Tuesday, March 31, 2009
When teen angst bullshit had a body count
"Dark comedy is a strange thing. What might strike one person as hysterically funny another may find just plain sick. There may be no better illustration of this fine line than Heathers, a very good film that can offend some just by a vague description of its plot."
By Edward Copeland
Greetings and salutations. Twenty years ago, that's how I began my review of Heathers when I was a sophomore in college. I hadn't heard much about the movie and there was no ad in the city paper, but I always tried to review EVERYTHING that opened in the metropolitan area, so I was there that opening weekend, though there weren't many others for the Friday matinee. As the film rolled and I watched in glee, I got a feeling that I don't think I've ever had before: I wish I made this movie. It's not that I thought I could do it better or that I thought it was the greatest film of all time, just that its sensibility seem to be so on my wavelength, that I could imagine coming up with something like it in a way I could never imagine dreaming up a Citizen Kane.
No matter how much I sang the praises of Heathers, few of my contemporaries had the chance to see it during its brief theatrical run, but once it hit video...there was no stopping it. People using lines from Daniel Waters' screenplay seemed to be everywhere. To this day, when the situation calls for it, I'll still ask someone if they had a brain tumor for breakfast or to call me when the shuttle lands. While the film doesn't feel dated to me (except perhaps for its reference to Swatches. Do they still make those?), it definitely was made at a different time. Unless you were around in the mid to late 1980s, you can't quite appreciate what a big deal the media made of teenage suicide at the time. Think of it as the missing blonde and shark attacks of its time. There were countless made-for-TV movies, the more tolerable playing like glorified afterschool specials, the worse somehow turning out to be all about boomer parents. The worst of the movies, Surviving, was filmed in my hometown of Oklahoma City and several of my friends got extra work in the movie which starred Molly Ringwald, Zach Galligan and a young River Phoenix. The end result of the film was one of the parents, played by Marsha Mason, deciding to leave her husband and travel the world to "find herself." I can't speak for today's kids, but it seemed as if my generation was born with innate gallows humor, so Heathers was made for us. We were cracking jokes in bad taste within hours of the Challenger explosion.
As a longtime student journalist, one of the lines in Heathers that cracked me up the most was when Veronica (Winona Ryder) was going to help Heather Duke (Shannen Doherty) regurgitate her lunch and Heather Chandler (Kim Walker) comments, "Bulimia is so '87." In the 1984-85 year in high school, we were doing a student paper centerpiece on anorexia and bulimia and we fought (but lost) to use the headline "Barfing for Beauty." So you understand the type of warped audiences that were there to greet Heathers while middle-age and older critics were dumbfounded. At least some were honest enough to admit it. Take the start of Roger Ebert's review for instance:
"I approach Heathers as a traveler in an unknown country, one who does not speak the language or know the customs and can judge the natives only by taking them at their word. The movie is a morbid comedy about peer pressure in high school, about teenage suicide and about the deadliness of cliques that not only exclude but also maim and kill.
Life was simpler when I was in high school."
Lest you think my generation overflows with heartless bastards, when things do strike close to home, we do feel and we do get upset. We had a suicide in my high school class as well as a car wreck death and two heart-related fatalities and I don't recall much gallows humor related to any of those. The same
is true of Heathers, which did find brief moments of pathos within the dark comedy of the "double suicide" of Kurt and Ram (Lance Fenton, Patrick Labyorteaux) that becomes a double funeral where the corpses are decked out with football helmets and footballs and Kurt's dad (Mark Carlton) declaring that he loves his dead gay son while J.D. (Christian Slater) and Veronica, who killed the jocks, giggle about how he would react if Kurt's limp wrist had a pulse in it. Then Veronica sees what we assume is one of the jocks' devastated little sisters, clad in a letterman jacket, tears streaming down her young cheeks, and Veronica turns to stone and the deaths suddenly feel real and not a joke. The same thing happens when poor Martha Dunnstock (Carrie Lynn) aka Martha Dumptruck attempts her own very real suicide. Then it isn't funny. I'm curious not if Heathers is dated in the usual way (clothes, references, languages), because Daniel Waters' script was fairly clever in getting around that problem with the invention of his own slang ("How very," "What's your damage?" and "You're beautiful") and costumes that seemed to defy any era. However, without the precursor of the media obsession with teen suicide, how does it play? In fact, the landscape has changed in the 20 years hence. I remember when Columbine happened, with its report of a Trenchcoat Mafia with pipe bombs, the first thought that entered my mind was that the lazy media would figure out a way to lay the blame for the massacre at the feet of Heathers. Somehow though, they all glommed on to a brief segment from the movie The Basketball Diaries that I didn't even remember (and I bet even fewer saw) but, let's face it, Leonardo DiCaprio was a bigger star right then. Would it seem as funny after more than a decade of school shootings? When each new news report bring the same mock anchor shock that such a thing could happen. How many school shootings have to happen until newspeople have to admit that it isn't shocking anymore? We also live in a time where parents seem more obsessed than ever with their children's self-esteem. Talent shows have no winners. You are a winner just for being in it! When Tina Fey's Mean Girls came out and they compared it to Heathers, I was suspicious, especially with a PG-13 rating. Sure enough, that's as "mean" as we can be today. Then again, maybe not. In a recent Entertainment Weekly, there was a report about plans to turn Heathers into a Broadway musical. Director Michael Lehmann confirms the project via correspondence, though he's just a friend of the project. He says screenwriter Daniel Waters is more involved. I wish them the best, though I'm always skeptical of movies becoming musicals since far more fail than succeed and I wonder how the subject matter will play. It's not like they can approach it like Sweeney Todd, though I guess something akin to Little Shop of Horrors isn't out of the realm of possibility.
I've discussed so much of the background and the time that I don't want to neglect the movie itself which still holds up after 20 years. Watching it again, what really drew me this time were the bright color schemes, show mainly through the cinematography of d.p. Francis Kenny but also by the production design of Jon Hutman and costumes of Rudy Dillon. It also was nice to be reminded of the subtlety of David Newman's score, which never steps on scenes the way so many scores seem to do these days. It's also a refreshing reminder of how assured Michael Lehmann's direction was when his only previous film was a student effort called Beaver Gets a Boner, which I would still love to see. Daniel Waters' script almost goes without saying. I'm a sucker for any screenplay that has so many memorable lines that I can find myself repeating decades after the fact. I can only imagine how many great lines were excised from his original vision of a three-hour Stanley Kubrick epic (including a 20-minute long cafeteria scene). Personally, though I've never read the long version, I'm betting the Lehmann version is better, especially when you watch again the nearly eight-minute long cafeteria sequence that fluidly introduces all the teen characters, major and minor. Of course, there's always arguments about the alternate endings that Waters wanted, such as having the school blow up and everyone mingling in heaven or Veronica approaching Martha, who shoots her saying, "Take that Heather" while a dying Veronica gurgles, "I'm not a Heather." Now, I'm still a cynical man, but maybe it's just because I'm used to it, but I think Heathers has the right ending. Veronica takes the ribbon from Heather Duke's hair, declares herself the sheriff and makes nice with Martha. After all, Veronica said, she just wants her high school to be a nice place. Of course, while J.D. may be a psychopath, his point of view may be closer to correct than Veronica's utopian dream. The school didn't reflect society's ills, the school was society. While there seems to be more and more cases of bullying gone bad in the news these days, I have to wonder about decades before I was born, when parents urged them to confront their tormenters and it made them stronger for it when they had to move out to the evils of the real world. As Heather Walker told Veronica, "Real life sucks losers dry." I have to worry that some kids are being so sheltered and so coddled by squeamish parents that when they become adults, they will be stepped on time and time again. I know every time I turned the tables on someone who picked on me, I was usually the better for it, and I almost always used wit instead of physicality to get the better of jerks. Stymie their minds and their motor skills are hampered.
