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7 Great Survival Stories

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This has been a banner year for stories of survival, including the excellent film “All Is Lost,” starring Robert Redford. These tales, whether in movies or the printed word, bring us to the brink of what it means to be human. Are we reckless? Resilient? Reflective? Yes to all three. In any case, here are seven terrific stories of trying to survive. No spoilers here, but I will point out that some of the protagonists live and some of them die. What they have in common is that all of them put up a fight.

GRAVITY

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A dazzling, seat-of-the-pants adventure, “Gravity” has grabbed tons of attention – and deservedly so. The special effects are stunning, the central performance by Sandra Bullock is perfect and there’s not one wasted moment in the film. Like many survival yarns, it offers something beyond the notion of trying to stay alive. In this case, Bullock’s plucky astronaut is grieving the loss of her daughter as she tries to dodge shards of floating space debris.

TO BUILD A FIRE

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This classic short story by Jack London was published in 1908, and it is as riveting now as it must have been back then. With no frills and an almost clinical attention to detail, it is the story of a man who sets out with his dog near the Yukon Trail on a day much too cold for safe travel. The temperatures are 75 degrees below zero, and dropping. Every decision, good and bad, has immediate consequences, which gives the story a chilling clarity.

CAST AWAY

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Here we have survival as transformation – a common theme in this List. Tom Hanks is his usual, charismatic self as a guy stranded on a desert island. He endures only to the extent that his knowledge and will allow him – but is that enough? Why does survival matter? What is the point of existence? If only there was a bloody soccer ball around to tell us.

127 HOURS

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Based on a true story, “127 Hours” stars James Franco as a fun-loving adventurer whose hand becomes wedged between immovable rocks during a solo climbing trip. The inner journey takes center stage, as this man takes stock of his young life and considers what he is willing to do to stay alive.

LEININGEN VERSUS THE ANTS

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To some extent, hubris is the subtext of many of these stories. That’s certainly the case with the short story, “Leiningen Versus the Ants,” written by Carl Stephenson and published in 1938. Leiningen is a swaggering plantation owner in Brazil, who decides to stand his ground against a miles-long army of hungry ants. His true enemy, one he valiantly combats, is panic. If the plot sounds familiar, it may be because the story was made into a 1954 movie, “The Naked Jungle,” starring Charlton Heston.

BURIED

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Unlikely premise, but an interesting movie. Ryan Reynolds plays a man buried alive in a coffin, trying to get out. He’s got his cell phone, so it should be no problem – except that he doesn’t know where he is. Gulp.

ALL IS LOST

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I can’t say enough about the extraordinary work Redford does in “All is Lost.” All alone on a sailboat on the Indian Ocean, Redford lets his iconic face do the talking as a freaky accident sets in motion a brutal chain of events. The movie is heartbreaking and inspiring, without caving in to unnecessary sentiment.

I limited myself here to singular survival tales. Any good ones I left out?

Horror Movies – If They Were Set in Washington, D.C.

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In honor of Halloween, The Jimbo List has compiled a monster mash-up of two terrifying things: horror movies and government. Be afraid. Be very afraid.

INVASION OF THE BUDGET SNATCHERS

PLAN 9 FROM OBAMACARE

EVIL DEADLOCK

CREATURE FROM THE PAC LAGOON

HOUSE OF WHACKS

TEA PARTY OF TERROR

BRIDE OF FRANKEN

THE ENMITYVILLE HORROR

COULTERGEIST

SMARMY OF DARKNESS

LET THE RIGHT ONE IN (TO READ YOUR EMAIL & LISTEN TO YOUR PHONE CALLS)

SUBCOMMITTEE OF THE DAMNED

CRUZILLA

FRIDAY THE 13TH FILIBUSTER

PHANTOM OF THE OP-ED

This is why C-SPAN is so frightening. Happy Halloween.

7 Movies with Obsessed NFL Fans

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Here we are at the first Sunday of the NFL season, and the excitement is running pretty high. It’s a beautiful thing. As we await the festivities, take a look at these films featuring characters who take their pro football VERY seriously.

DINER (1982)

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Great, great movie with an amazing cast, including Mickey Rourke, Kevin Bacon, Daniel Stern, Tim Daly, Ellen Barkin and Paul Reiser. It’s set in Baltimore, where one of the characters, Eddie (played by Steve Guttenberg) makes his girlfriend take a written quiz on the Baltimore Colts before he’ll marry her! I love how seriously everyone takes it, even though they understand on some level that it’s nuts.

