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Reel Time with Ethanvahlere
 
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Below are the 20 most recent journal entries recorded in Sean's LiveJournal:

Sunday, April 8th, 2007
11:26 pm
Monday, February 26th, 2007
12:24 am
Oscar ceremony
Early on in Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, Butch (Paul Newman) and Sundance (Robert Redford) are riding back to their old hideout, and Butch has this line, "You know, every time I see Hole-in-the-Wall again, it's like seeing it fresh, for the very first time, and whenever that happens I ask myself the same question; how can I be so damn stupid as to keep coming back here?" I've been watching the Oscar ceremony regularly since 1990 (or rather, the year Dances with Wolves won), and with the exception of a few years (1993, 1999, last year's ceremony), I've often asked myself the same question. That's especially true since, in recent years, the powers that be seem determined to suck all the life out of the show, draining spontaneity and humor out (people are no longer allowed to make fun of technical categories, for example). Would this show be any different?


Okay, that's it. See you this time next year.
Sunday, February 25th, 2007
10:21 am
In Defense of "Oscar Bait" Movies

Apologies for this not appearing until, well, the day of the Oscars. I was fine-tuning this, and really wanted to get it right. To be honest, I'm not sure if I did, but this is important to me.

Thursday, February 22nd, 2007
11:59 pm
Oscar poll!
Poll #933389 Oscar poll!

Best Picture - Who Should Win?

Babel
0(0.0%)
The Departed
5(41.7%)
Letters from Iwo Jima
1(8.3%)
Little Miss Sunshine
4(33.3%)
The Queen
1(8.3%)
Don't know
1(8.3%)
Don't care
0(0.0%)

Best Actor - Who Should Win?

Leonardo DiCaprio
3(25.0%)
Ryan Gosling
4(33.3%)
Peter O'Toole
2(16.7%)
Will Smith
1(8.3%)
Forest Whitaker
2(16.7%)
Don't know
0(0.0%)
Don't care
0(0.0%)

Best Actress - Who Should Win?

Penelope Cruz
1(8.3%)
Judi Dench
0(0.0%)
Helen Mirren
5(41.7%)
Meryl Streep
2(16.7%)
Kate Winslet
2(16.7%)
Don't know
1(8.3%)
Don't care
1(8.3%)

Best Supporting Actor - Who Should Win?

Alan Arkin
1(8.3%)
Jackie Earle Haley
2(16.7%)
Djimon Hounsou
3(25.0%)
Eddie Murphy
2(16.7%)
Mark Wahlberg
4(33.3%)
Don't know
0(0.0%)
Don't care
0(0.0%)

Best Supporting Actress - Who Should Win?

Adriana Barraza
0(0.0%)
Cate Blanchett
2(16.7%)
Abigail Breslin
0(0.0%)
Jennifer Hudson
5(41.7%)
Rinko Kikuchi
3(25.0%)
Don't know
2(16.7%)
Don't care
0(0.0%)

Best Director - Who Should Win?

Clint Eastwood
1(8.3%)
Stephen Frears
0(0.0%)
Paul Greengrass
2(16.7%)
Alejandro Gonzalez Innaritu
0(0.0%)
Martin Scorsese
9(75.0%)
Don't know
0(0.0%)
Don't care
0(0.0%)

Will you be watching the show Sunday night?

Absolutely! I always watch.
6(54.5%)
Sure; I'm rooting for/against somebody.
0(0.0%)
Yeah, but only to see what everyone's wearing.
5(45.5%)
Not even if you paid me.
0(0.0%)
For those who care, or those who just like to vote:
Sunday, February 18th, 2007
1:17 am
Monday, February 12th, 2007
9:39 pm
OSCAR PICKS!
Since people all over are starting to do their Oscar picks, I figured I might as well do mine. Some say the choices seem more predictable this year, and while that's true to a certain extent, you can always count on a few surprises, especially since Best Picture is still up in the air. At any rate, I'll be only covering the top eight categories (since I've seen every nominee in those categories, and I haven't in others), and I'll be picking who I think will win, and then who I think should win. Here we go:


Well, that's it. See you on the 25th!
Tuesday, January 23rd, 2007
11:07 am
The Oscar Nominations!

Whatever you think of the Oscars, they are the oldest film awards show, and therefore, for better or worse, the industry standard. And it's always fun to talk about the nominees. I'll be getting into the good and the bad in a minute, but first, there were a couple of surprising firsts this year. This was the first year ever that none of the Best Picture nominees had a corresponding Best Actor nominee (matter of fact, few of the acting nominees were from the Best Picture nominees). Also, this is the first time the film with the most nominations (Dreamgirls) didn't have a Best Picture nomination (although it received 3 nominations in Best Song, which is kind of a cheat; Babel was nominated in the most categories). Okay, here we go:

THE GOOD:

Ryan Gosling: Not a lot of people have seen his film, and while he got a SAG nomination and an Independent Spirit Award nomination, I wasn't sure if he'd make it here. With apologies to Will Smith (of the major category nominations, The Pursuit of Happyness is the only one I haven't seen, and I hope to rectify that by the end of this week), Gosling's was the best performance in the category. He avoided every cliche of the idealistic teacher in his performance.

Penelope Cruz: Yes, her English-language work has been less than stellar (though I liked her in Vanilla Sky; admittedly, she was playing a part she had already done, which made it easier for her), but anyone who's seen her Spanish work (Belle Epoque, Open Your Eyes (which Vanilla Sky was a remake of), All About my Mother) knows she can be very good in her native language, and while I had problems with Volver, I had none with Cruz's performance.

Helen Mirren and Meryl Streep: So they were shoo-ins. So what? They were both damn good!

Jackie Earle Haley: Forget Eddie Murphy; this is the comeback story of the year. I mean, the last film this guy did was a made-for-TV movie called Prophet of Evil 13 years ago. And while his star was initially on the rise as a kid actor with performances in films like The Bad News Bears and Breaking Away, he didn't make the transition to adult actor very well. And now, he comes back with one of the most haunting performances of the year. I wasn't a big fan of Little Children, but Haley's scenes in the climax had me gasping.

Abigail Breslin: The reason why so many of us love Little Miss Sunshine is because it was funny, and because it avoided most of the traps of the dysfunctional family comedy. Great credit, of course, goes to the writing, but also to the acting. Breslin's wasn't my famous performance of the cast - that would be Steve Carrell's - but she also avoided the usual cute kid actor route. So much of what she did was dependent on what she didn't say, like the great scene when she comforted her brother (Paul Dano) and got him the change his mind. She doesn't say a word in that scene, and yet she spoke volumes.

Rinko Kikuchi: One of the many charges against the Academy is that it loves when actors play people who are challenged in some way (mentally challenged, deaf, blind, etc.), and they find it particularly egregious because they claim it's either a license for overacting (Al Pacino, Scent of a Woman) or the actor wasn't really "acting" in the first place (Marlee Matlin, Children of a Lesser God). Now, some of that may be true, but some of that viewpoint is as condescending as those critics claim those actors are being. The fact that Kikuchi's character is deaf (while, in real life, she isn't) wasn't the point for me. The fact that she was playing a girl troubled by a parent's death, lashing out to feel a connection to somebody, and being able to do that without going over the top, was the point for me, and I thought she was brilliant.

Paul Greengrass: While I'm disappointed about United 93 being snubbed for Best Picture (see below), I am very happy Greengrass got nominated. I must say I have mixed feelings about the director category, since while he directed the better film, I still want the Academy to finally recognize Scorsese. But for now, I'm glad the Academy recognized the brilliant and non-exploitative work he did.

Children of Men: Quite frankly, three nominations (Best Adapted Screenplay, Cinematography, and Editing) were more than I was expecting. This was released in a crowded month, and while there has been a tremendous amount of support for it in from critics (and audiences, so far, seem to like it), it didn't have much of an awards campaign (Universal dropped the ball on that one and The Good Shepherd), and it was ignored in the Globes and the Guild nominations. So I will take anything that I can get for my favorite film of the year.

The Prestige: This was my fifth favorite film of the year, and while it was never going to get any major category nominations, I was thrilled for its nominations for Best Art Direction/Set Direction and Cinematography. Nathan Crowley, Julie Ochipinti (both for the former) and Wally Pfister (in the latter) all did outstanding work and helped make the film work as a whole, so it's nice to see them recognized.

THE BAD:

The first half will concentrate on who's nominated who shouldn't be:

Blood Diamond: Again, this was proof good intentions don't make good movies, so its major category nominees are puzzling. If DiCaprio was to get nominated for anything, it should have been for The Departed - his accent, at any rate, was better in that movie. And while I like Hounsou as an actor (he deserved his nomination for In America), he wasn't playing a character, but a mouthpiece, and try as he might, he couldn't bring it to life.

Notes on a Scandal: I'm very surprised at the reception this film is getting, particularly here. While Cate Blanchett did fine work here, she was better in other films (the little-seen Little Fish, for one), and I think Judi Dench and writer Patrick Marber put a leering tone on this movie that made it into a high-gloss Fatal Attraction. They've both done better work, and I don't see why they're nominated here.

Borat: Okay, it's a hilarious movie, and personally, I would have liked to have seen Sascha Baron Cohen nominated for Best Actor, even though it was never going to happen. And technically, this is an adapted screenplay, since it's based on a character created for a TV show. And certainly the fact that a movie is partly improvised or unscripted shouldn't be held against it. But the plotting of the movie was the weakest part of the movie (yes, I'm referring to the "story" that he wants to meet Pamela Anderson).

Little Children: Todd Field's previous film, In the Bedroom, was my favorite of 2001, so I was eager to see his latest. Some reviewers have called it a satire, but I think it's an obvious and heavy-handed one. While the dramatic parts worked fine, that doesn't make up for the rest of the screenplay.

The Dreamgirls songs: While I would have been okay with Bill Condon getting a Best Director nomination (unless it meant he knocked out someone who deserved it more), since he did a fine job, I'm happy the film didn't get nominated for Best Picture, because, among other things, it doesn't work as a musical. The songs, for the most part, don't sound much like what they're trying to emulate (Motown), but Broadway songs, and generic ones at that. "Patience" at least represents a good try; of course, it's nowhere near "What's Going On," but it's a song someone might have written for that time. "Listen" and "Love You I Do" are more of the generic brand the movie is mostly peddling.

Babel: I think Alejandro Gonzalez Innaritu is a brilliant talent. I like Amores Perros a lot, 21 Grams was my favorite film of 2003, and he also did excellent entries in the September 11 anthology film, and the BMW short he directed several years back. And I really, really wanted to like Babel more than I did. I certainly won't join those who call it a hack work by a hack director. I think, this time, his reach exceeded his grasp. I don't think it was one of the best films of the year.

The second half will concentrate on who isn't there who should be:

Matt Damon: I've said it before and I'll say it again; if you had told me 10 years ago Matt Damon would be one of my favorite actors , I'd have laughed in your face. But he continues to give outstanding, unshowy performances in movies, and he did it twice last year, in both The Departed and The Good Shepherd, neither of which would have worked without him.

Maggie Gyllenhaal: Judi Dench aside, the Best Actress category is the strongest it's been in years (whatever I thought of Little Children, Kate Winslet did do good work). But I wish there had been room for Gyllenhaal's work in Sherrybaby, where she avoided most of the recovering junkie traps by giving a fiercely honest performance as a woman trying to be mother to her daughter when she hasn't herself grown up yet. It's the best of three stellar performances she gave last year (the other two being in World Trade Center and Stranger Than Fiction; I haven't seen Monster House, Trust the Man, or The Great New Wonderful, which she was also in).

Michael Sheen: Helen Mirren deserves every word of praise written about her performance in The Queen. But she's not the only reason to see the movie; there's also Sheen's understated but stellar work as Tony Blair, who has to balance change with respecting tradition. Among other things, Sheen almost made me like Blair again (almost).

Jamie Foxx: Yes, Eddie Murphy and Jennifer Hudson were fine in Dreamgirls (certainly, the scene when "Patience" is rejected and Murphy starts using coke is startling). But for my money, the best performance in the movie is Foxx's turn as the Berry Gordy figure, who believed in the music, and would do anything to get success for it, including shortchanging his own performers. He made that movie as good as it was.

The Proposition: The Writers Guild of the Academy has been known to reward films outside of the box, as it were. I wish they had recognized Nick Cave's dark but powerfully written Australian Western, which shows that yes, some rock stars do have other talents. And speaking of unheralded screenplays:

The Good German: Forget the sentimental reasons (Eric Roth's screenplay was for years one of those "Best Unproduced Scripts", it took him and De Niro over a decade to make the film). Roth's screenplay was the most incisive look at how our country became the way it did in the last 50 years or so, and it tells a complicated story better than Babel did.