Upon looking at Heathers again, one thing that struck me that never had before is that, in a way, Heather Chandler and Jason Dean are two sides of the same coin. Both seek power through intimidation. While Heather would never actually kill someone, she has no qualms about destroying reputations. Both she and J.D. consider themselves superior to their victims. The major difference is that Heather is social enough to attract followers while J.D. prefers to keep to himself. The subordinate Heathers never quite have the thrill for the kill that Heather No. 1 has, that is until J.D. basically turns Heather Duke into the new Heather Chandler for his own twisted purposes after Veronica finally dumps him. Heather McNamara (Lisanne Falk) never seems to easily fit into a category until Heather Duke decides to select her for victimhood. The move almost succeeds the way J.D. intended: Getting Heather Duke to have the school sign a petition that is really a suicide note, almost winning Veronica back and getting her to think of killing Heather Duke. Which really brings us to the film's greatest mystery: Veronica. She seems to be smart and strong, but why is she so susceptible to being a follower? Why does she want to be one? That's why I think the compromised ending works as well as it does: Veronica triumphs over the clique and J.D. and promises "to be the new sheriff in town." As J.D. says, "Color me impressed. You've got strength. Strength I didn't think you had." Will she succeed? Who knows? We do know she's traveled far from when Heather Chandler berated her for being a Girl Scout cookie until she expressed interest in being part of the most powerful clique at Westerburg High and Heather rescued her. Then, that got old. As she described it to J.D., "They're like people I work with and our job is being popular and shit." Of course, J.D. has the added appeal of sexuality to woo Veronica. "Our love is God. Let's go get a Slushie!" Part of what makes Veronica seem so strong throughout the film is Winona Ryder, who unbelievably turned 16 while making Heathers. She was coming off her breakthrough in Beetlejuice and her agent begged her not to make Heathers, for fear it would sink her career. Later in 1989, she shone again as Jerry Lee Lewis' young cousin/wife in Great Balls of Fire.
There are so many great lines in Heathers that I feel I should keep writing until I squeeze them all in, but let them be enjoyed for the first or 50th time. I haven't had time to sing the praises of Penelope Milford as the loony teacher who represents the teen suicide obsession of the time (though I still want to know how a teacher got hold of a suicide note). No time to discuss how they pull the rug out from under you by presenting Veronica's parents as one-dimensional and then suddenly giving them depth. I do have to mention my favorite sight gag, in case you miss it. J.D. gets the idea to fake Heather's death as a suicide when he spots the Cliff's Notes for The Bell Jar. Heather couldn't even read Sylvia Plath's work.
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Monday, March 30, 2009
Only Girls Are Allowed in Jazz
By Jonathan Pacheco
It’s Chicago, 1929. The Dodgers are still in Brooklyn and Mary Pickford and Douglas Fairbanks are still married. Two almost unemployed musicians, Jerry (Jack Lemmon) and Joe (Tony Curtis), find work and money hard to come by; it doesn’t help that they bet what little money they have on race dogs that don’t come through. One evening they witness a group of mobsters whip out some Tommy Guns and mow down a row of enemies. The musicians bolt and take a gig with an all-girl jazz band on their way to Florida. In order to hide from the mob and blend in with the band, they create female alter egos, Daphne and Josephine. Trouble is, they’re smitten when they lay their eyes on the band’s vocalist, Sugar Kane (Marilyn Monroe — who can blame them?). So begins Some Like It Hot, Billy Wilder's classic that turned 50 Sunday.
Despite being half a century old, the film’s wit really is as sharp as ever. Wordplay and sexual innuendo flow through every scene and jokes are expertly expanded upon to create wonderful payoffs (“No pastry, no butter, no Sugar!”). My favorite visual gag has to be when Osgood (Joe E. Brown, divinely oblivious) first meets Daphne, offering to carry her instruments. As the elevator door closes, Osgood tries to get frisky with the object of his affection. The camera pans to the floor indicator above the elevator door, whose arrow mimics an erection — rising to a 45 degree angle, then dropping down as we then see Daphne slap Osgood for pinching her butt.
Some Like It Hot sports a particularly voluptuous Marilyn Monroe, who, if I’m not mistaken, was pregnant during the filming (Lemmon’s character puts it best: her body is “like Jell-O on springs”). There are horror stories of her behavior on set and her inability to get a scene right without literally reading her lines, but she still lights the screen up, particularly in her first few scenes. She completely owned me when she portrayed Sugar as playful, and even a little naive.
The mobster subplot, while being the catalyst for the entire story, does contain a few strands that just aren’t nearly as interesting as the rest of the movie. While it’s a nice touch to have the musicians unwittingly witness the St. Valentine’s Day Massacre, I found it hard to see the necessity in the mob rivalry between Little Bonaparte and Spats. Rather than being engrossed in the Friends of Italian Opera scenes, I instead counted the seconds until we got back to the good stuff.
Voted in 2000 as AFI’s greatest American comedy, it’s hard to look around and not see references to Some Like It Hot. Heck, even White Chicks had several homages, specifically to the beach scene between Sugar and Junior, Joe’s millionaire disguise. It’d been years before I saw the film again today, but it really hasn’t lost a step. It still has the ability to influence, and more importantly, it can still make me laugh out loud at the dialogue, situations, and performances (Jack Lemmon is pretty much matchless). I highly recommend that you revisit the film, especially if it’s been a while. Are there flaws? Sure, I believe so. But in the immortal words of Osgood, "Well, nobody’s perfect."
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Tuesday, March 24, 2009
Oskar and Eli's infinite playlist
By Edward Copeland
When it comes to the broad genre of horror films, I've always preferred the type that creep you out versus the easy shock or gore. Last year's critically praised (and with good reason) Let the Right One In doubles your pleasure by adding a strong emotional element, since the central plot concerns a friendship between two 12-year-olds, one of whom just happens to be a vampire.
The Swedish film was directed by Tomas Alfredson and written by John Ajvide Lindqvist based on his novel. It really is the story of young Oskar (Kåre Hedebrant), a friendless boy on the verge of puberty, at the mercy of bullies at school and with a crush of the mysterious girl he's seen occasionally living in an apartment near his.
Eventually, Oskar does meet Eli (Lina Leandersson) and they form a tentative friendship. Oskar's hesitancy comes from the fact he's got the hots for Eli. Eli's distance, of course, stems from her need to live off the blood of other humans.
Eli even advises Oskar on his bully problem, making the film at time resemble a warped Swedish remake of My Bodyguard. Eli doesn't do her own hunting for victims. She has an adult protector or slave (Per Ragnar); the movie never makes it clear, who scouts the chilly winter grounds for victims with tools ready to hang them upside down and drain their blood to take back to Eli.
I don't want to give too much away, but rest assured, Let the Right One In provides plenty of chills colder than its wintry setting. It's another example of how in 2008, more often than not, Americans had to cross the ocean to find the truly great and interesting in film.
