Fourth Episode of “Reel Talk” Now Available

From L to R: Christopher Llewellyn Reed, “Reel Talk” host, with Mike Giuliano, his fourth guest.

From L to R: Christopher Llewellyn Reed, “Reel Talk” host, with Mike Giuliano, his fourth guest.

The fourth episode of Reel Talk with Christopher Llewellyn Reedon HCC-TV, is now available. My guest this time was Michael Giuliano, Associate Professor of Film/Interdisciplinary Studies at Howard Community College (where we record the show). We started off with a discussion of this year’s Oscar winners (and losers). We followed that with reviews of two relatively current films: Fifty Shades of Grey and McFarland, USA. In Howard County, Maryland, you can watch the show on Channel 41 (if you’re a Verizon customer) or Channel 96 (if you’re a Comcast customer), and you can watch it online from anywhere. Enjoy!

The amazing HCC-TV team did a wonderful job, as always, putting this together. The next episode (#5) will air at the start of May. If you want to watch the third episode, click here; the second episode, click here; and the first episode, click here.

Cycle of Violence: Liam Neeson Is on a (Slow) Tear Again in “Run All Night”

Run All Night

Run All Night (Jaume Collet-Serra, 2015)

When will Liam Neeson stop running? Since Taken, in 2008, he’s made a series of movies (including two Taken sequels) in which he plays a flawed man with killer skills who always rises to the occasion when duty (usually familial) calls. The man who once gave us Oskar Schindler has now become such a pop-cultural icon that he has become a parody of himself. I hope the money is good. Sure, many of these films are entertaining, but they’re getting old along with Neeson, who just recently announced that he’ll stop making them in about two years. Finally! That’s a good thing, because if Run All Night is any guide, there’s not much left to do with the genre (other than to not do it well).

Made by a man who has twice previously put Neeson through his paces – in Unknown and Non-Stop – Run All Night features Neeson as a New York Irish gangster in the employ of Ed Harris (Snowpiercer). An alcoholic wreck, Neeson’s Jimmy Conlon is haunted by the memory of the men he has killed over the years, and wracked by guilt over his neglect of his family. He has an adult son – played by Joel Kinnaman (who has to start making better movie choices) – who now avoids all contact. But this being a tight-knit movie world, that son eventually runs head-on into Ed Harris’s boy – played by Boyd Holbrook (terrific in Little Accidents, but wasted here) – bad things happen, and suddenly the two Conlon men must learn to get along in order to survive. It takes a long time getting to the action (which is why we watch these kinds of films in the first place) – indeed, “Jog All Night” might be a better title, or perhaps “Taken It Slow” – and the backstory we sit through beforehand is a bit of a slog, but once the violence (sort of) erupts, there are some decent thrills. Until there aren’t.

Among those thrills is a pretty nifty car chase involving crooked cops that raised my adrenaline to a satisfying level and a few other sequences that, to be honest, are rapidly fading from my memory. What isn’t vanishing so quickly is my slight queasiness over the movie’s odd (but normal, by Hollywood standards) racial politics. Or maybe “politics” is the wrong word. The film simply shows the same neglect towards people of color as Jimmy has shown towards his son all these years. They’re mostly convenient props, and you need them around (maybe), but treating them like real characters isn’t necessary. Common (excuse me, Oscar-winner Common) shows up as a lethal hit man, and then there’s the fatherless African-American boy – “Legs,” played by Aubrey Joseph (Fading Gigolo) – mentored by Conlon, Jr. There’s also a building-full of screaming low-income residents who find themselves under siege when the Conlons hide out in their apartments. Fun stuff. And those are three-dimensional characterizations compared to the film’s women (who? what? where?). Again, nothing new (and after all, I really just want more car chases).

If director Jaume Collet-Serra and writer Brad Ingelsby (Out of the Furnace) had simply accepted the terms of the genre and given us the high-octane thrills we crave minus the pseudo-operatics they feel a need to throw in upon occasion, then the film might have worked as a low-rent Taken (already cheap enough). As it is, it’s too often soggy when it should be firm, too often meandering when it should be brisk. We do not need to see the mother (with whom we have barely spent screen time) of a recently deceased character collapse in the arms of her husband. What we need is a little less conversation (unless it’s good non-expositional talk, which it never is), and a little more action please (thank you, Elvis!).

