Tuesday, July 31, 2007

Please, Death, at least leave us Godard and Lumet!

Yesterday, July 30, will forever be marked. It's the day that two masters welcomed mortality to themselves after a lifetime of exploring it through cinema. It's a fitting shock that Michelangelo Antonioni died the same day as Bergman. I have things to say about Antonioni. Expect a post later today.

Monday, July 30, 2007

Ingmar Bergman 1918-2007

I did a story on directors and their muses earlier this year, and tried to get both Ingmar Bergman and Liv Ullmann on the phone. Bergman was, of course, unreachable. He died today on the remote island of Faro on the Baltic coast of Sweden. Ullmann, though, was kind enough to call me. It wasn't possible to coordinate a time to talk, though, so she caught my voicemail one day in January before I got to work. Imagine it in a clipped Norwegian accent:

We always know how to get hold of each other both when we are working and when we are not working. By really wonderful mutual understanding. Full of respect. Trust. Recognition. And to be recognized and allowing that to happen. And a deep friendship over 42 years. I think that really sums it up. To recognize and be recognized, to trust and be trusted, and give each other enormous freedom. I give him freedom to allow me to be who I am and he gives me the freedom that I know I’m seen and understood and that makes me very eager to listen to him.

Link buffet: The Washington Post obituary. My thoughts on Ingmar and Ingrid: Careers in closeups. Stockholm weighs in. Woody Allen's immediate reaction, and his review of Bergman's autobiography. Roger Ebert's appreciation.

Below is a clip from of favorite scene from my favorite Bergman movie, 1978's Autumn Sonata (which is being roundly ignored in everyone's appreciations). It features Ingrid Bergman (no relation) as a famous concert pianist and Ullmann as her mousey, unremarkable daughter. You don't need subtitles to know exactly what's going on. Ullmann performs meekly but truly and Ingrid is wracked by pride and resentment and love. This part of the scene is shot back and forth, cutting between Ingrid's reactions and Ullmann's self-conscious playing. Then, in a gorgeous two-shot closeup, Ingmar gives us Ullmann's face as she watches Ingrid invert her praise into an object lesson. Ingmar's choice to film this part of the scene in a two-shot tells us everything we need to know about these characters: Ullmann has been and will forever be looking after (soon in both senses of the word) her mother, who plays without acknowledging the damage she's done to her daughter. And underneath all this is a haunting Chopin piece -- when Ingrid lifts her fingers from the final arpeggiated chord, both women realize they have participated in a clear demonstration of everything that's rotten about their relationship. They are quick to dismiss it, and Bergman's camera follows: At the moment Ingrid kisses Ullmann's cheek, the camera cuts to a long shot, as if it can't bear to witness this hollow effort. This scene is a painful, piercing, beautiful example of Ingmar Bergman's directorial fearlessness. He was not afraid to use the camera as a dagger.

Friday, July 27, 2007

NinesWatch: Pre-trailer footage

The Nines has been on my radar since a former coworker at EW became the first to froth about it (at Sundance in January): "...when the last scene hit, it was like a trap door unlatched in my brain, and I went from being fascinated and intellectually engaged by all sorts of meta storytelling and mysterious phenomenae to crying my eyes out and using the word 'nice' a lot." Needless to say, that notice stuck with me. The magazine is continuing the trumpeting: PopWatch has writer-director John August as a guest blogger in advance of the film's limited release date (Aug. 31). The trailer is forthcoming, but August put some strange, intriguing clips on YouTube yesterday. Here's one of 'em. And yes, that's Van Wilder. And yes, apparently he and the movie are very good.

Wednesday, July 25, 2007

The Triple Crowners: An Introduction

Trophy-giving is a fickle activity -- a function of timing and momentum as much as talent -- but it's less of an "accident" or passing fancy if a performer is able to lock down the triple crown of acting awards: the Tony, the Oscar and the Emmy. Eighteen people have done this. It's a rarified sphere of actors. Hilary Swank may have two Oscars (deserved, says I -- shut up), but she probably will never be grouped in the same category as these 18 people, whose versatile talent was able to thrive in three different media over the course of many years.

Who are they? You can probably think of one or two right off the bat. Let me help: They are seven men and 11 women. Seven of the 18 are still alive -- the youngest is 57, the oldest is 85. On the list, there are 10 Americans, five Brits, a Puerto Rican, a Swede and a Hepburn. I'll start profiling each of them next week, beginning with the first man to complete the triple crown (one of film's great character actors) and ending with the most recent joiner (an icon for 35 years and still delivering). When possible, I've reviewed the films and TV shows for which they won their Oscars and Emmys. Unfortunately, their performances on Broadway are lost to the ages, though I did see one triple crowner's Tony-winning turn in person in 2003 (the award was massively deserved, of course).

