Monthly Archives: January 2014

Mop Top Mania

Remembering the Beatles’ invasion, 50 years ago this month

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The Beatles Are Here!

By Penelope Rowlands
Softcover, 256 pages ($15.95,
Algonquin Books)

The author (pictured on the cover, in the middle, just above the ‘A’ and the ‘T’ of the sign), corralled essays from more than 40 musicians, fellow writers and fans to commemorate Beatlemania’s arrival on American shores 50 years ago. Singer-songwriters Billy Joel, Cyndi Lauper and Janis Ian; journalists Gay Talese, Griel Marcus, Roy Blount Jr.; and radio personality “Cousin Brucie” Morrow are among the contributors who recall and reflect on the emotional joy, musical shock waves and sheer hysteria that greeted John, Paul, George and Ringo on their first trip to the United States on Feb. 7, 1963. “How quickly the Beatles changed…everything,” writes Rowlands, noting that “She Loves You” was “two minutes and 18 seconds that seemed to render almost everything, musically, that came before it obsolete.”

—Neil Pond, American Profile Magazine

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Life in the Fast Lane

Director Ron Howard’s ’70s racing rivalry is a hip, sexy crowd pleaser

Rush

Rush

Blu-ray + DVD $34.98 / DVD $19.96 (Universal Studios Home Entertainment)

Director Ron Howard’s thrilling recreation of the real-life rivalry between two 1970s professional racecar drivers, English daredevil playboy James Hunt (Chris Hemsworth) and straight-laced Australian Niki Lauda (Daniel Brühl), is a hip, cool-running crowd-pleaser set in the daring, dangerous golden age of Grand Prix racing. Olivia Wilde has a knockout supporting role as a globetrotting fashion model, and generous bonus features on the Blu-ray combo include a several mini-documentaries, including one on how Howard and his crew created the illusion of filming all over the world while shooting mostly in the United Kingdom, and another on the movie’s sexy flashback style.

—Neil Pond, American Profile Magazine

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Manners, By George!

Navigating the social world, with a little help from our first president

What Would George Do

What Would George Do?

By Nan Marshall & Helen Broder

Softcover, 134 pages ($12.95, Pelican Publishing Company)

He lived four centuries ago, but our first president’s good manners were timeless—and as applicable today as ever. That’s the premise of this handy, dandy little volume, which takes George Washington’s famous code of personal conduct, “The Rules of Civility,” and uses it to build an engaging, entertaining discourse on etiquette for a spectrum of modern social situations, including meetings and greetings, conversations, sporting events, dining, clothing and dressing, travel, parenting, even sickness and death. So this President’s Day, step out into the social world a bit more sure of yourself…by George!

Neil Pond, American Profile Magazine    

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Guy Meets Gigabyte

A surprisingly sweet, audaciously witty, somewhat weird and ultimately warmhearted ‘what if’ about love in the not-so-far future

HER

Her

Starring Joaquin Phoenix, Amy Adams and the voice of Scarlett Johansson

Directed by Spike Jonze

R, 126 min.

Can you love someone who isn’t really anyone? That’s one of the questions at the heart of Her, in which a lonely writer in the not-so-distant future develops a romantic relationship with the operating system of his computer.

Think of Siri, the speech-recognition software that comes with an iPhone, or the “voice” that narrates routes mapped out by your vehicle’s GPS navigational device.

Only Samantha (voiced by Scarlett Johansson), the first of an advanced new operating system (OS) product line, is much more than just a voice. She has personality and a powerful “artificial intelligence,” and she immediately begins to wow her new owner Theodore (Joaquin Phoenix) with attention to his every need. She proofreads his work, composes music for their moments together, helps him play his favorite holographic videogame and sends him dirty-minded doodles that make him laugh.

HERSamantha “gets” Theo—understands him, relates to him—like no flesh-and-blood woman ever got him before. Soon enough, he begins to develop feelings for “her.”

Written and directed by Spike Jonze (Where The Wild Things Are, Being John Malcovich, Adaptation) Her takes an old-fashioned romantic convention—guy meets girl—and runs it through an innovative wavelength of sci-fi wi-fi that at the same time doesn’t seem all that out of sync with today. We never know when it takes place—presumably, it’s only a couple of decades from now—but its scenes of people walking around with ear buds, constantly speaking commands for their portable devices to check email or play songs, look oddly contemporary.

Jonze’s movie—nominated for four upcoming Academy Awards, including Best Picture—raises issues about relationships, intimacy, isolation, jealousy, sensory experience, and our connections to the technologies on which our lives have increasingly come to rely. Phoenix gives his usual standout, immersive performance in a very tricky role, playing to a co-star who isn’t really “there” in a physical sense.

