Tuesday, September 25, 2007

Life has shifted into fifth gear; Blog suffers

So, while I attend to the commensurate what-have-yous, amuse yourselves with this Vanity Fair photo essay by Annie Leibovitz. It's a buffet of delectable (and talented) stars that leads up to a tasty dessert (Blog's patron sinner). I doubt I'll be blogging at all within the next week, unless one of you suggests a topic of interest or outrage. Then I will stop everything and take heed.

Friday, September 21, 2007

Pitt-y party

This isn't Gawker Stalker, but it is an excuse for a quick post. Brad Pitt is currently one floor above me, in the office of my former editor, presumably having a little chat with a real-world journalist to prepare for his role in State of Play (Robert Redford loses his crown as the glitziest student of The Washington Post's cinema school; he spent weeks in the newsroom in 1976 for All the President's Men). If you ever want to send a bunch of hard-nosed journalists into a tizzy, circulate a rumor that Brangelina's on the premises. The whole fourth floor cleared and pretended to have business on the fifth. People have been circling the office like vultures. A nonchalant stroll through the area revealed Pitt inside, in a gray cap, taking notes.

One of the managing editors just sent this notice out to everyone via the internal messaging system: Would anyone disagree with me that in the last 30 minutes, the entire newsroom has forfeited its right to ever high-hat pop culture again?

This, of course, has prompted a global dialogue as staffers lob statements of pith across the whole system:

As many a child has said to their parents, You guys are embarrassing me!

Says the woman who passed the office and then double backed on her way to her desk.

I'm not in the building, and yet even I am suffused with the glow of His presence via receipt of minute-by-minute accounts from various parties, attesting to the magnificent wonderfulness of the Coming, and the degree of their propinquity thereto.

no fair for all far-flung bureau reporters!!

i wouldn't say that. I'm in kabul and I feel like i'm there...

he's ugly, you ain't missing nuthin'

Mr. Pitt! Can I call you Brad? The Post's Alexandria bureau is really really nice....and so very welcoming!

Yeah, well, Clive Owen just showed up at the MoCo bureau, with ELEPHANTS!

Everybody hide your babies!!!

Tuesday, September 18, 2007

My mom left this message on my phone last night

Hi Danny it's Mom. I'm watching The Birds. [Pause.] AMC has an Alfred Hitchcock weekly movie up on or something. I haven't watched The Birds since I was a little girl when they used to have Friday night "Fright Night" every Friday at 11:30 at night. And I'm home alone. I'm glad I don't have a chimney. Okay bye.

Sunday, September 16, 2007

4. Shirley Booth, the maid and the matron

SHIRLEY BOOTH, 1898-1992. Triple crown achieved at age 63 in 1962 with an Emmy for outstanding continued performance by a lead actress in a series for Hazel. Preceding it were three Tonys for dramatic roles -- best featured actress for "Goodbye, My Fancy" in 1949, best lead actress for "Come Back, Little Sheba" (1950), best lead actress for "Time of the Cuckoo" (1953) -- and an Oscar for lead actress for Come Back, Little Sheba (1952). Followed by another Emmy for "Hazel" in 1963.

She was acclaimed for never having given a bad performance, according to The New York Times. This is totally believable, given that she was only in four movies ever. Her stage and radio credits were much more extensive and her legacy was truly cemented by her television work -- specifically "Hazel," that cutesy-tangy domestic comedy from the early '60s. Booth played a sassy, dowdy maid. Nothing like a sassy, dowdy maid to jolt the archetypal stasis of the mid-century American family. The show's damn boring but very populist. Like a latter-day "Two and a Half Men." (Sidebar: Is there anything more depressing than the phrase "season premiere of Two and a Half Men"?) Bleh.

She hit the jackpot with Hazel and was lucky and prolific with roles on stage (600 roles in stock before she went Broadway) but rarely parlayed them to film. Three other actresses earned Academy Award nominations for recreating Booth's role in film versions of her plays: Ruth Hussey in The Philadelphia Story (1940), Rosalind Russell in My Sister Eileen (1942), and Katharine Hepburn in Summertime (1955). But she struck Oscar gold with the one role she did parlay to the screen (in her film debut): that of Lola Delaney, a housewife who is "old and a fat and sloppy" (Lola's words) and puts on a good face despite her brittle marriage to alcoholic Burt Lancaster, the child she miscarried years before, and the lost dog in whom she invested her maternal feelings.

