Sunday, January 29, 2006
Violence and Thumbsucking
I had the chance this weekend to catch up with A History of Violence and Thumbsucker and I actually liked them both. While the two films aren't really similar in the least, both contains in varying degrees the idea of nature vs. nurture.
In Thumbsucker, a fairly straight-forward coming of age tale, viewers are invited to watch the ups and downs of high school student Justin Cobb (wonderfully played by Lou Pucci), who is a poor student with a serious thumbsucking habit, though that state of his being and scholarliness rises and falls throughout the course of Mike Mills' movie based on the Walter Kirn novel.
The pacing is swift, the tone bittersweet and while it doesn't deign to answer the question of whether Justin's shortcomings were handed down by his parents (ably played by Tilda Swinton and Vincent D'Onofrio), the movie turns out to be quite touching.
Touching is not the word one would use to describe A History of Violence, David Cronenberg's most "normal" film yet — but it's a great one. A suspenseful tale of a man (Viggo Mortensen) whose past comes back to revisit him when he stops a robbery in his small town eatery.
In this film, the nature vs. nurture aspect is really a minor point with the subplot of Mortensen's teenage son (Ashton Holmes) who is plagued by bullies at school, but events in the movie do raise the idea that perhaps the next generation can't escape their parents' nature.
The thing that these two films have most in common is that they are so concise. After having endured the bloat of King Kong, what a thrill it was to be able to watch two really good films in the same amount of time it took to sit through Kong.
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Friday, January 27, 2006
Great special effects alone does not a good movie make. This is most decidedly the case with Peter Jackson's bloated remake of King Kong. As a general rule, I try to avoid remakes of good and great films on principle, but with the mostly positive reviews of King Kong, I finally relented and watched it. I should have stuck by my initial thoughts.
That's not to say there isn't a lot to admire in Jackson's film — as one would expect, the technical work is outstanding — but the 3 hour running time is absolutely ridiculous. I'm sure it might be possible to make a 3 hour thrill ride, but not when the main attraction of the ride doesn't show up until after an hour and 10 minutes of exposition.
Some critics have tried to make the comparison that Jackson's choice not to show us the great ape until more than an hour into the movie is akin to Steven Spielberg holding off on showing us the shark in Jaws. Setting aside the fact that the delay in showing the shark had more to do with technical problems than a plan, there are two important differences: 1) the shark is always a presence, even if you don't see it and 2) the surrounding story and characters are so involving in Jaws that it doesn't matter.
Unlike the Hobbitologists out there who believe that Jackson's Lord of the Rings trilogy was some kind of holy sign sent to humans in the form of three way-too-long movies, I wasn't a big fan of the films. I thought the first installment was good, but not great and I didn't care much for parts two and three, even while I admired parts of all the films.
It seems that getting away with three blockbusters in a row than ran more than three hours went to Jackson's head — because there is no reason King Kong needs to be this long. The great 1933 version told the whole story in barely more than 90 minutes — and it's still the best version. In fact, if it weren't for the great effects and outstanding art direction and cinematography, I can't say that Jackson's version is that substantially better than the 1976 remake.
I remember standing in line to see the 1976 version — I was 7 years old and had not yet developed my anti-remake philosophy — and though I eventually realized its lameness, it did have some things that were superior to Jackson's version. While Naomi Watts is a huge improvement on Jessica Lange, I can't say that Adrien Brody and Jack Black are really better than Jeff Bridges and Charles Grodin were in their similar 1976 roles.
In fact, Watts is probably the best non-effect in this movie. You have to suffer from a one-scene romance between her and Brody that really belongs in a movie of the 1930s, but thankfully Watts' Ann Darrow really seems to grow to care for the giant ape — and who can blame her? Kong has more charisma and depth than Brody's character does.
While there are some great action sequences, I found that even some of the effects looked phonier than they should — especially the dinosaur stampede on the island. (Sidenote: a friend of mine pointed out than in all the versions of this story, it's odd that everyone goes crazy about the giant ape but no one seems compelled to mention that there is an island that has living dinosaurs on it.)
Another thing that I think was a little better in the 1976 version is that it at least included scenes that showed Kong on the ship sailing back to New York. Jackson's version cheats — we see Kong passed out and captured, but there is nothing to indicate how they get him on the ship or if anything happens on the ship. The next scene has us back in New York for Kong's Broadway debut, though I'm sure Jackson probably has those scenes in the can for the inevitable extended 4-hour DVD version.
Don't get me wrong — I don't think the 1976 version was good either. In fact, the most memorable thing to come out of that version for me was a Colorform play kit that I wish I still had, if only to have a tangible, iconic version of the World Trade Center I could hold in my hands now.
Even though Jackson's film has made a lot of money, it's considered a financial disappointment in the United States. Hopefully, Jackson has learned a lesson — a movie doesn't have to be long just because you can get away with making it long.
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Did you hear the one about...
Now that The Aristocrats is out on DVD, I finally got to see it, since it never showed in this neck of the Bible Belt.
I'd like to say it was worth the wait, but I can't. I expected it to be a montage of comedians telling what is supposedly the most famous filthy joke in history. While there are many comedians doing spins on it, the editing style seems to leave precious few straight-tellings of the gags. Furthermore, once you've heard about the joke — which they lay out for you immediately, even if you don't know going in, it becomes exceedingly repetitive.
This is billed as a documentary so I expected just a bit more history about where this joke might have originated and how it was passed on in comic circles, but there is very little of that.
Really, the part of the film that played best to me was the animated segment when South Park's Cartman shares it with his bewildered buddies. At the end, they say they don't get it and Cartman says he doesn't either.
There's not much more to say here. It didn't really make me laugh that much and it certainly doesn't work as a documentary.
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Wednesday, January 25, 2006
Chris Penn (1965-2006)
Chris Penn (often credited as Christopher) seemed to live in the shadow of his more acclaimed acting brother Sean (though to Chris' credit he never exhibited a lack of a sense of humor, married Madonna or starred in I Am Sam. Still, despite his young death (some sources say he was 40, others 43) and unfulfilled potential, it's worth looking back at some of Chris Penn's most memorable performances.
