Sunday, September 24, 2006

All for one brief touch of Venus

The onset of autumn always reminds me of the Far from Heaven trailer. Not the film itself. Its trailer. Weird, huh?

Maybe not. I have a terrible memory, but I do remember the first time I saw the trailer online. It was love at first sight. I was a sophomore in college. It was September. The advance buzz for Heaven was deafening, but how could it not be? Julianne Moore, you say? Julianne Moore in a women's picture? The concept was seismic. I watched the trailer again and again. Its everything a trailer should be.

The yearning! Those mysterious title cards: "What imprisons the desires...of the heart?" Those shots of melodrama backed by lush strings (the low rumbling cello is heart-rending, especially when it hits a chord on Julianne's name toward the end). Then finally Julianne's voiceover, in which we get the first hint of her breathy Doris Day-inspired cadence:

So often we fail in that kind of love...
the love that tells us to abandon our lives and plans...
all for one brief touch of Venus.

Which left us with that last haunting shot of Julianne and Dennis Quaid, clutching each other in the swirling grayness of some bittersweet turmoil. Sigh.

At first glance, it was difficult to tell what the movie was about, but I knew it must be something both grand and gossamer. In that sense, it was the perfect trailer; it gave me questions, not answers, all in one minute. But it went beyond that. It gave vision and voice to how I was feeling at the time: angsty, at once at odds and in love with life, desirous of something more but relieved I had anything at all. It set me quaking: If this was the trailer, then the movie must be a cataclysm of unrequited everything.

I saw the movie at a press screening on Oct. 6, 2002, on the way to the airport to fly home for fall break. It stunned me into submission. Punch-drunk, I rode the train (the train!) from Union Station to the Baltimore airport. Rocketing past the changing leaves, I thought, "Wow...but might the trailer...have been slightly better...than the movie?"

Far from Heaven is one of the great movie experiences of the past five years, to be sure, and any film blogger will tell you all about it (the final crane shot alone is gasp-worthy). But what I really really love about the trailer didn't make the movie. The magnificent music that accompanies the trailer is not Elmer Bernstein's. I've tried in vain to find out where it's from. And those great lines spoken by Julianne do not show up in the actual movie. I don't think Todd Haynes would've written it just for the trailer, so he must've cut it in a final edit. As much as it might violate the show-don't-tell mantra, I wish he'd kept it in.

I don't know where I'm going with this. Sometimes we assign cinema to seasons or specific days -- I always watch Groundhog Day on Groundhog Day, Annie Hall on Valentine's, A Christmas Story over the holidays -- and I think fall is the most cinematically evocative time for me. Perhaps that's because most of the good movies start coming out then. Either way, whenever I sense that first hint of autumn, I think of soft purples and reds and oranges, of Julianne, and trains, of a love that is blinked away and a self-awareness that is moments from blooming. And then I go watch this trailer to get that one brief touch of Venus.

Friday, September 22, 2006

The Science of Sleep: ***

The Science of Sleep is essentially Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind without the brain damage. With these two consecutive movies, director Michel Gondry appears to be fashioning an auteurship defined by the winsome relationships of winsome young people. In Eternal Sunshine, Kate Winslet and Jim Carrey's romance contends with the vagaries of memory and the almost distracting genius of the screenplay. In Science of Sleep, Gael García Bernal and Charlotte Gainsbourg's relationship contends with the confusing interplay of reality and dreams. They're both surrealist romantic comedies -- clever in content and execution.

But while Sunshine was Kaufman's show, Science is Gondry unleashed; it uses all the visual tricks of his music videos to make up for the intentional lack of story. The result is pure cinema. When it ends, you feel like you've just woken up and are trying to remember a fast-fading dream. It's pleasant. And winsome. But my takeaway? Bernal. Never been smitten. But here the guy proves he has some serious charisma in front of the camera.