In Come Back, Little Sheba, we first see Booth bumbling down the steps in her bath robe, her steel-wool hair frizzed, taking wide steps, scratching herself. Her voice is like Fran Drescher sucked a bit of helium. Kind of like Estelle Harris, who played George Costanza's mother on "Seinfeld," mixed with Jean Stapleton. Booth as Lola is all jambs and shanks and milky limbs. Maybe she used to be pretty. Maybe not. She lumbers around, always on her toes. She has the let-me-please-you demeanor of a labrador, panting and excited and tail wagging, but quick to shrink when accused or abused. It's one of those performances that appears very static for most of the movie, with subtle choices showing the truth beneath the ignorant exterior.

These choices won Booth the Oscar. When she listens to a silly radio program, she starts dancing and then lays down on the couch and goes into a kind of trance. The exotic music takes her away and makes her more conscious of where she's trapped. Her eyes water a bit. Then there's the way her face starts to crinkle when she realizes Lancaster is backsliding. Or her subtle and perfect reaction when Lancaster mumbles a term of endearment during a alcoholic haze: a twinkle of a tear, but no tremor. She lifts her face and head slightly, as if she's inflated with just a little bit of self-worth. "That's me," she says.

And then there's that final monologue when she describes a dream, her eyebrows bobbing up and down expressively. "Dreams are funny," she concludes.

Reviews of all her stage performances were glowing. "The stage begins to glow the moment she steps on it and the audience melts, like a crowd of children whose imagination has been captured by someone they trust," Brooks Atkinson wrote about her in the 1954 musical "Two if by Sea." "No one else in the theater has made native decency so human, so triumphant and so captivating."

Booth exemplifies the archetype of the triple crowner. She earned her reputation on the stage, carried that to less extensive but equally valuable film work, and then won a pair of courtesy Emmys for bothering to stick with a primetime role for six years. For what it's worth, Booth was happy to be doing Hazel. "Why not enjoy Hazel's success?" she said to a colleague. "I'm as pleased as I can be. I like my work."
The is part four of The Triple Crowners, an 18-part series celebrating the actors who have won an Oscar, an Emmy and a Tony. Check back soon for part five.

Wednesday, September 12, 2007

KathyWatch: She wins, and rises above the vulgarity of crazy Catholics

Kathy Griffin won a much-deserved Emmy on Saturday for her reality show and proceeded to say out loud what every (sane) viewer on Earth mutters each time a sobbing actor accepts an award in a fog of religious piety: Jesus had nothing to do with it.

"A lot of people come up here and thank Jesus for this award," Griffin said at the ceremony. "I want you to know that no one had less to do with this award than Jesus. ... Suck it, Jesus, this award is my god now."

The fatuous trolls at the Catholic League quickly denounced her remarks as "hate speech," asked for an apology and persuaded the dimwits at E! (who stupidly removed Griffin from Golden Globe red carpet duties a couple years ago) to edit her remarks for this Saturday's re-broadcast of the ceremony. Hate speech?

Here's what dumbass Catholic League prez Bill Donahue said: "The self-described ‘complete militant atheist’ needs to make a swift and unequivocal apology to Christians. If she does, she will get this issue behind her. If she does not, she will be remembered as a foul-mouthed bigot for the rest of her life.”

Foul-mouthed bigot for the rest of her life? Shame on the Catholic League, and shame on E!. Both are cowardly organizations. In a public forum, atheists have just as many rights as theists. And how dare the league speak on behalf of Christians.

Griffin wisely issued only this statement: "Am I the only Catholic left with a sense of humor?"

