Saturday, December 30, 2006

Don't expect a Top 10 'til February

Three hundred and six movies were released this year. I've seen 52 of them. Daddy needs to play catch-up. So in lieu of listmaking, I shall issue several "honors" over the next week. I will pick a film or filmmaker or what-have-you to receive these "honors." Think "The Kennedy Center Honors," minus Michele Lee. To honor the year of 2006, I think this is fairer and more accurate than cobbling together a Top 10 when I haven't yet seen some prime contenders. The honor will not be bestowed in the form of a rainbow lanyard. Any suggestions for the physical incarnation of the award?

Thursday, December 28, 2006

FYC: Matt Damon & Daniel Craig

The films: The Good Shepherd is a quiet epic of espionage both international and personal. Casino Royale is a flashy epic of espionage both international and personal.
The actors: Damon, one of the gravest and most charismatic actors of his generation, and Craig, who is joining him in that field.
The characters: Men of steel. Edward Wilson and James Bond. Tough as nails. All business. These aren't "performance" roles. These characters require reserve and control. They require actors whose mere presence can turn one note into a symphony. Wilson and Bond each betray one smile in their films, and Damon and Craig make these instances well worth the ride of stoicism.
The moments: For Damon, it's the film's opening sequence, when his gait and deameanor -- the way he carries his briefcase, and his shoulders -- convey Wilson's entire history of repression. For Craig, it's the torture scene. It must be hard as hell to act a torture scene, and even harder to be an irrepressible prick during it.

Wednesday, December 27, 2006

I've seen Dreamgirls a second time, and I've parsed my thoughts

Dreamgirls is a collision between three colossal forces: Bill Condon's talent as a writer-director, Beyonce Knowles' blank ambition to be some kind of media mogul, and DreamWorks' desire to make this movie as broadly marketable and palatable as possible. The result? A concert show without teeth, an entertaining evening dotted with great moments that have ultimately little consequence. If any stage musical deserved to blossom on film, it was this one. What we're left with at its end, though, is a bud that's barely opened. It just doesn't work. Not like Chicago did.

Dreamgirls is being flogged and blogged to death, so you don't need to hear what I think about Eddie Murphy (sweet and schticky), Jennifer Hudson (Jennifer Holliday remains peerless) and Beyonce (on a personality EKG, she's flatlining, and her solo number "Listen" is a shameless musical anachronism). If you really want the scoop on the movie's ups and downs, I refer you to A.O. Scott, whom I don't usually care for but who gets it exactly right this time.

Saturday, December 23, 2006

I want Romance and Cigarettes

Watch this trailer, then come back and we'll talk.

[dialing music]

Okay. Why hasn't Romance and Cigarettes been released theatrically? How come this isn't/wasn't a major event? I've been wondering this for over a year now. I mean, look at the evidence:

1. John Turturro, directing a blue-collar musical
2. Produced by the Coen brothers.
3. Winslet, in gaudy Yorkshire accent and skimpy red attire, lighting a cigarettes on a burning building (badass).
4. Sarandon & Gandolfini as unhappy marrieds.
5. A supporting cast that includes Bobby Canavale, Mandy Moore, Aida Turturro, Mary-Louise Parker, Steve Buscemi, Eddie Izzard, Amy Sedaris, Elaine Stritch and Christopher Walken.
6. The cast sings/lipsynchs Engelbert Humperdinck, Elvis Presley, Janis Joplin, Tom Jones, Cyndi Lauper and Bruce Springsteen.

Now mush that all together. IT'S THE PERFECT MOVIE. There isn't any conceivable reason why it should be held up from distribution in theaters or, at the very least, on DVD. The movie has stars. It's produced by a highly-respected team. And it's a musical -- which 10 years ago might've meant it would never see the light of day, but now means it's marketable! Who cares if it's a trainwreck? Release it, dammit.

It played Toronto last year and was called a "crowdpleaser." The official Web site says it was released on DVD in July. Not in America. I've got a publicity agent working on finding an answer for me. I'll report back. In the meantime, snack on this: Winslet clips from the movie, plus Mary-Louise Parker.

Thursday, December 21, 2006

FYC: William Hurt in The King

The film: A bitter pill. Shakespeare by way of Faulkner. God's people go godless.
The actor: A subtlist. There's not a showy thing about him.
The character: A preacher with a sacrilegious past.
The moment: When he confesses his transgressions to his congregation, which starts to walk out on him. "God bless you," he says to his parting sheep. "I deserve your rebuke."

Wednesday, December 20, 2006

Rocky Balboa, the farewell tour

Rocky Balboa brims with cliches and looks like a bad Gatorade commercial and I loved it. Maybe it's because I've only seen the first Rocky, which is near and dear to me, and I'm just so happy to see this character again, even if he is 60 and osteoporotic. In between 1976 and 2006, he's won some heavyweight titles and enjoyed notoriety but is by no means prosperous. He's consumed by the past. He visits Adrian's grave religiously, and tends to her namesake restaurant so he can foist stories of his bygone career on nonplussed diners. My heart swells for him in this state, just like it soared for him in the first movie.

This last installment of the Rocky series follows the same formula as the firs: Underdog agrees to an exhibition match, which soon becomes more than an exhibition. It becomes a test of his endurance and mettle and self-esteem. The one key difference? We don't have Adrian here.

The Adrian-Rocky relationship makes the first movie. Anyone who doubts Sylvester Stallone's abilities as an actor and writer need only look at the scenes between him and Talia Shire in the first movie. They are sweet and true and oh-so-lovely. And when we get to the end of the movie, we see Adrian has gone the same distance as Rocky, and they've met in the middle. It's one of cinema's great endings and revelations. I'm listening to the "Final Bell" track of the Rocky score on my iPod now, and I'm already flying.

Adrian is five years gone from cancer in Rocky Balboa and Stallone is wise to make this absence the sad center of the movie, for there is no franchise without her. Despite the melancholic tone, the movie is funny and self-conscious. Rocky knows it's foolish for him to fight, just as Stallone knows it's foolish for him to make another movie. But wouldn't you know it? They both come from behind, as they always do, as we always hoped they would. I wanted this movie to deliver the same high as the first, but it doesn't, and I suppose that's best. The last image Stallone gives us is of a grave. The roses on top of it are in focus. The man behind it is not. It's a deliberate filmmaking choice by Stallone, who has remained true to his story til the end.

Tuesday, December 19, 2006

Redundant, but pretty

Viola Davis & Donna Murphy...

...two women who make thunder on stage and lightning on screen. Davis won raves for 2004's Intimate Apparel, and that same year I had the exuberant pleasure of seeing Murphy in the Broadway revival of Wonderful Town at the Al Hirschfeld Theatre -- it's the best live musical comedy performance I've ever seen. Both have small supporting roles in World Trade Center, which I finally saw on DVD two nights ago.

Murphy has a way of stealing a picture, even if she has only moments onscreen. I refer to The Door in the Floor, in which she plays a quietly curious frame shop owner. It's a cameo, but she stops the movie cold. I watched her scene four or five times to figure out what she's doing. I think she's just being herself. Davis played the dutiful maid in Far from Heaven and the paranoid crew member in Solaris. She was also in Antwone Fisher and is a frequent guest star on procedural TV dramas.

Like Murphy, Davis has a way of holding your attention, even when she's opposite a movie star. Both women have a strong field of gravity. Perhaps that's why they're so successful on stage (three Tonys between them) and so unclassifiable and surprising on screen. I would love them to have a starring role in a movie, but I'd also be concerned the sheer weight of their presence would tear the celluloid asunder.

