Wednesday, April 30, 2014

Bob Hoskins 1942-2014

Actor Bob Hoskins has passed away at 71. 

A natural talent who began theatre acting without any training, Bob Hoskins burst into the hearts and minds of the world with his role as private detective Eddie Valiant in Robert Zemeckis’ live-action/animated mashup WHO FRAMED ROGER RABBIT in 1988. Hoskins talent for playing gruff, funny, and heartwarming while acting against an animated character which didn’t exist on set made the film work, and forever cemented his reputation in Hollywood as a very diverse actor. Hoskins would follow-up his debut a few years later as Captain Hook’s sidekick Mr. Smee in Steven Spielberg’s HOOK in 1991. 

His long list of notable and memorable credits include PINK FLOYD THE WALL (1982), THE LONG GOOD FRIDAY (1980), THE HONORARY CONSUL (1983), SUPER MARIO BROS (1993), NIXON (1995), MICHAEL (1996), SPICEWORLD (1997), ENEMY AT THE GATES (2000), UNLEASHED (2005), MRS HENDERSON PRESENTS (2005), HOLLYWOODLAND (2006),  and MADE IN DAGENHAM (2010).  

He would be reunited with Robert Zemeckis in 2009 as a motion-captured Fezziwig in A CHRISTMAS CAROL. He was slated to be a replacement in THE UNTOUCHABLES (1987) if Robert De Niro decided not to play Al Capone. He won the BAFTA and Golden Globe for Best Actor for his role in MONA LISA (1986), and was also nominated for an Oscar. He reprised his role as Mr. Smee in the Syfy TV mini-series NEVERLAND (2011). His final film credit was SNOW WHITE AND THE HUNTSMAN (2012). 


On the outside, Bob Hoskins had a gruff and tough exterior. While it is not unheard of for tough-looking, burly actors to show some heart (which he did very well), it was his ability to make people laugh at the drop of a hat (or a rabbit) which made him so endearing. Comedy is all about timing, and maybe even surprise…and being able to laugh at Bob Hoskins was always a pleasure. But he did not hang his hat on that nail for long. His ability to play a despicable villain blasted through in UNLEASHED…and has to be seen to be believed. His diverse talent and great range spoke to everybody, and made him a consistent favorite. To not enjoy Bob Hoskins is like going a day without laughter. 

Tuesday, April 29, 2014

Reel Facts & Opinions: The Cast of STAR WARS: EPISODE VII

The rumors had been swirling about like a Tatooine sandstorm for months…that the long-awaited announcement of the cast of STAR WARS: EPISODE VII would come on May 4th…pop culture’s new STAR WARS Day. In what appears to be a successful effort to get out ahead of the inevitable leaks, LucasFilm and Disney today dropped the casting bomb the galaxy had been waiting for.
Original cast members Harrison Ford, Mark Hamil, Carrie Fisher, Peter Mayhew, Kenny Baker, and Anthony Daniels have been confirmed, along with new faces to the STAR WARS universe which include John Boyega, Daisy Ridley, Adam Driver, Oscar Isaac, Andy Serkis, Domhnall Gleeson, and Max von Sydow. Disney and LucasFilm also released this photo of the cast in what appears to be the first official script-reading: 

Having the original cast back together again is beyond exciting. But the new faces are a reason to get giddy as well. This is who they are and where they have been:
John Boyega – The 22-year old English actor is best known for his role in the critically acclaimed sci-fi film ATTACK THE BLOCK (2011), for which he won several awards.

Daisy Ridley – She is the least known out of the new cast. She is an English actress with several credits on BBC-TV. EPISODE VII will be her second big-screen credit.
Oscar Isaac – The 35 year old Isaac had the lead role in the Coen Bros’ magnificent INSIDE LLEWYN DAVIS last year for which he was nominated and won several awards, and had a great supporting turn in the acclaimed DRIVE from 2011.

Adam Driver – Driver has appeared in J. EDGAR (2011), LINCOLN (2012), and last year’s INSIDE LLEWYN DAVIS. He was nominated for his performance in TV’s GIRLS.
Andy Serkis – An English actor, director, and author…Serkis is celebrated for his groundbreaking motion-capture work in THE LORD OF THE RINGS (2001-2003), THE HOBBIT (2012-2014), KING KONG (2005), RISE OF THE PLANET OF THE APES (2011), and THE ADVENTURES OF TINTIN (2011).

