“Physician, heal yourself!”
Henry Carter (Kevin Spacey) is the best-selling author of a book called Happiness Now and a Los Angeles psychiatrist to glamorous and highly successful people. But he is a mess, self-medicating to the point of obliterating himself with drugs and alcohol. He walks off in the middle of a talk show interview about his book. He walks out of an intervention from his friends and family. He is trying to walk out of his life. His patients want answers, reassurance, a sense of order and safety. But the usual assurances and gentle openings, “I know how hard that is” or “Do you know why you feel this way?” do not seem to work. And a devastating loss in his own life has left him in greater need than any of them.
Spacey is mesmerizing as the “compassion fatigued” Carter. The pain and anger of his character are palpable, as is his heart-wrenching frustration at not being able to stop feeling for himself and his patients. The cast is filled with brilliant performers who find subtlety and heart in otherwise stock characters (out of control rock star, would-be writer, shark agent, troubled teen) complex and sympathetic. Dallas Roberts (the agent), Pell James (the agent’s assistant), and KeKe Palmer of “Akeela and the Bee” (the teen) are pitch-perfect. If writer Thomas Moffett makes the mistake of falling too much in love with his characters to let anything too terrible happen to them, it is understandable, because we do, too.
The 70th anniversary of this all-time classic is being celebrated with a beautiful new DVD release, a great chance for the family to sit down and watch what is probably the all-time greatest family film again.
Dorothy Gale (Judy Garland) lives in Kansas with her aunt and uncle and her dog, Toto. Mean Miss Gulch (Margaret Hamilton) swears she will have Toto taken away. Auntie Em and Uncle Henry support Dorothy, but they are too distracted by the coming tornado to pay much attention to her. Dorothy dreams of a place “over the rainbow” where everything is beautiful, “troubles melt like lemon drops” and “the dreams that you dream really do come true.” She starts to run away to protect Toto, but is sent back home by the kindly Professor Marvel (Frank Morgan), a traveling fortune-teller.
When the tornado arrives, Dorothy is outside the shelter. She goes to her room, where she is hit on the head by a piece of wood torn loose by the wind. The whole house rises, and is carried away by the tornado.
The house lands with a crash, and when she opens the door, she finds she has landed in the colorful world of Oz (the movie, black and white until this point, becomes technicolor). Her house has landed on the Wicked Witch of the East, killing her, and the tiny Munchkins celebrate Dorothy as a great heroine. Their friend Glinda the good witch (Billie Burke) arrives and gives her the Wicked Witch’s magic ruby slippers, just as the Wicked Witch of the West (Margaret Hamilton) arrives to take them. The Wicked Witch of the East was her sister. Furious, she swears revenge. Dorothy wants to go home and is told to seek out the Wizard of Oz, who lives in the Emerald City, for help.
On the way to the Emerald City, she meets a talking Scarecrow (Ray Bolger) who wants a brain, a Tin Woodsman (Jack Haley) who longs for a heart, and a cowardly Lion (Bert Lahr) who wants courage. They all join her, to seek the help of the Wizard. At the Emerald City, the Wizard at first refuses to see them, then finally tells them they must earn their wishes by bringing him the broom of the Wicked Witch of the West. They are captured by the Witch’s flying monkeys, and just as she is about to kill them, Dorothy douses her with water, trying to protect the Scarecrow from fire, and the witch melts.
They return to the Emerald City only to find that the Wizard cannot help them. He is a fraud, just “the man behind the curtain” whose terrifying displays of smoke and light hid a “humbug” who had no magical powers at all. But he is able to show the Scarecrow, Tin Woodsman, and Lion that they really did have what they were seeking all the time, and he promises to take Dorothy back to Kansas in his hot air balloon.
Toto jumps out of the balloon’s basket. Dorothy runs after him and misses the balloon launch. But, just as Dorothy despairs of ever going home, Glinda arrives and shows Dorothy that she had the means of getting home all the time. Back in Kansas, Dorothy wakes up to find her aunt and uncle, the farmhands, and Professor Marvel (who strongly resemble the Scarecrow, Tin Woodman, Lion, and Wizard), and tells them that “there’s no place like home.”
This movie is an ideal family film, superb in every aspect, with outstanding art direction, music, and performances. It is still as fresh and engrossing as it was in 1939, and improves with every viewing. If you ever have a chance to see it in on a big screen, in a theater with a good sound system, you will enjoy it even more.
It is hard to imagine what it would have been like with the original intended cast, including Shirley Temple as Dorothy and Buddy Ebsen as the Tin Woodsman. But 20th Century Fox would not loan its top star, and Ebsen was hospitalized when he inhaled the aluminum dust in the Tin Woodsman’s make-up. Judy Garland is a perfect Dorothy — vulnerable, sensitive, completely believable. On the brink of leaving childhood, her dreams of a place “over the rainbow” are in part a yearning to escape the concerns of adulthood.
