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THE HOT ROCK, CINDERELLA LIBERTY, ART SCHOOL CONFIDENTIAL and DISTANT VOICES STILL LIVES

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

THE HELP: A TALE THAT NEEDS TOLD



It seems these days that young people tend to ignore history or to relate to it only in the amount of time they've had on Earth. Anything beyond that is unimportant to them. At the same time they tend to focus more on social and media material than on things as simple as books, limiting themselves to the intake of knowledge. With the release of THE HELP, one can only hope that it inspires them to look deeper, to find out the real story of what happened with the civil rights questions of the sixties.

Set in the early sixties in Jackson, Mississippi, the story revolves around the black maids of this racially segregated town. These are the days when separate entrances and water fountains were considered normal. And while they are called on to use separate areas, the maids are considered good enough to basically raise white children and take care of white houses.

The main character in question is Aibileen (Viola Davis), a maid who works for a respectable family, taking care of their child Mae Mobley and teaching and taking care of her as well as cooking and cleaning the house. The friction in her world has been buried beneath years of racial prejudice but comes to a head when the leader of the Junior League, Hilly Holbrook (Bryce Dallas Howard) tells the girls in the club everyone should have a separate bathroom for their hired help because they carry germs. She's so convinced she's written an initiative and sent it to the governor in hopes that it can be turned into a law.

Aibileen knows she can not react but it doesn't set well with her either. Neither does it set well with Eugenia "Skeeter" Phelan (Emma Stone). Just back from college and hoping to find a job as a writer, Skeeter has just taken a job as a writer taking on letters concerning cleaning which she knows nothing about. Seeking advice and help, she turns to Aibileen who knows all sorts of cleaning secrets. When Hilly makes her bathroom initiative know, Skeeter doesn't think much of it and pushes back mentioning it in the Junior League's newsletter indefinitely.

As Skeeter and Aibileen get to know one another, Skeeter asks her if she'd be interested in talking to her about what its like to be a maid in Mississippi, what it's like to raise white people's children only to see them grow and become more like their parents. While she turns her down at first, eventually Aibileen realizes that she needs to find the courage it takes to let the truth be known. Once she does, the two begin putting together the book that will become known as THE HELP.

Skeeter does have an ulterior motive but she's up front with Aibileen from the start. Skeeter wants to be a serious writer and a publisher in New York would be interested in the stories she's seeking. As they progress she finds that the publisher wants more than just one or two maid's tales, they need more. Aibileen first recruits her best friend Minny (Octavia Spencer), a brash and at times abrasive maid who's having problems finding new employment as Hilly has recently fired her. Eventually due to other circumstances more maids join in.

But this is just the story of the maids that is the main focus. What also comes into play here is the story of Hilly and her controlling nature as well as her racist attitudes. Hilly rules the Junior League with an iron fist and the girls that belong follow her lead to the letter. This is the social atmosphere of Jackson at this time, a world where social stature is the most important thing. All women desire to be added to their midst and fear being shunned by the League and Hilly. But Hilly's actions eventually have consequences.

The story reveals itself as the world is changing. Medgar Evers is shot at one point and JFK's funeral is mentioned. Not only do these items bring the historical aspect of the time into play but they set the tone for what the world was like during this period. This is the most important thing that young people can gain from watching this. My guess is none of them would believe that anyone could be so backwards as is seen here but it did happen.

The revelations of the stories the maids have to tell and how they are treated by their white employers brings the tale of racism to a personal level, especially those of Aibileen and Minny. And Skeeter, who was raised in this atmosphere, has her eyes opened as well as each story is told to her. It's as if she's seeing the world around her for the first time.

THE HELP is not a movie that will give details and specific incidents to young people who see it concerning the civil rights movement. But as I stated earlier, it will be a nice jumping on point for them to begin looking into it. Many would be stunned to learn that there are still areas of the country that continue on this way.

The best part of this movie is that it's not a slap in the face. It's not an attack that paints one group as superior to the other or sets one race against another. Instead it uses Hilly to represent that vocal minority that leads others by the nose and forces them to do these things they know they shouldn't, sitting back and accepting things as they are in the hopes of being part of the in crowd. It uses Skeeter to represent the people who have stood by silent but are waking up to the realities around them. And it uses Aibileen and Minny to represent those who have been oppressed and have hope for a different future.  This is a movie that needs to be seen by youngsters who don't know what it was like. Perhaps in so doing they can realize that change was needed and needs to carry on.

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TREE OF LIFE: A LOOK AT LIFE

Last year at the film festival in Cannes, all the talk seemed to be about Terrence Malick's new film THE TREE OF LIFE. In part this was due to the critics taking note of the movie and reviews ranged from one end of the scale to the other. But no one wanted to miss it. Perhaps that's because Malick is something different in Hollywood.

Since 1973 Malick has only released 5 films as a director and almost all of them have been critically acclaimed if not a huge financial success. And yet he continues to direct films and find studios to back him. Where some films that claim to be "art films" never deserve the attention they receive, Malick's films are more often than not something to witness. They are a visual and storytelling treat. Those films have included BADLANDS, DAYS OF HEAVEN, THE THIN RED LINE, THE NEW WORLD and now THE TREE OF LIFE. I usually find myself appreciating films like these but rarely enjoy them enough to watch again. This film changes that.