Domhnall Gleeson – The 30 year old Irish actor has acted on stage and screen and won a Tony Award. He played Bill Weasley in the final two HARRY POTTER films, and also appeared in TRUE GRIT (2010), and ANNA KARENINA (2012). He is the son of actor Brendan Gleeson (HARRY POTTER, GANGS OF NEW YORK).
Max von Sydow – Probably the biggest surprise out of them all is one of the most respected and seasoned actors in the galaxy. The 85-year old’s long list of film-credits (beginning in 1949) include THE SEVENTH SEAL (1957), THE GREATEST STORY EVER TOLD (1965), THE EXORICST (1973), FLASH GORDON (1980), NEVER SAY NEVER AGAIN (1983), PELLE THE CONQUEROR (1987), and EXTREMELY LOUD AND INCREDIBLY CLOSE (2012).

Aside from the outright chills that come knowing that the original Han Solo, Princess Leia, Luke Skywalker, Chewbacca, R2-D2, and C3PO will be back together on the big screen, the diverse nature of the cast is a reason to celebrate. It is a perfect mix of seasoned veterans and fresh-faced newcomers…along with formidable talent that falls in-between the two extremes. We don’t yet know the specifics of the roles, but this is a great first step into a larger world.


STAR WARS: EPISODE VII is slated for a December 2015 release. It is directed by J.J. Abrams (STAR TREK, MISSION IMPOSSIBLE III) and is written by Lawrence Kasdan (THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK, RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK).


Monday, April 28, 2014

Reel Facts & Opinions: The Year In Film 2014, Episode IV

The summer movie season of 2014 had a “soft” opening with the packed month of April, and now stomps into a higher gear with the monster-month of May. Here are the notable films to look forward to.
It all swings away with…

THE AMAZING SPIDER-MAN 2 – The fifth Spider-Man film in the last 12 years is a direct sequel to the 2012 version, which has nothing to do with the first three Spidey films (everybody got that?). Andrew Garfield returns as the web-slinger, and he is joined by Sally Field, Emma Stone, Jamie Foxx, Dane DeHaan, Chris Cooper, and Paul Giamatti. Marc Webb returns to direct.
NEIGHBORS – Seth Rogen and Zac Efron star in this comedy which is not a remake of the 1981 Aykroyd/Belushi vehicle.

CHEF – Jon Favreau (IRON MAN) directs and stars in this comedy about a chef who refuses to compromise his artistic integrity for a controlling owner. Stars Sofia Vergara, John Leguizamo, Dustin Hoffman, Oliver Platt…and a few surprise cameos.
GOD’S POCKET – One of the final films of the late great Phillip Seymour Hoffman is the first directorial effort by John Slattery (TV’s MAD MEN). Co-stars Christina Hendricks, Eddie Marsan, Richard Jenkins, and John Turturro.

GODZILLA – The decades-old monster gets another shot at the big screen. Stars Aaron Taylor-Johnson (KICK-ASS), Elizabeth Olsen, Bryan Cranston, Ken Watanabe, and David Strathairn. Directed by Gareth Edwards; the man behind the critically acclaimed indie-film MONSTERS in 2010.
MILLION DOLLAR ARM – This true-story adaptation by Disney stars John Hamm (TV’s MAD MEN) as a pro-sports agent who brings the first group of Eastern Indian baseball players to the States. Co-stars Bill Paxton and Lake Bell.

THE IMMIGRANT – This 1920’s period-piece heavily wears its GODFATHER influence on in its sleeves in look and atmosphere. Stars Joaquin Phoenix, Jeremy Renner, Marion Cotillard, Harry Hamlin, and Paul Sorvino.  
X-MEN: DAYS OF FUTURE PAST – The seventh X-Men film since 2000 combines the cast of the present-day with the cast of the past as seen in X-MEN: FIRST CLASS (everybody got that?). The supersized roster includes Hugh Jackman, Patrick Stewart, Ian McKellen, Jennifer Lawrence, Michael Fassbender, Ellen Page, Nicholas Hoult, James McAvoy, Anna Paquin, Halle Berry, Shawn Ashmore, and Peter Dinklage. Bryan Singer (X-MEN, X2) directs.

