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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The Intern


"I'll see your Raging Bull weight gain and raise you a Les Mis shaved head."

“I’ll see your Raging Bull weight gain and raise you a Les Mis shaved head.”

(2015) Comedy (Warner Brothers) Robert De Niro, Anne Hathaway, Rene Russo, Anders Holm, JoJo Kushner, Andrew Rannells, Adam DeVine, Zack Pearlman, Jason Orley, Christina Scherer, Nat Wolff, Linda Lavin, Celia Weston, Steve Vinovich, C.J. Wilson, Mary Kay Place, Erin Mackey, Christina Brucato, Wallis Currie-Wood, Molly Bernard, Paulina Singer. Directed by Nancy Meyers

Our culture is going from youth-oriented to youth-obsessed. We tend to marginalize the elderly, joke about their inability to decipher technology. As much as we dismiss the elderly, at the same time we don’t want to die young either. We want to live long, full lives. We also tend to ignore that in order to do that, we have to age.

Ben Whittaker (De Niro) has done that. He’s aged. He turns around and finds himself to be 70 and alone, his beloved wife passed on, retired from a successful 40-year career printing phone books. Even the industry he devoted so much of his life to has gone the way of the horse and buggy.

He tries to fill his days with tai chi sessions, Mandarin lessons and lattes. He also finds himself spending an unsettling amount of time at the funerals of his friends. He is busy but curiously unfulfilled. Even some flirtations with a lady his age (Lavin) – most of the flirtation coming from her end – leave him empty and even more cognizant that his life lacks something.

Ben has the wisdom to figure out that what he’s missing is purpose. Getting up early and going around and doing nothing productive just isn’t in his genetic code. When he sees an ad one day for senior interns at an e-commerce women’s fashion company, he decides to go for it.

Jules Ostin (Hathaway) is the CEO and founder of About the Fit, an online store that guarantees its clients that the close they buy will fit them precisely. How she does that is a miracle of epic proportions but hey, this is Hollywood so just go with it. Anyway, she doesn’t particularly need nor want an intern of any age but especially one who’s older and reminds her that her mother (Place) is judgmental and hyper-critical of her success. Jules is a bit of a workaholic whose company in 18 months has become a real player in e-commerce and has grown to more than 200 employees. The investors are beginning to get nervous; not despite the success but because of it. They don’t know if Jules has the experience and drive to grow the company into the next level so they are pushing to get an experienced CEO who can take them there.

Jules doesn’t necessarily want that to happen but on the other hand she is tired of being absent in her own home. Her husband Matt (Holm) is a paragon of support, giving up his own promising career to let her soar with eagles. Their cute as a button daughter Paige (Kushner) misses her mommy but seems cheerfully resigned to the fact that she doesn’t get to see her much.

Jules is a bit of a control freak and is looking for reasons that the easygoing Ben should not be her intern; he’s too observant, she complains to her right hand man (Rannells) as she orders a transfer but she soon comes to realize that Ben has become indispensable, giving her the confidence to be a better boss, a better wife and a better mom but will she learn the lessons Ben has to teach her in time to save her business…and her family?

Richard Roeper describes director Nancy Meyers as “reliable” and he’s right on that score. She doesn’t get the credit she deserves but yet she turns out consistently entertaining films albeit on the lightweight side but that may also be the secret of her success; even her movies with somewhat weighty topics (as this one which looks at women in the workplace) tend to be low-key and rarely rock the boat with strident opinions.

Here she is given the opportunity to take on how working women tackling entrepreneurial success are treated and the answer is pretty much not well, but she doesn’t hit her audience in the face with that revelation (which isn’t a revelation at all, really) but rather allows you to come to that conclusion organically. The point here is that there is a balance between career and family that can be achieved and when it is, both thrive but when out of balance, both suffer. It’s not really a subversive point at all and yet she sneaks it in out of left field with few people noticing at all that she’s actually communicating with her audience. Maybe it’s because she’s a woman?

De Niro has had some forgettable performances in the last decade but it’s forgiven because, hey, he’s De Niro. That’s not the case her as he utilizes his expressive face to go beyond the script with a well-timed roll of the eyes, shrug of the shoulder or grimace, he creates a character that’s living. That’s a good thing because Ben as written is a little too perfect to be believed; he always knows the right thing to say, do or be. He’s the magical Grandpa.

He also has great chemistry with Hathaway who also is a very emotional actress. The two have a great moment when discussing their marriages in a hotel room while on a business trip to San Francisco to interview a potential CEO (don’t ask why an intern would be on such a trip or how he got into her hotel room while both are in pajamas and robes), but Hathaway reminds us in those moments why she is such a powerhouse actress and along with Jennifer Lawrence and Amy Adams is the cream of the crop of talented young actresses that has come to the forefront of Hollywood the last five years or so.

