"MOVIE MAD" by Michael van den Bos

(c) 2014 by Michael van den Bos


MIGHTY JOE YOUNG (1949) - directed by Ernest B. Schoedsack

The love for our pets is overwhelming. No matter the size of our creature companion, from the smallest gerbil to the tallest horse, the affection for our animals is as big as a full-grown gorilla. Such is the literal case of Mr. Joe Young, a 10-foot ape, who is the adored pet of a young woman in one of the most delightful Hollywood fantasy/adventure movies ever made: Mighty Joe Young (1949).

Ben Johnson and Terry Moore

Jill Young (Terry Moore) raised Joe from a baby gorilla on her family farm in Africa. Jill and Joe encounter an expedition—headed by American theatrical impresario Max O’Hara (Robert Armstrong) and assisted by Gregg (Ben Johnson), a cowboy and roping expert—hunting for wild game to populate Max’s new African-themed nightclub. They all travel to California, where Jill and Joe are an instant sensation at Max’s nightclub. Jill even falls in love with the affable Gregg, but she becomes disillusioned when Joe is required to perform humiliating acts on stage. It all turns nasty when a group of inebriate club patrons take advantage of Joe, which causes the pissed-off primate to go ape and rampage the club. This destructive incident results in the court-ordered death of Joe. What transpires then is a scheme to save Joe and to get him and Jill on a boat back to Africa.  


(from left to right) Robert Armstrong in exaggerated pith helmet as Max O'Hara, director Ernest B. Schoedsack in commodore's cap and Ben Johnson sporting slick hair as modern-day cowboy, Gregg

The same creative team who gave the world a gargantuan gorilla who climbed the heights of the Empire State Building for the love of one woman—King Kong (1933)—also made Mighty Joe Young. Producer Merian C. Cooper dreamt up this variation on his original Kong story and Ernest B. Schoedsack once again directed with a lean fervor. Ruth Rose’s screenplay had a lighter, comedic touch this time around and Robert Armstrong playfully riffed on his Carl Denham role from Kong.

(below) Stop-motion animator Ray Harryhausen poses with his miniature Joe

The stop-motion animation wizard Willis O’Brien also came back, working alongside a future master of animated creatures, Ray Harryhausen (Jason and the Argonauts), to bring Joe to mighty life. Although not as slick as contemporary CGI-effects movies, the stop-motion animation in Joe—combined with handful of other magic trick effects—was superb and, in my opinion, more warm and soulful than any digital animation or motion-capture technology practiced today.


Joe on a nightclub tear

Though its story is simple (and some of its plot points don’t bear close scrutiny), what makes Joe so engaging is Joe himself—he is completely empathetic, even more so than Kong, which is a tribute to O’Brien and Harryhausen’s animation and acting mastery—and the imaginatively directed set-pieces. The wrangling of Joe by cowboys, the nightclub destruction, the escape and the climatic orphanage-fire sequence are riveting. Film students interested in directing action movies could do a lot worse than studying these scenes.  In fact, the direction by Ernest B. Schoedsack is all the more exceptional for a man who was virtually blind (due to a World War II aviation incident) when he made this movie!

Mighty Joe Young may not possess the epic grandeur, exotic mystery and erotic underpinnings of its formidable fore-ape, King Kong, but it does have a huge heart, a spunky spirit and pulsates with a playful vigour. What more could you want from a pet?

Click poster to view trailer


Tina Fey and Paul Rudd admit they have more than an academic interest in one another, in Admission.

ADMISSION - directed by Paul Weitz

Cast: Tina Fey, Paul Rudd, Lily Tomlin, Michael Sheen, Wallace Shawn, Nat Wolff, Gloria Reuben




Rating: 2 out of 5 Chaplins.

{Opens Friday 22 March 2013}

Tina Fey is a sharp comedy writer and a natural comic actor.  Her zingy and savagely funny TV sitcom, 30 Rock, which just finished its final season, was an anarchic and loopy satire about television and the neurotically wacky people who make TV programming.  It was a brilliant follow-up to Tina Fey’s outstanding contributions as the head writer and sometimes performer on Saturday Night Live, from 1997-2006.  Fey’s few forays in feature film comedy have been sporadic, delivering mixed results (Baby Mama, The Invention of Lying, Date Night).  She is back on the big screen with a new comedy-drama entitled Admission, co-starring Paul Rudd, which unfortunately falls flat for Fey.

