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 in Washington, D.C., just as it was about to fold," saw that jink broken in 1984, when he came to NPR.

For more than three decades, Mondello has reviewed movies and covered the arts for NPR News, seeing at least 250 films and 100 plays 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 such diverse publications as USA Today, The Washington Post, and Preservation Magazine, as well as for commercial and public television stations. And he has been a lead theater critic for Washington City Paper, D.C.'s leading alternative weekly, since 1987.

Before becoming a professional critic, Mondello spent more than a decade in entertainment advertising, working in public relations for a chain of movie theaters, where he learned the ins and outs of the film industry, and for an independent repertory theater, where he reveled in film history.

Asked what NPR pieces he's proudest of, he points to 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 people talk about Bollywood movies, they usually mean Indian romances with extravagant musical numbers. But there are smaller Indian films, too, and one that has earned international acclaim at film festivals is opening tomorrow in major U.S. cities. It's called The Lunchbox.

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.

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.

When I was 9, I spent a lot of time at a public library just down the street; I was already a theater nerd, and it had a well-stocked theater section. Not just books, but original cast albums for Broadway shows old and new. One day, an addition: The Music Man, about a salesman who was crazy about a girl named, as one song put it, "Marrrrrrrion, madam librarian."

There may be no film image more iconic: Harold Lloyd, high above the street, dangling from the minute hand of a giant department-store clock.

The face of the clock swings down; the minute hand bends. It's been 90 years since the silent era's greatest daredevil shot that sequence, and it still has the power to prompt shrieks and laughter.

Lloyd's character was the All-American Boy, innocent in his horn-rimmed glasses, eager to climb the ladder of success — and like many a social striver before him, he was plagued by anxiety that he'd fall before he got to the top.

A country girl from Grabtown, N.C., Ava Gardner arrived in Hollywood in 1941 knowing she couldn't act but, gorgeous as she was, she never had to let that slow her down. Her beauty — which reportedly intimidated Elizabeth Taylor — won her not just film roles and studio-paid acting lessons, but the attentions of all-American boy Mickey Rooney, whom she married and divorced before she turned 21. She had a similarly brief union with bandleader Artie Shaw — she called those two her "starter husbands" — before a tempestuous, headline-making marriage to Frank Sinatra.

Ruby Keeler was an unknown actress when she starred in the 1933 production of Busby Berkeley's 42nd Street.

But the movie was so popular she was able to land two more splashy musicals that same year — and seven more by the end of the decade. There was nothing extraordinary about her talents as a vocalist or as an actress, but audiences of the Depression era really bought into Keeler's "innocent" onstage persona. In fact, they craved it.

Pages