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Sunday, March 22, 2009
Welcome to f**king Deadwood. Can be combative.
By Edward Copeland
Five years ago March 21, HBO premiered a new Western series created by David Milch, but it was unlike any Western I'd ever seen. I wasn't into it at first, but I kept coming back. It took about four episodes until I was in tune to the rhythms of Deadwood. Having just rewatched the entire series in the great DVD box set that came out in December, it's even better than I remember. Illness prevented me from posting this on the actual date, but Sunday always was HBO night anyway. Illness also forced me to write in haste and haze, so if you spot any errors, please let me know by e-mail or in comments so I can fix them. I've already found a bunch.
Having seen the entire series before, I didn't have to adjust to the beats of the dialogue. Much as the killing of Keith Carradine's Wild Bill Hickock changed the show's trajectory, it was from that moment that I was definitely hooked. Looking back, I think that may have been why I was slow to warm to the series. I knew Hickok's days were numbered and since Jack McCall (Garret Dillahunt) was portrayed in much the same way he was presented by David Arquette in Walter Hill's 1995 film Wild Bill, which happened to have Carradine as Buffalo Bill. So, since Wild Bill loomed over the beginning of the series, I wasn't able to really enjoy the entire cast because I was waiting for the killing. Now, some characters were impossible to ignore from the beginning. Ian McShane's Al Swearengen demands your attention. Robin Weigert's Calamity Jane originally was like nails on a chalkboard to me, but then she grew on me. Rewatching the entire series, I liked her from the beginning and it is a bit amazing to see and hear Weigert in street clothes and realize that Jane emanates from this woman. It's also sad to see the scene where for all her drunken bluster, she falls apart when confronted with powerful men such as Al or Cy Tolliver (Powers Boothe).
Going back through all the episodes and extras, it's amazing how Deadwood just got better and better. It also caused me to make a realization: I've held The Sopranos in too high esteem. Don't get me wrong, but it is one of the best, but it had a lot of bad episodes and it went on longer than it should have. I'd already rated The Wire higher, but it wasn't until after I rewatched Deadwood, that I had to say HBO's two great dramas were Deadwood and The Wire. I'm proud of myself. I got quite a ways through this piece without writing cocksucker. Beyond the elegance of its language and vulgarity, what really becomes clear on repeat viewings is how there doesn't seem to be a weak link in the cast. In the commentary tracks I learned what is probably old news to others. The extras volunteered for specific merchant roles and most kept them for then entire run of the series. Ralph Richeson, who played Farnum's abused, horn-worshipping slave Richardson got started that way, One day, David Milch decide to give him a line and the part grew from there. You could almost write a separate essay on most of the denizens of Deadwood, but I feel I know them a little better the more time I spend with them. Of course, my memory was one of loving Al, but I'd forgotten how downright villainous he was in the first episodes. It wasn't really OK to like him until Cy arrived. By the end of the series' truncated run, they were both shown what true villainy was by the arrival of George Hearst (Gerald McRaney). It seemed an odd casting choice. This was Major Dad and half of Simon & Simon. Milch knew what he was doing because McRaney was amazing How he didn't get nominated for an Emmy and win one is beyond me, but then again the Emmys in general are beyond me. They are almost to the point of becoming even more irrelevant than the Grammys. The even bigger case in point, one of the all-time biggest cases in point, I present to you Exhibit A: Ian McShane as Al Swearengen. Eligible three times, nominated once, never won. Emmy hoople-heads. McShane was great from the beginning, but what's even more impressive is Swearengen's growth, which comes about at a pace so slowly that it still can take you almost by surprise when he commits acts of nobility. Of course, Al is a brutal man, quick with a blade (though he regrets never having learned to handle a gun) and who routinely fakes Indian attacks to loot travelers or tries to scam gold-seekers with dry claims. However, as time went on, some of those unseemly Swearengen aspects seemed to vanish and the others seemed to be less evidence of venality than of pragmatism. Deadwood is Al's community and he wants to make sure he's in on its progress. Contrast that to Tolliver, who's just plain mean or vengeful, or Hearst, whose pragmatism warped into evil in pursuit of the "color." Al also was just pretty damn funny a lot of the time, though he'd always deny it. In the first season, Swearengen said of himself, "I'm stupidest when I try to be funny." I have to believe that Swearengen is lying about that because no one can something like this without intending to get a laugh: "Here's what to understand about the fucking specialists — they pay a premium and they never make fucking trouble. Sometimes I imagine in my declining years running a small joint in Manchester England catering to the specialists exclusive — to let them know they're amongst their own maybe I'll operate from the corner hanging upside down like a fucking bat." His changes came in many ways: from reluctantly forming a government, realizing when the old ways were no longer viable, being physically defeated by Hearst, yet still able to fool him and take away his guardian and overcoming a nasty bout of bladder stones. Let me add that, as someone who recently had surgery to remove bladder stones, I'm damn glad it didn't happen to me in 1877.
Al's various relationships with many of the characters on the show also bring out different aspects of him. It's clear that he loves Trixie (the great Paula Malcomson), but he treats her like a whore and calls her a whore, though he allows her to work at Sol and Seth's goods store and learn accounting under the pretense of spying. He even lets her move up to the Deadwood Bank when Alma opens it later. It's clear Al wants her to have a chance to escape her life. He treats each of his employees distinctly. Johnny (Sean Bridgers) is pretty much treated as an idiot, which is probably fair, but some of Al's softly mean-spirited humor toward Johnny does betray some affection: "So many put the Yellowstone atop the natural wonders Johnny — for me there's only you." Adams (Titus Welliver) is the newest member of the Swearengen conclave and though he's bred jealousy in Al's right-hand man Dan Dority (W. Earl Brown, whose performance gets better each time you see it), you always get the sense that Al hasn't completely trusted him yet. Another note, on Welliver alone on the DVD, many on the commentaries mentioned that Welliver was a master mimic and there is an extra where Welliver plays Milch auditioning several well-known actors for the role of Al Swearengen. It's very funny. Now, getting back to Dority. He's not so quick to adapt to change as Al is, but them have stood together through so much, they will always be by one another's side. In an interesting way, watching it this time, I sort of viewed Dan as the bridge between Seth (Timothy Olyphant) and Al. By that I mean, Al is pragmatic and tries to think things through while Seth, like Dan, can be a hothead and say things he shouldn't have before he realizes it was a bad idea. In Deadwood, the sheriff has the itchy trigger finger, though fortunately it's seldom actually on the trigger of a gun. That's not quite the same case with Dan, though he's good with many weapons and with his bare fists. His third season street brawl with Hearst's protector Captain Turner (Allan Graf) that made Tony and Ralph's fatal brawl on The Sopranos look like a game of slaps. The aftermath
for Dan was in many ways worse. Dority had much blood on his hand, but this killing was so intimate and personal, he couldn't help but be affected and Brown got to give some his best moments of the entire series out of this. W. Earl Brown was no one trick pony either. He also wrote one of season three's most eventful episodes "A Constant Throb" when Al leaped off his balcony to whisk Alma to safety in The Gem as Hearst's goons take shots at her. The last of Al's employees of note is Jewel, played by actress-comedienne Geri Jewell who has cerebral palsy. They never say what Jewel's affliction is on the show and I personally don't know when they started diagnosing cerebral palsy. (Hell, I have multiple sclerosis and I don't even know when it was first diagnosed.) Al doesn't seem to cut her any slack for her condition (she can never get a bloodstain out of the floor to Al's satisfaction. Jewel gives as good as she gets too. When she goes to visit Doc Cochran (Brad Dourif) with an idea that he can build her a boot that will help her walk better, upon her return to The Gem when Al asks of her whereabouts and she mentions the doc she tells him that she's "knocked up." Why would a tough hombre such as Al Swearengen employ someone like Jewel? Milch speculates in interviews and commentaries that almost everything about Al can be traced back to his time in an orphanage and odds are that he found Jewel in one, likely being mistreated, and rescued her.
