Thursday, June 30, 2005

))<>((



You'll know what the title of this blog means if you see Me and You and Everyone We Know (heretofore referred to as M&Y&EWK), and you probably should see it. It's a sweet, good-natured, odd confection about the joys and ironies of living. It's like an existential jolly rancher. Tastes great, but you've got to suck on it for a while. Make sense? Didn't think so.

M&Y&EWK is the indie breakout of the moment, having seduced hard-nosed critics and swiped major awards at Cannes and Sundance. I haven't read a single critic or industry professional that doesn't like it, but then it's really hard to hate a film that is so light and hopeful. To hate M&Y&EWK, you'd have to hate life and people who love it.

Its star and director is Miranda July, who is a step away from Rachel Griffiths' looks, Lorraine Bracco's voice, and Lisa Kudrow's cute curtness. She's the textbook female indie protagonist, with her disarming-yet-unglamorous features and penchant for quirk. Her film is an ensemble piece about California neighbors, but it's silly to give it a hybrid label like "dramedy." There are funny parts and sad parts, but July's world is one that can't tell the difference, where the fabric of life is stitched with the delights of human connection.

If stuff like this makes you want to vomit, see it anyway; there's a hilarious subplot involving a rather sexual online chat between a 5-year-old and an "unknown pervert." The mysterious title of this entry alludes to it, as does the thesis of the movie: In life, it's all back and forth.

Monday, June 27, 2005

War of the Worlds



If you like your movie experiences pure, don't read. Instead, go see War of the Worlds. If you don't mind, or are implacable, scroll down a bit.













War of the Worlds is the most amazing movie I've ever seen. Not the best. The most amazing. It is not perfection, but it is perfect in its consideration of its audience. Spielberg is a masterful entertainer, like Hitchcock was. He has created, using the most convincing and seamless visual effects I've ever seen, a movie of awesome scope and apocalyptic beauty.

Some will say it isn't deep enough or smart enough, that it lacks logic and explanation, that it's going only for cheap, digitized thrills. I say who the hell cares. The film ended, and I had to close my mouth, which had been open the whole time. I was at the mercy of the movie, and it felt great.

I saw it at Uptown, on the best and biggest screen in D.C. The audience was full, and rapt. Part of a great moviegoing experience is reveling in communal reaction, and War of the Worlds commands a kind of unity from the audience. It is, after all, about the end of the world, man against an otherworldly aggressor, survival in the face of destruction and extermination. It is also, as most good things are, about man against man.

Even if I wanted to go into specifics, I couldn't. There aren't any. The screenwriters (Josh Friedman & David Koepp) knew not to get in the way of the story, which was the ambush of Earth by an alien force. That's compelling enough by itself. There are no twists and turns or sudden revelations. Just Tom Cruise and his family fighting for their lives.

It's rare these days to be astonished by the virtuosity of a movie. Minority Report was the last time I was stunned by the graceful dovetail of a film's technical and narrative aspects. Spielberg outdoes himself here, though with a less complex and rewarding story.

Again, though, who cares? There is plenty to enjoy purely from a filmmaking perspective. Some sequences defy explanation. For example, as Cruise and his two children are fleeing a ravaged Jersey town, the camera circles the outside of the van they're driving. You wouldn't even notice it if you were caught up in the scene. But watch for it. Somehow, Spielberg has his camera circling the trio from outside of the van as they drive full speed. It moves effortlessly around, pausing, pivoting, tracking in and out, catching each angle of the heated conversation and making the scene electric.

Was it a green screen, or was Cruise really driving? Were some of those shots digital? Were the seams glossed over by computer trickery? I don't think so. Either way, it's a marvelous accomplishment. And it's by the far the least flashy trick in the movie.

There is a spellbinding scene on a ferry, where the alien tripods are advancing and people are flinging themselves onto the boat as it sets off. There is a cat-and-mouse sequence in the basement of a farmhouse, when an alien sensor is seconds away from discovering Cruise and company -- it's almost unbearable because of the suspense. Then there is an unexpected point when Cruise has to say goodbye to someone as the world around them is ending, and it's as dramatic and rending as anything I've seen. It ends as simply as it begins, with a bit of narration (by Morgan Freeman, who might be overemployed as a narrator). Regardless, the final line is perfect. It anchors the film.

People will quickly label War of the Worlds an amalgam of Spielberg's previous movies. It has the alien fascination of Close Encounters and ET, the emotionless predator presence of Jaws, the gritty technical vision of Minority Report, the relentlessness of Saving Private Ryan, the family drama of The Sugarland Express, the desperation to survive a holocaust that is the essence of Schindler's List. It has scenes that are informed by each of these movies, yet War of the Worlds feels like a vision all its own.

The vision is, I think, one man's imagining of limitless terror and wonder, and his daring to share it.