United 93: Except for Babel, I didn't dislike any of the Best Picture nominees; The Departed and The Queen were 7th and 8th on my 10-best list, respectively, Little Miss Sunshine just missed making the cut, and while I didn't love Letters from Iwo Jima, it is a fine film. But none of those talked to what's been going on in the world today like Paul Greengrass' film did. None of them was a more honest and unsentimental tribute to true heroism. And none of them will be remembered, I think, like that one will.

Well, that's it. See you February 25th!

Monday, January 1st, 2007
1:26 pm
Best of 2006

As Star Trek fans will tell you, when it comes to the movies, the odd-numbered ones tend to be subpar, while the even-numbered ones tend to be really good (the exception is the third one, which I liked). So far in this decade of films, the opposite has been true; the odd-numbered years have always been strong, while the even-numbered years have been relatively weak (2002 being an exception), and in those years, I’ve been hard-pressed to find 10 films that would qualify for a best-of list. This year, while I could come up with 10 films near the end of the year, there was no film that really stuck out as my favorite of the year, where there’s usually been at least one leading contender come fall. But as my critic friend told me, sometimes, your favorite film picks you, and so it was with me this year. And while, to me, this was a year of disappointment, as many films I was looking forward to fell short (Ask the Dust, Babel, Fast Food Nation, For Your Consideration, The Fountain, The Good German, Lemming, Little Children, A Scanner Darkly, and World Trade Center being the most disappointing), there were also plenty of movies that made me glad to be a movie fan. Bearing in mind that there are many films I still haven’t seen that I’d like to (among them The Lives of Others, The Death of Mr. Lazarescu, Perfume: Story of a Murderer, and Dreamgirls), here is my ten-best of 2006:

 

Children of Men: If one of the duties of movies should be to confront, or at least touch upon, the world we live in today, no film did it better this year than Alfonso Cuaron’s horrifying futuristic drama. Loosely adapted from a fine P.D. James novel, this film, though set 20-some years in the future, presents an all-too familiar world of violence, repression, confusion as to which side to root for, and an outbreak of deadly proportions (in the movie, it’s infertility). If this sounds too much like a downer, it’s all background to the story of a bureaucrat (Clive Owen, in the performance of the year) who finds redemption when he must escort a woman who has miraculously pregnant. If that sounds too allegorical, Cuaron keeps it grounded in the real and the emotionally true; a scene near the climax of the movie is the most heart-rending moment in the movies this year.

 

The Good Shepherd: Robert DeNiro took a great leap forward with his second directorial effort. It’s not just a history of the CIA from its origins up through the Bay of Pigs, as seen through the eyes of Edward Wilson (Matt Damon, never better), who rises up to be its paranoid center. It’s an indictment of how, in trying to beat back one menace to freedom – Communism – we put into practice the methods and ideology that have allowed those from within to be arguably a greater menace to our freedoms.

 

Army of Shadows: One could, I suppose, argue for excluding Jean-Pierre Melville’s masterful film about the French resistance, for it was actually made in 1969. And although bad reviews by the French press (it was denounced as being pro-Gaullist) kept it out of circulation until this year, when a restored print was finally released in this country, Melville, who hated easy sentiment in his films and in life, would doubtless not wish his film to be acclaimed simply because it’s a lost treasure (which it is). Rather, I would say this would be a great film in any year, because, more than any other war film this year (and yes, that includes Clint Eastwood’s double play), it shows that war is a dirty business fought not by self-conscious heroes, but by regular people who do the job cause that’s what they do.

 

United 93: Another version of heroism was on display in Paul Greengrass’ haunting recreation of what happened on 9/11 during that fateful flight, when the plane passengers, who knew the awful truth of what was happening, recognized how little hope they had in succeeding, and yet went ahead and desperately tried to seize the plane anyway.  This portrait of true heroism was lost in all the media brouhaha over whether it was too soon for a 9/11 film (World Trade Center, a more conventional portrayal of heroism, dodged those questions), as was the subtle inference that the chaos on the ground, as air traffic controllers and military leaders alike struggled to find out what was happening, was caused in part by the silence of our so-called leaders.

 

The Prestige: Christopher Nolan’s enthralling film about magic asks the question; should an artist make art for art’s sake, or should they just try to please the audience? So few films attempt the former, and those that try at the second usually fail. It’s a measure of Nolan’s talent, along with the talents of Christian Bale and Hugh Jackman as the rival magicians, that he manages to make a thoroughly artistic film that’s also the best pure entertainment I saw last year.

 

The Proposition: The darkest Western this side of Deadwood is John Hillcoat’s poetic Australian tale. Much has been made of the main plot, where outlaw Guy Pearce must track down older brother Danny Huston to save his younger brother, but for me, there’s also drama in the portrait of a sheriff (Ray Winstone) trying to bring his own sense of justice to the town, and his delicate yet strong-willed wife (Emily Watson), being the couple of the year.

 

The Departed: Not as deep or anguished as Infernal Affairs, the Hong Kong film this was based on, but Martin Scorsese’s bloody and bowed cops-and-robbers tale (set in Boston, rather than his usual haunts of New York) is like a great cover version, entertaining and exhilarating to watch, with every actor (especially, again, Matt Damon) in the top-heavy cast firing on all cylinders.

 

The Queen: Can anti-monarchists make a sympathetic portrait of British royalty? Can Helen Mirren be just as good playing Elizabeth II as she was playing Elizabeth I? Can a film almost make you like Tony Blair again? The answer to all these questions was a resounding yes, thanks to this well-crafted tale from Stephen Frears.

 

Brick: Those who dismissed this as a noir Bugsy Malone missed the fact that while writer-director Rian Johnson certainly demonstrated his knowledge of noir style, by combining it with the high school movie, he cut a more emotionally true path than most of the high school movies of the last decade.

 

L’enfant: I started the list with a tale of redemption, and close it with another, as the Dardenne brothers – Jean-Pierre and Luc – continue their track record of showing ordinary lives facing extraordinary despair, and yet managing to find hope without succumbing to cheap sentiment.

 

Honorable mention:

 

Little Miss Sunshine: The we’re-a-family-of-losers-but-we’re-a-family-dammit genre has been done to death, but rarely has it been as funny, or as heartfelt, as this road comedy.

 

Dave Chappelle’s Block Party: Unless you hate hip-hop, this concert film/documentary was a joyous celebration of music and art that made you honored to be invited.

 

Come Early Morning: After years of indifferent performances in mediocre movies, Ashley Judd roared back with this captivating portrait of a self-destructive woman, and actress Joey Lauren Adams made an assured writing and directing debut.

 

Half Nelson: Ryan Gosling continued to prove he’s one of the finest actors of this generation in his portrayal of a talented teacher who’s also a drug addict, and Shareeka Epps matched him as the student who develops a bond with him.

 

A Prairie Home Companion: Robert Altman’s final film turned out to be a celebration of the pleasures of working together, and if it was more elegiac than his films usually are, it also avoided easy nostalgia.

 

Best Actor: Clive Owen, Children of Men

Best Actress: (tie) Ashley Judd, Come Early Morning and Helen Mirren, The Queen

Best Supporting Actor: Jackie Earle Haley, Little Children

Best Supporting Actress: Rink Kikuchi, Babel

Thursday, November 30th, 2006
1:29 am
In Memoriam: Robert Altman
When Matt Dillon first burst on the scene, he was the latest actor to be thought of as a young Marlon Brando. Except, as he revealed in later interviews, he wasn’t flattered by the comparison at the time, because all he knew of Brando was the faded star he had become, rather than the actor who had revolutionized film acting. Many might have seen this as the inevitable callousness of youth, and our continuing ignorance of history, but I have to confess, I can relate. I saw Popeye when it first came out, and being a fan of the cartoons, I found the movie to be an unwatchable mess. If you had told me the film’s director was one of the defining directors of the 1970’s, I probably would have laughed in your face. However, as I’ve grown older and become a film fan, I have come to share the view that Robert Altman, who died November 20 at the age of 81, was one of the essential directors America has produced.
If Altman was unquestionably a maverick in Hollywood during his 50+-year career, his beginnings were normal enough. Born in Kansas City (later the title and the setting for one of his movies), Missouri on February 20, 1925, he was the son of an insurance salesman. He attended Catholic schools growing up, and later the Wentworth Military Academy, until he dropped out and enlisted in the Air Force (here, he developed an “Identi-Code” for identifying pets, and tattooed one of President Truman’s dogs with it). Growing up, Altman had been fascinated by movies in general and sound in particular, so after being discharged, he went to Hollywood (among other things, he appeared in The Secret Life of Walter Mitty, (1947)), but failed to get a toehold in the industry. So he went back to Kansas City and made industrial training films for a firm there. In the mid-50’s, he went back to Hollywood to direct for TV (Alfred Hitchcock Presents and Bonanza, among other shows) and did some documentaries (such as one on James Dean, which prefigured his 1982 movie Come Back to the 5 & Dime, Jimmy Dean, about a woman who claims to have a son by James Dean). In the late 60’s, he finally got into features, though it was rough going at first; he was fired off of Countdown (1968), and his follow-up, That Cold Day in the Park (1969), didn’t make much noise. All of that changed in 1970 with M*A*S*H.
It’s easy to forget just how much of an impact M*A*S*H made simply because of how much it’s seeped into our consciousness over the years. It wasn’t just Altman’s technique of overlapping dialogue and roving camera that treated every character as important, and not just something to fill out the frame (although, as Altman himself was the first to point out, this wasn’t revolutionary; Hawks films contained overlapping dialogue, and Renoir and Ophuls had their roving cameras). Nor was it just the profanity (after all, Easy Rider and Midnight Cowboy had just come out the year before), or the fact that it was anti-establishment (see the previous films, plus Bonnie and Clyde), or even that it mocked religion (Bunuel had scandalized the Church far more with his films than this film did with its re-staging of the Last Supper). It was the fact that it was all this within a war movie (even though the only soldiers we see are the ones being operated on, and then only peripherally), and even though this was nominally set during the Korean War, it was really about Vietnam. Today, with all of that ingrained in our minds, we might focus more on the fratboy element of the humor (which may have been part of Altman’s contemptuous streak, which I’ll get to later), which led to movies like Animal House. Also, some have complained about the sexism, which is a wash – on the one hand, Hawkeye (Donald Sutherland) tells Major Houlihan (Sally Kellerman) at one point, “You may be a pain in the ass, but you’re a damned good nurse,” but on the other hand, soon after this is the shower humiliation scene, and she stays a caricature throughout the movie – but also reflective of the characters at the time. But the focus today might also be something learned from Hawks; Hawkeye and his fellow doctors Trapper (Elliot Gould) and Duke (Tom Skerritt) have respect only for competence and professionalism in the workplace, and little for anything else.
One major difference between Altman and Hawks, however, is while Hawks insisted on doing things his way, and also tried all kinds of genres, he also was concerned with making money, and making films that would make money. Altman didn’t give a damn, and insisted it was his way or the highway. Obviously, that meant plenty of battles with studio execs and critics he felt didn’t get him, but it also meant battles with crews, writers (M*A*S*H writer Ring Lardner Jr. wasn’t the only writer to stop speaking to Altman by the end of a movie), and even actors, the ones Altman seemingly most related to (Robert Duvall and Ned Beatty are among those who didn’t work with Altman again for a long time because of money, and Warren Beatty swore he’d never cede control of a movie again after clashing with Altman on McCabe & Mrs. Miller). And it also meant, seemingly, battles with himself; Pauline Kael, one of his admirers, once said Altman was forever alternating a great movie with a bad one. And while his reputation has been for wanting capture realism on film (he once said in an interview that he “only painted what [he] saw,” not “what [he thinks] should be”), I suspect inside him was a surrealist struggling to get out. Otherwise, how do you explain, among other films, That Cold Day in the Park, Images, 3 Women, Quintet, and Popeye, all of which aimed for fantasy or, at the very least, a dreamlike quality? And while critic Ryan Gilbey, among others, has credited Altman with breaking film from the traditions of the theater, Altman did little but direct adaptations of plays in the 1980’s, ranging from great (Secret Honor) to near misses (Come Back to the 5 & Dime, Jimmy Dean) to awful (Beyond Therapy). Finally, going back to that contemptuous streak, one charge against Altman is that he lacked compassion, which simply isn’t true – watch the scene in Nashville where Haven Hamilton (Henry Gibson), a previously reviled character, revives a crowd after a tragedy, or in Short Cuts where Lori Singer comforts Andie McDowell after McDowell has lost her son to refute that charge. But he did have a streak of misanthropy, which did sometimes lead to contempt for his characters (A Wedding) or even the genre he was in (The Long Goodbye).
I know talking about movies of the 70’s causes much eye-rolling among people nowadays who are only too happy to point out either The Godfather and its ilk were overrated, or that there were still empty-headed blockbusters being made (Airport and The Towering Inferno, to name a few) which more people saw than the ones generally held in high esteem. But what does set those acclaimed movies apart is they were trying, in big ways or small, to talk about this country, and for various reasons, that’s been on the decline in the last 30 some years (although some directors are reviving it now). Altman was at the forefront of this movement in the 70’s, and unlike the other directors of the time (Coppola, Scorsese, Lucas), he wasn’t a film school grad, and he had actually lived a life outside of movies, so he could bring life experience as well as movie experience. And he managed to turn movie genres on their head in the process. McCabe & Mrs. Miller is nominally a Western, but there’s nary a sunny sky or open space in sight, and it could easily be read as a business parable. It’s been said that as California goes, so does the nation, and Altman exposed that in his comeback movies of the 90’s, The Player, which was a barbed letter to the movie business, and Short Cuts, which showed a middle class cut off from themselves. Though only a one-man movie, Secret Honor cut as close to the bone in its intimacy to the tattered legacy left by the Nixon years as Oliver Stone’s epic Nixon did. And in his most triumphant film, Nashville, he shows the connection between politics, music, sex, and violence have not just in the so-called “Music City,” but also everywhere else.
One more debt Altman had towards directors of the studio era, such as Hawks and Preston Sturges, was his use of a stock company. Gould, Kellerman, Keith Carradine, Paul Dooley, Henry Gibson, Lily Tomlin, and Michael Murphy were among many actors Altman used more than once, and always in varied ways (in arguably his most Altmanesque film, Magnolia, Paul Thomas Anderson paid tribute by casting Gibson and Murphy in small roles; Gibson especially seemed to be playing an Altmanesque character). And while, like other directors of the 70’s who were able to survive into the 80’s and beyond, Altman was able to get stars like Julia Roberts to work for him because they had grown up on his movies, he always fought against the temptation of today to only cast those who looked like they could walk off the cover of Vogue or GQ. Altman wanted honesty not just from his stories, but his actors as well and how they looked. And while Altman groused at one point that no one was trying to learn from his movies, directors such as Anderson, Christopher Guest, and especially Alan Rudolph have clearly used him as an influence. Altman may have missed (it would be nice to say Popeye improved on subsequent viewings, but it didn’t) as often as he hit (my top five of his are Nashville, Short Cuts, McCabe & Mrs. Miller, Secret Honor, and Cookie's Fortune), but when he was on top of his game, he left an indelible mark not just on Hollywood, but on America at large. And he seemed to get that in his later films; neither The Company nor A Prairie Home Companion have much plot to speak of. Each just seemed to be a celebration of artists and of the enjoyment of working together. Maybe Altman, always tagged as a misanthrope, was finally allowing for hope.
Saturday, September 2nd, 2006
12:07 am
World Trade Center
First of all, sorry for not getting this done soon after. I've had both lj trouble and real-life trouble. Anyway.