That certainly happens in World Trade Center -- Murphy at the beginning, Davis at the end. Murphy plays one of Maria Bello's soccer-mom compatriots who anxiously awaits word about the husbands. She has a moment of despair and a moment of joy. She hits both out of the park, immediately grounding the movie's glossiness with some emotional truth. Davis plays a mother waiting in a Manhattan hospital as her son has emergency surgery. She mumbles about how her last interaction with her son before the attacks was a fight. She's crushed about that. And, through her, so are we. Nic Cage and Maria Bello are strong and sympathetic in the movie, but it's Davis and Murphy who plug us into the socket of the day's despair.

There's something about theatre actors that really pops on film. These women in particular know how to scale down a performance for a camera and still play it to the last row of the house.

Link buffet: Murphy doing "100 Easy Ways" and "Swing" from Wonderful Town.

Monday, December 18, 2006

Sony...rhymes with phony

I've been getting these adorable press releases from Sony Pictures Entertainment, which reminds me weekly that it's raking in money by the shitload. Today, I get this:

With this weekend’s #1 release of The Pursuit of Happyness, Sony Pictures Entertainment’s box office receipts for 2006 have passed $1.573 billion, setting a new motion picture industry record for domestic box-office in a single year [...] The studio also launched 13 films to opening weekends of more than $20 million, another industry record, and surpassed more than $3 billion in global ticket sales for the first time.

What has Sony distributed this year? Pink Panther. R.V. The Holiday. Silent Hill. Underworld: Evolution. When a Stranger Calls. The DaVinci Code. Click. Talk about bragging rights! These movies got an average 38.5 rating (out of 100) on Metacritic, and four of them mark the nadirs of careers (those of Steve Martin, Robin Williams, Adam Sander and Tom Hanks). Guess this says more about our gullibility as an audience than about Sony's marketing prowess. Line your coffers, folks. One day you'll launch a terrible movie and we won't go see it.

Thursday, December 14, 2006

Oscars 07: And all of Italy mutters, 'What took you so long?'

Ennio Morricone, the greatest living composer of movie scores (and the only reason you cry at the end of Cinema Paradiso), will receive an Oops-We're-Idiots Oscar from the Academy at the ceremony in February. As a primer, I recommend the album Cinema Concerto at Santa Cecilia, from a live 1998 concert directed by the man himself. It features his best work: Paradiso, of course, plus the epic choral boomings of The Mission (the only piece of music in existence that'll make you consider martyrdom) and The Good, the Bad and the Ugly (your neck hairs will bristle). My favorite, though, is his quiet score for Bugsy, which is so rich it clogs your blood vessels with sweet melancholy. Surely there will be a medley of his scores performed during the ceremony. They must get a chorus. Done correctly, this tribute could be a showstopper.

Watch, listen and wonder why he never won a competitive Oscar: "Gabriel's Oboe" from The Mission. "The Ecstasy of Gold" from The Good, the Bad and the Ugly. Theme from Cinema Paradiso. The Untouchables. Days of Heaven.

Oscars 07: Globe nom reactions

HUZZAH: Bobby for best pic. Adriana Barraza, Babel. Mark Wahlberg, The Departed. Ben Affleck, Hollywoodland. Clint Mansell, The Fountain.

GROSS: The Queen. The Devil Wears Prada (best picture?!). Thank You for Smoking (best picture?!). Beyonce. Toni Collette, Little Miss Sunshine. Will Ferrell, Stranger Than Fiction.

Wednesday, December 13, 2006

Peter Boyle 1935-2006

Let's pause and reflect on the little moments of perfection Peter Boyle gave us: butchering Puttin' on the Ritz with Gene Wilder and earnestly trying to have some soup with a blind Gene Hackman in Young Frankenstein. In the film, Boyle is essentially doing "silent comedy," which is perhaps the most difficult kind. He does it sweetly, and is the heart of the funniest movie ever made. In Taxi Driver, we see just how good a dramatic actor he was. He makes my blood run cold as Billy Bob Thornton's bigoted father in Monster's Ball. He's a showstopper as the proselytizing mental patient in 1989's The Dream Team. "I have died and been reborn!" he booms in the movie. "I can do it again, buster." If only!

LINK BUFFET: The New York Times obit ("Mr. Canby called Joe one of the 10 worst films of the year but hailed Mr. Boyle’s performance as 'extraordinary'"). / The Archive of American Television's interview ("The highlight of my career was meeting my wife on the set of Young Frankenstein, and having two wonderful daughters"). / The Washington Post obit ("Film critic Gary Arnold ... called him 'as irresistibly uncouth as the early Brando'").

Monday, December 11, 2006

Oscars 07: The gathering storm

We're now bound -- head locked and arms tied -- in the stockades of the movie awards season. Don't try to get out. If you want to defecate, you'll have to do so in your pants as you yap and squabble with other film-lovers who are stuck in their own personal stockades. Why do we derive pleasure from this season? It's a stinking mess. (If you're not convinced, read these insider anecdotes from this morning's voting session of the New York Film Critics Circle. They're both precious and ridiculous.)

I dunno, but I love it and I hate it, and I love to hate it, and I hate to love it. And so on. So allow me to register some complaints, now that awards have been issued by both the New York and Los Angeles critics groups (as well as by the National Board of Review, the N.Y. web critics and the Boston and Washington critics):

1. Helen Mirren is 6 for 6 (as is Forest Whitaker, who perhaps actually deserves the sweep). Mirren's a wonderful human being, and her performance in The Queen is marginally interesting by virtue of her talent (it's like watching Rembrandt doodle), but this uniformity is silly. It may also backfire, since Oscar voting won't close til mid-February. Plenty of time to lose momentum. If I were in a critics group, I would use my power for good and start some buzz for an underdog (Sook-Yin Lee for Shortbus, anyone? John Diehl for Land of Plenty?).

2. The Queen itself is cleaning up. Two supporting actor awards for Michael Sheen as Tony Blair? Seriously? Three screenplay awards for Peter Morgan? Might I remind you that The Queen's screenplay looked like this. I am baffled. This is the greatest hoax perpetrated on the American public since global warming.

3. Hooray for variety: Boston singles out Mark Wahlberg for The Departed. L.A. goes for Luminita Gheorghiu for The Death of Mr. Lazarescu. New York touts Jackie Earl Haley for Little Children.

4. The Washington D.C. Area Film Critics wisely went United 93 for best picture (as did New York) but caved to convention in every other category. They even named the joyless and flaccid Thank You for Smoking as best screenplay. I guarantee the only reason they picked this was to give a little love to a film that took place in the District. Grow a pair, folks.

Soon I will begin my own For Your Consideration series, which debuted last year to middling acclaim and succeeded in winning a nomination for zero of my underdogs (Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Joan Allen & Jeff Daniels).

Friday, December 08, 2006

First glance: Dreamgirls

There is a war going on inside me, and it's being fought by leggy, angel-voiced goddesses in sequined gowns. I wrote this long post on Dreamgirls, read it again, and realized how contradictory and wishy-washy it was. So I'm going to withhold a review for now. Maybe I'll see it again to help parse my thoughts. For now, though, let me say this: Watching it is like listening to a great song. The pleasures are fleeting and aural.

Apocalypto opens today. Here are my thoughts. For an opposing reaction, consult Nick.

Wednesday, December 06, 2006

Oscars 07: Clint & Marty

If we're to envision the Oscars by the results of the seasons' first critics awards, then we'll have yet another matchup between Clint Eastwood (4 Oscars) and Martin Scorsese (0 Oscars). The National Board of Review gave Letters from Iwo Jima its best picture award and Scorsese its best director award for The Departed. The two heavyweights were matched up in 2003 (Mystic River v. Gangs of New York) and 2005 (Million Dollar Baby v. The Aviator). Also, I'm going to eat my words. Catherine O'Hara took best supporting actress. And the NBR included The Devil Wears Prada in its top 10. That's disgusting.

