The Meyerowitz Stories (New and Selected)

The word ‘Family’ came into English in the 15th century. As the years passed, many families found themselves in the midst of discord and distrust. And so the term dysfunctional family entered our lexicon many years later.

Amongst the many symptoms that have been used the one that comes most readily to mind is the word ‘conflict’. And many dysfunctional families deal with conflict by:

using criticism, contempt and defensiveness, along with putting up walls and looking for scapegoats.

Now in the world of tv, films, and theatrical dramas – conflict is a major component. As such, dysfunctional families are the meat and potatoes of a lot of what we watch on our various media platforms.

From The Simpsons to the The Sopranos to The Royal Tenenbaums, and from Oscar Winning films like Ordinary People (1980) to American Beauty (1999) – we can’t seem to get enough of these dramas or dramadies.

Lets add the Meyerowitz family to the mix. The film is called The Meyerowitz Stories. It opened in a limited number of theaters in mid October while simultaneously streaming on Netflix. At the head of the family is the patriarch Harold Meyerowitz with Dustin Hoffman taking the role. His claim to fame was more for being a tenured Bard College professor than for his varied art works.  Though if you ask him – he’ll be happy to tell you of the excellence of that art in what can be described quite simply as a very ‘Trumpian’ manner.

He was far less successful in his personal relationships. He fathered 3 children – now all adults – Ben Stiller, Adam Sandler, and Elizabeth Marvel have the roles.  His kids will tell you that each of them has a different mother – meaning that Dad, good old Dad, was divorced 4 times. At which point, Harold will correct who ever said it with – No, I was divorced just 3 times – the other marriage ended with an annulment.

Such is life with Harold Meyerowitz. Currently, Harold dwells with Maureen (played delightfully by Emma Thompson), who seems to be drunk or working towards that state of being most of the time.

Adam Sandler (as Danny) is down on his luck – divorced, jobless, and nearly broke. Ben Stiller, portraying the ‘successful’ brother Matthew, is deeply resented by Danny as apparently Matthew was the apple of Harold’s eye.  I said ‘was’ but ‘still is’ is likely still in play – if you ask me.

Elizabeth Marvel is Harold’s third child, or maybe she was the first. She’s Jean Meyerowitz and she appears to be in a permanent state of depression.  Her role is underwritten and she looks as if her costumer and her make up people turned her on to the set as a female sad-sack. I say that because she just hasn’t enough lines for us to know.

Well the set up of the Meyerowitz Stories is that each of the adult kids will all tell their own version of their stories, as in they each take a turn in narrating. Written and directed by Noah Baumbach, the film has its moments of levity. Truly there’s not a lot of laugh-out-loud moments but at least there’s some.

Hoffman gives a stand out performance and that’s no surprise. All the best lines were written for him.  Stiller is at least competent but he hasn’t much to work with.

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Chef (2014)

There’s a lot to like about Chef. First of all, it is great film if you are someone who likes to cook and enjoy the food experience in all its infinite variations. There’s even a term called food porn used by aficionados of movies about cooking and great food.

It is a buddy film. It is a road film. It is a film that without being about sports – has the likeable ‘sporting motif’ of a successful guy whose career ran off the rails, but he gets his shit together.

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Dustin Hoffman Films – Which Are Your Favorites?

Yesterday I was listening to Terry Gross on her National Public Radio show called Fresh Air. Around this area – Tampa/St.Pete/Bradenton/Sarasota the show airs at 12:00 PM and 7:00 PM. daily – or at least weekdays. The broadcast featured Bryan Cranston who will be forever remembered for his stunning role as Walter White on Breaking Bad. Currently, Cranston is trodding the boards on Broadway as former U.S. President Lyndon B. Johnson in a limited engagement of the play All The Way which was authored by playwright Robert Schenkkan.

A bit further back, I heard a Fresh Air show with Terry Gross talking with Joaquin Phoenix who starred in Spike Jonze’s Her. You’d be amazed when you hear an actor discuss his craft, his methods, and what it takes to be a world-class actor. It is sort of like listening to the man behind the curtain, about whom we have been often told to not pay any attention to, or more accurately, the actor inside the role – in his own words

But it was only last week that I listened to the Fresh Air replay of a broadcast (originally in January of 2013) with actor Dustin Hoffman. Now this post is not going to be only about the Fresh Air interview of Hoffman, nor will I write a lengthy piece about my own interaction with Hoffman because no such event ever happened. Rather I am going to have a look at a few of what I consider my favorite Dustin Hoffman films.

