Monday, October 13, 2014

'The Judge': Why Critics and Movie Audiences Gave It Very Different Verdicts

I had been looking forward to the opening of The Judge for a while since I try to see every movie in which Billy Bob Thornton appears.

Bobby Duvall and Robert Downey, Jr. aren't exactly chopped liver either.

Billy Bob Thornton has a relatively minor role in The Judge,
which revolves around the estranged father and son
played by Robert Duvall and Robert Downey, Jr.
So I was surprised when the consensus of critics on Rotten Tomatoes was a dismissive 47% green splat, whereas real movie goers dished out a whopping 82% favorable rating (4.1 out of a possible 5 stars). Why the disparity?

After seeing the movie last night, I think I get it.

***SPOILER ALERT -- Stop reading if you have not yet seen The Judge***

The Judge is about as formulaic and feel good a movie as you can get in this post modern age. Instead of having one of those artsy ambiguous endings where you leave the theater thinking "WTF just happened?" you are bludgeoned with hints that the Prodigal Son, the girl he left behind and his precious daughter will all live happily ever after.

Hank Palmer no longer has to run away from his home town or himself since he knows his daddy loves and approves of him. Even his bitter brother, whose budding baseball career he ruined in a car wreck, forgives him. And instead of defending reprehensible criminals, he will now dispense justice in a Disneyfied small Indiana town that was actually a melange of more picturesque bergs in Massachusetts.

Having recently seen This Is Where I Leave You, I couldn't help but have a bad case of deja vu when Hank Palmer discovers his old high school sweetie is still hanging around town, and the flame between them is rekindled. What's up with these male-fantasy women who wait in the wings until their knight comes riding back into town on his limping horse?

The main reason the critics disliked The Judge is that it's too Hollywood. Unlike more nuanced indie films, the characters in the movie are black and white, like Duvall's cold-hearted dad who turns out to be as sentimental as a Hallmark card and Downey's big city lawyer with a hard candy shell and soft center.

I am not above enjoying a feel good movie about an estranged father and son who repair their relationship, especially when it has some courtroom scenes and a pretty lake in the background. Sure The Judge relies on every cliche known to movie makers, but sometimes we just want the comfort of a really good meat loaf.

Oh, and did I mention Billy Bob Thornton is in it?

Saturday, October 4, 2014

'Gone Girl' Movie Ending: What Should Have Happened Instead

***SPOILER ALERT: Stop reading if you have not yet seen the Gone Girl movie or do not want to know the ending.

Rumor had it that the ending of the movie version of Gone Girl was going to be different than the book's, but it's not. Though I did not read Gillian Flynn's best selling novel, I read on the Internet that both the book and movie have the same ending; so it must be true. And, yes, I am just kidding (about the Internet = true part).

The problem is, the ending of the movie left me and many of my movie theater mates feeling meh. Why did we just sit through two and a half hours of drama only to be left with this monstrous woman and her snaky husband deciding to stay married?

Maybe it's because life, like bitches, is complicated, and justice mostly happens in fairy tales. Not to change the subject, but have you seen one Wall Street investment banker convicted for his role in the 2008 financial melt down?

So, would we have felt better if Amy Dunne had been outed and punished for her multiple frame-ups of men?
The Gone Girl ending is one of the most controversial aspects
of the movie, second to its alleged misogyny

Probably half the people in the audience would have based on Gallup polls of people who read the book (okay, maybe not Gallup polls, but somehow this random statistic is floating around cyberspace).

These are the same people who read novels and watch the news to see the bad guy (or gal) get theirs. They are justice seekers who, like my husband, stopped watching House of Cards at the beginning of the second season (***Warning: House of Cards SPOILER ALERT ***) after Frank killed Zoe because there were no more good guys to root for and Frank was literally getting away with murders.

(My husband also thinks I am crazy for watching Dateline, 48 Hours and the like because he does not understand my fascination with sociopaths and probably measures the anti-freeze in the garage... just in case.)

The movie "Gone Girl" was as much
a mockery of Nancy Grace
as marriage
Though the ending of Gone Girl is more palatable for people who can hang in the gray zone and do not expect good guys to prevail, novelist turned screenwriter Flynn and the film's director David Fincher could have provided a few more threads to tighten the weave. In the book, Nick's sour relationship with his father played a larger role; so it makes more sense Nick would remain in the marriage after Amy announces she is pregnant so his child would not be turned against him.

