Saturday, December 29, 2007

Face Time #35 (You can't handle the cuteness)

The Girls, from left: Muriel (of Awards fame), Victoria, and Charlotte

Wednesday, December 26, 2007

My answers to Prof. Bertram Potts' Hella Homework for the Holidays Christmas Break Quiz

1) Your favorite opening shot

We open on a college dorm full of nubile young lovelies. The camera stalks the outside of the building, spying on the girls. OK, so it's the killer's point of view. We then follow the killer inside the dorm as he sneaks around, seemingly unnoticed. We hear him breathing- how is it no one sees him? No matter. He slinks in and out of rooms, searching for his next victim. Suddenly, there she is, in the shower of course. He approaches, we see his hand pull back the shower curtain, she snaps her head around, opens her mouth and she screams... and the sound is like a small animal dying. Hilarious and perfect- Brian DePalma's Blow Out.

2) Tuesday Weld or Mia Farrow?

Mia. Not even the fallout from the Soon-Yi scandal could dissuade me.

3) Name a comedy you’re embarrassed to admit made you laugh

I sort of hate to admit it, but Tommy Boy makes me laugh every time. It's sort of glorious in its stupidity, and if nothing else Farley gives it his all. I think a lot of my affection for the movie was that when I was in the Ohio State Men's Glee Club we would watch it on every long bus trip. So half my laughter for the movie is remembering the funny incidental stuff we'd do along with it.

4) Best Movie of 1947

"Numbers sanctify, my boy!" Monsieur Verdoux, easily my favorite Chaplin movie, as well as his darkest.

5) Burt Reynolds was the Bandit. Jerry Reed was the Snowman. Paul LeMat was Spider. Candy Clark was Electra. What’s your movie handle?

The Ghost. I avoid the sun, so I'm white as a sheet, and nobody seems to notice me when I'm around.

6) Robert Vaughn or David McCallum?

Nothing against McCallum, but only one of these guys is staring at my sternly from the back of my telephone book, and it ain't him. Bonus points to Vaughn for facing off against Pootie Tang.

7) Most exotic/unusual place/location in which you've seen a movie

Wish I had a cooler response for this, but the best I can do is the outdoor screenings that the Wexner Center for the Arts holds every summer in Columbus. It's a whole different experience watching movies like The Big Heat or The General under the stars.

8) Favorite Errol Morris movie

Gates of Heaven. Much as I love Morris, it's all been downhill from there. This maybe the most unexpected of masterpieces, a portrait of economic struggle and a philosophical treatise on mortality, all couched in a movie about pet cemetaries. Plus it inspired (see #17).

9) Best Movie of 1967

Belle de Jour, my all-time favorite. But it must be said that 1967 was a particularly special year for movies, filled to the brim with masterpieces that would have taken the top spot in many a lesser year. Belle de Jour, Play Time, Weekend, Two for the Road, Point Blank, Privilege, Mouchette, Le Samourai, The Young Girls of Rochefort, Branded to Kill... I could keep this up all day. Man, what a year.

10) Describe a profoundly (or not-so-profoundly) disturbing moment you’ve had courtesy of the movies

Hard to top the guy getting his head bashed in with a fire extinguishes in Irreversible.

11) Anne Francis or Julie Newmar?

Anne Francis was gracious enough to conduct an interview for the Columbus Sci-Fi Marathon a few years back, so I'll give her the edge. Also, LOVE Forbidden Planet, plus she gets a shout-out in Rocky Horror.

12) Describe your favorite one sheet (include a link if possible)

Why tell when you can show? For me, it's a tie: the glorious sick joke of the Fargo poster and the gorgeous Polish one-sheet for The Phantom of Liberty. Fargo's is a pricess juxtaposition of the folksy and the violent that suits the film perfectly, and the Bunuel poster is just a jaw-dropping work of art, and pre-computer animation no less.

13) Best Movie of 1987

Superstar: The Karen Carpenter Story, still the best thing Todd Haynes has ever done. Forget what I said about Gates of Heaven- Superstar is the most unlikely masterpiece ever made. I know what you're thinking- a movie about a pop star with an eating disorder, acted out entirely by Barbie dolls, and it's good? No, it's AMAZING. Just because it's kitschy doesn't mean it's not also profoundly moving. Every movie lover should see this at least once. It's illegal, but don't let that stop you.

14) Favorite movie about obsession

Powell and Pressburger's The Red Shoes, a beautiful, tragic tale about a dancer so consumed by her art that it leads to her death. And in glorious Technicolor, no less.

15) Your ideal Christmas movie triple feature

My family watches The Muppet Christmas Carol every year, so that's as good a place as any to start. Then two personal Christmas favorites, Gremlins and the best one of all, The Miracle of Morgan's Creek.

16) Montgomery Clift or James Dean?

Personally, I find Dean to be overrated as an actor. I believe much of his legend rests on the "live fast, die young" mythology that surrounds his life. Clift had a life that was just as tragic, but in a way that was much less sexy. But what counts is acting, and frankly I think Clift blows Dean out of the water in the acting department. His later performances are particularly moving- his performance in Judgment at Nuremberg is the acting equivalent of an open wound.