Read my <b>WORLD TRADE CENTER</b> reviewCollapse )
Saturday, August 12th, 2006
11:23 am
Why 9/11 movies matter
Although it's hardly the major story of the week - the Mideast continuing to spiral out of control gets that prize - the defeat of Joe Lieberman in the Connecticut Democratic primary was a big deal. Here was a clearcut, if narrowly won, demonstration by Democrat voters that they wanted someone in office who wasn't in favor of the war in Iraq. In his "concession" speech, Lieberman vowed to continue to run, perhaps as an independent. Part of that may have been because he lost by so close a margin that he's right in thinking he still has a shot at reclaiming his seat in the Senate. And he may feel he has things to say and do in the Senate - or, alternatively, doesn't want to give up power just yet - and wants to stay and fight, which is certainly his right. But his major justification for continuing to run, echoed later by Vice President Cheney, was that by voting for Ned Lamont, the voters had insured the terrorists had won.

Now, I ask you, how is that less offensive than any movie made on the subject of 9/11? Ever since that tragic event, when the Bush administration could have used its term in office to try and heal what divides us, built on the collective goodwill we had from around the world, and gone after the people who did this to us, they have done the complete opposite. Instead of going after Al Quaeda, they went after Iraq for totally unjustified reasons (yes, Saddam was a tyrant, but that was never the main reason). Instead of trying to build a united front, they insulted the rest of the world (and appointing as a U.N. ambassador someone who doesn't believe in the U.N. certainly shows that) if they couldn't bully them into seeing their way of thinking. Instead of trying to heal at home, they trotted out the bromide "If you're not with us, you're for the terrorists," to keep the media, state and local governments, and the Democratic Party in general from saying anything that might be critical of the war. Most importantly, to quote one letter-writer to Salon.com, they continue to wear 9/11 on their sleeves while treating New York City - obviously, the most affected by that day - as it did before; as a collection of people (minorities, gays, women) they have no use for.

Meanwhile, the people who should be questioning this - the media, the Democratic party - for the longest time rolled over and played dead (notwithstanding a few hardy souls in both camps. It should also be said there have been plenty of books critical of Bush's handling of 9/11, and the Internet media has also done its job). It's been left to Hollywood - the "liberal elite" - to pick up the slack, in the form of TV shows like The Daily Show - and again, if more people are getting their news from that than from traditional news outlets, whose fault is that? - documentaries from people like Michael Moore and Robert Greenwald, and yes, movies like United 93 and World Trade Center. And yet, what I hear is people saying, "How dare they make these movies!" I should point out that I'm not talking about people who simply aren't ready to see any movie confronting those events - that's perfectly understandable. I'm also not talking about people who won't see World Trade Center because they don't like Oliver Stone or Nicolas Cage - I happen to like both of them, but I can understand that as well. I'm talking about the people who think the idea of that movie (or United 93 for that matter) is automatically exploitative (and I would add to people who say to the filmmakers that they should donate all proceeds to the victim's families; while that's a valid point, why aren't you after the governments to pay the victim's families what they're owed?).

Look, I have no problem with movies being just entertainment (as long as, of course, they're entertaining). But movies are also an art form, and at the end of the day, if some movies don't try and talk about the human condition in some way, as well as confront the world we live in today, then I'm sorry, but what the fuck good are they? And like it or not, 9/11 is part of the world that we're living in, and touches on the human condition. Also, United 93 and World Trade Center, lest we forget, aren't the first movies to confront 9/11 (not counting documentaries): The 25th Hour had a segment where characters discuss how the city's changed since then, The Boys was about a playwright trying to help a fire chief write a eulogy for those who died that day, I Heart Huckabees featured a fireman still grieving over those events, and the anthology movie September 11 featured 11 filmmakers making short movies (of varying quality, it must be said) confronting that day. And I think both United 93 and WTC come from valid points of view. The former not only captured the confusion and terror of that day, but also illustrated the heroism of the passengers on the doomed plane, who knew something was going horribly wrong, and knew they probably didn't have a chance in hell, but did something anyway, and that kind of heroism deserves to be honored. As for the latter movie, it also shows people acting under what they know to be impossible odds, but it also shows how people were not only united in grief, but in wanting to do something (incidentally, I suspect this is why the right-wing press, who normally consider Oliver Stone their bete noire, are falling over themselves praising this movie; they need to pretend this unity still exists). Unfortunately, I don't think Stone's movie fulfills its task.

In Part II, I hope to illustrate why I think Stone's movie falls short, and also compare it to United 93.
Friday, August 11th, 2006
6:50 pm
To See or Not to See: My Fall/Winter Movie Preview
Before blogs, of course, there were fanzines, and I still write for one, a film one entitled CAPRA (Cinematic Amateur PRess Association). For 7 years, I wrote and edited the fall/winter movie preview, inspired by EW's annual preview. Of course, there was a difference. EW had a staff, while I had to do with yours truly (although a few people did help me, as they were privvy to release date info), and they interviewed people connected with each movie, while I had no access to that. More importantly, they seemed most concerned with how the movie would do at the box office, where I was mostly concerned with how good the movie would be. Of course, they have their biases, and I have mine, and while for the newspaper I write for, I pick the most notable movies coming out, here, I'm going to pick what I think is definitely worth checking out, and what I'm hedging my bets on. I'll give you a brief summary of the plot of each film, and then my reasons for anticipating each film with eagerness (or mixed feelings). This is not a complete list, btw.

THE BEST

CHILDREN OF MEN: In the future, when women can't have babies anymore, and a dictatorship rules, a loner (Clive Owen) must help the last pregnant woman. Why I can't wait: Alfonso Cuaron, the guy who directed it, did the best of the Harry Potter movies, plus the great movie Y TU MAMA TAMBIEN. And Owen leads a terrific cast, including Julianne Moore as his ex-girlfriend, Michael Caine as a hippie, and Chiwetel Eijofor as a rebel leader. Finally, the subject matter is rather timely.

THIS FILM IS NOT YET RATED: A documentary about the MPAA, the group that decides what a film will be rated (G, PG, R, or the dreaded NC-17). Why I can't wait: It's about time a film was made to blow the whistle on the MPAA (which, among other things, edits sex instead of violence, and gives studios a break because they spend more on movies), and I've heard this is a good movie to boot.

THE SCIENCE OF SLEEP: Gael Garcia Bernal plays an artists whose dreams start to intrude upon his real life. Why I can't wait: From Michel Gondry, who might not be as talented as his contemporary Spike Jonze, but has a weird and gentle vision of his own, and the trailer looked great.

BREAKING AND ENTERING: Architect Jude Law meets cute with Juliette Binoche, a Bosnian refugee who broke into his office, and falls in love, even though he's living with Robin Wright-Penn. Why I can't wait: Not everybody did, but I loved Anthony Minghella's last three movies (THE ENGLISH PATIENT (co-starring Binoche), THE TALENTED MR. RIPLEY, and COLD MOUNTAIN (both co-starring Law). And anything Binoche does is generally worth watching.

LUCKY YOU: Eric Bana is a card sharp who faces off with his distant father (Robert Duvall) in the World Series of Poker, while also having issues with his girlfriend (Drew Barrymore). Why I can't wait: Director Curtis Hanson has resolutely gone his own way since L.A. CONFIDENTIAL put him on the A-list, and made a good film everytime (my issues with 8MILE had nothing to do with his direction). I'm a big fan of poker movies. And Bana and Duvall are a good match.

BABEL: Four different stories interconnect in the latest from director Alejandro Gonzalez Innaritu. Why I can't wait: Innaritu is one of the best young directors out there right now, having made AMORES PERROS, 21 GRAMS (my favorite film of 2003), and contributing the best short films for the Sept. 11 anthology of a couple years ago and for the BMW webseries The Hire. This, his most ambitious film yet, won the Best Director prize at Cannes, and was well received. Plus, anything Cate Blanchett does is worth watching.

THE PRESTIGE: The rivalry between magicians Christian Bale and Hugh Jackman starts off friendly and ends up deadly. Why I can't wait: Director Christopher Nolan has gone from indie (MEMENTO) to mainstream (BATMAN BEGINS) without losing stride. The trailer looks awfully good. And it's Wolverine vs. Batman, an irresistable pair. Plus, David Bowie's in it!

LITTLE CHILDREN: Thirtysomething suburbanites struggle with their lives, among them bored housewife Kate Winslet, who starts an affair with stay-at-home dad Patrick Wilson, and a pedophile (Jackie Earle Haley) who moves home with his mom. Why I can't wait: Director Todd Field's first movie, IN THE BEDROOM, was my favorite movie of 2001, and the novel this is based on (written by the guy who wrote the novel ELECTION was based on) shows the same understanding of suburbanites the other film did. Plus, Winslet and Jennifer Connelly (as Wilson's wife) are always worth watching, and the return of Haley is a great curiousity factor.

THE FOUNTAIN: Hugh Jackman and Rachel Weisz fall in love in the year 1500...and again in 2000...and in 2500. Meanwhile, Jackman also searches for the Fountain of Youth. Why I can't wait: Yes, it's sounds hokey, but Darren Aronofsky has given us two of the most fucked-up movies ever made (PI and REQUIEM FOR A DREAM) - and that's a compliment. This looks equally weird and wonderful.

