Wednesday, November 30, 2005

It's beginning to look a lot like 1993

Here's a novel idea. Munich will not be preceded by the requisite media ballyhoo, says its director, Steven Spielberg. We must respect our subject, people! But seriously, it'll be great to go into a film without the conditioning provided by Oprah, CNN, and glossy weeklies. Spielberg, meanwhile, has set up a repeat of 1993, when he released blockbuster Jurassic Park in June and magnum opus Schindler's List in December. Twelve years later, he repeats the June-December one-two punch. Blockbuster War of the Worlds opened this past June; magnum opus Munich opens Dec. 23. Combined, Jurassic and Schindler's hauled 10 Oscars, including two for Spielberg. If Munich lives up to its pedigree, expect a repeat.

Tuesday, November 29, 2005

For Your Consideration: Jeff Daniels & Joan Allen

1. Last week, I watched 1985's The Purple Rose of Cairo, one of my favorites, starring a peppy and smooth-skinned Jeff Daniels as both a rising movie star and the adventurous character he creates. The next day I saw him as a grizzled, unforgiving lit professor in theaters in The Squid and the Whale. Twenty years separate these two roles, and Daniels proves how competent and comfortable he is in any kind of part (don't forget Dumb & Dumber). So it's great to see he was nominated for an Independent Spirit Award for best actor today.

2. Not sure how to defend The Upside of Anger and its sudden plunge into self-importance. It's flawed or bold, depending on how you sway once the twist hits. Regardless, Joan Allen...

Joan Allen. There were two moments in the film I had to watch multiple times because she's so damn good. The Gurus of Gold have her in the sixth spot for the best actress Oscar race, and the film came out in March. Only Kate Winslet can stick in peoples' memories like that (and did -- Eternal Sunshine was a March movie the year before and Kate snagged a nom). It's great if Joan sneaks in for Anger, which will make nomination No. 4, and no doubt another loss. But what about Sally Potter's Yes, the most ravishing movie of the year thusfar? It premiered in New York in June and evaporated after getting mixed reviews. A shame. It is Joan's career-best performance.

Monday, November 28, 2005

Premiere's 50 Greatest Movie Stars

The list is a magazine's friend. Look on any mag's cover and you'll see at least one bold, colorful number touting the XX best whatevers, be they skin creams or horror films. (Listing is also why movie people love the Oscars -- it's an orgy of top fives combined with the suspense of a horse race.) So, let's meditate on the latest list featured in Premiere's latest issue, keeping in mind that my definition of a "movie star" is one who makes a notable quantity of good and lasting films while exhibiting a radiance both onscreen and off (very different from a "celebrity"). Do they deserve to be on it?

