Friday, April 28, 2006

Greengrass pulls it off

Momentous. First-rate. Superbly precise. Unflinching. Inspiring. Masterful and heartbreaking. May be the most wrenching, profound and perfectly made movie nobody wants to see.

And from Shawn Levy of The Portland Oregonian: I am here to tell you that Greengrass has fashioned one of the most powerful films I have ever seen, and that watching it makes you value your loved ones and your privileges more, perhaps, than you ever have. He has made a film that makes you feel, makes you think and makes you want to connect. And that, finally, might be the greatest thing that art can do.

First I wanted to see United 93, then I didn't. But now, given the universal acclaim unleashed today in papers around the country, how can I not? Compelled, I'm going to the 7:50 show.

Updated 23:19.

Back from the movie. Thoughts:

+ Theater (in southern Maryland suburb) was half full. Attendees were diverse in age, race and social mode (groups, couples, and I counted three other solo attendees like myself). I'm not sure how I expected people to behave, but I definitely didn't think they'd haul in tubs of popcorn, which many did.

+ The American flag does not make an appearance. There's no mournful/hopeful, flapping star-spangled banner at the beginning or end. This is a movie about an event, not its contemplative and patriotic aftermath. The film does not use hindsight to assign blame, take sides or place any kind of critical lens over the situation. It is only about how confusion and shock move toward a shattering clarity. There is no rhetoric. It is, dare I say, a refreshing and purifying treatment of 9/11.

+ The music score, by John Powell, is pitch perfect and used sparingly and brilliantly (especially at the end).

+ The movie is as much about the air traffic controllers as the passengers. I'd venture to say the controllers have more screentime. Stick through the credits, and you'll see that many of the actual controllers were playing themselves. It must've been terribly humbling to re-live that morning's profound confusion and miscommunication.

+ Of all the glowing reviews, I think Ann Hornaday at The Washington Post comes closest to articulating the urge to make and see a film like this: "There are some filmgoers who will see 'United 93' out of morbid voyeurism, some looking for meaning and catharsis, others simply to bear witness to sacrifice. (On this level, 'United 93' could well become a secular phenomenon on par with 'The Passion of the Christ.')" She hits all the other necessary nails on the head.

+ The cast is extraordinary. No backstory is provided for the characters. There is no indulgence in subplot. The actors don't have a chance to emote. They must simply act -- act oblivious, act terrified, act panicked and then blindly resolute -- and internalize everything else. How they interact is Greengrass' superb accomplishment. There is no engineered drama, no "let's roll" moment. In fact, when "let's roll" comes around, you barely notice it. Their action -- at that place and time -- is a function of urgency and common sense, not heroics.

+ Ebert, as usual, is exactly right: "It is not too soon for 'United 93,' because it is not a film that knows any time has passed since 9/11."

+ Because the characters are treated in such an anonymous and even-handed way, it was frighteningly easy to imagine one of my relatives on board, a victim of chance and circumstance. That's when the film really hits home.

+ I had one realization toward the end -- a realization I should've had by now. My mother and aunt were in D.C. on 9/11 for my birthday, staying on Pennsylvania Avenue, perhaps three quarters of a mile from the Capitol. It is accepted as fact that United 93 was bound for a D.C. target (the film assumes it was, in fact, the Capitol). Who knows what would've happened if the plane made it to the city. It could've hit its target, or it could've approached awkwardly and veered, hitting any number of random places. It seems fair to say that anyone who was in D.C. or the surrounding area, regardless of what actually happened on United 93, was saved by its passengers.

+ My physical reactions? The requisite heart-pounding and minimal tearage. But here's something I've never experienced during a movie: For the film's second half, I could not stop my legs from shaking.

+ After the series of explanatory title cards at the film's end, the audience applauded.