Footloose (1984): Penn was the crucial element in what may be the film's best sequence as Kevin Bacon tries to teach Penn's geeky teen how to dance as "Let's Hear It for the Boy" plays on the soundtrack.
The Wild Life (1984): Many dismissed Penn's character of Tom Drake as a lesser attempt to equal brother Sean's brilliant Jeff Spicoli from Fast Times at Ridgemont High. While both films boasted a script by Cameron Crowe, The Wild Life is nowhere near as good as the other film, but Penn brings a lot of fun nuances to Tom Drake.
Reservoir Dogs (1992): Nice Guy Eddie arguably is the best work Chris Penn ever put on screen, handling Quentin Tarantino's dialogue with ease and excellence, especially in the scene where he doubts the accusation that the late Mr. Blond (Michael Madsen) was the rat.
Short Cuts (1993): Part of Robert Altman's strong ensemble in this blending of Raymond Carver short stories, Penn is quietly powerful as the husband of Jennifer Jason Leigh, a phone sex worker. When Penn's character does snap, it seems both unexpected and completely preordained at the same time.
Penn made other movies I saw (Pale Rider, Rumble Fish, True Romance), but he didn't really register in them for me. These are the four performances that stand out for me. It's a shame we won't see more and that his career never really took off.
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Tuesday, January 24, 2006
I like to watch — and watch — and watch — and watch
I summoned the ghost of Chauncey Gardiner from Being There for the title of this post, because I want to look at a specific type of movie. Not the greatest or even necessarily your favorites, though they can often overlap, but movies that just seem infinitely watchable. If you stumble upon them on TV and you are bored, you may stick around until the end just because they are so damn mesmerizing.
Several films on my 10 best of all time list fit this criteria: I never seem to tire of Casablanca, Dr. Strangelove, Goodfellas, Network or Rear Window.
However, look at some of the other great works by the directors there: I can't say I could watch Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey over and over again and A Clockwork Orange actually weakens on repeat viewings. While I love Goodfellas and can watch it repeatedly, there is a limit to how many times you can sit through Scorsese's Raging Bull or Taxi Driver. A lot of Hitchcock's works could fall into this category (I'm thinking especially of North by Northwest), but who really wants to watch Vertigo or Psycho on a daily basis?
There are many great films not on my all-time list that are ones whose greatness you can recognize but that you aren't inclined to revisit frequently. Steven Spielberg's Schindler's List is a great example. There's only so much of it you can take, but I never tire of Jaws, which when push comes to shove I still think is Spielberg's best movie.
While Sidney Lumet's Network is on my all-time list, he has another title that in many ways is even more watchable. If I ever stumble across Dog Day Afternoon, I inevitably have to stick it out to the end. The fascinating thing is that you can't always quite put your finger on why these films affect you like this.
So, in no particular order other than the one in which they cross my mind, I'd like to toss out some movies, some great, some merely good, that I think have a special magnetism that draw me back for more looks.
Duck Soup and Horse Feathers: A lot of the early Marx Brothers fit this category, but these two are my favorites and I think show them at their zenith of zaniness.
His Girl Friday: In my opinion, one of the greatest comedies of all times by Howard Hawks, one of the most underappreciated directors of all time. Cary Grant and Rosalind Russell sparkle in the rare example of a remake of a good movie that's actually better than the original. Remember — keep the rooster story, that's human interest.
It's a Wonderful Life: Part of this may be because of the pure repetition in which it was shown back in the days it was in the public domain, but if I stumble upon its less-frequent showings now, I still have to watch. I think part of the reason is that it's not really the Capra-corn it gets credit for being. There is a darkness here too, a darkness I think Hitchcock may have picked up on when he started using Jimmy Stewart soon after. At its heart, while it's inspirational, it's really about a man who gets screwed over time and time again —
and that's why it works. George Bailey is a 1940s Job.
Singin' in the Rain: Arguably the greatest movie musical ever, it never grows old.
The Manchurian Candidate: Of course, I refer only to John Frankenheimer's original classic, not Jonathan Demme's modern travesty.
The Godfather: For me, this only applies to the original. Part 2 is good, but doesn't cast the same spell and as for Part 3, let's not talk about that one.
The Sting: Seeing this is one of my earliest memories of seeing an "adult" movie in a theater. While I'm sure I didn't quite comprehend it at the time, I think Marvin Hamlisch's reworking of Scott Joplin helped it work its magic on me forever after.
Smokey and the Bandit: Somewhere deep in my movie critic's mind, I know this isn't that good a movie, but I can't help it. It cracks me up, especially an uncut Jackie Gleason. If they didn't stop the film for the romantic rendezvous between Burt Reynolds and Sally Field, it never would have slowed down and that would have suited me fine.
Tootsie: There was a time in my youth, when I used to think that E.T.: the Extra-Terrestrial was the best film of 1982, but when you return to these two now, it's hard not to laugh (in a bad way) at some of E.T. while Tootsie just gets better and better
Terms of Endearment: I'm sure many would argue with me, but I love this movie and never grow tired of it — and odds are I'll bawl every time too. As a sidenote, I'd like to present my longtime argument against the term known as "chick flick." There is no such thing. There are good movies, bad movies and those in between. By trying to label something a chick flick (or a guy flick), it implies that all members of one gender will like something because of the genitalia they were born with. It's also too often used as an excuse to try to explain away criticism of lesser films. Terms of Endearment is a great film, Beaches sucks and gender has nothing to do with my assessment of either.
Real Genius: Here's the movie that might be the perfect example of what I'm talking about. If I hadn't rejected the future use of a 4-star rating scale, I couldn't give this anything higher than ***. When it shows up on TV, I have to watch, thanks mainly to Val Kilmer's fun performance. Besides, who can argue with a film whose climax involves a house being destroyed by popcorn?