MALEFICENT – This live-action film explores the untold story of the villain from Disney’s SLEEPING BEAUTY. Angelina Jolie stars as Maleficent, and she is joined by Sharlto Copley (DISTRICT 9), and Elle Fanning (SUPER 8).
A MILLION WAYS TO DIE IN THE WEST – Seth MacFarlane takes a shot at writing and directing for the big-screen in this Old West parody. Co-stars Charlize Theron, Amanda Seyfried, Giovanni Ribisi, Liam Neeson, Neil Patrick Harris, and Sarah Silverman.

FILTH – This art-house drama stars James McAvoy as a crooked cop. Co-stars Jamie Bell, Jim Broadbent, and Eddie Marsan.


Next month, Episode V dives into June.



Thursday, April 24, 2014


Jonathan Glazer’s UNDER THE SKIN is a unique take on telling a science fiction story. With its minimal dialogue, slow-but-steady pacing, zero exposition and ambiguous imagery, it can very much be considered an art film. Throw in a man-eating alien, and now you’ve got the horror film element just for good measure.
An alien in human form (Scarlett Johansson) journeys through Scotland picking up willing men who are never heard from again.

UNDER THE SKIN doesn’t have much by way of plot. The film basically consists of Johansson’s character (never referred to by name, but listed as Laura in the credits), driving around the city and countryside, picking up men, and luring them into her dwelling where they are disposed of. What makes it all work is the great atmosphere of mystery. Where Laura came from, what her intent is, or how she came to have a man in her employ assisting her, is all a big mystery. There is a lot alluded to and inferred here and there, and the audience is very much left to draw their own conclusions. Not everything is answered in full by the time those credits do roll around, and that works to the film’s advantage as it is guaranteed to hang with you long after you leave the theatre. The film is a haven for artistic debate.
Director Jonathan Glazer keeps the pacing slow but steady, and by using some haunting music and beautiful photography builds an atmosphere thick and heavy with mystery. There isn’t a single scene without Laura and he makes excellent use of her every time. The ambiguity to the film works to its advantage greatly. The way the men are disposed of is done quietly; they sink into a black murk while following a naked Laura…which adds to the film’s mystery and intrigue. It raises a million questions and answers very few…and that’s OK.

Scarlett Johannson turns in a spooky and haunting performance. She is seductive, beautiful, creepy and scary all at once. She boldly shows her body off in ways she’s never done before, and since it’s tastefully and artfully done never feels excessive. Glazer apparently shot scenes of Laura picking up men guerilla-style, with Johannson driving around the city with a hidden camera on the dash as she tries to pick up men. The actress adapts to the changing situations very well, and makes the film work with her mind just as well as her body.
The finale comes about after some interesting twists and turns which involves Laura developing some compassion for her potential victims, along with discovering the things her body can do. UNDER THE SKIN feels like a lot of repetition is going on, but underneath there is a whole lot more. This is a true thinking-man’s sci-fi film; one that really does get under your skin.


Tuesday, April 22, 2014


"I'd just like to point out that every newspaper in the country has picked us to finish last"
This month marks the 25th anniversary of David S. Ward’s MAJOR LEAGUE.
A sports comedy sprinkled with a fair amount of drama, MAJOR LEAGUE told the story of a crooked owner who puts together a team-to-lose so she could dwindle attendance low enough to relocate the team out of Cleveland. David S. Ward, who had won the Oscar for Best Original Screenplay for the THE STING in 1973, had a talent for writing underdog stories. MAJOR LEAGUE broke the old mold of standard small-team underdogs going up against a Goliath by making the team have to battle from within. The move paid off, and MAJOR LEAGUE was No. 1 box office hit in 1989 and was met with favorable reviews.

