Leonard Maltin on Movies (2014)

Maltin2015MovieGuidefinalLeonard Maltin, whom I interviewed here in 2011, recently announced that his annual paperback volume Leonard Maltin’s Movie Guide, which has been produced in some form for 45 years, will cease publication. He explains in the new introduction to the final edition, on sale next week, that today’s market precludes a profitable production.

I interviewed Leonard Maltin almost three years ago to the day and, though I am saddened to lose the rich and treasured Movie Guide, I look forward to reading this one, last edition, the new, forthcoming edition of his Classic Movie Guide, his Web site, and whatever he creates in the future. I know I’ll see Leonard Maltin soon at the movies. Until then, I am glad to know that one of the world’s most serious and knowledgeable film scholars is here in Hollywood where he belongs.

This is an edited transcript. To purchase the book, click on the cover image.

Scott Holleran: Would the story of Leonard Maltin’s Movie Guide make a good movie?

Leonard Maltin: I don’t think so. The real story of the guide—of how I came to be hired at 17—would make an amusing sequence but not a movie. The story of actually producing the guide day to day, from year to year, is the story of doing drudge-like research, confirming spelling, facts, and it’s not the stuff of great drama.

Scott Holleran: You write that it was created to offer “terse, telegraphic-style reviews” yet each entry also captures a movie’s essential facts—year of release, cast, director, plot, characters—too. Which does the reader seek more: facts or analysis?

Leonard Maltin: I’ve been told both. People ignore the opinion and focus on facts and I’ve heard the opposite, too.

Scott Holleran: Is it possible to be objective about film?

Leonard Maltin: Oh, no. It’s not objective at all—it’s completely subjective. As I remind people who rant [about a review] it’s just an opinion. Movies matter to me a great deal, but an opinion on a movie is just an opinion. We try very hard [in the Movie Guide] to convey the essence of each movie. There are critics who are much smarter, more articulate and more analytical than me. I think of myself as a kind of middle-brow person and critic. I hope I’m a good communicator.

Scott Holleran: Are there plans to release your out of print books on iBooks?

Leonard Maltin: I’m not at liberty to say [yet] but we’re working on [Amazon’s] Kindle versions of [previously released books by Maltin such as] Selected Short Subjects, The Real Stars and The Great Movie Comedians.

Scott Holleran: Among your peers of movie critics, pundits and scholars of our time—Ebert, Siskel, Pete Hammond, James Lipton, Robert Osborne, Rex Reed, Vincent Canby, Gene Shalit—who is your favorite and why?

Leonard Maltin: I’m a huge admirer of Todd McCarthy who was at Variety for 35 years and is now at the Hollywood Reporter. I think he’s brilliant and incisive. He has a tremendous film knowledge and he’s a great communicator. I also love reading Roger Ebert’s old reviews online because I never got to read him. I’ve really come to appreciate him as a writer. He’s really an essayist. Now I can access his vast library of reviews online.

Scott Holleran: Given the culture’s current trajectory, what sort of movie—if you think that movies will exist—do you think will dominate in the future?

Leonard Maltin: The evidence seems to point to the blockbuster continuing to dominate the world movie scene except at awards time when more intelligent, challenging and daring movies come to the fore which may be the best thing about awards season—to throw a spotlight on movies that need the notoriety that awards hype gives them. People are finding new business models for film all the time and that’s very encouraging. In a year that contains Boyhood and Captain America: The Winter Soldier—one of the best in the comic book series I’ve ever seen—there’s a reason for optimism.

Scott Holleran: Please discuss your approach to reviews. How do you track what happens in the plot—do you take notes during a film? Does your wife Alice assist? Do you call the studio or rely on press notes?

Leonard Maltin: Press notes are always useful but more for background information. But I don’t write lengthy reviews, so I don’t have to worry about outlining and recapitulation and I’ve fallen out of the habit of taking notes [during the film]. My wife Alice and I love watching and discussing film and she’s very perceptive, so she often opens my eyes. But we do disagree.

Scott Holleran: Do you read other reviews before you write your own?

Leonard Maltin: No.

Scott Holleran: Do you subscribe to Netflix?