Broadcast News: James L. Brooks is back again — yet he's never equaled his first two film efforts as writer-director. Of course in the case of this film, part of its appeal to me is because it relates to the business I'm in and I find way too much in common between myself and Albert Brooks' Aaron Altman.
Raising Arizona: Another Holly Hunter offering from 1987. This Coen brothers farce still grabs you and never lets go, all accompanied by that yodeling score. Granted, I think Miller's Crossing is still the Coens' best film and though I eventually grew tired of them (I haven't liked anything after Barton Fink, Raising Arizona is still pure entertainment.
Die Hard: With each viewing, I love this action ride more and more. Sometimes, jokingly, I say it is the greatest film ever made (though I mean it about as much as Pauline Kael probably did whenever she chose Million Dollar Legs). It's got one of the all-time great movie villains in Alan Rickman and a supporting cast seemingly plucked straight out of Asshole Central Casting (Paul Gleason, Robert Davi, William Atherton, Hart Bochner). The amazing thing about this movie to me is that no matter how many times I've seen it, it can still hold me in suspense.
Back to the Future Part II: Granted, the original Back to the Future is by far the better film and certainly is just as watchable as Part II, but for some reason I find this one more fun. Perhaps it's the mind-bending time-bending storyline, where action from the first film is playing in the background while the sequel's story moves along in the foreground. Can't really explain it, but I love it.
Pulp Fiction: I know that this film wears on some viewers, but having just rewatched it recently, Quentin Tarantino's masterpiece still holds me in its clutches just as it did the first time I saw it in 1994.
South Park: Bigger, Longer & Uncut: This is probably the most recent title I would allow on this list. The songs are great, the satire is sharp and it's just damn funny.
Those are all I'm coming up with right now, but please feel free to add your own.
Labels: Albert Brooks, Burt Reynolds, Capra, Cary, Coens, Demme, Hawks, Hitchcock, Holly Hunter, J. Stewart, Kael, Lumet, Marx Brothers, Meg Ryan, Rickman, Roz Russell, Scorsese, Spielberg, Tarantino, Val Kilmer
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Saturday, January 21, 2006
Corporate movie reviews
Alex Gibney's adaptation of the book by Bethany McLean and Peter Elkind is a fascinating primer and explanation of exactly how the biggest corporate crime story in history happened.
Reading a news story here and a news story there doesn't really give you a sense of what the Enron players like Skilling and Fastow did or explore the entire history of the company's malfeasance.
It also explores in great detail, using amazing audio and video tapes, various aspects of their shenanigans, especially how their energy trading not only affected the lives of many Californians but basically led to Gray Davis' downfall and Arnold Schwarzenegger's ascendance.
There also is some implicit connecting of the California energy crisis to the refusal to act by Kenny Boy's good friends in the Bush family.
The best thing about this documentary is that it isn't a political tract, it's just a straight-forward telling of the story — and it's a fascinating one that everyone should watch.
In the past, Robert Greenwald's documentaries such as Outfoxed: Rupert Murdoch's War on Journalism have left me cold, because he stacks the deck so much that even if you are sympathetic to his point of view, the movies don't quite work as documentaries.
While Michael Moore's documentaries have similar problems, what's good about those are that if you show them to someone who is not as sympathetic to his point of view, they might rethink things. He isn't just preaching to the choir.
However, Greenwald rises to a higher level of quality with Wal-Mart: The High Cost of Low Price, a thorough exploration and cataloging of all the allegations against the retail giant. It's still loaded, but it feels more like a work of documentary filmmaking than propaganda.
As someone who hasn't stepped into a Wal-Mart since the late 1980s when they removed magazines such as Rolling Stone from their shelves at the request of Jimmy Swaggart who called them "pornography" (and we later learned Swaggart knew what real porn was), perhaps I was even more of a target audience for this movie.
Laying out in detail the destructive effect of Wal-Mart on American communities, its mistreatment of employees both here and in China (though Germany with stronger labor laws get off better when working for them), environmental wrecklessness and other misdeeds, "Wal-Mart" is riveting — and I don't see how anyone who watches it won't be changed.
For years, whenever the subject of how awful Wal-Mart is comes up, I tell people to do like I do — don't shop there, but the lure of low prices usually trump their principles. If they watch this movie, perhaps that will be the tipping point. There is nothing you can buy at Wal-Mart that you can't get somewhere else and if it costs a little more or the location is a little less convenient, this movie will make you see why that is worth it.
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Friday, January 20, 2006
Musings on Munich
First off, I'm not going to address how accurate or inaccurate Steven Spielberg's Munich — I don't know and, unless I have personal knowledge of something that sticks in my craw, I prefer to assess movies as movies, not as factual reporting. Since Spielberg made it, you can assume going in that it's going to be technically well-made and it is. You can also tell by the ads that this is "serious Spielberg," where he sets aside his crowd-pleasing tendencies to offer something more adult. Alas, Munich is less in the league of Schindler's List or Saving Private Ryan and more in the realm of Amistad (which I like to refer to as L.A. Law with muttonchops).
First of all, Munich moves at a snail's pace and I think that's partly because Spielberg either doesn't know or is afraid of what the movie will be when it grows up. On the one hand, I think he wants Munich to be a suspense drama, but the idea of making a true revenge epic — especially based on real-life events — makes him nervous. At the end of the day, no matter what he's making, I get the sense that Spielberg wants to be liked.
Then there are aspects of it that seek to deal with the political ramifications of terror and retaliation, but he seems to pull back whenever he gets too close to those waters too.
While Munich is generally well-acted (especially by Ciaran Hinds, Michael Lonsdale, Mathieu Almaric and, in a brief bit, Lynn Cohen as Golda Meir), the lead falls to Eric Bana and whether its his limitations as an actor or the handcuffs the script puts on him, his character is a cipher.
He's certainly not portrayed as a cold-blooded killer, but in the latter parts of the film, when his conscience is supposed to get to him, he can't really emote that either. It almost seems like a sudden change because the movie needed an ending.
