Monday, January 29, 2007

Kevin Smith, Actor? (Call the HRC)

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In Susannah Grant's Catch and Release, Clerks director Kevin Smith plays Sam. Sam is a genial Celestial Seasonings copywriter who's the roommate of Dennis (Sam Jaeger). Both guys are friends the recently deceased Grady, whose bereft fiance Gray (Jennifer Garner) is now living in the downstairs part of the house once occupied by Grady.

Got that? Sam and Dennis seem to be Gray's main support system; she discovers after the funeral that Grady was a. rich, b. the father of a child with an L.A. massage therapist (Juliette Lewis, always welcome) and c. friends with Fritz (Timothy Olyphant), the guy she now seems to be falling for.

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As the flakier half of the two housemates, Sam spends most of his time in pajamas drinking beer. His self-loathing in the wake of Grady's death leads to one of the more dramatically unnecessary suicide attempts in film history; Sam politely downs vodka and a few sleeping pills and wakes up with Gray's comforting presence at his bedside.

I kept waiting for the revelation that Sam and Dennis were a gay couple, as they seemed opposite yet connected in an ideally ha-ha romantic comedy second banana way. (neat vs. messy, organized vs. spacey, etc.) But no, late in the picture Dennis reveals long-held feelings for Gray and then has a disastrous and irrelevant rebound date. Sam seems to connect with Lewis's California girl; she's moving in with him by the closing scenes.

Smith shambles through the role with the customary good humor he displays on Dinner for Five on IFC. Each character's fate fits neatly into the theme of moving on. I'm certainly not on the prowl for discrimination, but the scrambling to hetero-ify everyone was weird. My overall take on the film was down the middle; pleasant, low-key, (boy is Garner hot when she's sad), but maybe too much so. Worth a matinee.

Sunday, January 28, 2007

SAG Surprise

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Little Miss Sunshine takes Best Ensemble at the Screen Actors Guild Awards. Last year Crash foreshadowed its Oscar win with an upset here. Predictions anyone?

What do you want to see?

As much as I'd enjoy seeing Alicia Keys play one-half of a lesbian hitwoman team in Smokin' Aces, David Denby's New Yorker review talked me out of it:

In 2002, Carnahan, who is now thirty-seven, made an intense and violent little cop film, “Narc,” with Jason Patric and Ray Liotta. He seemed to have absorbed the influences of John Cassavetes and Martin Scorsese and come up with a style of his own. I was a fan of that movie, but “Smokin’ Aces” feels like Quentin Tarantino’s “Kill Bill” pushed much further along into lethal absurdity. It’s not that Carnahan can’t write; there’s juice and variety in the movie’s foulmouthed idiom, and the actors have fun with it. Alicia Keys and Taraji Henson, as two female assassins, get a happy rhythm going; Jason Bateman has a brilliant bit as a masochistic lawyer; and Jeremy Piven exercises the talent for outrageous, gloating egotism that he developed on HBO’s “Entourage.” But, apart from the acting flourishes, the joke has run out on this kind of intentionally low-road filmmaking.

Thursday, January 25, 2007

Serious Mirren

How Frears, Mirren & Co. got The Queen right, and why most critics don't get it. (Serious Popcorn)

Culture shock

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I haven't done as many posts as you might think this post-Oscar nomination week because I'm still trying to get through all the contenders that showed up in town on a single Friday. I've already mentioned Pan's Labyrinth and just saw The Painted Veil, which had first-rate performances by Watts and Norton, great scenery & music, and not quite enough story to support 2+ hours.

Photobucket - Video and Image HostingStill to come:Notes on a Scandal (this week's review) ,The Last King of Scotland and Letters from Iwo Jima. With all these classy films, will I have time for Alpha Dog or Catch and Release?

Wednesday, January 24, 2007

Technical note

I'm going to reconstitute the list of links that was once here, but in the meantime please note my other blogs in the upper right hand corner.....

