Wednesday, February 28, 2007


Let them eat icing...

By Edward Copeland
...because the tasty topping is all you're going to get from this great-looking but empty biopic of Marie Antoinette, Sofia Coppola's truly bizarre followup to her exquisite Lost in Translation.

I don't say this lightly when I say that this film actually pales to the creaky 1938 W.S. Van Dyke version starring Norma Shearer, especially in the casting of Louis XVI. I like Jason Schwartzman, but Robert Morley's Oscar-nominated turn in the 1938 version is hilarious.

Coppola's 2006 version is a real headscratcher, tossing in anachronistic dialogue and music for no apparent reason. The music at times is so blaring that it's difficult to hear the dialogue, which is probably a good thing since when you can hear it, you expect someone to go, "Dude, where's my crown?"

You can't blame actors such as Schwartzman and Kirsten Dunst much since they really are just there to fill out the deservedly Oscar-winning costumes and character development is nonexistent. This saddens though in the case of Judy Davis, who is completely wasted, and Rip Torn, though he manages to get a few good moments as Louis XV.

The film also suffers with every character seeming to bring a different accent (or no accent) to the table. I'm glad I didn't catch this until it was on DVD, because watching it is quite laborious and it helps to be able to stop and start it again.

The whole enterprise is just puzzling. Whatever Coppola was setting out to do doesn't work, and that's before the dreaded Danny Huston shows up briefly as her older brother. If I ever doubted the ability of people to make deals with the devil, Huston's persistent appearances in film seems proof enough to me that it can happen. Huston turns 45 this year and, according to IMDb, never appeared in a film until 1995's Leaving Las Vegas, where he played the pivotal role of Bartender #2.

Since his first sizable role in a major release, 2003's 21 Grams, this painful-to-watch "actor" has appeared in 10 feature films, some of which succeeded in spite of his presence, others that failed because of it (see John Sayles' Silver City) and has two more features being prepared for release this year as well as the part of Samuel Adams in HBO's upcoming John Adams miniseries. His father John has been dead for a long time, so he's not pulling the strings and his half-sister Anjelica (who has talent) hasn't worked nearly as much as he has.

However, I can't blame Danny Huston for the mess that is Marie Antoinette. It would be a beautiful, mindboggling bore even if he weren't in it.

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Tuesday, February 27, 2007


One step forward, two steps back

By Edward Copeland
I really miss Al Swearengen. After getting to watch Ian McShane's masterful work as Al on the three brief seasons of HBO's Deadwood, I can only hope that his career will produce better parts than the one he was saddled with here in Woody Allen's Scoop.

After coming back a bit from a more than decade-long slump with 2005's Match Point, Allen tumbles backward a bit with Scoop, though it is at least watchable and nowhere near as painful as some of his other recent efforts such as Hollywood Ending, Curse of the Jade Scorpion or Celebrity.

Allen casts Scarlett Johansson for the second film in a row, this time in a comic mystery as well as in a role that bears many similarities to Woody himself. He's done this tact a lot, but it always seems odd when he also appears in the film in question. Johansson plays an aspiring journalist visiting London and Allen plays a magician, who for some reason has been performing his act in London.

The two meet when he pulls her onstage as a volunteer for a trick where she enters a box only to disappear and then reappear. The catch? While in the box, she encounters the spirit of a prominent journalist (McShane), recently deceased in a car accident, who gives her the tip that a prominent member of British society (Hugh Jackman) also is the notorious Tarot Card Killer, who has been terrorizing the city's prostitutes for quite some time.

Since he can't land the story himself, he picks the young woman to be his surrogate and she drags the magician on her quest. Since the suspect in question is, after all, Hugh Jackman, Johansson inevitably falls heads over heels for him. With this light a confection, obviously the mystery isn't a puzzler or an attraction, so what's left is the comedy which, unfortunately, is tired. You see the jokes coming with almost as much clairvoyance as the best psychic solving the mystery.

That said, Scoop isn't painful to watch. It's still somewhat sad to see Allen struggling through this work without remembering the glories of his past. In one sequence, when he's driving a tiny silver car, it's hard not to think back to Sleeper and how much you'd rather be watching it. Still, what elicits the most sadness is McShane's presence. He's fine, but it's a nothing part and just makes any Deadwood fan long for the further episodes that we deserve.

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Monday, February 26, 2007


Centennial Tributes: Saluting an Old Coot

By Edward Copeland
100 years ago today, one of the most familiar faces and least-familiar names in acting, particularly Westerns, was born. Dub Taylor died in 1994, shortly after he made his last screen appearance as a room clerk in the film remake of Maverick. It seems appropriate that his last credit was in the genre for which he was most strongly identified, but Taylor's work did venture outside the Old West. Taylor's first film credit was in Frank Capra's Oscar-winning You Can't Take It With You and was soon followed with an uncredited part in Capra's Mr. Smith Goes to Washington. From 1939-1949, he also appeared in dozens of short Westerns, many with Bill Elliott, and usually as a character named Cannonball.

Taylor proved to be a staple of many Western films and Western-theme TV shows such as Little House on the Prairie, How the West Was Won, Bonanza, Gunsmoke, The Big Valley, The Wild Wild West and Death Valley Days. However, Taylor's ample TV work led him to some surprising series both dramatic (McMillan and Wife, Emergency! Hawaii Five-O, The Man from U.N.C.L.E., The Twilight Zone and Perry Mason) and comic (Dennis the Menace, I Love Lucy, The Andy Griffith Show, The Odd Couple, Designing Women and The Cosby Show). Some of his episodic television appearances came in shows you wouldn't expect a veteran Western character actor to appear such as The Mod Squad, The Monkees, The Partridge Family and even Love, American Style.

Sam Peckinpah used Taylor often, even if the roles tended to be brief uncredited cameos. He worked with the director on Major Dundee, The Wild Bunch, Junior Bonner, The Getaway and Pat Garrett & Billy the Kid. He even used his voice talents in the animated film The Rescuers, dealt cards in The Cincinnati Kid and combined the Western genre he knew so well with sci-fi in Back to the Future Part III.

Of all the films on Dub Taylor's resume, my guess is the one which he will be remembered most for is Bonnie and Clyde, where he played the father of C.W. Moss (Michael J. Pollard) and led the robbers to their fateful ambush to save his son while he hid from the barrage of gunfire.

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Saturday, February 24, 2007


Two that made it, one that should have

By Edward Copeland
This week, I caught up with three documentaries, two of which are in the running for the Oscar for documentary feature tomorrow night and the other which should be. The one left out of the party is the great Why We Fight, a probing look not so much at the war in Iraq as in the whole business of military in this country based on Eisenhower's famous farewell speech in 1961 when he warned against the dangers of the "military industrial complex." The two that did get invited (including the probable winner) are Jesus Camp and An Inconvenient Truth.

An Inconvenient Truth

In the interest of full disclosure, I consider Al Gore an archenemy of mine dating back to the 1980s when he let Tipper and her PMRC (co-founded by James Baker's wife) hold those ridiculous Senate hearings about "dirty lyrics" in rock music.

Sure, he may have tried to change his image (going so far as to show up at the Grammys to give the award for rock song to the Red Hot Chili Peppers), but become an enemy of free expression once, and you're on my shitlist forever. He sealed it when he picked Censorin' Joe Lieberman as his running mate in 2000, though at least most good Democrats have caught up to me in hating the Republican in formerly Democratic clothing. Sure, my politics are left of center, but it is possible to despise both Gore and Dubya.

