Are You Not Entertained?, authors, books, directors, Film Spotlight, In My Opinion, movies, music

Are You Not Entertained?

Here continues a monthly account of the music, books, and films that have occupied my time.


Americana Folk music has never sounded better.  AUSTIN CITY LIMITS  features new songwriters and musicians and televises their concerts. If you like the harmonies of Simon and Garfunkel or The Everly Brothers, you would appreciate The Milk Carton Kids, two Californian guitarists and folk singers,  Kenneth Pattengale and Joey Ryan.

Another folk singer, who often performs on Austin City Limits, is up-and-coming Sarah Jarosz. Her clear voice is haunting, and I appreciate her back up instrumentalists, especially violinist Nathaniel Smith, whose talents as a musician add depth to her heartfelt songs. In June, she begins a national tour promoting her new album Undercurrent. She will perform throughout the United Kingdom in November. To learn more about Sarah Jarosz, visit her site HERE.


Thomas Pauly‘s biography provided a fair distribution exploring the complicated personality and achievements of Zane Grey. As the title suggests, Pauly exposed Grey’s human side, his career as a writer and inspiration for Western films, and Grey’s fishing exploits. Using the journals and letters between Zane Grey and his wife Dolly, she is an interesting woman who initially financed and then managed his career and wealth. She raised their three children and tolerated his entourage of women who acted as secretaries and provided the emotional and the physical passion he needed to write. Grey explored the Southwest and wrote over 100 Western novels. Depression also accompanied him wherever he went. His favorite pastime was deep-sea fishing and he broke several world records. 4/5  

Here’s a recent post about Zane Grey if you missed it:

The Goldfinch

In this Pulitzer winning book from 2014, Donna Tartt’s strength is her descriptive dialogues. Her teenage protagonist,Theo, begins his tale adoring his perfect mother. Theo is a lonely soul. After catastrophic events like bombings, death, and abandonment, he holds on to the props (the Goldfinch painting, a family ring) that mysteriously play a role in his future. Despite shifts in setting and friendships that come and go, I had a hard time staying with it. I usually enjoy Pulitzer winning novels, but I didn’t empathize with Theo much when the plot-pot was stirred. 3.5/5.


V is for Vendetta (2005) Despite Natalie Portman‘s poor British accent, this Dystopian thriller was a lot of fun to watch. Written by the Wachowski Brothers (The Matrix), who are now transgender sisters, Lana and Lilly, the film felt like a Terry Gilliam dark comedy about a future society where a greedy chancellor rose like a Hitler and attempted to rule Britain by hood-winking its docile citizenry through media propaganda. John Hurt plays the British-Dictator Adam Susan perfectly. After two hours and thirteen minutes looking at Hugo Weaving‘s mask was unnerving and grew steadily annoying. By the time Evey kisses it, it turned weird. 4/5

The Danish Girl (2015) Who could complain about the fine acting by Alicia Vikander and Eddie Redmayne or the cinematography capturing the historical setting of 1930s Copenhagen? Despite the unusual story about the complicated marriage of Einar and Gerda, the overarching story about one of the first sex-change operations was put on the back burner with the last act rushed and the psychological duress of Lili and Einar glossed over. A visual treat more than an emotional journey. 3/5

Joy (2015) One of the better performances by Jennifer Lawrence as Joy Mangano, this epic featured Joy as the plate-juggler of an annoying, quirky family while she chased her dream and became a mop-maker entrepreneur. The voice over by the grandmother was unnecessary; despite the you-go-girl moments, it failed to engage me for the two-hour running time. 3/5

Creed (2015) Watch Sylvester Stallone turn into Micky. He shrinks, loses his hair, and dons the black stocking cap. The best part of the film is the chemistry between Rocky (Stallone) and Adonis Creed (Michael B. Jordan). The love interest Bianca (Tessa Thompson) is unnecessary to the plot. The back story was unnecessary. The ending scene with the two champs climbing 72 steps to the Philadelphia Art Museum was necessary and satisfyingly predictable. It’s very hard to make a good boxing movie. The tropes and stereotypes drip with convention and make it difficult to dive into the story line. Since psychologists tell us we remember the first and last items in a sequence, it applies here. The original Rocky and now Creed are memorable. Let it be. 3.5/5.