Tuesday, December 05, 2006

Amber waves of pain, plus the majesty of John Diehl and Robin Wright Penn

First things first: I see Dreamgirls tomorrow. I'm so excited I'm pissing myself.

Now then: The Indie Spirit nominations have pulled my focus toward two off-the-radar movies that are deeply critical of post-9/11 America. Ultimately, Land of Plenty is hopeful for the country. Sorry, Haters despairs for it. Both are on DVD and worth a look.

In Land of Plenty, written and directed by Wim Wenders (a German), the TV and character actor John Diehl plays a veteran chemically changed by violence -- first by the personal horrors of Vietnam and then by the collective trauma of Sept. 11. It's a delayed one-two punch that has pushed him into a paranoid myopia. Every day for him is a reconaissance mission to restore predictability (not necessarily "peace"). He cruises Los Angeles in a conversion van, aiming to ferret out Arab terrorists and destroy sleeper cells only he can see. Michelle Williams plays his niece, who enters his life unexpectedly and provides him some mental balm. Diehl's command performance was curiously overlooked by the Indie Spirit people (Williams' wasn't). His is the best male acting I've seen all year: showy, but modulated and affecting, funny without being condescending to the character's obvious illness. Diehl has a lovely speech near the film's end -- perhaps the most direct and least forced speech about Sept. 11 that the movies have given us so far. Diehl's character also happens to be the year's second most tricky to play.

The trickiest (perhaps not only of this year, but of all time) belongs to Robin Wright Penn, who plays a woman named Phoebe in the very low-budget Sorry, Haters. Phoebe...Phoebe...If I try to describe her, it will only spoil the movie. (Perhaps it deserves to be spoiled, though, for the sorely misguided and shocking turn it takes in its third act.) Phoebe is a faker and a liar. Unlike Diehl's character, who lives faraway from Ground Zero, Phoebe is a Manhattanite. Her 9/11 shock is ever-present both within and without, and compells her to wage her own campaign of justice against a sweet, innocent and unsuspecting Muslim cab driver. The duplicity she engages in for the sake of self-esteem is maddening. It's a movie that must be seen to be believed. Listen to the audio commentary and it's evident that Penn can hardly believe she agreed to do the movie. But! It is quite a feat for an actor to take a senseless, poorly conceived character and -- through her own reserve of talent -- turn her into something gripping and (dare I say it) believable. Writer-director Jeff Stanzler was inexplicably nominated by the Indie Spirit people for his mumbo-jumbo script. Stanzler comes across earnest and well-meaning in the audio commentary, but, well, you'll have to see the movie to understand my surprise. Penn was also nominated, and it is a testament to her magic.

UPCOMING: Dreamgirls. Plus, more thoughts on Apocalypto, and a reaction to the reactions. Plus the overlooked American Gun and the indomitable Marcia Gay Harden.

Thursday, November 30, 2006

It's the end of the world as we know it, and I'm out of breath

Apocalypto is an event, and an experience. It is not a lesson in religion or history. It is a chase movie.

Then it becomes a lament on great civilizations whose hubris makes them rot, leaving them open to destruction either from within or without. It's Darwinian. It's about the swallowing of civilizations that, for one reason or another, aren't equipped to battle a stronger, more ruthless force.

The sheer scope of Gibson’s vision and technical achievement is like a riptide through the movie’s reef of missteps and headscratchers. There are moments in Apocalypto when I balked or laughed at the screen. And there are moments when I seemed to be staring into the heart of darkness that’s been handed down through humanity since the dawn of time.

The plot should be experienced, not related. Suffice to say that all my preconceived notions about Apocalypto were swiftly cast aside during the first scene. But know this: It is not a picture for the religious right. It is a universal fable. You may think it’s crap, but you can’t call it narrow-minded.

During the film's two riveting hours, I thought several times of Werner Herzog’s work. Aguirre: The Wrath of God would make a fine double bill with Apocalypto. Both are about man’s foolhardy quest to usurp his basic instincts. Herzog’s is bone-chilling and emotionally remote. Gibson’s tends toward melodrama, convention and blockbust. Of the two, only Apocalypto is guilty of the sin it seeks to illustrate: the folly of overreaching. It’s a movie that has little restraint, that resorts to some tired action-movie cliches, that features extravagant and gratuitous gore and violence, that betrays some of the fundamental flaws in Gibson’s directorial technique (which is sometimes a little too clean for the subject matter).

But when it’s on, it’s on. The central chase in the movie made me think of Speed. Complication piled upon complication, climax upon climax. It’s relentless. It throttles your stomach, tests your patience, tantalizes and adrenalizes. “Where is this going?” you think, and then it gets there, and all you can utter is a “whoa,” like Keanu.

With his giant casts and gianter production ambitions, Mel Gibson is a latter-day Cecil B. DeMille. Purely by the numbers and technical specs, Apocalypto is a serious directorial feat. It’s virtuosic. Gibson creates and maintains a world that is totally believable and organic (save for a few laughable anachronisms of language). If you're looking for history, look elsewhere. This is not about the Mayan empire; it uses the concept of an empire as a backdrop. This movie is pure experience (good or bad). It comes straight from Gibson's reptile complex. It is basic and visceral and lustful for blood and wants to wring you out like a sponge (which is better than most movies, which want to pet you on the head).

If a movie’s quality depends on the successful and thorough realization of its intention, then The Passion of the Christ was stellar. It was a vivid illustration of passion (aka torture) and is one of two films in the small genre of “bearing witness to sacrifice” (the other is United 93). I didn’t "enjoy" The Passion for a second. It made me nauseous and irritable (like Apocalypto). It was relentless. But I took quiet pleasure in Gibson’s drive to do whatever the hell he wants. He has a vision, and he throws it up onscreen without hesitation or obstruction. This is a filmmaker who has dark visions, and demons, and exorcises them onscreen. Perhaps it is therapy for him, even if it turns out to be torture for us (as in The Passion, in which Gibson sought solely to suffer along with Christ, and succeeded in that venture). Either way, there was more I liked about Apocalypto than disliked, even if I have no wish to see it again soon.

I want to talk about specifics, but only after the film opens (Dec. 8) and people have seen it. Til then, don’t read any more reviews. Hoity-toity critics will want to send you in with a prescribed mindset. They'll automatically discount the film's merits based on their prejudice against Gibson's personal wackery (which has nothing to do with the quality of his filmmaking). Keep an open mind, see it if you want, then come find me and we'll talk.

Wednesday, November 29, 2006

3 Women on the brain

"She never did anything wrong on purpose. She's just scared of you, that's all. Then she almost died, and nobody even cared around here. You're the bad ones, not Pinky. All you care about's your time clock, your money and your dumb books. Well, you don't have to worry about any Social Security numbers anymore, because I quit. It's a horrible job. And we don't need it. Neither of us."

Tonight, I see Sugar Tits. I mean, Apocalypto. Will report back.

Tuesday, November 28, 2006

Ah, some fresh blood

Well, Catherine O'Hara will be nominated for an Oscar, as I've predicted. The Independent Spirit Awards nominations were announced an hour ago, and O'Hara is up for best female lead. (Plus, some critics are inexplicably issuing glowing reviews of For Your Consideration, which is actually a trainwreck.) So O'Hara will definitely snuggle into the supporting actress category at the Oscars. Good for her. I love her. I just wish her performance in FYC was guided correctly. It could've been sensational, and it could've won her the damn Oscar.