BIG FAN (2009)

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Patton Oswalt dives into the crazy end of the pool as “Paul from Staten Island,” who loves his New York Giants and makes frequent calls to a sports radio station. Things do not go well for Paul when he encounters his favorite player making a drug deal. The movie doesn’t flinch in dealing with obsession and delusional behavior – but it also gets the intensity of sports fandom right.

SILVER LININGS PLAYBOOK (2012)

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For me, the Solatano clan in “Silver Linings Playbook” is the gold standard for NFL fans in movies. These folks live and die with their beloved Philadelphia Eagles. Robert DeNiro’s dad character is essentially a walking set of Sunday superstitions, which any NFL fan completely understands. One of my favorite scenes in this movie involves Jennifer Lawrence setting DeNiro straight on both his Eagles knowledge and the nature of jinxes. Crabby snacks and homemades for everyone!

JERRY MAGUIRE (1996)

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One of the underrated things about this much-quoted movie is Regina King’s performance as the wife of an NFL player (Cuba Gooding, Jr.). She follows every play as if her husband’s life depended on it, which it does.

PAPER LION (1968)

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Alan Alda (that’s right) plays a writer for Sports Illustrated who attempts to understand the game from a new perspective by posing as a quarterback for the Detroit Lions. What’s truly wild about this is that it’s based on the true story of George Plimpton’s famous book, also called “Paper Lion.” Real NFL player Alex Karras, who later became a successful actor, plays himself here.

BUFFALO 66 (1998)

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This one is most definitely not for everybody. Vincent Gallo’s gritty film is about a guy who gets out of prison, kidnaps a woman and forces her to pretend to be his wife during a visit to see his parents. How does the NFL factor into it? Well, Gallo’s horrifying parents (Angelica Huston and Ben Gazzara) are huge Buffalo Bills fans. They even named their son Billy, after the team, and have a picture of O.J. Simpson among the family photos. As if that weren’t enough, the plot involves Billy’s desire for revenge against a Bills kicker who missed a crucial field goal in the playoffs.

A CHRISTMAS STORY (1983)

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A personal favorite, because it accurately reveals the love-hate relationship you can have with your team. Darren McGavin plays a rough-around-the-edges Dad in northern Indiana in about 1940, dealing with the usual car problems, home repairs and odd neighbors. There’s a classic scene where the mom character knows exactly how to break up some possible tension at the family dinner table: mention that the Chicago Bears are playing the Green Bay Packers on Sunday. It immediately sends McGavin into a sarcastic meditation on his “Monsters of the Midway.”

That’s all for now, sports fans. Are you ready for some football?

 

Ben Affleck as Batman? 7 Things to Look For

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Social media is buzzing with the news that Ben Affleck has been cast as the new Batman in an upcoming movie featuring the Caped Crusader and Superman. The staff at The Jimbo List simply cannot wait to see how this plays out. Here are some things to look for:

THE NEW BAT SIGNAL IS A RED SOX LOGO

ALAN ARKIN AND JOHN GOODMAN WILL BE CAST AS COMMISSIONER GORDON AND CHIEF O’HARA

ACTING CONFUSED AS BRUCE WAYNE? NO PROBLEM

THE JOKER WILL TORTURE HIM BY MAKING HIM WATCH ‘GIGLI’

HE KEEPS ASKING THE PEOPLE OF GOTHAM CITY IF HE LOOKS TOUGHER THAN CLOONEY

UTILITY BELT WILL INCLUDE COMPARTMENTS FOR HIS OSCARS

DEMANDS THAT MATT DAMON CALL HIM ‘THE BATMAN’ EVEN AT HOME

This could be good.

Old Folks in Road Movies

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There’s a built-in poignancy about road movies involving codgers. Either they’re retracing footsteps of an embattled past, or they’re journeying into unknown territory in defiance of age and expectation. Either way, it can be engrossing to watch.

JACK NICHOLSON IN “ABOUT SCHMIDT”

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In “About Schmidt,” Jack Nicholson hits the road as a deeply ordinary man forced to question pretty much everything about how he’s lived his life. There are some very funny moments in RVs and a hot tub, but the overriding sense of sadness is strong. “About Schmidt” also boasts one of the most unusual choices for an ending that I’ve ever seen.