As for Samantha, heard but never seen, Johansson is mesmerizing, a warm, sensual, palpable “presence” that moves from Theo’s head into his heart, re-awakening him in every way

_DSC2097.tifAmy Adams frumps down her recent firecracker role in American Hustle to play Theo’s old college friend with love problems of her own, and Rooney Mara portrays his soon-to-be ex-wife, scoffing at his inability to find and date a “real woman.” Theo’s co-worker (Chris Pratt from TV’s Parks and Recreation), however, doesn’t bat an eye when he finds out his girlfriend is an OS. Olivia Wilde has one scene as a date with doubts about Theo’s abilities to commit.

At one point, Theodore plays a ukulele and plunks out a song for Samantha. It’s a charming little tune about being “a million miles away” with the one you love. The very idea of a guy head-over-heels with a female voice coming out of a device in his shirt pocket may seem, indeed, w-a-a-ay out there. But Spike Jonze’s surprisingly sweet, audaciously witty, somewhat weird and ultimately warmhearted “what if” makes you wonder if it’s not so far off, after all.

—Neil Pond, American Profile Magazine

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A Bumpy Road

Idiotic Ice Cube buddy comedy covers well-worn movie terrain

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Ride Along

Starring Ice Cube and Kevin Hart

Directed by Tim Story

PG-13, 100 min.

Ah, the buddy-cop action comedy—where would Hollywood be without it?

Well, we’d certainly be without this idiotic pair-up and its many better predecessors, from Beverly Hills Cop to Men in Black.

After all the “prestige” pictures, the heavy lifters, of any previous year are on their hopeful way to awards-ville, January is when Hollywood takes a load off and lets the dogs out, returning to a menu of table scraps and leftovers after the gut-busting big-screen excesses of the Thanksgiving-to-Christmas holiday season.

Ride Along stars rapper-turned-actor Ice Cube as a gruff, tough Atlanta cop trying to derail the engagement of his sister (Tika Sumpter) to a high school security guard (Kevin Hart) whose ambition is to become a real policeman.

RA_3So James (Cube) invites Ben (Hart) to “ride along” with him on a typical day to prove he’s got the chops to be a cop—and to become his brother in law. Wouldn’t you just know they encounter all sorts of hilarity…and manage to crack the case of an underworld criminal warlord that James has been pursuing for years?

If it sounds like you’ve seen it all before, you have. The script, a group collaboration that feels like a sampler platter of mismatched-partner ideas, checks off just about every cop-movie cliché in the book, walks into one predictable situation after another, and grabs for every low-hanging joke-fruit that comes within reach.

Everybody makes a crack about Ben’s diminutive size (“He’s about a chromosome away from being a midget,” grumbles James). There are “comedic interludes” outside a biker bar, inside a strip club and at a shooting range. The big, explosive showdown-shootout happens—where else?—in an abandoned warehouse.

Non-Stop

Kevin Hart

Hart’s a funny guy, although I can certainly see how his high-pitched, screechy, hyperactive, slapstick-y, infantile shtick might not be some people’s cup of tea. He’s clearly the star of the show, although Ice Cube might get the bigger billing.

Director Tim Story, who directed two Fantastic Four movies plus the comedies Barbershop and Think Like a Man, fares much better here with the humor than the action, which is clumsy and clunky in contrast to the film’s easier, more natural riffs and rhythms when Cube and Hart are playing off each other.

None of the people who hooted and howled at the screening I attended appeared to be the least bit troubled that Ride Along, its high-spirited ha-ha’s punctuated with gunfire and bullets, was released as the nation was absorbing news of the latest school shootings, in Roswell, N.M., and Philadelphia, Pa., and just a couple of weeks after one movie patron pulled out a gun and killed another in Tampa, Fla.

Laughter, it’s been said, can be a healing force. There’s nothing as lofty, or as noble, as healing in Ride Along—just a quick roll in a barrel of cheap, hollow laughs down a familiar, forgettable road that we’ve traveled many times before.

—Neil Pond, American Profile Magazine

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Defensive Tackle

Perry Mason returns to the job in box set of TV movies

PerryMason_MovieCollectionV1

Perry Mason Movie Collection

DVD ($58.99, Paramount Home Video)

When the TV courtroom closed in 1966 after nine contentious seasons, Hollywood’s unflappable defense attorney went on hiatus for actor Raymond Burr to guest-star in other TV shows and movies, and even play another attorney in Ironsides (1967-75). But he eventually returned to the role that made him famous. A bit more grizzled than he was back in the black-and-white days, Perry nonetheless still has the stuff as he represent his former secretary (Barbara Hale) when she’s accused of murder (!) and digs into five other keep-you-guessing, cloak-and-dagger cases in this roundup of full-length TV movies from the mid-’80s.

—Neil Pond, American Profile Magazine

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Made in America

Photographer’s journey reveals handmade treasures

Portraits-of-the-American-Craftsman

Portraits of the American Craftsman

Photographs by Tadd Myers

Hardcover, 275 pages ($29.95, Lyons Press)

Myers, an award-winning corporate photographer, began this project as a commercial assignment about the restoration about an historic building in his home state of Texas, but expanded it as he began to wonder about other work across America still done by hand. This chronicle of his ensuing journey—a collection of images of musical instruments, clothing, long rifles and carving knives, surfboards and boats, stagecoaches and carousel horses, Grammy Awards, suits for country stars, other hand-crafted wonders and the people who make them—will give you a whole new appreciation for the phrase “made in the U.S.A.”