There is a lot of contrivance in the plot which I suppose is to be expected because the story is so thoroughly a fairy tale but if that kind of thing doesn’t bother you and you don’t mind feeling the warm fuzzies as you exit the theater (or, if you are reading this a year from when this was published, as you turn off your TV or computer), this might just be what the doctor ordered. Da Queen found it to be much more than she expected from the trailer and I understand what she means; while Meyers can’t help the old fart jokes that pepper the film, there’s also a healthy respect for the difference between experience and wisdom that Hollywood sometimes mistakes for one another.

REASONS TO GO: Heartwarming without getting too treacly. Good chemistry between De Niro and Hathaway.
REASONS TO STAY: Ben is a little too perfect. Kind of fairy tale-esque.
FAMILY VALUES: Some sexually suggestive content and brief rough language.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The lead roles were at one time held by Jack Nicholson and Reese Witherspoon.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 10/6/15: Rotten Tomatoes: 60% positive reviews. Metacritic: 51/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: :The Internship
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT: Meet the Patels

Youth in Revolt


Youth in Revolt

Even shades and a moustache can't make Michael Cera look dangerous.

(2009) Comedy (Dimension) Michael Cera, Portia Doubleday, Steve Buscemi, Ray Liotta, Justin Long, Jean Smart, Ari Graynor, Fred Willard, Zach Galifianakis, Mary Kay Place, Rooney Mara, Adhir Kalyan, M. Emmet Walsh.  Directed by Miguel Arteta

Growing up is hard enough when you are marching in lock-step with the crowd. If you are marching to your very own drumbeat, chances are it’s damn near impossible.

Nick Twisp (Cera) is a teenager in Oakland with the kind of family situation that makes you want to pull every sensory organ out of your head and stomp on them. His parents are divorced; Mom (Smart) has taken up with an unpredictable druggie (Galifianakis) who has run afoul of a group of sailors whom he sold a car to. He has run so afoul that he has thought the better part of valor was packing up his girlfriend and Nick and moving them to a trailer park in the middle of nowhere, California. Here he meets Sheeni (Doubleday), a young girl as quirky as he, someone who knows who Jean-Paul Belmondo is, and knows what it means to be hip in a conformist world.

His dad (Buscemi) is compensating with a much younger girlfriend (Graynor) and Nick prevails upon him to move into Sheeni’s complex, getting himself thrown out of his mom’s household for good measure. However, Sheeni doesn’t think Nick is dangerous enough. Nick invents an alter-ego (also Cera) with a wispy moustache, a smoking habit and who tends to give really bad advice that soon has Nick in trouble with the law, with his family and with Sheeni.

This is one of those coming of age stories (based on a novel, of course) that seems to have the idea that the more twisted and mixed up you are, the more interesting you become. The movie sat on the shelf for more than three years as Cera’s star grew brighter before it finally got a release. Even so, it milks the kind of character Cera has made a career out of playing; young, fey, sensitive, good-hearted and somewhat spineless. He has an easy manner of quipping and yet never seems to turn that intelligence into making his world a better place.

Doubleday makes a pretty nice romantic lead, except she doesn’t really pull off the quirkier aspects of her character well. She comes off therefore as a girl pretending to be hip rather than being actually hip, which matches up poorly with Cera’s character, who has the outer appearance of being hip without the inner self-confidence to pull it off.

Still, the movie is funny where it needs to be and quite frankly this is one of my favorite performances by Cera. It doesn’t hurt that he has a wealth of comic actors to work off of – from the established (Willard, Buscemi, Place) to the up-and-coming (Galifianakis, Graynor, Long – as Sheeni’s brother – and Kalyan, as Nick’s ethnic friend who may be even more of a dork than he is). The cast for the most part perform admirably, although some of the storyline just goes into ridiculous mode from the second half of the movie onwards.

It’s not a bad movie at all, and despite my low regard for hip indie coming of age movies about quirky teens who are hipper than thou, managed to reel me in thanks to some nice supporting performances (particularly from Buscemi, Willard and Galifianakis) and some good, solid laughs. What more can you ask from a comedy?

WHY RENT THIS: Well-written dialogue and some funny situations. A very strong supporting cast comes up aces.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Michael Cera is far too one-note an actor to be playing two characters.

FAMILY VALUES: There’s plenty of foul language, quite a bit of sexual content and some drug use.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The man who sells Jerry the camper is none other than Michael Collins, the Apollo 11 astronaut who was in the command module while Armstrong and Aldrin got all the glory.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: None listed.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $19.7M on an $18M production budget; the movie was a flop.

FINAL RATING: 6/10

TOMORROW: The Ghost Writer

City of Ember


City of Ember

Bill Murray loves a kidder and he's got a whole town square full of them.