JANE DARWELL IN “THE GRAPES OF WRATH”

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It’s all there in her wonderful face: pain, fear, disappointment, resolve. Based on John Steinbeck’s great novel of Okies fleeing the dustbowl during the Depression, Darwell’s performance is rooted in a tragic, almost mystical view of travel as survival. She isn’t on the road seeking redemption or guidance. She wants to find a place for her family to live.

ALAN ARKIN IN “LITTLE MISS SUNSHINE”

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How great is this movie? Mr. Arkin’s work, in particular, is excellent. He takes a stock character, the cranky old guy, and knows exactly when to play him loud and when to play him soft. Road movies are always about the interior transformations and emotional movements, and “Little Miss Sunshine” wisely uses Arkin as a major catalyst.

ART CARNEY IN “HARRY AND TONTO”

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Art Carney won an Oscar as Harry, a philosophical widower tossed out of his New York City apartment. He roams the country with his cat, Tonto. Although this film has a few too many contrivances, it’s also undeniably moving. It makes a firm argument that loss and change can be accompanied by new experiences and new friendships.

JAMES EARL JONES IN “FIELD OF DREAMS”

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The great James Earl Jones isn’t the star of “Field of Dreams,” but his presence enlivens it immeasurably. His road from sarcastic skepticism to ardent belief in Kevin Costner’s quest is what gives the movie some zip at exactly the right moment.

GERALDINE PAGE IN “TRIP TO BOUNTIFUL”

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Page is heartbreaking in “Trip to Bountiful.” She plays an older woman, living with her shrill daughter-in-law and henpecked son, who wants to see her childhood home one last time. So she sneaks away and takes the bus. It’s such a quiet, winning performance; Page won a well-deserved Oscar for it.

RICHARD FARNSWORTH IN “THE STRAIGHT STORY”

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I’ll readily admit that I’d have been willing to plunk down full price to see and hear Richard Farnsworth recite the ingredients in soup. His manner had the simplicity and beauty of deep, still water. In “The Straight Story,” he plays a man who sets out on a riding lawnmower to visit his estranged brother, who lives in another state. It’s both boring and riveting, if that makes any sense.

And now, the Jimbo List is going to take a two-week break. Safe travels to one and all.

Superfluous Singers in Movies

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For some reason, a lot of movie folks believe a good way to bring people into the theater is to plop a famous singer into the proceedings. Sometimes this works out quite well, such as when Barbra Streisand stars in “Funny Girl,” or when Justin Timberlake appears in “The Social Network.” But often it stinks.

TAYLOR SWIFT IN “VALENTINE’S DAY”

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In a film overcrowded with actors trying to work out various romantic entanglements, Swift’s contribution is exactly nil. Her subplot involves another acting lightweight (who doesn’t have a singing and songwriting career to fall back on), Taylor Lautner.

TRINI LOPEZ IN “THE DIRTY DOZEN”

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This didn’t work on any level. Lopez, a nice, amiable guy, was cast as part of a rotten, violent crew of deranged soldiers on a suicide mission. And then, he didn’t really have anything to do during the movie. His acting wasn’t anything to write home about either. He made Clint Walker look like Olivier.

BEYONCE IN “AUSTIN POWERS IN GOLDMEMBER”

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The great singer Beyonce isn’t a particularly good actress, but in all honesty, she wasn’t given much help in this comedy by the ever-inventive Mike Myers. Her dialogue was wretched and there was absolutely no attempt to create chemistry with Myers. I suspect Dr. Evil had a hand in it.

JAMES TAYLOR IN “TWO LANE BLACKTOP”

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“Two Lane Blacktop” has a legion of fans, and I understand why. Its atmospherics and vibe are uniquely compelling. It suits its early 1970s era. But I would argue that it would have worked just as well or better without Taylor (or co-star Dennis Wilson of the Beach Boys). The dialogue was minimal and the characters had a laconic, empty feel to them. I know, I know – that was the point. Still, you didn’t need pop stars to accomplish it.

SNOOP LION IN “STARSKY & HUTCH”

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Aside from having Snoop wear some truly hilarious 1970s clothing, “Starsky & Hutch” didn’t give the illustrious rapper a reason to shine. I thought his TV commercials with Lee Iacocca were a lot funnier – and more intelligent.

