Bob Mondello | WYPR

Bob Mondello

Bob Mondello, who jokes that he was a jinx at the beginning of his critical career — hired to write for every small paper that ever folded in Washington, just as it was about to collapse — saw that jinx broken in 1984 when he came to NPR.

For more than three decades, Mondello has reviewed movies and covered the arts for NPR, seeing at least 300 films annually, then sharing critiques and commentaries about the most intriguing on NPR's award-winning newsmagazine All Things Considered. In 2005, he conceived and co-produced NPR's eight-part series "American Stages," exploring the history, reach, and accomplishments of the regional theater movement.

Mondello has also written about the arts for USA Today, The Washington Post, Preservation Magazine, and other publications, and has appeared as an arts commentator on commercial and public television stations. He spent 25 years reviewing live theater for Washington City Paper, DC's leading alternative weekly, and to this day, he remains enamored of the stage.

Before becoming a professional critic, Mondello learned the ins and outs of the film industry by heading the public relations department for a chain of movie theaters, and he reveled in film history as advertising director for an independent repertory theater.

Asked what NPR pieces he's proudest of, he points to an April Fool's prank in which he invented a remake of Citizen Kane, commentaries on silent films — a bit of a trick on radio — and cultural features he's produced from Argentina, where he and his husband have a second home.

An avid traveler, Mondello even spends his vacations watching movies and plays in other countries. "I see as many movies in a year," he says, "as most people see in a lifetime."

When actor Philip Seymour Hoffman was found dead Sunday at the age of 46, there was shock among those he'd worked with in the film and theater communities. He'd died too young. At the peak of his craft. With so much still to offer. But the loss was also felt by people who didn't know him, yet felt they did — me among them.

So here's the setup: It's 1987. Frank, a convicted murderer, has escaped from a New Hampshire prison, and he's holding Adele, a fragile divorcee, and her 12-year-old son, Henry, captive in their own house until they eat his chili.

Turns out it's good chili — so good that it inspires Adele, whom the handsome convict has tied up very gently and tenderly, to reminisce about a conversation she and her son had about his sex education class. Seriously, it's some good chili. And did I mention that Frank is handsome?

The lake in Alain Guiraudie's Stranger by the Lake is gorgeous — aquamarine, pristine, surrounded by pebbly beaches and dense woods. Families cluster on the far side of it, but on the side we see, there are only men. It's a gay cruising spot, frequented by mostly nude sunbathers and swimmers, many of whom come here often enough to know each other by sight if not by name.

Conventional wisdom has it that television is where the creative action is these days, and yes, there are some terrific shows on cable.

But there are things it's hard to do on the small screen, and the year's most cinematic film delighted in reminding audiences why they like seeing movies in theaters.

Iranian filmmaker Asghar Farhadi came to international attention last year when his film A Separation won the Oscar for best foreign language film. His latest picture, The Past, has been showered with awards, too — at the Cannes Film Festival and from critics groups in the U.S. I saw The Past in September at the Toronto Film Festival, and it has haunted me ever since.

Blond, blue-eyed and wearing blazing white robes in Lawrence Of Arabia, Peter O'Toole was handsome enough — many said beautiful enough — to carry off the scene in which director David Lean simultaneously made stars of both his title character and his leading man.

Stephen Sondheim has written quite a few classic musicals — Company, A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, Sweeney Todd, Into the Woods — but he's had just one hit song, "Send in the Clowns" from A Little Night Music. And, as he tells an audience in Six by Sondheim, it was a tricky one to write because the star who had to sing it, Glynis Johns, wasn't a singer with a capital "s."

It's movie-binge time — that month-long surge of Oscar hopefuls and would-be blockbusters Hollywood always winds up the year with. On All Things Considered, I talked about some of the big tent-pole pictures: Anchorman 2, The Wolf of Wall Street, the second Hobbit installment and so on.

But here, let's winnow the list down a bit to three films you might want to keep an eye out for if you're intrigued by the artistic process — how artists think and work.

The new animated musical Frozen is based — sort of, hypothetically, in theory, or at least according to the Disney studio — on the Hans Christian Andersen fairy tale The Snow Queen.

