Saturday, October 29, 2005

Cover girls: Meryl to Charlize

The Newsweek cover is from Jan. 7, 1980. Meryl, blonde, the rather academic headshot radiating classic beauty and classical training. Inside, an analytical think piece: five consecutive, text-heavy pages uninterrupted by ads. "A Star for the '80s: Meryl Streep," by Jack Kroll and others.

The issue of Entertainment Weekly is dated Oct. 28, 2005. Charlize, blonde, wearing only a pillow, apparently, and exuding centerfold lustiness. Inside, a Q&A: six pages, two consisting entirely of photos focused on her limbs. "Charlize Gets Dirty," by Josh Rottenberg.

What a fun difference a quarter century has wrought in the magazine industry's coverage of major film actors. Granted, different magazines and different readerships, but I'm ready to take Charlize as seriously as Meryl across the board. Charlize is our star for the '00s and beyond, regardless of how the media present her.

In each cover story, Ms. Streep and Ms. Theron are 30 years old. In two months, Meryl will win her first Oscar (for Kramer vs. Kramer), in three years her second (for Sophie's Choice). Charlize won hers a year and a half ago (for Monster), will be nominated again this January (for North Country).

The Newsweek story details Meryl's rise through the Yale School of Drama and the waves she sent through New York theatre. Joe Papp, who hired her for the Public Theatre after graduation, is quoted:

There are only a few people around I would call pure actors. Meryl is one. That means the entire body is an instrument that is used to constantly serve the character. You can see it in her face. I've seen her cheeks get red, so that you can see the internal thing through her skin, which means that there's a total emotional involvement in the situation. And she takes tremendous risks, both physical and emotional.

Watch Monster and North Country, and see that Charlize is cut from the same cloth, which is kind of fascinating. Theron grew up in South Africa, moved to Hollywood at 18 to model and look for a big break. She was discovered in line at the bank, mingled in bimbo second-banana roles for a couple years, then shocked everyone with Monster.

Neither saw success coming, or even wanted it to come. Meryl "didn't think [acting] was a legitimate way to carry on your life." Charlize says in EW, "It's not like I was a little girl going, 'I want to be an actress.' This had kind of found me." And neither has lived the life of a shooting star. Meryl got married in '78 and has stayed married. Charlize has had one steady boyfriend throughout her rise. They are not wild, or reckless with money, or whatever. In short, the tabloids are powerless to distract the public from their abilities. They may enjoy the spoils of fame, but they are in it for the work.

Both women's reserve of talent is deep and wide in front of that great equalizer, the camera lens. Meryl has cemented hers over a long career of celebrated roles. With North Country, you can see already how lasting Charlize's work will be. It's even more impactful than Meryl's, in some ways. Did we ever see Meryl do something as ferocious and fearless as Monster? Or even North Country? Perhaps in Silkwood.

Perhaps. But I always see Meryl Streep in Meryl's performances. She's very much a Katharine Hepburn in that respect -- a great actor and movie star, but also very present in her roles.

But Charlize disappears. Yes, it was with the aid of heavy makeup in Monster. But in North Country, it's just a wig. The rest is some gritty, instinctive, teeth-clamping acting. Thirty-year-old Meryl could've pulled of the role of Josey Aimes without a problem. For sure. It would've been a dignified and true performance. But it wouldn't have worked for me. Why? I dunno.

I'm sure if you were to put Charlize on a Broadway stage, she'd go flat faster than a Steinway in Death Valley. Film is a tricky performance medium, and you either have it or you've had it. Meryl and Charlize have it in different ways, but they both command the screen. They are both stars and actors. Meryl has survived almost 30 years. I think she and Charlize will command the next 30 together. The movies are lucky to have that kind of varied continuum.

I'm not just a moneymaking machine. There have been some offers, but I just didn't feel ready to spend eight months on a film set. Not one day goes by where I go, "Oh, fuck, what am I missing out on?" I love my life as much as my work. I don't want one to take over the other. Charlize Theron, Entertainmently Weekly, 10/28/05

I feel pulled in a lot of different directions but I haven't shattered yet. I feel that I've made commitments professionally, to my marriage, to my baby, to the community. ... Everyone should put their life on the line according to their art, because everything else is easy. Meryl Streep, Newsweek, 1/7/80

Meanwhile, in North Country...