From the first time we saw him as a new college graduate who learned in the same film the magic of the word ‘plastics’ and the wonders of love from Mrs. Robinson – we knew that this actor was going to be something special. And through the years, Hoffman has reflected our own lives on-screen as he aged. From the youthful and innocent Benjamin Braddock in The Graduate to the ancient one, Jack Crabb in Little Big Man, from the street-wise hustler that we remember as Ratso Rizzo in Midnight Cowboy to the damaged yet brilliant Raymond Babbitt in Rain Man, or maybe you recall him as a Pirate known as Captain Hook, a driven investigative reporter in All The President’s Men, or as a husband whose marriage is on the rocks (Kramer vs. Kramer) when hasn’t Dustin Hoffman been a part of our lives with his wonderful performances serving almost as mile-markers for us?

As a comedian in Lenny, or a convict in Papillon, as the tired and slump-shouldered Willy Lomax in Death of a Salesman or as a man known as Babe who seemed perpetually on the run in Marathon Man. or even as a man and a woman while chasing the  dreams of an actor in Tootsie – Hoffman has always intrigued us with his skills, beguiled us with his talents, or energized us with his drive. 

The word 'plastics' did not come up in this scene. Instead we heard - You're trying to seduce me...

The word ‘plastics’ did not come up in this scene. Instead we heard – You’re trying to seduce me…aren’t you?

The 1960’s:

Dustin began his film career in a barely noticed small role in The Tiger Makes Out in 1967. But Hoffman got a seat on the rocket to stardom in his very next role, which was also a 1967 release, as Benjamin Braddock in The Graduate directed by Mike Nichols. In 1967, Hoffman was 29-30 years old yet he gave an Oscar nominated performance as a young (21 year-old) college graduate just drifting along.

That was 47 years ago. But before that, if you lived in New York in the early sixties, you may have dined at a restaurant and your waiter might have been Dustin Hoffman, Gene Hackman, or Robert Duvall. They all knew each other in those days as they all were struggling young actors waiting on tables as they lived the ‘actor’s life’ and waited for the next big thing which was a part in a film. On The Fresh Air show Hoffman quoted himself from that time:

Sir, How is your salmon?

The 1970’s:

Dustin Hoffman headlined with Robert Redford in All The President’s Men. His role was that of the Washington Post reporter Carl Bernstein. While personally Hoffman didn’t carry home any Oscars for All The President’s Men, the film walked off with 4 Oscars out of eight nominations. Check out this clip from Turner Classic Movies:

The 70’s were Mr. Hoffman’s best decade as a film actor. Besides All The President’s Men, Hoffman performed in eight other Oscar nominated films in this decade. Think of it – 9 Oscar nominated films in one decade by a single actor. The mind boggles.

The 1980’s: Continue reading

HBO’s Series: Luck – Episode 9 – The Series Ends

When a series gets cancelled – it is usually because the show wasn’t very good – or it was decent but failed to attract viewers. Sometimes the creative people lose their mojo, or their steam – or they even have their creative juices just dry up. The again, a show can be pulled, and it may be none of the above.

Hell, no one is perfect. Not even me. I predicted a cliff hanger. And that’s exactly what we got. Only not the one I expected. I had said that the race was where they’d leave us dangling until season 2. Well, the race was run, to a terrific nail-biting conclusion, and dang it, I was so surprised that it was as exciting as any real race that I had ever watched, or wagered on.

In the case of the HBO Series Luck, the unfortunate deaths of three of the horses used in the production became a hot-button topic requiring public scrutiny, the wringing of hands, and a general hue and cry was voiced by PETA.  After which the Producers decided to suspend production of Season 2, and end the Series with just the 9 episodes of Season 1. The finale was just broadcast last night and I will really miss not seeing more of this series on a continuing basis.

A few new characters were introduced – Renzo’s Mom for one, Ace’s grand-son for a second, and a nasty looking assassin hired to take out Ace in the men’s room of an eatery as a third. Turns out that Renzo’s Mom was played by Mercedes Ruehl who also played Vincent Chase’s Mom in Entourage. Ruehl made her first appearance in this season ending episode, and was scheduled to play a recurring role in Season 2.

As was young Jake Hoffman who showed up as Ace’s grandson Brent Bernstein. The young Hoffman is producer Dustin Hoffman’s real life son. But what ever role the grandson was to take on in the second season, is something I can’t discuss beside commentating that Brent probably would have been brought in so Mike Smythe could some how corral him and use that to try to somehow leverage Ace.