50. Brad Pitt. Maybe. Hasn't made a great one since Thelma & Louise, but he's hot and smart.
49. Russell Crowe. Yes. Chameleonic, serious about work, and a rabble-rouser.
48. Nicole Kidman. Yes. Every inch the star, despite her shyness.
47. Johnny Depp. Yes. Everyone's favorite these days.
46. Meryl Streep. Yes. Because she's she.
45. Jack Lemmon. Yes. First on list besides Streep to have a secure spot in pantheon.
44. Will Smith. No! Certainly not ahead of Streep and Lemmon.
43. Clint Eastwood. Yes. And boy can he direct.
42. Gary Cooper. Yes. But awfully low on the list.
41. Peter Sellers. Maybe. More comic genius than movie star.
40. Elizabeth Taylor. Yes. Chops, marriages, violet eyes.
39. Denzel Washington. Yes. Has that gravity; doesn't sell out.
38. Robert De Niro. Maybe. Because he's really abusing his status as one lately.
37. Al Pacino. Yes. Rightfully ahead of De Niro.
36. Sean Connery. Bond alone takes care of this.
35. Harrison Ford. Yes. Even though he played Indy and Han the same way.
34. Rita Hayworth. Yes. I mean, look at her.
33. Shirley Temple. No. Child stars must grow into it to own it.
32. Jane Fonda. Yes. Hopefully she's learned from Monster-in-Law.
31. Steve McQueen. Yes. No range, but badass!
30. James Dean. No! Icon (via early death), not movie star.
29. Warren Beatty. Yes. First playboy-artist hybrid on the list.
28. Tom Hanks. Yes. Watch Big, then Philadelphia.
27. Gregory Peck. Yes. If only for longevity.
26. Errol Flynn. Dunno. Never seen his movies.
25. Bette Davis. Yes. And should be higher.
24. Doris Day. Maybe. She's still alive but dropped out of the movies in '68.
23. Fred Astaire. Yes. The definition of class and grace.
22. Judy Garland. No. I'm just not a fan.
21. Clark Gable. Yes. Especially when they called you the King of Hollywood.
20. Sidney Poitier. Yes. Still capable of another great performance.
19. Spencer Tracy. Yes. But what if he didn't have Hepburn?
18. Audrey Hepburn. No. The quintessential movie star, but she always seems phony to me.
17. Robert Redford. Yes. One hot hyphenate.
16. Jack Nicholson. Yes! The quintessential movie star, fascinating in every aspect.
15. Marlon Brando. Yes. What if he'd kept it cool like Jack?
14. Katharine Hepburn. Yes! The AFI rightly said she was the #1 female star.
13. Humphrey Bogart. Yes. The AFI said he was the #1 male star.
12. Grace Kelly. Yes. Heck, on looks alone.
11. James Cagney. Yes. Peck-like longevity, Pacino-like passion.
10. Henry Fonda. Maybe. Actor yes. True star...maybe?
9. James Stewart. Yes. Hanks' predecessor.
8. Greta Garbo. Maybe. Can mystique alone justify this spot?
7. Julia Roberts. Maybe. Premiere calls her career "uncompromised." What about Runaway Bride? America's Sweethearts? Stepmom? And so on.
6. Paul Newman. Yes! Utterly.
5. Ingrid Bergman. Yes. Grace Kelly + the deep reserves.
4. John Wayne. Maybe. I mean, if you say so.
3. Tom Cruise. Yes. Makes and anchors great movies.
2. Marilyn Monroe. Yes. Because she's she.
1. Cary Grant. Yes. And what if this man had talent in addition to charm?

Omissions from the classical set: Orson Welles, Joan Crawford (who would be furious), Burt Lancaster, Robert Mitchum, William Holden, Rosalind Russell, Lauren Bacall.

Omissions from the golden age set: Dustin Hoffman, Faye Dunaway, Gene Hackman, Diane Keaton, Woody Allen, Sophia Loren, Michael Caine.

Omissions from the modern set: Jodie Foster, Sigourney Weaver, Jeff Bridges, Mel Gibson, Juliette Binoche, Susan Sarandon.

On Premiere's list, 34 are men, 24 are still alive (of which 18 are still working regularly and eight are under the age of 50 -- Hanks will hit the mark next year).

Your thoughts on inclusions, omissions, my thoughts? Let's see your list of top five or 10.

Friday, November 25, 2005

Anachronisms: Rent, Ice Harvest

If it was released as an original film musical in 1989, Rent would've been a cultural landmark, a lightning rod for the era's big what-have-yous -- AIDS, the drag queen revolution, etc. Instead, it embodied the era almost a decade later as an original musical, and now almost two decades later as the movie musical currently in theaters. So it's all very kitschy in a snappy multiplex as 2006 draws near. The songs are as agonizingly catchy as ever, but they're hollow without live applause to stamp the appropriate exclamation point. And all the fade outs -- real buzz killers. Every other reviewer makes the same disclaimer, and for good reason: The cast is magnetic and should be parlaying their talents to new, exciting material; Rosario Dawson continues to be an intriguing screen presence.

But see Rent before you see The Ice Harvest, which is the worst movie I've seen all year (and I've endured Bewitched). I was duped by enthusiastic reviews and a funny trailer and the promise of what Harold Ramis and John Cusack could do together. The reviews are inexplicable, the trailer lies, and Ramis and Cusack made an unpleasant, bloody, gratuitous thesis on the woes of modern manhood. What a mess. The story and message of the movie belong in another dimension. Can I mention again that I'm flummoxed by the decent reviews? J. Hoberman praises its classical structure (Double Indemnity? Really?) and Desson Thomson calls it a "good time." I've had better times with diarrhea.