Not in ways anyone would notice, however, and not in ways that will in any way distract moviegoers from thinking about the other works that seem to have influenced its creators; unlike in many animated movies, the borrowings aren't so much in-jokey as structural. Homages, of a sort, and fun to spot.

It's a fact of Hollywood life that the movie industry is dominated by men. Male stars make more money. Male executives make more decisions. And the vast majority of films are about what men do, or think, or blow up. But this weekend, two heroines are the backbone — the impressively sturdy backbone — of two very different pictures.

Woody Grant has white hair, a cranky disposition and a stubbornness that just won't quit. When we meet him, he's being stopped by a highway patrolman as he's walking down the shoulder of a Montana interstate. His son David picks him up at the police station, and it turns out Woody was on an 850-mile stroll to Nebraska, to collect the million dollars promised to him in a letter.

David points out gently that the letter is an ad for magazine subscriptions, but he's no sooner got the older man back to his house then he gets a call from his mom: Woody has hit the road again.

There's a phrase in French — "L'esprit de l'escalier," meaning "staircase wit" — for that moment when you've lost an argument and are walking away, and waaay too late, think of the perfect comeback. If you could just rewind your life a few minutes, you'd win the argument.

That's pretty much the setup in the new British comedy About Time.

Texas good ol' boy Ron Woodroof was a player — drugs, alcohol, women, gambling. As Dallas Buyers Club starts, he's at a rodeo, snorting cocaine, with a fistful of bets, when he gets it on with two prostitutes. Not a "healthy" lifestyle — one that's left him gaunt, weak, coughing.

With the advantage of hindsight, what's ailing him seems obvious now. Back in 1986, it didn't, until doctors did a blood test and told him he had 30 days to live.

Just a few years before the start of the Civil War, two anti-slavery books became best-sellers in the United States. One was Uncle Tom's Cabin, the Harriet Beecher Stowe opus that went on to become the best-selling novel of the 19th century.

The other was a memoir with a mouthful of a title: Twelve Years a Slave: Narrative of Solomon Northup, a citizen of New-York, kidnapped in Washington City in 1841, and rescued in 1853 from a cotton plantation near the Red River in Louisiana.

Hollywood's been trying to get a handle on the Beat Poets for years. Allen Ginsberg, William Burroughs and Jack Kerouac led wild — and influential — lives. But films about them, like Naked Lunch and On the Road, have never really clicked with audiences. Kill Your Darlings may fare better, partly because it stars Daniel Radcliffe, and partly because the story centers as much on murder as on poetry.

Fifty years ago, President Kennedy hosted a Columbus Day ceremony in the Rose Garden, and I was there. Fourteen-year-old me, with my family. This was a fluke. The President had cracked a politically uncool Mafia joke a few days before. Not wanting to offend Italian-American voters, the White House quickly mounted a charm offensive — inviting government workers like my dad, with Italian surnames like Mondello, to celebrate a great Italian explorer, with the president himself.

Before seeing Paul Greengrass' nerve-wracking, based-on-fact thriller Captain Phillips, I'd never been able to get my head around the logistics of Somali piracy. Enormous commercial freighters, captured and held for ransom by tiny bands of pirates — often teenagers — who always seem to overtake the freighters on the high seas in fishing skiffs smaller than the freighters' lifeboats.

I mean, you wonder: How on earth could four or five teenagers capture a freighter, subduing a far larger crew and extracting millions of dollars in ransom?

Wonder no more.

Once a child actor on TV, then an indie sensation, then an honest-to-God movie star going head-to-head with the likes of Bruce Willis in Looper and Leo DiCaprio in Inception, Joseph Gordon-Levitt hardly needs to burnish his LinkedIn resume at this point. But that's not kept him from adding a couple of skills — writing and directing — with his latest picture.

A group foster home + abused and at-risk kids + tough love + junior staff nearly as troubled as their charges: The potential for cliche is everywhere in Destin Cretton's enormously engaging Short Term 12, and — happily — is everywhere avoided. What might seem on paper a cloyingly sentimental heartwarmer becomes, in Cretton's hands, a briskly believable, often funny, always invigorating and ultimately wrenching story of emotional fortitude.

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