CLOSE

5 Movies You Should See in Theaters Now

Rarely, if ever, have there been five movies in simultaneous release that I would enthusiastically recommend to anyone, even in the midst of the annual holiday slew of prestige Oscar hopefuls. This year is different.

The Wrestler

This is a rare film indeed. Written by former Onion scribe Robert Siegel, the script isn't at all what you'd expect from a comic genius: in Siegel's own words, it's "20% comedy, 80% darkness." Directed by hyperkinetic auteur Darren Aronofsky (Pi, Requiem for a Dream), it's an unusually restrained and naturalistic outing for a filmmaker known for quick cuts and visual tricks. The movie works on a curiously satisfying meta-narrative level that no one could've planned for, but worked out beautifully: it's the story of a washed-up professional wrestler called Randy "the Ram" Robinson, barely eking out a living 20 years after his prime, willing his body to continue taking punishment in the ring that it can no longer withstand because the ring is the only place the Ram feels like himself. In a bit of brilliant casting, the Ram is played by Mickey Rourke, himself a (formerly) washed-up actor, the conventional wisdom about whom is that he's 20 years past his prime, and who in the early 1990s quit acting to re-start an old career as a professional boxer. If Rouke doesn't look quite like he used to, well, neither does the Ram, and both of them have been hit in the face many, many times.

It's my favorite film of the year. Check out the trailer. Bruce Springsteen doesn't write an original song for just any old movie.

Doubt

I saw Doubt on Broadway. It was, and still is, the best play I've ever seen; critics agreed, showering it, and its star Cherry Jones, with Tony awards. (Fun fact: when Cherry came to Los Angeles, she stayed in the apartment across the hall from me. Besides being a great actress, she's an incredibly nice person.) When I heard they were making a movie of Doubt, I was skeptical that anyone, even Meryl Streep, could fill the shoes of Cherry's role the way she did. Also, filmed adaptations of theatrical productions are full of pitfalls, the most obvious one being that people sitting in a room talking for two hours tends not to be very cinematic. Though the film wasn't quite as good as the play, in my humble estimation, it was close enough; Streep's performance is powerful, if markedly different than Cherry's, and the unfancy direction doesn't get in the way of the fantastic writing. I wish there were clips of Cherry's performance on YouTube; instead, here's the trailer for the film:

Frost/Nixon

It's definitely unusual for there to be two -- good -- adaptations of Broadway productions in release at the same time. For my money, Frost/Nixon is the better of the two, largely because it retains its Broadway cast in the filmed adaptation. Michael Sheen and Frank Langella play David Frost and Richard Nixon, respectively, who met for an astounding 30 hours' worth of interviews not long after Nixon left office. It was billed as "the trial Nixon never got." Going in, I had no idea how director Ron Howard and writer Peter Morgan (who wrote the play as well as 2006's The Queen) were going to make a movie about two people sitting in chairs opposite one another interesting -- but it was riveting. The stakes couldn't have been higher: Nixon was defending his reputation, and Frost, a popular talk show host who had never been taken seriously in journalistic circles, staked his entire career on the gambit. The performances are amazing, the story fascinating and, always a bonus for flossy moviegoers like myself, it's all true.

Slumdog Millionaire

A fascinating hybrid of genres and cultures, Slumdog is based on an Indian novel, directed with great flair by Englishman Danny Boyle (Trainspotting, 28 Days Later), shot in English and Hindi and set in colorful, rollicking Mumbai. It's the story of a street kid from Mumbai named Jamal who, at the beginning of the movie, is being tortured by a TV producer who suspects he cheated on the Indian version of Who Wants to Be A Millionaire? Jamal swears he hasn't cheated, and tells the amazing story of his life in flashbacks as he explains to the producer how he knew the answer to every question on the show. It's a great story with an amazing structure, executed perfectly. It'll certainly be in contention for some Oscars this year -- see it!

Milk

I think the Best Actor Oscar this year is going to be a dead heat between Mickey Rourke, for his impressive return to form in The Wrestler, and Sean Penn, for his lively, heartbreaking turn as murdered activist and politician Harvey Milk. Fans of the blog may know Harvey Milk best from his association with the notorious "Twinkie defense" -- lawyers for Milk's assassin, fellow San Fransisco Supervisor Dan White, got his sentence reduced from murder to involuntary manslaughter by noting that the normally health-conscious White had not been himself before the killings, and had taken to drinking great volumes of Coca-cola and eating junk food. Also, in another example of meta-narrative magic, Milk was released just as California's prop 8 controversy was heating up, making much of the film's 70s-era fight for gay rights seem downright contemporary.