Although taking place in Cleveland, MAJOR LEAGUE was shot in Milwaukee with the Brewers’ home stadium standing-in as the home of the Cleveland Indians. The cast was stellar; Charlie Sheen and Tom Berenger were united after their work in the Oscar-winning PLATOON (1988)…and the rest of the cast included many former major leaguers, including famous play-by-play announcer Bob Uecker. Rene Russo and Wesley Snipes were virtual unknowns before appearing in MAJOR LEAGUE, as was Dennis Haysbert…who would go onto fame in the television series 24, Michael Mann’s HEAT (1995), and the voice of the Allstate marketing. The rest of the case included Corbin Bernsen, Margaret Whitton, James Gammon, Chelcie Ross, and Charles Cyphers.

MAJOR LEAGUE had always been a favorite of this Blogger, not only because it is a joy to watch, but because it knows how to tell a good story. Just like any good war movie, MAJOR LEAGUE succeeds because it takes characters from different walks of life and lets them react to each other. The film has an aging veteran, a cocky rookie, a rich snob, a God-loving man, a voo-doo worshiper, and a greedy owner…a great variety of archetypes which is the salt of all moviemaking. That is why MAJOR LEAGUE is a classic sports film. Yes it is goofy at times, but above all else it is exactly what sports is all about: Fun.

"Wild thing, I think I love you!"

Friday, April 18, 2014


There are basically two types of science fiction stories. There are those that rely on the fantastic fury of sights and sounds (STAR WARS), and there are those which serve as a contemplative, thinking-man’s story (2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY). There are also those which manage to have one boot on each planet…which is the approach for TRANSCENDENCE; the first directorial effort from famed cinematographer Wally Pfister.
Dr. Will Caster (Johnny Depp), along with his wife Evelyn (Rebecca Hall) and his friends Max (Paul Bettany) and Joseph (Morgan Freeman) are the world’s leaders in artificial intelligence. When Will is mortally wounded by an anti-technology terrorist group led by Bree (Kate Mara), his brain functions are uploaded into a super-computer…where he begins to accomplish wonderful and deadly things.

TRANSCENDENCE starts off strong and sets itself up to be a true, thinking-man’s story in which our place in the universe can be analyzed and discussed over and over with thought-provoking ideas. Ideas such as whether or not there is a limit to artificial intelligence, if it is morally right to let it grow, and the ethics behind copying a human being’s brain into a computer where it can survive forever. TRANSCENDENCE offers up a glimpse of many great questions and thoughts…and then promptly forgets about them. Each theme and idea is mentioned for a few fleeting seconds and is instantly forgotten about…never to be mentioned again.
Taking a broad-strokes approach to storytelling is certainly forgivable, and since the great themes aren’t explored, TRANSCENDENCE instead dives head-first into the sights and sounds to propel its story. And this is where things go off the rails. When cyber-Will starts to crave more power and begins to accomplish good and bad things, any bit of believability and credibility goes out the window. All science fiction must have some sort of grounding to keep the belief going, but TRANSCENDENCE doesn’t bother and just makes one fantastic thing after another happen…and it ultimately comes off as silly.

Director Wally Pfister, who has made a great career as a cinematographer, ultimately proves that he’s not quite ready for the captain’s chair yet. While he manages to show some of his visual style, the film has massive lapses in continuity, time, and breaks in its very own logic. Characters are given zero motivations and might as well be computers themselves. But the biggest sin Pfister makes is making a film that is so goddamn boring. Pacing is a slog to get through, and even when the explosions start happening…there isn’t very much enjoyment to be had.
The overqualified cast does their best with the weak material. Johnny Depp spends most of his time inside the computer screen and seemingly does exactly what is asked of him, but not much more. His scenes before his upload are wasted as we never once feel empathy for his character. Rebecca Hall gets the most work and does well, and Morgan Freeman also turns in a fine performance. Kate Mara gets the call up to the big-leagues with the most screentime she’s ever had, but is underdeveloped and dull. Cillian Murphy shows up as an FBI agent in what amounts to a pointless extended cameo.

The climax includes a big battle in which the FBI faces off against cyber-Will (exactly why the FBI is targeting him is never made clear), and things go into even more ridiculous scenarios and happenings. When all is said and done TRANSCENDENCE tries to offer one last grand-question for us all to ponder, but by then no one really cares. In an effort to harvest the best of both worlds, this film is as clumsy as it is stupid.