The Munich Olympics were a watershed moment for anyone old enough to remember them — I can remember as a young child having nightmares about men wearing stocking masks appearing on my TV — so the real footage that is incorporated almost attracts more interest than the fiction that surrounds it.
In the end, I ended up feeling as cold about Munich as the film's tone seemed. It didn't hold my attention as suspense, as ruminations on conscience and guilt or certainly as an effort to look at the seemingly intractable problem of Mideast peace.
There is a lot of buzz out there that the Oscar chances for Munich have been diminished by controversy about its truthfulness, but I think in actuality the problem is that it's just not very good. It lacks a coherent point of view or even a narrative trajectory. It just sort of rolls along — and slowly.
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Let's Twist Again -- Spoilers ahead
By Edward Copeland
Every time a friend of mine has a new child — something which seems to happen with more and more frequency — I make one simple request: I beg them to do their damndest to keep all knowledge about the movie Psycho (the original, not the Gus Van Sant travesty) away from them. Can you imagine what it must have been like to see Psycho in 1960 for the first time, unaware that the shower scene was coming and the main character up to that point was going to bite it? I can't. I wish I could. By the time I saw Psycho — I think I was in the sixth grade — I already knew about the shower scene and had seen Anthony Perkins spoof Norman Bates in a Saturday Night Live sketch about the Norman Bates School for Motel Management.
There are lots of movies such as Psycho, where you want to guard their secrets as closely as the Bush Administration tried to hide warrantless wiretapping. However, many times the twist has been blown, often by the movie's own trailer, before you ever get to see it.
Back in 1999, there were two such films with big twists that I knew were coming before I saw the movies. I was very late in getting to The Sixth Sense, but I think that even if I saw it opening day, I would have figured out that Bruce Willis was dead. Granted, I'll never know for sure, but it seemed obvious to me and lessened my interest in the movie. Would I have liked it better if I'd been left in the dark? I'll never know.
On the other hand, I had Fight Club ruined for me by a throwaway line in a David Thomson article in The New York Times that, without warning, gave away the secret that Brad Pitt's character was a figment of Edward Norton's character's imagination.
However, this time knowing the twist actually made the moviegoing experience deeper for me — and Fight Club ended up being one of my favorite films of the year. The fact that I knew what was going on didn't affect my love for the film any less, which to me would seem to indicate that Fight Club is just a vastly superior film than The Sixth Sense.
When The Crying Game came out in 1992, I was lucky. I saw it very early and all I knew about it was that it was about the IRA and it had a twist. When captured British soldier Forest Whitaker made his escape and got killed by a convoy of his own troops en route to rescue him, I relaxed. I figured that was the twist, so the revelation that Dil was a man took me by surprise. One interesting note though: In my experience, female viewers were always quicker to pick up on Dil's gender than male viewers were.
Twists are a long tradition in movies. Sometimes they are used well and help the film, other times they add nothing and make absolutely no sense. Not too long ago, I saw 1928's In Old Arizona, which won Warner Baxter the second Oscar for best actor for playing the Cisco Kid. Even it had a nice twist in it, which I have to imagine was pretty cold and surprising for audiences back then.
Other movies with twists seem to be all about the twist and nothing more. That was my problem with The Sixth Sense and with something like The Usual Suspects. I mean — who cares really who Keyser Soze was? By process of elimination, you narrow it to two people pretty early and by the end, you know for sure and the more you think about it, the less sense it makes.
Trailers these days seem intent on ruining their plot twists, even when they aren't blatant about it. Could anyone watch the trailer for The Family Stone and not know that Sarah Jessica Parker was going to end up with Luke Wilson instead of Dermot Mulroney? I didn't see the trailer before I saw Woody Allen's Match Point, but nearly all the reviews gave away that Jonathan Rhys Meyers was going to kill Scarlett Johansson. Even if they hadn't, people who have seen a lot of Woody Allen movies would probably smell a similarity to Crimes and Misdemeanors, especially when Johansson's character takes a sharp turn toward Anjelica Huston's shrill mistress character from Crimes to justify the third act. Then, after I saw the movie, I actually saw the clips they spliced together for The Golden Globes — and they show Rhys Meyers in the apartment with the shotgun. I guess they don't even care if it's ruined.
Granted, from years of moviegoing, it's hard to fool me with much, but some plot twists do take me by surprise — especially if I'm so engaged with the film as a whole that I'm not expecting them. Looking back, I should have seen the twist that Chris Cooper and Elizabeth Pena were half-siblings in John Sayles' Lone Star coming, but I didn't — and it made the movie that much more enjoyable for me.
One type of twist that really needs to go away is the "It's all a dream" twist. It hasn't worked since Dorothy woke up back in Kansas back in 1939, but films still go there now and then, like Cameron Crowe's awful Vanilla Sky. Even the abundance of movies where the narrator and/or protagonist turn out to be dead, seem like a rehash since Billy Wilder did it so beautifully with William Holden in Sunset Blvd.
I could probably go on and on with examples of twists, both good and bad, but now I want it to be your turn. What movies have your favorite twists? What movies have twists you don't think work at all?
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Sunday, January 15, 2006
From Merriam-Webster's online dictionary:
saraband: 1 : a stately court dance of the 17th and 18th centuries resembling the minuet 2 : the music for the saraband in slow triple time with accent on the second beat
By Edward Copeland
Ingmar Bergman will turn 88 this year and, despite his retirement from feature film-making, he just keeps going along. While he hasn't made a film for theatrical release since the exquisite Fanny and Alexander in 1983, he's continued to direct countless films for television and contribute scripts for other directors to realize. In 2005, one of those television efforts (alas, which makes it ineligible for Oscar consideration), showed up in American theaters. Saraband revisits the characters of Marianne and Johan (Liv Ullmann, Erland Josephson) from Bergman's great 70s work Scenes From a Marriage.
What's amazing to me is what relatively little notice Saraband received in the American press. It never played where I lived, so I had to wait for its arrival last week on DVD. It was worth the wait, because as Bergman approaches the wrapup of his life's story, he still has the power to captivate a viewer's heart and mind.