Monday, November 21, 2005

Reasons why this is a movie blog

It's appalling that "Two and a Half Men" has remained on television for three years and that it pulls in 13 million viewers a week. It's crude and dumb and, for Christ's sake, it stars Charlie Sheen and Jon Cryer. But I watched it because Cloris Leachman was guest starring as Cryer's romantic interest, and I'm that starved for quality on television.

Every "joke" was at her expense. Yes, Cloris is old, but she's 100 times more talented than Cryer and Sheen, who dropped witless one-liners every five seconds: "Her birthstone is lava." "Her prom theme was Fire." "Her first Christmas was the first Christmas."

Ugh. And now, as I'm typing this, here are Stockard Channing and Henry Winkler stumbling through "Out of Practice," which just stole a joke from "Arrested Development," which is where Winkler (and Cloris, for that matter) belongs. Reaching for the remote...

Saturday, November 19, 2005

If there's a lull in dinner conversation

The colloquial term for "cat poop" in Cantonese is pronounced similarly to "Melvin."

Jack Nicholson plays Melvin Udall in As Good as It Gets.

The film's translated title in Hong Kong?

"Mr. Cat Poop."

Wednesday, November 16, 2005

There goes next week's in-class showing of I Spit on Your Grave

Ed Youngblood, who has taught for 37 years in Gwinnett County public schools outside of Atlanta, was forced to resign after showing Elizabeth in his Brit lit class. Apparently, "people" were appalled that he'd allow an R-rated movie into a sanctified room harboring innocent minds. In other news, Elizabeth is a ravishing experience, a dramatization of cutthroat Elizabethan politics, a film of great beauty and craftsmanship, anchored by Cate Blanchett's startling embodiment of the virgin queen. There is a little sex and violence. In the interest of making sure high schoolers are protected from such things, administrators sent away a man who was trying to show that, yes, important movies are made about real things and can be enjoyed for both their educational and entertainment values. In other news, there is more sex and violence in a "CSI" than there is in Elizabeth. Although the above photo does scream "Rip my clothes off, tie me up, and filet your signature into me with a pocketknife." Oh wait, that's the plot of next week's "Law & Order SVU."

Tuesday, November 15, 2005

Devil & Daniel Johnston makes Oscar cut

Today the Academy announced the 15 documentaries eligible for nomination. When it's narrowed down to five in January, the real race will be between critics' fave Murderball and the popular juggernaut March of the Penguins. But keep an eye out for The Devil & Daniel Johnston, a penetrating and superbly documented portrait of madness and genius.

Someone give this man a job

His name is Peter MacNicol. He's on the show "Numb3rs," which, despite the fact it's unpronounceable, is still on the air. So technically he has a job. But it's not a good one. He is the most underrated, underused man in TV and movies today. Consider: "Ally McBeal," and how he kept that show interesting long after its expiration date. Dracula, Dead & Loving It, and his masterful comic performance as the sublimely inept Renfield. Addams Family Values, where he teamed with Christine Baranski to make a toxic pair of camp counselors. Ghostbusters II, as Dr. Janosz Poha, the gibbering, easily-possessed art curator who fires off lines with a clumsy semi-European accent: "He is Vigo! You are like the buzzing of flies to him!" and "You know, Dana, there are many perks to being the mother of a living god" and "Vy am I drippings vit goo?" All genius supporting performances in comedies. And he's adept at drama too, not only in his extensive stage work but also in one of his breakout movies, Sophie's Choice, in which he's our protagonist. His next project is "Stuart Little 3: Call of the Wild," an animated direct-to-video. Come on, folks. At least give him a spot on Arrested Development, where he could join another "Ally" refugee and kick some ass.

Sunday, November 13, 2005

Newsweek's listless entertainment reporting countered by...

...Sean Smith's sharp article on Brokeback Mountain. It accurately depicts the tone and potential impact of the film in an articulate, concise piece.