17) Favorite Les Blank Movie

Werner Herzog Eats His Shoe. Herzog is a great filmmaker, but an even greater character, and this incident looms large in his legend.

18) This past summer food critic Anton Ego made the following statement: “In many ways, the work of a critic is easy. We risk very little yet enjoy a position over those who offer up their work and their selves to our judgment. We thrive on negative criticism, which is fun to write and to read. But the bitter truth we critics must face is that, in the grand scheme of things, the average piece of junk is more meaningful than our criticism designating it so. But there are times when a critic truly risks something, and that is in the discovery and defense of the new. Last night, I experienced something new, an extraordinary meal from a singularly unexpected source. To say that both the meal and its maker have challenged my preconceptions is a gross understatement. They have rocked me to my core. In the past, I have made no secret of my disdain for Chef Gusteau's famous motto: Anyone can cook. But I realize that only now do I truly understand what he meant. Not everyone can become a great artist, but a great artist can come from anywhere.” Your thoughts?

I mostly agree with what Ego has to say. For me, as a semi-pro critic, I take his thoughts less as a universal truth than as a challenge never to succumb to easy putdowns and lazy hyperbole. The opinions of a critic- positive or negative- are only vaild if (a) they're backed up by ideas, and (b) the critic comes by them honestly. It's the difference between Rex Reed and Armond White. Whereas Rex is less a critic than a putdown artist, I sincerely believe that White's reviews, wonky though they often are, flow directly from his honest opinions as a moviegoer. Where White fails, I think, is his overly heavy reliance on his preconceived notions of the filmmaker in question. For example, I have a hard time taking seriously his thoughts on any Spielberg movie, as he seems predisposed to loving anything bearing the Spielberg name. This is where Ego's final idea comes into play- if we are to give a movie the fair shake it deserves, we must exercise every possible effort to take it on its own terms. A great film can come in any form, and even the artists we cherish most are capable of doing subpar work.

19) The last movie you watched on DVD? In a theater?

Last on DVD: 28 Weeks Later, which scared me more the second time once I stopped trying to compare it to the original. In the theatre: Charlie Wilson's War, a middling piece of toothless Oscar-bait, and a surprisingly one-sided view of American interventionism, told through the prism of the most cut-and-dried example of it in modern American history.

20) Best Movie of 2007

As far as features as concerned, it's a pretty close race between Zodiac and No Country for Old Men. But no new film of 2007 has hit me as hard as Don Hertzfeldt's new animated short Everything Will Be OK. In little more than fifteen minutes, Hertzfeldt tells the story of a man who is doomed to die. His doctors give up on him, his mother moves in to help, and the man himself goes off the deep end. And then, without warning, he suddenly gets better, much to everyone's annoyance. Everything Will Be OK has the feel of a Raymond Carver story, both in its sense of irony and its reliance on small but significant detail. But the twisted sense of humor and unique animation style is all Hertzfeldt.

21) Worst Movie of 2007

Much as I'd like to pick on a terrible blockbuster like Transformers, I should be honest here (See #18) and say that the 2007 release that made me the most miserable was Luc Besson's Angel-A, a bargain-basement cinema du look take on It's a Wonderful Life. It's not that I'm opposed to It's a Wonderful Life clones, but if the story is going to work then its hero needs to at least show some sign of being worth the heavenly intervention. Instead, it's saddled with a loser of a protagonist whose worthless life somehow warrants the services of super-foxy angel Rie Rasmussen, who helps rid him of his debts and learn to love himself again. What a waste of perfectly good black-and-white 'Scope cinematography. Besson, wha' happened?

22) Describe the stages of your cinephilia

Age 5-13/ watching movies for the sake of watching movies/ Disney, kids' movies, Spielberg, whatever my parents brought home from the video store

Age 14-16/ going to the movies with friends on the weekends, catching up with American classics on video/ Scorsese, Coppola, all the new releases

Age 17-22/ first viewing of Pulp Fiction leads to first experience with foreign-language films, attempt at highbrow snobbery in guise of cultivating good taste/ Bunuel, 60s-era Godard, Bergman

Age 22-25/ catching up with the canon, learning once again to trust own opinions/ Malick, Bresson, Kurosawa

Age 26-present/ embracing genre films and lowbrow stuff, preference for art in execution over Art in name/ Leone, Sturges, DePalma, Romero

23) What is the one film you’ve had more difficulty than any other in convincing people to see or appreciate?

Only one? Yeesh... it's gotten to where I've stopped trying. I suppose it's kind of my fault, in retrospect. After all, if you recommend semi-obscure foreign-language films to your parents and non-cinephile friends then you've got nobody to blame but yourself when they stop listening to you.

24) Gene Tierney or Rita Hayworth?

Rita was a doll, but Gene's one of my absolute favorites. Sexy as all get-out (that overbite!) and almost certainly a better actress too. Rita never gave a performance half as affecting as Gene's in The Ghost and Mrs. Muir.