Nope, there's at least two of us, Kath. Memo to Bill Donahue: Go f*ck yourself. Why are you taking the Emmys seriously? Kathy's obviously not. The rest of the world is not. She is a comedian and her speech was an act. She was satirizing insincerity and phony religious piety. Do you honestly believe she is going to enshrine her Emmy and worship it? And even if she does, it is not your business. You also might try watching her show. It's ribald and unruly, but she uses her powers for good. You are pious and stalwart, but you use your powers for bad.

I am outraged. And excited. Did I mention I'm seeing her live next Tuesday?

Thursday, September 06, 2007

Five favorite things about Telluride '07

Telluride 34 is over, and here are some preliminary thoughts, plus my five favorite things.

+ Perspeolis. A lovely, funny animated movie about growing up and out of Shah-controlled Iran.

+ The movie I did not see that got tremendous buzz: The Diving Bell and the Butterfly, starring Mathieu Almaric and Max von Sydow.

+ People on Sunday, in 1929 one of the peaks of silent cinema, was conceived and filmed by the young quartet of Robert Siodmak, Billy Wilder, Fred Zinnemann and Edgar Ulmer with non-actors playing themselves. Accompanied live by the Mont Alto Orchestra, seeing this was a rare privilege.

+ Rails and Ties is the worst movie I've seen in a long time, and its inclusion tarnishes the reputation of Telluride. It's a manipulative cancer soap opera perpetrated by inept screenwriter Micky Levy and Clint Eastwood's director daughter, who have kidnapped Kevin Bacon and Marcia Gay Harden and thurst them into the ugliest roles of their careers. There are no words. Well, maybe four: don't see this movie.

And now for the top five:

5. Cate Blanchett in I'm Not There. Audiences swung from praise to indifference to condemnation of Haynes' opus, but everyone agreed on one thing: Blanchett is a sensation. She looks the part of Bob Dylan, but physicality only goes so far. She's burning from the inside out here, and I couldn't take my eyes of the flames.

4. Encounters at the End of the World. Watch the absurd quest of Aguirre or Fitzcarraldo and then watch the "absurd" quests of the people Herzog follows around Antarctica. The quotation marks are significant. They represent the hopefulness (I dare not say mellowing) of Werner Herzog. In Encounters, he explores our motives for studying the inhospitable environment of the South Pole and, therefore, our motives for seeking adventure and knowledge and for struggling to place ourselves in and transcend our Earth. This is Herzog's most accessible movie -- so accessible it will play on basic cable (the Discovery Channel) -- but that does not diminish its value.

3. The Band's Visit. Eight members of an Egyptian police orchestra end up in a remote Israeli village on the way to a gig. What results is a wonderfully controlled concerto of deadpan humor and reveling in the slight or deep connections between people of different nationalities and similar lonelinesses. This is a very funny movie -- the TFF program accurately compares its minimalist humor to Tati and Jarmusch -- that turns beautiful and a little profound at the end.

2. Juno. This movie deserves the success hijacked by Little Miss Sunshine last year, yet make no mistake: Juno gets nowhere near LMS's forced quirkness despite being the most original, snappily written high school romantic comedy in forever. Sixteen-year-old Juno (Ellen Page, alchemizing the best traits of Janeane Garofalo and Christina Ricci) gets pregnant by Michael Cera (who else?) and decides to have the baby and let it be adopted by a nicely manicured couple (Jason Bateman and a revelatory Jennifer Garner), all under the weary and bemused eyes of her brusque father (J.K. Simmons, in a role that finally allows him to show his talents) and perpetually turtlenecked stepmom (Allison Janney, that delight of delights). The best thing about Juno -- other than its energizing pace and sardonically eloquent dialogue by rookie writer Diablo Cody -- is that its characters sidestep every cliche without making a stink about it; Juno isn't just a smartass, the adoptive mother of her child isn't just a hypertense Home-and-Garden creep and Juno's stepmom isn't just a prickly interloper. These characters are complex and they are played with love.

"Who's ready to laugh?" asked director Jason Reitman when he introduced the movie. The audience applauded, the movie started, we all laughed and laughed (I'm saying a good hearty laugh at least once a minute), and at the end the audience erupted in cheers and whistles. Some people even stood. I saw 12 movies and five shorts and this is the only time there was a swelling, elated response from an audience.