The nominations made me scramble to locate a bunch of previously-profileless titles: The Dead Girl (out Dec. 26), Man Push Cart (unknown release date), Pan's Labyrinth (Dec. 29) plus the already-on-DVD nominees Sorry, Haters (Robin Wright Penn!), American Gun (the unlikely entree for Forest Whitaker) and Land of Plenty (Michelle Williams gets a second consecutive nod). Anyone seen these yet? I have American Gun and Sorry, Haters up next in my queue, so I'll post shortly.

Besides O'Hara, Oscar booster shots go to Daniel Craig (cited for Infamous? Really? Bleh), Arkin, Ryan Gosling, Ed Norton, Aaron Eckhart, Robert Altman and, of course, the silly enterprise that is Little Miss Sunshine.

Hooray: Soderbergh up for Bubble. (My post on it.)

Boo: Holofcener and McDormand up for the dismal, solipsistic Friends with Money.

Conspicuously absent: The King, penned by Monster's Ball scribe Milo Addica (a master of the genuine) and featuring quiet, stunning performances by Gael Garcia Bernal, William Hurt, Laura Harring, Pell James and Paul Dano (nominated, with Arkin, for an Indie this morning for the wildly over-praised LMS).

Monday, November 27, 2006

Give me the boy until he is 7...

Oh, the grand, bittersweet sweep of the Up series. I watched all seven installments (7 Up through the recently released 49 Up, all available via Netflix) in the past month. It was a metaphysical experience. Rarely, if ever, do we see actual life pass us by onscreen. This British documentary -- which has checked in with a group of “children” every seven years since 1964 -- is perhaps the most practical and moving use of film ever. Andrew, Tony, John, Susan, Bruce, Symon, Jackie and her friends -- they are all 49 years old now, and I’ve known them since they were 7. This is not an exaggeration, or a pithy generalization. It is the truth, and it is a privilege.

Aside: For all our culture’s obsession with reality television, we have nothing like the Up series in the United States. (At least, nothing readily available or reputable. Age 7 in America exists, but is not available on Netflix.) All we have is The Real World (which it's not), and Road Rules, and those MTV challenges for well-toned Gen Y’ers. We watch them grow older but not grow up as they wrestle each other from foam totems in the middle of some equatorial lagoon. Points are awarded, gagdets are given out. They return next year for more of the same. The only thing that has changed about them is their tan. Maybe.

Anyway: The narrator's final line of each installment is the Jesuit axiom "Give me a child until he is 7, and I will give you the man." The conceit of the series is that we are essentially the person we were at 7 years old, regardless of how old we are now. And there is truth to that. We see shadows of adult Susan in child Susan. We look into adult Tony's eyes and see child Tony's spark. We see child Neil's wanderlust in adult Neil's weary-but-committed search for his place in the world. It's kind of breathtaking. But people change, too, and we can see and feel that change (Susan from a 21-year-old malcontent to a serene mother, Tony from a lower-class crime-leaning existence to bucolic fatherhood in Spain, Neil from pie-faced optimism to rugged-faced realism). How lucky for us that director Michael Apted has stuck with this project. Cinema affords us the opportunity to live many virtual lifetimes within our own, but the Up documentaries lets us surf the imperfect waves of real lives, and our own lives are richer for it.

I can only imagine how deep the Up series will go once its subjects start to die, or at least surrender to the rubs of old age. This has been an organic, ongoing documentary about Life. When it makes that narrative turn toward Death, the Up series' importance and effect will compound exponentially. I dread it, and I can’t wait for it. 56 Up will be released in 2012. I will be 29 years old. Now that I’m caught up with the series, I will be able to assess my own seven-year growth or degeneration in comparison to theirs. It is frightening and wonderful. It is god-like and utterly human. It validates both the medium of film and our shared humanity.

Saturday, November 25, 2006

Working title: 'I Didn't Kill My Wife'

The Fountain proves at least one thing: that Clint Mansell might one day rival Carter Burwell for creating the most engaging, memorable and evocative film scores of our time. Other than that, The Fountain is a more theatrical version of Solaris a la Soderbergh -- from the story (or lack of it) to the visuals (nebulas on parade!) to the tone (cosmic yearning for a beautiful woman). I can appreciate any movie that makes me think -- that actively requires my participation -- but I find myself at a dead end with this one. It's a lovely dead end, adorned with flowers and bursting lights and broad brushstrokes, but a dead end nonetheless. "Life ends," Aronofsky says. "Death reigns. Look to the stars and you'll see proof." Right, now, where's our catharsis? Hop over to Cinephilia for a spot-on dialogue about the movie's merits, and how we all hoped they'd be grander. Or see Nathaniel R., who wisely views the movie as personal expression and no more.

Thursday, November 23, 2006

Bobby opens today. Go see it

(My review.) Critics are going after it simply because Emilio Estevez made it. They're too good to even consider an ambitious work from a "Brat Packer," and they're too busy plagiarizing each other (it seems like every single review says Bobby was created from the mold of '70s disaster pics -- partly true, but how 'bout we keep our eyes on our own papers, folks, and come up with some new ideas?).

Lou Lumenick, in a juvenile and witless review, calls Bobby "one of the year's worst movies," and wrongly asserts that it tries and fails to do what Nashville did. Wrong sir. There is no trace of Altman in Bobby. Just because a film has a big cast doesn't make it Altmanesque. Nashville has no heart. Bobby is all heart. You can't compare the two. David Ansen calls Bobby "emotionally opportunistic." Why? Because it dares to get under your skin? Wouldn't you rather have a movie lunge at you instead of having it sit flaccid on the screen?

It ain't a perfect movie -- it uses Simon & Garfunkel in a key sequence for Chrissakes -- but it's the only movie in theaters that asks something of its audience. I am, of course, correct about this, but would still like to hear dissenting opinions.

Wednesday, November 22, 2006

I finally saw The Queen...

...and I'm obviously missing something. It appears to be the best reviewed movie of the year, but there is no drama and nothing happens. Mirren is good because she's Mirren. Nothing to it. Here is my Cliff's Notes version (in seven scenes):

Scene I: Balmoral

Butler: Ma'am? And, ma'am?
The Queen: Yes what is it?
The Queen Mum: Yes what is it?
Butler: It's the Princess of Wales.
Prince Philip: What's the bloody tart done now?
Butler: She's dead.
The Queen: Oh.
The Queen Mum: Oh! I mean, oh.
Philip: The bitch deserves to rot.
The Queen: We'll have a private funeral.

Scene II: Balmoral

Tony Blair: (on the phone) Ma'am?
The Queen: Yes?
Tony: Shouldn't the funeral be public? After all, she was the people's princess.
The Queen: Should it be?
The Queen Mum: Heavens no.
Philip: The bitch deserves to rot.
The Queen: I am the queen, prime minister. This is a matter for family. Kindly allow me to attend to my grandchildren.

Scene III: Balmoral

Tony: Ma'am?
The Queen: What is it now?
Tony: The people are awash in grief. They need some sort of sign from the royal family.
The Queen: Don't be silly.
The Queen Mum: Don't de daft!
Philip: The bitch deserves to rot.

Scene IV: Balmoral

Tony: Ma'am?
The Queen Mum: Yes?
The Queen: Not you, mother. Tony, you make me long for Thatcher.
Tony: With all due respect, ma'am, have you seen the papers? One in four Brits think the monarchy should be dissolved.
The Queen Mum: Rubbish! They need us.
Philip: The bitch deserves to rot.
Tony: The funeral should be public. Buckingham's flag should be at half mast. You should return to the palace and greet your public.
The Queen: I'm going to go for a spin in my Range Rover.

Scene V: Balmoral

Tony: Ma'am?
The Queen: You again.
Philip: (whispers) Stop picking up the phone!
Tony: Ma'am, have you seen the papers today?
The Queen: (looking at the papers) No, I don't read them. The press is manufacturing this discontent.
Tony: They think you're out of touch. The flag should be at half mast. You should return to the palace. The funeral will be public. I hope your majesty is not upset.
Butler: They will be using the funeral schematic for the Queen Mum, since we're short on time.
The Queen Mum: What!
Philip: The bitch deserves to rot.
The Queen Mum: What!
Philip: Not you. Diana.