One of the best movies of the year, with the greatest cast of film actors ever assembled. North Country should be shown in film classes as an example of superb screen acting. I emphasize the word "acting." This is not a film of grandstanding, or epic performances, or whatever. It is, simply, a film brimming with pitch-perfect work in every role, no matter how small. And it all fuels the most moving courtroom scene in memory.

The cast: Jillian Armenante, Sean Bean, James Cada, Thomas Curtis, Linda Emond, Woody Harrelson, Amber Heard, Richard Jenkins, Michelle Monaghan, Frances McDormand, Elle Peterson, Jeremy Renner, Rusty Schwimmer, Sissy Spacek, Charlize Theron, and the ensemble members who give the film a bristling texture.

Wednesday, October 26, 2005

58 countries vying for Oscar

A record number of countries will contend for the five spots in the best foreign language film category in January. Costa Rica, Fiji, and Iraq are first-time submitters. I've seen only one film on the list, Singapore's Be with Me, and heard significant buzz about only one other: Palestine's Paradise Now, a tense dramatization of suicide bombers' last 48 hours. It has been getting much press since its splash in Toronto. Of note: both Be with Me and Paradise Now weld fiction and reality into a narrative, more so than your typical film.

Frequent Cannes winners the Dardenne brothers represent Belgium. Anyone recognize other names or titles?

Argentina, "El Aura," Fabian Bielinsky
Bangladesh, "Shyamol Chaya," Humayun Ahmed
Belgium, "The Child," Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne
Bolivia, "Say Good Morning to Dad," Fernando Vargas
Bosnia & Herzegovina, "Totally Personal," Nedžad Begović
Brazil, "Two Sons of Francisco," Breno Silveira
Bulgaria, "Stolen Eyes," Radoslav Spassov
Canada, "C.R.A.Z.Y.," Jean-Marc Vallée
Chile, "Play," Alicia Scherson
China, "The Promise," Chen Kaige
Colombia, "La Sombra del Caminante," Ciro Guerra
Costa Rica, "Caribe," Esteban Ramírez
Croatia, "A Wonderful Night in Split," Arsen Anton Ostojić
Cuba, "Viva Cuba," Juan Carlos Cremata Malberti
Czech Republic, "Something Like Happiness," Bohdan Sláma
Denmark, "Adam's Apples," Anders Thomas Jensen
Estonia, "Shop of Dreams," Peeter Urbla
Fiji, "The Land Has Eyes," Vilsoni Hereniko
Finland, "Mother of Mine," Klaus Härö
France, "Joyeux Noel," Christian Carion
Georgia, "Tbilisi-Tbilisi," Levan Zakareishvili
Germany, "Sophie Scholl – The Final Days," Marc Rothemund
Hong Kong, "Perhaps Love," Peter Ho-Sun Chan
Hungary, "Fateless," Lajos Koltai
Iceland, "Ahead of Time," Ágúst Gudmundsson
India, "Paheli," Amol Palekar
Indonesia, "Gie," Riri Riza
Iran, "So Close, So Far," Reza Mir Karimi
Iraq, "Requiem of Snow," Jamil Rostami
Israel, "What a Wonderful Place," Eyal Halfon
Italy, "La Bestia Nel Cuore," Cristina Comencini
Japan, "Blood and Bones," Yoichi Sai
Korea, "Welcome to Dongmakgol," Kwang-hyun Park
Luxembourg, "Renart the Fox," Thierry Schiel
Mexico, "Al Otro Lado," Gustavo Loza
Mongolia, "The Cave of the Yellow Dog," Byambasuren Davaa
The Netherlands, "Bluebird," Mijke de Jong
Norway, "Kissed by Winter," Sara Johnsen
Palestine, "Paradise Now," Hany Abu-Assad
Peru, "Días de Santiago," Josué Méndez
Poland, "The Collector," Feliks Falk
Portugal, "Noite Escura," João Canijo
Puerto Rico, "Cayo," Vicente Juarbe
Romania, "The Death of Mr. Lazarescu," Cristi Puiu
Russia, "The Italian," Andrei Kravchuk
Serbia & Montenegro, "Midwinter Night's Dream," Goran Paskaljević
Singapore, "Be with Me," Eric Khoo
Slovak Republic, "The City of the Sun," Martin Šulík
Slovenia, "The Ruins," Janez Burger
South Africa, "Tsotsi," Gavin Hood
Spain, "Obaba," Montxo Armendáriz
Sweden, "Zozo," Josef Fares
Switzerland, "Tout un Hiver sans Feu," Greg Zglinski
Taiwan, "The Wayward Cloud," Tsai Ming-liang
Tajikistan, "Sex & Philosophy," Mohsen Makhmalbaf
Thailand, "The Tin Mine," Jira Maligool
Turkey, "Lovelorn," Yavuz Turgul
Vietnam, "Buffalo Boy," Nguyen Vo Nghiem Mihn