25) The Japanese word wabi denotes simplicity and quietude, but it can also mean an accidental or happenstance element (or perhaps even a small flaw) which gives elegance and uniqueness to the whole. What film or moment from a film best represents wabi to you?

Way to make your mark, Prof. Potts. After all, I can't see Shoop asking a question like this. Anyway... I love that moment in Nashville when Bill, Mary and Tom are singing "Since You've Gone" and Mary clears her throat. Most musical numbers are so polished and obviously pre-recorded that it's delightful to realize that they're actually up there singing the song for the camera and the crowd. I love that Altman keeps that in the movie, and it's so emblematic of his style, which embraced imperfections and chaos that most directors feared.

26) Favorite Documentary

See #8.

27) Favorite opening credit sequence

I love Godard's credits from back in the 60s, which were almost always unique and fun. He was always experimenting, even with the credits, and it's hard to pick one. But forced to choose, I'd go with the alphabet-soup credits of Pierrot le Fou, with a shout out to the ragtime montage of Band of Outsiders and the presence of Bardot's ass in Contempt.

28) Is there a film that has influenced your lifestyle in a significant or notable way? If so, what was it and how did it do so?

As much as I love movies, I don't think that any particular movie has influenced me deeply. Whenever a movie does influence me, it's in small ways, like trying a certain drink or buying a new hat. I guess I'm just comfortable with my own style, whatever that is.

29) Glenn Ford or Dana Andrews?

Oh, I see what you're doing here. It's Gilda vs. Laura, isn't it? Well, of these two guys I gotta go with Ford, who was so good at playing the noble good guy that some of his best work comes in movies where that image got muddied up. The Big Heat wouldn't work half so well if we didn't believe he was clean at the beginning, all the better to get his hands dirty later on.

30) Make a single prediction, cynical or hopeful, regarding the upcoming Academy Awards

Without the writers working behind the scenes to write canned banter for the presenters, it should be much shorter than usual. At least, I hope so.

31) Best Actor of 2007

A great performance in a movie almost nobody saw- Sam Rockwell in Joshua. There are many things one expects from a evil-kid thriller, but a complex portrayal of the child's father is not one of them. But Rockwell's- and the movie's- triumph is that the story is just as much about the father as it is about the son. Rockwell is magnificent in the part, playing a man who isn't exactly prime father material, and who might have done all right with a son who shared his interests, but is completely out of his depth with conniving little Joshua. Rockwell isn't a bad parent, but he's sort of clueless, and once his son has set his plan in motion- assisted by the knowledge that the child invariably gets the benefit of the doubt- it's heartbreaking to see how Rockwell gets taken in by it. Seek this one out on DVD, folks.

32) Best Actress of 2007

Carice Van Houten in Black Book. She came seemingly out of nowhere to tackle perhaps the most challenging female role this year, and did it without breaking a sweat. Also, super hot. Also deserving of mention: Nicole Kidman in Margot at the Wedding, a blistering comedic performance from an star who was long overdue for a chance to really cut loose.

33) Best Director of 2007

David Fincher, Zodiac. It was tricky enough for him to make all of the story's facts and details and dozens of characters comprehensible and cinematic. The marvel is that he makes it spellbinding, while almost never relying on the trickery that has dominated his earlier films.

34) Best Screenplay of 2007

This is always a tricky question, since I haven't actually read any. But there have been a number of well-written films this past year, notably Zodiac, No Country for Old Men, Michael Clayton, Ratatouille, and most overlooked of all, Richard Shepherd's The Hunting Party, a dark comedy set during the war in the Balkans, which has the gonzo sensibility of Hunter Thompson infused with a surprising emotional heft.

35) Favorite single movie moment of 2007

Jeez, only one? I had a hard enough time narrowing it down to five for this week's column. But if we're talking re-watchability, the winner would have to be the dick-drawing flashback in Superbad, a drop-dead hilarious scene that's so fraught with emotion and full of detail that it had to be inspired by real life.

36) What’s your wish/hope for the movies in 2008?

That they continue to surprise me every once in a while.

Intrigued? Got a few hours to spare? Take the quiz yourself at Dennis Cozzalio's Sergio Leone and the Infield Fly Rule.

Sunday, December 23, 2007

Famous Last Words- End of Round 1

Can it be? In the final week of the first round of Famous Last Words, have I finally found a quote that stumped even the most stout-hearted of contestants? It would seem so, as for the first time in the admittedly short history of the game, none of you were able to identify last week's quote.