(20th Century Fox) Bill Murray, Tim Robbins, Saoirse Ronan, Harry Treadaway, Martin Landau, Marianne Jean-Baptiste, Toby Jones, Mary Kay Place. Directed by Gil Kenan

A city can be a place full of wonder and it’s only natural that a young person that comes of age will want to be a part of it in one way or another. However, cities can hide the most sinister of secrets and the older a city becomes, the more likelihood of skeletons hiding in urban closets.

Lina Mayfleet (Ronan) and Doon Harrow (Treadaway) have both come of age and are eagerly awaiting Assignment Day in the city of Ember, a darkened city lit by overhead lamps. Doon hopes for a job where he can make a difference in the city’s infrastructure whereas Lina is hoping for a slot in the Messengers. Of course, neither one gets what they want – Doon gets the Messenger slot and Lina is slotted to work a job in the pipes as a kind of plumber. However, the two swap jobs and attain a reasonable sort of happiness.

There is reason for concern though. The city is prone to blackouts that are happening with greater frequency and for longer periods. There are shortages of food and resources, and rationing is the word of the day. The appearance of giant moths, beetles, bees and moles are becoming more frequent and more dangerous. The city’s technology is breaking down with more and more machines simply failing to work.

The secret of Ember is that it is located deep underground. The Builders of Ember located it there after an unnamed catastrophe made life on the surface of Earth impossible. They also built a metal box with a timer set for 200 years, after which the box would open. The box is entrusted to the Mayor of Ember with strict instructions of Do Not Open until Christmas…200 years from now. The box is passed from Mayor to Mayor who keep the secret of the box’s existence from the people of Ember, until with 47 years to go a Mayor unexpectedly dies without passing the secret of the box to his successor. As a result, the box is put into storage, forgotten and ignored so when the box clicks down to zero, nobody notices.

Fortunately, it is locked in the home of Lina Mayfleet who discovers it. Meanwhile, Doon is discovering to his shock that the great machines that are keeping Ember alive are failing and nobody knows how to fix them. When the two of them go to the current Mayor (Murray) with their suspicions, all Hades breaks loose. It turns out that the Mayor is not only fully aware of the situation but is making precautions for his own survival at the expense of the citizens of Ember. The corrupt Mayor sends the troops out after the plucky kids, who have worked out that the box contains instructions on how to leave Ember and return to the surface, but can they escape their dying city before it takes them with it?

This is based on the first of a quartet of novels by Jeanne Duprau for young adults. This is director Gil Kenan’s second feature (his first was the marvelous animated feature Monster House) and he makes it visually arresting. The city of Ember itself is a rabbit warren, but it is the magnificent machines below the surface that make the grandest impression. This is obviously a decaying society, with lamps that fall from the sky, exposed wiring everywhere and a general air that everything is held together with duct tape and jury rigging. It looks like a city on the edge of falling apart.

The story is something of a parallel, with a 200 year old place grappling with a failing energy supply and environmental disasters. The old guard of the place is keeping the extent of the danger hidden from the citizenry who go about their lives (for the most part) like nothing is wrong, but the young people have a sense that they need to act and act soon. Sound like anywhere you know?

Ronan, who has already received an Oscar nomination in her young but brilliant career (for Atonement) has assembled an impressive body of work for someone so young, and does a wonderful job here, as does Treadaway. Far from being the smug, smart-assed teens we often see in the movies, they are smart, brave and real. They are onscreen for the bulk of the film and it is essential that the audience not only relate to them but like them, and I did.

This is quite a quality movie that took a critical lashing, another instance in which I think most of the critics simply blew it. The movie also crashed and burned at the box office, which is sad – I would have liked to have seen the sequels, but it is unlikely they will ever be made. Still, take comfort in that this is a rare instance of a kid’s movie that doesn’t talk down to its target audience, that treats them as intelligent, thinking people and appeals to their sense of wonder rather than their most base instincts. One City of Ember is worth a hundred G-Forces.

WHY RENT THIS: Smarter fare than most kid’s movies, with amazing set design.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: The pacing seemed a bit rushed, particularly towards the end.

FAMILY VALUES: There are some moments of jeopardy and peril, and the giant moles and moths might frighten smaller tykes; otherwise, this is suitable for most audiences.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The set for the city of Ember was built in the paint hall in a former shipyard in Belfast, in the city’s Titanic Quarter near where the RMS Titanic was built.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: None listed.

FINAL RATING: 6/10

TOMORROW: The Yes Men Fix the World

Shrek Forever After


Shrek Forever After

Rumpelstiltskin is hacked off when he finds out this isn't The Incredible Hulk.

(DreamWorks) Starring the voices of Mike Myers, Cameron Diaz, Eddie Murphy, Antonio Banderas, Julie Andrews, John Cleese, Jon Hamm, Kathy Griffin, Craig Robinson, Walt Dohrn, Jane Lynch, Lake Bell, Mary Kay Place, Meredith Vieira, Ryan Seacrest, Larry King, Regis Philbin, Kristen Schaal. Directed by Mike Mitchell

One of the great ironies of life is that we rarely appreciate what we have until it’s gone, even when we are fully aware that we have everything we want. This is true of people and also true of ogres.