The story begins with the death of a brother to Jack (Sean Penn). Its effect on him isn't quite visible. Surely he is shaken but it makes him think back to other things, other days and growing up in the 1950s.

Brad Pitt plays Mr. O'Brien, Jack's father. Pitt's character is a strict disciplinarian but not without reason. He wants his children to grow up and be successful. This becomes even more important later in the film when he is forced to take on a different job. He feels its better to be your own boss than to work at the whim of someone else. His battles with life, his struggles, are imposed upon his three sons, especially Jack.

Jack's mother is the opposite of his father, a free spirit who sees joy in the world around her, who offers her children a sense of freedom in simply playing. Mrs. O'Brien (Jessica Chastain) is a tender woman who loves her husband and her children with equal measure, but who wants her boys to experience life as opposed to just making a living and not experiencing things as simple as sunsets.

One would think that these two differing people would be hard pressed to find common ground. But the fact is that they are the yin and yang of these boys lives, the balance between reality and fantasy that should exist to make a person complete, to make them whole. And as the life Jack remembers fills the screen we see the three brothers in various forms through his eyes; his love of his brothers and at times his jealousy of them. We witness his admiration for his father but his fear of him as well. And we see his love for his mother that comes through at all times.

This is a coming of age story that shows a young boy grow up to be a man but without a major plot issue that makes it happen. It's not like someone dies or does drugs but a simple story of a boy. You recognize so much of what Jack goes through and experiences if you grew up during this time period or even the one after. Fireflies, bb guns and tying frogs to model rockets are just some of the crazy things kids do or did. And Jack and his brothers do it all.

But Malick wasn't content to leave it at that. We also have the story of Pitt's character, a man who struggles to do his best and yet considers himself a failure. In reality he hasn't failed he's just placed in a position where he can't achieve the goals he's set for himself. That day might come, but not as this story takes place. He is a man with wealth in the love of his wife and children who feels he is poor. And it is through his disappointment in himself that we see the bad side of family.

Malick is amazing in the images he turns up on film. What for most would be a humdrum neighborhood with little to see, Malick turns it into a feast for the eyes. You can almost feel the warm summer days when kids would play or do yard work here. And a sunset is rarely captured so brilliantly on film.

Added to this is a sequence that involves the creation of the world. It's an amazing thing to watch that would fit home in Epcot let alone in any film concerning the beginnings of life. The effects used and the footage that comes out is breathtakingly beautiful.

At just over 2 hours the movie may seem a tad long for some. While I watched though it passed the personal test I have for all movies: when it's really bad and if it moves to slow I just hang tight to the remote and move past the slow parts. Sorry but that's the truth. I never once felt the need to do so here.

THE TREE OF LIFE is a fantastic movie. It's one that I will keep on hand because I know I'll want to experience it again, finding new things to witness with each viewing. It's a movie that I think anyone with children will enjoy. And it's a treat for the eyes, the ears and the mind. In short, this is a great movie and deserving of all the credit and hype that surrounded its initial release. It deserves better than the short time it was on screens and needs to be discovered. With its release on DVD, now is the chance.

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WATER FOR ELEPHANTS: ROMANCE UNDER THE BIG TOP



I wasn't sure what to expect with the movie WATER FOR ELEPHANTS. Was it a circus film? A romance? A heavy handed drama? The result was a combination of all three with a tad less heaviness than I expected. And the combination works to form a touching story.

The film opens in the present with an aging man (Hal Holbrook) apparently lost and at a circus. When he's offered help finding his way to the retirement home it becomes apparent he worked once in a circus, the Benzini Brothers Circus, a circus whose history had the worst accident ever. He was there and begins to tell the current circus' owner what happened.

Jacob Jankowski (Robert Pattinson) is about to graduate as a veterinarian from Cornell University in 1931 when word reaches him his parents have died in a car accident. With no funds and no inheritance (they mortgaged the house to put him in school), he hits the road in search of work, something not plentiful during the Depression. He hops a train only to find he's jumped aboard a circus train and must pay for his way.

The next day an older circus hand named Camel takes him under his wing and shows him how things operate, putting him to work until he can talk to the boss, August (Christoph Waltz). Before he can be tossed off the train, he tells August that he's a veterinarian and can help with the horse he saw earlier limping along.

August gives him a chance to help and he looks the horse over under the watchful eye of the star horse rider and August's wife, Marlena (Reese Witherspoon). While Jacob and Marlena see the horse will not survive long, August wants to keep it performing till it keels over. Jacob shoots the horse but alter is nearly tossed from the speeding train as August informs him that he is the sole ruler of this group and never to disobey him again.

Time moves forward and Jacob learns all the various tricks of the circus while at the same time taking care of the animals. These are hard times and a star attraction is needed to make the show the best there is. Fortune smiles on the group in the form of a leftover attraction from another failed circus, an elephant named Rosie.

Rosie and Marlena are to be the top item in the show, but Rosie isn't moving at the speed in learning a routine that August wants. Numerous painful prods with a pike get her moving but also wound her, something neither Jacob nor Marlena approve of. After a show in which Rosie escapes, August beats her to near death. An accident happens when Jacob says something to her in Polish and she understands. This opens the door for a well performing elephant.