So... what's your most uncomfortable movie? Is it Salo? Irreversible? Crocodile Dundee in Los Angeles? For me, it would have to be Arnaud Desplechin's mammoth 1996 film My Sex Life (or, How I Got Into An Argument), the source of last week's quote. It's not that anything jaw-droppingly awful happens in the course of the film, but simply the fact that it hits home with me like no other film does. For the benefit of those who haven't seen it, My Sex Life tells the story of Paul, played by the great Matthieu Amalric, a nebbishy intellectual who is at a personal and professional impasse in his life at the age of- wait for it- 29. Yikes. Desplechin is one of my favorite contemporary filmmakers, and Amalric one of the most fascinating actors working today, and both do spectacular work here. Time and again Desplechin and Amalric capture the character and his mindset in almost painful detail. Making it a little easier to take is the presence of a wide variety of lovely women- the immensely lovable Emmanuelle Devos (never before or since have I wanted to cuddle so much with a movie character), the sphinx-like Marianne Denicourt, the teasing charms of Jeanne Balibar, the warm yet regal Chiara Mastroianni, even a nude scene from the luscious young Marion Cotillard. My Sex Life... is a towering film, and I might be inclined to declare it a masterpiece if I could ever bring myself to watch it all the way through again.

And with that, I'm proud to announce the winner of the inaugural round of Famous Last Words... Mr. Victor Morton, who fended off some formidable competition by identifying an impressive 11 out of 12 quotations. Victor will be receiving a $20 dollar gift card from the Criterion Store, as well as my respect for taking part in this contest from the beginning. And thank you to all of the players, who've made this a great first round.

Alas, all good things must come to an end, and I'm a little sad to announce that this is the last appearance of Famous Last Words on this blog. But never fear- starting early in 2008, I'll be taking the game over to Screengrab, where hopefully I'll be able to draw a larger group of players. Nothing like a little competition, eh Victor? More details will be announced over there when the time comes, so keep your eyes peeled.

Thanks again, everyone. Hope you will visit every so often, even though you can't win anything.

Saturday, December 22, 2007

Wednesday, December 19, 2007

Adventures in Ad Copy (coming 29 January)

Is it just me or is this the best DVD ad copy pretty much ever?

"What would you want to see HOT BABES do NAKED? Here it is!. Hot Naked Babes with loaded shot guns? Blammo! Hot naked babes washing your truck, riding a bull, and deep sea fishing. Playboy asked its viewers what they wanted to see hot naked babes doing, and we delivered. Hot babes roller skating, chicken farming and blasting concrete with heavy machinery. Its hot sweaty fun in the sun, Playboy-style."

Apologies to Cameron Crowe, but they had me at "blammo!" But the kicker is the DVD's title: Hot Chicks Doing Stuff Naked. No, I'm not kidding. It's like the Idiocracy world of tomorrow, today. Lord forgive me, but if they're selling it like that, then I'll drink the Brawndo, folks. I might not feel good about myself afterwards, but I'll live with it.

Tuesday, December 18, 2007

Criterion Watch, December 07

This month's hint from the Criterion Newsletter:

Unlike last month's hint, I actually had to look this one up, but based on the evidence present it would appear to be Anthony Mann's The Furies. Never seen it, but Stanwyck pretty much rules, so I'm down.

Sunday, December 16, 2007

Famous Last Words- Round 1, Week 12

The Italian Job wasn't the first classic Michael Caine film to get a Hollywood remake- that would be Get Carter- and it certainly wasn't the last. But while the 2003 version was a pretty OK entertainment, it kind of missed the point of the original movie. Sure, they kept the main character's name (inexplicably, as who can buy Marky Mark as a Charlie Croker?) and of course the famous Mini Coopers, but otherwise it bears little resemblance to the 1969 model. Most of the original isn't an action movie at all, but a showcase for that singular brand of British humor, with Noel Coward as the world's most erudite prisoner, Benny Hill doing his Benny Hill thing ("I like 'em biiiiiiiiiiig!"), and plenty of potshots at Italians (why Italians? Exactly). All this plus Caine at perhaps his most suave, and of course the legendary chase scene, which somehow manages to be even more effective than the remake. More clever, better-shot, all that. Then there's the awesome ending, which I wouldn't dream of spoiling if you've never seen the movie.

And so begins our final week of our first round of Famous Last Words. For the closing quote of the round, I've challenged myself to find a quote that was a little more difficult. In addition, the quote I've selected has an added significance that I'll explain when the time comes. For now, here's the quote:

"The old Paul was dead. He did not live for naught."

Hint: the Paul in question is not McCartney. Other than that, you're on your own. Submit your fateful guesses to me at this e-Mail address by Saturday night at 11:59 PM. But remember, choose wisely. See you next week!