Leonard Maltin: The household does, though I haven’t really taken advantage of it.

Scott Holleran: Is the press—including the movie press—too close to those in power?

Leonard Maltin: I don’t think so. I’m more concerned that during awards season here in L.A. both the trades and the L.A. Times have to generate so much copy to just sell the [awards] ads they want to sell.

Scott Holleran: A movie was initially and wrongly blamed by the U.S. government for the Islamic terrorist attack at Benghazi. Do you see any danger of censorship in the near future?

Leonard Maltin: I don’t think so.

Scott Holleran: Let’s do a lightning round of your thoughts on movies as we did last time. Snowpiercer with Chris Evans.

Leonard Maltin: I missed it.

Scott Holleran: Jersey Boys.

Leonard Maltin: Pretty good, but I’m not yet convinced that the story is the stuff of great drama.

Scott Holleran: Lovelace.

Leonard Maltin: What an interesting story; I don’t know why the film wasn’t better received.

Scott Holleran: Frozen.

Leonard Maltin: I enjoyed it but didn’t fall in love with it as other people have.

Scott Holleran: Admission with Tina Fey.

Leonard Maltin: Disappointing.

Scott Holleran: Company Men with Ben Affleck.

Leonard Maltin: Good and it got a bum wrap.

Scott Holleran: Dinesh D’Souza’s America.

Leonard Maltin: Didn’t see it. I can’t see every movie.

Scott Holleran: Rise of the Planet of the Apes.

Leonard Maltin: Great first half, disappointing clichéd finale.

Scott Holleran: Dawn of the Planet of the Apes.

Leonard Maltin: Terrifically well made but didn’t win me over completely.

Scott Holleran: Lincoln.

Leonard Maltin: Excellent.

Scott Holleran: Ida.

Leonard Maltin: Intriguing.

Scott Holleran: Salmon Fishing in the Yemen.

Leonard Maltin: Pleasant. I was hoping for something more.

Scott Holleran: The Hundred-Foot Journey.

Leonard Maltin: A little too bland for my tastes, though people I meet seem to love it.

Scott Holleran: Captain America: The Winter Soldier.

Leonard Maltin: One of the best comic book superhero movies ever made—proof that such a film can be intelligent and compelling without being pretentious.

Scott Holleran: Amazing Spider-Man.

Leonard Maltin: Pointless.

Scott Holleran: Amazing Spider-Man 2.

Leonard Maltin: Didn’t see it.

Scott Holleran: 12 Years a Slave.

Leonard Maltin: Arresting.

Scott Holleran: Gravity.

Leonard Maltin: Phenomenal in every way.

Scott Holleran: Mud.

Leonard Maltin: My favorite film of 2013. Matthew McConaughey’s best performance, deeply felt by writer and director Jeff Nichols, who I think is one of our brightest young talents.

Scott Holleran: Philomena.

Leonard Maltin: Awfully good.

Scott Holleran: Dallas Buyers Club.

Leonard Maltin: Terrific.

Scott Holleran: Nebraska.

Leonard Maltin: I liked it even better the second time—because it’s a rich and resonant film.

Scott Holleran: Her.

Leonard Maltin: I loved the first hour. Then, it petered out.

Scott Holleran: Emperor, the movie about Douglas MacArthur in Japan.

Leonard Maltin: Misfire.

Scott Holleran: 42.

Leonard Maltin: Well meaning and it’s an important story to tell. I wish it were a better movie.

Scott Holleran: Prisoners.

Leonard Maltin: Well done but too dark for my taste.

Scott Holleran: Man of Steel.

Leonard Maltin: Frustrating because the first half works so well. If only they’d quit while they were ahead; you lose sight of the characters and it became a slugfest.

Scott Holleran: Let’s talk about actors. Charles Durning?

Leonard Maltin: Great presence.

Scott Holleran: James Garner.

Leonard Maltin: Irresistible.

Scott Holleran: Robin Williams.

Leonard Maltin: Unique and wonderful.

Scott Holleran: Richard Attenborough.

Leonard Maltin: What a fantastic career—on both sides of the camera.

Scott Holleran: Lauren Bacall.