Sunday, June 26, 2005

The dirtiest joke ever told



"The Aristocrats" is a legendary joke that's been circling the stand-up comic circuit for decades. It involves a standard set-up and punchline, but the middle is open for improvisation. The idea is for your language to be as foul and offensive as possible in this middle section.

The Aristocrats is a documentary about this joke, and how it has survived since vaudeville, and how it takes on many forms as interpreted by scores of comedians. Essentially, the movie is one comedian after another using unspeakably obscene language.

There's Lewis Black, Paul Reiser, Judy Gold, Drew Carey, Howie Mandel, the Smothers brothers, George Carlin, Jason Alexander, Whoopi Goldberg, Billy Connolly, Carrie Fisher, Gilbert Gottfried, Hank Azaria, Eddie Izzard, Penn Jillette, Eric Idle, Bill Maher, Michael McKean, Harry Shearer, Martin Mull, Kevin Nealon, Kevin Pollak, Andy Richter, Chris Rock, Rita Rudner, Rip Taylor, Matt Stone, Bruce Vilanch, Jon Stewart, Dave Thomas, and Fred Willard.

Each gives variations on the theme. The documentary illustrates that joke-telling is very much like jazz -- you can have a standard that is reimagined many times in many ways, depending on the musician. The improv can be long and rich or short and simple, really dirty or comparatively clean.

The movie made a big splash at Sundance in January, and I saw it at the Silverdocs Film Festival last week (IMDb says it'll be out August 12). Very funny, occasionally boring, worth a look. If there's a message, I don't know it. But it is refreshing to hear such bloody revolting language "in public," as censorship gets more complex in certain venues. In a way, The Aristocrats attempts to cleanse the palette of a society strangled by political correctness. Sure, movies are getting more violent, television is getting smuttier, but we're still entrenched in this eddy of PCness that's annoying, if not damaging to the creative process. The Aristocrats tries to shake things up.

Anecdotally: Phyllis Diller, Sarah Silverman, and Bob Saget are the best reasons to see the movie. Diller's great comic timing hasn't dulled with age. Silverman turns this one-note joke into an impressive, layered comic performance on the fly. And Saget's interpretation is probably the dirtiest (despite Bill Maher's yarn about a family of retards having incestuous sex on a pile of dead nuns), and it's funny to watch him crack up at his own disgusting mouth.

Also, it's important to note that the joke itself is not funny. There is no punchline, really. The funny part is the comedian's attempt to find new ways to nauseate and repulse an audience.

Friday, June 24, 2005

Bothered & bewildered



Skip it. Seriously. DO NOT PAY FOR THIS MOVIE. Do not not pay for this movie. Just skip it.

When you have Caine and MacLaine, you'd better give them something to do. Bewitched drags them along like old boots off the backend of a newlyweds' car. These are two people with impeccable comic instincts, and for the first half of the movie, they quietly transcend the witless, cutesy plot.

Then things get really boring, and you get the feeling Caine and MacLaine just stopped showing up to the set. Better things to do, I guess, like going to the bathroom or playing horseshoes.

For all its utter banality, Bewitched does serve a purpose. It proves that Nicole Kidman is an actor to be reckoned with -- not that she wasn't before; no actor working today has taken as many risky and varied roles as her and succeeded. But Bewitched thrusts upon her the most dangerous and dull part of her career, and she wrings it for all it's worth. There is an early scene when her character is "auditioning" for the role of Samantha. Watch Kidman. This is an actor completely committed and comfortable in her part, even as the movie itself is creaking. I think it says great things about Kidman's professionalism and reserves.

Does anyone else think Will Ferrell's 15 minutes are up? Nice guy, and funny, but I think we're done here.

Friday, June 17, 2005

Caray should play Felt



The Felt family will make millions off the Tom Hanks deal, which is why they went public with Deep Throat's identity in the first place (second place). Ka-ching. Bobby can go to college now. But the late Harry Caray should play Felt. Obviously. I mean, look at that.

Does anyone else feel Felt's biopic will be a borefest? The reporter angle was ripe for adventure and suspense, as evidenced by All the President's Men. Why see the flip side? The intrigue comes from the secret. You can't make a movie about a secret when the secret's no longer a secret. You can't go behind the scenes and tell the secret's story and hope for anything exciting. Felt wasn't an alcoholic or a druggie. Ray Charles he was not. So how to approach this?

Maybe the Felt film will focus on his home life, and how he was a decent husband and father and citizen and agent, and how he can't figure out who's stealing his morning newspaper. There's your secret. Sample scene:


FELT's alarm goes off, he slams his palm down on it. Gets up, puts on robe, shuffles to the front of the house, wiping eye crusties away. Pulling open the door, he sees that someone has swiped the early edition.

FELT (simmering): Mother pus bucket. Who the f*ck's taking my paper?

Suddenly, from the bushes, Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein pop out.

