Saturday, September 27, 2008

I have vision, and the rest of the world wears bifocals

That's a quote from Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. Doesn't make too much sense if you think about it, but you get the idea. Paul Newman saw the world with a clarity that was foreign to most in Hollywood. The best-looking, arguably-most-complete man in the movies died yesterday at 83 of cancer. I'll leave the official eulogizing to the pros. Instead, some memories of Paul from my life, apart from the fact that I always always buy his pasta sauces:

His performance in 1982's The Verdict is a rhapsody, the crown jewel of his career, and should be part of any acting school curriculum. I will never tire of watching him in that movie. With grit and grace, he pilots Frank Galvin from the depths of alcoholism to the ridge of redemption, and is smart enough to bring his character to a place of truth rather than a place of resolution. Watch him closely in the summation scene, as Sidney Lumet slowly moves the camera in on this man -- this man who started so meek but who is now towering in this moment in time, for perhaps the first and last time in his life.

Of course, like any good man, he was a sucker for and splendid practitioner of comedy. He was a vulgar marvel in 1977's Slap Shot. I'd never seen him in an out-and-out comedy, and was continually astonished by the ways he appropriated his dramatics to the business of the low-brow.

I remember the serious silliness of 1974's The Towering Inferno and the cool mugging -- long before Clooney -- in 1973's The Sting. His youthful prime was in the 1960s, with The Hustler (drool) and Hud (see clips in my appreciation of Melvyn Douglas), where he appeared to mature into the man James Dean might've been, but with less suffocating Method and more personality. I'd never accuse Newman of being a chameleon; I've never seen him in a role that required an extreme transformation; he didn't suffer for his art. I've only seen a quarter or third of his filmography, but it seems that he never went that route. His craftsmanship blended his star power with an inner fire, which burned as blue as his eyes and which he could set to simmer or boil, depending on his assignment. If I could live my life over again as a movie star, I'd want to be Paul Newman. He just makes sense to me. The way he worked...the way he lived outside of work...his unyielding self-deprecation and disregard for his looks and talents. Right now, I can hear the talking head on CNN in the background. She's saying he will be remembered for more than just his movies. Which is exactly what he wanted.

I saw him once, in person, at a show in New York. Was it at The Apple Tree? I can't remember. But I remember him, and his wife Joanne Woodward, sitting a couple rows in front of me. In real life, he was a white-haired old man, a dutiful husband, unremarkable in appearance. But I remember thinking, "I'm seeing Paul Newman in real life. I'm seeing him. Remember this." And I have. Now he is dead, but that blue fire ain't. It's forever, like the movies. Here's a nice montage to close the matter for now:

Thursday, September 25, 2008

This is mass madness, you maniacs

It's my favorite movie. And every year it gets less hyperbolic and more real. Except for one thing: No one is yelling yet. No one is listening to Howard Beale. Today, there are no mass protests, no swell of angry popular movement against the utter mismanagement of this country. Today, we watch the TV and the Internets as people tell us about bad stuff. But we don't get mad.

Financial institutions run everything. They can make us. They can ruin us. And they have ruined us. And now we're paying for their mistakes. But we don't get mad. We won't get mad. We will sit and watch our screens, as we have been doing for 30 years, and think, "Gee, this is bad. I hope things get better."

Case in point: I will publish this blog post, then return to work, happy to collect a paycheck while they still come to me. I will pick up some dry-cleaning, go to a show tonight, go home, watch TV or the Internets, sleep, get up and do it all again. I will pray that things stay okay, or I will ignore the distinct possibility they will not. But I won't do anything to affect the outcome. I will merely stay in bomb-drill mode, hands over my head, against a wall.

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Someone grant sainthood to Cloris Leachman immediately

She's on Dancing with the Stars. In one 8-minute stretch, she foxtrots, gets two standing ovations, drapes her leg on the judges' table, spills out her cleavage, and calls one of the judges a "shit" on live national television. The woman is a goddamn national treasure.

And for some contrast:

Friday, September 19, 2008

How to go from Teddy Barnes to Alex Forrest in two years

As long as we've been talking about Glenn Close and Jeff Bridges: I'm having a hard time with Jagged Edge. It's a 1985 thriller starring Bridges as a newspaper editor accused of muder and Close as the attorney who defends him. Naturally, romance develops during the trial. The plot -- by B-list writing god Joe "Basic Instinct" Eszterhas -- choo-choos along as an effective whodunnit right up until the last shot. But the Close character, Teddy Barnes, gave me a lot of trouble. Is she an incredibly complex, strong character, or is she a weak pushover who just needs a man? Eszterhas and Close shows us both sides, and it's hard to reconcile one with the other. Oh, Teddy Barnes. Sweet-voiced, then steel-tongued. Indignant, then weepy.