Beneath all of this is a bit of flirtation going on between Marlena and Jacob that August is unaware of. The combination of romance between two people that almost literally fall into each other's path, the unknown world of the circus and the volatile temper of the man who runs it all make for a romantic drama that could end in tragedy. Only time will tell.

Pattinson and Witherspoon will be the draws to this film. Witherspoon for her fresh faced all American appeal and Pattinson for his heartthrob notoriety gained with the series of TWILIGHT films. But each displays a deeper acting ability than their previous films have delivered. While watching this film you forget that its a movie, that these are actors and you feel that it's the story of two people who share something in common that brings them together in a cold, cruel world.

Waltz, noted for his evil portrayal of a Nazi commander in Tarrantino's INGLORIOUS BASTARDS, shows that his acting is not a one note talent. While his character is as evil if not more so in this film, it is far distant from the Nazi in the previous. There is a certain amount of sympathy for this character that in the hands of a different actor might not have shined through. But Waltz delivers on the Oscar nominated promise seen before.

In all this film harkens back to the old days when movies were larger than life and filled with images of worlds we normal humans rarely had the opportunity to visit with the exception of a few moments in a darkened theater. This is grand old fashioned movie making at its best. It's entertaining, tells a story and is so well made you don't notice that it's even a movie. And those are the best kind of all.

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ATLAS SHRUGGED: POSSIBLE FUTURE?



Written in 1957, Ayn Rand's novel ATLAS SHRUGGED was a sensation. To this day the book continues to sell copies around the world and the late Rand has a group of followers to this day. So it would seem that this book would be easy to get made, right? Unfortunately no and the reasons why are as interesting as the book. Why would such a popular novel written so long ago take so long to be made? The producer of this film hints that it might possibly involve the politics of the film.

The rights were purchase in 1992 and it's taken since then to get the film made. The themes involved are ones of individual achievement and recognition and the idea that they should be rewarded.  Here the government claims that things are being done to protect all when instead it's more about taking from one to help another, a government where the greater good of all comes before the individual, where redistribution of wealth is the goal of the government. Sound familiar?

The year is 2016 and the world is in turmoil. The Middle East has taken to war with themselves and in the process cut off oil supplies. Limited oil means sky high gas prices (around $37 a gallon) and the most common mode of transportation of goods is via trains. The Taggart family has the biggest train system available with brother James (Matthew Marsden) at the helm. But the business is faltering due to his mismanagement. Failing to replace old rails and update the system the company is a PR nightmare. Enter sister Dagny (Taylor Schilling).

Dagny has allied the company with Reardon Steel, a company headed by Henry Reardon (Grant Bowler). Reardon has come up with a new formula for steel that makes it lighter, more durable and cheaper. Dagny contracts his company to replace the rails in the oldest and most accident prone part of the company's rail system. Fighting her all the way is a group of old type steel owners and unions with ties to government lackeys who will do anything to prevent this from being a success.

They first try to prevent this by planting stories about how unsafe the new steel is complete with studies presented by institutions who receive their funding from the government. They then change the laws to prevent one person owning more than one company, a slow way to take apart Reardon's conglomerate. But Dagny and Reardon press on. Will their endeavor succeed?

While all of this is happening, major players in many companies are disappearing. One by one they just fall off the face of the Earth. But we viewers know something is up. Before each one disappears, a shadowy figure shows wearing a wide brim hat and asking for a moment of their time. And after they disappear the same phrase keeps appearing: Who is John Galt?

There is so much story going on here that it's no wonder the entire book has been planned as a trilogy. This being part one we're introduced to the main characters and the situations that I'm sure will play out in parts two and three. But it doesn't feel like an incomplete film until the credits roll.

Never having read the book (it was never assigned in class and I've not had the chance on my own yet) it will ignite an interest in it. This movie is well made and timely considering all that's happening in the world these days. Many catch phrases used seem to be taken from today's headlines as opposed to a book that's 54 years old.

The production values of the film are superb. Great photography and direction only enhances actors who do a wonderful job. This is pretty amazing on it's own since none of the actors involved here could be called A listers or perhaps not even B list names. But each one turns in a performance that makes you believe they ARE the character being played.

In a world where 24 hour news services play along constantly, each one seeking out their next headline story, this film just has a feeling of being important to see. Yes, it does take a one sided view of the world but then again don't all films? Perhaps the best thing to do is simply sit back, watch and see what you gather from the film on your own without prodding. As for me I found myself anxiously anticipating the next two parts. Let's hope they both appear soon.

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NCIS LOS ANGELES: TAKING ON TERRORISTS


When it comes to watching TV it seems there is better programming on these days than ever. Even compared to what folks consider the golden age of television there seem to be more shows on worth watching now then at that time. Even the spin offs, programs that link themselves to already hit shows have gotten better. Case in point, NCIS LOS ANGELES.

I was never a big fan of the original series NCIS (which stands for Naval Criminal Investigative Service) that took a look at the investigative unit for the Navy and Marines that focused on crimes committed involving either or. When I got around to watching it on DVD I realized why it was such a hit show and that folks were watching. With the success CBS had in generating 2 spin off shows in their CSI franchise it only made sense they'd try the same here. But NCIS LOS ANGELES while similar is completely different.