Wednesday, April 16, 2014

A Reel Review: JOE

There can be little argument that actor Nicolas Cage has gone from hero to zero in the past decade. After spending the better-part of his career as an A-lister, Oscar-contender, and part-time action star, Cage has gone into the realm of B-level movies while giving performances to match the hammy and craptacular productions. Here in 2014, Cage goes back to his indie film roots in JOE; a gritty low-budget flick in which he resurrects his once-forgotten talent to command a film.
In the modern-day Deep South, Joe (Cage) is an ex-con who befriends Gary (Tye Sheridan), a young teen who is only looking for a way to support his family despite the antics of his abusive and alcoholic father (Gary Poulter).

JOE doesn’t have much going by way of plot. There is no ultimate goal, nowhere to go, and not much for the characters to do or strive to achieve. Director David Gordon Green instead focuses his film on the two main characters who could not be more different from one another. Joe is an ex-con who has already been chewed up and spit out by life, while Gary is on the verge of being chewed up early thanks to the beatings and drunken behavior by his father. JOE resists the urge to delve in a sappy hug-fest and instead keeps things very grounded and real, taking the two characters and making them trudge through the situation one mess at a time while relying each other.
For the most part, it works thanks to the committed performances by the cast and David Gordon Green’s true-the-the-bone dedication to creating atmosphere. The film takes place in a depressed area of the Deep South, where people live just above the poverty line in shacks, scratch out a living by day-to-day jobs, and spend spare time gutting deer in their living rooms. Green composes a stunning looking film, and with a haunting score creates a thick atmosphere in which you can feel the summer heat and the sting of the ‘skeeters on your arms. Green doesn’t offer any grand ideas or try to preach any sort of lesson…he just lets the characters play off each other and allows things to evolve naturally. It’s not a very dense film…more like  a series of events, but there is enough meat on the bone to satisfy an appetite.

Nicolas Cage returns to actually caring about his art. His performance is stunning; he nails his southern drawl perfectly, and look of internal anguish is never far from his eyes or face. His body language constantly conveys a burden…and his character’s traits of a hot-temper and lost soul allows Cage to prove just how good he can be. Young Tye Sheridan is an equal match to Cage’s presence; once again showing his great promise in the years to come. As good as Cage and Sheridan are, they are nearly upstaged by the late Gary Poulter. Poulter, who was a real-life homeless man who was plucked off the streets of Austin Texas for the role, turns in a performance which ranks up there with any one of the greatest screen villains. He is one of the most despicable human beings ever filmed who beats his kids, mugs the homeless to steal their booze, and pimps out his underage daughter…and his performance is very committed and believable.
The finale goes for the shock factor and may be a little disappointing to some, but it makes sense considering the paths the characters were on for most of the film. JOE is not a grand statement on life or redemption, nor does it try to be. What it does instead is hang its hat on the Deep South…making like the type of yarn you spin around the campfire while the moonshine gets passed around…while welcoming back an old friend.


Monday, April 14, 2014


NYMPHOMANIAC VOL II is the second and final part of director Lars von Trier’s look at human sexuality. Centered around the life-story of a woman named Joe and her addiction to sexual contact, VOL II picks up right where VOL I left off, which makes the film a less of a sequel and more of a continuation of a large story.
Joe (Charlotte Gainsbourg) is found laying the street by Seligman (Stellan Skarsgard), who takes her in under his care. Joe recounts her life-story which includes her sexual discoveries as a young lady (played by Stacy Martin), and her darker turns as she grows into adulthood…which include her first lover (Shia LaBeouf), a loan shark (Willem Dafoe), and a sadistic sadomasochistic sex partner (Jamie Bell).