That's humanity, right? We swing from one extreme to another, and Teddy Barnes is no different. A week after meeting an alleged matricidal maniac, she shacks up with him and gets all lovey-dovey. She's also a hard-working single mom who frosts over when a witness calls her a bitch. In the end, though, she's revealed as something different, something...more. Or less? The final scene shows us neither the soft lover nor the tough cookie. Close greets the film's climax as a woman numbed in the wake of a quiet nervous breakdown -- one that occurs offscreen, or at least inside her. She wins the day, plot-wise, but her faith in the legal system (and in herself) is shattered. See the video below (spoilers included).

I've never seen anything like the final scene of Jagged Edge. It has all the elements of a standard thriller climax, but the Teddy Barnes character is definitely not the standard heroine. She's something weaker. Or stronger? She has a gun in her hand, but it's not a show of defiance or revenge. It appears to be some sort of psychosis -- some villainy -- that we can't understand; Eszterhas hasn't given us enough to work with. But we do see, in Teddy Barnes's eye, a glimmer of Alex Forrest, whom Close would give us two years later in Fatal Attraction. Can someone please write a thesis on these two wildly confounding female characters, both of whom have male names?

Glenn Close was riding the peak of her celebrity with these two roles. Two thrillers in the mid-'80s, when she was racking up Oscar nomination after Oscar nomination. I would kill to sit her down now, watch these two movies with her and ask her where the hell she found these two fascinating, unsettling, confounding characters.

Thursday, September 18, 2008

Joan & Glenn as female VPs

It's a short list. Female vice presidents in the movies. Two. Joan Allen in The Contender in 2000. Glenn Close in Air Force One in 1997. Can anyone think of others? Watch this trailer for Air Force One, and revel in popcorny pre-9/11 nostalgia.

The Contender, my favorite movie ever about politics, has more serious things to say about the Woman-as-VP concept. Or does it? Watch below.

Sarah Palin has received some of the same criticisms that Gary Oldman lobs at Allen here. People just think Palin is a "groovy chick," and selfish because she wants to assume a gigantic responsibility she knows she's not ready for. Sexist? Yeah, probably...even though Allen's Laine Hanson could run circles around Palin.

Let's not discredit the subtlety of Air Force One. (Yes, I used "subtlety" and "Air Force One" in the same sentence.) The movie presents Close as VP, simply and without fanfare. She commands F-15s. While Harrison Ford is held hostage, she is the president. But no big deal is made about it. She is not a woman; she is the vice president. In The Contender, it's all a big deal. A woman is ascending to the nation's highest office and -- gasp! -- she may have had some fun sex in the past.

Which movie was, at the time, more healthy for our collective perception of a Woman in Power: a movie that agonizes over a woman's hurdles even as she clears each one, or a movie that shows a woman deftly commanding a nation without distraction or doubt?

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Explaining the Holy Trinity

Roger Ebert called Nuns on the Run "funny only if you find nuns funny." Which I do.

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Moratorium: Titles with "Bees" or "The Secret Life of"

Is it just me, or is anyone else tired of titles that start with "The Secret Life of..." or include the word "Bee" or "Bees"? An IMDb search of "The Secret Life of" or "Bee" brings up hundreds of hits, with a special concentration over the past five years:

The Secret Lives of Dentists (2002)
The Secret Life of Words (2005)
Bee Season (2005)
Akeelah and the Bee (2006)
Bee Movie (2007)
The Secret Life of the American Teenager (2008)

Which leads us to the The Secret Life of Bees, opening next month. I guess we had that one coming. But can we have a moratorium on these titles, please? Thanks. This also goes for book titles that pair a possessive noun with the word "wife" or daughter." Like "The Bonesetter's Wife" or "The Alchemist's Daughter." Those are horrifyingly unimaginative titles.

Monday, September 15, 2008

Coens have their first No. 1

Burn after Reading is the first Coen Bros. movie to occupy the top spot at the box office. This probably has something to do with its aggressive marketing campaign, George Clooney, Brad Pitt and the fact that it had the widest opening in the bros' careers (2,651 theaters). I'm sure fans of One Fine Day and Meet Joe Black were blindsided by what they saw, but by the time they got to their seats they had already paid for admission. The Coen Bros. beat another movie with a sterling cast: the poorly-received remake of The Women, with The Bening, Debra Messing (still?), Jada Pinkett-Smith, Meg Ryan (alive?), Eva Mendes and Candice Bergen (yum). That one came in No. 4, after Tyler Perry and the De Niro-Pacino rematch.