Saturday, December 15, 2007

Muriel Awards 2007 FYC #10

Best Lead Actress: Nicole Kidman, Margot at the Wedding

I've always found Nicole Kidman to have an uneasy fit with the movie-star racket. Something about her demeanor just doesn't wash with the public perception of what a star ought to be- she's got the glamour down cold, but she lacks the no-nonsense fierceness of Jodie Foster or the warm everygal appeal of Reese Witherspoon. In this way, both the disappointing box office for would-be blockbusters like Bewitched and The Invasion and the incongruousness of her presence in films of this sort cast into relief the idea that she's not a bone-deep movie star, but rather an actress who plays a star for the cameras. Strangely, it's that very element of Kidman's persona that prevents the masses from fully embracing her as a star- her brittleness- that might be the most fascinating characteristic of her best performances. And make no mistake, Margot at the Wedding is definitely one of her best performances, if not the best. In the film's title role, Kidman magnificently plays the kind of person who's all too common in certain circles in society, the sort who believes her intelligence and cultured status gives her license to pass withering judgment on the world around her. She's a misanthrope who believes she's a truth teller, and the kind of minor literary celebrity who's uncomfortable receiving compliments about her work but secretly loves the accolades. She's a control freak and a neurotic mess, the sort who has to wear a mouthpiece to bed lest she grind her teeth. It's rare to find a female protagonist this deeply unsympathetic in American film- even in a comedy- lest the filmmakers court charges of misogyny, but it's even rarer to see a star of Kidman's stature playing a part like this. One would almost forgive her had she soft-pedaled the role, but instead she tackles it head on, never winking at the audience of angling for its affection. The result is an exciting performance, the first to really play to all of her strengths since the halcyon days of Eyes Wide Shut and To Die For, and one gets the feeling that after years of making nice for the Hollywood machine she saw the role as not only a change of pace, but strangely liberating. Welcome back, Nicole. We've missed you.

Friday, December 14, 2007

Face Time #33 (Whatever happened to Woody Guthrie?)

Marcus Carl Franklin (click image for more recent photo)

Monday, December 10, 2007

This Christmas, give the gift of blogging!

Today, on her blog Union, Trueheart, and Courtesy, my blog pal Donna Bowman put forth a simple proposition. Taking a page from a certain 2000 Kevin Spacey movie that wasn't called The Big Kahuna, Donna stated that she would knit something special for the first three people to comment on her post, on the condition that we similarly create something for the first three people to comment on our corresponding posts. I was hesitant at first, but looking at the knit goodies that she's made in the past made her offer too tempting to refuse. However, this left me in a bit of a predicament. Not possessing much in the way of artistic or craft-oriented skills, I didn't really have much that I could bring to the table. I could always cook something for the lucky commenters, but given how few of you are in my general vicinity, it would be a risky proposition to try to ship some of my black bean soup or my famous cinnamon applesauce.

That's when it hit me- I could review a movie. That's something I know I'm at least pretty decent at, or else you wouldn't be hanging around, would you? And by taking requests, I could show my appreciation not only to those who wished me to review a certain movie, but also the rest of my small but devoted readership, those people who drop by my little corner of cyberspace once a day or once a year (hi mom!) in the hope of gaining a little entertainment or insight from my thoughts on cinema.

So, dear readers, I'll put it to you. The first three people who comment on this post will be able to request a review (500+ words) of a movie of his or her choice. The only restriction is availability- if I can't obtain a copy of the film through reasonable channels (Netflix, video store, library) then I'll give the requester the chance to request an alternate title. But barring an impossible-to-find movie, anything goes. Pick your favorite movie, or your least favorite. Pick a movie I've seen, or something I haven't. Heck, if there's something you're curious about but you're unsure whether it's worth your time, have me take it for a spin before you decide. Be creative. Be sadistic, if that's your pleasure. But rest assured that if I can find it, I'll watch it and review it for you. I can't promise that I'll be able to watch and review your requests in time for Christmas, but I'll do so at my earliest possible convenience.

So what'll it be, folks? Citizen Kane? Spider-Man? Glen or Glenda? I'm at your mercy...

Updated!: We've got our winners, folks. I've listed them below, along with the movies they've chosen, although some of them are still deciding...

Steven Carlson: TBD
Jason Alley: Les Revenants / They Came Back (2004)
Victor Morton: Baxter (1989)

Stay tuned for any updates, and thanks again for participating, guys.

Sunday, December 09, 2007

Famous Last Words- Round 1, Week 11

Of all the classic films that fall into the noir category, the grimiest would have to be Edgar G. Ulmer's 1945 masterpiece Detour. Shot for nothing with a pair of nobody stars, the movie makes no bones about its B-movie origins. Yet it works magnificently, because of how vividly it used perhaps the most archetypal noir trope of all- a man who gets ensnared in the web of the wrong sort of woman. Tom Neal would never be mistaken for a master thespian, but he makes the role work because unlike the big Hollywood stars he actually felt like a low-down sucker, the kind who would get stuck on a bad-news dame.

Neal never achieved large-scale movie stardom, but his life was the stuff of Hollywood legend. A trained prizefighter and graduate of Northwestern and Harvard Law School, Neal starred in a series of Republic serials before appearing opposite his Detour costar Ann Savage in five films in total. He also dated famously troubled starlet Barbara Payton, over whom he came to blows with her other boyfriend, actor Franchot Tone. Sadly, the final line of Detour ended up coming true for Neal in real life as well as in the film. Fate put the finger on Neal twenty years after he starred in the film, when he shot his wife in the back of the head and was convicted of manslaughter. Savage's fate was somewhat happier- six decades hence, she starred in Guy Maddin's My Winnipeg, a word-of-mouth favorite at this year's Toronto Film Festival.