That said, I resisted watching An Inconvenient Truth for a long time. I knew its nomination was inevitable, so I bit the bullet and went ahead and watched it. Climate change is one of the most important issues of our times and the documentary lays out a lot of important facts about it but it still plays, as I think it was Stephen Colbert who said it, the first major film release of a PowerPoint presentation.

Remember how even Gore's supporters criticized his tendency to lecture and sound as if he's talking down to the audience? Imagine an hour and a half of that and you get the gist of An Inconvenient Truth.

What's even more frustrating about the film and its important topic is that too often it plays as if it's really about Gore and not the planet's future. We get a little rehash of the 2000 election, which he actually sounds more depressed about than when he's discussing his sister's death from lung cancer or the accident that almost claimed his young son's life.

For all his running away from Clinton in 2000 because of the Lewinsky scandal, it's ironic that he's now participated in a documentary that gives him a bigger blow job than Bill ever got.

Jesus Camp

I sort of knew what to expect going into Jesus Camp, but I hadn't rushed to see it (mainly because of high rental demand) but also because I was almost certain that it would give me nightmares — and I was correct on that count.

Except for some scenes of a radio talk show host who is openly critical of some evangelicals' interpretation of Christianity (such as denying global warming, claiming it's not for political reasons but simply because they think Jesus will be back at any moment, so why worry about the icecaps?), the camera just watches its subjects and doesn't comment.

Thankfully, there is a brief moment of comic relief when disgraced pastor Ted Haggard appears and jokingly points at the camera saying he knows what they did last night and if they pay him money, he won't tell their wife. Those closeted gay evangelicals sure have an ironic sense of humor.

The focus of the documentary though is on an indoctrination camp for kids where the founder, Becky Fischer, acknowledges that she basically wants to build an army of Christians the way that Muslim extremists breed suicide bombers. (As one little girl says, they are like "warriors, only funner.") Fischer worries about this "sick world" we live in praying for everything from abortion to making sure Satan doesn't give them technical difficulties during their presentation to the children.

She mentions how most Christians aren't willing to fast for what they believe in the way Muslims do during Ramadan, but taking a gander at Fischer, this doesn't look like a woman who has spent a lot of time skipping meals. Granted, I'm not a religious person, but the scenes of what these true believers try to instill in children truly is frightening.

They warn against the evil influence of Harry Potter, because it's about witchcraft. That always puzzled me but after seeing the film, their reasoning is more apparent. They are discouraging the use of imagination because imagination leads to free thought and embracing fantasy might give some of these kids the notion that perhaps religion is a fantasy as well.

What's most disturbing is when they haul out a cardboard cutout of George W. Bush and encourage the kids to literally lay hands on him. I may be a little rusty on the Ten Commandments, but I could have sworn one of them forbids worshipping false idols, but I guess in the eyes of these zealots, Dubya isn't false, he's the Messiah.

Fischer also breaks another commandment when she appears on the radio show with the host and denies that she instills politics into the children, when we've already seen evidence that proves otherwise.

Why We Fight

"God help us if someone ever sits in this chair who doesn't know the military like I do," one of President Eisenhower's children report their father as having said while he occupied the Oval Office.

His words are even more chilling today when you see what a mess was made by the spoiled son of a wealthy politician who "served" in the Air National Guard protecting the southern U.S. from the Viet Cong and a vice president who had "other priorities" and got six deferments to avoid putting on a military uniform during Vietnam.

Of course, now both of them and many other chicken hawks are more than willing to send other people's children off to die in their poorly planned, misguided mission in Iraq. Why We Fight isn't exclusively about Iraq though. It provides a vivid history lesson about the United States' history of military adventurism after World War II.

The most touching moments of the documentary belong to a New York police officer whose son died in the World Trade Center and went to great lengths to have the military put his son's name on a bomb dropped on Iraq only to feel completely betrayed once Dubya finally admitted that Iraq had nothing to do with 9/11.

It also paints some details on the picture of Darth Cheney's involvement with Halliburton before and after he joined the company. (You even see one employee of the KBR unit of Halliburton bragging at a convention that his company is in "collusion" with the military.) When war becomes this big a business, you have to keep it going.

Eisenhower's prescience falls on deaf ears now as Congress ignores its constitutional duties. There's also an interesting moment when they interview former maverick John McCain who says that there should be a public investigation of Cheney's links to Halliburton's contracts and their defrauding of the U.S. during the Iraq war.

I wonder what McCain would say today if someone raised that issue.

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Friday, February 23, 2007


Comparing best best picture lists

Well, Rotten Tomatoes, claiming to tap a database of reviews, have ranked the "best reviewed" best picture winners from worst to best. Their results are questionable to say the least. (They also include Sunrise, but I'm not going to get into that argument again). The biggest crime is some of their insane rankings. According to their weird, weighted scale, The Apartment is only the 47th best reviewed best picture winner with a Tomatometer score of 88% while Wings end up as the 14th best reviewed, with a Tomatometer ranking of 100%. So, read on below to see how they rank 79 Oscar winners and then compare it to the best best picture survey we conducted here last year (not to be confused with our worst best picture survey). (Our rankings are in parentheses to the right of the title)


79. The Greatest Show on Earth (72) (tie)
78. Cimarron (72) (tie)
77. The Broadway Melody (71) (tie)
76. Cavalcade 72 (tie)
75. The Great Ziegfeld (72) (tie)
74. Crash (58) (tie)
73. The Life of Emile Zola (72) (tie)
72. Forrest Gump (51) (tie)
71. Around the World in 80 Days (72) (tie)
70. A Beautiful Mind (61)
69. Gladiator (62)
68. Dances With Wolves (54)
67. Braveheart (44) (tie)
66. Out of Africa (67) (tie)
65. Going My Way (71) (tie)
64. Driving Miss Daisy (51) (tie)
63. Gigi (47) (tie)
62. The Sound of Music (29)(tie)
61. Tom Jones (50)
60. Titanic (43)
59. Mrs. Miniver (51) (tie)
58. Grand Hotel (65) (tie)
57. Chariots of Fire (34)
56. Oliver! (69)
55. A Man for All Seasons (47) (tie)
54. Chicago (55)
53. The English Patient (63) (tie)
52. How Green Was My Valley (27)
51. From Here to Eternity (25)(tie)
50. Ordinary People (29) (tie)
49. Gentleman's Agreement (44) (tie)
48. Gandhi (32)
47. The Apartment (7)
46. Platoon (39) (tie)
45. The Last Emperor (33)
44. The Deer Hunter (31)
43. Midnight Cowboy (16)
42. American Beauty (24)
41. Terms of Endearment (42)
40. Ben-Hur (41)
39. Rain Man (58) (tie)
38. Kramer Vs. Kramer (65) (tie)
37. My Fair Lady (56) (tie)
36. Million Dollar Baby (39) (tie)
35. Rocky (37)
34. You Can't Take It With You (47) (tie)
33. Hamlet (67) (tie)
32. Shakespeare in Love (38)
31. The Bridge on the River Kwai (19)
30. The Lost Weekend (35) (tie)
29. All The King's Men (58) (tie)
28. All Quiet on the Western Front (22)
27. Mutiny on the Bounty (56) (tie)
26. In the Heat of the Night (44) (tie)
25. The Sting (25) (tie)
24. The Silence of the Lambs (17)
23. It Happened One Night (9)
22. The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King (20)
21. West Side Story (18)
20. Patton (23)
19. Unforgiven (11)
18. Schindler's List (8)
17. Gone With the Wind (13)
16. The French Connection (28)
15. Amadeus (12)
14. Wings (70)
13. An American in Paris (35) (tie)
12. One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest (14)
11. Annie Hall (5)
10. Casablanca (1)
9. The Godfather Part II (3)
8. Lawrence of Arabia (6)
7. The Best Years of Our Lives (15)
6. Marty (63) (tie)
5. Rebecca (21)
4. Sunrise (not applicable)
3. All About Eve (4)
2. On the Waterfront (10)
1. The Godfather (2)

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Thursday, February 22, 2007


The performances Oscar forgot

By Odienator
Since there are only five spots to be had for each acting category at the Oscars, names are bound to be missing come nomination day. Every year the battle rages over who got snubbed. Sometimes Oscar “rights these wrongs” by nominating the snubbed person for a lesser performance the following year, as it did with Bette Davis and Paul Giamatti. Other times, folks are just outta luck. Today, I salute some of the outta luck folks, people who should have heard their names on nomination morning.