Inside Out (2015) Sure! I love the idea of our brain explained by primary emotions by cartoon characters. I love the idea that the circuitry to the aspects of our identity are floating islands. No one likes a Negative Nancy, right Joy? No one trusts the Pollyanna, either. Silver linings discovered from sorrowful situations define one’s character. Grief, despair, and agony are parts of life; to expect one can avoid these emotions or protect others from them is unhealthy. Through the trials we bond in friendship and family and love. Perseverance is an honorable virtue never gained by hiding or running away.  I cried, therefore, I liked the film. See? 4/5 

Conspiracy Theory (1997) I revisited this last week and it held up surprisingly well. The plot contained dark humor, details, and twists and remained interesting throughout. Mel Gibson delivered one of his finest performances as New York cabbie, Jerry Fletcher. Julia Roberts plays attorney Alice Sutton. Is Jerry a paranoid, crazy stalker? Or is his devotion to her understandable by the time all the secrets are out? Genuine affection between the two characters was believable. Patrick Stewart delivers as the director of a hush-hush Manchurian-Candidate program. I love this film. 4.5/5.

Hunger (2008) Wow. Director Steve McQueen‘s British/Irish historical drama was his début film and starred Michael Fassbender. McQueen spent much time focusing his shots on the details of life within Maze Prison and the inhumane treatment of IRA prisoners from the 1970s. Boredom is caught with shots of inmates catching flies, snow falling during a smoke, or artwork on walls swirled from shit. Contrasted with the silent scenes are the loud scenes as inmates are treated like animals. Fassbender gives a phenomenal performance as Bobby Sands, fighting for status as political prisoner, and the audience must witness his hunger strike. It has been awhile since Christian Bale starved himself for The Machinist(2004); Michael Fassbender’s physical transformation is just as shocking. It is McQueen’s style to hold that shot; after a seventeen minute dialogue between characters Bobby Sands (Fassbender) and Father Dominic Moran (Liam Cunningham) at a table, the intense rationalizations needed a long transition for their argument to sink in and prepare the audience for the hunger strike. McQueen brilliantly shows us a guard at the end of the prison hall with a push broom. The inmates dump their urine pots from under the doors. Methodically, the prison guard walks toward the audience pushing the urine toward us. The camera is fixed. We can go nowhere. By the time the guard’s broom is close to us, we’ve had time to think. We understand why Bobby Sands wills his life away in the name of principle. It’s one of the best films I’ve seen in a while. I highly recommend it. 4.5/5.

actors, art, directors, Film Spotlight, In My Opinion, movies, oscars

A Dozen Perfect Films


How would you define a perfect film? I would argue there’s something worth remembering about every film if you focus on its parts. When I size up a film, I concentrate on thirteen aspects. Some films have several qualifiers; however, it is rare that a film consists of the following thirteen factors:

1. The line.  Here’s Looking at You Kid. 

2. The scene.  Ada gets her finger chopped off in The Piano. 

3. A smart script.  Dogma

4. A satisfying ending.  Papillon

5. The character transcends the actor.  Lincoln

6. Sound effects affect or the score inspires.  The Birds.  The Magnificent Seven

7. The production design/setting transports.  Lord of the Rings.  Out of Africa

8. The cinematography is innovative or artistic.  Inception.  Citizen Kane

9. Costumes are exquisite or perfectly show the culture.  The Aviator

10. Suspension of disbelief. I am “in” the movie.  The Science of the Lambs

11. The climax is clearly evident and startling.  Psycho

12. The ensemble cast around the major character is a blended microcosm. The Deer Hunter

13. The opening and ending shot. The Searchers

There are many good films to choose from, but are they perfect?  In no particular order, here are my dozen: 


Apocalypse Now, “The horror, the horror.” 


Black Swan, Natalie Portman’s performance was supreme. 


Dances with Wolves, the flip from soldier to warrior. 2099_tn

Alicia: There’s nothing like a love song to give you a good laugh.


On the Waterfront, Father Barry’s homily as he rises up out of the ship. 


Survival story bar none. The sound of the water becomes an adversary. Who can forget the dueling banjos? 


Cold Mountain, a great example of an ensemble cast. 


Elizabeth, a perfect period film with breathtaking costumes. 


The Matrix is still a fun mind-bender. 


Impressive set design and Brad Pitt’s best performance. 


Joel Gray. Liza Minnelli. Great opening and closing sequence.  


My favorite Film Noir. 

Is your definition of perfection different from mine? Maybe you would have added editing? If scores aren’t important to you, your list will be quite different. Also, Pixar’s Finding Nemo is a perfect film even though they aren’t wearing costumes, their animated scales and skin are exquisite.

actors, culture, directors, Film Spotlight, History in Films, In My Opinion, movies, scores

Rooster Cogburn vs. Two Mules for Sister Sara

What’s interesting about Rooster Cogburn (1975) and Two Mules for Sister Sara (1970)? Not the plot or even the acting. These are four legends playing their iconic selves transcending any conceived character on a script. Through the lens of hindsight, we can see similarities beyond the obvious–these films are more than two westerns depending upon the chemistry between a man and a woman. The female in each role is as smart and strong as the male. I suspect your decision whether which film is better has more to do with the star’s ability to claim your emotions than the films themselves. Let’s see.