JESSICA SIMPSON IN “THE DUKES OF HAZZARD”

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Admittedly, you’re not going to get new insights into the human condition by playing sexy Daisy Dukes. But it’s possible to at least be funny or knowingly sarcastic. Poor Jessica Simpson didn’t really have the chops to do either.

BOB DYLAN IN “PAT GARRETT AND BILLY THE KID”

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In a way, this was a perfect situation for Dylan to do some screen acting. Think about it. A 1970s, counter-culture take on the Old West almost requires a mumbling, awkward, self-conscious performance. Mission accomplished.

PHIL COLLINS IN “HOOK”

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Collins has had some stage training, so it’s not quite so unusual to see him in a movie. The odd thing is this particular role. It’s just a cameo, and a distracting one at that. Making it even worse is that “Hook” requires some attention to detail in order to follow the liberties taken with the Peter Pan story. The last thing viewers need is to be scratching their heads thinking, “What the hell is Phil Collins doing here?”

BOBBY VINTON IN “THE TRAIN ROBBERS”

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A person who watches “The Train Robbers” would be hard-pressed to say much about Bobby Vinton’s performance. It’s non-existent! Even worse, his scenes look as if an extra mistakenly walked onto the set after a smoke break.

TOM PETTY IN “THE POSTMAN”

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The cool thing about Petty here is he seems to understand how utterly weird it is to find him in a major motion picture. The bad thing is that we know it, too. If there’s a saving grace, it’s that “The Postman,” a post-apocalyptic fable starring Kevin Costner, is so downright goofy we sort of appreciate the nutty casting.

ASHANTI IN “JOHN TUCKER MUST DIE”

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Even a bitter, sarcastic teen movie needs a little acting to keep people interested. Ashanti tries her best, but it’s still painful to watch.

GLEN CAMPBELL IN “TRUE GRIT”

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Mr. Campbell, a singer whose voice I’ve always liked, remains the sentimental favorite in this category even after all these years. He often joked that his bad acting in “True Grit” was what enabled John Wayne to finally win an Oscar. He may have been right. Campbell’s line readings as a cocky Texas ranger have a certain William Shatner-like quality in their weirdness.

I’m sure there are plenty of good examples I’ve left out. Feel free to suggest more!

William Hurt – Superb Supporting Player

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Actor William Hurt did a rather incredible thing about 20 years ago. After more than a decade as a dashing leading man, he took a sharp turn into character acting. He wasn’t too old to play a lead; he hadn’t lost his box office stature. He simply went in another direction. Here’s a little gallery of some of his more remarkable supporting roles.

A HISTORY OF VIOLENCE (2005)

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Hurt earned an Oscar nomination for this role, playing a menacing, yet oddly engaging, gangster who confronts his estranged brother, played by Viggo Mortensen. The amazing thing is how effective he is despite the fact that he doesn’t appear until the end of the movie. I love seeing Hurt in more demonstrative parts, because it’s such a contrast to his subdued characters.

DARK CITY (1998)

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Here’s a case where Hurt’s star stature works subtly to elevate a small role and add a new dimension. This is a sprawling, weird, engrossing sci-fi movie with constantly-altered realities and manipulation. Hurt wisely doesn’t try to amplify his role – a detective – but his mere presence is like a welcome anchor of sanity for the audience.

MR. BROOKS (2007)

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Kevin Costner is a successful businessman who also happens to be a serial killer. He’s trying to tamp down his homicidal urges, but there’s one problem. Those urges constantly talk to him, in the form of William Hurt! It’s brilliant casting. Hurt is sarcastic, confident, critical and persistent.

MICHAEL (1996)

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In the Nora Ephron fantasy, “Michael,” Hurt is at the center of the story, playing a jaded tabloid reporter. Yet there’s never any doubt the star of the movie is John Travolta’s angel. This is perfect, because it allows Hurt to smolder and slowly unspool a bunch of emotions, big and small.

SYRIANA (2005)

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The challenge in a complex, political ensemble piece is to be believable and memorable without distracting the audience from following the story. In “Syriana,” Hurt deftly blends in as George Clooney’s CIA buddy. It’s a crucial role, in that Hurt fills in some important info to propel Clooney through the rest of the movie.