Regardless, no ending to the movie would be nearly as satisfying as someone framing the Nancy Grace character for a crime she did not commit and trying her on prime time TV. Who wouldn't go see that movie?

Sunday, September 7, 2014

How Could 'Fargo's' Lorne Malvo Be the Same Guy Who Played Karl in 'Sling Blade'?

I was one of the slow-witted people who didn't know the actor who played the police chief in the TV version of Fargo was the same guy who played the fast-talking lawyer in Breaking Bad -- Bob Odenkirk. In retrospect, it was pretty obvious.

Billy Bob Thornton as Karl Childers
in Sling Blade
Billy Bob Thornton as Lorne Malvo
in TV version of Fargo
But you can't blame me if I didn't know the actor who played Lorne Malvo in Fargo is the same guy who played the kindhearted matricidal killer in Sling Blade.

Billy Bob Thornton out-Streeped Meryl in playing a character so different from himself in every dimension that his own mother wouldn't recognize him.

Of course, I knew it was Billy Bob Thornton because after seeing him in Fargo I deliberately recorded all of his movies. But when he first appeared on the screen in Sling Blade, I didn't think it was he. My husband kept assuring me it was, but this Karl Childers guy looked, talked and moved nothing like Billy Bob Thornton. When he went up to the frosty stand stand and asked, "Whatcha got in there that's good to eat?" I said, "I think that's Billy Bob," referring to the guy behind the window exasperated by the slow guy who asked for biscuits at a burger joint. "No," insisted my husband, who had already seen this movie and therefore had a distinct advantage in his Billy Bob recognition abilities.

I loved Sling Blade, of course, a movie about which the late film critic Roger Ebert wrote,  “If Forrest Gump had been written by William Faulkner, the result might have been something like Sling Blade." It is one of the few movies you would call "sweet"  in which three people are deliberately murdered.

Even more, I love that the character of Karl Childers allegedly came to Thornton while making faces as he shaved. His jawline in the movie is set so different from its usual position, it's like he had a face transplant.

The rural south persona may not have been as much of a stretch for Thornton, who reportedly grew up in Arkansas in a shack that lacked both electricity and indoor plumbing. You totally felt the suffocation of that small town throughout the movie -- from the ignorant homophobia to the politically incorrect use of the word "retard."

When Sling Blade first came out, I was mostly likely too busy raising kids to notice, or maybe I thought it was an action flick based on the name. But seeing it now, 18 years after its release, I reckon Sling Blade should be viewed as much a classic American film as Citizen Kane or Gone With the Wind. It is truly one of the most amazing movies I have ever seen; and Thornton's performance, the epitome of acting genius.

All right then. Mm hmm.

Saturday, September 6, 2014

Best Movies About Divorce

Movies and Divorce Make Good Bedfellows

When Zsa Zsa Gabor joked, "I'm an excellent housekeeper. Every time I get a divorce, I keep the house," her humor helped diffuse the more tragic aspect of divorce -- the shattering of a couple's dream of "happily ever after." Like Zsa Zsa Gabor, Hollywood movies often inject humor into the subject of divorce while at the same time focusing on its more poignant, heart-wrenching facets.

The emotional buffet of sadness, anger, fear, joy and hope served up by movies about divorce mirrors the range of feelings movie viewers experience on the other side of the silver screen. It can be therapeutic for people in the process of getting a divorce -- or recovering from its aftermath -- to see the theme of divorce explored both comically and dramatically in a movie, helping them view their lives in a larger context and maybe even laugh at their own troubles.

Whether tragic, comedic or both, here is my list of the top 10 movies about divorce:

The Squid and the Whale (2005)

When this movie came out I was confused by its title and thought it was a nature documentary rather than a fictional movie about the effects of divorce on a nuclear family. Coincidentally, the film's home movie-ish style makes you feel as if you're watching a documentary. A dramedy in the best sense of the word, The Squid and the Whale brilliant depicts the bright and dark sides of a dysfunctional family (and whose isn't?), deftly showing how children of divorce are unhappily trapped in the middle of their parents' melodrama.

Le Divorce (2003)

Though allegedly starring Kate Hudson and Naomi Watts, these stellar actresses play second banana to Paris in this visual feast for the eyes. The "progressive" French attitude toward marriage is nicely juxtaposed with the more conventional American dream of monogamy.

