Van Johnson, one of the best light comedian/song and dance men of the 1940s-50s, died this week at age 92. His boyish, All-American good looks made him a popular choice for musicals, romantic comedies, and some dramatic roles as well. He was so well known as the ideal boy-you-wish-lived-next-door performer that Cole Porter included him in the lyrics of his song “Give me a Primitive Man.”
Johnson could play a lead but he was better as a wise-cracking wingman for Gene Kelly in Brigadoon and Henry Fonda in Yours, Mine and Ours. My favorite Van Johnson performances include In the Good Old Summertime, opposite Judy Garland in the musical pre-“You’ve Got Mail” remake of “The Shop Around the Corner,” about the two warring music store employees who don’t know that they are real sweethearts through an anonymous letter exchange. I also love the neglected gem “Wives and Lovers,” which has a wonderful scene where he watches with combined fascination and horror as his daughter makes her lunch. Johnson was not the best singer, dancer, or actor but he was fun to watch because he was so comfortable and natural on screen and always looked like he was having a good time.
And I love this little dance number from “I Love Lucy.”
In the 1951 version of The Day the Earth Stood Still, a spaceship landed in front of the Washington Monument to warn the people of earth that they were on the path to destruction. The problem then was the Cold War and nuclear arms race. In 2008, the remake has a space orb land in New York City and once again a humanoid-looking creature from another planet comes to earth because of another impending doom. “If the Earth dies, you die,” he says. “If you die, the Earth survives.”
Jennifer Connelly, who seems to enjoy sharing the screen with super-smart crazy guys (“A Beautiful Mind,” “Hulk”), plays Helen, a scientist brought in to try to help assess the threat level from the two beings to come out of the orb. The first would have done better to have had a scientist to assess his own threat level because as soon as it stepped out of the orb someone shot him. The second is a silent, colossus-like giant of a robot with an ominous glow through the eye-slit, standing as sentry.
Klaatu has assumed human form (Keanu Reeves) so that he can speak to the world leaders at the UN. But a suspicious Secretary of Defense (Kathy Bates) decides to treat him like a galactic terrorist, so soon Klaatu, Helen, and her stepson (Jaden Smith, the son of Will Smith and Jada Pinkett Smith), are on the run. They make the obligatory visit to the Wise Man in the Woods (John Cleese, terrific as a Nobel award-winner for “altruistic biology”) and try to evade the efforts of military and law enforcement to capture them while Helen tries to demonstrate that humans are worth saving.
Director Scott Derickson is a committed Christian, and he has given the original story themes of sacrifice and redemption that will resonate with those who are open to a spiritual message. There is a reference to Noah’s Ark. Klaatu has the power to heal. He brings a dead man back to life and even walks on water. The most important themes are deeply spiritual as well, stewardship, respect for the interdependence of all things, and hope.
By that standard, this latest entry in the dysfunctional family holiday movie genre is 0 for 3. And yet, this movie is made by Latinos with a lot of affection for its characters. And so even though it also includes what should be a similar no-no trifecta of family holiday dramadies (sibling rivalry, dramatic revelations, sad news to remind everyone how much they love each other) and even though it does not meet the standard of last year’s fine This Christmas, this family might be worth a holiday visit.
Parents Edy and Anna Rodriguez (Alfred Molina and Elizabeth Pena, both superb), owners of a small bodega, live in the Humboldt Park neighborhood of Chicago. Their children are coming home for Christmas: Iraqi war veteran Jesse (Freddy Rodriguez, who also produced), aspiring actress Roxanne (Vanessa Ferlito of Grindhouse), and Mauricio (John Leguizamo) with his white, Jewish wife Sarah (Debra Messing), successful professionals. Also waiting for them at home are Jesse’s one-time girlfriend (Melonie Diaz), Edy’s top employee (Jay Hernandez), and a lot of unresolved issues.
