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A sad farewell to actor Peter Falk, who died this week at age 83.  Perhaps best remembered for his long-running television show, Columbo, his passing reminds us of his  wide-ranging work as everything from a singing gangster to an animated shark. He was the story-telling grandfather in The Princess Bride, the spy who created pre-wedding chaos in the original (and far better) “The In-Laws” (1979), the neglected gem inspired by a true story about a grandfather who raises first his grandson and then his great-grandchildren in Roommates, and an essential contributor to the ground-breaking naturalism of pioneering indie-film director John Cassavetes in films like Husbands.  His live theater work included a Tony award- winning performance in Neil Simon’s “The Prisoner of Second Avenue” and he was twice nominated for an Oscar, for “Murder Inc.” and “Pocket Full of Miracles.” Many of his fans never realized that he had a glass eye because of cancer when he was a child or that he was a CPA.

The unusual structure of the “Columbo” detective series revealed the murderer (almost always someone wealthy and powerful) at the beginning.  Lt. Columbo (Falk) would come in, lull the culprit into feeling safe by appearing obsequious and bumbling, and then solve the crime in the last act.  The fun was in watching him outsmart the people who believed they had thought of everything.  As a producer of the show, Falk helped to ensure top quality guest stars and directors.  Steven Spielberg (pre-“Jaws”) directed one of the first episodes.  He said, “Peter was the same kind of digger as an actor as his character Columbo was in finding the truth in that great tv series. He was a blast to work with and I learned more about acting from him at that early stage of my career than I had from anyone else.”

The PBS NewsHour shared a scene from “Columbo” with William Shatner as an television actor who plays a Columbo-like character and mistakenly thought he could get away with murder.

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Award-winning author Brian Selznick has a trailer for his new book, Wonderstruck. His last book, The Invention of Hugo Cabret was an enthralling story inspired by the great George Melies that was told through alternating pictures and text. It is currently being filmed by Martin Scorcese. As you can see, in this book Selznick tells two different stories, one with pictures, one with words, and then brings them together. Can’t wait to see it.

Many thanks to my friend Paul Zelinsky for bringing this to my attention.

I love summer movies with their crashes, chases, explosions, superheroes, and sequels as much as anyone, but after a while they all run together.  But good documentaries are unforgettable.  There is something about real-life characters inviting us into their lives as they pursue their dreams and passions that is electrifying.  You sit down in the theater, wondering how you could ever become emotionally invested in a story abut spelling or Donkey Kong or pastry or jump rope or high school basketball and ten minutes later you are completely enthralled.  I’ve seen an extraordinary group of documentaries in the last couple of weeks on subjects from hip-hop to gospel to a teen poetry slam to Irish dancing, from a horse whisperer to a once-dominant, still monumentally influential business struggling to stay alive.  All take us to worlds that are in one way completely strange, even bizarre, and yet in a much more profound way they all take us to a deeper understanding of ourselves and our own world.  And all are highly recommended.

Jig” Director Sue Bourne says she likes to find “the extraordinary in the ordinary” and she succeeds in taking us to the world championships of Irish dancing.  Family and friends range from bewildered to enthusiastic — often both, as competitors dedicate their lives to the intricate steps of an ancient discipline.  Watch the body language of the mothers as they watch their daughters, not even aware of the way their chins and shoulders move slightly along with the dancers, and the faces of the dancers as the maddeningly complicated scores are announced and everything tries to figure out how they add up.  The characters are unforgettable, especially the two top 10-year olds, who demonstrate not only more talent, dedication, and competitive spirit than the adults, but more dignity, grace, and class as well.  I predict one of them will grow up to be a star performer.  The other may grow up to rule the world, and we’d be all the better for it.

Buck” “A lot of times instead of helping people with horse problems,” says Buck Brannaman.  “I help horses with people problems.”  Brannaman, the inspiration for the book The Horse Whisperer and the Robert Redford movie teaches people how to teach horses through kindness and compassion, recognizing that sometimes that means that the people have to find a better understanding of themselves first.  After his mother’s death, his alcoholic, abusive father made Buck and his brother into the youngest rodeo stars, performing their rope tricks in a Sugar Pops commercial.  When Buck took his shirt off in PE, the coach called the sheriff, and Buck was placed with foster parents who took in 27 boys.  He took what he learned from that experience about the transforming effect of kindness and knowing you have a job you can do well, and brought that to his work, to his life, and to the lives of many other people and horses.

Life in a Day” On July 24, 2010, all over the globe, people made movies about themselves and their families and communities and sent them to award-winning directors Kevin Macdonald (“The Last King of Scotland”) and Ridley Scott (“Blade Runner”) to assemble into a mosaic portrait of our world.  There are the daily routines we all share, waking, breakfast, brushing our teeth, going to work and school.  There are once in a lifetime moments — a marriage proposal, a bawdy 40th anniversary celebration.  A frail hospital patient is glad to be alive.  A man has to say goodbye to the friend who saved his life.  Costumed Comic-Con attendees, a solitary world-traveling bicyclist, a shoeshine boy, share their lives for a moment.  Wrenching loss and the quotidian commonplace collide in a morning ritual for a Japanese father and son that includes a ceremony in the quiet corner of their home that holds the shrine for the wife and mother who died.  This is a stunning self-portrait of human life.