Friday, October 21, 2005

Just a comma...

Maybe its release was timed poorly, or perhaps it's the distracting status of "made-for-TV movie," an HBO scrap. Or maybe it's the subject material. Impervious college professor of 17th-century poetry has stage-four metastatic ovarian cancer (there is no stage five). She tries to vanquish death by channeling the works of John Donne, her specialty.

Wit is one of the greatest films ever made, and certainly the greatest made for and exhibited on television. It aired on HBO in 2001, got positive reviews, won director Mike Nichols two Emmys for directing and producing, and that was it. No fanfare beyond.

Wit is Nichols' best work (in a career that includes The Graduate), as it is Emma Thompson's, who is rapturous as the distinguished scholar staring down doom. The film further blurs the quality distinction between the big and small screens. HBO was, and still is, making better feature films than traditional studios because they can afford to be fearless.

But oh, the movie. Perfect -- every moment, every line. The pacing, the power, the performances. Thompson is, of course, the divine axis, but the supporting work is sterling, especially Audra MacDonald as a compassionate nurse and Eileen Atkins as Thompson's mentor. Nichols and Thompson adapted the story from Margaret Edson's play of the same title, but it seems to belong on screen. Very heavy, theatrical themes -- salvation, human connection, agonizing regret, isolation -- glow on celluloid. It is a feat.

And oh, these wonderful characters dovetail into a quietly climactic scene of such deep, deep beauty and power. It is my favorite scene in the movies. I fawn, yes, and perhaps it's pathetic. After all, these are fake people in a fake story. But I charge you to watch and resist its pull.

Wit is one of the most ennobling, sweetest surrenders in cinema.

Sunday, October 16, 2005

Flatlining in Elizabethtown

Cameron Crowe movies have much heart, but Elizabethtown is all heart and no brain. Watching the movie is like being in the ER with a gigantic heart on the operating table. It throbs and hops and convulses, spurting blood on everyone.

Crowe has directed six movies in 16 years. Say Anything... is classic in its earnest adolescent authenticity. Singles took the earnestness to maturity. Jerry Maguire was good, Almost Famous was spectacular, Vanilla Sky wasn't that bad.

Elizabethtown is. It basically feels like Crowe is saying: "I love life and music more than you do." Most Crowe movies make you want to hug yourself; this one makes you want to hug yourself and vomit. The film is so joyous and life-affirming that it sacrifices a connection with reality, spinning into some sort of fantasy world in the last act and stopping everything cold. There really isn't a true moment throughout, and you'll find yourself thinking, "Why isn't my life as carefree and whimsical as this? What am I doing wrong? Should I take more road trips? Gee, I hope my father's death resurrects my lust for life, or something." Sure, we go to the movies to escape reality, but that doesn't mean we should be granted that wish completely.

Also, the film misuses Judy Greer and Susan Sarandon, which is criminal. Orlando Bloom and Kirsten Dunst are milky-skinned specimens of prettiness, but he has trouble conveying the joy and her character is a stutter-step from stalker. As Rog says, it's the most relentless Meet Cute in history.

I mean, you gotta hand it to Cam. He makes movies from the heart. But this one is constant fibrillation.

Saturday, October 15, 2005

Friday, October 14, 2005

Listen 'ere, you ol' sod!