Rather than focus solely on the criminal aspects and turning the show into another police procedural, this one takes on more international criminals and more often than not terrorist activity. This is not a group that works regularly in the public eye (though with the number of shoot outs on city streets seen here it's hard to believe they've never been filmed or made newsworthy in their world). This is a more clandestine group preferring to go undercover in an attempt to thwart bad guys and terrorist on US soil.

I never got the chance to watch season one but came in with this DVD collection of season two. It kicks in right away with a thread that will involve several episodes throughout continuing to the shows cliff hanger season two finale. This involves the past of agent G. Callen (Chris O'Donnell) the teams leader. Callen continues to have flash backs of his past while still unable to remember it all. Various episodes here take on things seen in those flashbacks and just who he really is. On the surface he's the teams on the scene leader, the man who decides who does what and gets the job done. But even Callan answers to someone.

That someone is Hetty Lange (Linda Hunt), an old operative in the field who now focuses her attention on pulling together jobs for the team to take on. Hetty is in charge of the LA field office for this group and is a legend in her time. She also inspires many things in the team beginning with fear, respect and love. While cautious around her, the team would do anything to protect her and in fact do so in one episode this season.

The next important piece of the team is Sam Hanna (LL Cool J), the rough and tough partner for Callan, an ex-Navy SEAL member who's seen bad and good times both. Hanna is a conundrum of sorts, being the muscle on the team but at the same time its spiritual guide as well. Sam takes no gruff but also knows there are better things in this world.

The other set of partners are far different than these two. Kensi Blye (Daniela Ruah) is another ex-military agent whose partner was killed in season one. Kensi is the optimistic agent but never let it be said that she's soft. She's as deadly as any other agent and perhaps more so when need be. Her new partner is the team's liaison with the local police, Marty Deeks (Eric Christian Olsen), a quick witted flirtatious member who jokes non-stop but who displays a serious side as well. Deeks may seem silly at times but inside he carries as much baggage as the rest of the team which makes itself known in various episodes here.

The team is aided in the background at home base by two tech geeks who supply them with backgrounds when they go undercover, information when they're in the field and support as often as needed. Eric Beale (Barret Foa) and Nell Jones (Renee Felice Smith) are unconventional when it comes to military protocol but the tops in their field when it comes to anything high tech. This team finds the buried information that helps lead the field teams to find the bad guys.

With the teams in place this show seems much like the original. The team works well together, each banters back and forth in a good natured way and the Kensi/Deeks team hints at a possible romance between the two eventually (though it never plays out in this season). The entire group is like an extended family, each one concerned about the other and with a closeness one can only wish they had. This closeness is so intense that by the last episode of the season the team quits NCIS to go search for Hetty who has disappeared.

The team is also one that you hope we actually have in place, a team that is willing to do what it takes to protect their country. Themes of loyalty, family and honor run throughout the season two set and all combine to make these character modern day heroes, something we seem to be short of or rarely hear of these days in real life. And its important that a young generation realize that there are heroes in this world.

Season two features the team taking on various bad guys throughout. Villains involved in human trafficking, stolen weapons, hijacked information, and terrorist's attempts on the country are all just a day at the office for this group. And while the occasional quip might be made after a case is solved, the team never takes things lightly or without a touch of personal psychological damage. But they pick up and do it all over again the next episode.

The cast involved here are amazing. O'Donnell has the charisma and intensity that many associate with Matt Damn in the Bourne films. He's a much unappreciated and underrated actor and it shows here. LL Cool J may just be another rapper to some but his acting chops have upgraded with each role he's ever played. That sharpening of skills gives his performances here the edge that is needed. Ruah and Olsen play their roles with an ease that seems natural to both. Their playful back and forth banter that has the undercurrent of a personal interest in each other is subtle yet there at all times. And Hunt as the enigmatic Hetty is a treasure. This is the role she was made for. No one knows for sure if the legends about Hetty are true or just legend, but they make a point of walking lightly around her while at the same time adoring her. It is in great part due to the performance Hunt displays here that the whole legend becomes believable.

The only bad thing one can say about this season 2 set is that it ends leaving you wanting more. But it will be some time before season 3 arrives. Until then you have to make do looking for the episodes on TV or streaming. Myself I tend to like to wait so that I can sit down for a few nights with folks that now seem like old friends. Once you watch this set you may feel the same way too. Now I just need to make sure and pick up season one.

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SPY KIDS 4: TIME FLIES WHEN YOU'RE HAVING FUN


If you're not a fan of the SPY KIDS movies then you should be. Sure, the movie is promoted as a made for kids film but the fact of the matter is that Robert Rodriguez series is made for not just kids but the kids in all of us. And it holds true in his latest installment SPY KIDS 4: ALL THE TIME IN THE WORLD.

This time around we have a new set of kids since the originals have grown up. As the movie opens, Marissa Wilson (Jessica Alba) is the top OSS spy and on a mission...even though she's due to give birth the next day. Still able to tangle with Tick Tock her able bodied enemy Marissa wins the day, retires and heads for the delivery room.

A few years later we get to see her dealing with family problems now. She's married to Wilbur Wilson (Joel McHale), a reality TV star whose show has him hunting for spies. In addition to the new baby she has two young step children as well. Cecil (Mason Cook) gets along with her fine but his older sister Rebecca (Rowan Blanchard) resents her step mother and always makes her the butt of her pranks.

