movies


Elizabeth Taylor died today — finally.

I don’t mean that in a flippant way — it’s just that the actress has been rumored to be at death’s door so many times and for so long, I’m almost skeptical that she’s really dead.

Anyway, Taylor died of congestive heart failure in Los Angeles, where she had been hospitalized for about six weeks. She was 79.

I recognize her death as the passing of a movie star from a bygone Hollywood era. But I have to admit, somewhat embarrassingly, that I don’t think I’ve ever watched a movie starring Elizabeth Taylor. I know she’s been in some classic films, such as “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” and “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof,” but I’ve never seen them. (I’m looking forward to rectifying that soon, but more about that shortly.)

Despite my enjoyment of good movies, including old ones, I’ve never made an effort to see an Elizabeth Taylor movie. Perhaps that’s because, to those of us of a certain age, Taylor is best known as three things: Michael Jackson’s friend, a no-brainer pick in the office death pool, and the punchline to jokes about multiple marriages. (Incidentally, how is it that Elizabeth Taylor never married Mickey Rooney or Larry King?)

Now that Taylor is dead, Turner Classic Movies plans to air a 24-hour tribute to her on Sunday, April 10. (You can read the schedule here. I’m not sure why “Cleopatra” is not among the 11 movies to be broadcast that day.) I’m planning to watch or record at least some of the movies. “Butterfield 8” and “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” are obvious ones — Taylor’s performances in those movies won her Academy Awards. I’ve also heard good things about “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof” and “National Velvet,” but I’m wondering if there are any other Elizabeth Taylor films people think I should make sure to see.

Please post your suggestions in the comments section. Feel free to tell me what your favorite ET movie is, and why, too.

Fans of the Man of Steel are no longer waiting for Superman to be cast in the next movie for the legendary superhero, as 27-year-old British actor Henry Cavill has gotten the nod to fill the role, Entertainment Weekly reported today.

Cavill, best known for his role as Charles Brandon on Showtime’s “The Tudors,” will portray the Man of Steel in the new movie, a reboot of the Superman movie franchise that is due to hit theaters in December 2012. The new movie reportedly will be a contemporary take on the superhero, based on a story written by David S. Goyer, who is writing the script, and Christopher Nolan, who has successfully helmed the rebooted Batman movie franchise starring Christian Bale as the Dark Knight.

Nolan’s involvement gives me hope that the new Superman movie will do the Man of Steel more justice than 2006’s “Superman Returns,” which starred Brandon Routh in the title role. Superman is one of my all-time favorite superheroes, and he deserves a rebooted movie franchise as good as the new Batman movies and the first two Superman movies starring Christopher Reeve.

To refresh my memory regarding my initial reaction to “Superman Returns,” I reread my film review of it that I wrote for The Times. Here it is, as it was published June 29, 2006:

I don’t understand why filmmakers insist on messing with the source material when bringing comic-book characters to the movie screen.

Script artists who stay true to the background of beloved characters are more likely to have a hit on their hands, especially in the cases of comic book adaptations and remakes of old TV shows. The first two “Superman” movies starring Christopher Reeve, the two recent “Spider-Man” movies, and last year’s relaunch of the “Batman” franchise, “Batman Begins,” are examples of this in action.

“Superman Returns,” the first movie in 19 years to star the Man of Steel, walks the line between being reverent to its source material and muddling up the Metropolis status quo.

The result? “Superman Returns” is a decent, mostly enjoyable movie, though it certainly falls short of the standard set in those first two Reeve movies.

But at least it’s not “Superman III,” that atrocious sequel that doubled as a vehicle for the long-past-funny Richard Pryor, or the equally bad “Superman IV: The Quest for Peace.”

“Superman Returns” has a lot of good things going for it. The opening credits roll out to the familiar John Williams theme music from the Reeve movies (though the once-graphically impressive wavy blue lettering from that era looks terribly out-of-date now). Director Bryan Singer uses a lot of set design elements from the Reeve movies, and employs Marlon Brando’s image and voice so the late actor can return in a cameo as Superman’s father, Jor-El.

And it helps that the new Man of Steel, Brandon Routh, bears more than a passing resemblance to Reeve, to whom the movie is dedicated. Kevin Spacey sort of facially resembles Gene Hackman, too, but that’s where the similarities between their portrayals of villain Lex Luthor end. Spacey’s Luthor is much more vicious than Hackman’s, in some ways that small children likely would find disturbing.

Singer also throws fans a few insider bones, finding time for cameo roles by the actors who played Lois Lane and Jimmy Olson in the old 1950s television series and squeezing in Perry White’s signature exclamation, “Great Caesar’s ghost!”