Tuesday, September 19, 2006

'Love has to stop somewhere short of suicide'

Can I tell you about Dodsworth? Saw it on the big screen at Telluride. Loved it. Stars Walter Huston and Ruth Chatterton as discontented marrieds who take a cruise and drift apart. She's cheating on him to recapture her youth; he's despondent, but then meets Mary Astor, who is everything his wife is not: kind, worldly, comfortable with her age.

By the time Chatterton pushes for a reconciliation, Huston's heart is split. His longtime wife, his first love and mother of his beloved daughter? Or this new woman, whose mere presence promises new horizons?

The decision comes during the film's last moment. I won't spoil it. Just see it. In the supple hands of director William Wyler, the final sequence is thrilling. Thrilling? A 1936 black-and-white dramedy of spousal manners? Yes, thrilling I tell you! The best movies quietly take your breath away at the very end. Dodsworth -- through a slight adjustment in pacing -- does just that at the last instant.

Boston Legal, season three premiere, 10 p.m. tonight, ABC

Monday, September 18, 2006

I have been ravished

I watched Birth last night. And then I watched it again. For me, Kidman has occupied the top seat in filmdom since The Hours, but Birth must be the most impressive jewel in her crown. How grand it is to have a movie move you from one place to another. To dare. To reach. To be patient. What a completely engaging experience. Credit goes to Jonathan "Sexy Beast" Glazer, composer Alexandre Desplat and, of course, Kidman. She knows the camera, and Glazer creates a visual panacea around that knowledge. Desplat's score raises the film to high art. And why isn't Anne Heche a bigger presence in movies? She has about 12 minutes in Birth and every one of them resounds like a symphony. Love it or hate it, Birth will rattle you.

Wednesday, September 13, 2006

Peter and the wolf

Second in a series of Telluride Film Festival roundups.

Joe Morgenstern called Forest Whitaker's turn as Idi Amin in The Last King of Scotland "one of the greatest performances of modern movie history." It certainly is great. In Whitaker's hands, Amin is a febrile beast who lunges off the screen. This is career-capping work by a respected and under-awarded artist.

And Venus smacks of "swan song." Peter O'Toole combines all his talents -- Shakespeare, slapstick, etc. -- into a grand and personal performance as an actor who's aging into irrelevancy. The man looks like a skeleton these days. All his physical grandeur is gone. But he is still master of the camera. No one has his gravity, or his luminescence.

Methinks we have our first two best actor Oscar slot-holders. Unless Whitaker slides into supporting actor, which he would win absolutely.

Also: Try to get your hands on an online clip of Carmichael & Shane, a five-minute "documentary" that cost its makers $20. Worth every penny, and then some.

Monday, September 11, 2006

Seeing Bacall in Manhattan

by Mildred Goldfarb
ALAP correspondent

NEW YORK CITY -- There was an entire row of seats taped off at the Academy Theatre at Lighthouse International. One said Lauren Bacall, one said Robert Osborne, a few said Bacall guests a few said Osborne guests -- it was the royal row of the screening and when she came in, the audience erupted into applause.