There is nothing as exciting as a movie that starts breathing on its own. Know what I mean? When a movie is totally confidant, competently assembled and executed with verve and passion. Juno breathes on its own right away and never stops or hiccups. The laughs keep on coming, the cast is sterling and the movie, most importantly, has joy and heart -- not the cutesy Sundance-y joy and heart of LMS, or the insipid manufactured cultiness of The Movie That Dare Not Speak Its Name, but something far more edifying. I will cease with my praising. I don't want to set you up with too-high expectations. Let me simply revel in one of the great lines and moments in the movie: "In a couple years, when you move out, I'm gonna get Weimaraners."

1. Hal Holbrook in Into the Wild. Holbrook plays Ron Franz, an elderly retired military man who lost his wife and son in an auto accident 40 years prior to his meeting Chris McCandless, the foolish and passionate 23-year-old vagabond whom he picks up on the side of the road. Franz has compartmentalized himself in his quaint one-story house in the Southwest, venturing only as far as his garage, where he makes leather. His rendezvous with McCandless incites a verbal and tacit struggle between lust and restraint, adventure and reservation. Franz recognizes and reproaches the selfish and futile aspects of McCandless' quest, but he is at the same time liberated by this passionate young man who acts both as a son figure and as a motivator to not only live out one's days but to live them out in the extreme. The way Holbrook reacts to this sudden shakeup of his life is masterful and grounding. He enters the movie in its final 20 minutes and temporarilty elevates it to excellence, sidestepping the opportunity to play Franz as a goofy old coot or a stone-cold curmudgeon. What Holbrook accomplishes is very real, familiar and moving.

Tuesday, September 04, 2007

Day 4: Starting the day with a French-Iranian cartoon and ending with an Israeli celebration of deadpan humor

TELLURIDE, Colo. -- Thoughts on those two films -- plus more in-depth criticism -- are forthcoming. And I'll do a round-up of the five best things about TFF '07. But first I need to sleep.

Monday, September 03, 2007

Day 4: Juno!

TELLURIDE, Colo. -- I come bearing terrific news! Juno is the film I've been waiting for at TFF. Utterly enjoyable, funny as hell, everything you want in a movie. People are raving about it (I think we were all looking for relief from Holocaust- and terrorism-themed movies here at the festival). Mark it: Juno will be a big fat hit and make stars of Ellen Page and its screenwriter. More specific thoughts later.

Day 3: Must see Juno

TELLURIDE, Colo. -- There was one film on everybody's lips today: Juno, Jason Reitman's second feature. Hadn't heard of it before today. Apparently it's a whole lotta fun. Everyone loves it and is raving about Ellen Page's performance. I know nothing about the movie. Hope to see it tomorrow, the last day of the fest. I am so very tired.

Sunday, September 02, 2007

Day 3: Savage family, savage wilderness

TELLURIDE, Colo. -- Sean Penn made two movies and they're both swirled together and slapped with one name: Into the Wild, based on the book about Chris McCandless, a 23-year-old guy who gave up his life of privilege for the life of a vagabond, traveled the U.S. to pursue his version of happiness, followed some unattainable ecstasy to Alaska and died of starvation -- alone and presumably repentant. About half of the movie is great. The other half is bewildering and/or very unfortunate.

(Sidebar: I balked when I read Nick Davis' lust letter to Penn, but seeing him in person today at the Palm Theatre made me a convert.)

Let me start the Oscar drumbeat now: There are great moments in Into the Wild and most of them belong to Hal Holbrook, who plays the last of many people encountered by McCandless (Emile Hirsch, in a serviceable performance). Holbrook is charged with delivering the film's thesis, and he does so in a moving, measured, beautiful supporting performance. Without him, the film would be flimflam. I will not reveal more, but the movie is worth seeing simply for him.