Moving on from the SHO True Hollywood Story. As with a handful of quotes I've used already, this line is common enough, but rarely something you'll hear concluding a film:

"Hang on, lads. I've got a great idea."

Name the movie. Remember, all submissions must be sent to this e-Mail address by 11:59 Saturday night. See you next week!

Saturday, December 08, 2007

When Good Directors Go Bad #16

Also this week:

Top 10: The Greatest Prosthetics in Movie History, Part 1 and Part 2- I enjoyed writing the blurb about Penelope Cruz's prosthetic ass more than just about anything else I've done for a list so far. What that says about me I'll leave for you to decide.

Trailer Roundup
- Cloverfield. Definitely, Maybe. The Other Boleyn Girl.

Friday, December 07, 2007

Thursday, December 06, 2007


In the past few years, I've started approaching the late-fall movie season with more than a little dread. Sure, it's nice that there's generally an interesting new movie or two every weekend for a change, but the Oscar™ hype machine really cheeses me off. It seems like every halfway decent movie that fits into an Academy-sanctioned category- inspirational true story, handsome period piece, hard-hitting drama, indie charmer- attracts an inordinate amount of attention about its awards chances. "Oscar-worthy" is the movie world's version of "electable"- a description that has less to do with quality than taste-making, and one that is too often wielded by critics in lieu of a more useful adjective. And yes, I realize that the lion's share of Oscar nominations are culled from the fall product, but just because Sweeney Todd is being released in December doesn't make Johnny Depp's performance any more worthy of being honored than, say, Michael Shannon in Bug or Sam Rockwell in Joshua.

Another problem with the awards-season hype is that it tends to build up movies too much, so it's almost as though they've peaked before they've even hit theatres in earnest. This is particularly common in the case of small-scale films, the highest-profile of which is Jason Reitman's Juno. It's a warm, likable movie to be sure, but ever since its launch on the fall festival circuit the buzz has been practically deafening. I can't help but wonder if it's all become too much for this unassuming movie to bear. But I'm not here to assess the movie's awards-season chances, now am I? The question I'm here to answer is this- is Juno a good movie.?I'm pleased to say that, yeah, it's pretty good. Not a world-beater by any means, but it doesn't pretend to be one, and the least I can do is to not burden it with unreasonable expectations.

Juno has been compared to last year's Little Indie That Could Little Miss Sunshine, a movie that I actually kind of hated, so I was pleased that Juno had the good taste to be easygoing where its predecessor was shrill. That said, Juno does exhibit some of the more unfortunate tendencies of off-Hollywood comedies. Many of these can be found in the screenplay penned by Diablo Cody, the entertainment press' latest It Screenwriter (and at the height of the writers' strike, no less!). Her story construction is fairly solid, but her sassy dialogue has roughly a 3-to-1 ratio of distracting to clever. Juno is Cody's first produced screenplay, and I hope that if she does indeed have a fruitful career in Hollywood she can temper her tendencies towards overwritten dialogue and trust the story to do the lifting.

Thankfully, Jason Reitman's direction has calmed down since 2005's Thank You For Smoking. Sensing that the last thing's Cody's quirkiness needed was more directorial shenanigans (one can only cringe to imagine what a Jared Hess would have made of this), Reitman assumes a low-key style and a relaxed pace for the film. There are a handful of hopelessly precious moments, but I'll accept that in exchange for his assured direction of actors. Reitman always lets his scenes run longer than you would expect, allowing the characters time to deepen, or just to pause and reflect. Reitman never rushes his cast or pushes them to hit they're marks before they're good and ready, and this patience is rewarded.

In addition, Reitman seems to have recognized that his cast was his ace in the hole. It takes an actress of rare talent to deliver a line like "You should've gone to China, you know, 'cause I hear they give away babies like free iPods" without making it sound contrived, but Ellen Page is more than up to the task. Indeed, I dare say that Juno is pretty unimaginable without Page, an intelligent, quick-witted actress who crafts a character who's doused in irony but not as emotionally distanced as she fancies herself to be.

In a more run-of-the-mill cast, Page would have run away with the film, but happily her costars are able to keep up. J.K. Simmons and Allison Janney make Juno's dad and stepmother exactly the parents the character deserves, able to humor her and empathize with her even when they don't quite understand her, and who have bottomless reserves of love, particularly the tough variety. Jennifer Garner and Jason Bateman nail the dynamic of a childless yuppie couple whose life isn't as ideal as they try to convince others it is. Garner is able to project both the insecurity and the warmth needed to portray a woman who was born to be a mother but unable to bear children (sidenote: why does it always seem to be the generous, nurturing women who can't have kids?). And Bateman is especially good in a role that's usually relegated to comic relief- the husband who can't fully embrace the responsibilities of adulthood because he's too busy holding on to his dreams of youth. Finally, Michael Cera is a treasure. I don't know how much range the guy has beyond playing overwhelmed, but he's just so good at it (at the ripe old age of 19, no less) that I don't really care. He's just the right match for Page, just as his Paulie is the right match for Juno, although it takes them almost the whole movie to figure that out.

