Sunday, February 26, 2006

Some men are Baptists, others Catholics; my father was an Oldsmobile man

In a weekend in which Barney Fife kicked it, let's not forget the Old Man. Darren McGavin, who played loutish patriarch Mr. Parker in A Christmas Story, died yesterday in California at 83.

All right, I'll get that kid to eat. Where's my screw driver and my plumber's helper? I'll open up his mouth and I'll shove it in.

A prolific participant on stage and screens both big and small, McGavin bought his ticket to immortality with A Christmas Story. Old Man Mr. Parker was the repressed embodiment of the post-war American male, who viewed his newfound suburban homefront as suspiciously and aggressively as he did Normandy. There were battles to be fought and won at home -- getting his whiny son to finish his mashed potatoes, frantically changing a blown tire on a salty Indianan highway, fending off daily premeditated attacks by the Bumpus hounds from next door, grappling with an insidious soot-spitting furnace in the basement.

It'sss a clinkerrr! That blasted stupid furnace, dadgummit! Oh for cripes sake open up the damper will ya? Who the hell turned it all the way down? AGAIN! Oh blasted!

This was one of the cinema's great comic performances. McGavin's Old Man was archetypal, vicious yet sweet-natured, with his own warped sense of discipline and decorum (he could fire off "F dash dash dash" anytime, but expect a bar of soap when you did). He reminded everyone of an uncle, if not their own father, if not what they expected their uncles and fathers to be. This was a man who was ecstatic to receive a can of Simonize under the tree, but nonplussed when there was no tie to go with it. This was a man who never seemed to be out of a shirt and tie, looking like he was always going to or coming from work, but never seeming to work at all -- except on important matters, like selecting the perfect Christmas tree or securing a major mail-in award.

What is a lamp, you nincompoop? It's a Major Award. I won it!

Oh that award. The leg lamp, the enduring symbol of the movie, of middle-class accomplishment. There are, no doubt, a thousand fathers across the country who annually conjure a bit of the Old Man's insanity, pulling out a replica lamp each Christmas and lustily, proudly displaying the soft glow of its electric sex in the front center window for the neighbors to gawk at, as the wife furrows her brow in mortification behind the curtain. "It's so tacky," she might say. He might simply hitch his pants, shake his head and think, "You don't know the hell I went through to get this."

"With as much dignity as he could muster, the Old Man gathered up the sad remains of his shattered Major Award. Later that night, alone in the backyard, he buried it next to the garage. Now I could never be sure, but I thought that I heard the sound of 'Taps' being played. Gently."

Friday, February 24, 2006

Oscars 06: Semantics ahead

Let us pause and define "lead" and "supporting" performances, since the Oscars force us to make the distinction. I believe a lead role is defined by its narrative placement, not its screen time. Narrative placement can be determined simply by asking "Who is this movie about?" The answer or answers are your lead characters, and thus your lead performances.

Example: Holly Hunter and Anna Paquin, who play mother and daughter in The Piano, have equal screen time. Hunter has no lines of dialogue; Paquin does all the talking. They are almost always on screen together. Hunter won best actress, Paquin won best supporting actress (right). That was appropriate. The Piano is the story of Hunter's character, how she lets herself love and be loved despite a painful past, despite having to make a huge sacrifice. The fact that she has a spirited, gregarious daughter is a detail, a texture, a shade, if you will (and I will). Paquin's character is one part of Hunter's character. In other words, Paquin's is a supporting turn despite having the most lines and face time.

Which brings us to Gyllenhaal's silly nomination as best supporting actor. Given this, it would make just as much sense to nominate Heath in this category, and then he would win outright. I think Gyllenhaal himself has a good shot at winning, but that's only because he's in this category.

An actor doesn't have to "file" for a specific category, but they sure do campaign for them, as Gyllenhaal did for supporting. Why do voters go along with it? If I were voting, I'd mark Gyllenhaal for lead or nothing (and it would be nothing). Now the sheer "weight" of his lead performance will probably steal the Oscar away from deserving supporting actors like Matt Dillon. Pity. Or is it?

Sometimes I shock myself with how much I have to say about this horseshit. Now, what say you? Are my definitions fair? Should Gyllenhaal have been denied a nomination altogether before being recognized in a supporting category for a lead performance? What other performances in recent memory have been mis-categorized, and therefore resulted in an unjust win or loss?

Pictured above: One of these things is not like the other. Safely out of competition with co-star Renee Zellweger, Cat-Zeta stole a supporting Oscar with a leading turn from her real supporting actress co-star Queen Latifah in 2003.