As the posting time for this post draws farther away from its initial intention and the post itself grows longer, I'm going to have to start wrapping this up and try to get in as much as I wanted to. As I mentioned earlier, it's truly amazing how this cast didn't have any weak links. In first viewings, it was sometimes difficult to notice standing in the shadow of a powerhouse such as Ian McShane. I also noticed that some of the characters I didn't like as well as others I liked more when they were interacting with certain other characters. Even watching again, I can't really warm up to Alma Garret (Molly Parker) except when she acts opposite two actors: one obvious, one probably not so obvious. Once the noble Ellsworth (the great Jim Beaver) entered her life on a more permanent basis, she came a bit more to life and she gave him his best scene of the entire series. She's resumed her laudunum habit and under the influence tries to seduce Ellsworth. Even though he is her husband, though he knows it wasn't a marriage of love, he recognizes her altered state and sadly resists her advances and tells her he'll get his things and move out. The other actor is the irrepressible William Sanderson as E.B. Farnum. Farnum is always funny, so it's probably purely by osmosis that in the scenes between E.B. and Alma, he manages to make her funny as well. As long as I'm being slightly critical of a show in a post that so far has been a massive lovefest, I feel I should be honest and say that the love affair between Seth and Alma was one of the most passionless romances. You see the passion between Sol (John Hawkes) and Trixie. I've only been mentioning Seth Bullock here and there so far and it was nothing against Olyphant, but I just found Seth dull for a long time until you really got to see how he could fly off the handle and watch the dychotomy develop between him and Swearengen. As I wrote earlier, first-time around, it took a long time for Weigert's Calamity Jane to grow on me, but that was definitely a case of the performance. With Olyphant, it was the character. Second time around, I started watching with those problems already fixed. Back to performances I loved from the start, in no particular order, there was Leon Rippy as Tom Nuttall, owner of the saloon where Hickok met his fate, in love with his new bike until it's involved tangentially in a tragedy; Brad Dourif as the ever-eccentric Doc Cochran keeping the whores clean and fixing the gun and knife wounds in between body snatching for medical study. Dourif is great and he did manage to garner one nomination out of the Emmy hoople-heads, but of course he lost; Garret Dillahunt's brilliance probably wouldn't have been noticed quite as clearly if it hadn't come in two parts. He was great as the loutish kook Jack McCall who offs Hickok and even though I knew going in to season 2 this time that amazingly it was the same actor who was playing Hearst's well-dressed geologist, the first time I was watching season two I literally did not know that until I read it somewhere. Reminded me of my fellow Twin Peaks fan who nailed Piper Laurie under the Japanese garb as Tojamura in the very first appearance, and they even went to the trouble of creating a fake actor's name. Deadwood didn't even try to fake me out; Then there's the marvelous Dayton Callie as Charlie Utter, Hickok's sidekick turned parcel post/deputy sheriff and, according to several commentaries, a damn good sax player in real life; Kim Dickens as Joanie Stubbs one of the several portraits of how there really weren't many easy lives in the Old West. She began when we met her as the handler of the whores at the Bella Luna, with a determination to start out on her own. Tolliver even supports her idea, promising to back her, but Joanie isn't as strong as she seems, especially when Cy forces her to kill one of the two teens trying to rip them off (played by Kristen Bell). Later, Eddie (Ricky Jay) offers to be Joanie's backers, telling her he's planning to rip off Cy. This is the one storyline that was never explained well because Ricky Jay vanished after season 1, though in season 2, Joanie made a reference to him finding the place for the Chez Ami for her and helping her out, yet she also gives Cy a cut of her take. I got off track, which is Kim Dickens who handled what really is a slow degradation in her character caused by an uncertain future and unresolved demon and a tenative lurch at love (with Jane no less). I hope I haven't forgotten anyone, though I know I must of because there are too damn many of you and I know I didn't get all my points or things I've learned in, or talk enough about its technical aspects (God bless James Glennon who filmed most of the episodes and was responsible for its wonderful look) and other behind-the-scenes-craftsmanship but I'll end this with a shout-out to Keone Young.
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Friday, March 20, 2009
Meme meme me
By Edward Copeland
I'm not sure what was more difficult when Film Squish tagged me with this meme: limiting myself to my 10 favorite characters in the entire history of film or selecting five film bloggers to infect with this task next.
1) My selections are coming in no particular order, but since I've already used the art for Peter Finch's Oscar-winning work as Howard Beale in Network, I might as well start there. The film itself grows more prescient over time, but the great monologues that Paddy Chayefsky wrote for him can work in innumerable situations. Howard doesn't come out of the gate as an angry populist. When we first meet him, he's a drunk older man, a man who got "properly pissed" with his friend upon the news that he was losing his job as the anchor of a network news broadcast. When he sobers up, he goes a little nuts and announces that he plans to kill himself on the air on his last broadcast. The ratings go up and that is what matters in the end. Before long, he's an angry populist whose screeds still ring true for many issues today. Then he's the Mad Prophet of the Airwaves. Then, as all sensations do, his popularity wanes and he's not useful anymore. It's a great character arc.
2) Addison DeWitt as played by George Sanders in his Oscar-winning role in All About Eve is part theater critic, part gossip columnist and almost all barracude. He's sort of a Walter Winchell. The closest we might come to in this day and age is Michael Riedel, but I wouldn't want to give him delusions of grandeur. Addison had a lot going for him, namely a seemingly endless supply of witty bon mots and rejoinders supplied by writer-directer Joseph L. Mankiewicz. Addison, while helping Eve Harrington lift her career up in the world, is also the only person strong enough to put Eve in her place and tell her how things are going to be. "It's important right now that we talk, killer to killer," Addison tells Eve. "Champion to champion," Eve replies, still thinking she can get her way. "Not with me, you're no champion. You're stepping way up in class," DeWitt lets Eve know. Of course, Addison might get his after the credits roll, because he seems to want Eve for himself and love can always screw with a man's mental faculties.
3) Hollywood, being essentially narcissistic, has made plenty of films about itself, but none of those films were quite as bizarre, fascinating or just plain great as Billy Wilder's Sunset Blvd. The character of the struggling screenwriter, Joe Gillis (William Holden) wasn't what made the film unique. It was the creation of the marvelous Norma Desmond (Gloria Swanson). When Andrew Lloyd Webber barfed up that ill-conceived musical version, theater buffs would always debate "Who was the best Norma?" Was it Glenn Close? Patti LuPone? Faye Dunaway? My answer always without fail was Gloria Swanson because for me she is the only Norma that counts. Drawing on her history as a silent film star whose career had slowed in the sound era, it was one of the most perfect merging of performer and roles ever. What's so great about Norma is that she seems decidedly insane, but Swanson never overplays it and some argue that she's not crazy at all, she's just manipulative to the core, doing what she feels she has to to get what she wants. Then again, she couldn't have foreseen that a down-on-his-luck screenwriter would seek refuge in her garage the same night she was having a funeral for her dead chimpanzee. Norma alternates between vulnerable and strong, from wronged to inspired. Norma was one of a kind.