There is something especially satisfying about the way that the main characters find what they need within themselves. Talk with children about the way that the Scarecrow demonstrates his intelligence, the Tin Woodman demonstrates his heart, and the Lion demonstrates his courage. Even the humbug Wizard finds that he had the means to go home all the time. Dorothy, who in the first part of the movie runs away from home to try to solve her problems, spends the rest of the movie trying to get back. Even if the story is just a dream (in the book, it is a real adventure), this makes a great deal of emotional sense, a way of working through her inner conflicts.
It is also worth talking about the scene in which Dorothy and her friends disregard the Wizard’s plea to “pay no attention to the man behind the curtain” and discover that he is really just an ordinary man. This can be a touchstone or metaphor for many kinds of challenges children face. It can help them recognize that the overpowering figures in their lives (parents, teachers, adults, sports figures) are just imperfect human beings. And it can also help them recognize attempts, by themselves as well as others, to distract people in hopes of hiding our imperfection and vulnerability.
NOTE: There are a number of different scenes in this movie that may be scary for children. Many adults still remember the flying monkeys or Dorothy looking into the crystal ball and seeing her aunt turn into the witch. Parents should talk to children about the story before seeing the movie, and watch with them to gauge their reactions.
Tomorrow night, I’ll be interviewing Michael Moore at a premiere screening of his new film, “Capitalism: A Love Story.” It comes 20 years after his “Roger & Me” changed the rules for documentaries in every category. He did not pretend to be balanced; he did not hesitate to be irreverent, even laugh-out-loud funny, and — related to the first two points — he shattered box office records. “Roger & Me” focused on the devastation in Moore’s home town of Flint, Michigan, in an economic downturn that seems modest by today’s standards. And Flint shows up again, in a twist that will give the audience goosebumps. Here is Moore on CNN this week. I’ll report on our session on Wednesday.
An expert blend of silly fun, action that is mostly more exciting than scary, a few clever barbs, and some wow-worthy visuals make “Monsters vs. Aliens” the best family film in months.
“You’re glowing,” says the groom to his bride as they are about to be married.” And she is, but not in a good way. Exposed to a meteor just before the ceremony, Susan (voice of Reese Witherspoon) has a greenish glow. And then she starts to grow. Before she can say, “I do,” Susan is suddenly 50 feet tall. And before she can say, “How did I get to be 50 feet tall,” she is whisked away to a secret government compound for monsters where she quickly becomes a sort of house mother for a motley crew of assorted mutants, turning into a sort of cross between Alice in Wonderland in her giant mode, Snow White with the dwarfs, and Mary Ann with Gilligan, the Professor, and the gang.
Susan’s fellow monsters amusingly cover the full range of of B-movie monster origins. We have “The Fly”-style one mad scientist who became the victim of his own experiment with insects and turned into Dr. Cockroach, Phd (voice of “House’s” Hugh Laurie), one “Creature from the Black Lagoon”-style Missing Link thawed out of an arctic ice floe centuries after all others from his species had become extinct (voice of “Arrested Development’s” Will Arnett), and a giant bug (a la “Them” or “Mothra”). And then there is my favorite, Bicarbonate Ostylezene Benzoate, known as BOB (voice of Seth Rogan), a brainless but genial one-eyed gelatinous ooze along the lines of “The Blob.” These monsters are isolated as a matter of national security until an even bigger threat comes along. If you’ve heard the title, you know that it is aliens — or rather, one alien named Gallaxhar (voice of Rainn Wilson of “The Office”). He plans to take over earth. The monsters are the only hope of saving it.
It was filmed in digital 3D, in part an homage to the cheesy sci-fi films of the 50’s. It begins with the usual 3D trick as a bored technician plays paddleball and the ball on the elastic band seems to stop just short of our noses. But after that, the effects are more subtle and immersive. The animators have literally gone to unprecedented lengths — it almost feels as though we can touch objects that go back the length of a football field. The scenes are brilliantly designed to make the most of the 3D technology and the action scenes, particularly one on the Golden Gate Bridge, are as immediate and involving as any big summer explosion-fest. The story is fast-paced and funny, with many knowing references to classic sci-fi and a solid story of friendship and self-realization. The voices are all excellent, especially Stephen Colbert as the dim-witted President, Witherspoon’s Susan, who remains very real and human even after she becomes what the government christens Ginormica, and Laurie’s cockroach, who has the manners of a butler and the laugh of a mad scientist. And Wilson hits just the right note of petulance to keep the alien from being too menacing.
But the graphic character design is uneven. As with most animated films, the humans are often stiff and artificial. The big bug, the cockroach, and the Link are not particularly engaging. BOB, however, is simply sensational. Rogan’s husky voice and unabashed cheery laugh is a perfect match for the animated marvel of a big blue gooey thing that is endlessly pliant and effortlessly resilient. More than any other part of the movie, this charmingly silly little character shows what this technology is capable of, when the script has a great character to put on screen. In the battle between monsters and aliens, it is this little blue monster who saves the day.