Of course Marissa is called out of retirement when Tick Tock escapes and lines himself up with a new enemy, The Timekeeper. They've set out to start the Armageddon machine and take over the world. The only thing that can prevent it is a stone encased in a necklace that Marissa just gave Rebecca. Asking for it back starts a whole new problem as Rebecca gives her a prank instead of the necklace.

Left home, Rebecca and Cecil find themselves under attack by Tick Tock's henchmen which initializes the home defense system Marissa installed to protect them. Soon the kids are off to a secret panic room and discover their unusual dog Argonaut is actually a robot. As the henchmen close in the kids are tossed into small rockets and whisked away towards OSS headquarters with the henchmen in pursuit. Of course they escape and make it to base.

There, they're introduced to their cousin Carmen Cortez (Alexa Vega) of the original series now grown up and working at OSS. Carmen tells them all about their mother and heritage and the Spy Kids program, now defunct. Soon the kids find themselves involved with trying to stop The Timekeeper on their own with the help of a few gadgets they were given as gifts and the whole family winds up in the middle of saving the world before the end of the film, including their other cousin from the original 3 films, Juni (Daryl Sabara).

Like the other films in the series this one isn't a movie intended to win over Oscar members. While some have panned the movie saying it displays Rodrigeuz' selling out I disagree. What it shows is his ability to entertain people who go to movies and it does so in spades. The movie does feature a number of gross out jokes for kids but that's the core audience of the film. It also offers plenty of laughs and some fantastic special effects. The fact that many are intended for 3-D doesn't hamper the movie at all.

Alba and McHale do a great job as the parents here, one aware and the other not much so of the spy heritage of the family. Both Blanchard and Cook do commendable jobs as the new kids on the block having had some small shoes to fill. And it's nice to see Vega and Sabara able to return to their original roles as adults. Let's hope they can all stick it out for at least another film.

This is the definition of a popcorn movie. A movie that is meant to entertain and make you laugh a little, to stretch your imagination and to just make you have fun. It does all of that. There's nothing offensive here and the movie's safe for family consumption unless you're offended by jokes about passing gas. If not then rent this one and watch it with your kids. If you don't have kids watch it anyway and remember when you were a kid and thought all of those James Bond gadgets would be cool to have. The movie offers more entertainment in 5 minutes than most do in 2 hours. Have fun!

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THE ORIGINAL CHRISTMAS CLASSICS: IN TIME FOR CHRISTMAS

Every year about this time I write a column about a favorite Christmas holiday film. I know you're all probably tired of hearing me extol the virtues and greatness of ITS A WONDERFUL LIFE but what can I say? How about something different this year?

For those of you who have finally joined the blu-ray revolution you can now own a great collection of some of your favorite Christmas classics on blu-ray. From ClassicMedia pick up THE ORIGINAL CHRISTMAS CLASSICS. This set includes for holiday favorites from the folks at Rankin-Bass, three of which I feel deserve to be called classics and a fourth included because it's a sequel.

On the low end you have FROSTY THE SNOWMAN, a fairly decent look at the character from the song about a snowman who comes to life when a magic hat is placed upon his head. I say low end because this is traditional TV animation here with a focus more on transforming a story into a modern setting and that almost never succeeds. It does so here but not completely. Rather than just have fun with Frosty only to see him melt away until next year we have a story of a despicable lame magician whose hat it was that made Frosty come to life. Wanting to keep the only successful piece of magic he has, he continues to pursue the hat while little girl Karen keeps trying to save Frosty by getting him to the North Pole. It's a cute movie that the kids will enjoy and parents can ignore.

The worst piece included here (sorry it's true) is FROSTY RETURNS. While the main character is the same the entire story and way it's told is far from festive. Frosty comes back but the problem this time around is an evil corporate inventor who has created a product that melts snow. This way folks don't have to shovel drives or deal with the white stuff, they can just spray it away. This movie is Christmas as seen through the eyes of the sixties protestors, out to save the environment and bring down the evil corporate giants who want to ruin things. In so doing they ruin the meaning of Christmas and create a cartoon that lacks anything worth watching.

On to the good...no the GREAT stuff. First off is SANTA CLAUS IS COMING TO TOWN. This is one of the animated puppet films that the Rankin-Bass studios were known for. It tells the whole story behind Santa Claus, how he got his name, why he wears red, how he got to the North Pole...almost anything any child could ever ask. If you've enjoyed this over the years you'll know who I'm talking about when I mention the bad guy's name, Burgermesiter Meisterberger.  His attempts to stop children from playing with toys is famous but so is Chris Kringle's ability to continue to deliver toys made by elves. While most kids and teens today will have no idea who Fred Astaire is, he narrates the entire thing with help from Mickey Rooney as Santa (yet another actor lost to this generation).

I've saved the best for last. This four film box set comes with the greatest of all Christmas time TV shows, even better than A CHARLIE BROWN CHRISTMAS or HOW THE GRINCH STOLE CHRISTMAS. Those may be two and three on my list but how could anyone NOT love RUDOLPH THE RED NOSED REINDEER? Once again the Rankin-Bass studios used animated puppets to tell the tale of a couple of misfits found in Rudolph with his glowing nose and his friend Hermy, the elf who wanted to be a dentist. Their adventures after leaving the North Pole and finding things like their friend Cornelius the gold digger, the Island of Misfit Toys and the terrible creature known as the abominable snowman later to be called the Bumble are legendary. At least to kids who grew up after the shows premiere back in 1964.

