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November 2009
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Sherlock Holmes

4 Stars out of 5

I wish I was going to be the first person to say this is the Sherlock Holmes for people who thought the other versions didn't have enough explosions in them. I'm not, and I can't even remember where I heard it, but it is a perfect description. Writers Michael Robert Jackson and Anthony Peckham have, indeed, returned to Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's original novels and short stories and re-imagined the screen version of the world's most famous detective. Director Guy Ritchie took the script and made the cerebral corporeal with generous doses of artsy camera work (including even slo-mo) and more CGI than you can shake a stick at. Yet even in 2009, you still eventually have to point a camera at Holmes and let him walk you through the exposition. Fortunately, with Ritchie's budget, Holmes does this standing on top of a half-completed London bridge rather than sitting in a chair at 221B Baker Street. Of course, since you can't generate CGI actors (yet), you have to give some credit as well to another brilliant Robert Downey Jr. performance, and point out that Jude Law is the most realized Watson ever. You might see it a second time to pay more attention to the tricky plot points or the CGI, but you sure won't want to see it twice to check out the subtle plot points. It ain't art, but it is sure entertainment.

Neal Vitale Reviews: Avatar (in IMAX 3D)

3.5 stars out of 5

In terms of creativity, vision, and imagination, Avatar is outstanding, a unique and unprecedented visual experience. One review I read described it - quite accurately - as returning the "wow" factor to film-going (especially so in IMAX 3D). Writer/director/producer James Cameron (Titanic, Alien, The Abyss, The Terminator, et al.) is no stranger to spectacle and over-the-top cinema, and Avatar continues in this vein, creating entirely original, fantastic landscapes, languages, and species. But, at its core, Avatar is a story that has been told many times, many ways. The greedy, soulless industrialists, having denuded Earth of its natural resources, are out to do the same on another planet, and are not about to be dissuaded by any silly cultural/spiritual objections raised by that world's inhabitants. One of the plunderers, though, eventually sees the error of these ways - romance, of course, plays a role in this conversion - and helps the natives resist. An apocalyptic conflict ensues and, well, you know the rest. Yes, there is some intriguing quasi-science, mythology with Native American overtones, new camera angles - think video games on a grand scale - and creative new forms of destruction and carnage. But, while the images are fresh and exciting, the plot is not - five stars for visuals, but only two for the narrative.

Neal Vitale Reviews: A Single Man

3.5 stars out of 5

Gucci-fashion-designer-turned-writer/director Tom Ford makes his cinematic debut with A Single Man, a languid and dreamy adaptation of the late Charles Isherwood's novel of the same name. Given Ford's background, it is not surprising that this film is beautifully shot, a sleek rendering of early-60s Los Angeles, replete with billboard-ready, sensual close-ups of beautiful faces and bodies. The story of A Single Man is a slim musing on fate, contentment, and irony, but the film is more of a visual piece, all about textures, colors, and surfaces. Colin Firth (Bridget Jones' Diary, Love Actually, Mamma Mia!)is the title character, and his low-wattage charm is perfect for the part - his brilliant, measured performance alone is worth the price of admission. Julianne Moore (Children Of Men, Far From Heaven) and Nicholas Hoult (Wah-Wah, About A Boy) have small, but strong, supporting roles. A Single Man is not a great film by any means, but it is a confidant, well-crafted work, and intriguing, hinting at what may be a very promising new career for Ford.

Neal Vitale Reviews: It's Complicated

2 stars out of 5

I usually enjoy the films of writer/director Nancy Meyers (Something's Gotta Give, The Holiday, What Women Want), even if I'm not in the targeted demographic (I'm the right age but the wrong gender). Typically there's an attractive bunch of talented actors, a clever screenplay with plenty of laughs but still honest and insightful in its view of real-life relationships, and a fabulous home in a beautiful setting. It's Complicated  is no different, with a cast headed by Meryl Streep, Alex Baldwin, Steve Martin, and, from TV's "The Office," John Krasinski. The house is in idyllic Santa Barbara, and there are several highly amusing scenes (though much of the humor is more visual than cerebral). But the jokes are telegraphed, fall back on cliches (e.g., grown-ups smoking pot), and often feel forced. Many of the supporting players are more sketches than fully-developed roles, caricatures that we've seen too often. And I struggle with Streep as a semi-ditz. It's a tribute to Baldwin and, to a lesser extent, Krasinski that their energy and charm nearly rescue It's Complicated - but this isn't horseshoes.

Christmas Message

[Note: I may not be able to file a column from Oregon on Dec. 28; it depends on the Internet connectivity. This may be my last column for two weeks.]