Poultry, Hardware, Aniston

The two genres raking in $$$ at the box office are children's films and grisly miserable horror films. Chicken Little and Saw II are the only two in the top 10 to have cracked $70 million -- Saw II did it in three weeks, Chicken Little in two -- the chicken and Zathura were Nos. 1 and 2 at the weekend b.o. I have seen none of the three (I mean, have you?) but there is a chunk of America that obviously flocks to these things. All this means is we'll have to put up with a lot of this stuff in the next two years. Saw III, IV, V. Chicken Little/Zathura 2, 3, 4. And so on. Money talks, and bullshit winds up on the screen.

Jennifer: You were a revelation in The Good Girl, so I was excited for Derailed, a return to adult fare after the bottomless crapfest of Bruce Almighty and Along Came Polly. But be careful. Just because Derailed seems like a good project doesn't mean your role is good. You settled for a hollow, senseless role in an otherwise passable adulteromp. You have six movies scheduled for the next two years.

You don't need the money, or the exposure, so tread carefully. Your talent deserves reserve.

Saturday, November 12, 2005

(Don't) return from whence you came!

The blogosphere is ablaze with protest at the news of Arrested Development's certain demise. Instead of inveighing, let's be practical. Everything you've heard about this show is true. Rent/buy seasons one and two on DVD. Start from the beginning and witness perfection. Watch season three, if it returns Monday, December 5 at 8 p.m., as Fox promises it will. If you're already a fan, fire off letters to:

Peter Liguori
President of Entertainment
FOX Broadcasting
10201 West Pico Blvd.
Building 100, Room 4450
Los Angeles, CA 90035

Marcy Ross
Senior Vice President of Current Programming
FOX Broadcasting
10201 West Pico Blvd.
Building 100, Room 4150
Los Angeles, CA 90035

Mr. Gary Newman or Ms. Dana Walden
Twentieth Century Fox Television
10201 West Pico Blvd.
Building 88, Room 259
Los Angeles, CA 90035

For revelry: The Balboa Observer-Picayune, Save Our Bluths, the video section of the official web site.

Thursday, November 10, 2005

Bergman & Bergman

Ingrid Bergman. The woman who validated the closeup. Remember her hidden by the brim of a hat until slowly, gently, Bogart guides her chin up, and we see those eyes, laden with tears, and the soft, soft entreaty of that face. That face. Was the camera as comfortable in closeup with anyone before, during, or since?

Sure, it's one of the ultimate pleasures watching Bergman in varying degrees of mistiness in Casablanca. But her last film, Höstsonaten, 36 years later, cements her status as the best expressionist in movies. It was the first time the Swedish actress worked in full capacity with Ingmar Bergman, the Swedish director. Ingrid plays Charlotte, a renowned concert pianist who moves in with her daughter, whom she hasn't seen in seven years. After a grace period of politeness, the two engage in a vicious excavation of repressed emotions rubbed raw by years of separation.

Ingmar, of course, is the master of the closeup. His films are about faces, and in Autumn Sonata (the English title), he and Ingrid combine their two great talents: emoting and capturing emotion. The result is a devastating film grounded by a devastating performance, caught most of the time in extended takes and soliloquies as Ingrid acts or reacts, like when she recounts the death of her lover or when she listens to her daughter's inadequate interpretation of a Chopin prelude. We see age has taken nothing away from Ingrid, even when we're close enough to see every blemish, every pore. She still had the ability to command the magic of the screen, and Ingmar was wise enough to allow her the maximum exposure.

Casablanca to Autumn Sonata: the arc of a career in closeups.

Tuesday, November 08, 2005

No better time for this expletive to first pop out in the movies

Chalmers: Come on, now. Don't be naïve, Lieutenant. We both know how careers are made. Integrity is something you sell the public.
Bullitt: You sell whatever you want, but don't sell it here tonight.
Chalmers: Frank, we must all compromise.
Bullitt: Bullshit.

Saturday, November 05, 2005

Steve Martin finally gets an Oscar nod

You say, "Finally? I thought Steve Martin was an Oscar host, not Oscar bait."

