Friday, December 29, 2006

The worst film book?

What was the worst book about film I read in 2006?

Photobucket - Video and Image HostingIt pains me to say it, but I'd have to give the dubious honor to David Thomson's mash note/biography Nicole Kidman. Thomson is of course the author of the epic Biographical Dictionary of Film, an essential work of subjective reference.

What's wrong with Nicole Kidman? Thomson writes in the voice of a man looking through a thick glass window at something he's not supposed to see. According to a postscript, Kidman was interviewed for the book; but descriptions of Kidman's behavior are simply asserted and not documented. While there are some thought-provoking chapters on various parts of Kidman's filmography (the chapter on Birth is especially good), the book's central flaw is that the author is clearly infatuated with his subject.

Thomson writes that the book is in part about "our response" to "being an actress and a star," but what does that mean? For Thomson it means musing on how Kidman's films might have been written differently, and most troublingly a sexual fantasy in which Thomson is cast as voyeur and Kidman is a Belle du Jour-style prostitute. Ultimately Thomson is able to reconstruct certain details of Kidman's life but fails utterly at his attempt to assign meaning to her career in a way that separates that career from say, Halle Berry. (Except that the movies are better).

Wednesday, December 27, 2006

DVD Diary - Akeelah and the Bee

Photobucket - Video and Image HostingChristmas Eve viewing with the family was Akeelah and the Bee (d. Doug Atchison), the story of a girl from a rough L.A. neighborhood (Keke Palmer) who makes it all the way to the National Spelling Bee.

While the movie was perfectly suitable good holiday fare, I'd have to say Akeelah lays on the uplift pretty thick. Akeelah is tutored for the bee by a professor (Laurence Fishburne) hiding a deep dark secret who gives his young charge a heavy dose of empowerment. Akeelah's mother (Angela Bassett, overqualified) doesn't want her daughter mingling with kids from better neighborhoods, for some unspecified reason, but of course she comes around.

There's nothing unpredictable here, but Palmer's non-cute performance is enough to give Akeelah and the Bee a passing grade. Stereotype alert! Akeelah's main rival is Dylan (Sean Michael), an uptight Asian kid with domineering Dad.

Tuesday, December 26, 2006

Gymkata!

Good piece from Dave Kehr in the NY Times about Warner Home Video's fan-selected release of some obscure DVD's.

A rose is a rose

For the next little while I'll be posting mostly in the evenings, so I hope I've got this up in time for you to catch Cate Blanchett and Notes from a Scandal director Richard Eyre on the Charlie Rose show tonight.

Rose has been having a great run of film guests the last few days. If you have a chance to see the roundtable with Alfonso Cuaron (Children of Men), Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu (Babel), and Guillermo Del Toro (Pan's Labryinth), please do so.

Thursday, December 21, 2006

Soderbergh trouble?

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Steven Soderbergh's latest The Good German gets taken down by Matt Zoller Seitz at The House Next Door. HND is a blog I don't miss, Seitz and the other contributors are generally tuned with my taste in film & TV. (About Last Night agrees)Every time I've posted a comment on the site (usually about Lost) I've been treated with respect and enthusiasm.

The Good German hasn't made it to my neck of the woods yet, and as a Soderbergh fan I'm looking forward to it despite the reviews. We have an unusual record of the director's thought processes available to us, he's probably done more director's DVD commentaries than anyone of his status. I tend to break director's commentary down into a couple of subgenres:

  • "He's a genius, and she's a genius, and I'm a genius, and one day that extra spilled coffee on me."

    or

  • "This is a scene where (description of what's on screen) which was shot in ______ with a ______ lens."

    Soderbergh's commentaries are more like discussions of an attempt to solve certain problems. The commentary track of Sex, Lies, & Videotape sets the tone. The director (in conversation w/ Neil LaBute) is funny and self-deprecating, and candid about what he did and didn't know during shooting. In the track for Solaris he tells producer James Cameron that the movie may be too airless, and admits to taking a key idea from a studio exec.