FOR YOUR CONSIDERATION: Christopher Guest and his troupe (including Harry Shearer, Michael McKean, Eugene Levy, Catherine O'Hara, and Parker Posey) return for this mockumentary about the makers of an indie film who learn they're getting Oscar buzz. Why I can't wait: If you've seen WAITING FOR GUFFMAN, BEST IN SHOW, and/or A MIGHTY WIND, then no explanation is necessary. If you haven't, well, what the hell are you waiting for?

THE GOOD GERMAN: George Clooney returns to leading man roles as a journalist in post-WWII Berlin searching for his former girlfriend (Cate Blanchett), and uncovering a a murder plot. Why I can't wait: Few stars have used their weight to make as many intelligent choices lately as Clooney, and it doesn't hurt that Steven Soderbergh is directing. Plus, it has Blanchett, gives Tobey Maguire (as an army sergeant who's not what he seems) a chance to act away from Spiderman, and is from a terrific novel (by Joseph Kanon).

MAYBE, MAYBE NOT

ALL THE KING'S MEN: Remake of the 1949 Oscar winning film, with Sean Penn as the gubenatorial candidate turned demagogue and Jude Law as the reporter who admires, then despises, him. Looks good: Though the original was good, it seems relevant enough to be ripe for remaking today. Plus, it's got a dream cast; in addition to Penn and Law, there's also Kate Winslet, Patricia Clarkson, James Gandolfini, and Anthony Hopkins. But then again: This sat on the shelf for a year, which doesn't inspire confidence. More troubling, Zaillian's last film, A CIVIL ACTION, gave a simplistic reading of a great subject.

THE QUEEN: England, particularly the Royal Family, tries to deal with the death of Princess Diana. Looks good: Director Stephen Frears has had a banner decade (DIRTY PRETTY THINGS, MRS. HENDERSON PRESENTS, and is particularly good when he's on his home turf. Plus, Helen Mirren, who plays Queen Elizabeth II, has already played Elizabeth I, so she knows from royalty. But then again: Unlike others, I was never under the spell of Princess Di, so that removes the emotional component this film is obviously striving for.

THE BLACK DAHLIA and HOLLYWOODLAND: Both films are about notorious true-life unsolved murders; the former about the notorious, and graphic, murder of would-be starlet Elizabeth Short (Mia Kirschner), the latter about the suicide-except-maybe-it-wasn't of George Reeves (Ben Affleck), who played Superman on the 50's TV show. Looks good: The former is based on the terrific, and raw, novel by James Ellroy, who brings something personal to the table (his mother was also beaten and killed, and partly because of that, he became obsessed with the Black Dahlia case). And in an intriguing bit of casting against type, Hillary Swank, best known for playing women who want to be boys, either literally (BOYS DON'T CRY) or figuratively (MILLION DOLLAR BABY), plays the glamorous, and possibly dangerous, femme fatale. For the latter, Adrien Brody seems tailor-made for the role of the down-on-his-luck detective who gets the case. But then again: Both films have questionable directors; for the former, Brian DePalma quite frankly hasn't made a good film since CARLITO'S WAY (David Fincher, who dropped out to make ZODIAC, would have been a better choice), and for the latter, though Allen Coulter has done a lot of TV (The Sopranos), this is a tough sled for his first feature. Also, both have questionable casting choices; the lightweight Josh Hartnett as the detective who becomes obsessed with Swank and the Dahlia in the former, and Affleck in the latter.

THE LAST KISS: Though he's involved living with his pregnant girlfriend (Jacinda Barrett), a thirtysomething architect (Zach Braff) finds himself attracted to a college student (The O.C.'s Rachel Bilson). Have problems with: This is a remake of the 2001 Italian film of the same name, and remakes of foreign films don't always translate well. Tony Goldwyn, the director, has had a checkered career so far, with a hit (A WALK ON THE MOON) and a miss (SOMEONE LIKE YOU). And Braff's acting was the weakest part of the otherwise engaging GARDEN STATE, which is another obvious influence on this film. But then again: The trailer looks good, and anything with Tom Wilkinson in it (he plays Barrett's father, I think) can't be all bad.

THE DEPARTED: Leonardo DiCaprio is a cop going undercover as a crook to infiltrate Jack Nicholson's gang, while Matt Damon is working for Nicholson to infiltrate the police force (led by Alec Baldwin, Martin Sheen, and Mark Wahlberg). Trouble comes when both Nicholson and the cops suspect a traitor in their midsts. Looks good: Directed by Martin Scorsese, to whom attention must always be paid (and I should point out I liked his somewhat derided films GANGS OF NEW YORK and THE AVIATOR), and he finally gets to work with Nicholson and Sheen. But then again: Scorsese is remaking an excellent Hong Kong movie (INFERNAL AFFAIRS), which again might not translate to these shores. And while I like both DiCaprio and Damon, they do seem a little young and untested for these roles.

FLAGS OF OUR FATHERS: A look at the soldiers captured in the famous WWII photo at Iwo Jima. Looks good: Clint Eastwood has become one of the most interesting directors of the last two decades, and if anyone can keep this from being just a propaganda film, it's him. And the fact that he's making a film from the Japanese point of view shows he's striving to be fair. But then again: While Eastwood has gotten great performances out of his actors, the names Ryan Phillipe, Jesse Bradford, and Paul Walker do not inspire confidence (though admittedly, Barry Pepper does).

FAST FOOD NATION: Director Richard Linklater takes Eric Schlosser's expose of the fast food industry and makes a fiction film about what we do in the name of fast food. Looks good: Linklater seems an ideal person to take this type of story on, the trailer looked good, and it's well cast (Linklater regular Ethan Hawke joins Greg Kinnear and, in her first film since her Oscar-nominated role in in MARIA FULL OF GRACE, Catalina Sandino Moreno). But then again: While a fiction film will reach more people than a documentary, this has the potential to be more watered-down than a documentary. Plus, Linklater's last movie, A SCANNER DARKLY, was disappointing.

RUNNING WITH SCISSORS: Based on the best-selling memoir by Augusten Burroughs (Joseph Cross), who must deal with, among other things, a bipolar mother (Annette Bening) and a crazy shrink (Brian Cox). Looks good: The great cast also includes Evan Rachel Wood, Joseph Fiennes, Evan Rachel Wood, Alec Baldwin, Evan Rachel Wood, and Gwyneth Paltrow. The trailer looks good. And did I mention Evan Rachel Wood's in it? But then again: I haven't read the book yet, but crazy family stories may have run their course. Plus, Cross' past movies (WIDE AWAKE, JACK FROST) don't inspire confidence in his ability to handle this role.

MARIE ANTOINETTE: "I just don't see why everyone's always picking on Marie Antoinette. I can so relate to her. She worked really hard to look that good, and people just don't appreciate that kind of effort...And (she) cared about (the peasants). She was going to let them eat cake." Looks good No matter what you heard, this actually got a pretty good reception at Cannes, and Sofia Coppola has a good track record behind the camera. Plus, her take on Antoinette - as someone trapped in a world, rather than the creator of it - is somewhat provocative. But then again: Coppola's use of anachronisms (rock songs, tennis shoes) could grate. Plus, Kirsten Dunst, who plays the title role, can be annoying.

INFAMOUS: Yet another telling of how Truman Capote (Toby Jones) came to write In Cold Blood. Have problems with: CAPOTE, which came first, was so good this will have to be really good to beat it. And frankly, writer-director Douglas McGrath (Company Man doesn't inspire confidence). Nor does Sandra Bullock (she plays Harper Lee). But then again: Jones is more of a ringer for Capote than Hoffman was, and the rest of the cast (including Daniel Craig as Perry Smith, Jeff Daniels as Alvin Dewey, and Hope Davis, Isabella Rossellini, Sigourney Weaver, and Gwyneth Paltrow) is good.

FLUSHED AWAY: Roddy (voiced by Hugh Jackman), who leads a comfortable life in a penthouse, is flushed down the toilet by a city rat, and must learn to survive in the big bad city. Looks good: From the British studio that brought you the Wallace & Gromit shorts, as well as CHICKEN RUN, and featuring the voice talents of Jackman, Kate Winslet, Ian McKellen, Bill Nighy, and Jean Reno, among others. Also, the folks who wrote THE COMMITMENTS wrote this. But then again: The American studio, DreamWorks, has been notorious for making animated films inferior to Pixar, and Nick Park not being at the helm of this clay puppet film does give one pause.

BORAT and TENACIOUS D: THE PICK OF DESTINY: Borat (Sacha Baron Cohen), the journalist from Kazakhstan, and Tenacious D (Jack Black and Kyle Gass) each get their own movie. Looks good: Both Black and Cohen are hysterically funny in their respective roles, and the trailers for both movies look good. But then again: The eternal question: can funny sketches become funny movies? Usually, the answer is no.

THE HOAX: The true story of Clifford Irving (Richard Gere), who claimed to have written a biography of Howard Hughes. Looks good: It's a good story, the trailer looks good, the rest of the cast (Hope Davis, Alfred Molina, Marcia Gay Harden), and while I'm not a fan of Gere, he seems like he would be good in this type of role. But then again: I'm not a fan of Gere. Nor am I a fan these days of director Lasse Hallstrom (Chocolat).

COME EARLY MORNING: Lucy (Ashley Judd), a woman looking for love in all the wrong places, may find happiness with a new guy. Have problems with: Got decidedly mixed reviews at Sundance, and even good films from there tend to be overrated. And when's the last time Judd did a good movie? But then again: Supposedly, this is Judd's best performance in years, plus, this is also supposedly a highly personal story for writer-director Joey Lauren Adams (best known for CHASING AMY).

STRANGER THAN FICTION: An I.R.S. agent (Will Ferrell) discovers he's a character in a novel by a writer (Emma Thompson) who plans to kill him off. Looks good: A great idea for a story, a funny trailer, and it's nice to see Thompson working again. Dustin Hoffman (as a literary professor who helps Ferrell) and Maggie Gyllenhaal don't hurt, either. But then again: Not a big fan of Ferrell, and director Marc Forster's last film, STAY, didn't hold together with a similar bendy premise.

CASINO ROYALE: James Bond goes back to the beginning, to the first novel, and tries to bankrupt a terrorist in a poker game. Looks good: Despite all the bad press he's gotten, Daniel Craig is a really good actor, and would make a good Bond. Supposedly, this will be a leaner, meaner Bond (Chris Cornell singing the title song indicates that), and Eva Green certainly makes a striking looking Bond girl. Jeffrey Wright isn't a bad choice as Felix Lighter, and Judi Dench is always welcome. But then again: Having the screenwriters of the last few Bond movies around (though Paul Haggis also co-wrote) doesn't inspire confidence that this will take Bond in a new direction. Plus, to be honest, I really don't care about Bond, which I hope to explore in a later column.

DREAMGIRLS: From the award-winning Broadway musical inspired by the story of the Supremes. Looks good: Supposedly, the 20 minute excerpt that played at Cannes was better received than any of the American films in competition. Jamie Foxx, who plays the manager, is well-suited to this type of material, and Condon, who adapted CHICAGO to the big screen, also knows from stage-turned-screen musicals. But then again: Again, quite frankly, I've never been a fan of the Supremes. Nor am I a fan of Beyonce, who plays the Diana Ross character.

BLOOD DIAMOND: Leonardo DiCaprio is a mercenary who battles with a famer (Dijimon Hounsou) and a group of businessmen over diamonds in Africa. Looks good: Supposedly, this takes a look at how the Western world exploits Africa for its own gain, and this is an ideal role for DiCaprio. Plus, having Jennifer Connelly in the cast doesn't hurt. But then again: Director Ed Zwick normally raises all the right questions, but also normally gives pat answers. And his last movie (The Last Samurai) was simply ridiculous.

APOCALYPTO: Mel Gibson takes on the Mayans. Looks good: As he demonstrated in BRAVEHEART, Gibson does have a gift for spectacle. He's also possibly the only star in Hollywood today who could get away with making a movie like this not only with no stars, but entirely in a foreign language, which deserves kudos. But then again: Gibson's notorious drunken incident confirmed what many of us knew already; the man has serious issues. Will those transfer to the film? And I'm one of the people who loathed PASSION OF THE CHRIST, possibly because of those issues.

THE HOLIDAY: Cameron Diaz, who lives in L.A., and Kate Winslet, who lives in London, both have had cheating boyfriends. They meet on an Internet site, and decide to swap houses for the Christmas holidays so they can change their lives for the better. Have problems with: I'm one of those people who didn't like WHAT WOMEN WANT or SOMETHING'S GOTTA GIVE at all; I think Nancy Meyers is a terrible writer and director. And the plot looks like another "oh, those poor rich white people" movie. But then again: I have to admit, the trailer looked funny. Kate Winslet is always a bright spot, and the idea of her and Jack Black together is appealing.