In Saraband, Marianne decides that she needs to visit her ex-husband Johan after decades of separation. She finds him living in a cabin in the woods with his son from a first marriage, Henrik (Borje Ahlstedt, living nearby with Johan's granddaughter Karin (Julia Dufvenius).
Marianne arrives to find a tense mess: Johan and Henrik don't hide their contempt for one another and Karin is divided between her loyalty to her father and her desire to pursue a burgeoning musical career.
Aside from a prologue and epilogue that has Marianne alone, Saraband is made up of 10 separate duets between the various combinations of the four characters — and it is riveting.
Ullmann is as luminous as ever and can express more with slight facial movements than most actresses can with full-blown Oscar-baiting speechifying. Josephson, who will turn 83 this year, still maintains his ability to hold the screen with an icy stare, a rare smile or expressions of fear.
The other half of the quartet (Ahlstedt, Dufvenius) are more than able to hold their own with their formidable acting elders, especially Ahlstedt who has a lot of IMDb credits, including Fanny and Alexander, but who has never registered with me before.
It's a shame we won't be seeing Saraband scooping up any Oscar nominations in an otherwise weak year, but don't miss the chance to watch it on DVD. The DVD even includes an interesting 45-minute behind-the-scenes look at the making of Saraband, where you can see the master Bergman at work.
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Saturday, January 14, 2006
Quick Takes on the former Shirley Schrift
Two-time Academy Award winner Shelley Winters died Saturday at the age of 85. Through a long distinguished career, she gave many memorable performances (and some not-so-memorable ones) in movies ranging from good to awful. On Broadway, she replaced Celeste Holm and become the second Ado Annie in the original production of Oklahoma! Here are some quick thoughts on the movies and TV performances I've seen of Winters.
1951: A Place in the Sun: Though the first films in her IMDb credits that I've seen are Howard Hawks' classic Red River, I don't recall her uncredited appearance as Dance Hall Girl in Wagon Train, and I don't really remember her work as Pat Kroll in A Double Life either, so this is the film I first recall.
Winters earned her first Oscar nomination for A Place in the Sun, playing Montgomery Clift's doomed wife in George Stevens' adaptation of Theodore Dreiser's An American Tragedy.
The first thing that springs to mind about A Place in the Sun is the joke that Harvey Korman and Tim Conway made when talking about the film in one of those awful AFI Top 100 TV specials. "Would you kill your wife for Elizabeth Taylor?" Conway asked Korman who replied, "I'd kill my wife for Shelley Winters."
1954: Executive Suite: Part of the large cast of this drama of corporate intrigue following the death of a company president, Winters' role as an executive's mistress was, like many of the performances in the film, much better than the movie deserved.
1955: The Night of the Hunter: Charles Laughton's only film as a director is a classic in its own right as is Winters' work in a role that seems to be a recurring theme in her career — paying a price for marrying the wrong man, this time Robert Mitchum's evil preacher.
1955: The Big Knife: There have been better attempts at making cynical films about Hollywood, but Winters does shine here as a falling starlet with blackmail on her mind.
1959: The Diary of Anne Frank: Winter's second Oscar nomination and her first win, as supporting actress, for playing Mrs. Van Daan. Her performance is slightly hammy, but she's good.
1962: Lolita: Shelley picks the wrong husband again in Stanley Kubrick's adaptation of Vladimir Nabokov's classic novel. She is truly great here and it's a crime that she didn't get nominated for this performance.
1965: A Patch of Blue: Winters won her 2nd Oscar on her third nomination for this dated, fairly lame movie where she played a harridan of a mother who abuses her blind daughter and goes crazy when she starts hanging out with a black man (Sidney Poitier).
1966: Alfie: Vivien Merchant got the Oscar nomination, but Shelley deserved consideration too as one of Michael Caine's many paramours.
1966: Batman: One of the many great actors to take a shot at playing villains on what may be the greatest television comedy of all time (OK — I exaggerate — but it is funny as hell). She played Ma Parker, a Depression-era crook with a large brood of half-wit kids who somehow was running amok in 1960s Gotham City. She was great fun.
1972: The Poseidon Adventure: Winters got her last Oscar nomination for the brave Mrs. Rosen here. I have to admit — of all the disaster movies, I'm a sucker for this one, which I love, and Winters is one of the many reasons why. Damn you Hollywood for trying to redo what was great to begin with not once — but twice this year, once on TV and in the upcoming unnecessary movie remake.
1977: Pete's Dragon: My memory is fuzzy, but this may well have been my first exposure to Winters as the leader of a bumbling gang of crooks. I haven't seen the movie in decades, so who knows how it would hold up but I remember Winters fondly.
1981: S.O.B.: Winters was one of the many greats in this underrated Hollywood satire by Blake Edwards. She played a famous agent embroiled in the madness surrounding a director's mental breakdown over his latest film. Trivia note: S.O.B. doesn't stand for what you think it does, it stands for Standard Operational Bullshit.
1991-96: Roseanne: Winters appeared 11 times on this classic sitcom as Nana Mary, Roseanne's grandmother. She fit in perfectly with an already strong ensemble and provided many memorable moments, including bringing a surprise and nearly dead husband to a family gathering and being decorated by Roseanne and Jackie after she's fallen asleep in a chair.
1996: Portrait of a Lady: One of her last feature film roles of note, Winters showed she still had her stuff in Jane Campion's so-so adaptation of Henry James' novel.
There were many other films of note that I haven't been able to see, but I've seen enough to recognize what Winters was worth to movie fans everywhere.
Rest in peace, Shirley Schrift — and Shelley Winters, too.
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Friday, January 13, 2006
The year of Terrence Howard
Where in the world did Terrence Howard come from? IMDb says he had roles in films I've seen like Ray, Dead Presidents and Mr. Holland's Opus, but he never registered with me until he started getting a lot of buzz for his work in 2005.
I saw him first in Crash and he was one of the many great performances in that really good movie that is what Lawrence Kasdan's awful Grand Canyon wanted to be.