Scene VI: Balmoral

Tony: Ma'am?
The Queen: (faint gurgle of disapproval)
Tony: Ma'am, come back.
Prince Charles: Listen to Tony, mother. It's modern times, mother. Me and Tony are modern men.
Tony: (faint gurgle of disapproval)

Scene VII: London

The Queen: I am back.
Tony: It was a wonderful idea of yours to come back.
The Queen: Sometimes a queen must do that.
Philip: You're all a bunch of nutters.

Tuesday, November 21, 2006

Robert Altman 1925-2006

"I've always said that making a film is like making a sand castle at the beach. You invite your friends and you get them down there, and you say you build this beautiful structure, several of you. Then you sit back and watch the tide come in. Have a drink, watch the tide come in, and the ocean just takes it away. And that sand castle remains in your mind. Now I've built about 40 of them, and I never tire of it. No other filmmaker has gotten a better shake than I have. I'm very fortunate in my career. I've never had to direct a film I didn't choose or develop. I love filmmaking. It has given me an entré to the world, and the human condition, and for that I'm forever grateful."

I admit to being nonplussed by Nashville, McCabe & Mrs. Miller, M*A*S*H, Cookie's Fortune and The Long Goodbye -- in this sentiment I am alone in the world of cinephiles, where Altman is worshipped as the greatest of directors. I've never been sold on him. Altman's oeuvre, to me, always seemed like a resounding technical achievement, a mastery of the form but not the emotion behind it. But I loved The Company and The Player for their tenderness and causticity (respectively), and appreciated Short Cuts and Gosford Park for their virtuosity. And, like Sidney Lumet is, Altman was one of the movies' great human beings: generous to other filmmakers, thankful for his luck and status and respectful of both the medium and the power that springs from it.

Does anyone have any favorite moments from Altman films? I like Keith Carradine singing "I'm Easy" in Nashville. I love the final shot of The Company, when we realize that the movie is about love and not dance. And Helen Mirren's modulated confession in Gosford Park -- how still it is compared to the kinetics of the rest of the movie. And I love the sadness that throbs through A Prairie Home Companion, an utterly appropriate swan song. Sure, it was written by Garrison Keillor, but the lines seemed to be spoken directly by Altman.

Lola: What if you die some day?
Keillor: I will die.
Lola: Don't you want people to remember you?
Keillor: I don't want them to be told to remember me.

And as the white-clad moll of Parts Unknown, Virginia Madsen says, "There is no tragedy in the death of an old man. Forgive him his shortcomings, and thank him for all his love and care."

Link buffet & appreciations (as they become available): The eight-minute opening shot of The Player. "We leave his movies knowing that life is many things at once -- at once." Stephen Hunter: "Where others saw theatrical artifice, Robert Altman saw the teeming, throbbing Petri dish called life." JMR.: "It is even arguable that I would not be where I am today without Altman." Looking Closer Journal: Altman, Lynch and a handshake at the 2002 Oscars. Roger Ebert's encounters through the years.

Sunday, November 19, 2006

Way to piss off a legion of movielovers

The Weinsteins made a deal with Blockbuster Friday. A bad deal. Bad for us, anyway. Starting Jan. 1, all Weinstein Co. films will be rentable only via Blockbuster stores and their mail-rental service. The great appeal of Netflix -- which I assume is infinitely more popular than Blockbuster's equivalent -- is that you can get any movie. Not anymore. Not until 2010, at least. From the press release:

In exchange for exclusivity, Blockbuster will pay TWC a minimum guarantee, determined by box office performance, for each theatrical picture, and based on the acquisition or production costs for each DTV title. ... Blockbuster plans to showcase the TWC movies in special sections in its stores and online. It will also offer customers the TWC movies under its in-store guaranteed availability program, which guarantees customers that select movies will be in-stock or they get a “rain-check” free rental coupon for that movie. Blockbuster also plans to share general trending information with TWC, such as the types of movies and actors the Blockbuster consumer would like to see more of, which could provide valuable insights for future film projects.

This is horrifying and annoying. It's like the movie rental industry has gone fascist. Doesn't this tread on anti-trust laws? If not, it should. I'm certainly not starting a Blockbuster membership in addition to Netflix. So I guess it's Splitsville for me and the mishpuka Weinsteins, even though they are distributing the year's best film thusfar.

Friday, November 17, 2006

For Your Consolation: Catherine O'Hara

Catherine O’Hara could’ve won an Oscar this year, and it’s not her fault she won’t. More on that (and For Your Consideration) later.

But first: Catherine. IMDb says she "has an almost religious cult following around the world.” And I can believe it. This video is Exhibit A.

Why do we love her? Maybe it’s because she is the only viable heir to Gilda Radner. O’Hara is a ballsy performer, a reckless impressionist, a character actor without vanity or delusions of grandeur. Maybe it’s her red hair. Maybe it’s her voice, which (like Radner’s) was always a little flat or sharp. It’s a tomboy’s voice, a voice slightly hoarse from laughing. She is a comedian, but she’s not a personality like DeGeneres, Griffin or Poundstone. O’Hara is egoless and -- despite the distinctions of her physicality and her talent -- almost anonymous at times, which is probably why she has never been a movie star, and why she only briefly flirted with TV stardom (as a mainstay on SNL rival SCTV) and why she has become a beloved cult figure nonetheless. I hate the word “cult,” because it belies the sincerity of her fans’ admiration.

Beetlejuice was my first encounter with O’Hara. She plays Delia (left), the flakey matriarch of a seriously bizarre family in a bizarrer house. Delia is a fatalist, a bad mother and a worse sculptor. Could any other actor have pulled off a character that is, at one point, both possessed and lipsynching to Harry Belafonte? She's being manipulated by ghosts, but she's more horrified that she's actually enjoying it.

A couple years later, in 1990, she hitched a ride to a box office rocket ship: Home Alone. Her straightforward performance as Kate McCallister anchored a galley of absurdity. She was the heart and soul of the franchise -- free of bombast, and heart-tugging especially in the sequel. Home Alone is still the top-grossing comedy of all time, I believe. Let's hope she's still getting some ancillary checks in the mail.

O'Hara's one shot at comedic stardom was 1992's There Goes the Neighborhood, which was the last gasp of those suburbanites-are-wacky comedies (think The 'burbs and The Money Pit). O'Hara got billing beside Jeff Daniels, whom she matches blow for blow. But O’Hara was no Meg Ryan, and that’s both a compliment and a guarantee that she would never be an A-lister.

But she continued her streak through the mainstream by reuniting with her Beetlejuice director, Tim Burton, to voice Sally in A Nightmare Before Christmas in 1994. What an unconventional and thoroughly delightful pairing: O'Hara and Chris Sarandon as animated netherworld lovers.

O'Hara succeeded subtlely in small dramas (sporting a decent Irish accent in Summer Fling, losing all hint of showmanship as a guest star on The Outer Limits). She has been the lone spots of intrigue in middling movies: The hysterical and paranoid Gail in Scorsese’s After Hours, the Southern-fried gossip in the awful Heartburn. She showcases her penchant for benign wickedness as the clever wife of an adultering Joe Pesci in Betsy’s Wedding. All of this was post SCTV: 1985 to 1994. It was a decent run. She was a luminary in some wan material.