The film’s plot — Superman returns to Earth after a five-year absence searching for the remains of his homeworld, Krypton — gives the movie series the new spin its producers were looking for. It’s fun watching Superman fly through the skies of Metropolis again, and the romantic triangle between him, Lois and her fiance might be the best thing about the movie. But Reeve and Margot Kidder were so good in their roles, it’s almost impossible for Routh and Kate Bosworth to live up to their standards. (And Bosworth looks so young in comparison to Kidder, you might think the new movie takes place five years prior to “Superman II,” not five years after it.)

Routh doesn’t play the klutzy aspect of Clark Kent well, though he doesn’t get much scene time as Clark anyway. Most of the time, Routh is playing a weakened Superman, either because he was exposed to Kryptonite, crashlanded on Earth or some other reason. The makers of this film clearly wanted to “humanize” Superman to the point where he was constantly vulnerable, yet much of the appeal of Superman — to many, at least — is the great feats of strength he performs (in addition to the attraction between him and Lois).

Fans will want to see “Superman Returns,” though they should be cautioned that for their admission fee, they won’t get what the Reeve movies gave us at their best. But they won’t get what the Reeve movies gave us at their worst, either.

The Chicago Cubs were mathematically eliminated from the playoffs yesterday, long after they were unofficially eliminated from the postseason.

Not to worry. I was watching “Back to the Future Part II” the other day and was reminded that the Cubs will win the World Series in 2015. Of course, they beat Miami, which means a subsequent time paradox must have moved the Marlins from the American League to the National League. Perhaps the Cubs will beat the Tampa Bay Rays instead.

On the other hand, a time paradox also may have wiped out the Cubs’ future World Series victory, too. Great Scott!

Earlier this week I finished reading Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, winner of the 2006 Pulitzer Prize for Literature (and purchased by me for 50 cents at a used book sale). It is an intriguing novel that raises questions most people don’t ponder at length (if at all). Perhaps the most obvious one is this: How would I (the reader) react if faced with eking out a miserable life in a post-apocalyptic world?

As somebody who gets easily annoyed by bad grammar (especially when it appears in print after allegedly being edited), I initially had to get past McCarthy’s writing style, which clashes loudly with much of what I learned in English classes and newsrooms. But I suppose bad grammar and lack of proper punctuation usage is all the rage during these text message-heavy, Twittering days, so perhaps I am a throwback in that respect.

Anyway, once I became accustomed to McCarthy’s writing style, I was drawn by his description of bleak, post-apocalyptic survival. The Road has a lot of potential in its next incarnation, a film adaptation starring Viggo Mortensen. The movie is tentatively scheduled for release in October.

* * *

I’ve begun reading my next book, Richard Wolffe’s Renegade: The Making of a President, about Barack Obama’s presidential campaign. Judging by the first chapter, it will be a good read for a political junkie like myself.

Wolffe, who covered Obama’s presidential campaign for Newsweek, probably is best known as a political analyst for MSNBC. When he appears on Countdown with Keith Olbermann, Wolffe typically begins with the greeting, “Good evening, Keith,” delivered in a soothing British accent. (Well, at least I find British accents soothing.)

Wolffe’s usual greeting made me think about how he can personalize his books. Imagine being greeted by Wolffe when you crack open his book at night: “Good evening, Craig.” The book’s publisher (Crown, a subsidiary of Random House) could set up a way to order the personalized books through a Web site. Of course, the personalized books would cost a little more money, but they sure would be unique, eh?

Patti Blagojevich didn’t do much in Tuesday’s episode of “I’m A Celebrity … Get Me Out of Here,” other than make her acting debut (unless you count her participation in the reality TV show as acting).

The quasi-celebrities were given a handheld camcorder to use for a day, and Stephen Baldwin came up with the idea to make a low-budget slasher film. Baldwin suggested Lou Diamond Phillips direct the flick, and the “La Bamba” star didn’t disappoint. He employed the usual horror-film cliches to create a short, entertaining film that ended with Blagojevich getting “killed” by a masked murderer.

Other than that, Blagojevich participated in the immunity trial “Up In Arms,” wherein the contestants had to use one hand to hold up a bucket of slime. Phillips won the trial, which earned him immunity from the public vote until the final week of the show.

Two contestants will be voted out of the jungle Thursday. At the end of Tuesday’s show, camp leader John Salley got to pick somebody to be immune to the public vote this week. At first I thought he would choose his camp BFF Patti, but he picked himself.

“The longer I last, the more I want to win,” Blagojevich said early in the episode.

It’s been more than 24 hours since I saw the new “Star Trek” movie and I’m still not sure how I feel about it.