Tuesday, January 23, 2007

5 Oscar things.....

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  • Even though I didn't have it on my list of the year's best films, the omission of Dreamgirls from the Best Picture race is a surprise. Only a few years ago a well-made musical about far less (Chicago) got the top prize;let's not forget Titanic beating L.A. Confidential. Does the passing over of Dreamgirls signal a turn to seriousness among the voters?

  • If the movie's good, Jack Nicholson ALWAYS gets nominated! What's the deal? I don't know if Mark Wahlberg deserved his nod more than Jack, but he did deserve it.

  • The Best Director nomination for Paul Greengrass of United 93 proves that the best director may not direct the best film. I wouldn't trade any of the Best Picture nominees for United 93, but Greengrass found the perfect way to tell that story.

  • I just saw The Painted Veil (go) and now am officially outraged that Alexandre Desplat's Golden Globe-winning score didn't get an Oscar nomination.

  • And (once again), Rinko Kikuchi....... Photobucket - Video and Image Hosting
  • I liked it....

    It's a hard to describe Pan's Labyrinth in such a relatively short space, but here's my review....

    Sunday, January 21, 2007

    Courage of Convictions (contains Pan's Labyrinth spoilers)

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    I didn't mean to be away from the blog so long, but I hurt my back playing soccer and found it uncomfortable to sit at the computer for a few days. But I'm back, and the big cinematical event of the weekend was seeing Guillermo del Toro's Pan's Labyrinth as it expanded to my town.

    You SHOULD NOT be reading this if you haven't already seen the movie. (Go see it)Pan's Labyrinth is, it seems to me, a movie about the difference between obedience for the sake obedience and free will. Also, the moment when the games and fantasies of childhood are cast away and one's life has real world consequences. Captain Vidal (Sergi Lopez), the fascist obsessed with a "clean" Spain, demands unquestioning obedience from everyone at the rural military outpost he commands. Vidal's arrogance extends to believing he can order a doctor (Alex Angulo) to make sure his new wife (Ariadna Gil) delivers him a son.

    At the same time, 12-year old Ofelia (Ivana Baquero) encounters a faun (the remarkable Doug Jones) who tells her she may be the lost princess of a magical world. Ofelia, who we learn early on is obsessed with fairy tales, is set certain tasks the meanings of which aren't immediately clear. Del Toro pulls off something great here, which I didn't appreciate until further reflection. The "magical" and realistic strands of the story don't connect until quite late in the film, but even though the audience is in the dark the film is still riveting.

    In the climactic scenes, rebels attack Vidal's outpost as Ofelia flees with her infant brother into the labyrinth at the faun's instruction. With Vidal in pursuit, Ofelia must choose between obeying the elaborate rules that have been set up for her and making a practical, real-world choice that affects the life of another person. (I'm going to try to do this without giving away the ending, if you've seen the film you know what I'm talking about)She chooses correctly, and the moment marks an irrepreable rite of passage to adulthood.

    But Ofelia's choice has consequences; don't they all? Del Toro pulls a switch with the ending, suggesting that the fantastical world of the faun may outlive death. I went back and forth on this ending in my review (which I'll post next week), and almost downgraded the film because of it. I think the choice is defensible, but if Del Toro had followed the logic of his world to its conclusion the ending would have been much darker.

    Let me be clear: despite this objection, Pan's Labyrinth offers one of the greatest pleasures any work of art can give. Del Toro puts us in a place we've never been before and leaves us there to fend for ourselves.

    Tuesday, January 16, 2007

    DVD Diary - Ask the Dust

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    The Netflix wrapper on top of the TV mocked me for weeks, but a quiet Tuesday night finally provided me an opportunity to watch Ask the Dust (d. Robert Towne), an adaptation of John Fante's 1939 novel.

    Much reviled upon it's release in 2006, I had seen it on a few worst-of lists. Arturo Bandini (Colin Farrell, horribly miscast) is a struggling writer living in L.A. Things start to turn around when he meets Camilla (Salma Hayek), an illiterate waitress who becomes his lover and muse. Bandini sells a few short stories (critic Richard Schickel does a voice cameo as H.L. Mencken) and starts work on a novel.