    The mother lode is of course The Limey, a movie-long argument between Soderbergh and writer Lem Dobbs about what didn't make into the film, the story of an ex-con (Terence Stamp) after his daughter's killer (Peter Fonda). Dobbs (clearly displeased) felt too much characterization and emotion was left on the floor, while Soderbergh disagrees and defends his choices.

    It's entirely possible that I'll dislike The Good German, but I do hope to get a chance to hear from Soderbergh on the DVD, and I'll keep rooting for his experimentations. I'm partial to a director who keeps working and sometimes fails rather than one who dallies for years and only does "important" films.
  • Wednesday, December 20, 2006

    Drama and crazy guys - The King

    Photobucket - Video and Image HostingThe King (d. James Marsh) illustrates a problem with making psycho/sociopaths the center of films. Scorsese did it well with Taxi Driver, but Marsh is no Scorsese.

    Elvis (Gael Garcia Bernal) gets out of the Navy and sets out to find his never-met father David Sandow (William Hurt). David is now a Texas preacher with a church and small following and a family. David's pre-conversion dalliance with a prostitute led to Elvis' birth, and now the son has come to connect with his Dad.

    Photobucket - Video and Image HostingDavid is hostile to admitting his mistake to his family, and Elvis retaliates by seducing Sandow's teen daughter Malerie (Pell James). The affair escalates and is eventually discovered by Malerie's brother Paul (Paul Dano, in a 180 degree opposite role from his Little Miss Sunshine character). Things go badly after that.

    A former drama professor told me it's not fair to review a play that wasn't written, but I want to stop to consider the movie The King could have been. Hurt disappears into his role and gives Sandow an almost palpable religious fervor, but he clearly had a slightly more colorful life before the church. Preachers are routinely presented as bloated hypocrites, and I kept waiting for some further misdeed to be exposed. Sandow is a genuine man of faith though, a cousin to Robert Duvall's character in The Apostle.

    How would a genuinely spiritual man go forward when confronted with evidence of a past sin? An promising premise, but The King barely touches it. Once we know Elvis is crazy (about halfway through), the experience of watching The King becomes a wait for a climactic freak out.

    If a character operates free from emotion, morality, and societal norms, can they be dramtically satisfying? And why should the audience care? Again, Taxi Driver is the exception, but Travis Bickle's psychosis was tied into the decaying urban life he saw around him. Despite the talents of Bernal, Hurt, and the up-and-coming Pell James, there's a void at the center of The King.

    Tuesday, December 19, 2006

    Best Top 10 List?

    Thanks to the Carpetbagger, I just discovered InContention. Their site is devoted heavily to awards season politics, but the Top 10 List is the most adventurous I've seen this year. Here's what they had to say about co-top choices Inland Empire and The Fountain:

    2006 afforded two separate, diametrically opposed works of cinema that can finally be considered a part of another movement altogether. They are Darren Aronofsky’s “The Fountain” and David Lynch’s “Inland Empire,” and though qualification is a fool’s errand when it comes to each, both films combine to form the number one film-going experience of the year in this viewer’s opinion.

    Show stopper

    ....as we contiue with Maggie Gyllenhaal Fest '06, I'm pleased to report that she has been named one of Premiere's "Show Stoppers" of the year for her performance in Sherrybaby. The short article contains an interesting anecdote from the movie's director Laurie Collyer about Gyllenhaal's bold choices on set. (no link unfortunately)

    Monday, December 18, 2006

    Let The Sunshine Shine In

    Here's my original review of Little Miss Sunshine (out on DVD tomorrow), as published in LINK magazine:

    “Little Miss Sunshine” arrives with the curse of Sundance on its back. This family comedy, directed by Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris, was sold to Fox Searchlight for $10 million at this year’s Sundance Film Festival. High-dollar deals guarantee plenty of press coming out of a festival, but box-office success doesn’t always follow. (Remember “Happy Texas”? Didn’t think so.) If there’s any justice, “Little Miss Sunshine” should have a happier fate. This comedy is a sly celebration of family; albeit a family narrowly prevented from flying apart by its youngest member. It’s the acceptance of young Olive Hoover (Abigail Breslin) into the “Little Miss Sunshine” child beauty pageant that sets the story in motion. Parents Richard and Sheryl (Greg Kinnear and Toni Collette) decide to shepherd the whole family from Albuquerque to California in an ancient VW bus; the family has hit financial hard times while motivational speaker Richard waits to see if his “9 Steps” success plan will earn him a book deal. Besides Olive, there’s Richard’s drug-using father (gleefully profane Alan Arkin), son Dwayne (Paul Dano), and recently suicidal brother-in-law Frank (Steve Carell, putting aside his comic persona). While “Little Miss Sunshine” is full of laughs and absurdity (and an unexpected loss), Michael Arndt’s script manages to avoid familiar melodramatic beats and the cast is never content to merely play the eccentricity of a scene. The quiet moments of connection and the way that each character finds solace from private pain are what make “Sunshine” linger in the mind after the closing credits. The climactic beauty pageant is presented as a grotesquerie of underdressed and over made-up children, it would have been easy for things to turn ugly or sappy, but the tonally perfect ending keeps the theme of unconventional family love intact. I admit to being thoroughly charmed by “Little Miss Sunshine.” The movie’s R rating is earned by some sexual dialogue and a scene of drug use. But if it’s possible for movie characters to make you love your own family more, the Hoovers might just do the trick.

    Sunday, December 17, 2006

    5 Golden Globe thoughts

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  • I'll continue to beat the drum for Supporting Actress nominee Rinko Kikuchi in Babel, although she's opposed by someone from the same film (Adriana Barraza)and that never seems to help. All the heat seems to be behind Jennifer Hudson in Dreamgirls.

  • Bobby for Best Drama?

  • Could Letters from Iwo Jima not have been nominated for Best Picture AND Best Foreign Film?

  • Sure, DiCaprio and Eastwood scored multiple nominations. But how about the body of work for Alec Baldwin this year? He's nominated for 30 Rock and was memorable in Running with Scissors and The Departed. Look for him in The Good Shepherd this week.

  • If Evangeline Lilly gets nominated for Lost, where's Michelle Rodriguez?
  • Sherrybaby

    Last week I wrote about Maggie Gyllenhaal being one of my must-watch actresses, so it's with great pride I note that she's picked up a Golden Globe nomination for the low-budget Sherrybaby (d. Laurie Collyer).

    Photobucket - Video and Image HostingI'll probably have to wait for DVD to see this one; a glance at the film's Rotten Tomatoes page reveals mostly positive reviews (67%). Gyllenhaal plays a woman recovering from drug addiction and trying to get her life back in order. It will most likely be an honor just to be nominated for Gyllenhaal, she's up against award magnets Judi Dench (Notes on a Scandal) and Kate Winslet (Little Children). Not to mention this year's critical favorite Helen Mirren for The Queen. Penelope Cruz (Volver) rounds out the category.

    Friday, December 15, 2006

    Review Catch Up

    My reviews of :

    Blood Diamond


    The Nativity Story

    Running free

    If they ever give an Oscar for stunts, how about a nod for Sebastien Foucan in Casino Royale? He's the guy Bond is pursuing in the opening scene who "free runs" through a construction site with Bond in pursuit.

    Photobucket - Video and Image HostingCasino was the best Bond I've seen in ages, and I don't think I even saw the one with Halle Berry. While putting Bond too much in the real world would spoil the fun, (Bond pursues Al Qaeda!) the decision to make him more vulnerable and less suave feels right. Eva Green showed me something as the "Bond girl." She had so much personality I was actually rooting for them to get together.

    Monday, December 11, 2006

    AFI

    The one inexplicable choice among the AFI Top 10 films of the year was Happy Feet. I can't help but think it's only doing so well at the box office because people think it's a kids movie instead of a music-heavy, story-lite, heavy-handed eco-mess. There's not even a standout vocal performance....