Robert Mitchum in The Night of the Hunter

Mitchum, with his hooded eyelids, velvety voice and aura of menace, assays the iconic image of evil in Charles Laughton’s creepy, ethereal fable. Mitchum’s preacher is suave enough to seduce Shelley Winters yet fake enough for her kids to see through his musings on right and wrong. The entire film is purposefully fake, but Mitchum’s menace is still jarring; he’s a big bad wolf threatening to leap off the screen and blow down the viewer’s house. The preacher shows us the tattooed hands bearing the words love and hate, but we know which hand we’re being dealt.

Linda Fiorentino in The Last Seduction

Fiorentino's fiery femme fatale "Wendy Kroy" appeared on HBO before being released theatrically, which caused the Academy to disqualify the best female performance of 1994 from best actress consideration. Fiorentino is fearless, exposing her hot body and her cold heart as she leads man after man by his dong to his doom. Her performance shows Wendy thinking quickly on (and off) her feet, scheming, plotting, and most importantly, getting away with murder. Barbara Stanwyck would be proud.

Cary Grant in The Philadelphia Story

Mr. Smith Goes To Washington and wins the filibuster but loses the Oscar, so they gave it to him one year later for getting drunk. Meanwhile, Cary Grant gives a charming, comic performance, stealing the film from both Stewart and Katharine Hepburn. The real story behind The Philadelphia Story is that the wrong actor got the gold. Cary, you wuz robbed.

Debbi Morgan in Eve's Bayou

This Southern Gothic benefits from fine performances all around, including a surprisingly erotic Samuel L. Jackson, but Angie Hubbard from All My Children leaves a lasting impression as a clairvoyant whose bad luck with men is comical yet deadly. The scene that always sticks with me is her soliloquy where, while describing the fate of one of her husbands, she steps into a mirror and into her past. Later, she has one of those scenes of quiet devastation, the type of scene I love so much when an actor nails it. Had the Academy seen this film, I'm sure she, and the sweltering cinematography, would have gotten a nod.

Steve Buscemi in Fargo

The Coens love to cast, then abuse, Steve Buscemi. In Fargo, he suffers perhaps their cruelest fate, but before he does, his frustrated, hapless performance leaps from slapstick to smarminess to sadism without missing a beat. Buscemi never shuts up, and seems to wear his socks in every scene, even during sex. The Coens' constant focus on those socks pays off in the most revoltingly funny scene of the film, and one is almost sad to see Buscemi go. For an extra Oscar omission, see Buscemi in an even better performance in Ghost World.

Irma P. Hall in A Family Thing

The Coens misuse Hall in The LadyKillers, but this performance is probably what made them cast her in the first place. A fine example of what a supporting performance is supposed to be, Hall's blind Aunt Tee is an amusing adviser to lead actor Robert Duvall. Her hilarious dialogue, by Billy Bob Thornton and Tom Epperson, sounds real, down to the Southern Black cadences and phrases. When Duvall, while looking at pictures of a young Hall says "you were beautiful back then," Hall snaps back "ain't nothing wrong with me now!" Apparently Oscar thought differently.

Robin Williams in Awakenings

I once wrote "Robin Williams has appeared on my ten worst lists more than the numbers 1 through 10." And he has. Awakenings is the good movie where he plays a doctor (please don't make me invoke the name of the bad one) and if the Academy saw fit to nominate De Niro, they should have nominated the other half of his performance as well.

Jennifer Jason Leigh in Georgia

Mare Winningham got the Oscar nod, which seems appropriate considering the luck of Leigh's character in this film. The movie is named after Winningham's character, but it's about Leigh's self-destructive Sadie. Sadie lives in her sister Georgia's shadow, refusing to believe that Georgia is the more talented singer. Anyone who has siblings can relate to the rivalry, but Sadie brings far too much upon herself to be truly forgiven. Leigh has been accused of being grating, and here she pushes the envelope of audience endurance with a horrible 9 minute rendition of a Van Morrison tune, a scene that either pulls you in sympathy toward Sadie or pushes you away from her forever. Either way, it's sheer bravery, and Leigh's bloody, open wound of a performance went unrewarded by an Academy that obviously saw the movie.

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Wednesday, February 21, 2007


Odienator's Oscar Exchange Program

BLOGGER'S NOTE: Welcome for the first time as a contributor the inimitable Odienator, who many of you may know from his great offerings at The House Next Door.

By Odienator
Since the inception of the Academy Awards, actors and actresses have received nominations for less than stellar work. Occasionally they win. Meanwhile, these same actors and actresses go unnoticed by Oscar for some of their best work. There are plenty of reasons for these omissions, valid and not, but these do not concern Odienator's Oscar Exchange Program (OOEP). Like the toys for guns program, we will take your Oscar nominations with no questions asked, and we will exchange them for an Oscar nomination for the better performance of your choice. You can exchange a supporting performance for a lead or vice versa, and if you're as noble as we think Hollywood types are, you can even exchange a nod that resulted in a win, especially if you feel another actor was robbed by that win. Unless you're Jaye Davidson, Dustin Hoffman or Felicity Huffman, you cannot exchange the gender of the nomination. Other than that, come on down and let's make a deal.

Below, the proprietor of OOEP put together a wish list of some performers we hope to see at our service counter.

Exchanged: Actress nod for Crimes of the Heart
Received: S. Actress nod for The Straight Story

Comedy nominations are few and far between, but Spacek should turn the one she received for this Southern-fried episode of The View for her simple, understated turn as Richard Farnsworth's mentally challenged daughter. It is perhaps the nicest David Lynch has ever been to a female character, and Ms. Spacek is the recipient of one of the director's most hauntingly beautiful long takes.

Exchanged: Actor win for The Color of Money
Received: Actor nod for Somebody Up There Likes Me
Newman should have done a George C. Scott and rejected his Oscar for this dismal performance, a pale shadow of his Fast Eddie performance in The Hustler. Even though the nod put him in the same company as Bing Crosby in terms of being nominated twice for the same character, it is one of Newman's rare botches. Since Newman's received Oscar nods for playing real life characters and/or throwing punches (see The Verdict for the best punch he ever threw onscreen), why not exchange a nod for one of the first movies in which he did both? Plus, he's good too.

Exchanged: Actress win for Guess Who's Coming to Dinner
Received: Actress nod for Bringing Up Baby
One would think Hepburn should exchange the nod for her hideous turn in Suddenly, Last Summer, but in giving up Dinner, she gives Mrs. Robinson, Bonnie Parker, or that fellow Hepburn, Audrey, the chance to get the award she robbed from them.