In the fine old tradition of journalists who recycle their holiday messages year after year, here's the tenth rerun of my Christmas message since Dec. 21, 1998 (with a few slight modifications).

Season's greetings to one and all. Apologies to those of you who feel oppressed by the season. I know Christians, atheists and Jews who feel the seasonal oppression in equal parts. Oppression and depression. I'm sorry. This message isn't going to cheer you up, much.

This is a time of year that has inspired some of the most brilliant writing in the English language. It ranges from Dickens' A Christmas Carol (which single-handedly revived the celebration of Christmas as a major holiday in the English-speaking world), to the sturdy newspaper editorial entitled Yes Virginia, There is a Santa Claus. In more modern times, we have, among other things, The Grinch Who Stole Christmas and the unforgettable Bill Murray as Scrooge in the Dickens adaptation, Scrooged. (Not to mention Olive, The Other Reindeer. Never seen it. Love the pun).

Alas, like so many of us, the muse seems to have taken off early. I briefly considered, as I do every year, throwing in some of Dylan Thomas' A Child's Christmas In Wales which Fr. Harrison West and I recited several times at Benson High School assemblies (long before he was Fr. West). But then I decided just to do a quick Christmas column.

What is Christmas about? It can be about the birth of Jesus, but for most of us it isn't. It's about many things.

Christmas is about singing (or listening to) Christmas carols. My favorite annual Christmas party, bar none, is the Christmas Caroling party held annually by our best friends. They're Jewish, and so are many of the party goers. Joyful voices raised together. Doesn't matter if they're not in tune. Doesn't matter if some of the lyrics are Christian claptrap. Jingle Bells, White Christmas and Jingle Bell Rock, along with the rest of the secular Christmas liturgy are just plain fun. I wince a little sometimes when we sing the later verses of God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen, or Good King Wenceslas" (Question: speaking of flow muses, why is it that the muse flees most lyricists somewhere between the first and second verses?) Besides, I get to do "five Golden Rings" every year when we sing The 12 Days Of Christmas.

Christmas is about family and friends. It is about Egg Nog (or fat-free "Holiday Nog") and all the rest of the seasonal food. It is about the children.

It's about traveling, at the worst travel time of year, to be with your family. Vicki and I hit Portland Dec. 28 to spend some time with my parents, then Vicki and I head to Gleneden Beach, on the coast near Lincoln City, Oregon, for the week between Christmas and New Years. Spending that week in that town is a tradition as old as our marriage (30years on Jan. 1). Last year, an amazing snowstorm kept us out of Oregon. I hope there's no repeat!

Christmas is about family traditions when you're a kid, and the blending of family traditions when you marry. In childhood, my family stayed at home on Christmas, my wife was always a Christmas runaway. My lights went up the Saturday after Thanksgiving each year and came down the Saturday after New Years. Vicki's went up on Christmas Eve and came down on Boxing Day. This year, again, there's hardly any lights at all. With two adult children, that's fine.

We've had artificial trees for years. Marlow asked for a big real tree her freshman year at college, so we put a 14-footer in the library in 1999; then Rae asked for one and got it in 2003. This year -- just a little tabletop tree with Mexican decorations. But it's a fancy artificial tree, with two kinds of lights and a remote control, modeled after a White Vermont Spruce. We bought it in January 2008, at an after-Christmas sale in an artificial tree store.

Christmas is about giving thanks. Thanksgiving is the official holiday to give thanks for our good fortune, but nothing says you can't do that at Christmas as well. Every Christmas morning when I wake up with my health, my wife, my children, my brother and my parents as part of this world, I count my blessings. Mine are beyond counting. I hope yours are too. I have adult-onset diabetes, but there are lots of worse diseases in the world. Mine, at least, is under control. I almost died in a car crash in January 2007, but I'm still alive. My wacky ticker made me faint, and now I have a defibrillator / pacemaker.

One Christmas was so much like another, in those years around the sea-town corner now and out of all sound except the distant speaking of the voices I sometimes hear a moment before sleep, that I can never remember whether it snowed for six days and six nights when I was twelve or whether it snowed for twelve days and twelve nights when I was six...

A Busy Weekend: Twice An MC

After several weeks of cruising along on autopilot, life got interesting last weekend as I was able to be the master of ceremonies for two of my favorite seasonal events, F's annual Christmas sing-a-long and the Christmas concert of the Danville Community Band.