Tuesday, February 21, 2006

Oscars 06: A tale of one city

Roger Ebert has invoked Dickens in his latest defense of Crash, which has weathered some fierce criticism to emerge as the frontrunner (maybe) for best picture. You can read my opinion of the movie here, and while I don't think it's the best of the year, I agree with everything Rog says.

The media machinery are spinning and whirring as everyone tries to handicap and re-assess the volatile underdog and favorite statuses of Crash and Brokeback. Nominations? Crash six, Brokeback eight. Pre-Oscar awards? Brokeback has all of them (except for the SAG ensemble award, at left, which ain't as big a deal as people made it; that's Brokeback at the BAFTAs at right). Critical consensus? Crash has a 69 percent approval rating on, Brokeback has 87. (Incidentally, the poorest ratings for both movies were given by critics at Film Threat, which obviously staffs itself with cranks and grumps.)

So why is Crash a potential saboteur? Because it's had almost nine months to gain momentum, lose momentum, and gain it again. Now it's coasting. Brokeback is in a much more volatile situation. Its rise was meteoric, and therefore there is plenty of room for it to, well, crash in this last week before polls close. But given this, isn't Brokeback the underdog? Oscar season is fraught with such what-have-yous.

Sunday, February 19, 2006

This has been Reality Check, and we are through

I get home after a day in the country and turn on the TV. E! has red carpet coverage of the BAFTA Awards. A feisty faux-Brit slag is interviewing dapper, aw-shucks Jake Gyllenhaal as Mizrahi-esque fashionistas gush over his adorability and talent. I turn the channel. Comedy Central is featuring Bubble Boy. Never forget where you came from, Gyll. Never forget.

Saturday, February 18, 2006

Another kind of cowboy love

Brokeback Mountain and The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada are about men who love each other in the alienating wilds of the frontier, where society is made of small corruptions and conventions. Brokeback is a big deal because sex and sexual desire are part of this love. But mosey on down to Texas and you'll find Tommy Lee Jones, wracked by what he believes is a do-or-die responsibility to fulfill a promise he made to his dead friend. Jones's character is as repressed and doomed as Heath Ledger's, all on account of loyalty, and their movies are as similar and different as can be. Three Burials opened wide Feb. 3, and it's a perfect companion piece to Brokeback.

Friday, February 17, 2006

Gere-ing up for Berry funny Pudding plaudits

Harvard is the only college that could secure the attendance of movie stars for its annual Hasty Pudding Man & Woman of the Year awards, and then get away with treating them like the genius-whores they are. At left, woman of the year Halle Berry humps a Harvard senior yesterday in a parody of the "make me feel good" sex scene in Monster's Ball (blurry photo by Jeremy S. Singer-Vine for The Crimson; don't sue me). Berry also had to endure parodies of her Oscar speech and write "I will not make Catwoman II" on a chalkboard four times. Solid.

Richard Gere will be duly roasted next week as Pudding's man of the year. OK, class, what should we make him do? Tap dance? Definitely. Climb a fire escape using only his teeth? Yes. Levitate in the Lotus position? Good. Excuse me, did someone just say something about a gerbil?

Wednesday, February 15, 2006

One life to live, nine times over

We'll never know how Nine Lives snuck past the awards circuit, especially being left out of ensemble notices like SAG's. It is an engrossing collection of nine vignettes, each shot in one take on a Steadicam in a variety of settings, following action into and out of cars, through hospitals and cemetaries, up elevators and into the complex personal traps of a litany of great characters. Each part is a Chekhovian short story with stagy dialogue that works and rings true. The effortless beauty of the camerawork and choreography is matched by the professionalism of the cast.

I mean, look at them: Kathy Baker, Amy Brenneman (why don't we see more of her?), Glenn Close (wonderfully subdued), Stephen Dillane (who knew he was so dapper when not playing Leonard Woolf?), Dakota Fanning, Lisa Gay Hamilton (life after "The Practice"?), Holly Hunter, Jason Isaacs, Joe Mantegna, Ian McShane, Molly Parker, Mary Kay Place, Aidan Quinn, William Fichtner, Robin Wright Penn (luminous), Amanda Seyfried (life after Mean Girls?) and Sissy Spacek (cinema's sweetest presence).