Background: I’m a “Star Trek” fan who has seen every episode of the original series, “Star Trek: The Next Generation,”  “Star Trek: Deep Space Nine” and all the feature films. The franchise lost me at “Star Trek: Voyager” and “Enterprise” wasn’t good enough to make me a regular viewer again.

In other words, the new movie wasn’t made for me.

Sure, the new movie includes numerous references to the original series and its spinoff movies, and those are welcome and obviously included for people like me. But director J.J. Abrams, the mind behind the hit television series “Lost,” was charged with rebooting the franchise, and I believe he achieved that successfully. I think people with less attachment to the source material than me are more likely to enjoy the new movie.

That is not to say I didn’t enjoy the movie, because it kept me entertained and never bored me. But there are some significant departures from “Star Trek” lore that raised red flags (or at least yellow ones) for me as a viewer. I won’t reveal those departures because I’m not a spoiler kind of guy, but — and please pardon the pun — Abrams boldly takes the “Star Trek” franchise in a new direction, revamping the classic characters and the universe they inhabited for the past forty-some years.

And at the end of the day, I may embrace the new version of the “Star Trek” universe. But I think I need a little more time to get over the end of the first “Star Trek” era.

* * *

At its best, “Star Trek” often provided analogies to current events. So it seems appropriate that as I gathered my thoughts about the new “Star Trek” movie, it occurred to me that the “Star Trek” universe is analogous to the newspaper industry. Both had great runs but now find themselves in need of a reboot.

Paramount had the guts to reboot its flagging franchise by reinterpreting a classic sci-fi universe in spite of a potential falling-out with hardcore “Star Trek” fans, some of which have followed the main characters since the first series aired in the late 1960s.

Likewise, the newspaper industry needs to reboot its flagging franchise, so to say, though it faces a much harder task than making a movie. The livelihoods of thousands of newspaper employees hang in the balance. But for those who are in charge of making the necessary changes, it is worth noting the example of the “Star Trek” reboot. The changes may not be popular with hardcore fans (older readers and old-school editors, for example), but a drastic change is needed. Not a complete change — the characters (editors, reporters, etc.) remain the same but are tweaked to provide a new experience that is attractive to a new and future audience of consumers.

It’s not too late for newspapers, though the zero hour is quickly approaching. Tinker with the old model now. Change it, make it better, or at least different and more fitting for modern times. Do it now.

And, as Captain Jean-Luc Picard of “Star Trek: The Next Generation” would say: Engage.

Glad to see the Majestic Theatre reopened in Streator last weekend. The 102-year-old theater closed at the end of March after struggling financially since reopening in May 2007.

People from Pennsylvania are now operating the landmark theater, and I wish them luck. But I wonder how much more successful they can be than Kyle and Cindy Mitchell, who metaphorically poured their blood, sweat and tears into the Majestic during the two years they ran it. I think they did a great job promoting the theater through contests and other special events, and Kyle in particular was more visibly involved in the community than many other downtown business owners.

Unfortunately, the Majestic Theatre is no stranger to being closed for business. The Majestic has been shut down at least six times since first opening in 1907, and the city condemned the building in the 1950s. Yet it has cheated death again, and I hope the community supports it even more now that it is reopened.

The Majestic Theatre has a storied past, one that I enjoyed researching for a newspaper article as the building’s centennial approached. Before it became a movie house, the Majestic hosted music, comedy and vaudeville acts such as Jack Benny and Groucho Marx.

My favorite Majestic story is that of a couple who married onstage — accompanied by a pride of lions! Here’s how I described it in the aforementioned newspaper article:

An Aug. 5, 1907, story in the Streator Daily Free Press told of Majestic Manager F.H. Cox’s desire to find a couple to marry onstage in a den of African lions. The story concluded with the following quote, essentially daring someone to take Cox up on his offer.

“It requires some nerve to get married and agree to support a woman for life. Where is there a man in Streator or vicinity who will agree to do this with a half dozen lions glaring at him?”

On Saturday, Aug. 17, 1907, Ernest Payne and Kate Thomas were married in a lion cage in front of more than 1,000 guests at the Majestic. The Rev. E.A. Cantrell, minister of the Church of Good Will, officiated and delivered a 10-minute sermon about “marriage in the lions’ den.”

Inside the cage, the trained lions were not more than a dozen feet away from the couple. The couple stood at the back of the cage facing the audience, and the minister faced the bride and groom. Cardona, a French lion tamer armed with a whip, stood between the lions and the others. The minister invoked God’s blessing on the couple, then on the lions.

To read the entire newspaper article, click here.

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