Had Juno been made 10 or 15 years ago, I suspect that the reception would have felt a little different. Yes, critics would have still almost uniformly praised the film, but instead of arriving as an awards-ready buzz magnet, it might have done decent business at big-city arthouses and then found an word-of-mouth audience on video. And frankly, that feels just about right for Juno. It's the kind of movie that people should be recommending to friends for its gentle good humor, one that would feel a lot more meaningful to people if they could feel like they discovered it themselves. Sadly, movies like that are rare anymore, in a media culture that predigests just about anything that's even remotely worthy of attention, but the good news is that it hardly hardly needs the hype to prop it up. Juno can stand pretty well on its own, thank you very much. Rating: 6 out of 10.

Tuesday, December 04, 2007

The Movies of My Life #1

As a serious filmgoer, I've learned to recognize what makes a movie great. Things such as technique and directorial style can only be appreciated once you've learned a thing or two about cinema and about the filmmaking process. But when you're younger, you don't think about those things- a movie either works on you, or it doesn't. And sometimes, just sometimes, a movie will carve out a special place in your moviegoing heart, and it stays with you, until it's almost impossible for you to be objective about the movie. Occasionally, this backfires on you, if you watch it when you're older only to find that it hasn't held up. But a truly special film only improves with age and grows dearer to you long after you've grown out of so many others. Movies like these are like an old broken-in baseball glove that you still play with long after most people have traded theirs in for new ones, or a favorite pair of blue jeans that fit just right. In these rare instances, Thomas Wolfe be damned- you can go home again, if only for the two hours or so while the movie's running.

Ever since I wrote the piece called "11 Key Films in My Life" about 2 1/2 years ago, I've been kicking around the idea of expanding the idea into a semi-regular feature on my blog. But I never actually thought to act upon that impulse into today, when I stopped in at Borders. I had a coupon for 40% off a DVD boxed set, and while I had planned to buy a gift for a friend, my intended purchase wasn't in stock. So I did what anyone with an hour-long lunch break, a coupon that expired today, and an insatiable urge to buy a DVD would have done- I looked for something for myself. But only, you see, if it was the right movie. I don't buy just to buy, you understand. Well, sure enough, the right movie soon presented itself.

When I was a kid, movies were a family outing. And having a younger brother meant that we only went to movies that were appropriate for him. Of course, these movies were mostly Disney rereleases and some other animated fare, which I'm guessing didn't always thrill my parents. All this changed when I was seven years old, when my mom took me to see my first movie without my brother. My folks had already seen Back to the Future with friends, and they decided that I was mature enough to enjoy it (and oblivious enough for the more adult stuff to fly over my head). I remember the ride to the movie theatre- I was so jazzed to be watching a movie for grown-ups, PG rating be damned. And needless to say, the movie more than lived up to the anticipation.

I grew up as part of the Star Wars generation, but although I always enjoyed George Lucas' original creations, they were never MY movies. I was more into Indiana Jones- his world seemed more comprehensible to me, and the idea of a whip-cracking archeologist (and Eagle Scout, which became more significant to me later on) was super-cool. But no movie was cooler to me back then than Back to the Future. I would estimate that by the time I enrolled in middle school, I had seen Back to the Future more than any other movie. Like Dr. Jones and The Muppets, Marty and Doc Brown were my friends.

But back to today's trip to Borders. Now, I know what you're thinking- if Back to the Future is so damn special to you, why did you wait all these years to buy the DVD? It's sort of complicated, I guess, but a lot of it has to do with the fact that you can only get the original movie in a box set with the two sequels. I kind of enjoy Parts II and III, but after the sheer perfection of the original movie, they just didn't stack up. Fact is, I think the BTTF sequels had as much to do with the cooling of my love for the original movie around the time I started seventh grade. Did I have my own ideas about where Doc Brown took Marty and Jennifer in the flying DeLorean, ideas that just didn't jive with Zemeckis' convoluted future? Did I simply prefer Claudia Wells to Elisabeth Shue? Who can say?

Thankfully, my falling out with Back to the Future was only temporary. Catching up with the movie again in high school only made me appreciate more how wonderful an entertainment it is. For me, it hasn't aged a day. Sure, some of the 80s jokes have dated, but in a way, this only deepens my love for the movie. In the hands of Zemeckis and co-writer Bob Gale, the 80s are as much a period as the 50s, and now that they feel just as distant as that earlier time, I'm able to feel nostalgia for both. I'm really looking forward to watching this with my (currently purely theoretical) kids and having to explain to them the Pepsi Free joke and the gag about Ronald Reagan. But the DeLorean is more or less self-explanatory. After all, any car with doors that open up like birds' wings is bound to be cool to a seven-year-old.