Shrek (Myers) has everything; a wife who loves him madly, three cute little ogre kids and good friends. Still, he is beginning to reach a bit of a mid-life crisis. He has lost his inner ogre-ness; no longer is he scaring villagers with his mighty roar. In fact, his ogre roar has become a party trick. He spends more time changing diapers than relaxing in his mud pit. To add insult to injury, tour buses stop regularly by his house to watch him stomp into his outhouse. It’s humiliating.

After an argument with his wife Fiona (Diaz) at their son’s first birthday party Shrek finds himself wondering what his life would be like if he hadn’t rescued his wife from the Dragon’s Keep all those years ago. This is overheard by Rumpelstiltskin (Dohrn), an evil little wizard who specializes in magical agreements that carry with them terrible consequences.

He offers Shrek the opportunity to return to being an ogre for a day. In exchange, he wants one day from Shrek’s childhood, one that Shrek would never remember. Shrek, after some initial misgivings, agrees.

He is whisked away via magical maelstrom to the village, where he enjoys terrorizing the villagers and their livestock and pets, and wallowing in the mud. Things are going swimmingly and he is enjoying his inner ogre again, but when he goes home he discovers his home is deserted. His friend Donkey (Murphy) doesn’t know him, and Far Far Away has a new king – Rumpelstiltskin.

It turns out that the evil little munchkin had taken the day Shrek was born, which means that when his 24 hours end, Shrek will cease to exist. In fact, in this reality, he’d never been born, so nobody knows who he is. It’s sort of a twisted It’s a Wonderful Life.

In the meantime, Fiona has become the leader of a rebel underground, the proud owner of a now fat, sassy and lazy Puss in Boots (Banderas). Her right hand man is a lantern-jawed ogre named Brogan (Hamm). And she has no time or sympathy for crazy stories about magical agreements and alternate realities. The only thing that can save Shrek and restore the world to as it should be is what freed Fiona in the first place – true love’s kiss. This time, however, Fiona doesn’t know Shrek and how can she love someone she doesn’t know?

This is billed as the final film in the series and there is a bit of an air of closure here. Director Mike Mitchell gets to rearrange Shrek’s universe pretty much as he will, but really doesn’t do much with it. One of the trademarks of the Shrek series is the number of pop culture references skewered, but strangely Mitchell chooses to rein that in, preferring to spend more time developing the story. That’s a mixed blessing. Mitchell is taking a chance which gives him points with me, and marks this movie as a bit different than any other entry in the franchise – but at the expense of some of the characteristics that made these movies so special to begin with.

Dohrn is a bit of a revelation here. He worked on the previous Shrek the Third as a writer, story artist and voice actor. He has a more pivotal role here and works it nicely, a bit of a cross between Wallace Shawn in The Princess Bride and Jason Lee in The Incredibles. Rumpelstiltskin may well turn out to be the best villain in the Shrek franchise, right up there with Lord Farquaad and the Fairy Godmother.

At its best, Shrek Forever After is as good as anything in the four Shrek movies. However, the movie suffers from being a bit uneven; the moments of genuine hilarity are a bit rarer than in previous efforts and when the movie isn’t at the top of its game, it’s actually a little flat. That lack of consistency is often frustrating.

Don’t get me wrong. The movie has plenty of charm, and fans of Shrek are not going to be disappointed with this. It’s certainly much better than Shrek the Third. Unfortunately, it is far too uneven to rank with the first two movies of the series which may not be the fitting send-off that the series deserves, although again, there are moments that make for quite a graceful exit.

For me, Shrek should be irreverent, funny to both kids and adults and this one doesn’t have those elements to the same degree as Shrek and Shrek 2. It does have enough of those items to allow me to recommend the movie, although if you go in with high expectations you’ll probably be disappointed. I find the best I can do here is damn the movie with faint praise. If you don’t have kids who will absolutely drive you crazy if you don’t take them to see it, you might well wait for this to come out on video and see Toy Story 3 when it comes out instead.

REASONS TO GO: There’s a goodly amount of charm and some of the moments here are among the best in the series.  

REASONS TO STAY: The movie is somewhat uneven and leaves one with the impression that the series has run out of ideas.

FAMILY VALUES: There is a smattering of cartoon violence and some scatological humor but otherwise suitable for all audiences.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Dohrn, in addition to voicing Rumpelstiltskin is also credited as being “Head of Story.”

HOME OR THEATER: 3D didn’t add a whole lot to the movie; this would be fine at the multiplex but really, home video would do this just as proud.

FINAL RATING: 6/10

TOMORROW: Away We Go