Friday, December 19, 2014


Directed by: Will Gluck
Cast: Jamie Foxx, Quvenzhane Wallis, Bobby Canavale, Rose Byrne, Cameron Diaz, Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje, cameos by Mila Kunis, Ashton Kutcher, Rihanna

                    Review by James Colt Harrison

For most of our lives we have been reading about Little Orphan Annie in comic strips, beginning in 1924 from author Harold Gray. It has been great fodder for theatrical productions and films. Not only is the latest Annie from Columbia Pictures with stars Jamie Foxx and little Quvenzhane Wallis a stunning toe-tapping musical version, but there have been several other previous  films made that were not as good. Plus, there was the original 1977 hit Broadway musical from which much of the music comes in the latest version.

The version most people remember is the 1982 Columbia film that starred Albert Finney and Carol Burnett. Aileen Quinn starred as Annie. That film was directed by the formidable Oscar® winner John Huston. As we can see, Annie has been entertaining audiences for decades.

Because the original story and setting (1930s) was getting a little long in the tooth, the producers felt the show needed a bit of a re-polishing and updating to appeal to today’s audience’s taste in music and humor. They brought in British actress Emma Thompson to update the script and add some much-needed humor. She collaborated on the screenplay with director Gluck and Aline Brosh McKenna, turning out a script that relied on bringing out the humorous side of the characters. Jamie Foxx, now called Will Stacks instead of the time-worn “Daddy Warbucks” uses dead-pan humor to his advantage. He’s still rich, but he’s a strong billionaire from the 21st Century now. Foxx is a likeable person in his own right, but he has to play a somewhat disagreeable man who frequently makes us laugh because of his seriousness.

The story, of course, remains the classic one where Annie is sort of “rescued” from the hands of mean and acidic Miss Hannigan, who runs a home for foster children. Cameron Diaz plays Miss Hannigan aggressively over the top and exaggerates her every gesture and facial tick. Overdoing it too much, she should win the Ham Actress Award of the Year.

Stacks saves Annie’s life by saving her from getting run over by a truck. They bond and Annie becomes the catalyst for Stacks’ running for New York Mayor. Stack’s slimy campaign manager, played humorously by handsome Bobby Cannavale, encourages him to use Annie to boost his polls numbers. Naturally, this complicates their relationship.

The music is tuneful and happy and has been updated with altered lyrics to today’s rhythms. Kids today can relate to it easily. It’s toe-tapping even for the adults, who will enjoy hearing favorites “Tomorrow,” “Little Girls,” and this reviewer’s favorite, “It’s A Hard Knock Life” featuring a new down beat and cadence. The original music is by Martin Charnin & Charles Strouse with newer songs written by Greg Kurstin, Sia, and Will Glick.

A funny, happy musical is perfect for the holiday season. This new film version of the perennial favorite Annie is a glittering gift under the tree. There are some fun, but quick, cameo appearances by Ashton Kutcher, singer Rihanna, and actress Mila Kunis. Go see it and sing along with all the heart-warming tunes and dance down the theater aisles.

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Sunday, December 14, 2014

The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies

Directed by: Peter Jackson 
Cast: Ian McKellan, Martin Freeman, Cate Blanchett, Orlando Bloom Benedict Cumberbatch as the dragon, Richard Armitrage, Luke Evans, Lee Pace, Hugo Weaving, Christopher Lee, Stephen Fry, Billy Connolly 

Review by James Colt Harrison 

With the zillions of books sold to teen-agers around the world, kids over 5, seniors at Shady Pines, and precocious toddlers who can read at 6 months, there is hardly a person on earth who is not familiar with author J.R.R. Tokian’s Hobbit series. This is not to mention the two previous Peter Jackson spectacular films that emerged out of the gorgeous scenery of his native New Zealand. 

Alas, as all things come to a glorious end (sometimes), we are at the termination of the fine trilogy of Hobbit films with the dazzling 3D-IMAX eye-knocker The Hobbit: Battle of the Five Armies. The realistic 3D cameras of Cinematographer Andrew Lesnie use the three dimensional process as a companion to the action and it never intrudes on the audience’s concentration. Occasionally, for old-time sakes, a sword or an animal horn protrudes out into the audience, but it is not done as a stunt. 

Somebody or some thing is always trying to ruin the Hobbit’s land and cities, and it is no different in this final episode. The most ferocious is the fire-breathing dragon, who has more Octane in his mouth than a  Union 76 Premium pump. Giving voice to the awful, nasty dragon is current hot actor Benedict Cumberbatch. Unfortunately, we never see him on screen but only hear his electronically enhanced, British-cultured voice. His stage training has come in handy, and he uses his voice as effectively as the classic film and stage star Richard Burton did in his day. 