THE GOOD SHEPHERD: A twenty year history of the CIA, as seen through the eyes of an agent played by Matt Damon, leading up to the Bay of Pigs. Looks good: Supposedly, one of the smartest scripts around (and Eric Roth, who co-wrote THE INSIDER, knows from smart scripts about true events). If ever there was a time for a movie about the inner dealings of the CIA, this is it. And director Robert DeNiro got together a great cast; Angelina Jolie, Billy Crudup, Michael Gambon, Chazz Palminteri, and the return of Joe Pesci. But then again: The last time DeNiro the actor made a good movie was RONIN. And his previous directing effort (A BRONX TALE) was promising but somewhat derivative. Can he handle a story of this scale?

THE NATIVITY STORY: The story of the birth of Jesus, as told through the eyes of Mary (Keisha Castle-Hughes). Looks good: Director Catherine Hardwicke can be trusted to make a film that won't sentimentalize the material, and Castle-Hughes is a good choice to play Mary. But then again: There's been no word either way about this, which could be a good or bad sign.

This post is longer than I thought it would be, so it doesn't include a lot of movies I wanted to write about (THE PAINTED VEIL), and doesn't include the must-avoids (then again, do I really need to tell you to stay away from the latest ROCKY movie?). But it should give you an idea of what's to come.

Next time, I'll review WORLD TRADE CENTER.
Saturday, July 29th, 2006
12:28 am
The paradox of Miami Vice
In their never-ending nostalgia craze, movie studios are now returning to TV shows of the 70's and 80's to make them into movies, and regular channels, along with syndicated channels like TV Land and Sleuth, are rerunning some of the more popular shows of that time period as well. If they were popular, they all tell us a little about what we were at the time, quality notwithstanding. The Cosby Show was the first succesful show to deal with African-Americans who had become middle-class, though some charged it reinforced the "family values" Republicanism of the 80's. Shows like The A-Team and The Equalizer, with outsiders helping people who were frustrated by the system, itself showed frustration with the system. And while feminism was under fire in the 80's, shows like Cagney and Lacey and Designing Women tried to grapple with women's day-to-day issues, and comment on the national ones. However, when all is said and done, probably the most emblematic show of the 80's was Miami Vice. As we know now, then-NBC programming head Brandon Tartikoff conceived the show as "MTV cops," and it certainly was that. This was the first cop show done in a style that not only seemed like a movie, but was wedded to the MTV style of music and fashion. Whatever you thought of the show at the time, it truly didn't look like any other show on TV (in an interview, executive producer Michael Mann said that they did every show like a movie, because he didn't know any other way to do it). Underneath the pastels, the music (Phil Collins and Glenn Frey, among others, would forever be associated with the show thanks to their respective songs "In the Air Tonight" and "Smuggler's Blues" being used), and the style, however, was a show that, at its best, was in the Michael Mann tradition of existential angst; guys doing their jobs because that's what they do.

Vice, of course, has also had its detractors; people who missed the content complained the show was empty style, the show did get ludicrous as it went on, the pastels eventually became ridiculous, and except for the steady and talented Edward James Olmos as Castillo, the regular cast - Don Johnson as Sonny Crockett and Phillip Scott Thomas as Ricardo Stubbs - was pretty bad (Johnson, after several false movie starts, scored a TV comeback with Nash Bridges, while Thomas pretty much disappeared). And Mann, it seems, has wanted to put distance between himself and the show as well; while continuing to explore his theme of existential angst, and continuing to have style to burn, he's moved on to more somber and muted works, both on TV (Crime Story, Robbery Homicide Division) and in movies (Last of the Mohicans, Heat, The Insider, Ali, and Collateral). But apparently Jamie Foxx (who appeared in both Ali and Collateral thought there was more to do with the show, and convinced Mann of the same. So the question would be; would Mann continue the trend of merely cannibalizing TV shows into movies for cheap nostalgia, or would he truly do something with it? The answer is; he has and he hasn't.

True, gone are the pastels and the bantering dialogue; Crockett (Colin Farrell), Tubbs (Foxx), and the other characters pretty much either talk jargon or we-gotta-do-this-and-do-it-right speak. But it's still exotic locales, it's still chasing drug dealers, and it's even loosely based on the S1 episode "Smuggler's Blues". It all starts when Alonzo (John Hawkes), an informant, tells Crockett he needs to flee because the bad guys know everything, and he had to give people up. When he finds out his family's been killed, he commits suicide by walking in front of a speeding truck. Soon after, Crockett, Tubbs and Castillo (Barry Shabaka Henley) meet up with FBI agent Fujima (Ciaran Hinds), who tells them there's a mole in his agency or maybe another one (DEA, Customs), and wants to send someone undercover to find them. Naturally, Crockett and Tubbs volunteer. The assignment involves them pretending to set themselves up as transport people to get close to Jose Yero (John Ortiz), a club owner and drug dealer, who will then get them closer to the main man, Jesus Montoya (Luis Tosar). Of course, the lines between cop and their undercover personas get crossed, especially when Crockett falls in love with Isabella (Gong Li), Montoya's wife and banker.

In a way, Mann has taken his cue from those blurring lines. Unlike most recent movie versions of TV shows (even good ones like The Fugitive, this movie drops you in media res (like Mann's last movie, Collateral, there's no opening credits), without explaining who anyone is or what they're doing until necessary (we don't know Crockett is a detective until he has to identify himself that way on the phone). And except for a couple quick references to the TV show (there's a couple lines lifted from "Smuggler's Blues," Crockett refers to the Allman Brothers, and Tubbs says they should get ready to "take it to the limit one more time"), there's no backstory given to any of the main characters - the one we learn most about is Isabella - her mom died when she was 16, and she's had to fend for herself ever since, using her obvious intelligence in a dirty job. More interesting is how Mann tries to avoid the usual cliches of cop movies and shows with the bickering partners. Crockett and Tubbs might not always agree with each other (Tubbs raises an eyebrow about Crockett's involvement with Isabella), but they generally trust each other, and there's an unspoken assumption that they'll always be there to back each other up (as when something happens to Trudy (Naomie Harris), Tubbs' girlfriend, late in the movie).

The problem is, Mann goes so far the other way that we don't really get enough of the bond between Crockett and Stubbs (while Johnson and Thomas were hardly great actors, they at least had personalities that shone through). It's only with other people - on the job, or their respective women - that we see who they are. This brings up an interesting paradox about Mann. Most of his films have been about characters who have been opposite sides of the same coin, like the cop and thief in Heat, or the serial killer and the empathic FBI agent tracking him down in Manhunter, or the tightly wired tobacco exec Jeffrey Wigand and the explosive TV news producer Lowell Bergman in The Insider. His seminal TV shows, on the other hand, have been about like-minded loners working together and struggling with their roles (the opposite side of the coin here is simply the crimes they fight, and the ones who commit them, it seems). Maybe Mann is so far removed from his TV shows that the buddy theme seems alien to him now. Also, the plot can be confusing at times. If, for example, the movie told us who the mole was, I still don't know who.

Still, it's entertaining. For one thing, as always, Mann knows how to make the movie look at sound good. One might have gotten the impression that, unlike the TV show, this was entirely nocturnal. That's not quite the case - there are still lots of sunny locations - but Mann once more teamed up with cinematographer Dion Beebe in using a high-def digital camera that allowed him to shoot more clearly at night. You can literally feel the thick atmosphere that weighs on Crockett and Tubbs as they do their jobs. There's not a lot of action scenes until a big shootout at the end, but as always, Mann stages them with verve and excitement. And the jargon-heavy dialogue doesn't overwhelm the proceedings, but merely fits in with Mann's well-known meticulous nature. Also, Mann's taste for music comes through again - there's very little musical cues to the TV show (though composer John Murphy does sort of work it in to scenes accompanying a boat ride, and a cover version of "In the Air Tonight" plays over the closing credits), but songs by Audioslave and Moby featuring Patti Labelle contribute well to the mood of the film.

One marked difference from the show is it's better acted. Olmos was hard to replace as Castillo, but Henley (who was in Mann's last two films, as well as Robbery Homicide Division) does a credible job. Tosar and Ortiz are menacing enough as the drug dealers. Harris (who was terrific as the PA in Tristram Shandy: A Cock and Bull Story, and who's currently in the Pirates of the Carribean sequel) doesn't get a lot to do, but she has good chemistry with Foxx. Hinds is properly authoritative as the FBI agent. And Elizabeth Rodriguez is terrific as Det. Calabrese - unlike the more feminine Saundra Santiago from the TV show, she's more of a cop without turning into a she-man. Foxx isn't quite as expressive as he was in Ali, but unlike his meek character in Collateral, he's assertive and sure of himself. The real surprises come with Farrell and Li. Whatever you think of Farrell's off-screen behavior, he hasn't really made much of a mark on-screen, unless he's been allowed to relax (his turn in The New World being the exception). While Mann of course relies on him to be somber, Farrell also gets to show a more playful, sexy side in his scenes with Li. Alas, though Li tries hard, she doesn't quite sound convincing in English (though she seems to speak Spanish well). But that's about the only thing wrong here. Along with the language barrier, part of the reason why foreign actors have difficulty here is, whether by bad luck or bad choices, they end up in bad Hollywood movies that misuse their talents. So far, Li has been luckier than most; Chinese Box used her very well (and, to be fair, allowed her to speak Chinese most of the time), and while Memoirs of a Geisha was a misfire, she at least managed to have fun with the material. And here, Mann shows off her toughness, intelligence, and vulnerability, and has great chemistry with Farrell.

TV shows will continue to be made into bad movies as long as Hollywood execs are afraid to look for new ideas, and as long as they think the movies will make money (even though most of them don't). I'm not sure I agree that Mann needed to go back and "take it to the limit one more time," but whatever contradictions lay at the heart of Miami Vice, it's at least a good movie, and an entertaining one. That this movie should come from a major studio that was looking for nothing more than a nostalgia-laden film is a contradiction that I, for one, am happy to embrace.
Tuesday, June 13th, 2006
11:14 am
I'm back!
Hello. For a variety of reasons, I haven't been here in a while, most of them time or computer issues, so everything I wanted to say about political films, my favorite films of last year (Brokeback Mountain), the Oscars, and whatnot has been rendered moot. I will try to be more studious about updating lj in the future. In the meantime, this is totally unrelated to my subject, but eirefaerie asked me to do this, so:

Name: Sean
Birthday: 2/6/68
Place of residence: Brooklyn, NY
What makes you happy: Chatting with friends online or in person, watching a great movie
What are you listening to now/have listened to last: Last thing I listened to? Weird Al Yankovic's "You're Pitiful"
What is particularly good/bad about my LJ: About yours or mine? If it's mine, the bad thing is I haven't updated mine in months. If it's yours, the good thing is you're often funny.
An interesting fact about you: I've seen every Best Picture winner ever made.
Are you in love/have a crush at the moment: Several. Unfortunately, none of them notice me back, or they have boyfriends.
Favorite place to be: NYC in general
Favorite lyric: "Lying here in the darkness, I hear the sirens wail/Somebody going to emergency, somebody's going to jail/You find somebody to love in this world you better hang on tooth and nail/The wolf is always at the door"
Best time of the year: Christmas - if it's not too cold.
Weirdest food you like: Iced tea mixed with lemonade and lots of sugar. I know that doesn't sound weird, but a lot of people think the mixture looks like piss.

RECOMMEND:
A film: Dave Chappelle's Block Party
A book: What Liberal Media? by Eric Alterman
A song: "You're Pitiful" by Weird Al Yankovic
A band: The Replacements; cause they're reuniting. Yeah!

PLUS:
One thing you like about me: The fact that I don't even have to tell you what the song lyric I chose is from, and why I chose it.
Two things you like about yourself: I have a great memory, and I listen well - or I try to, anyway.
Put this in your LJ so I can tell you what I think of you: In my LJ? Well...okay.
Saturday, December 17th, 2005
11:57 am
In Memory of John Spencer
I was all set to do that column on politics and movies, until real life intervened. I know I started this as a film journal and not a TV one, but I'd be remiss, I think, if I didn't try to pay at least a small tribute to one of my favorite actors.