    Photobucket - Video and Image HostingInside Man was a smart choice, and still ranks as one of my favorites this year despite some plot holes. It's the one movie on the list that gets to the ethnic friction and salty humor of modern urban life; I still love its energy and put it in barely in the top tier of my favorite Spike Lee films (25th Hour, Malcolm X, Clockers).

    L.A. Critic Love

    ....more accolades for Letters from Iwo Jima, Helen Mirren, and Forest Whitaker from the Los Angeles Film Critics....

    Sunday, December 10, 2006

    The Great New Wonderful and the Can't Miss List

    I'm about ready to add Maggie Gyllenhaal to the Can't Miss List, actresses whose work I seek out no matter how good or bad the movie around them may be. Julianne Moore and Toni Collette are on the list so far, and I'm sure I have similar list for actors but somehow I don't seem to think about it as much.

    In The Great New Wonderful (d. Danny Leiner) Gyllenhaal plays Emme, a cake designer living in New York a year after 9/11. The film is about how 9/11 has affected everyone a year later. It's one of those ensemble films where most of the characters never even meet. Standouts in the large cast include Tom McCarthy and Judy Greer as parents of a troubled child (Stephen Colbert cameos as a school headmaster) and Naseeruddin Shah from Monsoon Wedding as a security guard.

    Photobucket - Video and Image HostingEmme's story arc involves preparations to pitch cake ideas to a high-society family for a teenage birthday party. A rival designer (Edie Falco) has won the job several years in a row and is apparently the only thing standing between Emme and career supremacy. If The Great New Wonderful has a overarching theme, I suppose it's that a year after 9/11 everything (for these characters) was basically the same, so get on with fixing the problems of your own life.

    There's a scene in the first season of the FX show Rescue Me where one of the firemen goes to a 9/11 support group and finds that he's the only one there personally touched by the tragedy. I was reminded of that scene while watching this movie, since 9/11 (never referred to directly) lurks in the background but isn't connected to the story in a dramatically satisfying way.

    Gyllenhaal makes something out of her fifth-of-a-movie though. Emme begins to be bothered by the superficiality of her life, and the turning point comes at the birthday party. A child singing karaoke to Sarah Maclachlan's "Ice Cream" triggers a flood of tears. On the commentary track, director Leiner and writer Sam Catlin note that the script was inspired by a couple of Catlin's plays soldered into one story.

    A whole movie devoted to Emme's journey could have been quite powerful, but in the quest to say everything the makers of The Great New Wonderful have said very little.

    Saturday, December 09, 2006

    Award thoughts...

    Soccer practice and a trip to the doctor kept me offline for a few days, but that gave me time to come up with a few thoughts about the National Board of Review's announcement of the year's best films.

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  • Best Picture - Letters from Iwo Jima - Clint Eastwood's Japanese take on the Battle of Iwo Jima must be pretty good to top The Departed and Little Miss Sunshine. Haven't seen it of course, but it doesn't feel like this is a film that can take Oscar away from any of the big-time contenders.

  • Best Actor - Forest Whitaker for The Last King of Scotland. It's about time somebody gave this guy an award.

  • Best Supporting Actress - Catherine O'Hara for For Your Consideration. Love O'Hara but can't get behind this one. The emtionally naked performance of Rinko Kikuchi in Babel is my clear choice. Kikuchi shared the award for Best Breakthrough with Dreamgirls' Jennifer Hudson.

  • Best Ensemble Acting - The Departed - Dig the recognition for Sheen, Wahlberg, Baldwin, Vera Farmiga, and Ray Winstone.

  • Best Original Screenplay - Zach Helm for Stranger than Fiction - Uh-uh.
  • Tuesday, December 05, 2006

    Fountain gab

    Photobucket - Video and Image HostingIn this discussion at Cinemarati, I tried to suggest an interpretation for what's happening in the Fountain spaceship scenes. No one's biting so far, what do you think?