Tina Fey plays Portia Nathan, a Princeton University admissions officer who is vying with a colleague to replace the outgoing head of the department (Wallace Shawn).  As the new school year approaches, Portia discovers her live-in lover, an English literature professor (Michael Sheen wasted in a limp role), has gotten another woman pregnant, with twins!  In the course of dealing with this shocking news, Portia is on the road, giving admissions talks and advice at various high schools in her designated region when she meets John (Paul Rudd), an idealistic teacher at an alternative high school, who is also her former college classmate.  Paul is actively promoting an unconventional student prodigy, Jeremiah (Nat Wolff), to Portia for admittance into Princeton.  Portia learns from John that Jeremiah could be her son whom she gave up for adoption when she was a college student.  Meanwhile, romantic feelings stir between Portia and John as she struggles with taking unethical actions to insure her son’s admittance into Princeton. 

The major problem with Admission is its pedestrian screenplay, written by Karen Croner (based on the novel by Jean Hanff Korelitz).  It wants to be a comedy, a romance, and a satire about the university admissions process, all mixed with elements of a heartfelt drama.  It just doesn’t do any of those things well.  It is soft on all counts, from the filmmakers dependence on obvious, prosaic pop songs to its ill attempt at poignancy in its final act. Even with the legendary Lily Tomlin as Portia’s feminist scholar mother (she has a tattoo of Bella Abzug on her arm), and the eccentrically charming elfin actor, Wallace Shaw, Admission rarely gets jolted out of its malaise.   It is clear that Tomlin and Shawn are along for the ride and do not have their hearts in their pale roles. The affable Paul Rudd is earnestly serviceable as Fey’s suitor, but his bland presence sparks as much romantic passion as an SAT test.

Paul Weitz (American Pie, About a Boy, Little Fockers) directed Admission without much verve and style.  He moves the camera arbitrarily and the editing is erratic.  Shots seem to cut together randomly, with no sense of perspective, making Admission feel more like an ordinary TV show than a feature film with a distinctive perspective.

Admission is not a total loss.  It does feature occasional amusing moments, a refreshingly unpredictable third act twist and Tina Fey is naturally engaging and sexy - in her nerdy, bookish way - but she needs better material if she wants to make a strong mark in feature film comedies.  Perhaps working with a writer-director on the level of Woody Allen or Wes Anderson would expand the scope of her talents.  Much like Allen and Anderson, I believe that Fey has the potential to write and direct her own unique theatrical comedies, but first she needs to take a cue from her Portia Nathan character by decisively stamping “Deny” on future scripts like Admission.


HITCHCOCK - directed by Sacha Gervasi   




Rating: 3 out of 5 Hitchcocks.

Alfred Hitchcock is one of the grand masters of moviemaking, essentially inventing the type of suspense film, and refining it to an art, whose films continue to inspire  21st century filmmakers working in the thriller genre. HITCHCOCK, the movie, focuses on the period of 1959-1960 of Hitch's career when, at the height of his popularity and success (coming off the box-office bonanza of his stylish, sexy and expensive romantic thriller, NORTH BY NORTHWEST), he embarked on his most controversial and experimental film to date, the groundbreaking and highly influential low-budget horror film, PSYCHO (1960), based on the Robert Bloch novel, in turn based on Wisconsin serial killer, Ed Gein. HITCHCOCK also sheds long over due light on his foremost creative collaborator, his wife, Alma Reville.

The movie features an outstanding cast, with Anthony Hopkins getting deep in the corpulent skin of Alfred Hitchcock, capturing the director's sly impudence, dry sarcasm, droll wit, simmering insecurities and even touching pathos. The real Hitchcock was an extremely complex personality, who manifested his anxieties, neuroses, fears, fetishes and dark humor into over 50 brilliantly directed motion pictures.  HITCHCOCK can't come close to mining these complexities of the great director, but it does suggest shades of Hitch's psyche as he makes PSYCHO.  And Helen Mirren is warm and intelligent as Alma Reville, the one person Hitchcock trusted above all others to make the right creative calls on all of his productions.  (Alma worked in the British film industry as an editor and scriptwriter before her future husband started directing).  Hopkins will likely receive an Oscar nomination and I wouldn't be surprised if Mirren does as well.

Director Sascha Gervasi and writer John J. McLaughlin take artistic license with Hitchcock's personal life (I don't buy that Hitchcock was haunted by the figure of Ed Gein) and great liberties in a fictitious sub-plot about Alma skimming the edges of flirtation with real-life screenwriter Whitfield Cook (Danny Huston), but all the scenes about the making of PSYCHO, inspired by the excellent Stephen A. Rebello book, "Alfred Hitchcock and The Making of Psycho", hits the bull's -eye for its accuracy (although much important and interesting making-of information is missing, like using chocolate syrup for Janet Leigh's bathtub bloodbath), and it is a shame the filmmakers couldn't get the rights to use clips from the actual movie PSYCHO, but HITCHCOCK is immensely entertaining and a lovely homage to the Master of Suspense.