“Cinderella” Is Kind (of Lovely) but with Little Courage

Cinderella - Ella and the Prince

Cinderella (Kenneth Branagh, 2015)

“Have courage and be kind,” says the dying mother of young Ella (pre-cinders) to her daughter. One wishes that director Kenneth Branagh (former Shakespearean since turned Marvelite) had heeded the first part of that advice, for while his new version of this oft-told tale (from a script by Chris Weitz, of American Pie and About a Boy fame) is full of lovely images and lovely … love … it adds very little that is new, unlike last summer’s flawed but innovative Maleficent (itself an adaptation of Sleeping Beauty). Unless one considers that this is the first time I can remember a happy childhood preceding Cinderella’s downfall (and subsequent rise again). Still, a biological mother who comes before the wicked stepmom does not a storytelling raison d’être make. And since the 1950 Disney movie, sentimentality and all, is such a pop-culture touchstone (“Bibbidi-Bobbidi-Boo,” anyone?) – or was, once, anyway – it would be nice to see some updates to the story that explain why Disney felt the need to make it all over again (well, there’s money, for sure).

To those who may have grown up in the forest, raised by wolves (actually, you might know this and other fairy tales quite well if you had), Cinderella is about a young woman who’s widowed father remarries, then dies, leaving his orphan girl in the clutches of a woman whose only care in the world is her own two (spoiled) biological daughters. Together with her spawn, this evil stepmother treats Cinderella like a servant girl. When the Prince of the Kingdom announces a ball to which all maidens – regardless of social origin – are invited, Cinderella’s three tormenters lock her up to prevent her from going. Fortunately, young Cinderella just happens to have a fairy godmother, and this enchanted creature sends her charge to the ball in stunning raiment – including glass slippers – of magical provenance, though with the exhortation to leave before midnight, when the spell will expire. Once there, Cinderella charms the Prince, loses track of time, and then flees when the clock begins to strike 12, losing a slipper on her way out. Smitten, the Prince pursues her, but she escapes before he can see her in her plain, ordinary clothing. In the days and weeks ahead, he criss-crosses the territory, asking every woman to try on the shoe. And then, one day, despite the nefarious efforts of the stepmom and her nasty children, the Prince finds his lost love, marries her, and he and Cinderella live happily ever after. The end.

And that, folks, is the exact story of Branagh’s and Weitz’s movie. True, it’s live action, rather than animation (though with CGI, which means it’s at least half-animated), but the plot deviates not one iota from that basic outline. It is entertaining, and filled with charismatic actors, but we’ve seen this movie before. So why go?

Well, for one very good reason: the chemistry between the two leads, Lily James (Lady Rose MacClare on “Downton Abbey) as Cinderella and Richard Madden (Robb Stark on “Game of Thrones“) as the Prince. Oh, other quality performers are around, for show, including Cate Blanchett (Blue Jasmine) as the stepmother and Derek Jacobi (Stuart Bixby in “Vicious“) as the King, but it is James and Madden who make this movie worth watching. In particular, it is the three extended scenes they share that are profoundly moving: their first meeting in the forest; at the ball; and the final slipper test. Branagh and his two main actors get young love right. We feel the excitement of two people falling for each other for the first time, and it is a supreme delight to share in their joy. The dance at the ball is especially lovely, and Branagh’s mise-en-scène as Cinderella first appears takes the gathered attendees’ breath away, and ours, as well. So while the script may be a bit bland, there is nothing dull about the central love story. See it for that, if for nothing else.

Next up? Apparently, Tim Burton is considering remaking Dumbo. Now, will this be the Tim Burton of Big Eyes or the Tim Burton of edgier material? We’ll have to wait and see …

In Terrific “Red Army,” Hockey as Metaphor for Empire’s Rise and Fall (and Rise Again?)

[NOTE: I reviewed this film on air, and you can listen to that review on the show’s podcast, starting at 42:50.]

Red Army

Red Army (Gabe Polsky, 2014)

The 1990s were not kind to Russia, at least not to its idea of itself as a global superpower. After the breakup of the Soviet Union, in December, 1991, the new Russian Federation that emerged from the legacy of 74 years of so-called communism entered a period of great economic uncertainty, ideological upheaval and almost constant political crisis. As a graduate student in Russian and East European Studies, and then a teacher of Russian, I traveled fairly regularly to the region throughout this period, witnessing firsthand* some of the major events (including the 1993 siege of the Russian Parliament building) of the cataclysmic transformation underway. It was exciting to observe, but not that fun to live through. Small wonder, then, that ordinary Russians have today embraced Vladimir Putin as a man who can restore Russia to the glories of old, even tolerating an aggression towards Ukraine that threatens to destabilize the Russian economy anew.

Back when Russia was part of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (or USSR), it was a superpower in more than just military might. It also dominated in other areas, including sports, winning many Olympic medals. One of the jewels in its athletic crown was the national hockey team, run by the Soviet (or “Red“) Army, which first won the Olympic gold medal in 1956, then won every gold from 1960-1976, and then again in 1984 and 1988. The team and its victories were one of the many symbols that the USSR could hold up to the world as an example of its superiority over the “West” (meaning, us). When the team lost in 1980 to the United States (our “miracle on ice“), it was a devastating blow (though one from which, clearly, they could quickly recover), since the national psyche of supremacy was so heavily wrapped up in its hockey triumphs.