—Neil Pond, American Profile Magazine

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Ahoy, Captain!

Tom Hanks stars in gripping true tale of modern-day piracy

Captain_Phillips

Captain Phillips

Blu-ray + DVD + Digital Combo $40.99 / DVD $30.99 (Sony Pictures Home Entertainment)

Tom Hanks stars in this gripping, critically lauded thriller about the hijacking of an American cargo ship by Somali pirates and its daring rescue by the U.S. Navy. Based on a real 2009 incident, it’s a knockout performance for Hanks, who adds yet another notch to his formidable acting belt—but it’s a propulsive breakout for Oscar-nominated newcomer Barkhad Abdi, who, as leader of the ragtag Somali hijackers, conveys an urgency and desperation essential to the movie’s emotional tug-of-war. Extras include a three-part, behind-the-scenes look at the production and the true events on which the story was based, and commentary by director Paul Greengrass.

—Neil Pond, American Profile Magazine

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Built to Last

Even this big B.C. cheese ball can’t bring down mighty Hercules

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The Legend of Hercules

Starring Kellan Lutz and Gaia Weiss

Directed by Renny Harlin

PG-13

He’s buff, he’s tuff, and he’s strong enough—to survive everything Greek and Roman mythology could throw at him, and then eons later, to withstand the whirring blades of the pop-cultural blender.

The mighty mythical Hercules, the son of a mortal queen mother and the Olympian god Zeus, has been portrayed on TV and in the movies by dozens of actors, including Arnold Schwarzenegger, Kevin Sorbo, Lou Ferrigno and Ryan Gosling (!), turned into a cartoon by Walt Disney and even made into a Three Stooges sidekick. Later this summer, he’ll return to the big screen in yet another incarnation, MGM’s Hercules, starring Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson.

But before that, though, there’s this: The Legend of Hercules, a 3-D action spectacle starring Kellan Lutz as the muscle-bound hunk with part of his DNA from the heavens.

A012_R001_0509JOFans of the Twilight movies might recognize Lutz as one of the lesser vampires from that franchise, but you’ll get eyestrain trying to spot many other familiar faces in this shaggy-dog, made-in-Bulgaria production. (Liam McIntyre, who stepped into the title role of Showtime’s Spartacus series in 2012, and Johnathon Schaech, who played the leader of the band in That Thing You Do!, have supporting roles.)

Your eyes won’t be the only things straining as you try to follow along with the hollow dialog, hammy acting and hackneyed digital effects that look like videogame graphics. Finnish director Renny Harlin, whose career never quite maintained the adrenaline high of Die Hard 2 and Cliffhanger in the early 1990s, here continues to work the shallows, although he’s still’s got some mojo for making good ol’ mano-a-mano mayhem look stylish, as when Hercules squares off in the gladiatorial arena against one (or more) opponents, or dusts it up with his own stepfather (who never liked him anyway).

B049_L001_05206L“Have you come to bring the wrath of Zeus upon me, boy?!” bellows the stepfather (Scott Adkins), sounding more like a modern-day brawler than an ancient Aegean warlord king. In other places, too, the movie seems to be confused about its era. Hercules and his princess girlfriend (Gaia Weiss) get lovey-dovey in a gauzy, fabric-draped woodland gazebo that looks like it came from a Bed Bath & Beyond in Athen’s Parthenon Plaza.

THE LEGEND OF HERCULESBut even worse, The Legend of Hercules can’t seem to sort out its own hero from every other sword-and-sandal story of the past 2,000 years. It’s a mash-up of Gladiator, Ben-Hur, 300, The Passion of the Christ, the Samson saga from the Old Testament and many other narrative threads that have come before it, without much idea about how to use them to weave anything original.

But, through the centuries, the legend of Hercules has survived. It will undoubtedly survive the splat of this big B.C. cheese ball, too.

—Neil Pond, American Profile Magazine

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Inside Job

The riveting story of The Beatles’ loyal, longtime secretary

GoodOlFreda

Good Ol’ Freda

DVD ($29.98, Magnolia Home Entertainment)

Fans of the Fab Four will flip their Beatle wigs over this 2013 film-fest documentary hit about the shy Liverpool teenager who was hired to work for a local band with no idea that they’d go on to become legends—or that she’d remain their loyal, steadfast secretary until the end. For the first time in 50 years, Freda Kelly tells her story in director Ryan White’s riveting, revealing look at the unassuming young woman who rode out the hurricane of Beatlemania deep on the inside, the witness to a musical revolution whose job afforded her one of the most unique perspectives in all of rock and roll.

—Neil Pond, American Profile Magazine

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