To this day kids watch this show on a yearly basis when it comes on TV. And while it's great to wait for that day it's even better to be able to watch a pristine version on your TV via blu-ray. The crisp colors and sharp focus make this show a treat for the eyes and the songs you've come to know and love make it one for the ears. It is a Christmas gift that you can enjoy whenever the mood strike this way. You may end up watching it more than during winter months!

There is a simple pleasure in waiting to watch your favorite shows as they play out in real time on television. And that can still happen. But it's also nice to know you can have these in your collection to watch when you want to, perhaps even on Christmas Eve before putting the kids to bed. It might even make them head there sooner so they can lay awake, to excited to sleep, waiting to hear the bells of Santa's sleigh with Rudolph in the lead. It might.

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ZOOKEEPER: A FUN DAY AT THE ZOO


So once in a while you have to sit back and pop in a movie you think is safe for the kids...when suddenly you find yourself laughing and enjoying the movie more than they are. They're at that age when it's just not cool to laugh at something your parents like as well so they stifle their guffaws as much as possible while you smile and laugh out loud. Too bad because they miss out on some fun movies that way. Movies like ZOOKEEPER.

The movie opens with Kevin James as Griffin proposing on a sandy beach at sunset while riding a horse to the woman he loves, Stephanie (Leslie Bibb). Unfortunately unlike most youtube videos, she turns him down explaining how she thought he'd change and leave behind life working in a zoo. She wants someone more upwardly mobile.

Fast forward a few years and Griffin is still working in the Franklin Park Zoo. He loves his work and he loves the animals he cares for. While taking care of them all, he pays particular attention to Bernie the gorilla. Bernie has kind of sequestered himself from contact with anyone who comes his way including Griffin who tries his best to cheer him up.

Griffin's brother is about to get married and they hold the engagement party at the zoo thanks to Griffin. But as he begins to make a speech about the new couple he notices Stephanie in the background and stumbles on every word out of his mouth. It turns up that Stephanie is back in town and was invited by the bride. Could she and Griffin reunite? As the animals listen in to their conversation it appears a possibility.

That night the animals call a meeting and discuss how to make Griffin more attractive to Stephanie and reunite the pair. If not one of the overheard discussions was Griffin talking about leaving and they want him to stay. Somehow they have to unite the pair and at the same time not let Griffin know they can speak. But of course things go wrong and the main animal, Joe the lion (Sylvester Stallone) lets lose scaring Griffin.

The animals come together and let Griffin know they can talk now and do their best to school him on how to get Stephanie back. The problem is while their intentions are good the ideas they offer him work more in the animal kingdom than in the land of humans.

While all this is going on Griffin helps one of the zoo doctors, Kate (Rosario Dawson). They pair work well together, especially in the case of helping save Janet the lioness (voice of Cher). It was due to Griffin's saving her from choking to death that the animals decided to help.

Taking the advice of the animals Griffin does his best to win Stephanie back. But this time around he not only has to convince her he can be the man she longs for but he must also compete with a Neanderthal of a new boyfriend Gale (Joe Rogan). In an attempt to face off against this jerk, Griffin has Kate go with him to the wedding in an attempt to make Stephanie jealous. But something else begins to happen.
The film offers a back and forth from the world of Griffin's romance to his love of the animals he cares for. Can he leave behind all that he holds dear in an attempt at love with a woman who wants him to be something else? And what about Kate, is something going on there?

The answer is simple if you ever seen a romantic comedy made since say 1925. It's also a staple of the romantic comedy that the main protagonist not realize who he really loves or what he wants to do until the last moments of the film. But knowing this is what will happen or not doesn't matter, it's the journey to that moment that makes this movie such fun.

A huge cast of big names offer voice talent here along with the others mentioned. Adam Sandler plays a monkey Judd Apatow an elephant, Donald Faizon and Jon Favreau a pair of bears and more. All of them have some hilarious lines and moments that are a joy to watch, especially Nick Nolte as Bernie the gorilla. The scenes this character shares with James are a hoot, especially a trip in the outside world to TGIFridays. If you go there you'll be looking for an ape next time.

The movie is fairly predictable but it doesn't matter. It has plenty of laughs, a touching story and holds your interest throughout. James does a great job doing plenty of physical comedy and adds a nice touch to the romantic side he offers, especially not appearing as the normal hunk of the month. All in all this movie offers a good time at any price and is actually one worth adding to your collection. Check it out.

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MONTE CARLO: THE NEW AND IMPROVED GIRLS ON VACATION FLICK


Remember when you were a kid (or for some of you as adults) when you'd watch the late show and see those movies about teens of college age kids heading somewhere for a fun vacation? It always seemed like Connie Francis, Jim Hutton, Paula Prentiss, Troy Donahue or Sandra Dee were heading to Florida or California to have fun in the sun. Inevitably someone fell in love, someone was hurt and life long romances followed. These were light and fluffy films that offered fun with a touch of drama and an occasional great theme song ("Where the Boys Are"?). MONTE CARLO is like one of those movies made for the current generation.