She has a natural grace and charisma about her that you just cannot deny. Even at 82 years old, her eyes -- when they land on you, it's something special.
Even though Marilyn Monroe is on the poster for the movie on IMDb, How to Marry a Millionaire belongs to Bacall. She hatches the plan and leads her two dimwitted co-stars in the right direction and has almost every funny line. But for every inch of humor, she also has the most heartfelt moments in the movie -- where even she can't deny that there's something more out there. She's truly a joy to watch on screen.
After a brief restroom break, she joined robert osborne on stage to discuss the film, her career and take questions from the audience. Osborne mentioned that betty grable was getting older by the time this film was made -- she was a whopping 36, which in that day meant you had one foot in the cinematic grave. Bacall talked about Marilyn and how she was always late to set -- not because she was a diva, but because she was frightened. They spoke briefly of how this was the first movie shot in Cinemascope. (It was not the first released on Cinemascope though, which she was quick to mention. Apparently Fox execs pushed The Robe ahead because it was a passion project of the studio, but Millionaire was the true pioneer.) Cinemascope did nothing for your figure, she said. "Have you ever been compressed?" she asked the audience.
She mentioned once or twice that she is currently unemployed. She talked about how people back then and even now do not take her seriously as an actress. Millionaire was her first color film and her first comedy and she spoke about how she was angry she had to screen test for it, when she was the one who pitched the movie to Fox in the first place (after a little urging from George Cukor).
She spoke fondly of her friends and her late husband Humphrey Bogart, how much she enjoyed working with Grable and Monroe as well as later with Gregory Peck. Designing Woman was a favorite of hers, as well as the musical version of Woman of the Year, which brought her to talking about the world of Broadway. She was especially proud of Cactus Flower; she mentioned that the applause helped give her the "highest" moment in her career.
When asked what advice she would pass on to aspiring actors, she replied: "Work on the stage in the theatre and learn your craft. Take every bit part you get and just keep doing it. If you're in it for a parking spot, or your name in lights, you might as well just go home now."

Related post: Linda & Lauren and the dearth of dangerous women

Saturday, September 09, 2006

Bad blood, cold blood, koala blood

First in a series of Telluride Film Festival roundups.

Volver. Penélope Cruz is no longer an ingénue. Welcome to maturity. Her performance here conjures the sensuality of Sophia Loren and the gravity of Anna Magnani. The movie itself is pure Almodóvar -- women's natural ability to endure guilt and death and grudgery -- though it's not quite Talk to Her. Even though it strives for the same profundity, it ultimately subverts itself with its comic tendencies. The results are good, not great. Festival buzz: Great (I mean, it's Almodóvar). Audience reaction: Grateful, but underwhelmed. My rating: *** Opens Nov. 3 in New York and L.A.

Infamous. In the festival guide, David Thomson called it "the best new film I've seen this year." David Thomson is on crack. Infamous, the second Capote film in two years, stars Toby Jones as the patron saint of effeteness. Jones appears to be doing his best impression of Nathan Lane in The Birdcage. The film boasts an all-star cast that is misdirected into the ground. Infamous feels like a Lifetime original movie written by the staff of Will & Grace. Clichés galore. Redundant jokes and one-liners inspired by Capote's eccentricities. Plot point by plot point, it's nearly identical to Capote, but stylistically, it's like comparing a martini olive with a fried Twinkie. By the time Jones snogs Daniel Craig (who, as Perry, sings directly into the camera toward the end), it's deeply apparent that it's time to let Truman Capote lie peacefully in his grave. Festival buzz: Good. Audience reaction: Tepid. My rating: * Opens Oct. 13 in New York and L.A.

Ten Canoes. Australia's submission for the foreign lanuguage film Oscar, and perhaps the first all-out aboriginal film comedy. Consider its tagline: "Ten canoes, three wives, 150 spears...trouble." It feels a bit long and redundant, and its concept is stretched to the limit, but it certainly isn't something you see every day: written in Ganalbingu language, shot on and around the Arafura Swamp in north-eastern Arnhem Land in Australia and, according to the film's Web site, "The entire cast are people indigenous to the swamp region, mainly Ganalbingu and related clans, who are also responsible for the making of all the traditional artefacts [sic] needed for the film, such as the swamp-specific bark canoes, the spears and other weaponry and the dwellings." Plus, there are a few good laughs and gags. Directed by Rolf de Heer, a Telluride honoree. Festival buzz: None. Audience reaction: Enthusiastic. My rating: ** Release date TBA.