ONE TRUE THING (1998)

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Complicated, distant characters are a Hurt specialty. This is one of his best, playing the scholarly husband of Meryl Streep, whose character is dying of cancer. We see his fear, his anger, his conceit and his aloofness, but also his concern and his own self-loathing at his failings.

DAMAGES (2009)

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This could have devolved into simple stunt casting, having Hurt guest star in a show headlined by his co-star from “The Big Chill,” Glenn Close. Instead, Hurt invested himself in a meaty, intricate part as a scheming scientist.

SMOKE (1995)

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A quirky little movie, to be sure, but one with a very good performance by Hurt. He’s one of the customers of a Brooklyn cigar shop owned by Harvey Keitel. As the story unfolds, each character gets a chance for emotional healing, by virtue of slowing down, seeing the simple beauty of human interaction and understanding that life is as fleeting as a wisp of smoke.

INTO THE WILD (2007)

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What a thankless job, playing the conflicted, controlling, stern father of a young man who tragically wanders out west and up to Alaska to find the meaning of life. And yet, Hurt is remarkable. In particular, he has an emotional scene in the middle of a street which is powerful and intelligent.

Mr. Hurt, we salute you.

6 Good Actors Whose Careers Confound Me

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There are times when I’d like to take certain good actors aside and simply ask them, “What the hell is going on with you?” Clearly, something has happened to pull them into a lengthy rut of bad or mediocre projects. I’d just like to know what it is.

MATTHEW BRODERICK

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At some point, several years ago, Broderick’s film work downshifted from intelligent/neurotic to intelligent/low-key. Then he continued on to intelligent/wake-me-when-my-scene-starts. Perhaps the former star of such brilliant films as “Election” and the iconic “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off” decided to confine his charisma to his much-lauded stage work. Even so, I’d love to see him fully engage in a movie part that offers a wider range of emotions than self-loathing and ironic detachment.

ANDRE BRAUGHER

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I’ll start by acknowledging that Braugher, one of my favorite actors, continues to do fine work, primarily on TV. He was excellent in “Men of a Certain Age,” and some guest appearances on “House,” for instance. My quibble is that this guy has the gravitas to do Shakespeare, “Death of a Salesman” – or at least a big-time project on HBO. Anyone who saw even one of his scenes in the old “Homicide” series knows what I mean.

WINONA RYDER

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It pains me to think there are people who know Ryder more for her personal problems (shoplifting and the like) than for her excellent performances in such films as “Heathers,” “Reality Bites” and “Little Women.” Her talent back then was considerable, and presumably it still resides within her. Why, then, was she playing Spock’s MOM in the “Star Trek” reboot?

ADAM ARKIN

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I think Arkin is a brilliant actor, a rare combination of intelligence, sarcasm, physicality and soulfulness. Yet he seems to pop up only fleetingly, such as his wonderful character work in last year’s “The Sessions.” He tends to play smaller roles as bosses, husbands, lawyers and shrinks. Just once, I’d like to see a project that revolves entirely around him.

PAUL RUDD

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You know what I can’t figure out about Rudd’s career? It’s that he’s terrific in splashy, supporting roles (“Anchorman,” “Knocked Up”) but kind of bland in leading roles (“Admission,” “Dinner for Schmucks”). There has to be a way to take his supporting actor spark and expand it when he’s carrying a whole movie.

JOHN CUSACK

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I watched “The Grifters” not long ago and found myself wondering what happened to that John Cusack guy. The guy who was amazing in “High Fidelity” and “Being John Malkovich.” God knows I have a ton of respect for Cusack’s disdain for conventionality, but I humbly think it’s time for him to move beyond stuff like “Hot Tub Time Machine” and “The Raven.”

Fingers crossed that better films and TV projects are in the works for all of them.

Best Veeps in Movies & TV

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A new season of HBO’s wacky, wonderful “Veep” is upon us, which is a golden opportunity to celebrate some great political second bananas from TV and movies. You might even recognize a couple of them from history class – and the evening news.

PAUL GIAMATTI IN “JOHN ADAMS”

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Our first example is our first vice president. Paul Giamatti gave a towering performance in the TV miniseries “John Adams” in 2008. It was no easy job, because Adams was a feisty, fussy character while also being an intellectual powerhouse and a true patriot. The section where Adams is vice president is wonderful, showing just how uncomfortable that position has been from the very beginning.