The Parent Trap (1961 and 1998 versions)

When it comes to Parent Trap movies, Haley Mills' original trumps Lindsay Lohan's sequel, or could that just be my baby boomer bias? I saw the original Parent Trap as a child and loved the comical conspiracy between the twin girls separated in early childhood by their parents' mistaken notion of what was best for them after their less-than-amicable divorce. This movie captures the yearning felt by some children of divorce for their parents to get back together and the lack of sensitivity some divorced parents have concerning the impact of divorce on their children.

Stepmom (1998)

Art predicts life here as real life home wrecker Julia Roberts plays, what else, a cinematic home wrecker in this nightmarish scenario of The Other Woman becoming your children's new mother. Susan Sarandon steals the movie here as the dying mother who puts her own interests second to that of her children by befriending the shallow wife of her children's father and turning her into a better woman in the process.

Kramer vs. Kramer (1979)

This movie rakes the dark side of feminism over the coals as Meryl Streep plays a character even more unlikeable than the dragon lady fashion editor she portrayed so convincingly in The Devil Wears Prada. After divorcing her son's father and splitting the scene, the Streep character returns to town and tries to regain custody of their child and move him thousands of miles away from his father, a former dolt played by Dustin Hoffman with whom the boy has sweetly bonded. Some children of divorce may find this custodial tug of war theme hits too close to home.

Divorce American Style (1967)

Though tame by modern standards, Divorce American Style was a somewhat scathing satire on divorce and upper middle class manners in its day. Divorce American Style makes the cut of top 10 divorce movies in part because it shows how attitudes toward divorce have not changed all that much in the past 40 years (besides, who can resist spending a couple of hours with such classic actors as Dick Van Dyke and Debbie Reynolds?). Perhaps the saddest scene in the movie is when all the children and step-children get picked up from school except for one unclaimed girl, lost in the shuffle by the confused lot of divorced parents.

Tyler Perry's Why Did I Get Married? (2007)

In this black spin on divorce American style, four couples of various levels of unhappiness meet at a mountain retreat, one of which ends up divorced by the end of the movie (hey, it doesn't help that the guy's girlfriend crashes the party). The movie explores the 80/20 rule, in which the men confide they get 80% of what they want from their wives within their marriage but still want that 20% they don't have with someone else. Without spoiling the ending, the wayward ex-husband ends up being more than a tad regretful at the very satisfying conclusion of this movie.

Mrs. Doubtfire (1993)

What list of movies about divorce could exclude Mrs. Doubtfire, starring an irresistible cross-dressing Robin Williams. The former Mork & Mindy star plays a divorced dad who decides to impersonate a 60ish female housekeeper so he can spend more time with his children. Aside from the first-rate physical and emotional comedy supplied in spades by this heartwarming film, Mrs. Doubtfire exemplifies the importance of putting one's children first after a divorce.

Far From Heaven (2002)

More a movie about the dissolution of a marriage than divorce, this hauntingly beautiful and poignant film set in the 1950s shows what happens when a marriage is based more on image than substance and husbands are not true to themselves (does a certain famous golfer come to mind?).

The Brothers McMullen (1995)

Although no one gets divorced in this movie, The Brothers McMullen is a movie about people who could get divorced but choose not to. From the opening scene in which the mother of three adult sons flees to Ireland shortly after her abusive alcoholic husband bites the dust, to the scene in which the wife of the oldest son discovers his affair, to that of her husband breaking off his affair and vowing at his father's grave site to be a better man than his father was, this movie is a testament to not only sticking marriage out, but making it work. Hard to believe this entertaining, dialogue-rich gem was made for a mere $28 million, a thrifty pittance even in 1995.

This article was originally published on a quondam website platform in December 2009. It appears here for historical purposes.

Update September 2014: If I were to add one movie to this list right now it would be Enough Said (2013) with Julia Louis-Dreyfus and the late James Gandolfini. This gifted pair play Eva and Albert, two divorced middle aged people who gradually fall in love after meeting at a party. Coincidentally, one of Eva's clients was previously married to Albert and thinks her ex is a total loser, which causes Eva to question whether her new guy is a catch or clunker. This poignant movie has more twists than a pretzel and is one of the most honest depictions of middle aged post-divorce romance I've ever seen.

Friday, September 5, 2014

'Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work' Documentary Reveals Comedienne's Hidden Depths

For many young adults, Joan Rivers is that plastic faced comedienne who's had one too many face lifts -- an aging caricature who stands on the red carpet screaming "Who are you wearing?" to vapid celebrities when she's not hawking her eponymous line of chunky jewelry to wannabe fashion mavens on QVC.
Can we talk?
So when my 22-year-old daughter, Laura, and I walked out of the theater after seeing the new documentary about Joan Rivers' life, cleverly titled Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work, I was intrigued by her reaction. "I had no idea there was so much to her," Laura told me after learning the fascinating back story of this now 77-year-old comedy icon.