Tuesday, September 05, 2006

Telluride '06: Faye, Nicole, Penelope

At left is the Telluride staff bathroom. Faye Dunaway, and other female stars, are framed above the urinals. This photo says more about the festival than any other I took. On the drive back to Denver today, a fellow volunteer informed me that Faye was attending the festival as a patron. He talked with her, got her autograph, helped find her glasses; she was very cordial and personable, he said. Suffice to say: I am upset to have missed her. At right is the window display at a store on Colorado Avenue. It's David Thomson's latest book, which I will be reading shortly. Apparently, Telluride organizers wanted Kidman to be one of their three honorees this year (in lieu of Penélope Cruz, below on a panel with Forest Whitaker and Infamous director Douglas McGrath and in her tribute marquee photo outside the Sheridan Opera House), but that didn't work out. Pity, I say. David Thomson was an attendee and Fur was playing, so Kidman would've been a perfect choice to receive the TFF honoree treatment (which includes a clip reel of performances, a Q&A, and the bestowal of the Telluride silver medallion -- all in front of a theater of 250 non-paparazzi cinephiles).

Monday, September 04, 2006

Telluride '06: More to come...

TELLURIDE, Colo. -- There is little free time at the TFF. Everyone is hoofing across town, panting because of the thin air, desperate to squeeze five screenings into one day. Then there are volunteers like me, who fill the space between movies with making popcorn and serving Coke and cleaning up after the frenzied literati. Up at 6:30 a.m., in bed by 2 a.m. It's an overdose of cinema, really, and I can't process it right now. Everyone is punch-drunk. The bright moon is skimming along the mountaintops right now. Gunfire is echoing down Main Street (audio from the outdoor screening of Indigenes). I am sitting on a porch outside (55 degrees, clear), unable to duly process what I've seen so far.

So expect a full roundup in a couple days regarding: the new Almodóvar film and Penélope Cruz's coming of age, the miscalculated antics of Infamous, 20,000 Streets under the Sky, the diminishing returns of Civic Life, Rolf de Herr's Ten Canoes, and more about the buzz on hot items like The Italian and Severance. Tomorrow is the last day of the fest, and I hope Babel and/or Little Children will be playing at my theater. Also, I'll be posting photos. Check the previous posts for meditations on Venus, Fur, and The Last King of Scotland.

Saturday, September 02, 2006

Telluride '06: Peter O'Toole and Venus

TELLURIDE, Colo. -- This may very well be Peter O'Toole's swan song. Not his last movie, but probably the last one he'll be remembered for. And what a way to go. Venus is an utter delight. O'Toole plays an elderly well-known actor who nurses an erotic interest in his best friend's 18-year-old niece. He befriends her, and she eventually takes to him, and their relationship develops in the most charming and disarming ways. This is a very funny movie. Most of the great moments come from O'Toole, whose comic timing and manicured brio are as lucid and present as ever (some of his pratfalls and antics hearken back to My Favorite Year). Fine supporting work all around, especially by Leslie Phillips. Roger Michell, the director, is batting nearly .1000, in my book. Did I mention Vanessa Redgrave is in the movie too? In limited release Dec. 15.

Spotted: Laura Linney coming out of the Venus screening at the Sheridan Opera House. She was a festival honoree two years ago, and rumor has it that she bought a house in Telluride. She's luminous in person, but in a very normal, lovely way. Peter Bogdanovich -- who was crossing the main drag shortly after -- is not. He looks like a llama crossed with some sort of reptile. Good God: While working the concessions at the opera house, who lumbers toward me in the dark, looking for his reserved seating for the screening of The Italian? Forest Whitaker. I about sh*t my pants. Afraid he was going to string me up by my ribcage with metal hooks, I found someone else to assist him. Upcoming: An assessment of Volver and a re-assessment of Penélope Cruz. Plus, the new Capote flick Infamous is an unmitigated disaster! Stay tuned.