Then, glory in 1996: Christopher Guest gives her a platform on which to perfectly blend her TV sketch roots with her varied film work. Her performance as Sheila in Waiting for Guffman is like watching Christ discover he's God made man. Witness the chop suey restaurant scene, in which Sheila is drunk. Lots of actors lose all believability when they’re asked to play drunk. O’Hara knows exactly what to do. In order to act drunk, one must make every effort to appear not drunk. On the Guffman DVD, go to the deleted scene in which Fred Willard makes her reenact famous baseball plays. O’Hara has no lines, but her demeanor, countenance and stance provide the biggest laughs. A lesser performer might’ve tried to play ping-pong with Willard’s antics. She wisely lets herself be steamrolled and steals the scene.

Lighting struck again in 2000 with Best in Show, in which O'Hara plays Cookie Guggelman Fleck, the promiscuous co-shower of a beloved Yorkshire terrier, this time opposite fellow SCTV alum Eugene Levy. I simply offer this clip. By God, you're gonna show Winky.

While A Mighty Wind was a step down for the Guest franchise, O'Hara once again slung some sweet sincerity into the heart of a comedy. As the Mickey half of Mitch & Mickey (left), she can sing, she can act and she can be very funny, sometimes all at once. Here's "When You're Next to Me."

When I heard that she was playing the lead in For Your Consideration, I was giddy. The Hollywood awards season is the perfect topic for Guest & Co., and O'Hara is the perfect choice to play the aging character actor who thinks she's about to have her moment in the sun. I could see it all before me: O'Hara's performance would be Norma Desmond meets Lucille Ball. It would be madcap and tender and real and moving and ruthless and sad -- all the stuff she has prepared for since SCTV. By God, O'Hara would be so good that she'd be nominated for an actual Oscar. Hollywood would watch her, see both the best and the worst in themselves, and laud her for it.

Oh reader. Read no farther. Spoilers ahead. The movie is in limited release today, so I feel comfortable commenting. But if you're a Guest fan who plans to see it regardless, skip this.

For Your Consideration is a wreck. It's amateurish to the point of shoddiness. It lacks cohesion. Most of the jokes and gags fall flat. The jokes that are funny are only funny because we know and love the people who are delivering them. This movie is not a satire. It's hyperbole. And it flares up like a firecracker and burns out almost immediately. Guest & Co. are in a downward spiral when they should be at the top of their game. I've seen it twice now. I am not mistaken about this.

The plot is thus: Some blogger on the Internet thinks "Home for Purim," a sloppy melodrama currently in production, is "Oscar-worthy." The unfounded buzz builds around three of the actors, played by O'Hara, Harry Shearer and Parker Posey. Everyone gets caught up in it -- the agents, the media, the actors themselves. It's a frenzy. Meanwhile, the studio suits are trying to tone down the film's "Jewishness" and the director (played by Guest) is throwing out the script. It all comes to a head when the nominations are announced.

And then the movie ends. I expected the last act to be at the actual awards ceremony. Can you imagine the ripe material Guest & Co. could draw from a fake Oscars? But we are denied any kind of comedic payoff. What Guest leaves us with is a blunt, unfriendly statement about delusion. It's an inedible conclusion.

But what I'm most sad about is O'Hara, who is confined instead of freed by the material. The movie feels like it was scripted. Improv seems minimal. The whole thing feels orchestrated. Doctored. Forced. O'Hara's character becomes a vehicle for Guest's statement, rather than a person of her own. She has some great moments, but they are fleeting and do not add up to a whole. For Your Consideration is a movie that could've used less script and more direction. Or maybe vice versa. I don't know. All I know is I wanted to reach through the screen and tell O'Hara that this isn't working. Let's start over. Let's plan this out a little more. Let's take this story to the actual Oscars, where the real comedy happens.

Unfortunately, the story doesn't go there, and now O'Hara and the movie won't be going there.

SCTV clips: O'Hara as Dusty Towne, Sister Mary Innocent, Linda Blair and Liz Taylor, Morgan Fairchild and Angie Dickinson. And the best clip from For Your Consideration.

Wednesday, November 15, 2006

First glance: Children of Men

It doesn't open til Christmas day, so I won't go into detail. Suffice to say: Its technical achievements are laudable, it has five credited writers, and Julianne Moore has about four to six minutes of screen time, maybe less. Interpret this how you will. Upcoming posts: The vital scope of the Up documentaries. Catherine O'Hara: This coulda been her year.

Sunday, November 12, 2006

Qu'est-ce que c'est?

Before this post, I had no idea what a meme was, and still am not sure how it's pronounced (I'd like to think it's French, and said 'meh-MAY'). Via JMR, from The Film Experience.

1. Popcorn or candy?
No one should be allowed to eat in a movie theater. The film is the main course. It is not background music for your meal.
2. Name a movie you've been meaning to see forever. JFK.
3. You are given the power to recall one Oscar: Who loses theirs and to whom? If I was keen on giving it to any of the other nominees this past year, I'd withdraw Reese Witherspoon's Oscar in a second (my first thought upon waking every morning is always "I can't believe Reese Witherspoon has an Oscar"). So I suppose I'd give Julia's to Ellen. Or Hoffman's second to Hackman. Or Spacey's to Russell. Or Russell's to Geoffrey. Or Pacino's to Denzel. Or Denzel's to Wilkinson. What a mess. Maybe Ron Harwood 's and Alan Ball 's to Charlie Kaufman.
4. Steal one costume from a movie for your wardrobe. Which will it be? Wonka.
5. Your favorite film franchise is... Back to the Future. The first is thrilling. The second is visionary. The third proves that the trilogy has something to say about the laws of the cosmos: bad guys always end up in piles of manure.
6. Invite five movie people over for dinner. Who are they? Why'd you invite them? What do you feed them? It would be a crowd of strange, middle-aged white men with impeccably cultivated egos: Errol Morris, Werner Herzog, Peter Bogdanovich, William Friedkin and Christopher Guest (riffing on the ego thing here). I would serve humble pie.
7. What is the appropriate punishment for people who answer cell phones in the movie theater? They should simply be ignored. I believe people who allow their cell phones to go off during movies are ravenous for attention and, therefore, should be roundly ignored. And plus, disgruntled reaction to a blaring cell phone is often just as disturbing as the cell phone itself. Everyone knows it's rude, so no need to do the quarter-turn-and-sneer.
8. Choose a female bodyguard: Ripley from Aliens. Mystique from X-Men. Sarah Connor from Terminator 2. The Bride from Kill Bill. Mace from Strange Days. There is simply no contest. Ripley. The Bride is a loose cannon, Mystique is too remote and Mace is too messy. It would come down to Connor and Ripley, whose strength and badassness are informed by their motherly instincts. But we all know who would win a fight between those two. (I have a vision of Linda Hamilton hurtling through space.)
9. What's the scariest thing you've ever seen in a movie? Oh, come on.
10. Your favorite genre (excluding comedy and drama) is? Film noir.
11. You are given the power to greenlight movies at a major studio for one year. How do you wield this power? By putting out less than a dozen movies, none of which have to do with the bottom line. Too many are being made. Too much crap. Of course, I would drive the studio into bankruptcy.
12. Bonnie or Clyde? This is a ridiculous question; they do not exist without each other. But my first answer: Bonnie, when her mother says, "Bye baby." My second answer: Clyde, when he says "I ain't much of a loverboy."
13. Who are you tagging to answer this survey? The Boob Tubers, Beedow, Wendy, Mildred, Is That So Wrong? and Cattleworks.

Thursday, November 09, 2006

Bobby is the best picture of the year

So far. But I'm having a hard time believing there will be another movie in the coming months that will so move and impress me. I am both shellshocked and on a ridiculous high. (Stop reading if you want to go in with no more preconceived notions.)