Filmed during Joan Rivers' 76th year of life by documentary film makers Ricki Stern and Anne Sundberg (who previously produced films on such sober topics as genocide in Darfur and the false murder and rape conviction of a North Carolina man, Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work likely caused some initial head scratching as to why this serious duo of documentarians would select such a frivolous and superficial subject as Joan Rivers to follow around for 14 months.

Yet Stern and Sundberg managed to turn Rivers into a meaningful and fascinating object of study, depicting her as a multi-dimensional woman with far more depth and intelligence than the cartoonish character she deliberately portrays on the flat surface of the TV screen. (When Rivers states toward the end of the movie that her comedienne persona is just a role she plays as an actress, we believe her.)

What struck me and Laura the most was how insecure and vulnerable Joan Rivers revealed herself to be underneath her marble exterior -- despite her stunning career success and decades-long reign as the Queen of Comedy. At one point in the movie, Rivers' manager joked that whenever he asked Rivers to check her schedule, she would quip she had to put on her sunglasses first because all the white space on her calendar (where club dates and TV appearances should be) was blinding. Even at 75, a blank date on the calendar was as mortifying to Rivers as staying home on a Saturday night would be for a teenager. Instead of viewing it as a good excuse to relax or recreate, Rivers saw the absence of bookings as a blatant rejection of her talent and, by extension, herself. To paraphrase Descartes, "She works, therefore she is."

Another segment that revealed a deeper side to Rivers was her Thanksgiving day pilgrimage with her grandson, Cooper, (Melissa's son) to deliver food to disabled people in New York City. She banters easily with a legally blind ex-photographer named Flo Fox, whose moxie charms the hard-to-impress Rivers. The meeting also saddens her: Rivers has personally experienced the fickle finger of fate and knows how ephemeral good fortune can be.

Of all the scenes in the movie, Rivers' gig at a Wisconsin casino was the most dramatic and revealing. After she tells a relatively bland joke about Helen Keller being the perfect kid because she couldn't talk, a heckler shouts, "That's not funny if you have a deaf son." Rivers barks right back, "Oh, yes it is!" informing the man her mother is also deaf and that she lived for ten years with a man who had only one leg.

"Comedy is to make everybody laugh at everything and deal with things, you idiot!" Joan informed the upset father, though she cut him some slack later that night as she reflected on camera how filled with anger the man must be about his son's situation. By this point in the film, we know that "Can-We-Talk?" Rivers is not just talk. She sincerely believe her spiel about using comedy as a way to cope, making jokes about Nazi atrocities toward Jews (Rivers is Jewish) as well as her husband's suicide -- two subjects that could easily sear her own raw nerves.

Rivers told Letterman Adelle should "add fried chicken"
to the title of her son "Rolling in the Deep"
While each scene in "Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work" is a treat, the most interesting visuals in the movie are seeing the young Joan Rivers in flashback scenes with Jack Paar and Johnny Carson, seeing Joan Rivers with no make up on and seeing Joan Rivers' massive card catalog -- drawers filled with index cards of jokes the comedienne has written throughout the years ("Why should a woman cook? So her husband can say 'My wife makes a delicious cake' to some hooker?"). Rivers' joke collection comprises thousands of jokes stored alphabetically by category, the way an OCD housewife might organize appetizers and desserts in her recipe box.

Leaving the theater, my daughter and I were left with a different impression of Joan Rivers than the one we had when we walked inside, an image that supplanted the plastic and shallow version of Rivers we've observed in the comedienne's latter years. It will be the resilient, hard-working and quick witted Joan Rivers depicted by two talented documentarians whom we will picture in the future when the name Joan Rivers is mentioned -- the woman who helps us laugh at life's inevitable travails and not the laughing stock poster girl for plastic surgery chiseled in the minds of those who have never seen more than the two-dimensional character Joan Rivers portrayed by the actress of the same name.

This article was originally published on a quondam website platform in July 2010. It appears here for historical purposes.

Update September 5, 2014: Joan Rivers died yesterday at age 81. I was privileged to see her perform her stand-up act at the Crest Theater in Sacramento not long after I saw the documentary about her life and was bowled over by her amazing talent. Rivers' date book may now be blindingly white on earth, but I suspect she has the angels roaring with laughter.