    National Board of Review

    There's a piece at OscarWatch about the National Board of Review awards, which will be announced tomorrow 12/6. The article points out that generally you can bet safely on most of the Best Picture nominees being in the NBR's Top 10.

    I'm not breaking any new ground here when I say that right now my own personal choices are Little Miss Sunshine, The Queen, and United 93. That leaves 2 open and I'm mulling those over. I've read several places that Babel is a surefire nominee but it's so uneven I have my doubts.

    Monday, December 04, 2006

    It's "Fall Finale" time

    USA Today reports the trend for TV series to air "fall finale" episodes, which wrap up some plot strands while starting others and leading in to a long hiatus. Heroes, Lost, and Jericho have all billed their last pre-Christmas episodes as "Fall Finales."

    The 22-week, rerun-laden season is going to be come an antique. Whatever we call these heavily promoted episodes, the pratice of breaking up long rerun-free blocks of episodes with breaks (anywhere from 6-13 weeks) pushes the networks closer to the HBO model of shorter seasons with no reruns and farther away from the usual fall-to-spring scenario. I'll climb on board if that means shows as good as The Wire and Deadwood.

    Sunday, December 03, 2006

    Gotham Awards

    Half Nelson is big winner at the Gotham Awards. (IndieWire)

    Kristin Chenoweth

    Kristin Chenoweth (The West Wing, Wicked): theater star, dog lover, single woman, Christian. (Oh, she's also the basis for Sarah Paulson's Harriet character on Studio 60) (NY Times)

    Japanese Story

    Raise your hand if a Netflix selection has sat unwatched on your shelf for more than 3 months. Ok, hands down.

    I came to Japanese Story (2003, d. Sue Brooks) after seeing Toni Collette's performances in Little Miss Sunshine and The Night Listener almost back-to-back this summer. Although I don't like Muriel's Wedding (Collette's big break) as much as many people, she's an actress who always delivers for me.

    Photobucket - Video and Image HostingBut what a strange trifle this movie is! Sandy (Collette) is a geologist who is driving a Japanese man named Hiromitsu (Gotaro Tsunashima) around the Australian outback for unspecified, business-related reasons. Hiromitsu insists they keep driving further into the desert, which inevitably leads to them getting stuck and having to spend the night outdoors.

    Sounds like the setup for a horror movie, right? But Hiromitsu figures out a way to dislodge their car, and they're off again! You'd think they'd just head on back, but they keep driving around, stopping for picnics and a few wordless sexual encounters. Then, there's an accident.....

    I won't give away the end, but I don't have the slightest idea what Japanese Story is about, unless it's some Innaritu-lite look at the impossibility of communication between different cultures. The style is studied and slow, and I was itchy for the movie to be over after about an hour (it only runs 1:40).

    I still love Toni Collette, but Japanese Story belongs in the second tier on her resume.

    Friday, December 01, 2006

    Film criticism "blog-a-thon"

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    This blog has great links to a number of posts on film criticism going up this weekend. I won't waste time trying to describe all of them, you can see for yourself....this is all worth checking out.

    For me, the journey towards film criticism (I write for LINK magazine in Greenville, SC) began with the discovery of a Pauline Kael collection in a used bookstore. At the time I hadn't seen most of the movies she was discussing, but I knew I wanted to write that way about something.

    I certainly don't think I have much to add to what's been written about the pros and cons of Kael, but here are a few (very general) things I've learned.

  • Entertainment comes first - If I'm not engaged on a gut level as an audience member, nothing else matters. If I am engaged then a multitude of sins can be forgiven.

  • Finding good in the mediocre - Even in a film Kael disliked, an actor's performance or a bit of staging was often singled out. I also come to this from my own background; I've acted in about 25 plays and find that I enjoy watching great character actors do their stuff even in subpar material.

  • The director isn't everything - I loved Robert Altman's work, but no one should ever have to watch Dr. T and the Women again.

  • Just because we're told something is important doesn't make it good. The most recent example here is Stranger than Fiction.

    Simple rules, not original or especially thought out. But they've served me well so far.....
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