4) Many of the movies I love have more than one of my favorite characters of all time, but thanks to criteria I set for myself, I limited myself to one per movie, one per actor and I tried to keep it fairly even between male and female characters. The toughest case for me was Broadcast News. I so identify with Albert Brooks' Aaron Altman, but I let him go in favor of the film's main character, Holly Hunter's great career-minded woman Jane Craig. She reminds me so much of different women I know. When the film was released, some people found it odd when there would be the short scenes where Jane would be crying for no apparent reason, but I knew someone who actually did set aside time to cry like Jane did. Jane is also funny, sharp, principled and great at her job and all these attributes interfere with her love life. The scene I think really encapsulates Jane is when she pulls the head of the news division aside at a party and tells him that he's making a bad decision. Her boss answers sarcastically, "You are absolutely right and I'm absolutely wrong. It must be nice to always think you're the smartest person in the room, that you know better." "No, it's awful," Jane replies.
5) Casablanca's Capt. Louis Renault is just like any other character, only more so. In a film as beloved as this one and usually thought of in terms of the star-crossed love of Rick and Ilsa, Claude Rains' Louis is the star of the show as far as I'm concerned. His character could be a villain and at times, Renault does villainous things, but he's so damn charming and wry in his corruption, that you know he'll end up doing the right thing in the end. Still, being a poor corrupt official only pays so much, so it's a good thing Rick lets hims win at roulette. Most importantly, Renault is a survivor. In World War I, he was part of the French force that entered Berlin with the U.S. in 1918. In World War II, he sold his soul to the Nazis and became part of the Vichy French government when the Third Reich took over. When it was time to move on, he moved on. There actually were plans made for a sequel to Casablanca in the 1940s following Rick and Louis to Brazzaville and continuing the story. While I love Capt. Louis Renault, I prefer to remember him and Rick walking off together in the fog.
6) "Leave the rooster story alone. That's human interest," Walter Burns, newspaper editor extraordinaire shouts into a telephone as he tries to make over the next day's edition for a late-breaking edition. At the same time, he has to hide a Death Row escapee from the police and other reporters and break up the impending marriage between his ex-wife and an insurance salesman. Cary Grant brings to life this hysterical reprobate in His Girl Friday, Howard Hawks' remaking of The Front Page. There have been other Walter Burns on screen, but for me, Grant is the only one that matters, masterly firing that rapid-fire dialogue by Charles Lederer from Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur's play. Of course without Grant, we wouldn't have had the inside joke of Walter saying, "Listen the last man that said that to me was Archie Leach just a week before he cut his throat." (Archibald Leach was Grant's real name,in case you didn't know.) The genius of this version of the tale was making Walter's ace reporter Hildy Johnson a woman and his ex-wife (the great Rosalind Russell), making all Walter's crazy machinations make more sense. When Hildy tells Walter he's wonderful, in a loathsome sort of way, ain't it the truth.
7) "Why don't you pass the time with a game of Solitaire?" We already know that this is a trigger for Raymond Shaw to receive new orders from his communist brainwashers, but it has never sounded so chilling as it does when the words come from the mouth of Raymond's own mother (Angela Lansbury). The Manchurian Candidate already had painted Lansbury's character of Mrs. Iselin in the villainous vein as she plays puppet master to her dim bulb of a husband, a would-be Joseph McCarthy yelling about commies in the State Department. (As she tells her husband at one point, "I keep telling you not to think! You're very, very good at a great many things, but thinking, hon', just simply isn't one of them.") However, until that scene, we had no idea she was in on it with the communists themselves in a political power play to get to the White House. To me, remakes of good or great films are almost always a bad idea, and the remake of The Manchurian Candidate sunk like a stone as they should have. Not even Oscar magnet Meryl Streep could compete with the memory of Angela Lansbury's Mrs. Iselin and people can argue all they want about how good Patty Duke was in The Miracle Worker, but denying Mrs. Iselin may well be Oscar's greatest travesty. Then again, maybe they were afraid to give her the stage.
8) Katharine Hepburn famously said that most of the right actors win Oscars, just for the wrong roles and there is no better evidence for this theory than Dustin Hoffman. I know this exercise is about characters, not the people who played them, but there are so many that Hoffman has brought to the screen that it's a crime that the trophies came for Kramer Vs. Kramer and Rain Man. Of all his characters that went home empty-handed, I go with his trifecta in Tootsie. He's the struggling, self-centered actor Michael Dorsey, the female actress that Michael creates, Dorothy Michaels and the role of a hospital administrator on the soap opera that Dorothy lands a job on. Hoffman is so great that he creates two full-bodied characters in Dorothy and Michael and sometimes you even forget Dorothy is a man in disguise. He squeezes plentiful laughs and some pathos out of both characters. Michael Dorsey is a thing of wonder to watch — and Dorothy Michaels is no slouch herself.
9) Yes, Travis Bickle, I am talking to you. More accurately, I'm talking about you and your place in the pantheon of memorable cinematic characters. Since I already picked Howard Beale, that means I'm selecting two characters from 1976 (Addison and Norma were both 1950, but my point was the prescience of the '76 pair). Travis (Robert De Niro) is a pill-popping, fucked-up cab driver in New York when we first meet him — and that's before he goes off the deep end. It's not really Travis' fault: he tries to socialize but after so many years as a loner, how should he know that a woman's ideal date wouldn't include a trip to a porn theater. I mean, that's where Travis usually went for movies and he did wear a suit and tie. He figures out a full-proof plan to get a second chance with the lady: get rid of the other man in her life, the presidential candidate she works for, though his new Mohawk haircut is a bit of a giveaway for the Secret Service. Nothing left to do than try to save a young teen prostitute from her life of exploitation. Travis does so in a bloodbath that makes him a vigilante hero, when he hoped he'd end up dead. He might even get a new chance with that woman, but look in Travis' eyes: that timebomb still ticks.
10) When we first spot Quint, he's just in the background of the docks. When he makes his first actual appearance in Jaws, he is like nails on a chalkboard — literally. When Steven Spielberg's breakthrough film switches to a simple tale of three men on a boat in search of a shark, Quint begins as just a cranky old sea salt, prone to ribald jokes and downright unlikeable at times. Quint stays that way for a long while, until we gets to the movie's best scene. Night has fallen and the men have drank to much and Quint and Hooper are showing each other wounds from previous encounters with sea beasts and laughing when Brody asks Quint about one on his arm and the mood changes. Quint explains it was a tattoo he had removed and launches into a riveting monologue about the U.S.S. Indianapolis in World War II that he was on to secretly deliver the atomic bomb. After the delivery, they were torpedoed and most of the men went into the water and got picked off by sharks, one by one. It's a harrowing, true tale that gives an already interesting character true gravity.
Now, the hardest part of all. Picking the next five victims. I hope I'm not selecting anyone that has previously been selected.