Last night, I caught up with Hustle & Flow and it's hard to believe it's the same actor. Howard's work as DJay, a pimp and drug dealer trying to realize his dream of becoming a hip-hop star in Memphis is astounding.
The movie itself is pretty good too. I sort of guessed where it was heading, even though the tone of the film itself is a mixture of eyes-wide-open hope and down-to-earth cynicism.
When SAG nominated Hustle & Flow for best ensemble, but didn't nominate Howard for best actor, I thought that was odd, not having seen the film yet.
Now SAG's reasoning is clear. As great as Howard is, so is the ensemble that surrounds him: Anthony Anderson, who showed his acting chops last season on TV's The Shield; Taryn Manning as Nola, one of DJay's working girls; D.J. Qualls as the skinny white kid who shows DJay lots of tips on making the music; Paula Jai Parker as the feistier of DJay's streetwalkers; and Ludacris (who also appeared in Crash) as Skinny Black, the hometown boy who returns after making his name in the music industry.
For me though, of all the supporting cast, the standout is Taraji P. Henson as Shug, who is pregnant with DJay's child and becomes a crucial part of his music as well. It's a shame that supporting actress seems to be the most crowded category at this year's Oscars, because she deserves to be a contender.
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Thursday, January 12, 2006
Quick takes on Altman works
Granted, I haven't seen every single thing Robert Altman has done, but I have seen quite a few and while he is indisputably one of the greats and one of my favorites, there are a lot of missteps and clunkers on his resume as well. Thought I'd go chronologically and I'm only including the things I've seen.
One of the first of what I like to call "perfect but flawed" when referring to a movie, especially Altman's. It beautifully set the template for the later series, but it was harsher and more brutal (and lacked a laughtrack, thank God). The performers are all excellent and it really only goes astray for me in the third act with the football game and whatnot. Still, it's one of Altman's most rewatchable films.
Trivia note: The day after McLean Stevenson who played Col. Henry Blake on TV's M*A*S*H died, Roger Bowen who played Blake in the movie died. It's like he figured that was the only way his obituary would get noticed.
McCabe and Mrs. Miller: 1971
This is a film that has really grown on me over the years. When first exposed to it, I found it rather drab and dull, but on repeated viewings, I've liked it more and more both for Warren Beatty's performance and Julie Christie.
I just watched this not too long ago on DVD and this is definitely one of Altman's missteps. He seems to be trying to ape Ingmar Bergman here and it's the phase of Bergman I can least stomach. Susannah York does her best as the lead, but it's really an incomprehensible bore.
The Long Goodbye: 1973
This is a really fun outing with Elliot Gould playing Philip Marlowe in a way you'd never expect him to be played. Really, it's a lost treasure that more people should seek out.
Thieves Like Us: 1974
This is a close call. There is a lot to like here, but it still seems familiar with very little new to offer. Like many of his offerings on DVD, the Altman commentary track is more interesting than the film itself.
California Split: 1974
A strong look at gambling that I recently revisited, in the midst of my poker obsession no less. It holds up fairly well. Not one of his masterpieces, but a good diversion.
I'll resist the urge to write pages upon pages about how much I love this film. It's in my Top 10 of all time. I was fortunate enough to see a restored print once at the theater in Lincoln Center in New York, and it was one of the great moviegoing experiences of my life. The cast is impeccable and he juggles the multiple characters with ease and you are never bored (contrast that with the juggling in Syriana). The movie only gets better and better with each passing year. While I like One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, how it beat this, Dog Day Afternoon and Jaws mystifies me.
Buffalo Bill and the Indians: 1976
It probably isn't fair of me to even comment on this one since I saw it in a drive-in when I was in second grade and don't really remember much of it. I'll get to the DVD eventually.
3 Women: 1977
Now here is where Altman is again playing with styles like he did in Images, only this time it works thanks to excellent work of Sissy Spacek and Shelley Duvall. I had the good fortune of speaking to Robert Altman once and he said something that always stuck with me. He said that you should always see a film twice, because the first time you are too worried with plot and what's going to happen next. With a second viewing, you relax and watch the film at work. That's definitely the best way to approach 3 Women.
A Wedding: 1978
I've come to think that I'm one of the few defenders of this one. It boasts a cast twice the size of Nashville, but I loved it. I wish they'd give it a proper DVD so I can see it again and see how it holds up.
This was a real misfire, but there are some good performances within it.
Altman's adaptation of David Rabe's play still feels like a play, but it really works thanks to an excellent ensemble cast.
Secret Honor: 1984
Now here is a play adaptation that doesn't work quite as well, though Philip Baker Hall is excellent playing what is an essentially a monologue by a drunken crazed Richard Nixon.
O.C. & Stiggs: 1987
I caught this one by accident late one night on HBO. It's really nothing to write home about, but what caught my attention was the return of Hal Philip Walker, the candidate in Nashville.
Aria segment "Les Boreades": 1987
A better idea than a movie: 10 directors make what are essentially music videos of classic opera pieces. Altman's is a bore. Really, only Franc Roddam's tale set in Las Vegas and featuring a young Bridget Fonda really works.
Tanner '88: 1988
Granted, this isn't a movie, but it was HBO's first great original series with a great script by Doonesbury cartoonist Garry Trudeau. Having rewatched it recently, it still holds up. It's amazing how many real politicos agreed to appear.
Vincent and Theo: 1990
This was actually the first Altman I saw in a theater — and I was bored silly. Tim Roth was great, but the movie left me cold. In fact, it's my contention that there has never been a really good movie made about a real-life artist. So far, no one has shown me something that dissuaded me from this theory.
The Player: 1992
An absolute satiric masterpiece with a strong cast, oodles of cameos and one of the funniest payoffs ever put in a movie. I can still think about its ending and start laughing. Probably the best fictional film ever made about moviemaking.