Exchanged: S. Actor nod for Dick Tracy
Received: S. Actor nod for Donnie Brasco
The less said about Dick Tracy, the better, except for the fact that Disney tried selling those banana yellow trench coats at J.C. Penney. Nobody bought them, not even pimps. As one of Tracy's nemeses, Pacino, under a gallon of latex makeup, makes Rod Steiger look restrained. In Donnie Brasco, Pacino's rundown mobster is his take on Ratso Rizzo — a 180 degree turn from his more famous organized crime figure. The quiet resignation of Pacino's last scene is enough to make this a worthwhile exchange.

Exchanged: Actress win for Blue Sky
Received: Actress nod for Men Don't Leave

In both films, Lange plays lousy mothers, but her redemption in Leave is far more believable than any moment of Blue Sky. Sometimes the Academy gives little gold men to the actor who chewed the most scenery without exploding like Mr. Creosote; Lange flosses her teeth with the scenery in Blue Sky.

In Men Don't Leave, she breaks your heart by turning in a '40s woman's weepie performance that Wyler or Cukor would have been proud to direct.

Exchanged: Actor win for Lilies of the Field
Received: Actor nod for A Raisin in the Sun
Lilies of the Field is a nice little movie, but hardly a stretch of Poitier's talent. His take on Walter Lee Younger, the role he played on Broadway in Lorraine Hansberry's classic play, is a journey through a myriad of emotions — anger, joy, regret, resentment and passion — and a testament to Poitier's thespian powers. Rarely did we get to see Poitier drawn this complexly onscreen. History was made with his Lilies win, but if history could be rewritten, he might have won for Raisin instead.

Tomorrow, a look at some overlooked performances that deserved Oscar nominations.

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Tuesday, February 20, 2007


"The most unusual MGM movie ever"

By Edward Copeland
That's how Robert Osborne introduced a recent airing of Tod Browning's 1932 film Freaks on Turner Classic Movies. The cult classic from the director of Bela Lugosi's 1931 Dracula was released 75 years ago today.

Even three-quarters of a century later, Freaks is a difficult film to describe and its appeal is even harder to sell to those who only hear the plot synopsis and might expect nothing more than a truly sick exploitation film better suited as gross-out attractions in state fairs of days past. That's OK, you're just not one of us, one of us, one of us. Simply put, the title just about says it all — emphasized when a hand violently rips through the movie's title card at the outset. Set in a circus sideshow, Freaks focuses on the lives of the "deformed" and "nature's oddities," though really the biggest freak in the movie is a "normal" human. Cleopatra (Olga Baclanova), an acrobat described as the "peacock of the air," who enjoys teasing the lovesick little person Hans (Harry Earles), especially once she learns he's an heir to a sizable estate. Cleo sets out to trick him into marriage in hopes of stealing his fortune.

Hans can't seen through her, but the little woman who loves him, Frieda (Daisy Earles), certainly can as do the other members of the sideshow attractions, who eventually set out to inflict a more sinister Revenge of the Nerds-style revenge on the acrobat. Frieda's motivation is love of Hans and the other freaks, while concerned about Hans, really want to teach Cleo a lesson, especially after watching how she mocks them all during a segment that even gets its own title card: The Wedding Feast. What's amazing about the film is that, even after 75 years, it retains a lot of power that goes beyond the morbid fascination one would expect. Sure, there are throwaway gags based on the people's conditions, such as an armless woman sipping wine with her foot. Then there are other touches such as when the real-life Siamese twins, the Hilton sisters, play off their ability to react to the other's senses. (Violet makes out and we see Daisy react).

For those unfamiliar with the Hilton sisters, they not only appeared in this cult classic but inspired a modern Broadway cult classic of their own with the 1997 musical Side Show with a strong score featuring music by Bill Russell and lyrics by Henry Krieger, who has three Oscar nominations for best song this year for his new contributions to the film version of Dreamgirls. Tod Browning even appears briefly as a character in the musical. Side Show earned four Tony nominations, including a rare dual nomination for Alice Ripley and Emily Skinner who played Violet and Daisy. Alas, Side Show went home empty-handed, losing book and score to the inferior Ragtime and musical to the empty spectacle of The Lion King, though it's hard to argue that Ripley and Skinner should have beaten the magnificent Natasha Richardson in the revival of Cabaret.

As for Freaks the movie, it seemed even more powerful upon rewatching it recently than it did when I first saw it years ago. Browning creates a truly unique atmosphere and builds genuine creepy suspense as the freaks chase Cleopatra, crawling slowly through the mud on whatever limbs remain. It's funny, as Osborne told it, to know that MGM was so ashamed of Freaks at the time, it let its rights to the film slip away and removed Leo the Lion but, once people rediscovered it years later and it was reassessed more thoughtfully, MGM jumped at the chance to reacquire the rights and put their logo back on the film where it began and belonged.

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Monday, February 19, 2007


An awkward time for movies

By Edward Copeland
In my seemingly neverending quest to see all the major Oscar nominees of all time, I took advantage of Turner Classic Movies' annual 31 Days of Oscar programming to catch Alibi, which was nominated for best production and best actor for Chester Morris in the award's second year, 1928-29. Actually, as we now know, all nominees for that year are unofficial ones, since no nominees were actually announced, which is good for the Academy in the case of Alibi and Morris since it gives them their own alibi of plausible deniability for nominating this creaky relic, especially Morris' performance.

Directed by Roland West, who never helmed another film after 1931, according to IMDb, Alibi definitely bears the signs of its time when silents transitioned to sound. As a result, Alibi does contain some striking visuals, but once the characters speak, everything goes downhill. As for the story, imagine an early version of The Departed, only minus solid acting, writing or plotting. Alibi tells a cops versus crooks story where neither side is really that admirable. There aren't moles per se, as in The Departed, but the film does ask whose tactics are truly worse. Morris who got the Oscar nomination "unofficially" plays Chick Williams, newly released from prison who claims the police set him up. He even pursues romance with the daughter (Eleanore Griffith) of a police sergeant (Purnell Pratt) who is determined to send Chick back to prison by any means necessary.

The plot unfolds rather predictably and for every striking image, there are multiple cringe-worthy moments of acting, especially by Regis Toomey as a perpetually drunk Wall Street bigwig who gets embroiled in the plotting.

A plot twist, in a way, justifies his less-than-stellar portrait of a lush, but not enough to make the performance work. However, Toomey shows a lot more life than Morris does.

Alibi shows such a clash between the silent and talkie eras, that I'd be curious as to how it would have played if it had remained as a silent, but we'll never know.

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Sunday, February 18, 2007


Busy, busy Peter Morgan

By Edward Copeland
A week from today, Peter Morgan could win an Oscar for his screenplay for The Queen. Even if he doesn't, odds are he will have helped the winners of both lead acting trophies to their wins, since he also co-wrote The Last King of Scotland. On top of that, his hit play in London, Frost/Nixon, will soon debut on Broadway and has already been optioned as a feature. Morgan certainly has reached a career boiling point and another example premiered on HBO last night in the form of the film Longford starring Jim Broadbent and Samantha Morton.

Longford tells the true story of Frank Pakenham, the 7th Earl of Longford, whose conversion to Catholicism led him during his long tenure in the House of Lords to make frequent visits with prisoners in an attempt to help them any way he could, saying that he found visiting prisoners one of the most rewarding things he ever did.