Labels: Albert Brooks, Cary, Chayefsky, De Niro, Dunaway, Dustin Hoffman, Gloria Swanson, Hawks, Hecht, Holden, Holly Hunter, K. Hepburn, Lansbury, Mankiewicz, Rains, Roz Russell, Sanders, Spielberg, Streep, Wilder
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Wednesday, March 18, 2009
Natasha Richardson (1963-2009)
I, like everyone, am totally devastated by the sudden death of Natasha Richardson. The term 'life force' seems trite but that is what she was: a woman who powered through life and fascinated everyone she encountered. I have been thinking about the times I spent with her since I heard the news of her tragic accident, and the strongest memory I have is of her laughter, her unmistakeable throaty laugh. I think that's a great way to remember someone.
By Edward Copeland
Hattip to Nathaniel R. for leading me to the Alan Cumming quote. The first notice I took of Natasha Richardson was in one of her earliest films, Paul Schrader's Patty Hearst in 1988. The film itself is one of those I like to call a brilliant mess. It was flawed, yet somehow perfect and a great deal of its perfection came from Richardson's performance in the title role. Her family announced Wednesday night that she had succumbed to the head injuries she'd suffered earlier in the week in a skiing accident. She was 45.
Her film career was rather light and she tended to concentrate on the stage and being a mom. I was fortunate enough to see her on Broadway twice. The first time was in her Tony-winning turn as Sally Bowles in the revival of Cabaret. I've never been that big a fan of the movie version of Cabaret, it always felt as if something was missing. The revival opened it up for me as a piece that had much more to it than just a great score. While most of the cast of the revival were great, Richardson was the true standout.
I also saw her when the play Closer came to Broadway in the role Julia Roberts would get in the movie version. The play was better than the movie and Richardson was good, but it was really a story about the two men. I didn't see her Broadway debut in Anna Christie which won her a Tony nomination and a future husband in Liam Neeson. I also missed her Blanche DuBois in a revival of A Streetcar Named Desire.
Recently, she was part of a one-night only staged reading of Stephen Sondheim's A Little Night Music which also included her mother, Vanessa Redgrave. Josh R was one of the lucky ones who saw it so perhaps he can share, though hopes of a mother-daughter Broadway transfer now sadly are dashed.
The handful of features she made I either never saw (such as the remake of The Parent Trap), had tried to block out (such as Nell) or never heard of (Past Midnight). Still, there were a couple of hidden gems. She gave a delightful performance among a bevy of old pros in Widows' Peak.
She also was good (even though the film bored me) and got to work with mom Vanessa and Aunt Lynn in James Ivory's The White Countess.
RIP Ms. Richardson.
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Hawks' Rio Bravo marks a half-century
By David Gaffen
The era of the revisionist Western is generally associated with the early 1990s, but the reality is that the subversion of the genre began in earnest several decades earlier. It picked up steam with Sergio Leone’s spaghetti Westerns and films directed by Don Siegel and Sam Peckinpah, but Howard Hawks’ Rio Bravo was one of the earlier entries to play with the conventions of the genre.
It is well known that Hawks disliked High Noon, which was released in 1952, seven years before Rio Bravo — in part because of the anxiety and insecurity displayed by Will Kane, the hero played by Gary Cooper. In and of itself, this was already a subversion of the archetypal protagonist of the western, although the stoic nature of Cooper’s character fit squarely into the conventions established already within the Western’s short history on film.
Rio Bravo features John Wayne in another performance as the towering authority figure, but after his iron-clenched performance a few years earlier as Ethan Edwards in The Searchers — another film directed by John Ford that presents a protagonist as separate from the family he serves — his John Chance is another stoic, laconic type, but his relationships with the other principles have a more relaxed, lived-in quality, particularly Dean Martin, the town drunk who later redeems himself. This was Wayne entering the latter stages of his career, when his performances brought with him a quiet steadiness, devoid of the coiled rage one saw in The Searchers, which remains his best performance.
The other characters in the film are archetypes in and of themselves — the drunk, the kid, the grizzled codger — but they’re invested with a light spirit. While Hawks and Wayne may have wanted to answer High Noon’s supposed take on blacklisting with one that did not show society abandoning a man who was protecting them (the very position taken in The Searchers), this take was in some ways a more liberal, community-oriented one. Wayne’s allies are of varying ability, what with a drunk, an inexperienced kid, and a coot to protect the town against the rancher seeking to bust Joe Burdette (Claude Akins) out of prison — and Wayne’s Chance is constantly turning down entreaties from other townspeople who want to help him.
It’s hard to believe that Hawks’ chief problem with High Noon was its political bent and what they interpreted as weakness in the main character, particularly as Rio Bravo works more effectively as a rejoinder to the somber High Noon. Much of the film’s relaxed nature comes from Wayne’s interaction with Angie Dickinson’s Feathers character and the elderly deputy, Stumpy, played by supporting actor du jour Walter Brennan. Dickinson more than holds her own here — the film has several gentle moments of interaction between her and Wayne, always underrated, who as usual says more with the phrasing of one line or a reaction than plenty of actors could with a five-minute soliloquy.
And the movie remains a great showcase for what can only be described as the enjoyment of filmmaking, best illustrated by two of Martin’s big moments. One, of course, is the scene where he walks into a bar to find a character’s killer, and spots drops of blood falling into a beer mug, cluing him into the outlaw’s presence in the rafters; it’s the kind of moment Quentin Tarantino lives to include in his films.
Of course, there’s the brilliant scene prior to the climax where Martin and Nelson — both possessing terrific voices, as it was well known — sing “My Rifle, My Pony and Me.” The scene serves its purpose as a break from the rising tension throughout the latter part of the film, but who could cast a movie with Martin and Nelson and not have them collaborate with a vocal performance?
Rio Bravo is one of those films that a person could see once and feel they’ve seen it five times, so lived-in is its appeal, so comfortable its presence. In a sense one could see it three times while only seeing it once, as Hawks and Wayne teamed up for two more versions of the tale. El Dorado (1967), in a way, improves on the original (Robert Mitchum and James Caan are superior actors to Martin and Nelson), but the villains are stronger in the original, but these are minor differences. It’s hard to say to whom this film belongs. Martin was never stronger than in this movie, a surprisingly effective cowboy who generates a ton of empathy as a result of his character’s struggle with booze. He commands the screen in his scenes in part because Wayne was a consistently generous performer on-screen, allowing the other actors room to breathe while he comfortably let his presence do the work for him.
Wayne’s ability to slip comfortably from the foreground to the background in favor of his co-stars was among his greatest strengths — the subtle approach is also probably what kept him from winning awards until he took on the more colorful Rooster Cogburn role in True Grit — but Rio Bravo is one of his best roles. It is justly remembered as one of the classics of the genre.
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Tuesday, March 17, 2009
SXSW review: TRIMPIN: The Sound of Invention
By Jonathan Pacheco
If you’ve ever been to the Seattle Experience Music Project, you may have seen this impressive display: a 60-foot-tall tornado of electric guitars, which all just happen to be playing themselves. The mastermind behind the ambitious project goes by his last name only, Trimpin. The German native is a...well, it’s hard to decide how to classify the artist. Is he a composer? Yes. Is he an inventor? Yes. Is he a sculptor? You could say so. The man’s work spans so many different media that it’s almost confounding. TRIMPIN: The Sound of Invention attempts to take a look at the man’s genius, observing him in his element as he creates personal projects and prepares for an experimental concert with the Kronos Quartet.