A long, long time ago, in a galaxy pfar, pfar away*

Is there a copy of you reading this [blog]? A person who is not you but who lives on a planet called Earth, with misty mountains, fertile fields and sprawling cities, in a solar system with eight other planets? The life of this person has been identical to yours in every respect. But perhaps he or she now decides to [click away from] this [blog] without finishing it, while you read on. [...] There are infinitely many other inhabited planets, including not just one but infinitely many that have people with the same appearance, name and memories as you, who play out every possible permutation of your life choices. Max Tegmark, Scientific
American (May 2003)

Thus, somewhere in the vastness of space, tucked into the dusky ripples of time (circa 1990-1991), there exists a Michelle Pfeiffer who passed on the small, personal projects Love Field and Frankie & Johnny and accepted roles in the blockbusters The Silence of the Lambs and Basic Instinct -- instead of the other way around, which is our reality.

What if Pfeiffer played quicksilver FBI agent Clarice Starling and sexual demi-goddess Catherine Tramell (marquee characters in cinema) instead of bleach-blonde Lurene Hallett and surnameless waitress Frankie, who are more or less forgotten entities? Would Pfeiffer have an Oscar? Would she have since equaled her pre-1992 promise (Baker Boys, Liaisons, Eastwick, Scarface) instead of plateauing (Gillian, Up Close & Personal, One Fine Day, Story of Us)?

The possibilities are endless, and mostly unsavory. Simply by playing musical chairs with actual casting options -- and employing my own Pfeifferian appreciations and reservations -- we can glimpse into one such alternate universe:

With Pfeiffer out of the way, Kathy Bates claims the role she created onstage in the film version of Terrence McNally's "Frankie and Johnny in the Clair de Lune." Overcome with relief and happiness, she passes on Misery, which would've been the fourth film she'd made in 1990. She dosn't need the stress, she thinks. When Frankie & Johnny is released, audiences find she and Pacino have zero chemistry (and prefer both of them in Dick Tracy). Frankie should've been played by someone more primal, more fetching, more seemingly dangerous and mixed up...

And with Love Field now Pfeifferless, Anne Archer plays Lurene. The film is shot during 1990, shelved, and finally released by Orion Pictures at the tail end of '92 in time for Oscar consideration. Critics say the film could've used a more glamorous actress, someone with eyes the color of the Aegean and lips as silky and pliable as Georgian humidity. Under Archer's watch, a character that should've been a charming dervish is just a beleaguered Dallas housewife. No Oscar nominations result. A year earlier, Orion had a similar disappointment...

The Silence of the Lambs nabs merely a supporting statuette for Hopkins in March 1992. "Pfeiffer is too interesting to look at, too austere, too willowy to make Starling work," writes J. Hoberman in The Village Voice. "The vulpine actress can't affect 'a well scrubbed, hustling rube,' as Lecter calls Starling. When Pfeiffer orders a phalanx of beefy rural deputies out of an autopsy room, she can't help but use her sexual charm. And the minute Starling employs her womanhood to get things done, the story deflates and her relationship with Lecter turns into camp." The criticism adds insult to injury, because...

Before long, Pfeiffer gets into a legal battle with Basic Instinct director Paul Verhoeven and TriStar over her refusal to "uncross" during the cross-examination scene. Pfeiffer committed to doing "anything" Verhoeven asked when she signed her contract, but got skittish when she saw the film was not an erotic thriller, but an all-out smutscapade. Her dignity and work ethic would be compromised, she tells Variety. Bumbles Verhoeven on Hard Copy: "I know I would not have had such trouble with that other blonde -- what's her name, Cheryl Stone?" This is all moot because...

There is no Sharon Stone. Well, there is, but not as we know her on this plane of existence. She parlays the modest success of Total Recall (1990) into a recurring role on Melrose Place...

Which prevents her from lobbying for a role in Martin Scorsese's Casino (1995). The part goes to one of the other contending actresses: Madonna, who scores an Oscar nomination, but then loses her dream role next year to...

Pfeiffer, who wins the coveted part of Eva Peron in Evita after several months of on-spec vocal training and the resume-boosting Baker Boys (which was originally offered to Madonna). This, plus the success of her singing in The Prince of Egypt two years later, prompts Pfeiffer to begin a recording career. She releases an album of jazzy standards to moderate acclaim in '99, and originates the role of Amneris in Elton John's Aida on Broadway in 2000. Fox lures her away with a lucrative deal to star as...

