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.