Perhaps it's because I saw it on the heels of 24 hours of meaningful political change. Perhaps it's just because it is a finely crafted, superbly acted movie with an unapologetic conscience. Bobby, which opens on Thanksgiving (and couldn't be more perfectly timed), is wonderful drama. But more importantly, in this age of disenchantment, it has singlehandedly restored my faith in the potential of the United States of America.

This movie was a transporting and enlightening experience. It exists in 1968, but thematically it takes place today. "This country is on a perilous course," we hear Robert F. Kennedy say in one of the many audio and video clips that are gracefully woven throughout the movie, which is about the interplay of ordinary people at the Ambassador Hotel the night he is assassinated.

In voiceover at the beginning of the movie, we hear RFK say, "I am concerned that, at the end of it all, there will only be more Americans killed; more of our treasure spilled out; and because of the bitterness and hatred on every side of this war, more hundreds of thousands of Vietnamese slaughtered; so that they may say, as Tacitus said of Rome: 'They made a desert, and called it peace.' And I do not think that is what the American spirit is really all about."

It is a quotation 40 years old, and yet it seems newly born. This is true of the whole movie.

First: what a cast of interconnected talents! Emilio Estevez and Demi Moore, former doe-eyed brat packers, as middle-aged marrieds (she an alcoholic lounge singer, he her brushed-aside manager). Moore's real-life hubbie Ashton Kutcher as a God-chasing drug dealer. Estevez's father, Martin Sheen (who was a fervent RFK supporter in real life), as an upper-class mandarin and Sheen's Apocalypse Now co-star, Laurence Fishburne, as a chef in the hotel kitchen. Estevez's Mighty Ducks co-star, Joshua Jackson, all grown up as one of RFK's main campaigners, and Estevez's Young Guns II co-star, Christian Slater, as one of the heads of the kitchen. Boogie Nights co-stars William H. Macy and Heather Graham as adulterers.

There are more connections. And I'm not even mentioning Sharon Stone (as a hairdresser), Lindsay Lohan and Elijah Wood (who are getting married so he can avoid Vietnam), Shia LaBeouf and Nick Cannon (as campaigners), Helen Hunt (Sheen's wife), Freddy Rodríguez (a kitchen staffer), Anthony Hopkins (the doorman) and Harry Belafonte (his confidante) -- all great in their own ways in this movie. (I never thought I'd say this, but I enjoyed Helen Hunt!) Oscar nominations should go to Moore, Stone and Fishburne for their performances, which are truly supporting in every sense of the word. Estevez also deserves nominations, for his script and direction. The movie's art direction and cinematography (which seamlessly cuts between stock footage and staged footage) are also superior.

This movie will bring RFK to a whole new generation of Americans like myself, who have grown up in a time devoid of visionary politicians. Seeing footage of RFK's campaigning and speechmaking is spine-tingling. It made me tear up. This man was so sincere, so intent. Did they really make politicians like that?

As much as the movie lionizes RFK (and boy does it ever), it is not just pageantry. This is a movie about us...Americans...and our special habit of wallowing in the mundane while shooting for the stars. The essence of Bobby is made of quiet, gem-like scenes between characters. It's an Altman-esque experience, but with more direction and dialogue. Some of the dialogue approaches affectation, yes, but it is eloquent and services the story. How can I describe the delight of seeing Sharon Stone doing Demi Moore's hair, and the small but profound exchange between them? It's a wonderful scene performed by two aging bombshells. But here, they are character actors, and it is sublime.

The rest of the scenes are equally wonderful. All the characters are fully realized. We're never confused about who is who, and we grow to care about all of them. The common bond between these people is hope -- hope for a way to avoid Vietnam, hope for a way to save a marriage, hope for equality between races, hope for a brighter future -- and the investment of that hope in one man who promises to lead the way. We are small people, but together we can imbue a man with great momentum. Estevez begins the film with that great momentum -- you can feel it in the camerawork, in the buoyant score, in the alacrity of the characters. Change is coming.

Is it ever. Bobby is a tragedy, in many ways, and given that it is based around RFK's assassination, you may think the end is foretold. But the final sequence of the film is surprising and powerful -- surprising because it hinges not on the actual event but the alchemy of emotions surrounding it, and powerful because Estevez has earned our investment in RFK and these characters. Oh, what a cataclysm the assassination must've been for anyone alive and cognizant in June of '68. It is shattering merely experiencing it via celluloid 40 years later.

I was weeping at the film's end. But for what? The brutal assassination of hope, maybe. A generation endured the murders of JFK and Martin Luther King Jr., and in Bobby they found a phoenix. Here was their last great hope out of the ashes of the '60s, and even that was taken away by mindless menace. The film despairs for us, yes, but it is ultimately an ode to our capacity for endurance.

What Estevez does isn't brain surgery. He uses RFK and the Ambassador Hotel as a spine, and wraps simple vignettes around it. But it's clear: Estevez himself had a definite vision, and Bobby is a perfect realization of it.

I've run out of words to convey the value of this movie. Bobby is an immersion and a reflection. It is a great experience. Most importantly, it makes us wonder how things would be different if RFK had been president instead of Nixon, and how we might work our way to that thwarted reality starting today. Better late than never.

Wednesday, November 08, 2006

Little did he know...

When an actor like Will Ferrell does comedy, we’re focused on his actions, his lumbering gait, his flailing limbs, his harsh voice. But when an actor like Ferrell does drama, we’re looking at his eyes. Stranger Than Fiction sinks because of Ferrell’s eyes. They are black, and lifeless, like a shark. To adapt a Woody Allen line, Ferrell must constantly move to survive. If you put him in a chair and have him shed tears opposite Dustin Hoffman, he dies. And so does the movie.

In this post-Kaufman world, Stranger Than Fiction feels late. I’d rather have seen it in 1989 starring Tom Hanks, the king of acting credibly and lovably in a fantastic situation (see: Big). In Stranger Than Fiction, a disembodied voice begins narrating Ferrell’s life. That voice belongs to a famous author, who’s writing a novel about Ferrell’s character. This is not a spoiler – it’s been roundly revealed in every trailer for months. And that’s part of the problem. If I had known nothing about the movie going in, I would’ve enjoyed it more. It would’ve been the film’s one surprise.

Instead, we get a mainstream movie that thinks it has a genius idea. What it has is the most conventional plot imaginable, with some flashy drapery. And you can remove Emma Thompson from the Oscar short list. A manic-depressive novelist is a role she was born to play. Someday someone will actually write a good manic-depressive novelist role for her.

Sunday, November 05, 2006

Wiegel Watch: Throw us a friggin' bone

My friend Lindsey saw Borat over the weekend. One of the preceding trailers was for Reno 911!: Miami. She said the whole theater cheered. Unfortunately (and unwisely), Fox pulled the teaser trailer from YouTube. There is nowhere online to get your Reno fix, save for a glib report and malfunctioning clips on MTV Overdrive. No trailer, no Web site, no nothing. Stupid. The release date is Feb. 23. Related posts: Surrr-prise...this is the best day of my life. Wiegel Watch: Baghdad.

Saturday, November 04, 2006

I normally don't traffic in Hollywood news, but these are the items that make life worth living

1. Hilary Swank, who will next be seen in a rock-'em-sock-'em plague movie, was injured on the set of P.S., I Love You by Gerard Butler's suspenders. Can anyone fathom how this could've happened?

2. Ellen Burstyn finally comments on her 14-second performance in Mrs. Harris, for which she received an Emmy nomination for best supporting actress in a miniseries or TV movie: "I thought it was fabulous. My next ambition is to get nominated for seven seconds, and, ultimately, I want to be nominated for a picture in which I don't even appear." I love this woman.

Related posts: Burstyn's new (and excellent) autobiography. Revisiting my childhood fear of The Exorcist. Locusts. Swank.