Flawless, every one. Nine Lives was produced by Alejandro Gonzalez Iñarritu, who proved himself a master of interlocking narratives with 21 Grams and Amores Perros, and was written and directed with great care and feeling by Rodrigo García (son of Gabriel García Márquez). See it. If only for the final segment with Close and Fanning. Its last moments exemplify why we watch movies.

Tuesday, February 14, 2006

The Valentine's Day Edition

Browse through the blogosphere and online media today, and you'll see everyone's talking about the best kisses in the movies. So let's talk about the best sex scenes. Here are my top six:

1. Don't Look Now. Donald Sutherland & Julie Christie. It's graphic, both sexually and psychologically. It's intercut with mundance scenes of them getting dressed separately afterward, showing that even the greatest ecstasies are fleeting, and perhaps we're not truly present in them.

2. Unfaithful. Diane Lane & Olivier Martinez. The intercutting of Lane's quivering surrender during and remorseful ecstasy after is terrific, almost as terrific as the scene's set-up. After a lengthy but seemingly futile seduction, Martinez watches Lane leave his apartment. After a second, she sneaks back in the door, saying she forget her bag, and the camera swoops in and seems to push them together in a mad embrace. It has to be seen.

3. Body Heat. William Hurt & Kathleen Turner. It's gotta be the heat wave. There's no scene as urgent and lethal as the buildup and payoff of the first encounter of Ned Racine and Matty "don't...stop" Walker.

4. A Fish Called Wanda. Kevin Kline & Jamie Lee Curtis. Well, it may not be Curtis -- we only see the legs. Kline, as the ultimate blowhard Otto, can excite Curtis' character by merely speaking Italian (though he seems to only know catalogues of cheeses and painters). This may not be the best sex scene of all time, but it's certainly the best interpretation of an orgasm.

5. Bound. Jennifer Tilly & Gina Gershon. In such a meticulously crafted pulp thriller, their relationship is the important nucleus of heart and lust. Adding to the scene's eroticism is the thrill of getting caught by Tilly's trigger-happy boyfriend.

6. Enemy at the Gates. Jude Law & Rachel Weisz. Fully clothed, on the floor, in an army barracks in Russia, amid dozens of sleeping officers. It's quiet, powerful and completely unexpected. Not your typical film ficky-fick.

What are your favorites?

Sunday, February 12, 2006

Oscars 06: Frances, where are you, and are you OK?

She wasn't at the Globes or the SAG awards, nor will she be at the Oscar nominee luncheon Monday. She didn't do any hard press at Sundance for Friends with Money. IMDb says she doesn't have any projects in the works. She's never been skittish of the media and the awards circuit before, so where is that most likable, consistent and talented of movie people, Frances McDormand, nominated for supporting actress for North Country? Please, Fran, the inflated awards frenzy needs the prick of your wit and good nature.

Speaking of blunt bubble bursters, Meryl Streep will present at the Oscars, which is great news for the show's entertainment value. Streep is the only movie star to have mastered the art of awards show behavior. She knows the ritual is both ridiculous and inevitable and appropriately lampoons and revels in the spectacle using all her grande dame-ish clout. See her Margo Channing-ish "Congratulations, Natalie" when presenting at last year's Globes, her speech after winning in 2002 ("I didn't have anything prepared," she gasped, tugging with sarcastic drama on her dress to control her boobs, "because it's been, like, since the Pleistocene era that I won anything"), her speech at the 2004 Emmys ("There are some days when I myself think that I'm overrated" -- laughter, applause, then a steely stare -- "But not today").

Everyone else clams up at these awards shows, stuttering through the teleprompted banter or sprinting through an exhaustive list of thank-yous to ensure they are liked by the maximum amount of people. Tiresome. You people are entertainers. Entertain. I'd like to propose a motion to let Streep pinch hit for winners this year at the Oscars. Witherspoon's name might be called and there might be fizzy giggles and glee in her seat, but it should be Streep who stands and accepts on her behalf: "I was a pert and attractive blonde once. Then I grew some talent. Ryan, stop dirtying her coattails."

Friday, February 10, 2006

The Western (and Brando) goes south

Upon the release of Arthur Penn's pseudo-Western The Missouri Breaks in 1976, the collective consciousness should've anticipated Orca Brando -- the fat, lethal, reckless Brando who sacrificed his razor-sharp talent to some awful god of eccentricity during the '70s. There he is, pictured at left, in a bathtub. Jack Nicholson just shot the tub, figuring it was more punishing to deprive Brando of the languid caul of bathwater than to kill or mame him. Oddly enough, that makes sense.