His missions of mercy hit a bump in 1965 when he responded to a letter from Myra Hindley (Samantha Morton), part of a notorious pair convicted for truly heinous crimes committed against five young children. Frank finds her not to be the monster the press has painted her as and spends years trying to get her a parole hearing, alienating his family, including his wife (Lindsay Duncan, miles removed from her role as Servilia on Rome).

However, he ignores warnings that Myra might be using him, especially when they come from her partner in crime Ian Brady (a great performance from Andy Serkis, freed from the digital bondage of Gollum and King Kong).

The actors are superb across the board, especially the always amazing Broadbent. While there certainly have been better HBO films, Longford does tell a quite interesting one as a script by Peter Morgan shows someone who seems to have some keen insights into the workings of Britain's upper classes.

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Friday, February 16, 2007


Edward takes a screen test

In case you aren't aware of it, Adam Ross at DVD Panache has begun a series of "Screen Tests" each Friday, where he asks those of us out in the blogging world a series of film-related questions. He began the weekly feature with Andy Horbal from No More Marriages! and today is my turn in the hot seat, so be sure to check it out. While you're over there, make sure to check out Adam's great contribution to this week's Lovesick Blog-a-Thon on Sam Peckinpah's Straw Dogs.

On an unrelated Oscar note (and aren't there plenty this time of year?), Nathaniel R. at The Film Experience has begun his annual Oscar symposium, so drop on by. Also on Oscars, our good friend Matt Zoller Seitz of The House Next Door fame reviews the 10 Oscar-nominated live action and animated shorts for The New York Times.

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Thursday, February 15, 2007


Walt Disney by Neal Gabler

By Edward Copeland
Neal Gabler gets the big urban legend out of the way immediately in his exhaustive new biography Walt Disney: The Triumph of the American Imagination: No, Walt isn't an icicle somewhere waiting to be thawed out and sprung on the public again at some later time. Disney is dead and interred and won't be returning anytime soon.

Gabler, one of the regular panelists on the only show on the Fox News Channel that's actually fair and balanced and worth watching, Fox News Watch, has penned an intensely thorough look at Disney's life, using unprecedented access to Disney archives to tell his story. The book stretches more than 800 pages, though the bio itself is just a little more than 600 pages with the rest filled with appendixes notes, and bibliography. It's certainly interesting, but it's slow-going at times because it is so thorough.

For those looking for gossip, this is not the book for you, but it does paint a vivid portrait of Disney, from his humble beginnings to his anti-union stances and anti-communist testimony in the 1950s. It also shows what a perfectionist he was, overseeing just about everything to which his name was attached with excruciating detail.

One telling anecdote from Art Linkletter describes having dinner with Disney on the opening night of Disneyland and watching as Walt kept count of the rockets exploding in the fireworks display to make certain he wasn't being short-changed.

It's also surprising to see how much trouble many of his most fabled features had getting made and how many of them were perceived as failures at the time, including Bambi.

The only problem with the book is that it's so detailed, that it is not a fast read and never really gains continued momentum except in certain passages, such as when Disney is having his union fights and when he's plotting Disneyland and his television show simultaneously.

Unless I missed it, I would have liked to know who thought up the idea of re-releasing their animated features to theaters every few years to a new generation and when. The book also does have some tantalizing tidbits (Imagine if he'd succeeded in getting Cary Grant to voice Captain Hook in Peter Pan).

The book overall provides some informative background on a man who is more legend than human at this point.

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Wednesday, February 14, 2007


An unrequited love triangle

This post is part of the Lovesick Blog-a-Thon being coordinated by 100 Films. Check them out for a full index of posts across the blogosphere.

NOTE: Ranked No. 54 on my all-time top 100 of 2012

"...I would give anything if you were two people, so that I could call up the one who's my friend and tell her about the one that I like so much."

By Edward Copeland
Love triangles proliferate throughout the history of film, literature, theater, etc., but it's not as often that a work of art tackles a romantic geometric puzzle where the points are mostly love of an unrequited nature. No film has ever captured it more vividly, touchingly or hilariously than James L. Brooks' Broadcast News. Sure, there is a sprinkling of satire about the state of television news, but it's the stunted relationships between Jane Craig (Holly Hunter), Tom Grunick (William Hurt) and, most especially, Aaron Altman (Albert Brooks) that give this great film its punch.

"Wouldn't this be a great world if insecurity and desperation made us more attractive?
needy were a turn on?"

I am Aaron Altman. OK, not literally. James L. Brooks doesn't know me and didn't pattern the role on me, but there probably is not a character in the history of film to whom I feel such a close kinship, especially when I first saw Broadcast News in its original release in 1987 (It turns 20 years old later this year — we are both getting old). Actually, come to think of it, for much of my younger years my nickname was "Alex" after Alex Reiger on TV's Taxi because people came to me for advice a lot and James L. Brooks co-created that show as well. Maybe he has been writing my life. On the plus side, as many bad moments as I've had in my life over the past couple of years, none might be as bad as Spanglish or I'll Do Anything.

There have been two "Jane Craigs" in my life, though ironically the one who most closely mirrored her, right down to being a driven perfectionist who set aside time for crying, I didn't even get to know until well after Broadcast News had been released. (As Joan Cusack's character tells Jane at one point, "Except for socially, you're my role model.") Also, there never really was a Tom Grunick equivalent, though many aspects of the fictional Aaron and Jane rang true. I plead guilty to drunken attempts at confession as poor Aaron does, saying lines similar to his declaration that the "one thing that makes me feel really good and makes immediate sense is you" which got a sympathetic and sincere "aww" from Jane, which only made things worse. Even I wasn't nervy enough to try for an impromptu, alcohol-induced kiss and I certainly wouldn't have been cogent enough at the time to respond, "Well, I felt something."

The marathon phone conversations ring especially true alongside the one-sided wish for something more than friendship. Especially in college, phone calls with Jane Craig No. 2 could stretch on well into the morning and cover just about any conceivable topic: from school to current events, from work to romance, from dreams to masturbation. You name it, we probably discussed it. We'd talk about her misfired attempts at romance (I only wish I could have used Aaron's line when Jane complains that at some point she's crossed a line "where she's started to repel people she's trying to seduce" and he replies that Tom must have been good looking because "Nobody invites a bad-looking idiot to their bedroom").

That provides a nice segue to the other side of the film's unrequited triangle: Jane's feelings for Tom. Granted, Tom and Jane do come thisclose at times to having a go at it, for most of the film Jane's infatuation with Tom seems to be one sided, even if she doesn't share the deep friendship with him that she shares with Aaron and holds Tom in low regard professionally. When she questions Paul, the head of the news division (Peter Hackes), about the decision to have Tom anchor a special report, Paul responds in one of the film's many memorable lines: "You are absolutely right and I'm absolutely wrong. It must be nice to think you always know better, that you're the smartest person in the room" to which Jane brilliantly responds, "No, it's awful." Well, Jane certainly doesn't know better when it comes to Tom. She's not suffering from unrequited love really, more like unrequited lust.

In one of the masterstrokes of Brooks' screenplay, Jane goes nuts preparing for her big date with Tom to the correspondents dinner at the same time that Aaron stops by to prepare for his first shot at anchoring the weekend news. Aaron is understandably annoyed as he watches Jane fret over every detail, begging her to at least "pretend this is awkward" while Jane denies it's a date but merely "co-workers attending a professional conclave" as she plops a package of condoms in her purse. Of course, Jane's attempts at seduction are nearly as clumsy as Aaron's, even without the added burden of friendship. Her disdain for Tom's lack of ability always rears its head (prompting Tom at one point to tell her that he likes "her as much as I can like anyone who thinks I'm an asshole.") and she'll get worn out, declaring that she feels like she's a "dead lump of poured-out flesh" and then invite him up to her apartment. Of course, Jane's attraction to Tom really raises the tension in her friendship with Aaron. Aaron's unrequited love for Jane could stay comfortably in remission until someone like Tom shows up, increasing the probability that Aaron's door to romance with Jane will be slammed shut forever.