The aforementioned assassin met more than his match with the sharp-eyed Gus Demitriou played by the always great Dennis Farina. Gus was not only Ace’s friend, driver, beard, and major-domo. He was also Ace’s bodyguard. We knew Gus was a tough dude – but we had no idea that his tactical and strategic awareness meshed so perfectly with his ability to kill another man with his bare-hands.

Besides the fact that Gus saved Ace’s life – we had a good many happy endings to close out the first (and only) season. And yet there’s some story lines which were purposely left dangling for the now not forthcoming second season.

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HBO TV Series: Luck Episode 8 – Racing Toward Oblivion

Episode 8 of the HBO Series Luck was rolled out last night. For the first time, since the series began, I thought that an episode was not just bungled, but bungled badly. In Episode Eight one of the few highlights was the horse race.

Ronny Jenkins, the jockey known for substance abuse, was up on a horse. The Foray Stable guys had wagered on him, or at least talked about the horse. Jenkins’ horse broke out of the gate well and as they raced through the clubhouse turn heading for the backstretch, Jenkins settled into a comfortable lead. Down the back stretch, Jenkins sat still, and eventually the pack gained ground. As they passed the quarter pole deep into the far turn, it looked like Jenkins had let his horse run out of steam while on the lead. Approaching the 1/8th pole, Jenkins, clucking into the horse’s ear, gave the horse a hand urging, and like the horse was a race car – he just accelerated away from the pack chasing him.

He won easily by about six lengths. When questioned later on by Leon, Jenkins said the trick was to “… nurse my horse on the lead; put ’em to sleep behind me.

Well played Mr. Jenkins. Too bad the producers, director Allen Coulter, and the writers David Milch and John R. Perrotta followed the lead of one their own characters – and put us to sleep with the worst episode of the season.

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Luck (TV Series)

Welcome back to Part II of my discussion about HBO’s new series, Luck. It seems that ‘Luck’ is a very apt title for this series.

Set amid the splendors of the Santa Anita racetrack and environs, there’s a lot going on besides horse racing. The view might be from a private box high up above the track in the clubhouse area of the stands, or we might find ourselves down at ground level with the railbirds. We could be at a Southern California poker club, or maybe in a hot sheet motel. Maybe we are in the pre-race paddock with all the owners, or maybe we are back in shedrow, watching a stablehand muck out a stall.

In short you never know where you’re going to be next. Whether you’re riding high, like a jockey who just won a Grade I stakes race, or your hugging the ground because you just lost a huge wager at the track, the ride isn’t always smooth – and that’s why when referencing the sport of kings (horse racing) they call it gambling. Or in this case Luck.

Writer/producer David Milch has a long track record (no pun intended) of successful television productions. His partner Michael Mann has succeeded in both television and film. While Mann knew nothing about horse racing, Milch has lived and enjoyed the adrenalin rush that one gets from betting on the horses. How and why they paired up for Luck is something I can’t tell you. Nor will I do the series an injustice by telling you what has happened in the first two episodes. No spoilers today! Instead I’ll give a run down of some of the folks you’re going to encounter in the series.

Chester ‘Ace’ Bernstein: This is Dustin Hoffman. As he describes himself, “I’m a fucking felon.” He’s also an ex-con. He’s released from jail at the very beginning of the first episode. From what we can tell, Ace is a stand-up guy, meaning he did the time rather than roll over and give up his ‘acquaintances’ or should I say co-conspirators. He’s not to be confused with DeNiro who played the casino big-shot Sam ‘Ace’ Rothstein in the Scorsese drama Casino. I’m not sure, because Milch and Mann are only letting the story about Bernstein out very slowly – but maybe Vegas is going to be a part of Luck.

Gus Demitriou: Played by Dennis Farina, he’s Ace Bernstein’s driver, majordomo, and his beard. This means that Bernstein is barred by law (as a felon) from participating in certain kinds of business ventures. So he bankrolls Demitriou who becomes the front owner (in name only because Bernstein makes the calls and pulls the strings).

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I can remember when HBO was known for showing the pay-per-views of Championship boxing matches – and not much else. After The Sopranos, Boardwalk Empire, Band of Brothers, John Adams, Six Feet Under, Deadwood, and The Wire – that perspective has drastically changed for the better.

These days, HBO is more than just a rival of the broadcast networks. If anything, I think HBO has run right on past those behemoths, and now HBO sees the big box stores of TV in their rear-view mirror.

Beginning this Sunday, January 29th, HBO launches a brand new, 9 episode series called Luck. The pilot aired 6 weeks ago on December 11th, and the comments weren’t very pretty.