If you don’t know why this pairing is noteworthy, you should know that the music of Trimpin is very mechanical; the man creates machines that play automatic rhythms by beating tiny hammers inside wooden clogs. He converts piano player rolls to MIDI files and controls his pieces that way. Most impressive is the Seismofon, a giant array of tubes creating noise based on earthquakes around the world. Yes, you read correctly. Reading earthquake data from the Internet, different numbers on the Richter scale are interpreted into different notes, and earthquakes on different continents are played in different scales. The Kronos Quartet, as diverse as their musical choices can be, are still a string quartet (I know you’ve heard their work; they performed the legendary Requiem For a Dream score).
TRIMPIN does a surprisingly good job at building up to the concert event while still giving us insights into Trimpin’s other works and his process. You’ll see him gathering materials for a project and all of a sudden become infatuated with an accidental sound. He’ll discover new noises and ideas while polishing an almost-complete project. With cameras rolling seemingly all the time, there’s very little narration by Trimpin himself. Rather, it’s done by colleagues or fellow artists who are all as perplexed by the inventor’s process as we are. At times this can be a little to heavy on the praise, as the entire documentary can be. Really, the only negative you can find about Trimpin in this film is in a hilarious scene during the brainstorming sessions for the Kronos concert. For a grand finale, Trimpin suggests smashing a violin, mimicking the cliched smashing of the rock and roll electric guitar. The Kronos fellows all vehemently object and almost take offense. They’d never do that to their babies!
But this lack of conflict can keep the otherwise great documentary from reaching a new level of depth because really, most of the anticipation in the entire film is created by the ever-changing plans for the concert. That’s not to say that the documentary has to try and dig up dirt on what seems to be a good man, but if there was any conflict to be had, a film is better served by it. Otherwise, it just feels like you’re waxing the guy’s car for 90 minutes. The film would also benefit from a designing eye, or the work of a typographer. There are a good amount of titles on the screen, and, from an aesthetic eye, a lot more could be done to increase their impact. As they are created presently, I personally found them a little distracting in the “I just threw text on the screen” sense.
The only reason I saw TRIMPIN was because, once I received my SXSW badge Saturday evening, it was the only film I had the time to make it to, but I’m glad I did. It was surprisingly engaging and satisfying.
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Monday, March 16, 2009
Walking that tightrope as a critic
By Edward Copeland
Eons ago when I was in college or in my early days at a newspaper, I always hated reviewing theater. It's not that I couldn't do it. (Honestly, it's just art and music where I feel out of my element.) It's that something changes when you are in the same area as the artists or, even worse, know the people involve. Movies can be the same thing. It's easy to knock a Hollywood film when you don't know the players. So it's with trepidation whenever a beginning filmmaker such as David Spaltro asks you to review his first feature.
You hope the film, ...Around, is great or awful. There is even part of you that hopes the DVD malfunctions. Sadly, the answer lies between the two extremes and that is usually the most misunderstood reviews one ever writes, even more so when the person who made the film asked you to do it. So, before I begin, please understand Mr. Spaltro that, for the most part, I enjoyed your film but I do have problems with it and take what I say as constructive criticism.
For the rest of you out there, the old adage says write what you know and writer-director David Spaltro is definitely doing that with his first feature ...Around, which he made for less than $150,000, mostly on credit cards, and has been playing festivals and may soon get a limited theatrical release before going to DVD.
The ground he covers is familiar one as his filmic alter ego Doyle (Robert W. Evans) casts his sight from his Jersey City home and sets out to start a future in film school in Manhattan. Things never go that smoothly and as the years of his education pass, Doyle finds himself broke, homeless and with filmmaker's block. If all that weren't bad enough, he also falls for Allyson (Molly Ryman), who seems out of his reach and destined to always dwell in the realm of the unrequited.
The problems with ...Around, other than covering somewhat familiar territory, is that it is perhaps too autobiographical, going so far as to include the years in which the story takes place. This wouldn't usually be a problem, but it's not only unnecessary here but when you have a film whose beginnings take place in Manhattan in 2001, it's unseemly not to acknowledge what happened in September there, even if that's not what the film was about.
Having been in Manhattan shortly after 9/11 and having been there frequently, the people were fundamentally changed for awhile. Granted, part of the story concerns how self-absorbed Doyle is, that is not true for all of the characters in the film and the only allusion to the event was the brief sight of a banner saying that the Bush regime planned 9/11.
Another device that I think works against the film is the use of voiceover narration by Doyle. Usually, it just underlines what you would have discerned from the scene anyway.
Most of the acting is good, though Doyle's switch from good guy to aimless asshole late in the film seems to be abrupt. The best performance belongs to Ron Brice as a homeless man that Doyle befriends when he's sleeping in Penn Station.
...Around certainly has good things going for it, but Spaltro needs to get away from himself to decide what kind of filmmaker he'll really turn out to be.
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Sunday, March 15, 2009
The survey ends with the best of the best
Brooke Cloudbuster has finished the task of this year's Oscar survey by unveiling the top votegetters for the best best supporting actress winners of all time.
Previously, Brooke had revealed:
I'd like to thank Brooke once again for taking on the work of the survey this year, even though the turnout of participants was so paltry. Even if you didn't send in a ballot, head over to The Performance Review. You owe Brooke at least that much.
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Friday, March 13, 2009
What lies beneath
By Edward Copeland
Juliette Fontaine would make a great poker player, because her face betrays nothing of what's going on inside her head. One could take it as serenity, if you didn't know that she'd just been released from prison after 15 years. If you knew why she'd been jailed, it could look to you to be a veneer of coldness belonging to a monster. As played superbly by Kristin Scott Thomas in I've Loved You So Long, Juliette doesn't think she owes anyone anything, but her younger sister Lea (the wonderful Elsa Zylberstein) loves her no matter what she did or why she did it.
Thomas received a good deal of Oscar buzz and a Golden Globe nomination for her work in Philippe Claudel's film, but missed the Oscar cut and it's a damn shame. Maybe the British actress should have turned to French films earlier because I've Loved You So Much may well be her career best.
The film itself is pretty good as well, but Zylberstein shouldn't be forgotten. Her performance could have been coated in syrup, but she perfectly modulates a younger sister's idolization clashing against her duties as a harried working mom and a rightfully concerned husband, uncomfortable with an ex-convict living under his roof.
As I continue to catch up with 2008 films I missed, I'm beginning to wonder how many slots on my top 10 list will end up being occupied by foreign language films because the best last year sure seemed to come in greater numbers from overseas than the U.S.
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Wednesday, March 11, 2009
Never fight a multifront war
By Edward Copeland
When I first started seeing ads about Spike Lee's Miracle at St. Anna last fall, it sounded quite interesting and I hoped maybe Lee was going to produce another winner after Inside Man. Instead, the film seemed to vanish as soon as it appeared. Now that I've seen it, I can understand why. Lee could have made a great movie about the seldom-told tale of the contribution of African-American soldiers in World War II. His film ended up being a muddle of that story, framed by an unneeded device with some magic realism thrown in.
The film begins in 1983 when a Post Office employee watches an old John Wayne WWII movie and mumbles that "We fought in that one too." Before we know it, he's at work, pulling out a gun and shooting a customer dead. As police search the old man's apartment for clues, they discover a priceless Italian relic that once was part of a bridge the Nazis destroyed in the war.
