Monthly Archives: May 2014

Clooney & Co.

WWII ‘mission’ movie has a modern-day message

Monuments Men

The Monuments Men

Blu-ray $40.99, DVD $30.99 (Sony Pictures Home Entertainment)


Co-writer, director and star George Clooney’s tribute to the real-life men and women who put their lives on the line to recover and return the cultural treasures stolen by Nazis during World War II is a rollicking, Hollywood actor-packed mash-up of old-fashioned combat “mission” movie crossed with a modern-day message about the casualties of war that extend far beyond the battlefield. Based on a book of the same name by Robert Edsel and Bret Witter, it comes with behind-the-scenes featurettes on the making of the film, the real Monuments Men, and the cast, which also includes Bill Murray, Matt Damon, John Goodman and Cate Blanchett.


—Neil Pond, American Profile Magazine

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Nighttime Drive

Tom Hardy masterfully steers riveting one-man show



Starring Tom Hardy

Directed by Steven Knight

R, 85 min.

A man gets in his car and heads into the night, alone.

You’ve probably seen a movie start that way before. But I guarantee you’ve never seen a movie like this one, in which that man, in his car, is the movie—the entire movie.

British writer-director Steven Knight’s uniquely captivating Locke unfolds in 90-some minutes of real time as its title character, Ivan Locke (Tom Hardy), steps into his BMW SUV and, instead of going home after work one evening, makes a fateful turn at a traffic signal and heads in the opposite direction.

Soon enough, we learn why, through conversations Locke makes and receives on his vehicle’s hands-free Bluetooth phone.

Locke 3rgbLocke is the only character we see throughout the entire film, and he never ventures outside his automobile. It’s a confined, closed-off, claustrophobic setting that ratchets up the intensity of Hardy’s magnificent one-man-show performance, which is almost exclusively done from the neck up.

Even within such a Spartan setting and with such sparse details, we learn much about Hardy’s character: Ivan Locke is a good, solid, highly respected man, a construction foreman working on the biggest project of his career, a concrete pour for the foundation of a massive skyscraper that will be the tallest in all of Europe. Locke’s phone conversations with his wife, his sons, his boss, his co-worker, and a woman—miles away, waiting for him, alone in a hospital—reveal a crack in the foundation of his life that is getting wider with every mile he drives, threatening to send it all crashing down, in rubble, around him.

Hardy is a fine British actor, best and most widely known as the villainous Bane in the Batman movie The Dark Knight Rises. He gives Locke a comforting, calming Welsh Midlands purr perfect for his character—a planner, a preparer, a fixer, a repairer, a man who knows what needs to be done and how to do it. But can he do it now? “I’m not going to turn back,” he vows. “I am trying to do the right thing.” (It’s no coincidence that the character shares the last name of one Britain’s greatest philosophers, John Locke, who believed in reason as the pathway to enlightenment.)

Locke 2That “right thing” forms the movie’s moral core, the shape for the riveting story that builds around it. Cinematographer Haris Zambarloukos creates a mesmerizing swirl of reflections and refractions—headlights, taillights, street lights, dashboard lights, road signs and signals—as Locke’s vehicle zooms through the darkness, drawing us into the character’s world and its compounding complications.

Locke is a “little” film that probably won’t play wide, in a lot of mainstream theaters. Admittedly, it’s a tough sell: It’s a movie in which nothing really “happens” in the conventional sense. But if you love movies, seek it out. Its themes of construction and cracks, choices and consequences, decisions and detours, right and wrong, and frailty and strength are woven into a masterstroke of storytelling and minimalist filmmaking. And it’s your chance to see a powerhouse of a young actor, Tom Hardy, in a role that people are likely going to be talking about for years.

—Neil Pond, American Profile Magazine

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Here’s The Pitch

Jon Ham stars in unlikely true underdog baseball tale


Million Dollar Arm

Starring Jon Hamm, Lake Bell, Suraj Sharma & Alan Arkin

Directed by Craig Gillespie

PG, 124 min.

Based on a true story from 2008, Million Dollar Arm stars TV’s Mad Men leading man Jon Hamm as a struggling sports agent who goes scouting for baseball’s next pitching superstars in an unlikely part of the world.