If cities are to be destroyed, then we must actually see a city to have all the destruction reigned down on it. The artisans were busy building cutsey houses and churches in model form. Unfortunately, that’s exactly what they look like---models. Not once do we get the feeling that it is at all real. Perhaps that was the director’s intention? After all, this is a fantasy. One thing that was real was actor Stephen Fry as the greedy mayor who absconds with all the gold in a flimsy row boat. Will he get his come-uppance? Greed has come down through the ages and doesn’t seem to have changed human nature. 

All the old favorites are here---Cate Blanchett as the ethereal Elf Queen Galadriel, Ian McKellan as the beloved wizard Gandalf, Martin Freeman as Bilbo, startlingly blonde Thranduil played by handsome Lee Pace, and the dashing Orlando Bloom as Legolas. Yes, the dwarves are unspeakably loveable as usual. But now there is less of them and more of the main characters so we get to know them a little better and can figure out who in the world they are in relation to each other. That was a bit of a puzzle in the other two films. 

Martin Freeman has come to the fore recently in some outstanding work on television in the Sherlock Holmes series with the previously mentioned Cumberbatch. Freeman has proven he can actually act and has moved beyond wearing funny Hobbit feet. 

There is no lack of action, destruction of old castles, crunching of dangerous ice ponds, with plenty of good old-fashioned eye gouging and being run through with a five-foot long sword! Everything is here to enthrall big and little boys at the local matinee IMAX theatre. Go see it. You’ll become an astonished teen-ager, too.

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Bill Cosby, Social Media and Women’s Rights

Bill Cosby photo from Wikipedia
Bill Cosby has been a beloved role model since the sixties with his success as a comedian, an actor, a supporter of education, and a spokesperson for the African American community. He broke barriers for African Americans in television and his success coincided with the civil rights movement giving his rise a graced timeliness. Here was Bill Cosby, the perfect citizen, his wholesome image endearing him to the public, shedding a positive light on an entire community, and giving hope to those that would come after. His public image, until a decade ago was untouchable. What has changed? Social media and the effects of the women’s rights movement.
Coinciding with the civil rights’ movement was the women’s rights movement. A movement that fought for equal rights for women in society and against male privilege particularly when it came to sexual harassment, rape, and domestic abuse against women. There is still a long way to go, but the outing of Bill Cosby might be a barometer of how far the movement has come.

When Bill Cosby was busy allegedly drugging and raping teenage aspiring models and Playboy bunnies back in the sixties the women’s movement was just getting under way. As an African American male, but still a male, he was not unaware of the vulnerability of young women, particularly in the entertainment business. As he grew in power, his confidence grew. Who would believe his victims? Was it not common practice for powerful men to take advantage? Were these young girls not there for the picking? Many powerful men would have agreed and obviously did, since he had accomplices and people must have looked the other way. Perhaps many young women would have willingly allowed themselves to be seduced, such is the lure of money and power, but his particularly twisted psychosexual pathology demanded total vulnerability. Demanded that they be unconscious, under his complete control. They were objects to him. He turned them into voiceless, motionless, living dolls. Still, his particular kink was tolerated for decades for many reasons. The women were ashamed, traumatized, afraid no one would believe them, told to be quiet, and so on. There is also good old-fashioned misogyny to be blamed. It works as a force outside of women in society and inside their minds. It is a voice that demeans, that makes one doubt, that humiliates and weakens. That force was particularly strong in the sixties. It is still very much alive today, one only needs to read the comments on social media. These women are called bimbos, in it only for the money, liars, and worse. But not all voices are so spiteful. They are many voices that offer support, that believe, that feel the time has come for something to be done. 

Something has changed. Some progress is inevitable. Perhaps the first sign was eight years ago when Andrea Constand told the police about Cosby allegedly drugging and molesting her, albeit a year later. Could it be that the work the women’s movement had done in the sixties, seventies, and eighties was finally paying off? Here was a young woman standing up to a powerful legend. She later filed a civil suit and thirteen Jane Does came forward to support her. The case was settled out of court. Perhaps Cosby realized the mood of the times had changed and controlled his behavior from then on. Still, that case remained buried in the public consciousness and then comes another phenomenon that Bill would have never imagined in the sixties: social media.