Wednesday, November 01, 2006

He starts to get annoying around minute 80, but fortunately that's when the movie ends

Kirk Honeycutt gets it right in The Hollywood Reporter:

The weapon wielded by Cohen and Charles is crudeness. People today, especially those in public life, can disguise prejudice in coded language and soft tones. Bigotry is ever so polite now. So the filmmakers mean to drag the beast out into the sunlight of brilliant satire and let everyone see the rotting, stinking, foul thing for what it is. When you laugh at something that is bad, it loses much of its power.

I don't know why Kazakhstan is so upset. It's the United States that comes off looking barbaric in Borat, which will be big at the B.O. Travers basically calls it a masterpiece. It's not, but it is duly outrageous, and coaxes the American people to reveal themselves as the backward wretches we truly are. In fact, it has the most outrageous scene I've ever experienced in movies. It's a lethal kind of comedy Cohen employs. He will be nominated for a Golden Globe.

Tuesday, October 31, 2006

What an excellent day for an exorcism

At a friend’s birthday party in 7th or 8th grade, we watched The Exorcist. For fun. “Ha, ha, let’s watch a horror movie with terrible special effects.” I had never heard of it. Someone put it on, turned out the lights, and almost immediately the future adult in my mind was thinking, “We should not be watching this. What kind of parents would allow a group of 12-year-olds to watch this? We should not be watching this.”

I spent the next two hours with my back against their living room wall, watching intermittently through my clenched hands, sometimes plugging my ears, every good humor in me petrified. I didn’t speak as we waited to be picked up after the party ended. Everyone else was joking, laughing, pushing cake in each other’s faces. When I got home and saw my mother, I burst into tears. I was so terrified that I didn’t feel shame in doing this. I was hysterical. I did not sleep that night. Yes, we laugh about this now, but that terror was very real at the time. No movie has done that to me before or since.

At that point I had been raised as a habitual Catholic and had not bothered to ponder religion or spirituality. Church was something rote but comforting done once a week, like it or not. Religion in a Catholic grade school fostered complacency or, at least, spiritual laziness. Pray to God, give thanks, say three Hail Marys after confession, blah blah.

Into the blank slate of my mind came The Exorcist, which did the thinking for me. It was a rough initiation into the realm of spiritual questioning. “The devil is real, and he works his evil on undeserving people,” the movie said to the 12-year-old me. “There is no reason to it. It happens.”

In high school, I discovered, to my utter horror, that my family actually owned William Peter Blatty's novel. I found it while rummaging through the attic of our home in Buffalo. That purple paperback cover. That white, soulless face plastered across the front. I was upset by this discovery and decided the only logical thing to do was to read the damn thing and exorcise The Exorcist from myself.

I read it in one sitting, alone in the house on some dark weekend. To leave it unfinished would mean the story was still happening in the ether. It needed to be concluded. Irony: I loved the book, especially the end. My bleak grade-school assessment of the movie was tempered by an evolved understanding of and appreciation for faith and doubt. I was very moved in the final pages when Fr. Karras squeezes Fr. Dyer's hand to affirm his belief in God during last rites at the bottom of the steps -- even though he has just seen irrefutable proof of evil.

Despite this, I had no desire to endure the movie again. Until now. For reasons unknown to me, I felt compelled to watch it Sunday night, alone, in the dark, not two miles from Georgetown, where it takes place. From its opening scenes, it conjured in me a queasy dread. But now, as a more nuanced 23-year-old, I was able to appreciate why and how it conjured the dread. It is a singular movie-watching experience; it's a full-on psychological attack on the viewer that is tactical, not sensational. The first hour of the movie is all atmosphere. Noises. Insinuations. Half-hearted diagnoses. But it all has a locomotive power that builds and builds.

Here are the notes I scribbled during it:

1:30 - Friedkin's introduction. He talks about how The Exorcist makes you question your sanity. Great. I always worried that watching the movie again would unhinge me in some way. You see how affecting this movie was on a 7th grader?

2:01 - Just seeing those red block letters (THE EXORCIST) freezes my spinal fluid.

8:00 - Fr. Merrin's clock stops in Iraq. I still remember the image vividly from the first viewing. It is so simple. Conveys the perfect sense of metaphysical dread.

11:50 - And I remember those fighting dogs, too, and Max von Sydow staring down that statue. I am queasy. We are reminded daily by our government that there is evil in our world, and that we are fighting it. And either in the real life or The Exorcist, they say it comes from Iraq. Go figure.

13:15 - This is what I found so scary the first time -- those noises from the attic. A house naturally creaks and groans as the temperature drops at night, but after watching this it seems like the most unnatural thing. It plants the seed of doubt in your mind.

34:06 - The defiled statue of Mary. Another image that was seared into my brain. The perversion! But it's nothing compared to the perversion to come.

47:09 - The battery of clinical tests perpetrated on Regan is almost as terrifying as the demonic possession. Spinal taps. MRIs. The poking and prodding. Clicking machines. The scientific rationale. The insidiousness of a white hospital room. Of a needle administered.

56:00 - I can't imagine seeing this movie in theaters, where you can't control the volume of the sound. I am watching it with one finger on the volume button, because I find the audio aspect the most terrifying. While most horror movies make me close my eyes, this one makes me plug my ears.

1:05:22 - Conflict + guilt = a body invaded by a spirit?

1:07:15 - A belief in the power of exorcism can combat the belief that the body is possessed by a spirit. Is there no reality to life? Only the perception of reality?

1:22:00 - The scariest part is this thing that says it's the devil not only "knows" Karras' mother is dead, but also that she's in hell. It could be a manifestation of guilt or remorse. How could Karras not be more phased by this? This is one of the failures of the movie: that it doesn't show Karras profoundly scared and flabbergasted from his first, wretched encounter with the girl. He seems to be taking it in stride.

1:26:30 - I am fascinated by faith and doubt, and the scenes of Karras "celebrating" Mass have tremendous weight as the story progresses. Especially shots of the transubstantiation, which is really its own form of imposed possession, right?

1:30:00 - Is the possession caused by a father complex? Burstyn can certainly relate from her real-life experience. Her autobiography refers to a "father-shaped hole" in her heart. In The Exorcist, that hole is filled by a demon.

1:34:00 - Even after all this -- the vomiting, the speaking in tongues, the thrashing, the "telepathy," the word-shaped scarring on her stomach -- Karras still has doubts about whether the child is possessed? This is where the movie doesn't make sense.

1:37:00 - I love how Max von Sydow is the hero, and how even the devil knows him, and how he doesn't flinch when the devil calls him by name, as if he's done personal battle with Satan before. Which he has -- von Sydow spent much of his career previous to this role as Ingmar Bergman's go-to metaphysical protagonist.

1:38:00 - "The attack is psychological." Indeed.

1:39:00 - There is something about priests going up against evil. I have great respect for most clergy, especially Jesuits (but not the Catholic Curch as an institution). It is adrenalizing to see them "suit up" and march unblinking toward the great battlefield of good and evil.

1:51:00 - It's really two movies in one: Burstyn's and Jason Miller's. She's barely in the second half; he's barely in the first.

1:54:00 - Never underestimate the scare power of a well-timed phone ring.

1:55:00 - Lots of people think this movie is a laugh riot. It isn't. For me. is kind of comical when Karras slugs the girl at the climax. It's comforting to know that the devil in this movie is punchable. I almost want a "POW!" or "ZOCK!" to flash on the screen at this moment.

2:00:00 - The end. As always, things loom larger in the memory. I'm going to be able to sleep tonight. There is a twitch of disappointment in this -- I believe in the power of movies, and part of me would've been delighted if this movie sent me straight back into my own personal loony boon. Alas, it didn't. Does this mean I'm an adult? Now that's scary.