But don't forget the 1980s, when Martin delivered two performances that (aside from being critically praised) won prizes that are usually good predictors of Oscar nods. The perfs were in All of Me in '84 and Roxanne in '87. Martin was nominated for a Golden Globe for each, won best actor from the National Society of Film Critics for each, won best actor from the New York Film Critics Circle for the first, and best actor from the Los Angeles Film Critics Assocation and a screenplay award from the Writers Guild of America for the second. Yet no Oscar nom either year.

There's that tiresome (but true) adage that the Academy ignores comic work. But now they won't ignore Martin, because all the chips are in place. Shopgirl is no comedy, and Martin not only stars in it but also wrote the screenplay from his own novella. The film has grabbed favorable reviews, has a Lost in Translation vibe, and Martin has wowed the in crowd with his Oscar-hosting abilities. He's beloved by the right people.

An acting nomination? No. But adapted screenplay certainly. I'd even say he's a lock, as long as Buena Vista backs him with a moderate campaign. And if the hollow Lost in Translation can win a screenplay Oscar, Shopgirl can certainly snag a nomination.

Side note: Forget Shopgirl anyway. It's interesting if you want to see a musical score save a movie, but it's nowhere near as good as All of Me. Rent that, save a couple bucks, and have a blast.

Friday, November 04, 2005

Ickiest Headline of the Week

Goes to Entertainment Weekly for Jeff Jensen's story on the now-pubescent actors of Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire. Some puns should never see print.

"Down there? You too?"

Thursday, November 03, 2005

Men behaving suspiciously

In Michelangelo Antonioni's Blowup, a photographer takes a roll of shots of a woman and a man, in a park outside London, from a distance. In Francis Ford Coppola's The Conversation, a sound expert records a couple's whispered exchange in San Francisco's busy Union Square for a client. These men are left with a record of an event, one visual and one aural, from which they piece together a mystery and are sucked into the lives of their targets.

I love this dramatic premise. The lonely voyeur reconstructs a situation out of what he observes and realizes he must act, lest someone get hurt. Think Rear Window, though Hitchcock's masterpiece of voyeurism is cute and classic in its storytelling. Blowup and The Conversation are not.

The first is a product of the mod '60s (which Austin Powers sends up), the second of the bitter '70s (tainted by Watergate). Blowup was Antonioni's first English-language feature, his second in color. It's revered. But it doesn't add up for me. There is one stunning, fascinating sequence in the middle, when the suave, swinging photographer (David Hemmings) begins to blow up the faraway photos he's taken to look for clues for a possible murder. But the film siphons away any sort of build-up and payoff soon after, taking the allegorical route. If the film arrives at a conclusion, it's an abstract one. Was it a murder? Is anything really real, or is one person's reality another's fantasy?

The Conversation came in between the first two Godfathers, when Coppola had some down time. It's Coppola's best. It forgoes the flexing typical of a major filmmaker (The Godfathers, for me, are all muscle) and gets back to the arthouse maverick style Coppola probably exhibited as a film student. He did write the script as a student at UCLA, and it shows in the simplicity and directness of the story. A shy, paranoid man (Gene Hackman, in his finest performance) slowly refines the recording of a private conversation, word by word, until he thinks he's uncovered a murder plot.

Just like Blowup, right? The characters go deeper into their media to come to some sort of clarity or reality or truth, and this journey is commentary on the filmmaking process, naturally. Now that we know what we know, we have power and must act. But is it the right thing to do, and will people believe us and stand by us when we do it?

Again, wonderful premise. But I like where The Conversation takes it, from its exquisite opening sequence to the thrilling climax, the story propelled by a wonderful character who must break his own shell and, in the process, breaks his whole self. Blowup mopes through self-concious self-examination and is deliberately opaque, keeping us at a cold distance. It's very much "cinema of the cool." I resist that.

But side by side, Blowup and The Conversation engage in a nice tug-of-war over the same idea. Hemming's playboy photog and Hackman's introverted soundman. Both exposed by the expertise they hide behind. Like Antonioni and Coppola.

Wednesday, November 02, 2005

Trailer trash

Nothing has depressed me more than the trailer for The Producers. Mel Brooks has prostituted his beautiful baby into banality. Classic gags have been rendered redundant, fading like a Xerox copy run through the machine one too many times.