Leonard Maltin: Great with Bogart but really came into her own as a character actress in such movies as Birth, The Mirror Has Two Faces, even Dogville.

Scott Holleran: Doris Day.

Leonard Maltin: Can I say irresistible again? She makes me smile.

Scott Holleran: John Wayne.

Leonard Maltin: One of a kind. Still underrated.

Scott Holleran: Barbara Stanwyck.

Leonard Maltin: Always compelling.

Scott Holleran: Bob Hope.

Leonard Maltin: Underappreciated as a film comedian.

Scott Holleran: Katharine Hepburn.

Leonard Maltin: Indomitable.

Scott Holleran: Thelma Ritter.

Leonard Maltin: She elevates every film she’s in.

Scott Holleran: Eli Wallach.

Leonard Maltin: Versatile and reliable.

Scott Holleran: Mickey Rooney.

Leonard Maltin: One and only—a career like no other and still somewhat unappreciated for his versatility and dramatic skill. I think of him in Drive a Crooked Road (1954) a little film out on DVD, a very minor film noir but he’s so convincing in it—you believe that he really is that car mechanic.

Scott Holleran: Shirley Temple.

Leonard Maltin: Still adorable.

Scott Holleran: In the introduction to your Classic Movie Guide, why do you write that “old movies are better than ever”?

Leonard Maltin: They give me a kind of satisfaction and joy that few contemporary movies do. A great old movie can lift my spirits and make me feel better. What higher achievement can there be for any work of art?

Scott Holleran: What movie are you most looking forward to?

Leonard Maltin: The whole fall lineup looks good—Mr. Turner, Birdman, Foxcatcher.

Scott Holleran: What book would you like to see adapted as a movie?

Leonard Maltin: If I love a book, I don’t want to see the movie. Richard Attenborough learned in trying to adapt A Chorus Line that it was meant to be a theater piece, though there are great exceptions. If I read a book and love it, I don’t want to have that experience recreated or altered in any way. I’m completely satisfied with it.

Summer Update

This summer, I’m writing stories, preparing for an adult education course on social media, giving workshops in midtown L.A., helping businesses produce, compete and communicate and finishing studies in an advanced writing course. For some time, though, I’ve wanted to interview experts with whom I’ve been acquainted for many years, so look for new interviews about law, medicine and art on the blog. If you enrolled in my blogging class this week, or you’re reading the post after class, this is an example of teasing the reader with the promise of new material to come. In the near future, I plan to post three new and exclusive interviews about movies, a deadly infectious disease and man’s rights under the law. For me, the interviews are nostalgic because to varying degrees I’ve known, admired or studied with these men through changing, often challenging, times. For the reader, the interviews are intended to inform, enlighten and activate the mind through three distinct voices of clarity and reason. The blog is as always an informal forum for my thoughts but it is for a general adult audience, not a private or semi-private group of chosen friends or followers as on social media. To this end, I hope you like what is coming soon.

The 66th Emmys

emmy07_11Hosted by comedian Seth Meyers, the Emmys aired tonight while I was attending a movie screening, but all I was really interested in was what Billy Crystal had to say about his late friend, Robin Williams. I’ve since seen the clips and it was an elegant, poignant tribute from a truly talented peer (whose own Emmy-nominated 700 Sundays program is brilliant) only it was too short. But worth every second to see a star honor a fallen star.

I watch TV selectively, with most of my down time devoted to reading books and seeing movies. Most of my friends, partners and colleagues tell me what they like or are working on and I do try to watch certain shows in a variety of ways – on cable, digital and mobile – and my list of programs to watch and check out grows. But I am not a serious television watcher by any standard. My favorite TV channels are TCM and PBS and Hallmark or anything with reruns of classic TV shows.