The Duke and queenly Katharine Hepburn

Rooster Cogburn and the Lady

John Wayne plays U.S. Marshal Reuben J. “Rooster” Cogburn in a reprisal role of the character that garnered him an Oscar from the film True Grit (1969).  In Rooster Cogburn, he attempts to bring down a band of outlaws who have stolen a pallet of nitroglycerin and murdered the father of Eula Goodnight, a determined Christian spinster who becomes his accomplice for justice.The bad guys, Hawk (Richard Jordan) and Breed (Anthony Zerbe), didn’t stand a chance against these two old grizzly bears.  Filmed in Oregon, the gorgeous scenery and light-hearted banter between the two is why most find it a charming western. Born in 1907, both Hepburn and Wayne spent their lives surviving the wilds of Hollywood, and they both put a large stamp on it. By 1975, they arrived on-screen for the first time together as symbols of manhood and womanhood, each a strong model for their gender.

John Wayne had a sweet center inside that rock hard personality when he solved all of life’s problems. He took care of the bad guy, protected his women and property, and was loyal to those who deserved it. In a John Wayne world, there was order, and it appealed to many who suffered through a century filled with depression, world wars, riots, and mayhem. His conservative integrity combined with his giant-like stature made him an American hero.

Katharine Hepburn was as unwavering and explosive as a wagon of nitroglycerin. Her characters quibble with intelligence, sarcasm, or religious morality, and she was an equal to her male counterparts whether played by Cary Grant, Peter O’Toole, or Humphrey Bogart in The African Queen (1951). Although Katharine herself was an atheist, Hepburn’s Eula Goodnight and Rose Sayer were beacons of Christianity and paired with gruff sinners for the purpose of dramatic tension. Who wins the battle of wills? It’s a draw, but her softened heart concedes to Bogart’s Charlie and for Wayne’s Rooster. Only Katharine Hepburn could have played the dynamic character so effortlessly. Regardless, many critics panned Rooster Cogburn as a formulaic repeat of The African Queen. Hasn’t Hollywood been doing that since its inception? Several worried that John Wayne breathing at a high altitude with one lung would collapse and that Hepburn was too old. To her critics, I imagine Katharine would retort with a line from Eula Goodnight: I do not fear the skunk; I simply do not care for its odor.

You can read all about the facts and trivia of Rooster Cogburn and the Lady at TCM HERE  


Two Mules for Sister Sara 

Interesting facts and trivia at the TCM site are found HERE.

Shirley MacLaine embodies with perfection all that signifies the Madonna/whore complex. With her melodious voice and porcelain skin she charms and loves devotedly. On the other hand, she has portrayed the complicated temptress with ease. Behind the scenes in Two Mules for Sister Sara, she intimidated director Don Siegel as well as Clint Eastwood with her bitchy personality like the older characters you’ve seen her play later in her career such as Steel Magnolias, Guarding Tess, or Rumor Has It. 

Could there be better way to open a film than with a score by Ennio Morricone?  I think not.

I love the opening scene in the deft hands of cinematographer Gabriel Figueroa as he suggests the wilderness of the Mexican frontier by focusing on the dangerous creatures such as the rattlesnake and the mountain lion. Clint Eastwood plays Hogan, a mercenary who rescues a nun under attack by three outlaws. She convinces him to take her to a French garrison as she is aiding Mexican revolutionaries against the French government. He is interested in a strong box of money he has been told is hidden there. It’s a dark comedy with plenty of charm. Hogan is sexually attracted to Sara who manages to keep him at bay. Their escapades such as the arrow shot through Hogan’s chest, the attempt to blow up the train bridge, and the garrison attack are some of the reasons for its popularity. Sara’s revelation toward the end of the story makes it a fun plot twist, although, only strengthens the stereotype that women are either saintly Mary or seducing Eve.

In the end, I presume their iconic selves became interchangeable with their real selves. Of course, I don’t know, but after decades playing certain roles, don’t you think their roles shaped the person? Four icons. Four imprints.

John Wayne, Herculean; Katharine Hepburn, self-important queen; Clint Eastwood, scowling rogue; Shirley MacLaine, sweet and sour crab.

If you threw a dinner party and could invite one of them, which one would it be?