Now, from director Gabe Polsky (The Motel Life), comes a new documentary – opening today at Baltimore’s Charles Theatre – that chronicles the history of the Soviet hockey team and the men who worked hard to ensure its victories. The movie is more than just a profile of the team, however, as it also tells the tale of the rise and fall and rise again of Russia, itself. Out of great specificity come universal truths, and the details and politics of Soviet hockey reveal much about what worked – and what didn’t – in the former empire. This is only Polsky’s second movie as a director, though he has been producing (including for Werner Herzog, who returns the favor here) for a little longer, and approaches his topic with great skill and panache.

What is truly amazing about Polsky’s film is that he secured the participation of most of the surviving actors in the drama, first and foremost among them Vyacheslav (“Slava”) Fetisov, considered one of the best defenseman in the history of the game. Polsky and Fetisov share some aspects of their biographies, since the director was born in the Soviet Union (in Ukraine), immigrated to the United States, and later played hockey for Yale. This background allows Polsky to ask the right questions, probe deeply into the harsh realities of life behind the “Iron Curtain,” and shed light on the beauties and intricacies of the game.

Gaining access to Fetisov was a major coup, as the man makes an extremely charismatic main character. That, and his journey from Soviet superstar to pariah (when he tried to emigrate) to American hockey star (for the Stanley Cup-winning Detroit Red Wings) and back to Russia – as Putin’s Minister of Sport! – mirrors the up-and-down fortunes and shifting allegiances of Russians over the past 30 years. Combining archival footage and contemporary interviews, Red Army is a brilliant historical document of sports, politics and human history. If the film has one weakness, it’s that – at only 76 minutes – it is too short (as a man who believes that most films should have a damn good reason to be much longer than 90 minutes, I can’t believe I just wrote that). As Polsky moves the story briskly along, we do not get to spend quite as much time on certain topics as I would have liked, such as: how did the hockey players feel after losing to the Americans in 1980; after his negative experience with the authoritarian Soviet government in the late 1980s/early 1990s, why did Fetisov agree to work for Putin? Still, that aside, the movie is a marvel, and I highly recommend.

*Below are some photos from my two-month stay in Moscow, in 1993:

Watching government tanks just before they stormed the "White House' (Parliament building)

Watching government tanks just before they stormed the “White House’ (Parliament building)

The "White House" in the weeks after its storming, before they cleaned it up.

The “White House” in the weeks after its storming, before they cleaned it up.

Yours truly, relaxing after all of the madness

Yours truly, relaxing after all of the madness.

Midday’s Memorable Movie Monologues

[NOTE: Missed the show? Be sure to listen to the podcast!]

Rodricks_2015-03-06_Monologues

Do you have a favorite movie monologue? You know, that moment when the actor expresses him- or herself in a (usually) perfectly crafted speech? Or do you, perhaps, feel that such addresses are too formal and/or artificial and/or expositional? But what if it’s a courtroom summary argument, as Gregory Peck’s Atticus Finch speaks in To Kill a Mockingbird? Or what if it’s purposefully sermon-like, as is the (liberal) reading of Ezekiel 25:17 that Samuel L. Jackson’s hit man Jules recites in Pulp Fiction? Or the melancholy confession of “sad, sad, sad” that Elizabeth Taylor’s Martha makes to George Segal’s Nick in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?  Or the dressing-down that Meryl Streep’s Miranda Priestley gives to Anne Hathaway’s Andy Sachs in The Devil Wears Prada? A monologue can be many things: some good, some less so. When it works, we remember it long after the film is done.

Join host Dan Rodricks and Midday film critics Linda DeLibero – Director, Film and Media Studies, Johns Hopkins University – and Christopher Llewellyn Reed – Chair and Professor, Department of Film/Video, Stevenson University – on Friday, March 6, at 1pm, as they discuss memorable movie monologues. Which ones are your favorites? Which ones do you not like? Tune in to hear what we have to say, and add your own voice to the conversation by listening live and emailing your comments and questions to midday@wypr.org, or by calling in at 410-662-8780 (locally), or toll-free at 1-866-661-9309. If you can’t listen locally, you can live-stream the show on-line. If all else fails, you can always download the podcast afterwards, either via iTunes or the Midday page.

Enjoy the show!

[Pictured above: top row, l-r, The Devil Wears Prada, The Godfather; 2nd row, l-r, Patton, No Way Out, The Night of the Hunter, The Lion in Winter; 3rd row, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?; 4th row, The Last Picture Show; 5th row, l-r, The Third ManPulp Fiction]