We can feel the warmth of the Rodriguez home and the stars quickly create an authentic sense of the rhythms and short-cuts of family communication, the struggle between wanting things to be the way they were and wanting to be seen as they are now. Predictable frustrations as Sarah tries to fit in while maintaining her own boundaries and Jesse and Roxanne try to live up to their parents hopes for them are given enough specificity to hold our attention. Sarah is not an uptight snob; she loves her husband and very much wants his family to accept her. She has a couple of nice moments with Edy, especially when, after Anna pushes yet another thing to eat on her as she is getting ready to go running, Edy quietly reaches for it. We get a sense of their unspoken understanding, which will become more important later on. There’s a dead tree (and metaphor) blocking the view from the house that Anna has been trying to get Edy to cut down for 25 years, and that will play a role as well.
Anna leads off at the family dinner by announcing she plans to get a divorce, catapulting the children into a difficult recalibration of their familial roles. As children, they cannot help feeling abandoned but as adults they have to find a way to see their parents as people who have to make their own choices. Like all families, everyone feels they have a better understanding of what everyone else should do. And like all families, that leads to conflict.
Notwithstanding the Morales concerns, the location settings and “sorta-Rican” culture are nicely evocative. But the real treat is seeing these fine performers, too often relegated to character parts, take center stage to remind us that the reason there is nothing like the holidays because of the way they bring us together.
The good news is that animation software is so widely available these days that just about anyone can make an animated film. That’s also the bad news. It is now too easy to produce a professional-looking film without the same level of care in story-telling, and that is the problem with the new fantasy film “Delgo.”
It has all-star Hollywood voice talent and some delightfully imaginative visuals, but its professional strengths only sharpen the contrast with the amateurish elements of its script – an over-plotted story and under-written characters.
“Delgo” more closely resembles a 1990’s video game than a feature film. Most of today’s games have stronger plots and the advantage of participant involvement. And today most games have mastered physical properties to provide a believable sense of gravity and motion. In this film, individual characters and creatures are well designed and there is a nice fluidity of movement in close-up. But each moves so independently that we get no sense of how they interact and the characters and objects on screen seem to pass by each other without impact or any relationship to the laws of motion. Even creatures without wings occasionally seem to float and the result is disorienting and distracting.
Delgo (voice of Freddie Prinze, Jr.) is an energetic and sometimes impetuous teenager and a member of the Lockni, a reptilian race that maintains an uneasy truce with the winged Nohrin. When Delgo was a child, Sedessa, the sister of the Nohrin King (Anne Bancroft in her last screen role), attempted a sort of ethnic cleansing to get rid of the Lockni and was banished by her brother. Years later, the two groups still do not trust each other and myths and prejudices have grown as their knowledge of each other has faded.
Kyla (voice of Jennifer Love Hewitt), the curious and independent-minded Nohrin princess, finds Delgo about to fall one day and rescues him. Kyla is kidnapped by Sedessa and Delgo is framed and thrown in jail. He escapes with the help of Bogardus (Val Kilmer), a Nohrin General, who grudgingly begins to join forces with Delgo to rescue the princess, defeat Sedessa, and teach the Nohrin and Lockni how to work together.
The look has an impressive flair and attention to detail. Its biggest weakness is too many characters, too many plot diversions, and too much violence for a very young children. Older kids will find it a weak reprise of better films, with a gravelly-voiced master intoning about using feelings, not thinking, to move the mystical fire-rocks.
The most creative aspect of “Delgo” is the way it was made. For its first feature film, Georgia-based Fathom Studios invited its audience behind the scenes over the past few years, allowing visitors to its website to see internal notes and watch as the visuals of the movie evolved. If they had opened up the screenplay to the same sort of Wiki-esque review process, it might have made the the story on screen as engaging as the story of its development.
Tribute: Wes Craven We mourn the loss of director Wes Craven, who knew what scared us and knew how much we loved being scared. His series films included "Scream," "Nightmare on Elm Street," and "The Hills Have Eyes." My friend Simon Abrams interviewed Craven for ...
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