GLENN CLOSE IN “AIR FORCE ONE”

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Here’s a great popcorn movie in which the vice president is faced with something the Founding Fathers never envisioned: terrorists have kidnapped the president aboard his airplane IN MID-FLIGHT. Close does nice work showing us her character’s shock, confusion, hesitation and resolve.

TIM MATHESON IN “THE WEST WING”

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Aaron Sorkin has given so many actors a chance to show their dramatic range. In this case, Matheson, normally a comic actor with a light touch, got to be wonderfully complicated and prickly as President Bartlett’s VP on “The West Wing.” I think it’s the best work he’s done. Well, aside from “Animal House.”

BEN KINGSLEY IN “DAVE”

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No nuance here. In the comedy “Dave,” about a guy who happens to look exactly like the sitting president (Kevin Kline), Ben Kingsley is the straight-arrow vice president who has been shunted aside because he’s not corrupt.

POWERS BOOTHE IN “24″

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TV’s “24″ offers us an array of complex vice presidents – many of them quite devious. My favorite of the bunch is Powers Boothe, who came on later in the series’ run. Boothe just has an incredible intensity.

JOAN ALLEN IN “THE CONTENDER”

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Technically, Joan Allen’s character was only in the running to become vice president in “The Contender.” Still, it was a role that indicated the symbolic importance of the office and also the thankless nature of it.

RICHARD DREYFUSS IN “W.”

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Say what you will about Vice President Dick Cheney, he never approached the position as symbolic. In “W.,” Richard Dreyfuss played Cheney as a politician with immense influence in the George W. Bush White House.

DAN ZISKIE IN “HOUSE OF CARDS”

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Sure, Ziskie’s VP is a fictional character, but he does bear some passing resemblance to a certain folksy, gaffe-prone vice president we all know. In “House of Cards,” the vice president becomes something of a pawn in an overall scheme by a Congressman yearning for more power.

JULIA LOUIS-DREYFUS IN “VEEP”

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She is simply brilliant in “Veep” as a vain, egotistical, paranoid vice president. Anyone who thinks they’ve seen all the tricks Ms. Louis-Dreyfus has to offer in “Seinfeld” needs to see this show. Here, she’s a classic fast-talker. She’s also hard-edged, foul-mouthed and completely in charge. I believe this performance puts her solidly in the handful of best comic actresses in TV history.

Hail to the Almost-Chief!

A Gallery of Cinematic Hats

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Much is made of computer animation and other technology in movies and TV, but I think one of the best special effects goes on top of an actor’s head. It shapes our whole attitude about a character, without so much as a transposed pixel. Here, without commentary, are some of my favorites.

HARRISON FORD AS INDIANA JONES

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CHARLIE CHAPLIN AS THE LITTLE TRAMP

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THE LADIES OF “DOWNTON ABBEY”

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CLINT EASTWOOD AS THE MAN WITH NO NAME

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SALLY FIELD AS “THE FLYING NUN”

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JON HAMM AS DON DRAPER

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THE CAT IN THE HAT

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CARMEN MIRANDA

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JIMMIE WALKER AS J.J. EVANS

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ALAN HALE JR. AS THE SKIPPER

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MAURICE CHEVALIER

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JOHN WAYNE

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MARY TYLER MOORE AS MARY RICHARDS

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BASIL RATHBONE AS SHERLOCK HOLMES

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MIKE NESMITH IN “THE MONKEES”

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FESS PARKER AS DANIEL BOONE

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DANIEL DAY-LEWIS AS ABRAHAM LINCOLN

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THE SORTING HAT FROM “HARRY POTTER”

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ART CARNEY AS ED NORTON

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B.D. IN “DOONESBURY”

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MINNIE PEARL

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LARRY HAGMAN AS J.R. EWING

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JOHNNY DEPP AS THE MAD HATTER

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BUDDY EBSEN AS JED CLAMPETT

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ARETHA FRANKLIN AT THE PRESIDENTIAL INAUGURATION

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LIDSVILLE TV SERIES

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GENE HACKMAN AS POPEYE DOYLE

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ERROL FLYNN AS ROBIN HOOD

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HUMPHREY BOGART AS SAM SPADE

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MARGARET HAMILTON AS THE WICKED WITCH OF THE WEST

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That’s a LOT of hats! But even so, feel free to suggest a few more!