Rejoice and Shout”  It’s about time that there was a loving tribute to gospel music.  Of course even a 10-part minseries would just scratch the surface so there is no way to cover it all in one film  but director Don McGlynn wisely opted for a little less history to make room for full-length performances by gospel greats, some not seen for decades.  This is a heart-lifting joy from beginning to end.

Louder than a Bomb” Chicago hosts the biggest teen-age poetry slam competition in the world and co-directors  Jon Siskel and Greg Jacobs take us inside to see high school students turn their lives, many filled with loss and hardship, into poetry that brings an audience to its feet.  The students bring their passion and their stories.  The poetry guides their voices to make them transcendent.

Beats, Rhymes, and Life” Actor Michael Rapaport directs the story of the rise and fall of 90’s hip-hop group A Tribe Called Quest.  What made it great was the differences its four members brought to the sound.  What tore it apart was the differences they brought to everything else.  Hot-tempered, impulsive Phife Dawg, businesslike, perfectionist Q-Tip,  Ali Shaheed Muhammad, who loves to add arcane jazz and blues tracks to the songs and the ebullient Jarobi came together for a brief moment to make music of great power and influence.  But what held them together as teenagers did not work as they became successful and wanted different things.  They broke up, and then tried to reunite to help Phife Dawg with his medical bills.  This movie will resonate with ATCQ fans and with people who have never heard of them because it is not just about the music; it is about the people.

Page One” A documentary crew followed the reporters and editors of the New York Times for a year and the result is a fascinating, if sometimes incoherent and frustrating look at a business, a mission, and an industry in turmoil.  It’s like three movies in one.  The first major Wikileaks documents are made public, inspiring one of the most telling and poignant lines in the film: “The difference between this and the Pentagon Papers is that Daniel Ellsberg needed the New York Times.  Julian Assange does not.”  While that turns out not to be true — it is incontrovertible that the New York Times plays an essential role in assessing and reporting on the Wikileaks data dump — it is true that there have been fundamental changes since the days when the Pentagon Papers and the Watergate scandal demonstrated the vital role and powerful impact of newspapers.  In this film we see media reporter David Carr write about a new partnership between respected if stogy CNN and “we now how to appeal to young viewers” sensationalist Vice, briefly interrupting an interview for a highly unprofessional but undeniably satisfying rebuttal when one of the arrogant Vice “journalists” dares to attack the Times.  He writes about mismanagement of the Tribune Company under real estate mogul Sam Zell, the expose arguably leading to the departure of Zell’s deputy.  And we follow one of the Times’ newest hires.  As cuts lead to the departure of experienced, distinguished journalists, they bring on a 21-year-old whose tweets and blog posts on television news has been scooping them.

Conan Can’t Stop”  Conan O’Brien lost his dream job as host of “The Tonight Show” after only seven months.  And he was not allowed to appear on television for six months under the terms of his buy-out.  So of course he decided to do his first-ever live comedy show, the Legally Prohibited From Being Funny on Television tour.  It is as fascinating to see the show come together as it is to see O’Brien work through his anger, bitterness, and insecurity as he learns about comedy tours, interacts with his staff and his fans (gently correcting a teen who uses an anti-Semitic slur) and gets visits from celebrity friends.  Two highlights, Jack McBrayer’s impromptu clog dance when O’Brien starts playing “dueling banjos” and Eddie Vedder’s sensational rendition of “Baba O’Riley.”

 

Are you a fan of comedy based on the sole premise that it is funny to see a beautiful woman make outrageously crude and narcissistic statements?  Then go watch Sarah Silverman.  This movie will only show you how much better  she is by comparison.

It’s a shame to see the talents of Cameron Diaz, Jason Segal, Justin Timberlake, and Lucy Punch wasted on a one-joke premise that could barely support an SNL sketch.  Here it is: Diaz plays Elizabeth, a bad teacher.  How bad is she?  She snoozes through class while the kids watch movies, she drinks and smokes marijuana at school, she never learns the kids’ names or teaches them anything, and she uses bad language.  She will do anything to marry a wealthy man or get the money she needs for breast enlargement surgery, because she thinks it will help her marry a wealthy man.  She is not just bad; unfortunately she is also unpleasant, annoying, and dull.

There’s really nothing more to say about the plot.  Elizabeth is bad in many different situations — cafeteria, classroom, school dance, student’s home, and field trip. She is bad in different ways — mean, selfish, obnoxious, dishonest.  She is rude to many different people — teachers, parents, students.  She uses her looks, most notably at a fund-raising car wash where she diverts the funds to her own Daisy Dukes and in an encounter with the keeper of the standardized test she wants to steal (Thomas Lennon).  But it’s the same joke over and over and over and over.  The expression of unabashed, vulgar, angry, selfish superego in what is supposed to be a protected context has undeniable appeal (see the best-seller Go the F**k to Sleep). But it is not enough to sustain a movie.

It’s briefly fun to see “Modern Family’s” Eric Stonestreet in a very different role and Diaz gets some credit for being fearless — no winking at the audience to let us know she’s loveable. But Timberlake is wasted in another one-dimensional part. The few highlights come from Jason Segal, who has a wonderfully wry confidence as the school’s PE teacher and Lucy Punch as Elizabeth’s nemesis has some fun with the demented perkiness of a teacher driven around the bend. They show how much more a talented comic performer can bring to an under-written story. But that isn’t enough to keep “Bad Teacher” from being a bad movie.