You do well to slouch to your nearest theatre palace and see Oliver Twist, a grand feast o' delight and terror. Wallow in the filf and bad dentistry of 19th-cen'try London! Marvel at Sir Ben Kingsley's prosthetical poetics, at Roman Polanski's confident yarnspinning!

Thank Christ that barmy bastard Burton dint get his sug'ry claws on this story! I'd'a puked in my porridge! ROIT!

'If Jesus came back and saw what's going on in His name, He'd never stop throwing up'

Woody Allen's movies are medicine for me. I pop them as an addict would his pills. When I have a specific ailment, I prescribe myself a specific dosage of the Woodman. Wednesday night was a Hannah & Her Sisters night. I don't know why, but I know I needed it. The header on this entry is a line delivered with perfect caustic accuracy by Max von Sydow. I don't know whether it's the line itself, or the fact that the Swedish mandarin delivers it, but I always have to pause the movie to get the laughing out of the way.

Clichéd as it may be, I've always maintained Allen's best is Annie Hall. There's a reason it's worshipped by the culture. But Hannah nearly overtakes it every time I watch. It's an episodic Chekhovian amble through the love lives of a dozen or so Manhattanites. I revel in Michael Caine's sublime performance as Elliot, Hannah's scattered husband who can't squelch his infatuation with his wife's sister, Lee (Barbara Hershey, disarming and wonderful before she was swallowed by Beaches). The awkward/loving scenes between Caine and Hershey are -- all I can do is resort to adjectives, which are boring.

Watch the movie instead, and let Caine take you there. "I have my answer! I have my answer!" he says breathlessly to himself after Lee doesn't deny that she shares his feelings. "I'm walking on air!" Ah, so are we!

Sunday, October 09, 2005

Saturday, October 08, 2005

Three Days of the Condor

Redford plays Joe Turner, a lackey working for a CIA front that is suddenly "dispatched." He spends the next three days on the run, unraveling the agency's rotten insides. 1975 or 2005?
Higgins: It's simple economics. Today it's oil, right? In ten or fifteen years, food. Plutonium. Maybe even sooner. Now, what do you think the people are gonna want us to do then?
Turner: Ask them?
Higgins: Not now -- then. Ask 'em when they're running out. Ask 'em when there's no heat in their homes and they're cold. Ask 'em when their engines stop. Ask 'em when people who have never known hunger start going hungry. You wanna know something? They won't want us to ask 'em. They'll just want us to get it for 'em.

Turner: Boy, what is it with you people? You think not getting caught in a lie is the same thing as telling the truth?

Thursday, October 06, 2005

Mad anchormen, mad mathematicians, mad fathers

1. George Clooney is planning a live television remake of Network for CBS next fall. This was bound to happen. Can't deny it. I finished freaking out and have now settled into mixed feelings. Network can stand by itself today, just as it did in 1976, and there is no reason for a remake.

But a remake might bring the original film the contemporary audience it deserves, and I trust Clooney. He's a matinee idol, but he has a keen business and artistic sense. His track record as a producer is impressive and unconcerned with trifles (see Far from Heaven, Insomnia). I'm interested to see how he will adrenalize the 1976 story, because today's audience is just as numb as Network said it would be. Doing it live will hopefully electrify the proceedings. I hope Clooney asks Sidney Lumet, the original director, to do it again. After all, Lumet got his start in live television. Could be the broadcast event of the year. Dream cast? Brian Cox as Howard Beale (the Peter Finch role), Jeff Bridges as Max Schumacher (the William Holden), Diane Lane as Diana Christensen (the Faye Dunaway), Faye Dunaway as Louise Schumacher (the Beatrice Straight). I'd greenlight that in an instant.

2. Proof is a gorgeous, thrilling movie. I haven't been sold on Gwyneth Paltrow and Hope Davis until now. They give the performances of their careers. My companion loathed the movie, though, so buyer beware. In other news, I'm still not sold on Jake Gyllenhaal.

3. Nicolas Cage named his newborn son Kal-el, Superman's Kryptonic nomen. In a galaxy of lame celebrity mini-stunts, I think this one is kind of cool. I hope Cage makes the boy call him Jor-el.