured Jack Lemmon as the Dastardly Professor Fate, whose car contained among other inventions, a smoke machine, a cannon and a scissor lift. Tony Randall  Curtis was the Great Leslie, whose eyes and teeth twinkled and gleamed like the Northern Star, sure to set all sorts of female hearts a-flutter at the time. Along for the ride was an impressive cast including Natalie Wood, Dorothy Provine, Ross Martin, Keenan Wynn, Peter Falk, Arthur O’Connell, Larry Storch, Vivian Vance and Denver Pyle. It can be seen regularly on broadcast television and is usually not that hard to find at your local video retailer.

4. THE LONGEST DAY (1962)

 The Longest Day

The story of D-Day is an epic canvas in and of itself, and Hollywood just about outdid itself when it rolled out the red carpet for the stars who played both front line soldiers and officers behind the scenes where the invasion of Normandy was planned. John Wayne headlined the she-bang, but among those who were also involved including (deep breath now) Henry Fonda, Sean Connery, Richard Burton, Red Buttons, Robert Mitchum, Roddy McDowell, Curt Jurgens, Robert Ryan, George Segal, Edmund O’Brien, Sal Mineo, Fabian, Mel Ferrer, Robert Wagner, Stuart Whitman, Rod Steiger, Eddie Albert and Gert Frobe. It may not have been the longest day but it might have been the longest cast. It periodically shows up on broadcast television or basic cable; it can be difficult to find at video retailers, but as a classic is most certainly worth seeking out.

3. OCEANS 11 (2001)

Oceans Eleven 

George Clooney got together with his buddy Steven Soderbergh and decided to remake the Rat Pack classic of the same name, albeit much modernized but with the same jazzy sense of style. The two of them called a bunch of A-list friends to make a new Rat Pack for the 21st century and an impressive list of talent it is; Julia Roberts, Brad Pitt, Matt Damon, Bernie Mac, Elliott Gould, Carl Reiner, Andy Garcia, Scott Caan and Casey Affleck. You got the feeling that robbing the casino was not so much the point as was having a three-month long party in Vegas. Fortunately, what happened in Vegas didn’t stay in Vegas – it was a smash hit and inspired two sequels and there might have been more but for the untimely passing of Bernie Mac. Currently, it plays cable TV regularly and occasionally shows up on TBS and it’s ilk. If you don’t want to wait for it to show up on TV, you can easily find it at most rental outlets or retail stores if you want to add it to your own library.

2. MURDER ON THE ORIENT EXPRESS (1974)

Murder on the Orient Express

A classic Agatha Christie mystery became a box office smash and Oscar winner in the capable hands of director Sidney Lumet. Albert Finney starred as the natty Belgian detective Hercule Poirot faced with a vicious murder on a train that as he investigates, he determines it has something to do with an infamous kidnapping that was obviously based on the Lindbergh baby kidnapping. In this gorgeous period piece, everyone’s a suspect and when you have a cast like Lauren Bacall, Anthony Perkins, Richard Widmark, Ingmar Bergman, Sean Connery, Michael York, John Gielgud, Martin Balsam, Wendy Hiller, Jacqueline Bisset, Vanessa Redgrave, Rachel Roberts and Jean-Pierre Cassel, it doesn’t really matter who done it. This is one train ride I don’t mind taking over and over again and you certainly can; it makes regular appearances both on premium cable and basic cable. It is also fairly easy to find at video rental places, although generally you’re much more apt to be able to buy it online than you are in brick and mortar retailers.

1. AROUND THE WORLD IN 80 DAYS (1956)

Around the World in 80 Days

Producer Michael Todd’s epic version of the Jules Verne novel was beyond scale or scope. One of the most honored films of all time with five Oscars (including Best Picture), the movie starred the urbane David Niven as Phineas Fogg, with the Mexican comedian Cantinflas as the loyal manservant Passepartout, the cast included most of the biggest stars of the day, with Shirley MacLaine as the lovely Princess Aouda, but also in varying roles from cameos to featured roles, Frank Sinatra, Robert Morley, Noel Coward, John Gielgud, Charles Boyer, Cesar Romero, Cedric Hardwicke, Ronald Coleman, Robert Newton, Peter Lorre, George Raft, Red Skelton, Marlene Dietrich, John Carradine, Buster Keaton, Joe E. Brown, Andy Devine, Hermione Gingold, Edward R. Murrow and Trevor Howard. This remains one of the most entertaining movies ever made. It used to be a broadcast staple, but rarely shows up on cable these days; you’re probably better off renting it or buying it from your favorite retailer.

Killers


Killers

Katherine Heigl prays for a better movie next time after checking out how much she made on this one.

(Lionsgate)  Ashton Kutcher, Katherine Heigl, Tom Selleck, Catherine O’Hara, Martin Mull, Katheryn Winnick, Kevin Sussman, Alex Borstein, Lisa Ann Walter, Rob Riggle, Casey Wilson, Usher Raymond, Letoya Luckett. Directed by Robert Luketic

How well do you really know your mate? You can take at face value what they tell you about their past, but how truthful are they really being? More importantly, what could they be leaving out?