This was a scant four years after The Godfather and Last Tango in Paris, two tentpole performances of Brando's career. Something happened between then and The Missouri Breaks (which itself is a lame attempt to recapture the violent frontier spirit of The Wild Bunch and Penn's own Bonnie & Clyde). Watching Brando's oddball performance as Irishman Robert E. Lee Clayton is like staring into the future of one of Hollywood's great flameouts. From The Missouri Breaks, we should've seen it all coming. His pomposity orbiting Superman...his creepy, all-too-real demagoguery in Apocalypse Now...the final, ultimate weirdness of The Island of Dr. Moreau -- all foretold by one of the last scenes in The Missouri Breaks, when Brando talks silkily to his horse: "You have the lips of Salome...and the eyes of Cleopatra." The delivery sounds like genius surrendering to madness.

Wednesday, February 08, 2006

It was beauty killed

This billboard is at Sunset and Cahuenga, a mile from the Kodak Theatre in Hollywood. Interesting. Yes, only three women have ever been nominated as best director. I mean, if you want to get into the whole Oscar snubbery thing, only one African American has been nominated for best director. And we could go on. More substantive, though, is the figure that only 7 percent of the top 250 movies of the past year were directed by women. What does this mean, especially when critic Carrie Rickey observes that four of the six major Hollywood studios have women in top executive roles? Good movies are getting made by women -- I once again offer Sally Potter and her Yes, which was radiant but ignored last year, and Niki Caro, who made the excellent Whale Rider and North Country. Also: Sofia Coppola, Patty Jenkins (Monster), Kimberly Peirce (Boys Don't Cry). Yes, they're not getting nominated every year and they're not making boatloads of money and they don't have the god-like power of a Spielberg. But they are getting movies made, and with every person under 30 in film school, I'm sure the demographics will even out quickly. Now it's just a matter of getting these women distribution and audiences, not money and Oscars. I'm not sure if Queen Kong was the right symbol to convey this disparity.

Tuesday, February 07, 2006

Oscars 06: Strathairn, a dry, full vintage

Suddenly, we all know who David Strathairn is, or at least what he looks like, that he's a living person, even though we're not sure how to pronounce his name (it's stra-THAY-urn). He's of the John Sayles school, a 25-year vet of movies, has never sought the spotlight, an actor's actor, etcetera, and now he's up for an Oscar for his performance as Ed Murrow in Good Night, and Good Luck. It's a great turn galvanized in one great moment, when Murrow finishes a fluff interview with Liberace. The studio camera cuts away from Murrow, and the fleeting, stifled look of disgust Strathairn evinces is an instant summary of everything about the character -- how he's frustrated at the dumb things a respectable news show must do to retain its viewership, and how the people in charge perpetuate it. Let's turn now to Limbo, a Sayles film released in '99 starring Strathairn and every marquee manager's nightmare, Mary Elizabeth Mastrontonio. This is a great overlooked movie, a wrought, beautifully photographed parable set in the remoteness of Alaska. This is vintage Strathairn -- distant, troubled, vulnerable and mysterious about it all.

Monday, February 06, 2006

Oscars 06: The Pool

This year's Oscar poster is the best ever, because it expresses both the classic glamor and the masturbatory indulgence of the event (I mean, what manic marketing executive actually approved this thing?) -- which brings me to my annual Oscar pool, which is also a pillar of tradition and self-pleasure. I'd love to link the ballot's PDF file here, but I value my identity and privacy. If you're interested -- it's $1 to enter, cash prizes for the top three point-getters -- leave a comment and I'll e-mail you the ballot.

Thursday, February 02, 2006

Love, at 88 miles per hour

Shining was funny, but this is a sweet piece of genius.

Wednesday, February 01, 2006

Bubble yum

There's been plenty of chatter about Steven Soderbergh's Bubble, a 73-minute movie featuring non-actors and filmed on high-definition video in the Ohio Valley. It was released simultaneously last week in theaters, on DVD, and on cable and satellite TV. This has made theater owners and some film purists very nervous because it's an evolutionary step in exhibition. Bubble has done well or poorly, depending on where you get your news. I will always want to see movies on the big screen, but I'd rather have good movies than bad, regardless of format. I Netflix'd Bubble. I loved it. It's exquisite. Don't read anything about it, not even the DVD jacket. Just see it, whichever way you like (though the DVD includes great audio commentaries by the erudite and articulate Soderbergh as well as the infinitely interesting cast). He'll be doing five more films like this one. This is great news. It feels like the next step, whatever that may be.