Why do this? Anyone who loves movies or pop culture loves the silly exhiliration of obsessing over awards, but identifying and appreciating the triple crowners is more useful than silly -- together, they paint a definitive portrait of accomplishment in the performing arts over the past 80 years. These 18 actors are/were blessed with both talent and the respect of their peers and critics. It's a panorama of skill and wattage. It's about great work admired greatly, and it says a lot about ourselves as connoiseurs. So let's celebrate 'em.

Five items before the series begins:

1. I'm just focusing on performers. Eight non-actors (all men) have also attained the triple crown: director Mike Nichols, writer-director-"actor" Mel Brooks, composers Marvin Hamlisch and Richard Rodgers, orchestrator Jonathan Tunick, composer-conductor Ralph Burns, writer Sidney Sheldon and director-choreographer Bob Fosse, who turned the triple crown into a grand slam; Fosse won all three awards in 1973 (an Oscar for Cabaret, an Emmy for "Liza with a 'Z'" and two Tonys for "Pippin").

2. I'm not including performers who've attained the triple crown by winning in non-acting or non-competitive categories. For example, John Gielgud and Whoopi Goldberg have all three awards, but they got their Tonys for directing and producing, respectively. In addition to her two Oscars and five Emmys, Barbra Streisand was awarded a special Tony -- but it was a non-competitive "Star of the Decade" designation. Like an honorary Oscar, it doesn't count here.

3. Now, a word on toughness. Of the three, the Oscar is the hardest to pocket. It's given in the narrowest industry (the heavenly bodies really have to align for you to make it to the proverbial podium) and has the narrowest field (only 20 acting nomination slots per year, compared to 40 for the Tonys and a whopping 80 for the Emmys). The Emmy is, of course, the easiest; dozens of channels/networks provide limitless entrees into the pool, and performers in a recurring series have the chance to win the award every year they're on the air. The Tony falls somewhere in the middle. It's great for recognizing new and untested talent (people come out of nowhere to win), but it restricts itself to only three dozen venues (large theater houses) in just one city (New York). An actor might give the performance of his life in a small dive on the Lower East Side or in a regional theater in the Poconos or San Diego, but it won't count for a Tony. [We're not getting near the Grammys because they're ridiculous. The best music almost never wins, and there are 40,000 categories. Last year, I won Best Non-Musical Non-Recording by a Pale Journalist.]

4. With this scale of difficulty in mind, some luminaries are very close to the triple crown. Meryl Streep, who has a pair of Oscars and a pair of Emmys, hasn't been on Broadway since 1977 -- how is that possible? -- when she received her first and only Tony nomination. If she were to set foot on the proper stage today, she'd join the club instantly. Kevin Spacey, Mercedes Ruehl, Ellen Burstyn, Kevin Kline, Joel Grey and Judi Dench (who herself has a rich history on television) need an easy Emmy to join. Folks, just guest-star on "Two and a Half Men" and you're golden. [Grievance: Cloris Leachman (who has an Oscar and eight goddamn Emmys) could've easily joined the club if she was still attached to Mel Brooks' upcoming stage musical adaptation of Young Frankenstein. C'mon, Cloris.]

5. None of the 18 triple-crowners won their Emmy first. Perhaps this illustrates how hard it is to break out of TV into film and/or theatre. Eleven started off with the Tony, the remaining seven with the Oscar. The Emmy came last for all but four of them. Perhaps this illustrates how Emmys are treated like bonus footnotes -- garnishes, if you will -- on an established star's resume.

This series will launch a week from today -- a medley of aperitifs to contrast the creative sloth of August. Tune in throughout the month for thinkpieces (long and short) on the triple crowners. Be prepared to discuss not only the merits of the actors but also the validity of their awards. The discussion will no doubt take place at the intersection of affection ("God, I love her") and semantics ("God, he should not have won for that"). Before then and in between triple crown posts, there will be the usual grabass...

Tuesday, July 24, 2007

Netflix by zip

It's been rough for Netflix lately. Subscriptions are down, its stock price tanked (I sold last year, phew) and its Web site was out of commission for most of the past 24 hours.