One of three judges on American Idol, a reality show on which Pfeiffer is a thoroughly grounded and articulate surveyor of young talent. Meanwhile...

Sharon Stone experiences a career resurgence when she is cast as vixen Edie Britt in ABC's Desperate Housewives. Consequently, Nicolette Sheridan never assembles the cache to re-land Michael Bolton, and the world mourns. But no one is as mournful as...

Jodie Foster, who focused solely on directing after passing on Lambs, and is still struggling to make Flora Plum. Yes, some things are uniform throughout the cosmos.

*But aren't you glad you're living in this one? This post is ostensibly part of Nathaniel R's Blog-a-Thon, inspired by Pfeiffer's 48th birthday. Feel free to leave thoughts on Pfeiffer and the sundry alternate universes spinning out there in the black infinity.

Tuesday, April 25, 2006

A memo to Congress and whichever anomalous entity hosts the Screen on the Green series

Every July and August, five films are shown on consecutive Monday nights on the National Mall, with the inspiring cranium of the Capitol glowing in the background, as legions of interns, Hill staffers and sundry summer denizens nibble on brie and silently suffer the dictatorial humidity. Inevitably, one of those five films is Washingtonian in nature. One year it was Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, for example.

For this summer, I must recommend two movies to the Screen on the Green programmers (whoever ye may be): The More the Merrier and Born Yesterday. I have previously blogged about Merrier (a ribald real estate romp), so let me simply quote three bits of dialogue from Born Yesterday, a pointed political commentary disguised as a Pygmalion tale. It needs to be shown to the Bush admininstration and every single representative in Congress. The premise? Blowsy, chauvinistic tycoon Harry Brock (Broderick Crawford) moves to D.C. with his uncouth wife Billie (Judy Holliday) and yes-man assistant Jim Devery (Howard St. John) in order to seduce senators and buy legislation. William Holden plays journalist Paul Verrall, who exposes the scandal.

JIM: What do you think you've got, Paul?
PAUL: A connection between Harry's combine and the congressman's amendment.
JIM: All right, but why single us out to make a fuss over it? What we're doing isn't uncommon. It's done every day.
PAUL: Done every day, that's right. For all I know there's an undiscovered murder every day, and what does that prove? All this undercover pressure, this corruption. Government between friends. Sure it goes on all the time and it's tough to crack. Just ask me. I've tried for years.

PAUL: Who are you to get mad, you big baboon? You ought to be grateful you're allowed to walk around free.
HARRY: You don't know me good enough for that kind of talk.
PAUL: I know you. A kick in the keister, a crooked play, and your problems are all solved. Bigger problems, bigger kicks. Who's next? The government? The nation?
HARRY: Ah, don't blow your top. I'm still ready to do business. How's a hundred grand?
PAUL: A hundred grand is beautiful, but I can't take it.
HARRY: Why Not?
PAUL: My girl wouldn't like it, would she?
BILLIE: She certainly wouldn't.
HARRY: All right then, what's your idea?
PAUL: Nothing. No idea. I'm just trying to show you that legislation's not meant for buying and selling.

PAUL: You know, when you live in Washington, it's enough to break your heart. You see a perfect piece of machinery: the democratic structure. And someone's always tampering with it, trying to make it hit the jackpot.

Things haven't changed in 56 years. Pictured above (left to right): Holliday, Crawford and Holden.

Happy birthday Al Pacino

Things have been synchronous lately. Latest example: I've been marinating in all things Al Pacino for the past week -- an inaugural viewing of Heat, an immersion in the two-disc Dog Day Afternoon DVD, a casual dip into The Godfathers (which the whore network has been showing in between ample commercialage). Lo and behold, today is the good sir's 66th birthday. For me, Al always wins in a faceoff with De Niro. There's no question, in terms of range and intensity, and Pacino hasn't dwindled into self-parody, despite what people may think (no one is better at yelling). Recommended viewing? Watch Serpico, then Insomnia. The two performances are separated by 30 years, a hoarsened voice and a fermented talent, but you will see very clearly a sustained and exquisite work ethic. [For discussion: Pacino or De Niro, and why?]