NYMPHOMANIAC VOL II is much of the same style and structure as the first film. Set within the framework of Joe telling her life-story, this volume moves away from her youthful sexual-discovery days into her darker experiences. Where VOL I was all about discovery, VOL II is about Joe’s struggle to maintain her addiction. As she loses the ability to orgasm, she turns to more dangerous and painful methods to satisfy herself, making VOL II twice as uncomfortable to watch. Things take on more interesting twists and turns as she begins a career as a loan-shark’s collector and as a mentor for a sexually charged teen, all of which offer opportunities to explore Joe’s complex character.
And it is the method of exploring Joe’s character which makes VOL II work so well, just as it did in VOL I. Joe is a broken, sex-addicted woman telling her life-story to an optimistic, older man who has very little sexual experience…and seeing the two characters trade perspectives is what makes the film work, and work very well. VOL II and the overall picture is more of a character-study than a film about sex.

Lars von Trier swings for the fences in his sexual opus and makes contact most of the time. The film is beautiful to view as the look of the film goes for an over-lit, overexposed palette which shows everything in all of its beauty and ugliness; everything from the surroundings to the sex. With things growing darker this time around VOL II has a lot less of the zip that the first time had, and towards the third act of the film many things feel repetitive. It often feels like von Trier is stretching things for time, and a lot of the clever ideas that made the first film work so well are absent.
Acting is superb. Charlotte Gainsbourg shows her fearlessness and is complimented very well by Stellan Skarsgard’s thoughtful and delicate acting. Stacy Martin is used less this time around but is still effective, as is Shia LaBeouf although he still makes a good impression. Willem Dafoe’s involvement is more of an extended cameo, but is still fun to watch. Jamie Bell deserves the award for Creep of the Year in a stunning turn as a punishing sex partner.

The ending goes for the jugular in a shocking climax which no one will ever see coming; so shocking it’s hard to believe that von Trier would end the film that way. However after some careful thought, it does make sense for the overall story and the characters. VOL II is impossible to watch without seeing the first part, but those brave and hearty enough to get through them both will certainly be rewarded by a thought-provoking film with big ideas and bold explorations. NYMPHOMANIAC is worth spending time with.

Friday, April 11, 2014

A Reel Review: DRAFT DAY

Despite its flashy surface, the selling point of Ivan Reitman’s DRAFT DAY is a tough one. Diehard fans of the National Football League will surely line up to see it, as will long-time fans of Kevin Costner. But the trick in selling the film to a seated audience is to make it work on both ways; as a sports drama and as a character’s movie with a story to tell.
On the morning of the annual NFL Draft, Sonny (Costner), the general manager of the woeful Cleveland Browns, makes a controversial trade which puts him at odds with his executive assistant/girlfriend (Jennifer Garner), his head coach (Denis Leary), his teams’ owner (Frank Langella) and his mother (Ellen Burstyn).

The best thing DRAFT DAY has going for it is its ability to explore what happens to the general manager of a professional sports team when he makes a monster deal which paints a target on his back. When Sonny makes the shattering trade, he spends much of the movie entertaining offers from many teams…all of which would be beneficial for his team. On top of that, he has to cater to the wishes of his fans, his grumpy owner and overzealous head coach…all of which have different ideas on how Sonny should conduct his team during the highly publicized draft. Here DRAFT DAY is at its strongest.
Ultimately the film is all about sports, and this is where the follies begin. While the film keeps its fans in mind with real-location shooting (stadiums and team-offices), real-player cameos and real-life scenarios, the script is dumbed down for wider audiences (non-fans). While a newcomer to the game of football or the basics of an NFL Draft may be able to follow along just fine, longtime fans may be shocked to see their beloved game have its complexities stripped away for a broad-strokes, third-grade-reading-level script which makes it all seem so simple. This does not help the film overall as it often feels way to simplistic…and predictable.

For a film which is all about making a decision while the clock ticks away, Ivan Reitman has managed to put together a bore of a film. The movie covers the final 13 hours before the Draft begins, and despite the ticking clock, no feeling of pressure is ever felt. No one sweats and no one feels the heat as they go about their business. In an effort to make things personal, the film often stops dead in its tracks to get into the characters personal stories…none of which really work as the effort feels so blatant. It almost feels like all of the personal-stories and subplots were added long after the football stuff was filmed.
The actors overall suffer from the dull and undeveloped script. Kevin Costner looks great for his age but he barely shows up and doesn’t work very hard. Jennifer Garner is as cardboard as her thin character, and Frank Langella just plays pissed all the time. Denis Leary shows all the wit and charm as an overzealous coach…so well that it may be interesting to revisit his character again someday, and Ellen Burstyn shows that she still has it. Sam Elliot makes a nice cameo as a college coach, and Tom Welling turns in an extended cameo as the Browns’ quarterback. Sean “P. Diddy” Combs shows up as a sports agent and proves that he is the worst actor in the universe.