Short Cuts: 1993
This is another example of one his "perfect but flawed" films. He really just used Raymond Carver's stories as a launching pad, only sticking close to one of the stories, and the one Altman events from wholecloth involving Annie Ross and Lori Singer is the weakest and most conventional of the bunch, but you really need it so you can have those great jazz songs, I suppose. The earthquake might be a bit much at the end, but it works.
Ready to Wear aka Pret a Porter: 1994
Another complete misfire. There are some good performances, but the movie is pretty bad and never goes anywhere.
Kansas City: 1996
Another misfire, despite a good performance by Harry Belafonte. It just never pulled me in.
The Gingerbread Man: 1998
The first film based on an original screen story by John Grisham is a slight diversion. It's fine while you are watching it, but you forget it almost immediately once it's over.
Cookie's Fortune: 1999
I enjoyed the hell out of this movie and it boasts another great cast, including a really good turn by Patricia Neal.
Dr. T and the Women: 2000
A complete misfire from top to bottom, including Altman returning to the earthquake-like Short Cuts well with a tornadic ending that is ludicrous.
Gosford Park: 2001
Again, a strong cast, and while I liked it, it didn't bowl me over like it did a lot of critics.
The Company: 2003
About an hour into this, I realized a plot was never going to develop. It had some interesting stuff, especially Malcolm McDowell, but it is essentially a bore.
Tanner on Tanner: 2004
Altman and Trudeau return to TV for an update on the 1988 presidential candidate, in the form of a documentary made by his daughter (Cynthia Nixon). While it has its moments, it's mostly a wash and doesn't come close to matching the brilliance of the original.
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Sometimes, there are disadvantages to watching at home
Tonight, I watched a screener of Syriana and it immediately raised to me not questions poised by the film about politics, oil and the Middle East, but questions of how older Academy voters will react, if they watch it at home.
Letterboxed — even on a good-size television screen — the many white subtitles are incredibly hard to read, even for someone like me with good eyesight. It led my dad to abandon his effort to watch the film early in the playing.
As for the movie itself, perhaps it plays better in a theater, but it is extremely hard to follow in the earlygoing. Writer-director Stephen Gaghan follows a structure similar to the one of his Oscar-winning screenplay for Traffic. While it eventually comes together with a degree of coherence, Syriana tries a bit too hard to obscure the entire picture in the beginning stages.
George Clooney appears to be the one talked about for a possible acting nomination and, while he is fine, there are better supporting performances in the movie — Matt Damon, Jeffrey Wright, even Tim Blake Nelson in a brief bit — and it really is more a function of them wanting to give him a chance to win something for the year he had, where he is certain to get a screenplay nomination for Good Night, and Good Luck and perhaps a directing nod for that as well.
At this stage in the Oscar struggle though, I think it is entirely possible that Clooney will end up going 0 for 3 this year. Ang Lee is nearly a lock to win director for Brokeback Mountain, so that nomination is out for George. Clooney faces stiff competition for original screenplay from Crash, which just seems to be gaining more and more momentum and now that I've seen Syriana, this just doesn't seem like a performance destined to win an Oscar. At this point, I think they'll want to have overdue makeup Oscar sex with Paul Giamatti for Cinderella Man.
ADDITIONAL THOUGHTS: The more I think about Syriana, the more it seems to me like a miniseries cut down to a 2-hour running time. Though admittedly I've never seen either version of Sergio Leone's Once Upon a Time in America, it reminded me of what I read of the truncated version, where characters would walk through secret doors that they shouldn't know were there.
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Wednesday, January 11, 2006
BLOGGER'S NOTE: I try to keep this updated with new recipients and with potential honorees who pass away.
By Edward Copeland
After the 2001 Oscars, I finally grew tired of the Academy honoring people with honorary Oscars or Irving G. Thalberg Awards who had already won competitive Oscars while so many remained unhonored. Between 1990 and 2001, they honored
1990: honorary Oscar for Sophia Loren (best actress, 1961, for Two Women
1994: Irving G. Thalberg Award for Clint Eastwood (two years after he won two Oscars for Unforgiven)
1996: Irving G. Thalberg Award for Saul Zaentz (best picture for One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, Amadeus and 1996's best picture, The English Patient.
1998: honorary Oscar for Elia Kazan (the issue wasn't the controversy for me, but the fact he'd already won for Gentleman's Agreement and On the Waterfront)
1999: Irving G. Thalberg Award for Warren Beatty (best director, 1981, Reds)
2001: honorary Oscar for Sidney Poitier (best actor 1963, Lilies of the Field)
honorary Oscar for Robert Redford (best director, 1980, Ordinary People)
With two previous winners honored in the same year, I thought enough was enough and wrote then-Academy President Frank Pierson with a list of suggested honorees (some provided by my friend Josh R.) My criteria: They had to be 65 or older and had never won an Oscar. So far, the Academy has been doing an excellent job since my letter. Granted, some of the names on the list have passed away and one actually has managed to win competitively. Here are the names I sent. The ones under STILL ALIVE are listed from oldest to youngest. Unfortunately, the misguided Academy, caving to Disney/ABC in their constant lust for ratings they'll never achieve again are now honoring people with special awards at a nontelevised November dinner as of 2009 since they could care less about film history. Those who receive non-televised honors are marked with an asterisk.
Max von Sydow
Jerry Lewis (Jean Hersholt)
James Earl Jones*
*Awards received at nontelevised Governors Awards dinner held in November once honorary awards were evicted from actual Oscar ceremony.
**Of course, I realize I forgot some possibilities (such as Eli Wallach) and others have passed 65 since (such as Liv Ullmann). Still, I'm happy that for the past several years, they've picked names from my list. Hopefully, the trend will continue.
***Godard decided not to come to the U.S. to accept the award at the nontelevised dinner, though he probably would have skipped the televised one as well.
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About damn time!
Glad they didn't take his comments that he didn't want one too seriously.
BEVERLY HILLS, Calif. (AP) — Robert Altman, one of five esteemed directors who hold the record for most Academy Award nominations without winning, finally is getting an Oscar.