Social media has made the world a village.  Gone are the days when only writers and public persona could have their say, now anyone can. Anything anyone does can be taped and put on the internet. Any blogger can post their opinion. Fewer misdeeds by public persona can be hidden. Any person can tweet their thoughts. No one knows what will go viral, what will flare up, whose tweet will be on a news channel. Social media has become the public consciousness, an ultimate vehicle of opinion and democracy; terribly honest, cruel, merciless, and ultimately a platform for social judgment. Comedian Hannibal Buress lit the fire by calling Bill Cosby a rapist in his comedy routine. Strangely enough, it was Cosby’s uppity moralizing towards the African American community and not his abuse of women that was the fuel for Buress’ attack. Someone taped it, put it on the internet and it went viral. That led his victims, sensing the moment was right, to slowly come out of the woodwork. Now a movement has been created. Tonight six of Bill Cosby’s victims were on CNN. Decades ago this would have been highly improbable. Social media with its pulse on public opinion has done the unthinkable. It has created the perfect storm that has brought a powerful and likely narcissist to light. In a few months, it has toppled a legend and in the process vindicated decades of suffering for many voiceless, faceless Jane Does.

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Tuesday, December 9, 2014

Reese runs ‘Wild’

By James Colt Harrison

Cheryl Strayed is a real woman who wrote Wild, a real memoir about her experiences hiking in California’s Pacific Crest mountains. It wasn’t an ordinary hike, but it was one that was a catharsis for her and her life. It helped her to deal with her failed marriage and mother’s death. Reese Witherspoon, a go-getting actress and producer, saw great potential in the book as a film starring---who else but herself! There isn’t an actress on earth who wouldn’t want to be on screen in practically every scene and have no other female competition.

Although Miss Witherspoon is physically a tad delicate and dainty at 5’-1” to be trudging through the slog in her bulky REI leather boots (plug!), she is fetching enough in her no-makeup makeup to still look delightfully feminine. Had she worn no makeup at all, it would have been a horror picture. But, being one of the producers, she had access to the miracles of Hollywood makeup artists and hairstylists (Robin Matthews & Miia Kovero) to make her look just the right degree of disheveled, smudged, and still darling. There are no traces of Elle Woods, but she’s doing her best to look like a hiker.

Ms. Strayed apparently had a need to cleanse herself of whatever was dogging her, so the best way to do it is to trek to the mountains and breathe all that clean air. Even though she suffered bruises, cuts, scares from animals, and loneliness, it was just what she needed to test herself physically. She’s a woman of today who has casual sex along the way with no regrets. It’s probably what a man would do and she is an equal in every way. Reese captured that woman and did a splendid job.

The excellent Laura Dern pops up in flashbacks as Strayed’s mother. She was a single mother who had to raise her daughter on her own. She had to be mother, father, and friend. Dern has just the right amount of warmth and girlishness to relate to her daughter. Dern must have a strong ego that allows her to play Reese’s mother, who is only 8 years younger than she in real life!

Cinematographer Yves Belanger had plenty of gorgeous scenery to work with, and he did wonders with his camera capturing the lush greenery of the mountains and the bone-dry desert. The camera work definitely became one of the characters in the movie.

The film is directed by Jean-Marc Vallee. His most recent hit was Dallas Buyer’s Club, an Oscar® nominee last year for Best Picture. It did win the Best Supporting Actor Oscar® for Jared Leto. Going in the opposite direction than that film, Vallee has fashioned screenwriter Nick Hornby’s script into a character study of a real, live strong woman who will make females proud everywhere.

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Thursday, December 4, 2014

RYAN O’NEAL talks about director Stanley Kubrick

By James Colt Harrison

Warner Bros. Home Entertainment has released Stanley Kubrick: The Masterpiece Collection Blu-Ray™ which includes 10 discs, 8 films,  documentaries and a new hard-cover book using film archive photographs. The films included in the set are Lolita (1962), Dr. Strangelove (1964), 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), A Clockwork Orange (1971), Barry Lyndon (1975), The Shining (1980), Full Metal Jacket (1987) and Eyes Wide Shut (1999).

Film star Ryan O’Neal met with us on the Warner Bros. studio lot to discuss his experiences with Kubrick’s Barry Lyndon, in which he starred.

Ryan O'Neal in Kubrick's "Barry Lyndon"
JCH: Is it fun for you to revisit BARRY LYNDON over and over?
Ryan O’Neal:  “I don’t constantly revisit it! But it’s nice when people remember.”

JCH: How do you remember it?
Ryan O’Neal: “As an ordeal!  Hasn’t anyone else said that to you yet? You turn yourself over to him and you hope that someday he’ll let you go. It took me a year and a half (of work).”