DRAFT DAY doesn’t hit any sort of a groove or become the least bit exciting until the final twenty minutes or so, when the Draft actually starts and a few twists and turns drive us towards a nice, happy, Disney-type ending which even the average third-grader can see coming from 100 yards away. DRAFT DAY is predictable, dull, and an outright waste of time off the clock.

Wednesday, April 9, 2014

A Reel Review: The Philly POPS Performs THE MAGIC OF JOHN WILLIAMS

It can easily be said that John Williams is one of, if not the greatest composer in film history. His scores are the most memorable and hummable pieces ever written, and his 49 Oscar nominations, is second only to Walt Disney. Williams has scored the music for this Blogger’s favorite films, so when the Philly Pops orchestra announces performances of Williams’ music, you drop everything and show up. 

This is what happens…

On a brisk and breezy lovely Spring Sunday, this Blogger arrived at the Kimmel Center in Philadelphia expecting a snooty reception but was instead greeted by….Imperial Stormtroopers. Courtesy of the 501st Legion, a platoon of Stormtroopers, Imperial Officers, two dark lords, and a certain bounty hunter assisted in the chaperoning and were more than happy to pose for photos. This Blogger was led to the magnificent Verizon Hall and appropriately entered the theatre through the door marked D2 (see that?). From there, this Blogger was seated to a nice gentleman only a few years younger than Yoda who smelled faintly of mothballs. This wasn’t all too bad, as the aroma of mothballs brought back memories of this Blogger’s grandmother’s house…whose basement stairwell often became the cockpit of the Millennium Falcon every Sunday afternoon in the late 1970’s and early 1980’s. Fitting on all levels. 

The President of the Philly Pops, Frank Giordano, came on stage for a quick intro…in which he announced that the three John Williams concerts had set a record for the largest attendance ever for a weekend concert series (applause!). From there, Conductor Michael Krajewski came on stage and took over the galaxy. Any notions of the orchestra-types being stuffy with their noses up in the air can be dismissed; Krajewski was funny, witty, a great sport, and a real pleasure to listen to. Krajewski introduced every piece with a bit of history and provided background to what everyone was about to hear. He obviously knew that his audience wasn’t fully composed of STAR WARS fans or film geeks, as he explained each film in a way that an outsider could understand. With a gentle touch, he commanded 100% of the audience’s attention. 

And then the music started. 

It took all but three notes to send the souls of the audience flying out of their seats and high above the clouds as the theme from HARRY POTTER AND THE SORCERER’S STONE (2001) whisked everyone away to feelings of magic and childhood. Another quick intro, and the deep thunderous rumble of JAWS (1975) shook the innards of every audience member…and by the time it finished had everyone thinking twice before stepping into the bathtub. 

The flying theme from E.T. THE EXTRATERRESTRIAL (1982) was next, followed by the relatively new, yet very powerful With Malice Toward None from last year’s LINCOLN. Next, was an outright emotional journey which showed the brilliance behind the order of the setlist. The magnificence of JURASSIC PARK (1993) induced tears; tears which then turned to weeping when the heartwrenching theme from SCHINDLER’S LIST (also from 1993) came next. After all the beautiful pain, the orchestra then blew the goddamn roof off the place with the up-up-and-away, exhilarating, and triumphant score from SUPERMAN (1978).  

After a brief intermission in which the audience basically walked on air to the restrooms to pull themselves together, things took a lighter turn as the Philly Pops performed some of John Williams’ somewhat lesser-known works. Call of the Champions, which was Williams’ score for the 2002 Winter Olympics, opened the second-half of the program. This was followed by a piece known officially as Mission Theme; an outstanding full score which is heard in little pieces every night on the NBC Nightly News. 