Yet I continue to subscribe. One of the enjoyable features of Netflix.com is Local Favorites, however unscientific or rigged it may be. You can search top rentals per zip code (although it's really by city, as you'll see if you target different zips in the same city). For whatever reason, I get a kick out of it. I think one's taste in movies says more about a person than most anything else -- one of my first questions upon meeting someone is "What's your favorite movie?" and I never take "I don't have a favorite..." as an answer -- so I delight in discovering the top rentals for certain neighborhoods of the country. Some seem a little obvious, though...

The top three rentals in my current zip of 20009 in the Adams Morgan 'hood of D.C.? The War Room, Our Brand Is Crisis and Primary Colors.

The top rental in my old zip of 10128 on the Upper East Side? Old Acquaintance (the 1943 Bette Davis movie based on the John Van Druten play that is currently revived on Broadway with Harriet Harris), Talk Radio (whose stage version just finished a run on Broadway) and the eight-disc series New York.

Savannah's watching Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil. Chicago has Northside 777 at the top of its collective queue. The top rental in my hometown of Buffalo, N.Y.? Buffalo '66. It's all too obvious, right? Not if you go to spots two and three on the Buffalo list: The Caine Mutiny and Angels in the Outfield.

Let's play a game! Here are five cities: Beverly Hills (90210). Corpus Christi, Texas (78407). Charleston, W. Va. (25312). Cheyenne, Wyo. (82001). Brunswick, Maine (04011). Below are five sets of top-three movies. Match the city to the corresponding top three. Not as easy now, is it? Answers in the comments section.

Naked Lunch, Life as a House, S.W.A.T. = A schizoid taste in cinema -- Cronenberg, Kleenex and Colin?
Avenue Montaigne, Wordplay, All the President's Men = A hotbed of cultured urbanity venerating the art of words and the word of art.
Stargate Atlantis: Season 2, The Rundown, Fingersmith = Home to nerds, wrestling fans and appreciators of lesbian-tinged British serial television.
Thoroughly Modern Millie, Ella Enchanted, Practical Magic = A town obsessed with fantasies both earthly and supernatural.
Double Jeopardy, History of the World: Part I, One Night with the King = These folks are watching Ashley Judd thrillers, Mel Brooks and the coming of age of Esther, Queen of Persia.

Monday, July 23, 2007

Without László Kovács, we would not have...

...Jack Nicholson, as we knew him at the start of his brilliant career. Kovács, a Hungarian-born cinematographer, died over the weekend in Beverly Hills at age 74. He photographed Nicholson in seven movies between 1967 and 1972: Richard Rush's drug-infused Psych-Out, the Bogdanovich thriller Targets, Bob Rafelson's moody twofer Five Easy Pieces (above right) and The King of Marvin Gardens, and the motorcycle trilogy Hells Angels on Wheels (also directed by Rush), Easy Rider ("You know, this used to be a helluva good country") and The Rebel Rousers (Tagline: "Their creed: 'If it feels good, do it!').

I love this period of Nicholson's career. It's the Drifter Period, which hit its stride with Easy Rider in '69 and culminated with Antonioni's The Passenger in '75 (the year in which Nicholson instead reaped kudos for One Flew over the Cuckoo's Nest). I don't know if he and Kovacs were good friends, or whether they had similar temperaments and therefore made similar career choices, but they both defined each other during this period. Nicholson's acting was reserved and passive. He was, in essence, more reactor than actor. What I remember most about Five Easy Pieces and Marvin Gardens is that Kovács' camera struck the same tone. It was not participatory. It was observational. Rather than see "with" Nicholson, it simple saw him. Kovács' camera did not fawn over this blooming movie star; it kept its distance and allowed him room to grow. I have no idea if the two were active collaborators, but it was a nice marriage. I wish I could be more articulate, but I'd have to give the films another viewing. What I remember from these two movies in particular is that both Nicholson and the camera seemed to be entities in search of something. They didn't find what they were looking for, but they did find each other. And it worked.

But they never again worked together after 1972. Both men's careers would evolve toward populism. Nicholson struck critical gold with Chinatown and Cuckoo's Nest, then entered the Kitschy Period with The Shining, Terms of Endearment, The Witches of Eastwick, Batman, A Few Good Men and so on. Kovács did the same. Though there are many good titles on their filmographies, it does feel a bit like the wild boys tamed themselves over the years. Nevertheless, to send him off, here are some screen shots from Kovács' non-Nicholson work (click on the photos for IMDb info):

Thursday, July 19, 2007

The Spiral Staircase and women under siege

"A role so unusual, so compelling, so fraught with emotional power no other actress would dare play it! An inspiring portrayal, destined to become her most distinguished screen triumph!"