Original image
Family Communications Inc./Getty Images
arrow
Pop Culture
The Sweet Surprise Reunion Mr. Rogers Never Saw Coming
Original image
Family Communications Inc./Getty Images

For more than 30 years, legendary children’s show host Fred Rogers used his PBS series Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood to educate his young viewers on concepts like empathy, sharing, and grief. As a result, he won just about every television award he was eligible for, some of them many times over.

Rogers was gracious in accepting each, but according to those who were close to the host, one honor in particular stood out. It was March 11, 1999, and Rogers was being inducted into the Television Academy Hall of Fame, an offshoot of the Emmy Awards. Just before being called to the stage, out came a surprise.

The man responsible for the elation on Rogers’s face was Jeff Erlanger, a 29-year-old from Madison, Wisconsin who became a quadriplegic at a young age after undergoing spinal surgery to remove a tumor. Rogers was surprised because Erlanger had appeared on his show nearly 20 years prior in 1980 to help kids understand how people with physical challenges adapt to life’s challenges. Here's his first encounter with the host:

Reunited on stage after two decades, Erlanger referred to the song, “It’s You I Like,” which the two sang during their initial meeting. “On behalf of millions of children and grown-ups,” Erlanger said, “it’s you I like.” The audience, including a visibly moved Candice Bergen, rose to their feet to give both men a standing ovation.

Following Erlanger’s death in 2007, Hedda Sharapan, an employee with Rogers’s production company, called their poignant scene “authentic” and “unscripted,” and that Rogers often pointed to it as his favorite moment from the series.

Near the end of the original segment in 1980, as Erlanger drives his wheelchair off-camera, Rogers waves goodbye and offers a departing message: “I hope you’ll come back to visit again.”

Original image
© 2002 Twentieth Century Fox
arrow
entertainment
20 Things You Might Not Have Known About Firefly
Original image
© 2002 Twentieth Century Fox

As any diehard fan will be quick to tell you, Firefly's run was far, far too short. Despite its truncated run, the show still offers a wealth of fun facts and hidden Easter eggs. On the 15th anniversary of the series' premiere, we're looking back at the sci-fi series that kickstarted a Browncoat revolution.

1. A CIVIL WAR NOVEL INSPIRED THE FIREFLY UNIVERSE.

The Pulitzer Prize-winning novel The Killer Angels from author Michael Shaara was Joss Whedon’s inspiration for creating Firefly. It follows Union and Confederate soldiers during four days at the Battle of Gettysburg during the American Civil War. Whedon modeled the series and world on the Reconstruction Era, but set in the future.

2. ORIGINALLY, THE SERENITY CREW INCLUDED JUST FIVE MEMBERS.

When Whedon first developed Firefly, he wanted Serenity to only have five crew members. However, throughout development and casting, Whedon increased the cast from five to nine.

3. REBECCA GAYHEART WAS ORIGINALLY CAST TO PLAY INARA.

Getty Images

Before Morena Baccarin was cast as Inara Serra, Rebecca Gayheart landed the role—but she was fired after one day of shooting because she lacked chemistry with the rest of the cast. Baccarin was cast two days later and started shooting that day.

4. NEIL PATRICK HARRIS WAS ALMOST DR. SIMON TAM.

Getty Images

Before it went to Sean Maher, Neil Patrick Harris auditioned for the role of Dr. Simon Tam.

5. JOSS WHEDON WROTE THE THEME SONG.

Whedon wrote the lyrics and music for Firefly’s opening theme song, “The Ballad of Serenity.”

6. STAR WARS SPACECRAFT APPEAR IN FIREFLY.

Star Wars was a big influence on Whedon. Captain Malcolm Reynolds somewhat resembles Han Solo, while Whedon used the Millennium Falcon as inspiration to create Serenity. In fact, you can spot a few spacecraft from George Lucas's magnum opus on the show.

When Inara’s shuttle docks with Serenity in the pilot episode, an Imperial Shuttle can be found flying in the background. In the episode “Shindig,” you can see a Starlight Intruder as the crew lands on the planet Persephone.