JCH: Wasn’t it good for you at that young age to work for such a great director?
Ryan O’Neal: “Yeah, I had ‘legs’. I could do it. He shot a lot of takes. You don’t get a stand-in. It took him a long time to light it.  So by the time he’s got it lit you learn a new rhythm on how to work.”

JCH: Kubrick used a lot of candle light as a source. Did that make it easier or was it more complicated to light?
Ryan O’Neal: “Well, sometimes we needed 100 candles after they all melted! If we didn’t get the take we had to start with new candles. The candles all had three wicks, so it wasn’t easy to blow them out.  I used to help blow them out until there was nothing left.”

JCH: Somebody described BARRY LYNDON as a film where very little happens, which isn’t exactly true. There were battle scenes and fights. Did it strike you as an uneventful film?
Ryan O’Neal: “Gee, that’s a strong question. It wasn’t uneventful for me. They carved away at me. I didn’t know what he (Kubrick) was going to do. I didn’t see the movie for a year.  It wasn’t ready to be seen. And then I didn’t know what I saw. It’s very unique. Stanley was a lover boy, We all loved him. We were crazy about him. Whatever he wanted we would try to do. It wasn’t just the actors but everybody. He was our god.”

Kubrick on set of "Barry Lyndon" 
JCH: It was said he expected a lot out of you, but he expected a lot more out of himself.
Ryan O’Neal: “First of all he’s got the sound to work on, and then he’s directing us, so he had his hands full. He’s gone. I didn’t think he would ever die. I thought he would live forever.

JCH: When you look back at the film after so many years, are you glad you went through that ordeal?
Ryan O’Neal: “Yeah, I guess so. I wouldn’t be here!"

JCH: You’ve done several period films. What’s your favorite part of doing such films?
Ryan O’Neal: “Oh, they help if you don’t know the period. You put the costumes on and all of a sudden you ‘get it!’  For PAPER MOON I was wearing George Raft’s suit. I know who HE was! I guess I have done a few period pieces.”

JCH: It is said Stanley used to write notes between scenes and then change the script a lot. Was that true?
Ryan O’Neal: “I remember I was working on a bridge with my Mother. There was a place when they weren’t sure if the lines were working. He had the original book Barry Lyndon by Thackery in his hands. He opened the book to the exact page of what we were shooting. And he said, ‘Let’s shoot what’s here because I opened it to the right page.’  He was hopeful of fate.”

JCH: Besides BARRY LYNDON, do you have a favorite Stanley Kubrick movie?
Ryan O’Neal: “I watched LOLITA this morning. That had some interesting things. It was way ahead of its time. It still is. All his black and white films were good.”

JCH: What do you think was the most valuable thing you learned from the production?
Ryan O’Neal: “I got a good salary! My deal was for about 18 weeks and after 18 weeks ( of work) we had  (completed) about four pages (of script). I was going into overtime. He said to me, ’How much are you making? Shouldn’t you be unloading the trucks?’ I said, ‘What?! Dressed like this?’ "

JCH: So how long was that shoot?
Ryan O’Neal: “It was something like 350 days. We actually stayed there. In fact, we were thrown out of Ireland after an IRA member called and threatened us. I would have called myself and made a threat months ago if it would have gotten us out of there sooner!”

JCH: So what did you do?
Ryan O’Neal: “I took my daughter Tatum and we went to Paris. I wasn’t there more than 24 hours and they called to say they were going to set up in England and I had to come back. We were back to work in Bath, England on that following Monday. Kubrick was a good producer, too, even though he did shoot a lot of takes.”

JCH: What is your view on doing a lot of takes of a scene?
Ryan O’Neal: “I worked with (director) Arthur Hiller and he shot a lot of takes. But not like Stanley!  We averaged 30 takes per shot. I never realized why he did it that way. We shot it and shot it and then he’d use the second take!”

JCH: There’s a lot of talk that Kubrick was very funny on the set.
Ryan O’Neal: “Here’s the thing. Stanley begged us never to talk about him. I don’t know if it was his modest personality or he was very protective of his privacy. We didn’t have a publicist or a still photographer on the set. He said he would just clip a scene from the movie if he wanted a picture.”

JCH: Was there anything learned from this film that you used later in your other films?
Ryan O’Neal: “I hope not, but probably! I don’t know if he made me a better actor. It seems to me it’s been downhill ever since then!”

JCH: You’ve worked with many accomplished directors such as Arthur Hiller and Peter Bogdonovich. Do great directors have anything in common?
Ryan O’Neal: “They’re highly intelligent. That helps. They have good instincts. They don’t fall for the blondes on set!"

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