After hopeful negotiations to rep a pro footballer (played by Cincinnati Bengals linebacker Rey Maualuga) fall through, Hamm’s character, J.B. Bernstein, and his business partner (Aasif Mandif) turn their sights to baseball, hoping to find a young, unknown, unsigned player. But where? All the international hot spots (Puerto Rico, the Dominican Republic, even China) have already been staked out and tapped.

In a flash of inspiration, J.B. sees a cricket match on TV and gets an idea: Go to India, a country where baseball is virtually unknown, find cricket “bowlers” who can pitch, and bring them back to America.

MILLION DOLLAR ARMSo he concocts a contest, called the Million Dollar Arm, and sets off to the other side of the globe to discover what he hopes will be the next ballpark sensations—and the ticket to keeping his small agency afloat.

Hamm is the star of this show, clearly, but Million Dollar Arm is also a movie about journeys, geographical as well as emotional. As J.B. adjusts to his new surroundings in India, we meet the two young men, Dinesh (Madhur Mittal, from Slumdog Millionaire) and Rinku (Suraj Sharma, the star of Life of Pi), that will eventually be chosen for a shot—a long one, at that—at baseball’s big leagues, and we come to understand their anxieties about leaving their families, their rural villages, and the only ways of life they’ve ever known.


Madhur Mittal and Suraj Sharma portray the two contestants ultimately chosen to come to America.

J.B. is accompanied on his trip by a grumpy semi-retired American baseball scout (Alan Arkin, dialing in his usual comical crankiness), and he ultimately brings his new recruits home to learn fundamentals under the tutelage of a former MLB player now coaching college ball (Bill Paxton, portraying real-life USC coach Tom House with just the right dose of sunburn and seasoning).


Lake Bell and Jon Hamm

Bollywood actor-comedian Pitobash brings both heart and humanity to his sidekick role as J.B.’s volunteer Indian assistant, who dreams of someday becoming a baseball coach himself. But the movie’s real “heart” belongs to Lake Bell, as J.B.’s brainy med-student guesthouse renter, whose graceful, unforced acting keeps her character’s slow-blooming romance with J.B. feeling more sincere than sappy.

The Disney folks surely took some license, as moviemakers often do, but all of this really happened. To see just how closely the film paralleled the real characters, stay for the credits and the photos, video clips and other postscript highlights.

More cynical viewers might wish for a more cynical movie, a movie with more rough edges or tough breaks or dark corners. But for anyone who wants to bask in a ray of early summer sunshine, this uplifting, spirit-boosting tale of baseball, dreams, second chances and the grand, glorious game of life itself could be just the ticket.


—Neil Pond, American Profile Magazine

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‘Napoleon Dynamite’ celebrates 10th anniversary

Napoleon Dynamite 10th

Napoleon Dynamite: 10th Anniversary Edition

Blu-ray $19.98 (20th Century Fox Home Entertainment)


The quirky cult-classic comedy about a socially awkward Idaho teen with a tight ’fro, a fondness for tots (tater), a pet llama named Tina and a lamentable lack of “skills” (e.g., numchuck, bow hunting, computer hacking) celebrates “10 sweet years” with a Blu-ray + DVD combo (packaged in faux “liger”—lion plus tiger—fur) and a load of bonus features, including commentary with actor Jon Heder and director/writer Jared Hess, deleted scenes, and a making-of featurette. And hey, don’t forget: Vote for Pedro!

—Neil Pond, American Profile Magazine

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Inside Spielberg’s Fantasy Factory

A guided tour of animated DreamWorks movies

The Art of Dreamworks Animation

The Art of DreamWorks Animation

By Ramin Zahed

Hardcover, 324 pages ($50, Abrams)


The movie studio created in 1994 by Steven Spielberg, Jeffrey Katzenberg and David Geffen quickly became a major Hollywood player, and this handsome, high-end coffee-table book celebrates the production company’s achievements in animated films including the Shrek, Madagascar and Kung Fu Panda franchises, as well as single releases such as Chicken Run, Puss in Boots, The Prince of Egypt and the recent Mr. Peabody and Sherman. More than 320 sketches, production designs, computer-animation graphics and still reproductions are accompanied by commentary from DreamWorks artists and movie directors, making for a gorgeous guided tour inside one of Tinseltown’s most successful fantasy factories.