Monday, April 24, 2006

Shirley she can be serious

Happy birthday, Shirls. Seventy-two years young and still getting it done, regardless of how kitschy it's gotten or will get. I saw you in The Apartment Saturday night at the AFI Silver Theatre. There you are at left, all of 26 years of age, in the film's crucial moment. Your lover, selfish exec Fred MacMurray, recounts how his kind and considerate lackey (Jack Lemmon) told him off and quit his job. The poor lug was defending my honor, you think. Your eyes flare briefly with joy as you realize that maybe it's not the exec you love. "The nerve!" you utter, playfully playing along while preparing to make one of cinema's great love dashes [a movie mainstay about which I will blog soon]. Who else could've guided us through Billy Wilder's treacherous comedy of manners and suicides? One minute you're a pixie-ish, brazen antidote to Marilyn Monroe -- the next, a heap of satin-voiced vulnerability, ready to end it all. Nerve indeed.

Sunday, April 23, 2006

Alida Valli 1921-2006

Yesterday, my laptop went into screensaver mode, which features a parade of photographs both personal and movie-oriented. I watched for a little bit, as I often do, as the screensaver ticked through snapshots of both my young life and the movie moments that have inspired it. I remember trying to lock eyes with Italian siren Alida Valli when her studio photo came up, but it's impossible. She is looking just past the camera, like she knows you're there but has weightier things on her mind.

I just saw, moments ago, that Valli died yesterday in Rome at 84. I have seen her in only one movie, 1949's The Third Man. It is a testament to both the film and to her that she has remained (and will remain) etched into my consciousness as Anna Schmidt, the woman who should be the pivotal point in a post-war love triangle in Vienna but manages to operate mysteriously outside of it. Pulp author Holly Martins (Joseph Cotten) travels to Vienna--then splintered into occupied quadrants--to meet an old friend, Harry Lime (Orson Welles). He is met instead with news of Lime's death, and with Lime's love interest, Anna.

From here, we might guess that Anna will fall in love with Martins as he pursues the truth about Lime's death, and that Martins will whisk her to America after the mystery is solved. What happens instead is one of cinema's great stories, screenplayed elegantly by Graham Greene (whose autobiography I'm reading now) and directed without compromise by the British director Carol Reed. Anna is not some pushover broad. She is a woman haunted by war, who operates with dignity in the face of rampant government corruption, and the corruption of our dear protagonist, Martins. In this respect, Anna seems to exist above and apart from the film, as if mere celluloid is the only thing keeping her from walking off the screen and away from all this human weakness and madness. She is not cowed by crooked authorities, not seduced by the promise of new romance, not consumed with trying to find truth in a thicket of lies. She is simply in love with a dead man, regardless of whether he was good man. She has her own set of rules. She plays by them and doesn't cheat.

It's a dangerous, mysterious, seemingly static part, but Valli--with her austere, porcelaneous looks (some say Garbo by way of Bergman)--made it into an entrancing study of manicured bitterness. Anna has secrets. A lesser screenplay might've made her reveal them, or at least allowed Valli a three-hanky scene in which she confesses, in Martins' arms, her deep regret and uncertainty.

Instead, we are given the greatest final shot in movies. In a single extended take, without uttering a word or making a commotion, Valli conveys The Third Man's shattering essence. Without spoiling it, let me put it this way: She simply walks past Martins, past the camera, and past us. I will never forget that feeling.

Wednesday, April 19, 2006

This is a love letter to Tom Cruise

And you recoil. A love letter to Tom Cruise? The guy who attacks the postpartum depressed? The guy who allegedly employed a religion to cure his supposed homosexuality? The guy who used Katie Holmes to harvest the reincarnation of L. Ron Hubbard only two days ago, in conjunction with the imminent release of his latest summer blockbuster?

Bosh and bunkum.