Jen Kornfeldt (Heigl) has just been dumped by her boyfriend. They had been planning a vacation to Nice on the French Riviera but she winds up going with her parents instead – her dad (Selleck) a dour, straight-laced former airline pilot and her mom (O’Hara), a borderline alcoholic whose free spirit has been drowned in an endless ocean of cocktails.

In Nice she meets Spencer Aimes (Kutcher), a handsome, ripped and nice young man who yearns to settle down with the right girl and put down some roots. He’s a consultant working for a company that has him travelling all over the world, and he’s ready to get off the merry-go-round. At first, Jen is reluctant to confess her status as recently dumped and vacationing with her parents but eventually she comes clean, particularly after she’s had a lot more to drink than she normally does, confiding in Spencer her dating past as a “nerd magnet.”

Fast-forward three years. The two are happily married and living in a quiet Atlanta suburb with block parties, nosy neighbors and the sound of riding mowers. Jen is a consultant for a computer software company while Spencer has his own construction company. Life is pretty idyllic for the two, with Jen’s parents a mere five minutes away. Okay, maybe not so idyllic.

It’s Spencer’s birthday and he really doesn’t want to make a big deal of it. In fact, he seems pretty moody lately and Jen’s at a loss to explain why. She makes arrangements to throw a big birthday party for him, with her dad in charge of driving Spencer to the house. The party goes pretty well, although again Spencer seems distant. Jen’s friends attribute it to the Three Year Snooze, the point in a marriage when routine begins to dominate. Jen wants to question Spencer further but she has to go out of town to deliver a presentation on her company’s new software at a San Francisco computing conference.

She returns home and is horrified to discover her husband and his best friend Henry (Riggle) locked in mortal combat. After Spencer subdues Henry and they get him tied up, she is understandably shocked and demands an explanation.

It turns out that Spencer’s past is catching up with him. The “company” he used to work for is in fact the CIA and he was a contract assassin for them. Having left the agency to be with her, he has discovered that nobody just “leaves” the company. After questioning Henry, they discover that there is a $20 million bounty on Spencer’s head and there is more than one assassin planted among their neighbors and friends just waiting to collect it.

From that point on they are dodging bullets and homicidal killers, all the while trying to get Jen’s pregnancy test done. When they try to question Spencer’s former boss (Mull), they find him as dead as a doornail – two shots to the heart and one to the head, very old school. If Spencer’s boss didn’t let loose the hounds, who did? Jen is angry and bitter, feeling that Spencer had lied to her all this time about his past. In the meantime, people they thought were friends and neighbors are trying to kill them. If they survive the attempts on Spencer’s life, will their marriage survive?

Heigl has been repeatedly cast in romantic comedies of late, few of which match her breakout role in Knocked Up. Here they even add the pregnancy card to try and maybe recapture that magic but quite frankly this isn’t the right role for Heigl. While she isn’t really called upon to be the action hero here, she is probably more comfortable in straight comedic roles.

Her chemistry with Kutcher isn’t what you’d call scintillating. At times you wonder what they saw in each other to begin with. The relationship is so central to the movie that if it isn’t believable, the whole movie falls apart. It’s not quite unbelievable but it’s close.

The action sequences are a bit rote which doesn’t help matters. This is primarily a comedy with the action secondary, but even so I would have liked a bit more edge to the action. That’s one of the things that made the similarly-themed Mr. and Mrs. Smith so delightful. Here there’s nothing surprising so you tend to stifle a yawn.

What does work in the movie is Tom Selleck and Catherine O’Hara. Selleck has fun with his image as a tough guy and brings a little DeNiro into the mix. The combination works very nicely. O’Hara is an underrated comedienne and steals nearly every scene she’s in. It’s nice to see her do what she does best – create a character that’s funny and believable at the same time.

Killers isn’t really a bad movie, it’s just not a very good one. It’s diverting and has its own charm but certainly it isn’t a movie you should feel the need to run right out and see. It has its moments and if you are fans of either Kutcher or Heigl you’ll probably see it anyway, but otherwise this is one you can safely wait for its appearance on home video or cable.

REASONS TO GO: Kutcher and Heigl are amusing. Selleck and O’Hara just about steal the movie.

REASONS TO STAY: Not a lot of chemistry between the two leads. The action sequences don’t really compete with other summer movies out there.

FAMILY VALUES: There’s some comic violence as well as a good deal of sexual innuendo, and a bit of bad language. It’s suitable for teens, but probably not for the really young kids.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: While filming a fight scene, Kutcher accidentally knocked out one of the stunt men with a punch to the head.

HOME OR THEATER: While this is clearly an action movie, it doesn’t have the kind of big action requiring a big screen.

FINAL RATING: 5/10

TOMORROW: The Lucky Ones