WOODWARD: We don't know, but we can investigate for you!


Am I right? Caray as Felt. If Caray can't be reached, maybe Don Knotts? Jane Fonda can play the daughter. Because Will Ferrell and Bruce McCullough did such a divine job in Dick, they should be invited back as Woodward & Bernstein. And Dan Hedaya as Nixon, of course.

It will be called Felt Up: The Rise to Maverick FBI Deputy and it will air on Trio.

Ideas for dialogue? Scenes? Casting? Titles?

Monday, June 13, 2005

TomKat & Brangelina

.

I didn't, and still do not, have a problem with Tom Cruise. I do, however, have a problem with Katie Holmes, who was a big spoilsport on Letterman last week (above photos). If you're a celebrity -- particularly a beleaguered, high-profile celeb who acts weird -- you'd best be comfortable with your weirdness and be game to make fun of yourself. Tom is, Katie is not. Her interview with Dave was the most awkward thing I've ever seen on TV. And from the clip she "brought" from Batman Begins, looks like she's pretty awkward in the film, too.

Continuing on the theme of celebrity hoo-ha's and its impact on moviedom, Mr. & Mrs. Smith did a dizzying $50.8 million at the box office this weekend. I'd say without the Pitt/Jolie antics that preceded its release, Mr. & Mrs. Smith would have done half that. So what does this mean for Batman and War of the Worlds? Or is Tom and Katie's PR machine stranger (and therefore less attractive) than Pitt and Jolie's?

I advocate a separation of church and slate. Tom's commitment to and enthusiasm over Scientology is fine and respectable. But I think if he were to keep it out of his career, it would make for better PR. And let's face it, that's what this is about. PR, money, etc.

That said, I still think Batman and War of the Worlds will be hits. The first has the Trifecta of Distinguised Grizzle: Michael Caine, Liam Neeson, and Morgan Freeman. The second has that magical Cruise-Spielberg element that produced a masterpiece last time out (Minority Report). Summer doesn't look so bad. Let's just mind our own business, let the celebrities worship or shtup whomever they like, and find free screenings so they don't get our money.

Thursday, June 09, 2005

Smiths & Wesson



See it if you want, but you won't be any worse off if you skip it. The premise is great, but a great premise does not a great movie make. And this movie is more Bruckheimer than great. It has moments of good comedy and cleverness, but they are doused by expensive action sequences. How are these assassination agencies so undercover when they routinely blow up large structures and engage in destructive freeway auto-fights?

If you're living, you know that Pitt and Jolie play a married couple who don't know the other's a contract killer. Why do you know this? The ads have told you, again and again, before each movie you've seen the past three months. This torpedoes some of the delight of the film's first 20 minutes. We know their secret, so we could've started 20 minutes in.

Pitt/Jolie are fine entertainers but finer specimens.

I'd like to think what Mr. & Mrs. Smith would've been like with Brian De Palma directing.

Better, probably.

Tuesday, June 07, 2005

Anne Bancroft, 1931-2005



I'm really sad about this. She was lovely on film, and lovely in person I'm sure. She and husband Mel Brooks were together 41 years. Everyone remembers her from The Graduate, when she was lethal and oily and smoking and sexual. Equally worthy of note is her compassionate, gentle work in The Miracle Worker, first on Broadway and then the 1962 film version (a Tony and an Oscar were earned; an Emmy followed in 1999 for Deep in My Heart, completing the rare acting triple crown). Click on the title of this entry for a nice Times obit.

"When Mel told his Jewish mother he was marrying an Italian girl, she said: 'Bring her over. I'll be in the kitchen - with my head in the oven.'"

Friday, June 03, 2005

Top-10 Tango



The Independent has wrestled top-10 lists from prominent directors, including Tarantino, Milos Forman, Sidney Lumet, Catherine Breillat, Gillian Armstrong, Sam Mendes, and Jim Jarmusch. Nothing surprising really. Everyone always likes Citizen Kane and Godard and Fellini and Kurosawa. Happy (and deserving) surprises include Groundhog Day at #5 on Terry Jones' list and Waiting for Guffman at #10 on Tim Robbins' list. Also on Robbins' list -- and no one else's, for shame -- is Network at #8.

My top 10 at the moment?

1. Network(Lumet, 1976)
2. The Apartment (Wilder, 1960)
3. The Third Man (Reed, 1949)
4. Chinatown (Polanski, 1974)
5. Bonnie & Clyde (Penn, 1967)
6. Annie Hall (Allen, 1977)
7. The Piano (Campion, 1993)
8. Alien (Scott, 1979)
9. Young Frankenstein (Brooks, 1974)
10. Mary Poppins (Stevenson, 1964)

Yes, I know. No foreign language films and only two non-American. I've seen my fair share of Truffaut and Godard and Bergman and others. They just don't do it for me. What are your top 10?