Our friend F holds a Christmas-Carol sing every December, supplemented by a potluck dinner. It usually draws about 40 people. Most years, he mother (a retired piano teacher) plays the piano. Over the years (20 or so), I've gradually become the master of ceremonies, saying a few words about each carol and leading the singing. I'm good at researching and discussing carols, not so good at singing, but fortunately singing isn't the most important part of the job.

Have I mentioned before that I love serving as a master of ceremonies? I do think I do well with a little script and a little ad-lib. I have a quick mind. I could be a game show host or a talk radio host--really!

Anyway, Sunday, the Danville Community Band played its annual Christmas concert before an audience of 900 at the Eastbay Fellowship Church. This is the band's ninth Christmas concert. Since the band began in September 2001, I have missed announcing only two of its concerts. In fact, I was so cherished that, until this season, they ran my bio in the program! Anyway, I write a script and then ad-lib around it. The audience loves it, and I love doing it. There was a choir that had to file onto the stage, so I recalled a joke I had heard that morning on a BBC podcast, that was innocuous enough for a mixed audience of Christians. "Whats the difference between a rock guitarist and a jazz guitarist? A rock guitarist plays three chords for a thousand people, a jazz guitarist plays a thousand chords for three people." And then the choir was in place and could sing.

I've also been a tenor sax player in the band since 2005, when I was asked to leave the Contra Costa Wind Symphony. It's been great. You should come to a concert some time!

Another Busy Weekend: 231 Saxophones

After two years of signing up but not showing up, I finally made it to a San Jose Saxmas. Under the baton of Ray Bernd, 231 sax players practiced for two hours at Del Mar H.S. in Cupertino, then played for an hour each at Santana Row in San Jose and Vallco shopping center in Cupertino. It was an amazing experience. I have never been anywhere that many saxophones at one time--although, at a Sacramento Jazz Festival once I did see a number of counter-bass saxs on stage, which was a pretty impressive sight. One thing for sure; we were loud! The conductor suggested that me thought "p" in the music meant "powerful" and "mf" meant "mighty foreceful." (They really mean "quiet" and "medium loud"). The arrangements were fun, the group dynamic was exciting and the free tee-shirts were cute. I think I'll go again next year, even though San Jose is an hour's drive for me.

Recession's Over?

Larry Summers, on one of the talk shows on Sunday, Dec. 13, 2009, alleged that everyone agrees the recession has ended. These follow-up questions should have been asked but were not (maybe next week the networks can find alert journalists to ask the questions):

  1. What is the basis, if any, for your opinion that all 20,000,000 unemployed Americans agree with you that the recession has ended?
  2. Are you as certain now that the recession has ended as you were in 1998 that repealing Glass-Steagall was a good idea?
  3. Are you as certain now that the recession has ended as you were when, as Harvard's President, you directed the trades and policies that cost Harvard $1,600,000,000?



Neal Vitale Reviews (on DVD): Is Anybody There?

5 stars out of 5

A wonderful aspect of Netflix is the occasional discovery of a gem that you never saw - perhaps never heard of - in theatrical release. With a US box office gross of just over $2 million, Is Anybody There? was clearly missed by many moviegoers, and that is a shame. This film is a small, quirky piece, centered on ten-year-old Edward (Bill Milner [Son of Rambow]), who lives with his mother at the old-age home that she runs on the English seaside, and who is fascinated by the afterlife. Clarence (Michael Caine) is an elderly magician who arrives at the home; he and Edward become pals. The story deals with aging, love, and loss in a remarkably clear-eyed fashion, with no hint of the maudlin or the mawkish. Is Anybody There? is completely engaging and moving, never sounding an emotional note that feels false or contrived - it is, simply, a lovely film.

Neal Vitale Reviews: The Young Victoria

4 stars out of 5

With The Young Victoria, Emily Blunt (The Devil Wears Prada, Sunshine Cleaning) has her first true starring role, and takes full advantage of the opportunity, giving a performance as the young Queen Victoria that is likely to garner consideration, albeit long-shot,  during awards season. [She has already been nominated for a Golden Globe in the Best Actress - Drama category.] The Young Victoria traces a relatively short time period, from Victoria's youthful (at age 18) accession to the throne in 1837, through the tumultuous early years of her reign, her marriage to Albert, and maturation as a leader. This film is a workman-like biopic, but it is enlivened by the period it chronicles, the lush costumes of the era, and the fine acting of a supporting cast that includes Rupert Friend (virtually unwatchable in the dreadful Cheri), Paul Bettany (Master and Commander, A Beautiful Mind), and Jim Broadbent (Topsy-Turvy, Longford).