Altman, who had best-director nominations for MASH, Nashville, The Player, Short Cuts and Gosford Park, will receive an honorary Oscar at the March 5 awards.
In announcing the award Wednesday, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences cited Altman for a "career that has repeatedly reinvented the art form and inspired filmmakers and audiences alike."
Altman, 80, is tied with four other filmmakers for the record for Oscar futility, losing all five times they were nominated. The others are Martin Scorsese, Alfred Hitchcock, Clarence Brown and King Vidor.
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Sunday, January 08, 2006
Harry Potter and the Defiance of Sequel Expectations
I have never read a single Harry Potter novel, but tonight I watched the fourth in the film series, Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire. How is it that a film series can keep getting better as it goes instead of worse? There are isolated cases of sequels that are better than the original (Aliens, Terminator 2: Judgment Day — now my mind is blanking because I still think the original Godfather bests Godfather Part 2.)
Granted, the Harry Potter film series started with a handicap in the form of the ever-bland hack that is Chris Columbus, but when Alfonso Cuaron helmed The Prisoner of Azkaban, the series rose to a new level. Mike Newell's work on The Goblet of Fire lifts it even further, adding a level of creepiness and suspense that was missing from previous installments.
The 5th film of the series, Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, is to be directed by David Yates, whose work has mainly been on British television and whom I'm not familiar with. I'll give him the benefit of the doubt that he has to be better than Columbus, but I'll be curious to see if he can keep the streak going.
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Saturday, January 07, 2006
Having been burned for a decade now by Woody Allen, I was skeptical whenever anyone touted one of his new films as a return to form. In my opinion, he hadn't produced a satisfying film since Bullets Over Broadway in 1994. So, when people would tout things such as Sweet and Lowdown or Melinda and Melinda, I'd inevitably be disappointed. I didn't even bother with Anything Else, because to me it seemed as if the critics praising it didn't even believe what they were saying. Needless to say, when the groundswell began for Match Point, my expectations were low. That's why I'm pleased to say that it's good — not great, not near any of Woody's masterpieces — but solid.
The main reason is Match Point doesn't seem remotely like a Woody Allen film, partly because of its British setting and mostly British cast and its lack of yuks of any kind. It also contains more visual inventiveness than one usually associates with Allen as a director.
On the other hand, even if you didn't know Woody wrote it, you would recognize plot points that seem familiar. Most of the reviews have given it away, but if you want to stay away from spoilers, avert your eyes now, even though I'll be as vague as possible.
The last act of Match Point plays like the Martin Landau half of Crimes and Misdemeanors and I'm afraid to say that Jonathan Rhys-Meyers is no Martin Landau. While you empathized with Landau's character and his conflict, you never get any sense about how you should feel about Rhys-Meyers. Is he a cad? Is he a nice guy in over his head? Villain? Being justly punished (or not)? Scarlett Johansson is good as his mistress, but a sudden switch in her character burdens her and seems to occur mainly to justify the movie's final act.
Aside from those criticisms, for the most part, Woody is trying something new — and after inflicting a decade of duds on us such as Celebrity, The Curse of the Jade Scorpion, Hollywood Ending, etc., this is a good thing.
Some critics have overpraised Match Point to some degree, but it's at least understandable this time because it is a byproduct of an actual good creative effort instead of wishful thinking.
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Fiction films live!
Last week, I was questioning whether either by the product being produced or my lifetime of excessive moviegoing, fiction films were dead, since documentaries were captivating me much more often the fiction features, which all, even when good, seemed like things I'd seen before.
Nothing like saying something out loud to break a curse. I've watched The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada today and it's the first fiction film I'd give a perfect score to since 2003.
I knew Tommy Lee Jones could be a great actor when he toned down his hamminess, but who knew he could direct with such flair while realizing such an original script by Guillermo Arriaga?
Three Burials starts slowly, but then it draws you in like a great novel that you can't put down and you're never quite sure where it is going, which is such a relief in this age of formula.
There are many stunning images, which I won't spoil here for those who haven't seen the film, and the writing is crisp and often funny in its portrait of friendship, obsession and life in a small rural town. It also boasts great cinematography by Chris Menges and a memorable score by Marco Beltrami.
Jones is also surrounded by a strong supporting cast, headed by Melissa Leo, Barry Pepper and two musicians turning in solid performances — Dwight Yoakam and The Band's great Levon Helm.
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Are Fiction Films Dead?
As a lifelong movie buff, I've noticed in recent years that documentaries are grabbing my interest much more consistently than features do. I rate movies on a 4-star scale (or did until this blog allowed me the freedom to dump ratings entirely) and I have not given that top score to a fiction film since House of Sand and Fog in 2003. In contrast, in 2005, I've handed out three 4-star ratings so far — and they have all gone to documentaries: Murderball, the great depiction of the players on quadriplegic rugby teams; Grizzly Man, Werner Herzog's haunting look at a man whose love affair with bears ends with his own demise and uses the man's own footage; and Tell Them Who You Are, an extremely personal documentary by Mark S. Wexler about his relationship with his father, the legendary cinematographer Haskell Wexler.
There was also Martin Scorsese's excellent two-part PBS documentary on Bob Dylan, No Direction Home, which is really the best movie Scorsese has produced since 1993's The Age of Innocence. These documentaries and others seem to have a knack for summoning up better characters and often more suspense than their fictional counterparts.
This isn't to say I haven't seen some good fiction films this year — Crash, Downfall, The 40-Year-Old Virgin, Batman Begins — but I wouldn't give any of them a perfect score and none of them have grabbed me in a way that reminds me why I fell in love with movies in the first place.
Yesterday, I also watched 2005's most highly acclaimed film, Brokeback Mountain. It's a good film, but not great. I'd only go three stars on it, namely because it starts too slowly and I think Jake Gyllenhaal is very noticeably a weaker actor than the rest of the cast and, as a result, I never quite believed that he and Heath Ledger's characters were truly in love.
I still have faith that I'll see great fiction films in the future, but for now, documentaries seem to be where it's at.
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