This bit of hyperbole is uttered by the narrator of the trailer for The Spiral Staircase, a 1945 film about a mute live-in caretaker who must fend off a serial killer -- a tough thing to do when your elderly employer is bedridden, the housekeeper is tanked on brandy and you are physiologically unable to shout for backup. Dorothy McGuire stars as Helen Campel, the mute woman, and Ethel Barrymore and Elsa Lanchester are the elderly employer and the housekeeper. The killer targets women with disabilities. Muteness is one of the things he will not suffer, so he goes after Campel. Weird, huh?

Contrary to the trailer's narrator, Joan Crawford would dare play the role. She pursued it, but Helen Campel ultimately went to McGuire, who would snag an Oscar nomination for Gentleman's Agreement two years later. McGuire comes off as an earthy ingenue, her cheek structure unnaturally wide and her overall pale, expansive countenance an ideal beacon of emotion as well as reflector of set lighting. She does plenty of smiling and fretting. The climax has her flitting about the house, from shadowy hall to shadowy hall and with only lightning to illuminate her silent terror. It takes a particular talent to pull off a mute performance, and McGuire sidesteps emotive mugging in favor of patient, reserved reactions to the compounding danger of her situation. This probably is her "most distinguished screen triumph," even though she was 29 years old and only in her sixth movie. In his Biographical Dictionary of Film, David Thomson takes a more modulated approach and defines McGuire as "tolerant and sweet-faced."

I can't remember why I netflix'd The Spiral Staircase, but I'm glad I did. It brings up several talking points:

1. Hitchcock is a common denominator, as is novelist Ethel Lina White. Directed by German Robert Siodmak, The Spiral Staircase was released at the climax of Alfred Hitchcock's early career, and borrows from him the novelty of restricting a thriller to a confined space (Lifeboat came out the year before). I bet Hitchcock admired the film and appropriated the ominousness of a serpentine staircase for crucial scenes in Vertigo 13 years later. The Spiral Staircase was based on a novel by the British crime writer Ethel Lina White, who also provided the source material for Hitchcock's The Lady Vanishes seven years earlier.

2. I love the "Woman under Siege" genre. A malicious male stalks the territory of a heroine, who defends her home until a battle is unavoidable. Think Jodie Foster in Panic Room, Sigourney Weaver in Copycat and Audrey Hepburn in Wait until Dark (which will be shown at Screen on the Green on the National Mall on July 30). The latter two women sport some kind of handicap -- Weaver has crippling agoraphobia and Hepburn is blind -- which adds another layer of suspense to the confrontation: woman usurps personal disability and triumphs over aggressive male. Gender issues aside, these roles are generally strong showcases for women because it places them at the center of a narrative that tosses varied stimuli their way. I can't think of a Woman under Siege movie that came before The Spiral Staircase, can you? Was this the first of its genre? What other subsequent examples are there?

3. Mutes in movies always reap high praise. Usually you're guaranteed an Oscar (Holly Hunter in The Piano, Marlee Matlin in Children of a Lesser God, Patty Duke in The Miracle Worker, Jane Wyman in Johnny Belinda) or at least a nomination (Samantha Morton in Sweet and Lowdown). Plus, the critics go nuts:

Richard Corliss at Time: "Samantha Morton, as Emmet's 'mute orphan half-wit' of a girlfriend, is the sweet revelation. Rarely has a performer mined such complex and potent emotion from such simple materials: a smile, a shrug, an attentive winsomeness."

Owen Gleiberman at EW: "[Holly] Hunter is robbed of her voice -- the character she plays is mute -- and this seeming constriction has liberated her as an actress. ... [She] has an austere, powerful presence, like that of the great silent-film actresses."

Dorothy McGuire didn't get an Oscar nomination for her performance in The Spiral Staircase, but Linda Rasmussen has this to say the All Movie Guide: "Dorothy McGuire is exquisite as the innocent, sweet Helen and gives a totally convincing performance in the difficult role. She uses her expressive face to perfectly convey Helen's emotions, fear and ultimate bravery."

Wednesday, July 18, 2007

This thing just won't leave!

I just saw this commercial a minute ago on CBS! It's one of the DirecTV ads that re-creates a well-known movie scene and then "interrupts" itself to make the pitch. I think it's a serious coup for them to have gotten Sigourney back in the powerloader. And she looks about the same as she did 20 years ago in Aliens. Surgery? Good lighting? Digital airbrushing? Either way, this is both blasphemy and a delight.