But even from a purely grown-up perspective, Back to the Future is pretty much perfect. It all begins with that dynamite premise- a teenager goes back in time to see his parents in high school- and goes from there. It's a career high point for practically everyone in the cast, with the possible exception of Thomas F. Wilson, who was just as good if not better as the gym teacher on Freaks and Geeks. I also like that, despite the movie's slightly rose-colored view of the 1950s, it never comes across as sanitized, like Grease did. One of the movie's masterstrokes is that Marty is made privy to the sins and foibles of his parents' youth. Even before she tries to make out with him, Lorraine (his future mom, let's not forget) confesses that she's "parked" before, then busts out a bottle of booze and a cigarette. So just as Marty sees that his parents weren't the celibates he imagined they were, we also see how the Eisenhower decade wasn't nearly as simple as bad-boy thugs, cowlicked nerds, and young ladies who didn't put out because they weren't "that kind of girl."

As I stood in the store, face to face with an important part of my childhood, it dawned on me that I didn't care if I was spending extra money for two movies that were more or less dead weight. Suddenly, it felt like the right time to buy Back to the Future on DVD. And watching it tonight drove this home. Seeing it again for the umpteenth time, I discovered that Back to the Future was that rarest of creatures- a movie for everyone. It's not simply that it contains something for every audience- fun characters, sweet effects, skateboards, rock'n'roll, high school romance, Huey Lewis, a whiff of incest, Biff forever messing up the "make like a tree" line, and so on. It's that it has something to say to practically every one of us who wondered about the people who became our parents, and about the parents who had to change so much for their children, and in a way that's funny and exciting and surprisingly moving (especially Marty's friendship with Doc) and eternally cool. To put it another way- give it another spin, and bring the kids. You don't need no credit card to ride this train.

Monday, December 03, 2007

Muriel Awards 2007 FYC #9

Best DVD release: Everything Will Be OK (Bitter Films)

DVD has become so firmly established in our cultural landscape in the last decade that it's a little miraculous that there are great films that still haven't been released in the format. 2007 found such classic titles as Army of Shadows, O Lucky Man!, Ace in the Hole, and Fassbinder's mammoth Berlin Alexanderplatz released on region 1 DVD for the first time, and all would be worthy contenders for this award. So naturally I'd like to take this opportunity to stump for Don Hertzfeldt's Everything Will Be OK. As was the case with the DVD of Hertzfeldt's previous short films, entitled Bitter Films vol. 1, the Everything DVD contains hundreds of sketches and test animations from Hertzfeldt's vault, from the genesis of the project to the final stages. But the real reason it's here is because of the film itself, quite possibly the best film of any year that I saw for the first time in '07. Anyone who has followed Don's career to date was prepared for his latest film's high level of quality, but I don't think anyone anticipated the sheer emotional punch it would pack. Moreover, at a time when more directors are applying the scruffy aesthetic of garage rock to cinema, Hertzfeldt is at the leading edge of DIY moviemaking, drawing every frame himself, aiding in the sound mix, narrating the story, and even self-distributing the movie on DVD (available at this point only through Hertzfeldt's own Bitter Films web site for a scant $12!). Everything Will Be OK is a stunning achievement for these reasons and many more. Those of you who've seen the film actually know this; those who haven't would be advised to pick up the DVD, give it a spin, and recognize.

Sunday, December 02, 2007

Famous Last Words- Round 1, Week 10

By the mid-80s, Woody Allen had mostly turned away from contemporary films in favor of light comic nostalgia pieces, and 1987's Radio Days (the source of last week's quiz) is one of his best from the period. A big part of what makes it work is its anecdotal nature, as a series of half-remembered vignettes and urban legends from the golden days of radio, like the case of the burglars who won "Name That Tune." There are a couple of narrative through-lines- the rise of a cigarette girl-turned-radio star played by Mia Farrow, the experiences of Allen (played by future Scott Evil, Seth Green)- but they don't insist on themselves. And the closing narration, spoken by Allen himself, addresses the bittersweet flip side of nostalgia- that it's at best a secondhand form of enjoyment, a pale substitute for actually being there.

In its way, this week's quote is no less philosophical:

“But one thing I don’t have to wonder about- I know. Someday a car will stop to pick me up that I never thumbed. Yes, fate or some mysterious force can put the finger on you or me, for no good reason at all.”

Name the film. Remember, submit your guesses to this e-Mail address by 11:59 PM EST on Saturday. See you next week.

Saturday, December 01, 2007

"It's December the First..."

Hey there, bloggers. Still searching for that perfect last minute stocking stuffer? Well, why not ring in the holiday season with five of the neatest guys in music? That's right, it's the 5 Neat Guys Neatest Hits, available only from your old friends at K-Tel. Of course, this is an old commercial, but I'm sure it's available on CD now as well, for your listening pleasure. Why not give the 5 Neat Guys another spin?

Note: I love me some SCTV, so don't think this'll be the last clip from the show. You've been warned.

Face Time #31 (For British Hoser Eyes Only)

Dave Thomas

(Well, it was bound to happen- I've finally chosen someone who has already been featured previously on Dennis Cozzalio's Faces I Love feature. But no matter- this guy pretty much rules, one of my favorites on SCTV, and a lot of fun in his recurring guest spot on Arrested Development.)