We here at As Little as Possible (and by “we” I mean me and my intern, and by "intern" I mean my fridge) do not wallow in the excruciating minutiae of rank celebrity, unless it serves a sensible and greater purpose and does not engage in feckless fawning or rancor. That is why you don’t see hotel heiresses here. That stuff is for Defamer, which does an excellent job both covering and lambasting the third-rate dog and pony show Hollywood has become. In fact, Defamer should be granted exclusive rights to this particular arena, because too many people are trying to wrest the spotlight from the spotlit.

The non-stop Cruise-a-thon has been humming along for one year, since this (although this is funny as hell). I don’t dispute that Hollywood engineers “stunts” to trumpet releases. It’s the nature of the biz, and we, as consumers, have the ability to block the media onslaught. We can simply turn off Access Hollywood or close US Weekly.

That said, I feel the need to offer some fairness and balance, because even some of the most culture-savvy and levelheaded folks I know are letting themselves be marginalized by Cruise’s theatrics.

Simply put, we need to remember something: Tom Cruise makes good movies.

He hasn’t hurt anyone with his personal life—don’t tell me without proof that his tirade against prescription drugs has injured anyone—and his personal life hasn’t hurt the quality of his movies. That’s all that should matter. He can be as “crazy” as he wants, as long as it stays in those parameters. The moment his personal life taints his movies, I’ll be the first to pin him to the wall. After all, he wasn’t the one who made Battlefield Earth.

Point of order: Cruise would not make my list of modern cinema’s great actors. His range doesn’t come close to that of, say, Geoffrey Rush or Russell Crowe. We all know that. But he is a good actor, an indelible movie presence, and he has the clout to finance great movies. Imagine if he turned all his powers to nurturing independent films (like when he produced Shattered Glass and Narc).

So let us not ask “Is this it, then, for Tom? Is his unprecedented reign as the movie star over?” Let us, instead, reflect on four movies. I hate two of them. I love the other two. But I think Cruise is perfect in each, and each perfect for Cruise.

1988. Rain Man. I hate this movie. But Cruise comes so close to redeeming it. Dustin Hoffman won an Oscar for playing a walking set of tics without a personality. Cruise should’ve at least been nominated—there is not a more truly supportive performance in the annals of moviedom.

1998. Magnolia. I also hate this movie. But Cruise gets to exhibit a nasty, un-Disneyish side. He sinks his teeth into an operatic part, and never do we get the sense that he is being self-conscious or non-commital. He is the only reason to see this massive miscalculation (even poor Julianne is saddled with a preposterous role).

1999. Eyes Wide Shut. The flip side. Cruise’s role as Dr. Bill is all subtext. There is no showboating, which means there’s an even larger margin for error. It’s the trickiest role of his career. Cruise no doubt owes much to his director, but not even Kubrick the Kontroller can totally manipulate an actor's performance. The subtlety and control are Cruise's, not Kubrick's.

2002. Minority Report. Scandalously under-credited and overlooked. The world’s heaviest heavies—Cruise and Spielberg—combined their exhaustive talents and turned out a gripping, glorious sci-fi murder mystery. Technically superior and narratively exquisite, it ennobles Cruise's “screen presence,” his ability to carry blockbusters like Top Gun, The Firm, The Last Samurai, War of the Worlds and the Mission: Impossibles.

To make a long story short (too late), Cruise has been at the top of his game for 23 years. That’s an astonishing run. Has anyone matched it? I don’t think so. I eagerly await M:I 3 because I know—through 23 years of evidence, Cocktail aside—that it will be, at the very least, worth the price of admission (which we can't say for 95 percent of the dreck currently in theaters).

Monday, April 10, 2006

How come nobody told me about this?

Maybe my taste in films has degenerated along with my attention span and work ethic, but I'll be damned if The Tall Guy isn't one of the funniest, most free-wheeling and enjoyable romantic comedies ever. Yes, ever! Superlatives abound. I've never heard anyone even mention the film, which opened in 1989, featured the beatific Emma Thompson in her screen (and bosom-bearing) debut, and gave us a hint of the cutesy havoc screenwriter Richard Curtis would wreak in his time.