Telluride '06: Shainberg on biopics

Steven Shainberg, the director of Fur, hosted a Q&A at the Nugget Theater at 11 a.m. My notes from the session:

His uncle was best friends with Diane Arbus, so he grew up with her photographs around his home ("Some kids would read Dr. Seuss; I would look at Diane Arbus photos"). He didn't want to do a standard biopic, with a birth-to-death arch. Nor did he want to retread things the audience already knew. He offered Pollock as an example of an anticlimactic biopic. When you get to the drip-painting scene, Shainberg said, the audience is already thinking, "Oh, here comes the drip-painting scene." "Biopics suffer enormously from the audience being ahead of the film," he said. He wanted Kidman because she could pull of a "metaphoric Arbus" rather than a literal one. And he deliberately avoided filming in the style of Arbus because it would be "aesthetically anachronistic." Fur takes place before Arbus takes a single shot with her camera, so she has not yet discovered her style.

Telluride '06: Forest Whitaker scares the poop out of me

TELLURIDE, Colo. -- In The Last King of Scotland, he plays Ugandan dictator Idi Amin as a total charmer who turns into a rampaging bulldog drunk on its own power. The Last King is the first dramatic feature by documentarist Kevin MacDonald, and it is one of the most merciless, intense films I've ever seen. It wrung me out like a sponge, and not necessarily in a good way. One thing is sure of Telluride: you will be challenged in some form or fashion. The Last King is schizophrenic, starting as a happy-go-lucky buddy picture and devolving into a brutal account of warlord politics. MacDonald indicts the Amin regime through the eyes of fictional (?) protagonist Nicholas Garrigan, a Scottish doctor who works in Uganda and accidentally befriends the fledgling country's president. Soon, Garrigan finds himself in an inescapable political mindgame with Amin. The final sequence of the film -- which interweaves torture, dismemberment, hostage-taking and a pulse-pounding escape attempt -- is almost unbearable. I'm not sure how to feel about the film; its intensity numbed me and its protagonist's behavior left me confused. Whitaker, however, creates an indelible villain. In limited release Sept. 27.

Friday, September 01, 2006

Telluride '06: Fur

Telluride, Colo. -- Discussion after late-night movies happens on the gondola ride from the Chuck Jones Theater in the mountains to the town of Telluride, in the valley between them. It's pitch black inside the car; outside are only stars and the golden lights below; inside are eight (usually random) cinephiles thrown together in a dark moving box for 15 minutes.

Tonight the discussion was about Fur, the Diane Arbus biopic starring Nicole Kidman in another daring career choice. As one of the voices in the darkness said on the gondola ride, Kidman has "guts." This is not your conventional biopic (thank Jesus). Its world premiere ended a short while ago, and it redeemed the genre for me. It's not a great film, but it is a good one, and certainly better than the rash of music biopics that stumbled into our field of vision in the past couple years. Fur is by the director of Secretary, Steven Shainberg, who was in the audience. Both his films exist beyond weirdness.

I don't believe in spoiling the particulars of movies, so let's say this: Fur is not a movie about performances or imitations, so don't expect to be blown away by Kidman's acting, which is appropriately subdued and reactionary. Fur is a movie to devour with your eyes and ears. The production value is top-knotch. It's painterly, as well as photography-ly. Carter Burwell, as always, comes through with a beautiful score. This is a movie that slowly reveals itself to you -- watching it has the same effect as putting your eyes close to an impressionist painting and slowly backing up. What I appreciated most about Fur is that it claims in its subtitle to be an "imaginary portrait of Diane Arbus." Shainberg himself said before the film that the story was teased out of the essence of Arbus rather than actual events and people. That's the way to do a biopic, I say. A slavish commitment to history and the subject's personality results in formula, not invention. Fur is, thankfully, a complete and engaging invention. It's in limited release Nov. 10.

Other Telluride buzz: Tiffani (Amber-)Thiessen was in the audience for Fur. We think she's in town to look for acting jobs. Also, my friend Christi saw Babel last night and said it was no good. The horror film Severance is the talk of the town. Apparently, it's fantastic. Upcoming: Forest Whitaker in The Last King of Scotland, one of the more intense films I've seen. Also: a quick Telluride primer, for the uninitiated.