The tenuous work relationship between Aaron and Tom provides fun as well as Aaron seeks every opportunity to show Tom up, though he does take his advice on how to prepare for his anchoring shot. One of the other great things about Broadcast News is that Tom is not conventionally dumb, he's not mean and even though his ethical standards are less than pure, he really does seem to be a nice guy. At one point at a party, Tom asks Aaron, "What do you do when your real life exceeds your dreams?" to which Aaron replies, "Keep it to yourself." For the most part, Tom usually means well and though Aaron (and least in my eyes) is the more sympathetic character, a lot of the time he doesn't, always doing his best to sabotage Tom, less out of meanness than out of frustration over his feelings for Jane. Near the film's climax, as Tom is bidding Aaron farewell he says, "You're a prick — in a great way." Aaron likes how that makes him sound and it's true.

Finally though, his feelings for Jane finally prove too much following the disaster of his anchoring try ("At some point, it was so off-the-chart bad, it just got funny," Aaron tells Jane) as he interrupts her big date. Jane chooses this time to admit to Aaron that she thinks she may be in love with Tom. That's the final straw for Aaron, who bursts forth with anger and confession. At first, he tries to remain the sympathetic friend, agreeing with Jane when she says that this try at a relationship with Tom is important for her, even though she says it's really about her being a "basket case." Of course, Aaron can't help himself — this is his last chance and he tries to play every card he has — and sober no less.

He starts out by trying to posit the theory that Tom, while a nice guy, is really the devil "lowering our standards bit by little bit, flash over substance," Aaron says before adding, "and he'll get all the great girls." A suitably angry Jane fires back at Aaron that what they have isn't a friendship and she thinks he might be the devil. "You know I'm not. If I were the devil, you'd be the only I'd tell," he says before finally getting to the crucial admission that he's in love with her. Ever the journalist, prone to self-criticism, Aaron sighs, "What do you know? I buried the lead." The entire exchange exhausts the both of them ("Does anyone win these things?" Aaron asks), especially after Tom calls and, having seen the tape of Aaron's disastrous anchoring, says he understands that Jane's probably needed there and cancels the rest of the evening, to which Aaron viciously says, "Thanks for dropping by" before sending Jane out the door alone.

The answer to Aaron's question about winning, at least in the case of Broadcast News, is no and I think that's part of its genius. At the time, my mom expressed disappointment after seeing the film that Jane and Aaron didn't get together (Hey, she's my mom — of course she's going to root for me). Before the epilogue, Jane asks Aaron to meet her and they settle on "the place near the thing where we went that time." Aaron's bitterness is still palpable and Jane asks him if he's really going to stay mad at her forever to which he says, "I hope so," a feeling I could completely understand but one that isn't fair or really feasible, though Aaron tells her:

"I'll miss you. We'll talk. We'll always be friends. We'll get hot for each other
every few years at dinner and we'll
never act on it."

Frankly, I think Aaron still was in denial somewhat, since there's never any evidence to show that his attraction to Jane is reciprocated. As lovers around the world celebrate their togetherness today on Valentine's Day, there really is no better way for the rest of us poor schmucks to spend this day than to watch Broadcast News and remember the ones who got away or who were always beyond our reach. On a personal note, as far as my two "Jane Craigs" go, No. 1 and I did remain close friends and I was able to put my romantic feelings for her into permanent remission. As for No. 2, the one who most closely resembles Holly Hunter's character, our path was much shakier and as of today no longer exists. An ill-advised jaunt through Europe together many years ago caused the first rupture (damn you James L. Brooks — Alex Reiger and Elaine even took a trip to Europe together on Taxi, though at least Alex got laid). Years later, it was more a natural growing apart as I realized that Jane Craig No. 2 really wasn't that good a friend to me, more wrapped up in herself than in events that were occurring in my life. Jane Craig No. 1 though provided a friendship that I'll never regret and that I always will treasure.

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Monday, February 12, 2007


Straight from the Academy

By Edward Copeland
Recently, I wrote a post here because of anger at some incorrect Oscar facts that were being repeated in news stories in various sources. The issue prompted me to think about other statistical and historical questions about different Academy Award statistics through the years, so I decided to write the Academy itself to get official rulings on some of the most common questions I could think of at the time. Wonder whether Orson Welles and Warren Beatty both are the only people to earn producing, directing, acting and writing nominations for the same film? Want to know if Sunrise's prize in 1927-28 is equivalent to best picture? Those official answers from the Academy's standpoint are here. My eternal thanks to the staff of the Academy's Margaret Herrick Library who took time out of what is, after all, their busiest time of the year to answer some unknown blogger's questions.

Question No 1.: When I was first learning Oscar facts, Wings always was considered the first best picture winner and no one mentioned the first year’s artistic quality of production award to Sunrise until more recently. Does the Academy consider the two prizes roughly equivalent, i.e. both best pictures?

Answer: The Outstanding Picture category is the one that continues on as Best Picture to this day, so yes, the Academy considers Wings to be the first Best Picture winner. Unique and Artistic Picture is a category that was used once that first year and not continued. They are not considered both "Best Pictures."

Question No 2.: Are Wings, Grand Hotel and Driving Miss Daisy the only three films to win best picture without their directors being nominated? Are there any caveats that are considered as to why all three films aren't in the same boat re winning picture without a directing nomination?

Answer: Yes. The only statistical difference to note is this: In 1989 (Driving Miss Daisy), there were 5 Best Picture and 5 Directing slots. In 1927/28 (Wings) there were 3 Best Picture slots and 5 Directing slots (across the two categories). And in 1931/32 (Grand Hotel) there were 8 Best Picture slots and only 3 Directing slots.

Question No. 3.: Recent stories say that Clarence Brown, King Vidor, Alfred Hitchcock, Robert Altman and Martin Scorsese (not counting the new nomination) are all tied at having five directing nominations without any wins, but Brown’s nomination for 1929-30 lists both Anna Christie and Romance, sometimes listed as a single nomination, other times listed as two separate nominations. The same year, George Arliss is credited for winning best actor for Disraeli while losing for a separate nomination for The Green Goddess. Should Brown be considered as having five total nominations or six?

Answer: Five; in the early years a single nomination may have referenced more than one film and that is the case with Brown's 1929/30 nomination for Anna Christie and Romance. The Disraeli/Green Goddess nomination for George Arliss is also only counted as one nomination. Because the Arliss win only counted for the one film title when the nomination referenced two, we had to make two records in the Academy database, and then provide explanatory notes.

Question No. 4.: For years I heard the statistic that Orson Welles was the first person to be nominated as producer, director, actor and writer for a single film for Citizen Kane until Warren Beatty repeated the feat twice for Heaven Can Wait and Reds. Later, the Welles stat seemed to be revised under the argument that in 1941, the studio head would have won the Oscar if Citizen Kane had taken best picture. Should Welles be considered as having had four nominations for Kane or not?