—Neil Pond, American Profile Magazine

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Life on ‘Mars’

Fan fervor revives cult favorite on big screen

Veronica Mars

Veronica Mars

Blu-ray $29.98, DVD $28.98 (Warner Bros. Home Entertainment)


Veronica Mars, a young super sleuth played by Kristen Bell, had many a prime-time close call and built up a sizeable TV following before the network bid her farewell in 2007. Earlier this year, however, due to fan clamor, Bell and the show’s creator, Rob Thomas, brought Veronica back in a full-length movie that also featured most of the series’ other original cast members. A selection of Blu-ray features, including a making-of doc, gag reel and on-set shenanigans with the actors and crew, make this home release a must-have for the Veronica faithful.


—Neil Pond, American Profile Magazine

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Chick Flick Fail

The stars deserve better than this revenge-comedy mess


The Other Woman

Starring Leslie Mann, Cameron Diaz and Nikolaj Coster-Waldau

Directed by Nick Cassavettes

PG-13, 109 min.


If The Other Woman didn’t have such a recognizable cast, it might be just plain forgettable. Instead, high-profile stars and a major chick-flick marketing push almost guarantee it will make an even bigger, messier splash as it goes down.

Leslie Mann (This Is 40, The 40-Year Old Virgin) plays Kate, a whiny, neurotic housewife who discovers her cad husband, Mark (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau from TV’s Game of Thrones), is having anTHE OTHER WOMAN affair with a sexy Manhattan lawyer, Carly (Cameron Diaz).

So what does Kate do? Why, she befriends her husband’s mistress, naturally!

Then Kate and Carly find out Mark is cheating on them both (gasp!) with another woman, portrayed by former Sports Illustrated model Kate Upton, whose role here (if not her acting career in general) seems to be limited to what can be done in a teeny bikini, in slow motion.

The next step in the mind-bogglingly implausible plot is all three women becoming BFFs and plotting their revenge on the man who can’t be faithful to any of them. Their plan includes spiking his breakfast smoothie with estrogen, swishing his toothbrush in the toilet, replacing his shampoo with hair-removal cream, and putting laxatives in his liquor.

In 2011, the hit comedy Bridesmaids introduced mainstream audiences to the idea that an ensemble cast of gals could be just as raunchily funny as a bunch o’ guys. But “The Other Woman” has none of that movie’s masterful mojo, which begins with a great script and extends through the director.

THE OTHER WOMANIn this case, director Nick Cassavettes (The Notebook) bears much of the blame, lacking the deft touch to bring off the right blend of humor and humanity needed for a “revenge comedy” that ventures into the tricky trifecta of love, marriage and serial adultery. Screenwriter Melissa Stack, a former lawyer herself, supposedly based the Diaz character somewhat on her own experiences as an attorney, but somehow her tale is lacking almost anything any modern female would ever think, say or do.

And poor Coster-Waldau, who as the ever-wayward husband has to suffer for his other-womanizing in so, so many painfully slapstick-ish, potty-humored ways, including enduring an explosive bout of diarrhea, walking through a pane of glass and sprouting a pair of hormonally enhanced man-nipples.

As an actor, he deserves better—and so does everyone else in The Other Woman, and anyone who buys a ticket expecting to see something funnier, something smarter and something better.


Neil Pond, American Profile Magazine

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What’s Up, Doc(s)?

Film festivals offer movies for every taste—mine happens to be documentaries


“Led Zeppelin Played Here”—or did they?


If there’s a film festival anywhere near you, by all means, check it out.

You may not consider yourself a movie buff or a “film connoisseur.” But film festivals aren’t necessarily the snooty, spotlight-drenched superstar art fests you might imagine them to be, and almost all of them offer real off-the-menu treats, opportunities to go beyond the usual fare of the local movieplex. And many, if not most of them, are ticketed events open to the public.