I’m hoping that the pedigree of the makers of this series along with the great cast will result in some necessary improvements and will propel the series into becoming a ‘must see’.

On another level, I’ve been to the races myself quite often. Now that I am in Florida, and aren’t living anywhere near NY’s Belmont Park and Aqueduct Race Track, I don’t get to go at all – so that’s another reason why I am interested in this production.

What’s it About: If you start with luck, which we all have (in one form or another) and extend it out to gambling, we can then safely find ourselves at the racetrack, and by that I mean where horses race and people wager on the outcome of those races. In California that would mean Santa Anita, Hollywood Park, or Del Mar. The Series Luck is about the crossing or intersection of lives in and around horse racing and the world of gambling around one specific track, and in this series, that would be Santa Anita. Those folks would be bettors who might be celebrities or just plain folks, owners of the horses, trainers, jockeys, stable hands, vets, the media who provide coverage of the races, and all that goes with trying to win money by betting on the ponies.

Who’s In It: The headliner is Dustin Hoffman in his very first regular role in a TV series. You could argue that he was in a series once before, but that was Tootsie, and that was a movie about a TV series. Here he plays Chester ‘Ace’ Bernstein.

Dennis Farina plays Bernstein’s driver Gus Demitriou. Not sure why he was cast as a Greek, but he’s got plenty of charisma, and he’s got oodles of talent. Farina starred in the TV Series Crime Story, and was seen in 46 episodes of Law & Order as Detective Joe Fontana. His most famous role was that of the gangster Joey Serrano in the film Midnight Run.

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Barney’s Version

What starts out as the biography of a scumbag turns out to be something else entirely. Oh this is not to say that Barney wasn’t a scumbag at times [I’m pounding the nail with everything I have], or that he wasn’t obnoxious at times [I’m lightening up a bit], or, [now I’m just being kind] that he wasn’t usually and most often intentionally politically incorrect. Of course he was all of those things.

Barney’s Version stars Paul Giamatti. Barney’s full moniker is Barney Panofsky – and in the role, he’s from Montreal, and is a Canadian Jew. He’s the son of an ex-cop, one Izzy Panofsky who is played with flair, panache, and plenty of acting chutzpah [I’m Intentionally avoiding alliteration here] by Dustin Hoffman. You might think that Hoffman stole every scene he was in. He’s that good.

The film was adapted by screenwriter Michael Konyves from Mordecai Richler’s novel and directed by Richard J. Lewis. You may recall that another of Richler’s novels set in the rich milieu of Montreal’s Jews, was The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz, a 1974 film, pre-Jaws, that helped put Richard Dreyfuss on the actors’ map where he would be noticed by a certain Mr.  Spielberg.

To give you an idea of what Barney was like – I’ll quote the tag line of the film: First he got married. Then he got married again. Then he met the love of his life.

Does that help you get an image of Barney in your mind? How about this – the film opens with a guy drinking a scotch, smoking a cigar, and making a phone call:

Blair (just awakened from sleep): [he awakes  with a wobbly and barely audible] Hello?

Barney: Blair – I’d like to speak to my wife …

Blair: Oh Barney – it’s 3:00 o’clock in the morning –

Barney: Put my wife on the phone

Blair: She’s not your wife and I’m not waking her –

Barney: Well then, just ask her what she wants me to do with all these nude photos I have of her? Come to think of it, you might want them yourself, if only just to see what Miriam looked like in her prime – [click – Blair has hung up].

Barney looks quite pleased with himself. The next morning Barney gets a phone call from his grown daughter from his marriage to Miriam, and we hear that Blair had suffered a heart attack last night shortly after 3:30 AM.

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Last Chance Harvey

Recently I watched a film that opened on Christmas Day. Not this past Christmas of less than a month ago. No, this was from Christmas Day 2008. The film was a love story and starred Dustin Hoffman and Emma Thompson. The movie had two taglines.

The first was: It’s about first loves, last chances and everything in between.

And the second was: When it comes to love, is it ever too late to take a chance?

So you should not be surprised that the title was: Last Chance Harvey.

My brother seemed to prefer labeling this film a rom-com, while I thought it was more aptly labeled a romance with dramatic elements. But this is not a matter of right or wrong as certainly there was humor in the bantering between Thompson’s Kate Walker and Hoffman’s Harvey Shine.

Early on, Director Joel Hopkins cross-cuts between Harvey, a writer of music jingles for TV commercials, and Kate, employed as a section chief by an airline’s customer service department that solicits opinions of the airline’s services from arriving passengers. Continue reading