Answer: From a strictly statistical standpoint, no. The rules were not the same then as now, so technically, as that statistic is stated, you can only apply it to films from the 1951 (24th) Awards on, when the nominees for Best Picture become the individually named producers rather than the production companies. The nominee for Outstanding Motion Picture for Citizen Kane was Orson Welles' company Mercury. So if you want to consider that being in the "spirit" of the statistic, feel free. In which case, you might also want to give consideration to Charlie Chaplin and his Honorary Award for The Circus, given how the citation is worded. But again, from a strict statistical standpoint, neither of these two meet the Warren Beatty statistic of 4 competitive nominations for the same film in the stated categories.

Question No. 5.: Why were 1927-28 best picture nominations that used to be credited for The Last Command and The Way of All Flesh later removed?

Answer: Research into Academy history conducted in more recent years warranted the corrections.

Question No. 6.: Should Charlie Chaplin be credited for his nominations for 1927-28’s The Circus or were those nominations actually removed once the decision was made to give him a special prize for the film?

Answer: He was removed from the competitive classes; he has no nominations for that year.

Question No. 7.: In the Academy database for many of the early years, some nominations bear the notation that they are not official nominations. Should these be counted as nominations for the individuals involved or not?

Answer: No.

BLOGGER'S NOTE: The only year in the Academy database where all nominations are deemed unofficial is 1928-29. In other references to unofficial nominations, they were because of write-in votes, which actually resulted in one victory for A Midsummer's Night Dream for cinematography in 1935.

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Thursday, February 08, 2007


Assessing musicals by ear only

By Edward Copeland
It's difficult to judge a musical by original cast recordings alone, but that's how I've had to for most of my life. Hell, it's not like I was there to see Ethel Merman perform Gypsy live (but if that time machine ever gets built...). As a rule for most non-show albums, I used to always wait until I'd heard some cuts before I leaped in and purchased the whole thing, at least until I got so finicky that about the only music I buy is from artists that I already know I like so I'm willing to risk a blind purchase. However, there really isn't that option for Broadway musicals much anymore, unless you want to wait for an excerpt on the Tony Awards. Since I'm not in a position anymore to make frequent trips to New York to see the shows myself, something for which my bank account is eternally grateful and which probably causes many a credit card company to lament my theater-addiction recovery. (Frankly, I'm surprised that among the endless credit card offers I get, I've never received one offering to pay my way to New York just in hopes that I'll rack up Broadway bills again. When shows get enough praise, I give in and get the OCRs, sight unseen and songs unheard, which is what I've done with this season's most talked-about Broadway musicals Grey Gardens and Spring Awakening.

The CD I rushed to get first was that for Spring Awakening, based in part by the fact that this wonderful Internet of ours allowed me to watch a clip of one of its songs "The Bitch of Living" and Josh R's rave for it on this site. While I was aware of the broad outlines of the plot, I tried to let the recording wash over me without thinking of how the music fit the story and the songs in Spring Awakening work remarkably well, even out of context, though much of the plot is easily gleaned from the songs as well. With music by Duncan Sheik and lyrics by Steven Sater, Spring Awakening is easily the best cast recording I've heard since Avenue Q. I really wish I could see the show itself. "The Bitch of Living," which I first heard through the Internet clip, might be my favorite song from the show, but they really all work in their pop-rock style. It's followed closely by "All That's Known" with lyrics that include:
All that’s known
In History, in Science
At school, at home, by blind men

You doubt them,
And soon they bark and hound you
Till everything you say is just another bad about you

All they say
Is “Trust in what is written”
Wars are made
And somehow that is wisdom

Thought is suspect
And money is their idol
And nothing is okay unless it’s scripted in their Bible

I may be long past my teen-angst years, but the songs really reflect that spirit and transport me back to those times with many memorable tunes along those lines (especially "Totally Fucked," to which anyone of any age can relate). The show itself may be set among teens in 19th-century Germany (and please pay no attention to those anachronisms), but it really spoke to me.
Yeah, you’re fucked all right — and all for spite
You can kiss your sorry ass goodbye
Totally fucked — will they mess you up?
Well you know they’re gonna try

Unfortunately, Grey Gardens doesn't play as well on disc as I imagine it does within the context of the musical itself. Admittedly, I couldn't even make it past 45 minutes of the infamous documentary upon which the show is based, so I have to wonder if that somehow biased me, despite Josh R's praise for it as well. I certainly imagine that the wows for Christine Ebersole's performance really depend on being in the same space as her, because the strength of her performance doesn't quite come through merely by listening. With music by Scott Frankel and lyrics by Michael Kurie, I didn't find any of the songs from the show particularly interesting. On the OCR at least, the tunes that played best for me were "Better Fall Out of Love" sung by Matt Cavenaugh as Joe Kennedy Jr. and Sara Gettelfinger as Little Edie, who didn't follow the show to Broadway though the recording was made while the show was still off-Broadway; and "The Cake I Had" sung by Mary Louise Wilson as the old Edith Bouvier and Ebersole as the now-grown Little Edie. None of the songs really struck me as that great and I for one am pulling for Spring Awakening to win the score Tony based on hearing the recordings of both shows.

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Wednesday, February 07, 2007


Sanity during war will not be tolerated

By Edward Copeland
At last, I caught up with the fifth of the five 2005 Oscar nominees for foreign language film by getting to see Joyeux Noel, France's entry in last year's contest. Now that I've seen all five, I'm pleased to say that four out of the five were worthy picks, though I'd still go with the winner, Tsotsi, as the best of the lot.

Released theatrically in the U.S. in 2006, Joyeux Noel tells yet another war story, only this time it takes World War I as its setting as it tells the true story about how on Christmas Eve 1914, German, French and Scottish troops facing off in trench warfare forged an unexpected truce and even more surprising sympathy for their "enemy."

In some respects, Joyeux Noel reminded me of Keith Gordon's unsung 1992 film A Midnight Clear, only set in a different war, with a more factual basis but with plenty of spirit and snow in common.

The film, written and directed by Christian Carion, starts out typically enough for a war film, until a subplot surfaces about a German soldier's girlfriend (Diane Kruger) who is being sneaked into the trenches to see her beloved Nikolaus Sprink (Benno Furmann) on Christmas Eve. Both happen to be part of the Berlin Opera and his joy can't prevent him from bursting out in holiday song, which prompts an Anglican priest from Scotland (Gary Lewis, the father in Billy Elliot) in a neighboring trench to haul out his bagpipes to accompany him.

This could all come off as sickeningly sweet (and did they really let troops carry bagpipes off to the trenches with them?), but somehow it works. It's touching watching the warring factions sing, drink and eventually look out for one another until superiors step in to insist that there's a war to be fought.

Joyeux Noel won't be everyone's cup of tea (or champagne or ale), since its antiwar message is painted on so thickly, but it touched me. Maybe nearly four years of the insane carnage in Iraq has made me a sucker for simpler times of war where people might be able to understand one another.

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Tuesday, February 06, 2007


The rise of Rome, the yawns of Extras

By Edward Copeland
As faithful HBO viewers count the days until the final batch of nine Sopranos episodes finally appear, we can bide our time with two HBO series in their second and final seasons: the drama Rome and the comedy Extras. During their first seasons, which I believe actually aired in the B.C. period given HBO's penchant for lengthy hiatuses, I liked Rome, but wasn't overwhelmed and found Extras to seem like it had been made from equal parts Curb Your Enthusiasm and The Larry Sanders Show with each episode only as strong as the guest appearance that came with it (Kate Winslet should have won that Emmy, dammit). Now that the second seasons have arrived, my assessment of Extras remains largely the same, but Rome keeps getting better, to the point that I may mourn its end.

Not as much as I lament the premature execution of Deadwood, but Rome has grown into something that's earned my fondness.