When Presumed Innocent came out in 1990, I went to the theater to see it because I was a big Harrison Ford fan, and was curious to see how he'd handle a role outside of his usual action roles. I was immediately caught up in the story, was of course pleased with Ford's work as Rusty Sabich, the prosecutor accused of murdering his former lover. And was also taken with the supporting cast, like Greta Scacchi as Carolyn Polhemus, Rusty's murdered ex-lover, Bonnie Bedelia as Barbara, Rusty's long-suffering wife, Paul Winfield as the forceful Judge Larren Lyttle, and especially Raul Julia as Sandy Stern, Rusty's enigmatic defense attorney. But I also came back to the actor who played Dan Lipranzer, Rusty's chief investigator and best friend. Near the end of the movie, Lipranzer (or as he is known in the movie and the Scott Turow book it's based on, Lip)reveals the whereabouts of a key piece of evidence that went missing during Rusty's trial, and seems happy about this. Rusty, however, picks up on something entirely different:

Rusty: You think I killed her.
Lip: (long pause) Lady was bad news.

It's a simple but powerful line, suggesting while Lip is glad his friend was set free, and is dismissive of Carolyn, he's also upset about what he thinks Rusty has done. For while Lip is a cynical and hardened cop, he also goes by his own moral code, and it eats at him that his friend, for whatever good reason he may have had, violated it. All of that is perfectly captured by John Spencer's delivery of the line, and it's one of the reasons Spencer, who died yesterday at 58, will be missed.

I was never lucky enough to see Spencer on stage, where he earned an Obie in 1981 for his work in Still Life, and went back to even during his success in film and TV. And although he did well in bit parts in films like War Games (as a military officer unable to launch a nuclear missile) and Sea of Love (as Al Pacino's boss), as well as more substantial roles in films such as Forget Paris (as one of Billy Crystal's friends), The Rock (as the somewhat corrupt FBI director), and The Negotiator (as Samuel L. Jackson's boss), he really didn't get much of a chance to shine. Television became his best visible outlet, particularly on two shows: L.A. Law and, of course, The West Wing.

I was never a big fan of L.A. Law, for the same reason I dislike most lawyer shows; it was too slick and soap opera-y. Spencer, playing Tommy Mullaney, a transplanted New York attorney, lent the show gravitas and authenticity. Unfortunately, I don't remember any specific moments, other than when he was trying to win back his ex-wife, but he carried himself with aplomb on the show.

TWW, however, was where he made his mark. In the intro to the first TWW script book, Aaron Sorkin mentioned he had wanted someone like John Spencer for the role of Leo, and when the brass suggested he just get Spencer, Sorkin was sure he'd never get him. The irony is Spencer had sworn off TV dramas after appearing in the failed show Trinity. But he liked Sorkin's script so much he eagerly signed on, and TWW's many viewers are glad he did.

The opening credits sequence sets the stage for Leo McGarry, the White House Chief of Staff. He has to announce his presence with authority, snapping orders to underlings, greeting everybody, and keeping track of a million different things, and Spencer effortlessly demonstrated that. He also did the scene that made me realize I'd love the show, when he stops his assistant Margaret:

Leo: Margaret, please call the editor of The New York Times crossword and tell him "Khadaffi" is spelled with a "d" and two "f's" and isn't a seven-letter word for anything.
Margaret: Is this for real, or is this just funny?
Leo: Apparently, it's neither.

As the show went on, we learned Leo was an alcoholic (S1:4 "Five Votes Down) and a drug addict (S1:9 "The Short List"). We learned he had relapsed during the campaign to elect President Bartlett (S3:10 "Bartlett for America"). We also learned time and time again his absolute loyalty to the President, as in his oft-repeated line "I take a bullet for the President. He doesn't take a bullet for me." (S1:12 "He Shall, from Time to Time...") He knew how to compromise and how to play politics (as in the way he subtly intimidates a member of the FEC in S1:21 "Lies, Damned Lies and Statistics"), and how to play hardball, with his staff, with others, even with the President (S1:3 "A Proportional Response"). And we also saw his staff's, and the President's, loyalty to him, best summed up by Josh in S1:9 "The Short List"; "You're Leo McGarry. You won't be taken down by [Lillienfield, who knows Leo abused pills]. I won't permit it." Half of Josh's actions were done, you could tell, because Josh was afraid of disappointing Leo (as Jed points out in S4:12 "Guns Not Butter"). And Spencer was good enough to show all those qualities.

A lot of people have remembered Leo's serious moments on the show, such as his "guy falls down a hole" speech (S2:10 "Noel"), or his speech about being an alcoholic, and his tribute to the President (S3:10 "Bartlett for America"). But Spencer also had some very funny moments, such as his gently teasing Bartlett for his reaction to Zoe (the First Daughter) asking Charlie (his personal aide) out on a date (S1:11 "Lord John Marbury"), or his telling Zoe why Bartlett follows a campaign law like he does; "Because your father is a demented, demented man." (S2:3 "The Midterms"). And that was true even when he didn't have any lines, like the way he rolls his eyes when the President tells Charlie of a rare book he's thinking of getting for Zoe (S1:10 "In Excelsis Deo").

Apparently, in real life, Spencer was also gracious. I know someone who works (worked?) at CNN who interviewed him during TWW's salad days. The interviewer was a big TWW fan, and it was obvious in the kind of questions he asked Spencer, not the usually entertainment reporter questions, and Spencer appreciated it. And at the Emmy pre-show later that year, when a CNN reporter (not the same one) had an interview with him, he asked about the other reporter. He was that kind of guy.

RIP, John Spencer.
Saturday, December 10th, 2005
12:49 am
Of High Kings and Queens; My Narnia Review
By the way, the politcs and movies post I promised? Next time; I'm still researching it. Anyway.

If you were lucky enough to acquire a love of reading when you were a kid, then you probably have some childhood books that you still come back to as an adult. Harry Potter, of course, is much beloved by kids (and adults) for almost the past decade, while older generations might fondly remember Gulliver's Travels, Huckleberry Finn, the Hardy Boys and/or Nancy Drew, and so on. For me, and for countless others, it's the story of what happened when a young girl named Lucy opened a wardrobe door, and the adventures that followed. The Chronicles of Narnia have been a staple in my home since I was growing up, and I re-read them every year. There are many reasons why Lewis' tale has lived on, but the main reason is in how simply it's told, and how Lewis, like the best writers, left much of the tale up to our imaginations. Of course, I was imagining a movie version once I became obsessed with movies. I dimly remember seeing an animated version of the first one, but the only thing I retain from it is seeing Edmund in battle. Now, over 50 years after being published, a big-screen version of The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe finally comes to the big screen, and I think Lewis, for the most part, would be proud.

Director Andrew Adamson and his three credited co-writers (the others being Christopher Markus, Stephen McFeely and Ann Peacock) start out by taking Lewis' brief intro ("This is the story of what happened to (the children) when they were sent away from London during the war because of the air raids") and expanding it to show us those air raids. Part of it is to show the family dynamic, as we see Peter (William Moseley) and Susan (Anna Popplewell) are the relative grownups, while Lucy (Georgie Henley) and Edmund (Skandar Keynes) are still children. Edmund in particular we see misses his father (who's fighting in the war), resents himself for being vulnerable like that, and resents Peter for trying to replace his father. Like many other children, the four Pevensies are sent away to the country to be safe. They wind up at the house of Professor Diggory (Jim Broadbent), an eccentric, and Mrs. Macready (Elizabeth Hawthorne), his no-nonsense housekeeper. The four children think it'll be a grand vacation of sorts (except for Edmund), but when it rains the next day, they decide to play hide and seek at Lucy's urging. That's when Lucy, looking for a place to hide, finds the wardrobe, opens the door, and discovers Narnia.

At first, Narnia seems exotic only for being in the wardrobe; it's snowing, cold, and dreary. But Lucy runs into Mr. Tumnus (James McAvoy), a rather curious creature; he's a Faun (Lewis describes him as a man from the waist up, but with goat legs and hooves, plus antlers and a tail). After some circling around, Mr. Tumnus invites Lucy to tea, which she accepts. Of course, we find out his motives aren't pure; Mr. Tumnus works for the White Witch (Tilda Swinton), and is supposed to be on the lookout for any human (Son of Adam or Daughter of Eve) who stumbles into Narnia, particularly if, like Lucy, they have two brothers and a sister. However, realizing he can't actually turn Lucy in, he takes her back to where they first met, and she goes back through the wardrobe into the house, and can't wait to tell her siblings. Naturally, according to them, she's only been gone for a second, and they don't believe her. Edmund follows her that night when she goes to see if she was perhaps mistaken, and he ends up in Narnia as well, though on his own. He meets up with the White Witch, who charms him into revealing Lucy's earlier visit, and about his other brother and sister, as well as into coming to her place the next time he comes in. Because he's been tempted by the White Witch (she claims she'll make him High King), Edmund is nasty about Lucy's attempt to once again convince Susan and Peter about Narnia, and even Professor Diggory unexpectedly taking Lucy's side doesn't help.

What finally helps is when the four have to hide from Mrs. Macready because Edmund knocked a cricket ball through the window, and all four go into the wardrobe and come upon Narnia. But a dreadful surprise awaits; Mr. Tumnus has been taken by the White Witch. However, they're soon found by Mr. Beaver (voiced by Ray Winstone) and Mrs. Beaver (Dawn French), who are friends of Mr. Tumnus, and explain why the four of them are so important. It seems there's a prophecy that says when two Sons of Adam and Daughters of Eve sit on the throne at Cair Paravel (the castle where the White Witch lives), the White Witch's tyranny will be broken. Edmund slips away to join the White Witch, but rather than being greeted with open arms, he's imprisoned and forced to be a slave for her. But events have already undercut her rule; not only are all four children in Narnia, but so is Aslan (voiced by Liam Neeson), the "king of the whole world" (as Mr. Beaver describes him), who will help Peter lead the Narnians against the White Witch.

For the most part, Adamson tells this all as simply as Lewis did. He emphasizes perhaps a little too much the dilemma Peter and Susan feel - whether to stay in Narnia or turn around and go home - but that's just to show how childhood shouldn't be so easily cast off. We see Narnia just as the children see it; as something new and therefore terrifying but also possibly wonderful. And the dual enemies are also presented through their eyes; we see what captivates Edmund about the White Witch (as well as the cruelty he eventually sees), and we see Aslan as majestic, wise, a little frightening, and yet (at a crucial moment, only Lucy sees this) sad as well, all fitting for one who is described as "not a tame lion." The technology used to make the animals talk works seamlessly (though Aslan always looks like a CGI lion rather than a real one). The battle scenes that close the film may seem repetitive after LOTR, but they're done competently.

But mostly, what makes this work is Adamson, like Lewis, pays most attention to the characters who are driving the story. Susan is the most underdeveloped character in the books (she's the one most eager to cast off childish things), but here, she's like a mother figure, trying to both keep everyone in line, but also offer comfort when need be. Popplewell captures all of that. Peter has to deal with the knowledge that he's the grownup of the family and the fear that he'll never be able to live up to that, and Moseley conveys all that, plus is convincing in battle. McAvoy manages to give us an impression of Tumnus within just a few scenes, showing us why Lucy would remain captivated by him. And Neeson is appropriately majestic sounding as Aslan. But the soul of the movie rests on the characters of Edmund, Lucy, and the White Witch, and all three characters deliver. Edmund is the most conflicted of the children, and Keynes takes us inside Edmund without too much expository dialogue. We discover with him the depths he didn't think he had. At one point, the White Witch taunts Aslan as "the great cat," yet it's Swinton who's feral here. She gives the White Witch a cold dignity, playing her more as a queen than a witch, and she manages to be both charming and chilling with Edmund at the same time. Swinton also avoids the mistake of camping it up, even when she thinks she's won.

Lucy, however, is the one who holds it all together (appropriately enough, since Lewis wrote the book originally for his goddaughter, named Lucy). In The Last Battle, the final Narnia book, Lucy is described as drinking everything in more deeply than the others, and Henley has that down. The first time she enters Narnia, we see her taking everything in with awe, and that continues through her being charmed by Tumnus, and alarmed by his attempt at treachery. She's hurt when the others refuse to believe her, yet immediately forgiving when they do. She's steadfastly loyal, even to Edmund (she's the first to greet him when he's rescued from the White Witch). And when tragedy strikes late in the story, and Lucy witnesses it, you can see how the horror strikes her to the bone. Henley handles all of this with the grace of actresses more than twice her age.