The other "half" of Into the Wild is too slickly produced, too musically scored, too Hollywood. Which is bizarre, given Penn's rebellious anti-establishment nature, and unfortunate, given McCandless' desire to loose himself from the bonds of the material world. All the tact and talent Penn displayed with his last feature directorial effort (The Pledge) is mostly absent here. Yes, McCandless' journey is romantic (and of the early '90s), but to score the entire film with Eddie Vedder songs? And to resort to slow motion and those big circular pans to convey a sense of the epic and the romantic? And to juice the drama with artificial cinematic technique when simple silence would do? Sigh. What makes it worse is that all of this is forgiven momentarity as the movie deftly and profoundly approaches its climax, but then all is torn asunder by the most cliched and inappropriate final shot (hint: it's one of those crane/zoom-out moves that reveals a whole vista (bleh!), and the way that shot starts is a little grotesque and completely kills the momentum).

I will write more about this movie and its two faces. Part genius, part miscalculation. Argh.

The Savages is a family drama that sidesteps most every convention of that genre and ends up saying nothing as a result. It's a weak little screenplay that addresses a topic fertile for drama: the putting away of an elderly relative into a nursing home. Laura Linney, as she usually does, acquits herself nicely. She's such a confident performer, and finds the right note regardless of the inferiority of the material. More on The Savages after the festival. But we'll end on Linney's brief but lovely introduction for the film today:

"I cannot thank this festival enough," she said. (She met her fiance here.) "It has changed my life." At this point she starts to cry, and the audience gives her an "aw" and applauds. "Enjoy the movie."

Day 2: Wrap up

Overheard about Margot and the Wedding: "It's so dysfunctional. " "Very well-acted." "We're not members of the Nicole club, but she was great." Also pretty good is Jack Black. I bet he'll get some awards traction.

I think Kidman is a great actor, but she's making too many movies. I think her performance in Margot would be all the more special if she allowed some breathing room between projects. She is not necessarily a chameleonic actor, so being too prolific is working against her. As for the movie, the more it settles in my brain, the more I see it as just a medley of button-pushing. Every scene is devoted to one character pushing another character's buttons through an intermediary. I guess that's life, but it gets repetitive.

People are still buzzing with admiration for Blanchett's performance in I'm Not There. Otherwise seen:

L'Amerique Lunaire. A 1962 short by Francois Reichenbach with a beautiful, jazzy score by TFF tributee Michel Legrand. It's about Native Americans, and the "men who cannot live without machines." It was introduced as a prototype of Koyaanisqatsi. It's a beautiful and rarely scene meditation on how everything passes away except our beautiful land.

Brick Lane. Heavy-handed and forgettable drama about a Bangladeshi woman in London who yearns for love and for her homeland.

Jellyfish. Winner of the Camera d'Or at Cannes, this is an Israeli everyone-is-connected dramedy, similar in conceit (but inferior in execution) to the Czech film Up and Down, which played Telluride three years ago.

Quickly

TELLURIDE, Colo. -- The Savages is a surprise edition to today's lineup. Will try to make it.

Saturday, September 01, 2007

Day 2: In photos



Day 2: Herzog on ice

TELLURIDE, Colo. -- There are certain ecstasies one can only experience at a festival like Telluride. I had two within an hour of waking up this morning.

The first: I'm on the gondola ride up to the Chuck Jones Cinema to see Herzog's Antarctica doc. As is custom, I chat with my fellow gondola-riders about the movies. Turns out that the guy I'm talking to is Mark Stock, the San Francisco-based artist who designed this year's festival poster (which, for the past 24 hours, I've been telling everyone is the best TFF poster ever. There it is above left as part of the festival program). It's actually a six-foot painting that he plans to sell. So it was quite a coincidence to share a gondola ride with him to the Mountain Village. Some insider info from Mark: the Daniel Day-Lewis tribute was weird. DD-L was aloof and shy, and it came off like he didn't want to be there. After they played a clipshow of his performances, he came onstage and said "I can't believe you sat through that." And apparently DD-L just played Hamlet somewhere and actually saw his father's ghost on stage. DD-L exited immediately to his dressing room and wouldn't go back on. These are the rumors you hear on a TFF gondola ride.