When Rome ended its first season, I wondered where it had to go since it ended with Julius Caesar's assassination, but boy was I wrong. If anything, the series has grown more fascinating for both its historical and fictional characters in the wake of Caesar's demise.

The biggest change came in the character of faithful soldier Lucius Vorenus (Kevin McKidd), whose life was transformed when he learned the child he thought was his grandson was his wife's by another man, causing his wife to kill herself and for him to leave Caesar unprotected at the moment he needed him most.

The events turned Vorenus into a gloomy gus, convinced he was a son of Hades and led by Marc Antony (James Purefoy) into the role of gang leader in an attempt to bring peace to the feuding factions among merchants. It was a fascinating twist, albeit a short-lived one as Antony ended up being run out of town to face the alliance of a now-grown Octavian Caesar (Simon Jones) and Cicero (David Bamber) take back the Republic.

I hope the rescue of Vorenus' thought-dead children at the end of this week's show doesn't portend that he will lose his edge as the final weeks of the series unfold. Vorenus' soldier buddy Titus Pullo (Ray Stevenson) continues to be one of the most entertaining character, even if he's often too quick to kill, he's loyal and a good hand to have around when needed. He even gets his freed slave to agree to be his bride after killing her boyfriend.

The ever-clawing cats of Rome continue to prove absorbing with Polly Walker's hilarious Atia versus Lindsay Duncan's Servilia. You have to think that if Dick Cheney watches Rome, he loved as Atia tortured the boy sent by Servilia to poison her, insisting that his confession "won't be considered valid unless he's tortured first." Sure, the show can be over the top and some of its historical accuracy is dubious, but it has become a show well worth wearing the HBO moniker.

Alas, the same cannot be said for Extras which, despite at least a few good chuckles an episode, hasn't been worth the effort given the pedigree of original British Office co-creator and star Ricky Gervais and after this week's episode, I can't help but suspect that he either realizes it or has devised the entire show with co-creator Stephen Merchant (hilarious as Gervais' character's clueless agent) as a sharp stick in the eye to Britcoms in general and perhaps his own success.

When he objects to the producers of his character's awful sitcom's decision to have a ludicrous Chris Martin of Coldplay cameo inserted into the sitcom set in a factory, it has to be viewed as a commentary on the celebrity cameos that have been the hallmark of Extras throughout its entire run.

Unfortunately, those cameos are about the only thing that stand out about Extras. I mean how can you not laugh at a scene where Daniel Radcliffe accidentally flings a condom onto Dame Diana Rigg's head who proceeds to lecture the young star about grammar and etiquette with the rubber dangling from her hair the entire time.

Unfortunately, the rest of the show is neither original enough nor funny enough to justify itself. Every time his friend Maggie (Ashley Jensen) or Andy (Gervais) himself says something they shouldn't to someone they shouldn't, you can't help but be reminded of how much better Larry David pulls that sort of thing off on Curb Your Enthusiasm.

While the celebrity cameos are the highlights, you also reflect on how the late, great Larry Sanders Show created real characters and stories that blended seamlessly with the cameos.

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Monday, February 05, 2007


Lies, injustice and the Hollywood way

By Edward Copeland
One of the pleasures of waiting for DVD to see some movies (other than getting to avoid the inevitable chattering twits who attend movies in public as if they are in their living rooms) is the ability to be pleasantly surprised and that was my reaction once I finally saw Hollywoodland.

A speculative tale about whether or not the actor George Reeves really committed suicide back in 1959, Hollywoodland boasts impeccable technical credits, especially great cinematography by Jonathan Freeman, a solid screenplay by Paul Bernbaum and cast full of solid performances, including Ben Affleck in his best-ever work as Reeves.

When he got his Golden Globe nomination, I assumed the HFPA was once again playing their usual game of star courting, but Affleck is quite good as the struggling actor who'd kicked around Hollywood since his debut in Gone With the Wind and then found himself stuck in tights and a cape as TV's Superman just as his looks were beginning to fade but his ambitions hadn't.

Reeves really isn't the lead in Hollywoodland. That role belongs to Adrien Brody as low-rent private eye Louis Simo, whose detecting career parallels Reeve's acting one in a way. It's the best role Brody has managed to land since winning his Oscar for 2002's The Pianist.

On top of Affleck and Brody's good work there are winning turns by Diane Lane as Reeves' mistress who also happens to be the wife of a top MGM executive (Bob Hoskins, really good even though it's clear by now that the British actor really only has one type of American accent to call on.)

Hollywoodland also contains good performances by Lois Smith as Reeves' mother, Robin Tunney as his fiancee, Jeffrey DeMunn as his agent and Joe Spano as MGM's publicity enforcer.

Hollywoodland also marks the feature directing debut of Allen Coulter, who has helmed some of the best Sopranos episodes including "College," "The Knight in White Satin Armor" and "Irregular Around the Margins." Coulter shows real strength as a feature director, smoothly switching between Simo's investigation and flashbacks to Reeves' life.

Hollywoodland isn't a great film, but it certainly is a good one and sometimes good is enough.

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Saturday, February 03, 2007


Masking your true feelings

By Edward Copeland
When I first heard about Zhang Yimou's Riding Alone for Thousands of Miles, it was hard to suppress my excitement. The Chinese filmmaker has long been one of my favorite directors and I'd been disappointed by his recent turn toward martial arts epics and away from the personal, human stories that made me fall for his work in the first place.

I didn't care for Hero though I liked House of Flying Daggers (Curse of the Golden Flower slipped in and out of town too fast for me to see it), but they were all letdowns from the man who made such masterful and moving films as Raise the Red Lantern, To Live, Ju Dou and The Story of Qiu Ju. The descriptions of Riding Alone held the promise that Yimou was going back to the types of films he does best.

Riding Alone for Thousands of Miles stars Japanese actor Ken Takakura, the best thing about some late '80s/early '90s American stinkers such as Tom Selleck's Mr. Baseball and Michael Douglas' Black Rain, as Gou-ichi Takata, a man estranged for some unexplained reason from his grown son Ken-ichi.

Takata wants to re-establish the bond with his son when he learns from his daughter Rie (Shinobu Terajima) that Ken-ichi has terminal cancer. The ailing Ken-ichi still isn't interested in seeing his father, so Gou-ichi decides to fulfill one of Ken-ichi's dreams — filming the Chinese mask opera that gives the film its title. Despite his daughter's insistence that the trip is unnecessary and Ken-ichi's health is too fragile for his father to be potentially out of touch, Gou-ichi travels to China to find the man whom his son thought to be the greatest interpreter of the mask opera.

Dependent on interpreters, Gou-ichi soon finds that the man he seeks is in prison and won't be released for several years. He tries to arrange for a performance that takes place in the prison only to discover the man has his own paternal problems — he longs to meet the son he's never met (Yang Zhenbo), transforming Gou-ichi's original mission for his own father-son reunion into another as he tracks down the young boy in hopes of taking him to meet his father for the first time.

While the film certainly is touching at times and Takakura gives a great, stoic performance as Gou-ichi, Riding Alone for Thousands of Miles doesn't seem to build toward anything. Once the scenes between Gou-ichi and the young Yang Yang occur, they bear an uncomfortable similarity to too many other films about a sudden relationship between an adult and a needy child.

On the other hand, it's great to see Zhang Yimou back on more familiar terrain. I still want to see Curse of the Golden Flower, if only to see the director reunite with his former muse, the great Gong Li, but I for one would be happy if he went back to stories like this that keep their feet on the ground in all senses of the words.

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