The only season pass I bought on iTunes this year was for Modern Family, because I laugh out loud during almost every episode, as I did during the series run of NBC’s Frasier, the last situation comedy I watched. So, I’m pleased that ABC’s popular comedy won again for Best Comedy, matching Frasier for most consecutive Best Comedy Emmys. Both series involve Christopher Lloyd. Both series are at root about a band of individualists who are family, though not fundamentally by blood and bonded more by shared values. Both series are warm, intelligent and imbued with good humor. Ty Burrell of Modern Family has an incredible sense of humor and so much talent and I’m glad he won an Emmy, too. I don’t feel strongly about the Sofia Vergara pedestal bit one way or the other, though I think she, too, is a talented actress and comedienne, but I notice that feminists hated it and I think it’s because they hate any act that implicitly acknowledges women’s (or men’s) sex appeal. Honestly, I think they mostly amount to butch, anti-sex conservatives.

TV has become an exciting showcase for talent and the enthusiasm for all these dramas – The Good Wife, Game of Thrones, Outlander – is probably warranted. I root for Netflix and CBS and any venue that brings quality programming, such as Sherlock, to the market. I’m planning to watch and review more TV programs including an upcoming documentary on government-subsidized TV about the Roosevelts and a special on 9/11 and I would like to know what readers’ favorite shows are, too. In the meantime, it’s hard to ignore that the Emmys, with tremendously skilled actors such as Benedict Cumberbatch, Bob Newhart, Angela Bassett, Jon Voight, Paul Giamatti, Robin Wright, Alfred Molina, Ellen Burstyn, Kathy Bates, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Diana Rigg, Nathan Lane, Margo Martindale, Joan Cusack, Sarah Paulson, Cicely Tyson, and Tina Fey represent both TV’s best and the new, Hollywood normal that television programs are often as good as gold.

Movie Review: The Giver

Giver posterThe Giver doesn’t generate enough tension and conflict to sufficiently recreate a collectivist dystopia against which to rebel. This is too bad, because the film is poetic, elegiac and at times subtle and moving in a secular and spiritual way. This is also too bad because art in the West desperately needs to ignite the passions of the youngest minds to defy conformity and resist the rise of statism.

The Giver is too timid to light the match, though it does enlighten and inspire if you know what to look for. But you have to know in advance. Otherwise it’s just a picture show with pretty words and people.

What a show. Beautifully filmed in black and white and based on the novel by Lois Lowry, with surges of color that bring the theme to life, The Giver, directed by Philip Noyce, gives the audience its strict collectivist dystopia straight with lines about pure egalitarianism – all people are treated as equal in all aspects regardless of differences and ability – and the goal of a total, government-controlled life. From birth to death, the government dictates every aspect of one’s existence. With Meryl Streep as a matriarch in limp strands of gray hair with bangs, it’s like watching a withered old white woman doing a version of preachy Michelle Obama dictating what food to eat and nagging that you didn’t build that; the collective did.

The collective reigns supreme over the individual in this sterile, bright future, which of course means certain clusters of power-lusters control everyone else, so that even on high school graduation day, when the trio of friends Asher (Cameron Monaghan), Fiona (Odeya Rush) and heroic Jonas (Brenton Thwaites) are commanded by the state to submit to their assigned vocations ala Anthem by Ayn Rand, as Big Mother (Streep) coos like it’s a guitar mass with kumbaya that “today we honor differences” and really means that We the Ordained dictate what those differences shall be. Watching The Giver is like seeing ObamaCare dramatized – the state dictating winners and losers while denouncing winning and losing – and in this sense it’s fabulously clever filmmaking.

It really is. With deliberation in every scene, the fresh-faced youths bound forth in life with enthusiasm and idealism, eager to live large what they’ve been taught are the four virtues: intelligence, integrity, courage and “the capacity to see beyond [the range of the moment]“. In fact, these are virtues though the kids soon discover that the Female Deity they worship defines each by a standard which may or may not match their own. The ultimate goal of the post-climate controlled society is to fit each individual into the collective. Everyone, it appears, must submit to the group. This means no expressing emotions, no public displays of preference, no identities for infants of questionable value to the greater good – especially males, apparently – it’s a sexless feminist-Puritanical totalitarian regime. There’s no kissing, but at least there’s no porn and nobody’s obese.

Enter masculine, upright Jonas, whose assigned vocation is somewhat murky as the Receiver. The more he learns, at the hands of master Jeff Bridges as the Giver of memories, the more he wants to sense, to experience and to think, know and feel. Of course, with everyone including his mother (Katie Holmes) chanting “we forgive you” like it’s Jonestown, Guyana, and his own friends reminding him that “we need sameness”, the urge to think different poses a problem.