Selena Gomez stars as Grace, a waitress who can't wait to get out of her one note town and discover the world. Living with her mother and step father is fine but she can't seem to get along with her step sister Meg (Leighton Meester) at all. In an effort to iron things out, their parents allow Grace to go on a vacation to France is Meg goes along. Neither is happy with this but it happens. Along with them goes Grace's best friend Emma (Katie Cassidy), a rough and tumble fellow waitress with dreams of romance and a boyfriend who just doesn't seem to get her.

The three land in France only to discover that the brochure about their planned trip doesn't quite live up to it's promises. Cramped hotels and getting only seconds to look at the sights isn't what they expected at all. Accidentally separated from their group, they stop in a hotel where Grace is mistaken for Cordelia Winthrop Scott, a socialite snob of English nobility who treats people like dirt. Overhearing that she's sneaking off to meet someone and avoid the press, shrugging off the duties of her position, Emma convinces the girls to take her place with Grace impersonating her.

The usual follows with them enjoying the high life and never having to pay for it all. Financially that is. Emma is treated to the interest of a wealthy man and his ways. Grace meets a man in charge of the auction her "character" is supposed to be a part of and falls in love and Meg meets the man of her dreams who makes her open up a bit. As with the old movies, some are setting themselves up for a fall while others will find happiness. In the end it's all good and things work out for the best. Okay that's not a spoiler so no reason for a warning. These movies always end the same and that's just fine. It's not the end result that comes into play here but the journey it takes to get there that makes them fun.

All three actresses do a fine job here, making you believe that they are the naive girls who just want to sample the good life before heading home to their mundane lives. While the situations they find themselves in seem a bit over the top, it's all in good fun and that's what watching this is all about. Looking for something light, fluffy and fun? Then this movie is well worth the cost of rental.

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WEST SIDE STORY: 50TH ANNIVERSARY


It hardly seems possible that the movie WEST SIDE STORY is actually 50 years old. When you read those words the first thing that pops into mind is...am I really that old? The answer is yes and would be far better if I thought I had survived as well as this film.

For the few who aren't aware (or for the younger generation that seems to think the only movies made were those since they were born) here is the gist of the story in this film. Think Romeo and Juliet transported to the 50s gang era in New York. Then again if you don't know movies from 50 years ago who's to say you know Romeo and Juliet?

Gangs seemed to spring up everywhere in the 50s media. They were feared by the establishment and hailed by teens. The teen gangs became to subject of numerous investigations and arrests and then spawned a number of films. The first to treat them a little different was WEST SIDE STORY.

The Jets are the premier gang in their neighborhood. But with the influx of Puerto Rican's moving in the rival gang the Sharks are poised to take over. A confrontation is inevitable; it's just a matter of when. Leading the Jets is Riff (Russ Tamblyn) who views his turf as a home for the gang bereft of a regular family. The Jest ARE their family. And no one is going to take away their "home",

In charge of the Sharks is Bernardo (George Charkiris). While many Puerto Rican immigrants view America as an opportunity, Bernardo just sees the degradation and put downs for his people, including his sister Maria (Natalie Wood). And the Jets treatment of Bernardo and his friends is just the culmination of how he views the world in America.

Both gangs are ready to explode and the final straw happens at the high school dance. Along with the Jets is ex-member Tony (Richard Beymer) who wants to move on with his life working and away from the gangs. He sees the downfall it leads to. With Bernardo comes Maria to her first dance. The two see one another and its love at first sight. But Bernardo steps in between them.

The two love birds still find a way to see one another and share their hopes and dreams of finding a world where they can be themselves and not worry about others. At the same time the Jets and Sharks have a war council and are planning a rumble to fight one another.

During the fight Riff is killed by Bernardo, Bernardo by Tony and suddenly the advice everyone has to offer the two lovers nearly wrecks their chances at happiness. Can they make it out of their world of hate? Can two people from two different backgrounds work through their differences and resolve their problems? Those are just some of the themes at work here.

So now that you have the story you might wonder what makes this one so special. Perhaps I failed to mention that this isn't just a movie but a musical. Yes here we have a group of tough teens dancing and leaping and singing about how much they love their gangs. Unusual? Sure but it works and works well.

Initially this story ran on Broadway but never to huge box office success. The movie changed all of that. It did big at the box office and even won the Oscar for best picture, best director (Robert Wise), supporting actor (Chakiris), supporting actress (Rita Moreno as Bernardo's girlfriend), cinematography and more. When that happened the play became a world wide sensation as well.

But back to the movie. It has been called one of the greatest movie musicals of all times. It has been hailed as the best of the best. But while it is good, I've never quite found it to be among my most favorite. There are sequences that will stick with me forever when it comes to film history and my own enjoyment (the entire sequence of the song "Cool" is amazing to this day and I love the song "When You're A Jet") but on the whole I was never quite in love with the movie.

That being said, the new blu-ray transfer of the film is amazing. This film is being seen as it should be, in glorious color with a transfer and restoration from what was previously available done right. It is one of the best examples of why film restoration is something people should take seriously and consider. Many of the films from our past, from when we were growing up, are deteriorating in cans around the world. One day those movies may be gone and forgotten but not if they can be saved.

The movie seen here is better than a number of films released since. The dance numbers, choreographed by the late great Jerome Robbins is fantastic. It's a combination of ballet, jazz dance and improv that combines to become something unique. Robbins was in on this play from the start and co-directed with Wise. Their work together here is remarkable.