Along with Hopkins and Mirren, the rest of the cast is solid, with Scarlett Johansson sharp and spunky as Janet Leigh; Jessica Biel as PSYCHO co-star Vera Miles, who was a failed romantic conquest for Hitchcock; Toni Collette as Hitch's dedicated assistant, Peggy Robertson; Michael Stuhlbarg as mega-agent, Lew Wasserman; and Kurtwood Smith as Hitch's nemesis, the head of Hollywood's censorial Production Code Administration, Geoffery Shurlock.

All tech credits are top notch, especially Jeff Cronenweth's cinematography, and the art direction and costume design, which all lovingly captures a lost era of classic moviemaking as it was coming to an end. HITCHCOCK is not documentary-like in its accuracy, but like its subject matter, it is playful and suggestive of arguably the 20th century's greatest and most famous filmmaker's subversive side. 


BERNIE – directed by Richard Linklater



Rating: 3.5 out of 5 Chaplins.

{Opens Friday 01 June 2012}

Making a black comedy about murder is tough to pull off without it seeming smarmy or just cruel.  Charles Chaplin made it work in his savagely funny and quietly moving 1947 pitch black comedy, Monsieur Verdoux.  In Bernie, Richard Linklater’s new independent feature film, the black comedy he paints is more a shade of light gray.  It elicits soft chuckles for its leisurely tonal approach to murder than it does belly laughs for any audacious comic treatment of its subject.  However, Bernie, based on a real-life murder of a cold-hearted wealthy Carthage, Texas widow by the town’s assistant funeral director who had been her companion and confidante, has, at its core, a brilliantly turned and subtly subversive performance by comic actor Jack Black.  

Bernie Tiede is a meticulous mortician, an attentive funeral director, and a deeply religious man.  He helps the townsfolk in preparing their taxes, directs and stars in locally produced musicals and helps in any way to build a better community.  Bernie is adored by the Carthage population and generous to a fault.  He is a shopaholic, purchasing many of the same items in bulk and giving most of them away.  He has no wife, no girlfriend and does not date.  Some people suspect Bernie is gay, but his warmth and generosity are so great, they don’t mind if he is “…light in the loafers”.  After attending to the funeral of a wealthy town banker, Bernie consoles the deceased’s widow, the miserable and much despised Marjorie Nugent (Shirley MacLaine).  Marjorie is not interested in Bernie’s attentive sympathy at first, but Bernie is a sly salesman and a subtle charmer.  He eventually wins Marjorie over and becomes her celibate consort.  They take luxury vacations together and she trusts him enough to handle all her investments, which causes her stockbroker to suspect Bernie’s intentions.  As their relationship is further entrenched, Marjorie becomes demanding of Bernie’s time and attention, smothering his natural gregariousness and social activities.  This leads Bernie to a drastic act of freedom.

The screenplay by Richard Linklater and Skip Hollandsworth (based on the latter’s 1998 Texas Monthly magazine article about the real Bernie Tiede) and Linkkater’s direction of the movie is as laid-back and drifting as a Texas drawl.  It features a series of documentary-like interviews with members of the Carthage population, Marjorie’s family and the local D.A., played nicely by Matthew McConaughey. The dramatic sections of the story reveal Bernie’s character, his budding relationship with Marjorie and the unfolding of the heinous event.  The cross-cutting between the interviewees and the narrative sections works fine at first, with many amusing observations and actions that showcase Bernie’s personality, but director Linklater eventually uses a few too many interviews, which bogs down the narrative arc and dampens any dramatic tension.  Linklater should have altered the look of the dramatic events from the interviewee scenes for better visual contrast; instead, the film is too uniform in appearance, which doesn’t help the languid tone of the movie.  (Bernie was not shot on motion picture film negative.  It was photographed with the Arri Alexa digital camera, which gives the movie a too slick video look that I find a shade unappealing).

It is always wonderful to see the multi-talented Shirley MacLaine up on the big screen; unfortunately, she has little to do in Bernie than act shrewish and mean, a one-dimensional characterization.  However, Jack Black overcomes the casualness of the film’s tone, structure and style by giving an extraordinarily controlled and nuanced performance.  Black plays Bernie close to the chest – he will keep you guessing about Bernie’s true motives and sincerity – and he displays an amazing physical dichotomy in conveying sweet earnestness and sinister scrutiny at the same time.   It is a completely sympathetic and award-worthy performance, which includes a delightful bonus.  You get to hear Black sing gospel, which is not only sardonically ironic, but also surprisingly blissful to behold!