Perhaps it's because most people turn it off during its slow first half hour. But those who refrain are justly rewarded: Jeff Goldblum and Rowan Atkinson dancing in nuns' habits and sequined red mini-skirts! A giddy, out-of-the-blue montage in which all the characters sing along to "It Must Be Love"! An absurd staging of a musical version of The Elephant Man, featuring the heartrending love song "He's Packing His Trunk"! And a furniture-destroying, milk-carton-flattening, piano-playing sex scene that would've topped this list had I known about it.

Goldblum (like Oliver Platt, John Malkovich and Christopher Walken) is best at playing himself, and even then it's hit-or-miss. But his character here -- Dexter, a charming, hapless West End theatre imp -- is a perfect fit. Who else can deliver the line "I hope all your children have very small dicks! And that includes the girls!" with such hollow, self-aware aplomb? Throw in Rowan Atkinson as a megalomaniacal comic ("What in the name of Judas Iscariot's bumboy is going on?") and Thompson as a carnally blunt antidote to Meg Ryan ("Are you going to walk me home? Or should I just get murdered on my own?"), and you've got a refreshing, exuberant bit of British irreverance toward sex, dating and theatre. Consider this exchange between Dexter and his prim, glib agent Mary, who is decidedly un-Poppinsish:

AGENT: Well, the only other thing at the moment is a new musical that the RSC are doing.
DEXTER: Er, what's it about?
AGENT: The Elephant Man.
DEXTER: A musical of the Elephant Man? What's it called?
AGENT: "Elephant," I think -- with an exclamation mark presumably.
DEXTER: Pity the poor bastard who has to play the elephant.
AGENT: Remember dearest, everyone thought Jesus Christ Superstar was a stupid idea.
DEXTER: Jesus Christ Superstar was a stupid idea.
AGENT: True.

You can guess who plays the lead in "Elephant!" The results rival the hilarity of "Red, White & Blaine."

Tuesday, April 04, 2006

Some light reading for a blue-skyed spring day

A Manhattan theater has pulled the newest United 93 trailer after audiences voiced their dismay. "I don't think people are ready for this," the AMC Loews Lincoln Square manager told Newsweek. "One lady was crying. She was saying that we shouldn't have played the trailer. That this was wrong."

I first saw the trailer a week and a half ago, before Inside Man. It played between previews for fellow disaster movie Poseidon and spoon-full-of-sugar Akeelah and the Bee. (Sidebar: Is anyone else monumentally tired of theatre and film using a spelling bee as a pretense for narrative? I mean, it's a spelling bee). Anyway, there was no reaction from the audience -- visibly, audibly, either in awe or in disgust. I myself squirmed slightly, just like I did when I caught the flag-flapping, heart-tugging end of A&E's TV movie Flight 93 a month or so ago. I can't explain the squirm. Was it a function of "too soon"? Or awkwardness over the "commercialization" of a now-sacred catastrophe? Or fear of an actual reprisal? Or worry about the film being used as a rallying cry against any and all dissenters? Or did I squirm because that's the tsk-tsk response I thought I should feel?

Tact aside: I think the story of United Flight 93 is fodder for great drama. Hell, it was great drama. Can you imagine? A group of disparates stuck in a metal tube, hearing news that the world was ending on the ground, knowing they were dead no matter what. Some of them acted selflessly. I'm sure others were paralyzed or adamant they follow the hijackers' orders. There were no doubt heroes and cowards. I hope the film shows both.

The movie opens April 28. I will see it, as will much of the country, out of masochistic curiosity. Maybe it's just me, but don't we get off on the eschatological? Think of the scads who sat through Titanic and Pearl Harbor again and again, reveling in every glistening moment of "real-life" tragedy. We get chills during Independence Day or The Day after Tomorrow as destruction looms and buildings fall. It's cathartic to experience these things, isn't it? It delivers us from the humdrum, gives our lives a sense of gravity, fatefulness and fatelessness.

We may not be "ready" for a feature film about 9/11, but it's absurd to decry the making and exhibiting of one as "wrong." Humans are storytellers, dummy. We tell stories to entertain, to enlighten and, yes, to make money. To fight a battle against a 9/11 movie would mean entering a perpetual and pointless war, with another skirmish on the horizon.