Then it was time to get serious. The large choral group, silent until this point, finally got to flex their amazing pipes. Hymn to the Fallen from SAVING PRIVATE RYAN (1998) was next, in which the choral group often overpowered the already-powerful orchestra and had everyone a blubbering mess…even mothball-man. 

And this is where the fun begins. 

Conductor Michael Krajewski gave a quick intro to the segment of the show everyone had been waiting for. The familiar 20th Century Fox theme boomed through the hall…followed by the even-more familiar blast of sound in the first notes of the STAR WARS Main Title. Krajewski once again got into the spirit by trading in his baton (that’s the little stick they conduct with, mortals), for a miniature lightsaber. The Main Title was followed up by another powerful blast from the choral group in a stunning performance of Duel of the Fates which blew everyone’s hair out on Broad Street. Once everyone picked their teeth up off the floor, things got quiet with Anakin’s Theme from THE PHANTOM MENACE (1999), followed by the powerful Imperial March which was first heard in THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK in 1980. The two pieces complimented each other very well when played back-to-back; they share the same notes and movements, and showcase Williams’ genius in telling a story through music. Things got fun once again towards the end of The Imperial March when Darth Vader strode up on stage, force-choked Krajewski off his riser, and conducted the orchestra himself. 

Once Krajewski recovered, it was back to business with an outstanding and uplifting performance of the Throne Room and Finale from A NEW HOPE (1977). The orchestra played all the STAR WARS pieces without any intros or breaks…totaling nearly 30 minutes of consecutive playing. After a rousing finale and thunderous applause, the Philly Pops pulled a surprise. The printed program had the performance ending after the STAR WARS pieces. But Krajewski returned, and quickly began conducting a familiar march to close out the evening. This last, un-listed piece was from RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK (1981)…and it sent everyone swinging home on a happy note. 


No one walks away from a performance like this unchanged. Listening to the music of John Williams disembodied from the movies allows us to re-imagine the films in our heads, which makes our bodies feel the emotional pull even more. Listening to the music via electronic devices is one thing, but to be fully blanketed in the power of a live orchestra is another; as the chords literally wrap around your body and trickle into your soul unleashing a well of an emotional journey. No one walks away from an experience like that unchanged; an experience to be long-remembered. 

Monday, April 7, 2014

Mickey Rooney 1920-2014

Screen legend Mickey Rooney, one of the last living connections to the Golden Age of Hollywood, has passed away at the age of 93. 

The Brooklyn, NY-born Rooney started his career in show business at the age of 17 months as part of his parents’ vaudeville routine in 1922. It was the start of a career which would span 92 years over ten decades and would rack up 338 film and TV credits. He was one of the last surviving stars of the silent film era. 

He was nominated for Oscars for his acting in BABES IN ARMS (1939), THE HUMAN COMEDY (1943), and THE BOLD AND THE BRAVE (1956). His notable works are too numerous to list, but a few standouts include (but certainly not limited to) A MIDSUMMER NIGHT’S DREAM (1935), BABY FACE NELSON (1957), REQUIEM FOR A HEAVYWEIGHT (1962), THE BLACK STALLION (1980), and IT’S A MAD, MAD, MAD, MAD WORLD (1963). He became a familiar face in children’s films such as PETE’S DRAGON (1977), BABE: PIG IN THE CITY (1998), NIGHT AT THE MUSEUM (2006) and THE MUPPETS (2011). 

He had countless appearances in TV sitcoms and television films, and performed voicework in many animated films. He had a successful second career on stage. Over his long career he won two Golden Globes, an Emmy Award, a Juvenile Academy Award, and an Honorary Academy Award. 


By the time this Blogger came around to discovering Mickey Rooney, the man had already been around for a long time and was well-established in the industry. It was in the Disney production of PETE’S DRAGON in 1977 in which this Blogger was introduced to him, and an instant connection was made. Rooney wasn’t one of those Hollywood stars with a chiseled jaw and perfect hair; he was instead the guy next-door, or even reminiscent of the crazy old uncle who came over during the holidays. He had a familiarity to him which always made him comfortable to watch. As one of the last connections to the bygone era of silent film, we have certainly lost a treasure…and a good friend.