"Clearly, [Burn after Reading is] a smash, and it's obviously a reflection of how much more commercial the Coens have grown," said Jack Foley, distribution president for studio Focus, quoted in The Guardian. I'm sure this quotation sent Joel and Ethan into apoplexy.

So it took Clooney and Pitt to give them a distinction that's been missing from their mantle, which is lined with eight Oscars: box office champ. Here's the rundown of how their last seven movies opened. Note: Dollars/profit aren't at issue here; popularity/visibility is.

No Country for Old Men (2007). Opened 15th in 28 theaters. Reached No. 5 when it opened wider to 1,348 theaters. Its best-picture Oscar didn't raise it higher than there.
The Ladykillers (2004). The closest they'd previously gotten to No. 1. Opened 2nd in 1,583 theaters. Tom Hanks was the draw.
Intolerable Cruelty (2003). Opened 4th in 2,564 theaters, by far their widest open pre-Burn.
The Man Who Wasn't There (2001). Opened 19th in 39 theaters; climbed to 13th when playing in 250 theaters.
O Brother, Where Art Thou? (2000). Opened 27th in 5 theaters. Climbed to 9th when in 835 theaters.
The Big Lebowski (1998). Opened 6th in 1,207 theaters.
Fargo (1996). Opened 6th in 412 theaters. It's amazing it never climbed higher, but also keep in mind it was released in March 1996, so it was already on video by the time is got Oscar attention.

Source: Box Office Mojo. Rankings prior to 1996 aren't available, but I'm going to assume Blood Simple, Raising Arizona, Miller's Crossing, Barton Fink and The Hudsucker Proxy didn't get anywhere near No. 1.

Tuesday, September 09, 2008

Why do motorcades upset me?

On my way back to work from a midday walk, I found cop cars blocking each cross street of 16th Street, which is a north-south boulevard leading to the front of the White House. Auto and pedestrian traffic was halted in all directions. Sixteenth Street was eerily barren, with people tapping their feet on the sidelines. The president, you see, was returning to his house. The parade, in order of appearance:

9 motorcycles in a row, spaced 100 feet apart
3 black SUVs
1 armored conversion van
2 black limousines (one presumably carrying POTUS or his deputy)
1 ambulance
1 helicopter
3 black SUVs
3 police cars

This list does not include several police cars that zoomed down side streets, as if to flank the president in case of an attack from the side.

Whenever I see a motorcade, I'm left with the same thoughts: Is this really necessary? What does this accomplish, other than making a spectacle? If the president really wanted to be protected, wouldn't he travel in a single, quiet, nondescript, armored car rather than in a blaring Macy's Day parade? The president might as well be waving from the limo's sunroof. And shutting down a major urban thoroughfare for 10 minutes seems like an intensely irreponsible thing to do. It's very Triumph of the Will-ish, except the citizens lining the motorcade are grumpy, not ecstatic.

Monday, September 08, 2008

"We know drama"? Nope, you don't

Finished watching Fox's newest game show "Hole in the Wall" (excellent), switched to the VMAs (bleh), got bored to tears (save for Russell Brand's subversive hosting behavior) so channel-surfed my way to TNT. On which was playing United 93. Which is fine. As the best movie of 2006, I think everyone should see it. TNT was playing it with "limited commercial interruption," which turned out to be an interruption every eight to 10 minutes or so.

Many movies can be interrupted by a word from the sponsors, and no one's worse off. A League of Their Own was on earlier today, and I was happy to use the commercial breaks to check on my laundry, and still was moved, as always, but that film's end. But United 93 -- sensitive topic aside -- must be viewed continuously. At least in its final stretch. TNT could've run the last 20 minutes commercial-free without detriment to their finances. They did not. They broke for commercial as the passengers readied their first and final mutiny.

It's classless. And clumsy. And it made me feel angry and cheap, like the film's engrossing craftsmanship was exploited to make me stew through commercials. Grumble.

Anyway, you should see the movie continuously and in its entirety. Don't stop and watch it if you catch it on TV. For what it's worth, here is my essay after viewing it for a second and third time on DVD.

Thursday, September 04, 2008

Telluride: Wrap up

This year's guest curator Slavoj Zizek -- described by a festival goer as monstrously self-centered and by a festival director as "the greatest living philosopher" -- provided a slate of movies that blew the minds of absolutely no one. Perhaps I'm applying my experience to everyone else's. But whatever. Let's not indulge the lesser aspects of the fest. Here are the five things I liked about the 35th Telluride Film Festival, in order from less to more.