With powerful scenes and images of winter, joyous people in harmony – as against vacant people bound by force – and an image of the lone man who stood against a government tank in Communist China’s Tiananmen Square, the ethereal movie with its conflicted love triangle evokes Gattaca and, faintly, We the Living. As each of the three pure-minded youths faces the choice to sink into submission or rise to defiance, ultimately with Bridges as the Giver and Streep as the Taker of life, The Giver stirs the wise old soul to a knowing, bitter and almost breathtaking resolution.

But unlike its protege, it requires foreknowledge of what a society based on total state control means and it is too vague and unspecific in its beautifully rendered affirmations, which unfortunately include faith as a kind of innocent belief in the good, even though the tyranny of conformity depicted is impossible without widespread submission to belief without evidence. The three young leads are exquisite in their roles (especially Thwaites) and The Giver‘s allegory is a reward, with a well-integrated theme about doubt – Jonas asks “how do I know…?” and eventually the girl assigned as his younger sister stares ahead to no one in particular in open church and dares to ask “how do they know…?” – with lines of real affirmative power always emphasizing the role of free will, free choice and the individual’s right to assert it. The role of a single baby boy, too, the antithesis of what this monstrous anti-life feminist dystopia represents, is crucial and joyful at times to behold.

It is also impossible not to notice in The Giver, and this is one of my favorite aspects of Noyce’s poetic approach to the adaptation, that solitude is treated as sacred to man’s existence. That this comes in conjunction with a man’s unconquered delight at nurturing a child is a rare sight in today’s movies. It’s not enough to give The Giver what it needs the most: an explicit depiction of what the collective does to those who deviate from dictatorship. Still, it’s worth a look for individualists who know better and think ahead.


Robin Williams

RWSadness was unmistakable from the beginning of the remarkable career of Robin Williams, who died from an apparent suicide last night, according to police in the northern California county where he lived. Anyone who remembers his exciting breakthrough in ABC’s Happy Days spinoff, Mork & Mindy (1978), could see it in his eyes. It was in almost everything he did, from his performance as the title character in George Roy Hill’s adaptation of John Irving’s absurdist novel The World According to Garp (1982) to his work in recent years, including TV’s The Crazy Ones. His manic humor usually overshadowed his serious acting ability, on display in everything from Garp to Good Will Hunting (1997) and numerous dramatic roles.

The humor was at his best hilarious, from an appearance on Eight is Enough to his role in Moscow on the Hudson and in any of his TV, film and standup comic performances. He made me laugh out loud for the first time when his character Mork the alien dropped an egg in Mindy’s kitchen and said, “fly, be free!” There are moments of comic genius in nearly all of his work and it’s evident that everyone has a favorite scene or moment as shock and grief are shared throughout social media. Among my favorites are his restaurant interchanges in Chris Columbus’ Mrs. Doubtfire (1993), choreography display in Mike Nichols’ The Birdcage (1996) and his guest spots on The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson. But his ability to capture a tragic sensibility came across in his most indelible roles, for which he ought to be fondly remembered, too: Hook (1991), Good Morning, Vietnam, (1987), Dead Poets Society (1989), Bicentennial Man (1999), August Rush (2007) and one of my favorite pictures about aligning the adult with the childlike, Jumanji (1995). I still think his performance as T.S. Garp, the bastard son of nurse Jenny Fields, is underrated.

As Garp, a quality that might be called his ill-fated, infinite sadness was well deployed and portrayed, with Robin Williams as constant caretaker of prostitutes, transvestites, college students and a Puritanical feminist mother, stalked by deaf mutes and the man-hating Pooh Percy and wry observer of strange, dark and confusing times. In his sleeveless, rainbow down jacket on Mork & Mindy, he made millions of Americans laugh at his intelligent, improvised ridicule of the ridiculous and he kept on for 35 years. He spoke openly about his personal struggles and, as he leaves a wife and children and admirers around the world, Robin Williams’ legacy could be that life, especially its good humor, is driven by that which ought to be taken seriously.