A word about that tragedy. Because of a crucial event in the story, Aslan has been seen as a Christ metaphor. Lewis has been straightforward about it, but never preachy, and the event comes off simply as an element in his fairy tale. It remains the same in the movie (though Adamson, perhaps in fear of preaching, downplays talking about it), and comes off beautifully. The story itself, except for some nagging mistakes (the Beavers are too often schtick), also comes off beautifully, and I can't wait to see the other six books filmed.
Friday, November 25th, 2005
11:47 pm
Syriana
When the Cold War ended, one of the major assumptions was because communism collapsed, and democracy had won out (or so it seemed), the world was now a simpler place. No matter what side of the politcal fence you sit on, I think you can agree that's not true of the world today (if it was ever true). While we love simple answers in our life and in our fiction (more below), the reality is much more complex. Stephen Gaghan's Syriana is being praised - and slammed - for its ideology, but it also deserves praise - along with some criticism - for showing just how complex the problem it confronts is.

The problem in this movie is oil. As one character states bluntly, "(Oil's) running out. And the answer lies in the Middle East." It's where Arab nations both court Western oil companies and despise the governments that allow the companies to do what they want in the name of business. It's also where Bob Barnes (George Clooney), a CIA agent, is stationed. At the beginning of the film, he makes a deal with, and then kills off, two arms dealers in Tehran, but a key weapon is taken away. That weapon will ultimately play a bigger part than even Barnes imagined. We then shift to Bennett Holiday (Jeffrey Wright), a corporate lawyer who is called upon by his boss, Dean Whiting (Christopher Plummer), to help facilitate the merger of two oil companies, Connex and Killen. As it happens, both companies are also trying to get exclusive drilling rights in a small Middle Eastern country. Living in that country is young energy analyst Bryan Woodman (Matt Damon), his wife Julie (Amanda Peet), and their two sons. Woodman tries to get his company in with Nasir (Alexander Siddiq), a prince of the country who wants the oil to go to the Chinese, not the U.S. After a family tragedy, Nasir invites Woodman to help, and Woodman throws himself into the job. Finally, because Nasir's deal with the Chinese, the current workers are let go, including Wasim (Mazhar Munir), and when he's unable to find other work, he falls in with a terrorist group.

One of Holliday's jobs is not only to help facilitate the merger, but also the Justice Department. Because of Killen's shady dealings in Kazakhstan, Donald (David Clennon), a Justice Department official, wants to go after Killen. Or rather, he wants to appear to go after Killen while still allowing the merger. Thus, Connex head Leland Janus (Peter Gerety) and Killen head Jimmy Pope (Chris Cooper) are spared, because they're too important (and Pope even talks about how he has parks named after him). However, Danny Dalton (Tim Blake Nelson), Pope's right-hand man, is visible, and risible, enough (he gives a speech about corruption that may bring to mind Michael Douglas' "Greed is good" speech) that he can be thrown to the wolves. Barnes, meanwhile, also finds himself thrown to the wolves. He's called upon to assassinate Nasir to make way for Nasir's brother Meshal (Akbar Kurtha), who's more corruptible, sympathetic to U.S. interests, and easier to push around (as Whiting demonstrates). But Barnes' contact, Mussawi (Mark Strong) ends up kidnapping and torturing Barnes instead, and when he's let go, Barnes finds he's basically being blacklisted from the CIA. Woodman, meanwhile, may be throwing his lot in with Nasir for idealistic purposes, but it's at the expense of his relationship with Julie.

Gaghan won an Oscar for his script for Traffic, and based this film partly on the book See No Evil by Robert Baer (whom Clooney's character is based on), an ex-CIA agent who was stationed in the Middle East, and you can see the influence both have on this movie. Like Traffic, this takes multiple stories that could easily be a movie on their own, and weaves them together on the theory that you can't confront a problem this complex with just one of the stories. And while only a little of Baer's is really in the movie (the part of Barnes getting discredited within his own company), it's as if he had written the screenplay himself, because it suggests a CIA agent's view of the world. Not in an ideological sense, but in a reapolitik sense. The way the world works, the movie suggest, is through meetings, secret deals, constantly shifting alliances, and small events that turn out to have enormous consequences. Also, while people may be punished for missteps (as with Dalton), that may just to appease the public so the dirty work can continue. And it doesn't matter if you're good, bad, or in-between, there's little you can do about it.

Possibly because of that feeling, along with a wish to challenge rather than appease the viewer, Gaghan doesn't lay his stories out directly, and leads us to guess at certain relationships. That can lead to trouble sometimes; Holliday often comes home to find his father (William C. Mitchell) slumped on his doorstep, and looking at him with resentment and disapproval, but we never really know why. Barnes also has a wife who is vaguely mentioned as also being in government, but we don't meet her, and there's no sense of that relationship (although we get to see Barnes with his son (Max Minghella), and he's, naturally, unable to completely open up with him in any way). And after confronting Woodman about how he's blinded himself to his personal tragedy, Julie disappears from most of the rest of the film. Maybe Gaghan either decided to cut things or was forced to cut them (there was an entire subplot excised about a relationship between an Arab prince and a prostitute, played by Bridget Moynihan, who can be seen briefly at the beginning), but at any rate, the film will be tough going.

It is, however, worth it to stick to it. Even when the stories get confusing, Gaghan, in only his second film as director (the first was Abandon, which had an interesting first half before becoming another stupid thriller), remains true to the moral core of the movie, which is deep pessimism, but one that feels earned. Eventually, everything does pull together in a climax that blew me away once I saw what was coming. And while Gaghan does give us some simple bad people, he does show complexity in how good people can do bad things, or bad people can do good things, or good people can do good things for the wrong reasons. And while there are a lot of name actors here (Clooney also co-produced), they don't showboat here. Damon is very good at showing the personal anger driving his idealism. Wright shows subtly a man losing his moral compass the deeper he gets into the merger. Plummer and Cooper are both playing bad guys, but suggest more going on as well. Munir doesn't give us a simple-minded fanatic, but rather shows how easily one can turn to something that seems attractive - like terrorism - when faced by a complex world that doesn't seem to have use for you. Holding it all together, however, is Clooney. We've heard the stories about how he gained 30 pounds and injured himself while making this movie. More importantly, however, is how he disappears into the role. Gone are any of the characteristics that made him a star - his cham, his little-boy nature, his sex appeal. Barnes has a beard, sagging face, weary gait, talks mostly in a low voice, and often seems to either not be saying what he means, or struggling to get the right words out. In other words, he's a spy who's been in the cold too long, which is a familiar character, but Clooney makes it come alive here.

I notice I haven't mentioned oil since the second paragraph. The movie doesn't show oil (though it does show refineries), or the price of oil and gas, or any of the envioronmental effects they have. It does show, however, both the oil business and the business of oil. These, Syriana suggests, are as big a problem, if not bigger, than any price hike or oil spill, and for its two hour running time, it convinces you.

Part II, which will follow, takes a look at Syriana in the context of other political movies, plus the idea of political movies in general.
Saturday, November 19th, 2005
12:21 am
The New Harry Potter. Plus, why "I'm doing this for my kids" should send you running away
Before I begin, I wish to address Tom and Gia, who were at the new Harry Potter movie tonight (and if you're reading, you know who you are). I'd like to give you both of you the Rudest People of the Year Award. This award is in recognition of you both talking your way through a two-and-a-half hour movie, despite the fact that the rest of the packed crowd was mostly attentive and respectful. By the way, they were also made up of your age group or younger, so you also managed to make true every single stereotype about teenagers and their lack of respect. In particular, I'd like to salute Tom for trumpeting the fact that he hadn't, in fact, read the book or seen the other movies (except for part of the first), as if you were, in fact, better than the rest of us. Not to slight you, Gia; you also deserve special mention for spoiling the major plot points for those who weren't fortunate enough to have read the books beforehand. So, here's to you, Tom and Gia, the Rudest People of the Year Award. Wear it well, cause if I'm unfortunate enough to be sitting next to you at the movies again, you'll be wearing something else.

Okay. As I mentioned before, I saw the new Harry Potter movie. I'm a fan of the books (though I avoided them for a long time, which I'll get to later), with each being better than its predecessor (except the sixth, which I had problems with). The movies, however, are a different matter; the first two were so busy trying to be faithful to the events of the books that they forgot to be movies. The third one may have cut parts out, but at least it flowed like a movie, and had honest-to-goodness magic, instead of bludgeoning you with CGI. This one is better than the first two, but doesn't quite measure up to the third. First, the good. The film manages to balance the darkness and light. All the set pieces are good, and the Yule Ball comes off with all the pent-up feelings dealt with in the book. And all the new adult actors come off well; though Miranda Richardson is underused as Rita Skeeter "spoiler"Read more...Collapse ), she finds the right tone, Brendan Gleeson is appropriately mad as Mad-Eyed Mooney, and Ralph Fiennes is absolutely chilling as Voldemort. Finally, Daniel Radcliffe continues to grow into the part of Harry "spoiler"Read more...Collapse ).

However, I did have problems with the movie. Like the first two, this didn't always flow together. The problems between Ron and Harry are done well, but that's it. "spoilers"Read more...Collapse )

Still, it felt most of the time like the people behind the movie - director Mike Newell, writer Steve Kloves (who also wrote the first three movies), and the rest of the crew - were trying to tell the tale with imagination, even if this is a franchise movie (i.e., movie with sequels, built-in audience, and merchandising). In short, it didn't feel like a product of one of the most crass marketing slogans actors can use to promote their movies - "I'm doing this movie for my kids." (I haven't seen any of the adults interviewed for this movie, only the kids, so for all I know, they might have said that in interviews and I just didn't know it. This is one time when I prefer blissful ignorance.)

Now, given how much publicists control interviews these days, it's possible they were the ones who told the actors to use this line when promoting their movie. It's also possible that the actors quite honestly want to do a movie that their kids can enjoy or, if they tend to do a lot of R-rated material, can actually see. I am merely questioning the results. I grant that I am cynical about kids entertainment by nature, having Disney films shoved down my throat when I was growing up (that, by the way, is the reason why I initially resisted the Harry Potter books). But I think the results back me up.

I'm not sure when I initially started distrusting the phrase "I'm doing this for my kids," but it might have started in 1995. That was the year Denzel Washington starred in Crimson Tide and Virtuosity. The former was an overheated and obvious melodrama about a conflict between a submarine captain (Gene Hackman) and his executive officer (Washington) over the use of nuclear missiles, and thought it was profound. The latter was a sadistic, one-note, and CGI-heavy tale about a cop (Washington) battling a virtually-created serial killer (Russell Crowe). When I saw him on Jay Leno (I believe) promoting both movies, why did he want to do those movies? For the former, if he had said "To work with Gene Hackman," okay. And if he likes doing action dramas or sci-fi movies, sure. If he even said doing these movies would give him more power to make what he really wanted (or was doing those in exchange for doing something else), that would especially be fine. But what he said was he wanted to do something his son (or sons - I don't remember) would want to watch. Great, because we know boys love watching mindless action movies, or mindless dramas that pretend to have a mind, and moreover should watch nothing else (just as all girls want to watch are movies like What a Girl Wants; polished pop star movies with pretty, empty-headed people).

Of course, this idiocy isn't just with actors (or their publicists). Take the remake of The Bad News Bears. This will go down as one of the most unnecessary remakes ever made. For starters, just about every kids movie about sports has been a rip-off of this movie (albeit more sanitized and uplifting). Also, the director, Richard Linklater, had already done an unofficial remake of Bears with School of Rock, which was actually a good kids movie. Again, his reasons for doing this involved his love of baseball, but he also wanted - here we go - to do something for his kids. Me, I'd just rent the original for them.

So, what does "I'm doing it for my kids" mean? Well, using guilt by association, we can surmise that it's doing films that will pander to what adults think kids should be into - nothing that will challenge their world or inspire their imaginations, stories that will show that women and minorities should know their place, that misfit kids are to be objects of pity or fun, or to be made cute, and above all, must have some kind of uplifting message for them at the end. "spoiler"Read more...Collapse ) I used to think this fell under the heading of "The Problem with Disney." Back when Disney was still the main player in town as far as kids movies go - particularly animated - adults and kids tend to avoid or miss any kids movie without the Disney label, which meant films like Into the West and the remake of A Little Princess got ignored. Nowadays, with traditional animation supposedly over, and other studios jumping in on the computer-animation train, there's no one leader, but quality family films still suffer by comparison. I'm thinking of Duma, from the director of The Black Stallion. The studio had dumped this movie in a few theaters, and were it not for the efforts of such critics as Roger Ebert, it might have stayed that way. When we live in a world where Duma, one of the best films I've seen this year, is all but ignored, while the sequel to the remake of Cheaper by the Dozen and the remake of Yours, Mine and Ours get promoted up the wazoo, something's wrong.