5. Slumdog Millionaire. Met by ovations and cheering. It is the ultimate feel-good film, made by erstwhile feel-baddie Danny Boyle (Trainspotting, 28 Days Later). An Indian boy goes the distance on "Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?" His success on the game show is rooted in seemingly random experiences in his childhood. It's a kinetic, Dickensian adventure movie, flashing backward and forward but never losing its firm, steady grip on a contrived-yet-compelling story. This should be a hit.

4. The Last Command, a 1928 silent film featuring a live original score by the Alloy Orchestra. Emil Jannings won the first-ever Oscar for best actor for his larger-than-life performance as a mutinied Russian general who ends up playing a background soldier in a Hollywood war film. One of the title cards says (and I'm paraphrasing): "From the backwash of a crumbled nation comes another extra who is hungry for a bite of Hollywood." It's all very savvy and self-reflexive, even though studios themselves hadn't been around that long. Did I mention the live accompaniment rocked? The Alloy resurrects ancient movies one by one.

3. Kristin Scott Thomas in I've Loved You So Long. A tricky role, a home-run performance. It's all internal here. KST plays a woman fresh off a 15-year jail sentence. And boy, she does not want to talk about it. But the ways in which she keeps herself walled off and then lets in a little light...well, it's elegance and control and precise execution.

2. Jean Simmons. I knew next to nothing about this British actress going in to her tribute, but felt enlightened and grateful (and heretofore ignorant) coming out. Simmons got her big break as a teenaged Estella in David Lean's Great Expectations and deserves to be 100 times more famous than she is today. Maybe her looks were too much like Vivien Leigh's or her voice too much like Audrey Hepburn's, but Simmons' past stardom didn't evolve into sacred legend. It's tempting to define her by the men she has played against -- Burt Lancaster in Elmer Gantry, Paul Newman in Until They Sail, Marlon Brando in Desiree and Guys & Dolls, Laurence Olivier in Hamlet, Kirk Douglas in Spartacus, Dick Van Dyke in Divorce American Style, Gregory Peck in The Big Country, Cary Grant and Robert Mitchum in The Grass Is Greener -- for who can match this list and still be as unfamous as she? But Simmons, with the aura of a child and the snap of a python, holds her own against each. The festival showed a medley of clips, but the most arresting was from The Happy Ending, in which she plays a bored housewife. Couldn't find a clip of it on the YouTubes, so here are some from Guys & Dolls (1955), Until They Sail (1957) and, to shake it up, Star Trek: The Next Generation.

1. Prodigal Sons. If you see it under the right circumstances, this one could be life-changing. The film's greatness comes not from the craftsmanship (it was shot and edited cheaply, as if on a whim), but from the content. Director Kimberly Reed has so, so much to work with here. She hit documentary gold. The film's site has no word on future screenings. Hopefully it'll arrive at a theater near you sometime before the world ends.

Monday, September 01, 2008

Telluride: Day 3

TELLURIDE, Colo. -- The documentary Prodigal Sons is the only new film I've seen here that the Telluride Film Festival deserves. There is so much I want to tell you about it, but there are two "secrets" revealed during the movie and you should experience the shock/delight yourself. Suffice to say it is a documentary about family and the search for (or flight from) one's self. Sounds very broad, yes, but the context in which this search is conducted is truly amazing. If you want to read all about the film, do so here. Knowing some background won't sabotage the film's effectiveness, but it's still nice to go into a movie without knowing where it's taking you. And this one takes you to some pretty remarkable places.

The Telluride experience magnified the film. The doc ended, I was exhilirated, and then the emcee pointed out that the entire featured family is sitting in the audience not two rows behind me. Having just seen their lives laid bare onscreen, it was a special privilege to see and thank them in person.

As far as I can tell, Prodigal Sons has no distribution. But given the exuberant reaction here, it will no doubt continue to play at festivals to packed houses. If you get a chance to see it, drop everything and make it happen. I wish there was a way they could stream the doc online for a small fee. Everyone should see this movie.

There are other things to talk about, but I haven't the time. The festival ends in a couple hours. I'll be posting later about Jean Simmons, Mary Pickford, Josef von Sternberg's The Last Command and Danny Boyle's Slumdog Millionaire (surely the fiction crowd-pleaser of the fest).

Also, I served popcorn to Greg Kinnear and Salman Rushdie. Also, I am tired.