So I park myself in the fifth row of the Chuck and who sits in front of me by Herzog himself, with a pert young blonde. He's wearing cargo khakis and is all smiles. Ken Burns, the master of verbose extemperaneous introductions, says this before the film: "In the search for some improbable alchemy, a calculus which yields one plus one equals three...that's why we find ourselves hungry for here...I can think of no one more valuable to us...than one of the greatest alchemists on Earth...He has a ferocious and unsentimental view of things...He is the only man to have produced films on all seven continents...The truth that he is after is an ecstatic one...He is one of the great film artists of our time...Werner Herzog."

Herzog gets up and says he was at the South Pole last year and in Alaska just five days ago, but what really matters now is what's in between: Telluride. "It's the center of the world right now for me and those who love cinema," he says in that warbly slightly robotic Gregorian accent.

His film, Encounters at the End of the World, is a gorgeous hodgepodge. He spends time with every manner of person who makes a living at McMurdo Station in Antarctica: molecular biologists, physicists, plumbers, seal experts, volcanists. He talks to the people who jump off the margins of the map: PhDs who are washing dishes, and linguists who are running greenhouses on a continent with no native language. He explores the reasons for their being in Antarctica, and he explores the vast above-ice and underwater terrain of the frozen continent -- which is not a static sheet of ice but a dynamic, changing organism.

This is like every Herzog film rolled into one. It is about the universe perceiving itself through our inquisitive eyes and minds. It is about man's absurd quests, about our small and tenuous existence in the expanse of time, about the intense and forbidding and intoxicating beauty of the surroundings we are systematically studying and/or destroying. It is also a more convincing account of the seriousness of climate change than anything Al Gore or Leonardo DiCaprio has conjured. You'll see what I mean once you see it. It's also very very funny. It's going to be broadcast on the Discovery Channel, I think. Google it. I'm in a rush. I was very moved by the beauty and the wonder throughout, but the dedication title card at the film's end almost made me cry.

FOR ROGER EBERT.

After the screening, a Sophie's choice: Q&A with Herzog, or Q&A with Todd Haynes? I chose neither. (Had an interview to do for a story.) But now more heartache: I'm working during a surprise preview of Brian De Palma's Redacted (he's being beamed in by satellite from Venice for a Q&A after). A publicist for Magnolia Films told me on a gondola ride that it's a fictionalized Iraq war drama that harkens back stylistically to De Palma's earlier stuff and to Haynes' I'm Not There. Getting incredibly buzz at Venice, says the publicist, but his job is to say those kinds of things. I'm also missing the outdoor screening of Into the Wild. How boss would it be to watch that movie in the open air, with the mountains behind the screen and the stars overheard in the sky? Alas.

Okay okay I have to get to work. I'll have photos later tonight. I apologize for the lack of polish on my correspondence, but you're getting the real stuff: unfiltered, unedited, super-emotional responses to the TFF experience.

Day 1: Nicole and Margot

TELLURIDE, Colo. -- A security sweep of the theater last night forced us concessions people outdoors and into the arms of Todd Haynes, Laura Linney and their small entourage of buddies. They were milling around to see Margot at the Wedding, which was soon introduced by director Noah Baumbach (looking like Adrien Brody mixed with Al Pacino) and his girlfriend and star Jennifer Jason Leigh. "Jennifer doesn't like speaking in front of people," Baumbach said on the stage as Leigh stared shyly by his side (in tall black boots pulled over light blue jeans). Baumbach didn't say anything of substance -- only that this was his first time at Telluride. This was the first public screening of Margot, and the theater was packed to capacity (with volunteers squatting on steps and in aisles).

I hate to fling superlatives around, but Margot features Nicole Kidman's most challenging role to date. The movie has the same "family chamber drama" tone as The Squid and the Whale, but this s even more excruciating to watch at points. Kidman plays a monster -- but not a villain -- and her Margot (a writer who crashes her sister's wedding and causes havoc) is one of the most interesting characters I've ever encountered on film. I'm still trying to figure out if her performance is a sensation or a near-miss. I'm leaning more toward the former. But like any Telluride movie, it needs to be seen again. More later.