Monday, July 16, 2007

Four things I realized whilst watching Harry Potter

1. I don't care for Emma Watson's acting. I find it forced.
2. I love Gary Oldman, and was delighted to see him (I missed the past three movies, so I didn't know he was in the series). I think he's one of the top five working film actors, and I intend to blog about him in detail at a later date.
3. Imelda Staunton -- who has played cutie-pie roles forever -- makes one nasty bitch.
4. Harry Potter is just like Star Wars, isn't it? Except with wands instead of lightsabers.

Tuesday, July 10, 2007

What's in the styrofoam cup?

That poor girl put her trust in the hands of two men who took her life, she's in a coma, her life is gone. She has no family, she has no home, she's tied to a machine, she has no friends. And the people who should care for her -- her doctors, and you, and me -- have been bought off to look the other way. We have been paid to look the other way. I came in here to take your money. I brought snapshots to show you. So I could get your money. I can't take it. If I take it...if I take that money I'm lost. I'm just going to be a rich ambulance chaser. I can't do it. I can't take it.

Monday, July 09, 2007

Julie White: More than meets the eye

I kinda fell in love with Julie White when she won a Tony last month. In an auditorium full of mellifluous thespians, this Texan gave an endearingly shrill and unapologetic acceptance speech. The video is crap, but you can catch her priceless reaction to hearing her name. "What!" she screams, enraged, and starts marching down the aisle in a fury. After all, she beat Redgrave, Lansbury and Swoosie Kurtz, and wouldn't you be mad? I wish I'd seen her on Broadway in "The Little Dog Laughed," in which she played a Hollywood agent who (I've heard) could -- in a battle of the superbitches -- drive Meryl Streep's Miranda Priestly into the ground.

What a delight, then, to settle into Transformers last week and find White with a plum role: Shia LaBeouf's endearingly shrill and meddlesome mother. It's a part that she (with the able assistance of on-screen husband Kevin Dunn) conjures into a kind of mini-master class on how to act in a blockbuster. A blockbuster gives an actor a silly, wide open canvas. White works herself into Michael Bay's broad strokes and adds flashes of color and flourish, turning the standard Mom-of-the-Hero role into a delightful portrait of a suburban Amazon -- fierce and demanding and cracked-out and incapable of swallowing bullshit but still prim and manicured and focused on family. "It's been a weird day," she tells LaBeouf at one point, "and I've been drinking." The delivery is superb. The rhythm of the movie swallows it up almost immediately, but it's a great moment -- a comic arrow slinged into the movie's proverbial bullseye. The audience in Wellfleet, Mass., erupted with laughter and the hits kept on coming: "You touch that dog and I'll kill you!" she screeches at a police officer as she's kidnapped by the authorities. "Were you masturbating?" she says immediately when she and Dunn walk in LaBeouf's bedroom. When Dunn suggests that the word and the topic are only for fathers and sons, White says curtly, "We could call it 'Sam's Happy Time.'" It's an obvious joke, but the delivery is expert.

In short, White steals the movie from a bunch of giant (mostly boring) robots. She is her own special effect. I want more. And if you stay through the credits, you'll get it. Clearly, the filmmakers had too much good footage of her to include in the actual movie.

I'm back

Sit tight. I'm thinking of doing a post on why Transformers signals the end of everything.

Sunday, July 01, 2007

Me and you and July

Last year, I delineated my favorite Junes, and was more successful at coming up with ideas than I am with Julys. I've never seen or read Born on the 4th of July (and I call myself a Tom Cruise fan!). So I will simply offer up Miranda July, the savior (?) of indie film. She did the cute, pithy, slightly profound Me and You and Everyone We Know. Take a look at her short film, Are You the Favorite Person of Anybody, directed by Miguel Arteta and co-starring Mike White (who collaborated on the masterful The Good Girl). Its premise is wafer-thin, but it works as a cute, pithy, slightly profound diversion (even though I don't much like John C. Reilly). I've read some of her new short story collection, No One Belongs Here More Than You, and it's sufficiently different than most anything else ever. Can you think of other movie-related Julys?

Addendum: I'm on vacation this week. Will be in Cape Cod. Are there any good Cape Cod movies? All I can think of is Michael Cunningham and his drippy nostalgia for Wellfleet in The Hours: I remember one morning getting up at dawn, there was such a sense of possibility. You know, that feeling? And I remember thinking to myself: So, this is the beginning of happiness. This is where it starts. And of course there will always be more. It never occurred to me it wasn't the beginning. It was happiness. It was the moment. Right then.