I recently spent most of 10 nights at the 2014 Nashville (Tenn.) Film Festival, a gathering that’s generated a big buzz over the years as a don’t-miss event for many upcoming filmmakers and actors—like Ray Liotta, Ashley Judd and Seth Green, who were there this year to promote their roles in The Identical, about a young man who grows up not knowing he’s actually the identical twin brother of a successful singing superstar, a la Elvis.


“Alive Inside: A Story of Music and Memory”



At the Nashville festival—which screened more than 250 films from 50 different countries, to a record-breaking 42,000 attendees—as with most fests, there were films for just about any taste. I’ve always loved documentaries, and this year the NFF had another bountiful slate, with an especially strong emphasis—Nashville being Music City, you know—on musical topics. (Many of them were sponsored by Gibson guitars, one of the festival’s main sponsors. Thank you, Gibson!) Alive Inside: A Story of Music and Memory was an emotionally moving chronicle of a social worker, iPods and the use of music to “re-awaken” Alzheimer’s patients. In The 78 Project, two musicologists record a variety of performers the old-fashioned way—with a 1930s direct-to-disc recorder, one microphone, one blank disc, and one three-minute take. I smiled almost all the way through Brasslands, a joyous look at three groups—including one unlikely contender from New York City—competing to bring the trophy home from the world’s largest brass band competition in a Serbian village.


“Johnny Winter: Down and Dirty”

It was a bit of a different vibe at Led Zeppelin Played Here, a serio-comic examination of a 1969 incident involving a certain about-to-be famous British rock band that may—or may not—have played at a youth center in Wheaton, Md. And Johnny Winter: Down and Dirty rocked me with a portrait of the journeyman albino blues guitarist who’s lived through a monstrous heroin addiction, partied with Janis Joplin and performed and recorded alongside his younger brother, Edgar.

Glen CampbellllIllBeMe2

“Glen Campbell…I’ll Be Me”

But the highlight of the festival, especially for music lovers, was seeing the event’s crown jewel documentary, Glen Campbell…I’ll Be Me, about the country singing star’s valiant struggle with Alzheimer’s, receive the Grand Jury Prize in its category, and also the top-voted audience award.

Some of these films may come to a mainstream movie theater, or show up on Netflix or cable TV, or be released on DVD. But there’s just something about seeing them in a theater full of like-minded film fans, in a big, dark room—and seeing them first.

And they only way you can do that…is at a film festival!

—Neil Pond, Parade Magazine

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Books & Beauty

A photographic tribute to libraries and the treasures they hold

The Public Library

The Public Library

By Robert Dawson

Hardcover, 192 pages, $35 (Princeton Architectural Press)


Photographer Robert Dawson spent nearly 20 years crisscrossing the country and clicking away inside and outside public libraries of all shapes and sizes, from majestic urban cathedrals to humble remote house trailers. In addition to hundreds of evocative color and black and white images, this beautiful collection of his work features a foreword by Bill Moyers, an afterword by Ann Patchett, and essays, letters and poetry celebrating libraries and reading by Anne Lamont, Amy Tan, E.B. White, Dr. Seuss and others. It’s a literary feast for the eyes and food for the soul for anyone who loves books and appreciates libraries for the treasures they hold.

—Neil Pond, American Profile Magazine

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‘Sorcerer’ Returns

Roy Scheider stars in director William Friedkin’s ’70s cult thriller



Blu-ray $27.95 / DVD $12.96 (Warner Home Video)


This 1977 thriller from director William Friedkin, who was coming off an Oscar-winning hot streak of The French Connection and The Exorcist, wove together four desperate characters in a suspenseful saga about international refugees in a South American jungle hellhole who take on a dangerous job for hire because each of them had nothing else to lose. It was never a big hit, maybe because it only had one recognizable star (Roy Jaws Scheider), possibly because audiences were misled by the title to expect something “supernatural” from the director who’d just made a film about the devil. It did go on, however, to find a cult following, and this new Blu-ray restoration—which comes with a 40-page book of color photos from the production—brings it back to all its grungy glory and sweat-soaked ’70s splendor.

—Neil Pond, American Profile Magazine

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