Cameron Diaz expecting and exercising in What To Expect When You're Expecting





Rating: 2.5 out of 5 Chaplins.

{Opens Friday 18 May 2012}

It’s no revelation that expecting your first child is not only a daunting prospect, but also a pretty darn freaky idea.  Unless you have gone through the pregnancy process before, it’s an abstract aberration on your normal reasoning and rational problem solving capabilities.  Having experienced my wife’s pregnancy (the first for both us) recently, I can attest that no amount of pregnancy self-help books or prenatal classes can adequately calm your nerves or make you logically process the little bundle of explosive bowel movements and crying jags of joy to come on your D-Day.  Countless books are available on the subject and one of the biggest bestsellers on baby brewing is “What To Expect When You’re Expecting”, written by  Heidi Murkoff, which is now a major motion picture with some major star power going through the motions of expanding female bellies and exploding male heads.  What should have been a sprightly comedy peppered with hysterical physical comedy (after all, this is a movie inherently about physical change), is as wet as a diaper and, aside from a few performances, feels like one big pregnant pause.

The movie follows five Georgia couples over a nine-month period during their pregnancies.  Jules (Cameron Diaz) is a TV fitness guru who met her baby father, Evan (Matthew Morrison), on a celebrity dance show.   Jules has to deal with her pregnancy as she and Evan maintain their high profile celebrity careers.  Holly (Jennifer Lopez) is a child photographer who is unable to conceive with her husband, Alex (Rodrigo Santoro), so they are planning to adopt an overseas child, although Alex is having second thoughts.  Holly convinces Alex to join a new daddy support group headed by Vic (Chris Rock).  This pappy posse regularly meets in a park with their kids and contemplate parenthood while enviously celebrating their single jock stud friend, Davis (Joe Manganiello), who works out in the park while boasting of his latest sexual conquest.  It’s no spoiler that the pumped-up Davis will go from practicing single arm pull-ups to double-fisted stroller pushing.  Rosie (Anna Kendrick) runs a food truck and her competitor in this meals-on-wheels field is Marco (Chace Crawford), whom she once dated, but their sexual attraction is too strong to keep them apart, so they hook-up for a little nocturnal nookie which unexpectedly finds them expecting.  Wendy (Elizabeth Banks), a children’s author who wrote a book about breastfeeding, and her sensitive and nervous husband, Gary (Ben Falcone), are expecting their first child at the same time his father, Ramsey (Dennis Quaid), a wealthy and swaggering ex-race car driver, is expecting a baby with his twenty-something trophy wife, Skyler (Brooklyn Decker). 

The cast is undeniably attractive and game, unfortunately the script by Shauna Cross and Heather Hach gives the talented cast little to do except play out the most obvious pregnancy plot contrivances found in any number of other movies and TV shows.  The Jennifer Lopez story is trite.  Cameron Diaz’s story is lacklustre.  The worst is the undernourished Anna Kendrick story – a complete miscarriage.   Elizabeth Banks fares better, though her quick-witted character is lacking potential sardonic bite.  However, her husband played by Ben Falcone and his overly competitive father, played by Dennis Quaid, respectively are the heart and energy of this movie.  Quaid turns in a high-voltage performance with comic bravado and Falcone nicely mixes humour and pathos as the son who believes he could never measure up to his dad’s immense success.  There is one quiet moment between Falcone and Quaid in the hospital during the birth of their children that surprised me by its genuine heart.  There is one more excellent performance and that is by Brooklyn Decker as Quaid’s Barbie-doll wife.  Her Skyler is smarter than first perceived and hilarious as her impossible easy pregnancy of twins would make any pregnant woman hate her, but she doesn’t flaunt it and thus we root for her.   Chris Rock’s small role as the de facto daddy leader of his men’s group is only slightly amusing.  They act as a kind of Greek chorus, but with no new comic insight into parenthood. 

Even though the movie is as bland as pabulum, director Kirk Jones (Waking Ned Devine, Nanny McPhee) moves it along briskly, though he practices arbitrary editing (suddenly cutting to brief long shots during conversations for no apparent reason) and utilizes an excessive amount of close-ups.  This makes What To Expect When You’re Expecting more appropriate as a diverting in-flight movie than a compelling cinematic experience.