A young reporter gets a chance to interview the old man to try to get the story out of him and then the story unfold in flashback. Some of the war scenes are great and I'm sure there are incidents such as the one where a racist white soldier refuses to believe the black soldiers have made it as far as they say they have and fires mortars and different coordinates than they give him, putting the African-American troops in danger.
As a result of this battle, four surviving members of this Buffalo soldier unit hole up in a small Italian village that the Germans have abandoned. The soldiers bring with them an injured boy who speaks constantly to an invisible friend and befriends the largest, slightly slow member of the soldiers, whom the boy calls his "chocolate giant."
That's a lot of plates that Lee needs to keep spinning in the air and he doesn't need to be spinning that many. You have to be paying close attention (and then it might only be a guess) to understand why the aging former soldier kills the customer but more importantly, it's a framing device for a film that doesn't need one (You don't even want to know about the ending framing device, which makes the old Private Ryan wailing at the Normandy graves "Am I a good man? seem positively understated.)
What a great movie Lee could have made about the Buffalo soldiers, even incorporating the time in the Italian village. You watch the film and are constantly reminded of what a powerful and talented filmmaker he is, but his weaknesses seem to get the better of him too often.
For one thing, the movie is too long. For another, STOP LETTING TERENCE BLANCHARD SCORE YOUR FILMS AND STEP ON YOUR SCENES. I swear, in one battle scene, you can barely hear the gunfire over Blanchard's blaring.
What really dooms this film is something that is unusual for a Spike Lee film: There isn't a distinctive character to be found. Even in his worst films, there are usually good performances and characters. Here, everyone seems bland and uninteresting.
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Monday, March 09, 2009
All Around the World
By Jonathan Pacheco
Apparently, I'm a bit of a Tom Tykwer fan and never knew it. His name sounded familiar to me, and it was only when I looked up his credentials that I realized why: he's made some darn good films. The director is responsible for the uber-hip Run Lola Run, The Princess and the Warrior, Heaven (a part of Kieslowski's final, somewhat posthumous trilogy), and most importantly to me, Perfume: The Story of a Murderer. Tykwer has a little bit of an identity as a certain type of filmmaker, so I was a bit surprised to see him taking on a film, The International, that at first glance is much more mainstream — a thriller about an Interpol agent, Salinger (Clive Owen), and an American Assistant District Attorney, Eleanor (Naomi Watts), investigating the corruption of a major international bank.
I really have to take a moment and highlight the cinematography of this film. Like a lot of the best camera and lighting work, the cinematography of Frank Griebe (who also shot the gorgeous Perfume) blends into the theme of The International, only revealing itself as truly outstanding when you take a moment to reflect on it. The muted colors, mostly blues, whites, and shades of grey, fit perfectly into the world of banks, Interpol, and corporate conspiracy. Many of the shots were backlit by bright, overexposed sunshine bursting through giant glass corporate windows, creating semi-silhouettes out of each character. There were also a few moving shots that surprised me in their duration and direction. If you think of your typical TV show such as Fringe or CSI, you’ll notice that they contain dozens of aerial establishing shots of major downtown areas. The camera flies over Boston or Las Vegas for all of two seconds, and then we cut to the scene down below. The shots are basic, possibly stock, and really have no punch or zip. I noticed a few times that The International took this idea and went just a little bit further. In one instance, it took the same idea, using those “generic” helicopter shots, but instead of cutting once it establishes the location, it keeps moving, passing over the tallest building, tilting down to reveal action behind it, below on the streets.
It establishes a general setting (the city), but rather than settling for that, it moves beyond the typical shot and reveals action behind what you thought was important. This could be taken as a sort of metaphor for the film (moving beyond the big shiny high-rise to reveal the reality behind it), but I think it mainly stems from a love of architecture, either from the cinematographer or the director. There are many "beauty shots" of buildings, a pivotal sequence takes place in the spiraling Guggenheim, and, in one of my favorite shots of the film, we are treated to an overhead view of a political rally gone wrong. When an attack takes place at an Italian plaza, we get a rather symmetrical bird’s-eye shot of the stage and surrounding area, almost as if we’re looking at a blueprint while hundreds of tiny people dash in every direction.
All of these can seem like relatively insignificant and minor tweaks to a cinematography scheme that we seem to know so well, but that’s the point; tweaks here and changes there can create such a satisfyingly fresh visual experience without having to be I Am Cuba or Watchmen.
But a film shall not live on cinematography alone. While I won't pretend to know anything about international banks beyond what this film spoon-fed me, I could see that the story that resides underneath the visual surface isn't airtight, nor is the story-telling, as seemingly important developments, tangents, and theories are abandoned in favor of shiny new plot turns. While it sounds frustrating, it's not something I noticed until after the film was over, finding myself thinking, "Hey, what ever happened to that one thing? They never explored that...."
In a way, it's as if the writer, Eric Singer, had a few scenes and lines that he knew he wanted in the final product, regardless if they fit. That's the only reason I can think that an investigative thriller would turn into a straight shoot-'em-up just for one long sequence. Or why every once in a while, in the middle of a very natural conversation, a character will rattle off a line that sounds like it came from an inspirational poster. The character of Eleanor is almost exclusively compromised of these scripted lines, relegating the talented Watts to uttering dialogue like, "We just had a major breakthrough in the case!" and "Let's make sure he didn't die in vain...." Not all is as cliched as it sounds, though. The film makes some very smart choices, such as underplaying the connection that Eleanor and Salinger have. At times, it was a bit refreshing, really.
The point is that The International is engaging, if in ways that are slightly different than what you've come to expect, and even if it's not a film that will linger with me for very long. Tykwer has done greater work, but he's not too shabby here either.
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Friday, March 06, 2009
Chasing Chasing Amy
By Edward Copeland
I like Kevin Smith and I'm not ashamed to admit it. Even though I've only met him once, I liked him as a person. Despite the fact that he's made far more movies I've been disappointed in than I've liked, I still look forward to his films, silently rooting for him, hoping that this movie will be the one that brings back the filmmaker I admired in the first place. Unfortunately, Zack and Miri Make a Porno is not that movie.
In a strange way, Zack and Miri seems as if Smith is trying to make a Judd Apatow movie. He certainly has plenty of Apatow alums in the cast, but the film doesn't work as an Apatow homage any better than it does as a Kevin Smith film.
The plot is simple: Seth Rogen and Elizabeth Banks play the title characters, lifelong platonic friends who share an apartment and the bills. Unfortunately for them, they get far behind and have their electricity and water cut off. After a visit to their 10th high school reunion (which is really the film's funniest sequence, especially thanks to a cameo by Justin Long), Zack gets the bright idea of making a cheap porno film to help finance their continued existence.
Of course, it's a crazy idea. Making a porno to pay for the utilities on a crappy apartment while they continue to work at a low-paying jobs is absurd to say the least. However, I'd let that go if Smith's writing was sharp and funny like I know it can be, but Smith's script seems lazy here. It left me with a feeling of sadness instead of giving me lots of laughs.
I know Smith still has it in him, even if it has been 12 years since he moved to a new level with Chasing Amy, I still have faith in him. I fear he was scarred by the Jersey Girl experience and its Ben Affleck-J-Lo sideshow.
Perhaps it is time for Smith to stretch his skills to a different genre and steer clear of relationship movies for awhile, just to see what happens. I know you can do it, Kevin. Don't waste your time on films such as Zack and Miri. Your lack of enthusiasm is showing.
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