7. HAN SOLO FROZEN IN CARBONITE POPS UP THROUGHOUT FIREFLY.

YouTube

Nathan Fillion is a big Han Solo fan, so the Firefly prop department made a 12-inch replica of Han Solo encased in Carbonite for the Canadian-born actor. You can see the prop in the background in a number of scenes.

8. ALIEN'S WEYLAND-YUTANI CORPORATION MADE AN APPEARANCE.

In Firefly’s pilot episode, the opening scene features the legendary Battle of Serenity Valley between the Browncoats and The Union of Allied Planets. Captain Malcolm Reynolds takes control of a cannon with a Weyland-Yutani logo inside of its display. Weyland-Yutani is the large conglomerate corporation in the Alien film franchise. (Whedon wrote Alien: Resurrection in 1997.)

9. ZAC EFRON'S ACTING DEBUT WAS ON FIREFLY.

A 13-year-old Zac Efron made his acting debut in the episode “Safe” in 2002. He played Young Simon in a flashback.

10. CAPTAIN MALCOLM REYNOLDS'S HORSE IS A WESTERN TROPE.

At its core, Firefly is a sci-fi western—and Malcolm Reynolds rides the same horse on every planet (it's named Fred).

11. FOX AIRED FIREFLY'S EPISODES OUT OF ORDER.

Fox didn’t feel Firefly’s two-hour pilot episode was strong enough to air as its first episode. Instead, “The Train Job” was broadcast first because it featured more action and excitement. The network continued to cherry-pick episodes based on broad appeal rather than story consistency, and eventually aired the pilot as the show’s final episode.

12. THE ALLIANCE'S ORIGINS ARE AMERICAN AND CHINESE.

The full name of The Alliance is The Anglo-Sino Alliance. Whedon envisioned The Alliance as a merger of American and Chinese government and corporate superpowers. The Union of Allied Planets’ flag is a blending of the American and Chinese national flags.

13. THE SERENITY LOUNGE SERVED AS AN ACTUAL LOUNGE.

Between set-ups and shots, the cast would hang out in the lounge on the Serenity set rather than trailers or green rooms.

14. INARA SERRA'S NAME IS MESOPOTAMIAN.

Getty Images

Inara Serra is named after the Mesopotamian Hittite goddess, the protector of all wild animals.

15. THE CHARACTERS SWORE (JUST NOT IN ENGLISH).

The Firefly universe is a mixture of American and Chinese culture, which made it easy for writers to get around censors by having characters swear in Chinese.

16. THE UNIFORMS ARE RECYCLED FROM STARSHIP TROOPERS.

Sony Pictures Home Entertainment

The uniforms for Alliance officers and soldiers were the costumes from the 1997 science fiction film Starship Troopers. The same costumes were repurposed again for the Starship Troopers sequel.

17. "SUMMER!" MEANS SOMEONE MESSED UP.

Every time a cast member flubbed one of his or her lines, they would yell Summer Glau’s name. This was a running gag among the cast after Glau forgot her lines in the episode “Objects In Space.”

18. THE SERENITY SPACESHIP WAS BUILT TO SCALE.

The interior of Serenity was built entirely to scale; rooms and sections were completely contiguous. The ship’s interior was split into two stages, one for the upper deck and one for the lower. Whedon showed off the Firefly set in one long take to open the Serenity movie.

19. "THE MESSAGE" SHOULD HAVE BEEN THE SHOW'S FAREWELL.

Although “The Message” was the twelfth episode, it was the last episode filmed during Firefly’s short run. Composer Greg Edmonson wrote a piece of music for a funeral scene in the episode, which served as a final farewell to the show. Sadly, it was one of three episodes (the other two were “Trash” and “Heart of Gold”) that didn’t air during Firefly’s original broadcast run on Fox.

20. FIREFLY AND SERENITY WERE SENT TO THE INTERNATIONAL SPACE STATION.

American Astronaut Steven Ray Swanson is a big fan of Firefly, so when he was sent to the International Space Station for his first mission (STS-117) in 2007, he brought DVD copies of Firefly and its feature film Serenity aboard with him. The DVDs are now a permanent part of the space station’s library.

This post originally appeared in 2014.

SECTIONS

arrow
LIVE SMARTER
More from mental floss studios