I'm not saying all kids movies are bad. There have been some very good ones in the past couple of years. Pixar Studios, which started the whole computer animation thing, have been perfect so far (The Incredibles was every bit as good as people said it was), and as I said before, I loved Duma. But those are few and far between. And the DVD situation is even worse, with several direct-to-DVD sequels made to kids movies. Finally, what The Powers That Be seem to miss is that for every one of these cynical family films that make money, there are at least five that don't. Yet we keep getting inundated with them. Parents praised the Harry Potter books because they got their children reading on their own. Won't studios, filmmakers, and actors take the same cue from J.K. Rowling and make movies that will get kids to fire up their imaginations and appreciate a good story when they see it?

That's all for now. Next time, I'll have a review of Syriana, and maybe take a look at why movies are often too timid politically.
Wednesday, November 16th, 2005
8:56 am
"What do you mean it's not on DVD?!?"
If, like me, you're a lover of classic movies, it's a pretty good time right now. True, there are very few revival houses anymore. But if you can afford it, Turner Classic Movies is available on cable (one day for me...*sob*). I hate to promote it because it's competition (I work at a video store), but Netflix has all the classic movies released on DVD (though, so far as I could see, there's no page with a complete listing). And the major studios are gradually releasing more of the good stuff on DVD - King Kong is finally coming to DVD just in time for Peter Jackson's remake, and never-available-on-video films like Detective Story (William Wyler/Kirk Douglas about a cop having a bad day) and Bad Timing (controversial Nicolas Roeg film about a destructive love affair) are finally on DVD.

But we classic movie lovers are insatiable. It's not enough that these and others that have come out this year are available (the Warner Brothers gangster movies, the Val Lewton collection, Astaire and Rogers collection, the Thin Man collection), we want more. And there are still plenty of others that aren't on DVD, which may cause grumbling like "Why does Stealth get a two-disc set when Prince of the City isn't even available on DVD?" Also, it's not enough if you have a VCR, because as we all know, tapes are increasingly out of print, and if you don't live near a store with a good classics selection, you're pretty much out of luck. There are, of course, legitimate reasons why movies are not available on DVD: the question of who owns the rights (why, for example, Rear Window was unavailable for decades), and whether the film is available anymore in the first place (for those who don't know, films at the time were shot on nitrate, which is flammable and doesn't keep well, and studios didn't really care about preserving them anyway, so many films fell by the wayside). But studios also have been in the habit of treating us like Oliver Twist, going up to them and saying, "Please, sir, can I have some more?" Here are a few I'd like to see them throw our way. A few of them are of more recent vintage, and foreign films not available will be subject of a later column, but here are my choices.

Easy Living (1937), Remember the Night (1940), & Hail the Conquering Hero (1944): One common complaint by classic movie buffs is how the younger generation has no appreciation for the classics. I maintain that's because many buffs present their treasured movies as medicinal - it tastes bad, but it's good for you - and since the younger generation is patronized enough as it is, they react against it. Having said that, I will say that you cannot really know film comedy unless you know the films of Preston Sturges. The first writer to be able to direct his own scripts (The Great McGinty (1940) was his directorial debut), he had one of the most memorable careers of any director. From 1940-44, he directed seven films, five of which are acknowledged classics (The Lady Eve, Sullivan's Travels, The Palm Beach Story, The Miracle of Morgan's Creek, and Hail the Conquering Hero), left his studio (Paramount) soon after, made one more classic (Unfaithfully Yours) and then flamed out. He combined both visual and verbal humor, was both satirical and gentle in using it, and like other great directors (Capra, Ford), had a stock company of actors perfectly in tune with his sensibilities.

Neither Easy Living nor Remember the Night were directed by Sturges (Mitchell Leisen helmed both), but they both share his sensibilites. The former may feel out of date for some people for the simple reason that the plot revolves around a fur coat. However, if you can get past that, it's quite fun. The fur coat in question belongs to the wife of banker J.B. Ball (Edward Arnold), and as it's one expensive thing too many, he throws it out their penthouse apartment. It lands on Mary Smith (Jean Arthur), a secretary taking the bus to work, and it proceeds to turn her life upside down. As with screwball plots of the time, it's hard to describe without getting bogged down, and one shouldn't get bogged down in a Sturges film. Just know there are comedy delights throughout, including a then-famous scene at an Automat, with one of the most memorable food fight scenes this side of Animal House, and delightful performances by Arthur, Arnold, and Ray Milland (as Arnold's son and Arthur's love interest). Remember the Night, on the other hand, is not a comedy at all, though there are funny moments. It is, rather, a sweet-natured movie about a prosecutor (Fred MacMurray) who takes the pickpocket (Barbara Stanwyck) he's trying for robbery home to his family's house for Christmas when she has nowhere else to go. A good Christmas movie is good to pull off, as there's always a danger of getting sickly sentimental. This film adroitly avoids that danger by worrying about the characters rather than the message, and in particular avoiding condescension towards the small town where MacMurray's family lives. Hail the Conquering Hero, by contrast, is an attack on small-town (or, indeed, national) hypocrisy. It concerns Woodrow (Eddie Bracken), who's been ashamed to come home ever since he was discharged from the Marines for hayfever (he comes from a long line of Marines). Woodrow happens upon a company of Marines led by Sgt. Heppelfinger (Sturges regular William Demarest), and taking pity on him, they decide to bring him own and pretend he's a real war hero. Alongside the hilarity here is a thorough examination of what it truly means to be a hero. Sturges once said it was his favorite film, and while I'm not quite sure I agree (for sheer perversity, I like Miracle of Morgan's Creek, this is quite good.

The Reckless Moment (1949): In 2001, when The Deep End came out, many critics noticed it was a remake of Max Ophuls' Reckless Moment (both were based on the story The Blank Wall by Elizabeth Holding). While The Deep End is good, this is better. Ophuls' film centers on Lucia (Joan Bennett), a housewife who gets into trouble when she discovers the body of her daughter's boyfriend at her boathouse (the family lives on the lake). Lucia had earlier warned the boyfriend, Ted, away from her daughter, Bea, and because she assumes Bea killed him, she hides the body. To make matters worse, Martin (James Mason) shows up with letters Bea had written to Ted, and threatens to go to the police if Lucia doesn't pay him. The paradox of the film is while Lucia has to go to great lengths to conceal what's going on from disturbing her family's world, and how alone she is in doing it (her husband is away, and therefore she can't get to the money she needs), Martin becomes enamored of her ability to keep up the facade, and to be there for her family. Film student types will wax rhapsodic over Douglas Sirk films (All That Heaven Allows) that explore suburbia, but I'll take this film over any of Sirk's any day, as it's much deeper and better acted. Bennett, an under-appreciated actress, shows both control and the cost of that control, and Mason is both menacing and tragic.

Ace in the Hole (1951): Though it's been remade on film (Mad City (1997)), and paid homage to on TV (The Simpsons episode "Radio Bart"), this Billy Wilder classic has never been made available on video or DVD. The story of Chuck Tatum (Kirk Douglas), a reporter who exploits the story of a trapped miner to his own ends, remains the definitive media satire. If anything, it's become more timely over the years as network news standards have fallen dramatically. Douglas's clenched-jawed acting could be wearisome, but he's in his element here, and Wilder never let's the cynicism overwhelm the message or the humor.

Citizen's Band, aka Handle with Care (1979): Before Jonathan Demme became known for remaking classic movies, he low-budget movies like this one. The film is about the then phenomenon of CB radio, which truckers used to talk to each other, as well as to their destined delivery spots. The nominal hero of the movie is Spider (Paul Le Mat), who runs a CB repair shop. In addition to this, he drives out to rescue truckers in trouble, and is a one-man lawman against people who tie up the radio in violation of FCC regulations. This puts him into conflict with his brother Blood (Bruce McGill) a gym coach who, as it happens, is dating Spider’s ex-girlfriend Electra (Candy Clark). But Demme and writer Paul Brickman are less concerned with plot than with capturing the community that sprung up from the CB culture (we also meet a bigamist (Charles Napier)). It’s not a laugh out loud comedy, but it will keep you smiling throughout, and the underrated Le Mat (Melvin and Howard, which Demme also directed) holds it together.

Prince of the City (1981): When you think of New York director, you think of Martin Scorsese, Woody Allen, and Spike Lee, but Sidney Lumet deserves to be among those names as well. While he's known for several great New York movies (Dog Day Afternoon), this may be the best. Based on a true story, it's about a group of narcotics detectives who were so well thought of they were labeled "Princes of the City," though few knew how dirty they played to get there. One of the detectives, Danny Ciello (Treat Williams, best known today for Everwood), decides to cooperate with Internal Affairs, who are investigating police corruption, but he will not name his partners (including Jerry Orbach). The film is not only an investigation into that corruption, but also of how Danny's world gradually crumbles, and in that aspect it approaches the depths of classical tragedy. I'm not a big fan of Williams, but he carries the movie here, and Lumet explores this territory well without being simplistic.

Shoot the Moon (1982): Alan Parker has big misses (The Life of David Gale) along with his hits (The Commitments). This is probably his best, being also the best movie I've ever seen about the effects of divorce. Albert Finney is George, a writer whose fifteen year marriage to Faith (Diane Keaton) dissolves when Faith discovers he has a girlfriend, Sandy (Karen Allen). At first, while George at least seems to be functioning, Faith falls apart, with her kids having to get her going. Then Frank (Peter Weller), a construction worker, comes by because she wanted a tennis court built, and while she can’t afford it now, she takes Frank on, and begins an affair with him. Meanwhile, Sherry (Dana Hill), the eldest daughter, lashes out at George for walking out on them. You can tell the subject meant something personal to both Parker and writer Bo Goldman, because every scene is alive with feeling. Yet, despite the subject matter, it isn’t an overly gloomy movie; there’s plenty of humor as well. And it ends on the perfect not of uncertainty. Both Finney and Keaton do possibly the best work of their careers, and Hill, whose career and life were cut short by complications relating to diabetes, is heartbreaking.

Well, that's it. In the future, I'll have another column about great foreign movies not yet available on DVD, but next up I'll ruminate about family films and review the latest Harry Potter movie.

"Say, what's the big idea, anyway?" "Kismet!" - from Easy Living
Saturday, November 12th, 2005
1:42 am
Greetings
Hi, this is my first lj post, so I hope I'm doing it right. As you can tell from the title, this will be mostly about movies. I got a love of movies from my dad. He was mostly a fan of old movies - not too much after 1960 captured his fancy - and was quite knowledgable about them. He also had certain biases about old movies as well - I had to discover film noir, gangster movies, and westerns on my own. He was big into musicals and comedies. From him, I learned an appreciation of good dialogue (our family was big into quoting movies), character actors (back in the day when actors were under studio contract, you'd see the same character actors at different studios, and for certain directors), and the use of music in movies. My parents were also overprotective about what movies I was exposed to, so I didn't see my first R-rated movie till I was 17, and it was in class, of all things (we watched Apocalypse Now in English class). I'm a history major, so it's natural that I'd want to check out movies from when I grew up, but I also wanted to see what I missed, and I've still missed a lot (I'm way behind on foreign and documentary films, for example, though I'm getting better). I'm an amateur movie critic, meaning I don't get paid yet. I still write for an apa named CAPRA, which I've been writing for since 1989, and I write a movie and video column for a monthly community newspaper (being doing the video column since 1999, and both since 2000). One day, I want to get paid for it. I like all kinds of movies, though I have certain biases. If a movie has flat dialogue, I tend not to like it. I tend to notice the way music is used in movies, and have written about it extensively in the apa I write for. I'm tired of serial killer movies, I loathe sequels (though I grudgingly admit some of them have been good lately, like Before Sunset, my favorite movie of 2004), and I really can't stand movies that take the whole Exorcist thing seriously. I also am not a fan of most comedies today (why will be the subject of a future post); my tastes in that area tend to run towards the offbeat, like the Coens, Spike Jonze, or Wes Anderson. My favorite movie of all time is Godfather II, while my least favorite is currently Jade,. Finally, as noted in my profile, I know a lot of useless trivia when it comes to movies, and quote movies at a drop of a hat. Oh, and while I agree with just about every bad thing written about the Oscars, I still watch them religiously every year. Well, that's all for now. Next time, I might post about why "I'm doing this for my kids" is a phrase that almost guarantees the film will suck. Oh, and I'll end every post with a quote, so here's one from one of my favorite movies of the '90's, and one of my favorite writer/directors, Cameron Crowe: "Debbie, do you remember how you told me to tell you when you were being plastic? Well, you're being plastic" - Singles
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