The music sticks with you in some songs and falls into the memory bank with others. If you don't walk away with at least one in your head for days, one that you find yourself humming later in the week, I would be surprised. That's something to be said for a movie that's 50 years old. And the quality of this production and restoration is something to treasure as much as the songs offered. If you've never seen WEST SIDE STORY you now have a chance. Not just any chance, but one that offers it in the best possible way ever.

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SARAH'S KEY: TRAGEDY LOCKED IN THE PAST


Julia Jarmond (Kristin Scott Thomas) is an American journalist with a new newsmagazine that finds herself involved in a story that connects to her present day life and husband's family. The story moves comfortably back and forth between the past and present as it unfolds telling a dramatic and tragic story.

Sarah Starzynski was a young French Jew during WWII. As the Jews in Paris are being rounded up, she tells her brother to hide in the secret closet and not to let anyone know he is there, locking the door behind her. What she doesn't realize is that this is not a few hours away trip but a transport of Jews to the camps. Unable to leave to release her brother, she searches for a way out.

Relocated to a velodrome with no bathrooms and horror inducing conditions, the family is finally taken to trains and unable to rescue their son. But Sarah never gives up hope, holding tightly to the key in her possession.

Each step of her trip is followed by Julia in the present as she searches for answers of what happened to the young girl. It becomes even more personal when she finds that the new building she and her husband are renovating is one that's been owned by the family since as far back as the war. Could they have known what became of the boy? Or of Sarah? Julia continues to search for answers, feeling a connection by being in the same apartment.

The story follows Sarah as she and her family are separated in the camps. Few people realize that the Germans were not the only ones to have taken unkindly to the Jews during the war. In an attempt to placate the Germans, many French involved themselves in these roundups as well. It is only in recent years their involvement has been made more public.

In the camp Sarah continues to hold on to hope (and her key) that her brother is still out there and safe. If only she could reach him. With nothing to lose, she plans an escape and a way back to Paris. This would be an incredible task for anyone but even more so for Sarah who is only around 10 years old.

Julia continues to learn more about the apartment and about Sarah. And the more she learns the more she yearns to know what happened. Things between her and her husband become strained. She questions his family about what they knew. And by the end of the film we too will learn what became of Sarah and her brother.

While the movie is about a horrifying experience and piece of history, it never plays it for the cheap thrill. The suicide of one woman in the velodrome is the worst it gets, but you know what's going to happen to these people. The interweaving of the two stories is well handled and the acting makes you feel that these people are truly going through the ordeals they find themselves in past and present.

SARAH'S KEY is a timely story, especially when one witnesses the anti-Semitic remarks hurled during the latest Occupy Wall Street protests. It is a lesson we should have learned by now but apparently haven't. And perhaps that makes this movie one that should be seen today. A touching drama, a superb story and well made film that is worth the rental price.

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NEEDLE: YOU DO THAT VOODOO...



It would seem that the well would run dry of ideas for a decent horror film these days. We've had tons of slashers and serial killers, demons and wizards, witches and warlocks and vampires that run from blue faced ghouls to sparkly inspirations for lust. But still once in a while a decent idea comes along that's new and fresh. The only problem is it usually ends up in a so so film like NEEDLE.

Opening with the death of a dirty artifact dealer years ago by some remote instrument, the film moves forward to the present day. Ben Rutherford is a college student with the usual group of friends (which these days means there must be at least one gay couple). The family lawyer shows one day with an item belonging to his late father, an item found in a warehouse, an intricate box with a burned picture inserted in it, ornate metalwork and a crank. With no idea what it is or what it's for, Ben shows it off to his friends that night.

Waking the next morning with a hangover, Ben discovers the box is missing. Having taken a picture of it the night before, he takes that to a teacher who specializes in antiquities to see if she has an idea of what it is. Eventually she lets him know that the French inscribed on it seems to lead her to think it was connected to the Grand Guignol, the graphic horror shows from France around 1800. After talking to someone she knows, it is later discovered this is a machine made to wreak revenge on others and worth nearly $500,000 to the right buyer.

At the same time this is going on, Ben's brother Marcus is attempting to make contact with him once more. Having left behind the family years ago he hopes to reunite but Ben isn't having any of it. To say he carries a grudge is oversimplification. But the two are forced together as Ben's friends begin dying in mysterious ways. Since Marcus is the crime scene photographer he takes an interest in the murders and trying to solve them.

The list of suspects includes nearly everyone seen so far, from various friends (that don't get killed off) to Ben's teacher to even Marcus. When it's finally revealed who the killer is it is actually a bit of a surprise, a nice twist.

But the mystery isn't the main reason fans of horror films watch these days. Hardcore fans are there for the kills and how original they are and they're fairly inventive here. We watch as a gloved hand pours wax and blood into the box, inserts a picture of one of Ben's friends, turns the crank and then extracts a wax figure. The hand then wields damage to the figure which in turn happens to that friend, everything from limbs torn off to eyes skewered.

What makes this film part of the so so crowd is that while well made it doesn't leap from B-movie status to top line feature. The acting ranges from believable to mediocre not helped by a script that does the same. Still it made for a nice evening's entertainment and would be well worth the cost of rental. 

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