    I don't really know what to say about Ask the Dust, which really is quite bad. Bandini is idealized, ultra-masculine yet sensitive, practically irresistible to women; Idina Menzel plays an admirer who dies in an earthquake only minutes after Bandini leaves her bed. There's virtually no plot, and Farrell looks lost. I debated listening to the commentary (Robert Towne is the guy who wrote Chinatown after all), but I was ready to seal up that envelope minutes after the movie was over.

    Back to business

    It looks like quite a few of you checked out my Golden Globe blogging over at LDB last night, so thanks. Now for an actual movie review, here's Curse of the Golden Flower

    Saturday, January 13, 2007

    Golden Globes live

    We'll see if this works, but on Monday I'm going to try to record my reactions to the Golden Globes here live as they happen....so somebody had better go crazy during the acceptance speech so I have something to write about. If anyone has tried to do anything like this before, I'd appreciate hearing how it worked....

    Thursday, January 11, 2007

    This week....

    ....I'll be reviewing Curse of the Golden Flower, directed by Zhang Yimou (Hero, House of Flying Daggers) and starring Chow Yun-Fat and Gong Li.....sadly, no Zhang Ziyi.......

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    Tuesday, January 09, 2007

    Netflix This 4 - Clean

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    Clean (d. Olivier Assayas) started popping up on some year-end best lists, I'm glad I had a chance to see a DVD before making my final list for '06. The only other Assayas I had seen was Demonlover, a nutso thriller that (I think) is about corporate espionage and crazy s&m porn sites. I'm happy to report that Clean is both simpler and superior.

    Emily (Cannes award winner Maggie Cheung) is the girlfriend of a drugged-out semi-famous musician named Lee (James Johnston). No stranger to drugs herself, Emily leaves a hotel room to fix one night and returns to find Lee the victim of an OD. The couple's young son Jay (James Dennis) resides with Lee's parents, and Lee's father Albrecht (excellent Nick Nolte) tells Emily to stay away.

    A few odd jobs and false starts await Emily on her return to Paris, but she finally lands on her feet with the help of some friends. Albrecht finds himself in London with Jay and his dying wife Rosemary (Martha Henry); his thoughts begin to turn to who will care for Jay after he and his wife are gone.

    Clean overflows with the rawness and complication of everyday life. It is at heart a film about trust. Will Albrecht trust his grandson with Emily? Will Emily trust herself with Jay? It's great to see a relevant, controlled performance from Nolte, and Cheung is magnificent. Clean is also, I think, one of the best films ever made about selflessness, about putting the concerns of a child ahead of oneself. Plan on adding it to your 2006 best-of lists.

    Denby in New Yorker

    Great piece by David Denby in current New Yorker. It examines how technology will change the watching and distribution of movies, and pauses to reflect on the fact that communal movie watching and the art form as we know it may be in jeopardy.....

    Saturday, January 06, 2007

    Another list? (It's a good one)

    I don't agree with all of critic Armond White's "Better Than" list, in which he deflates some of 2006's most acclaimed films. Still, this should start some discussions.....(link stolen from House Next Door)

    Friday, January 05, 2007

    Worst

    Year-end lists of the worst movies in a given year tend to focus on ambitious failures rather than movies that are just badly made. Critics who see Hollywood junk by the week all year no doubt don't want to revisit the worst of the worst.

    So what was the worst movie I saw in 2006? And the finalists are:

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  • I wasn't too high on V for Vendetta (d. James McTeigue), the Wachowski brothers' tale of a masked terrorist (Hugo Weaving) and beautiful buzz-cut female sidekick (Natalie Portman) who topple a totalitarian English government. Though the bald Natalie Portman factor was a plus for me, V for Vendetta is morally ambiguous to say the least. In the Wachowski brothers' world, there's good terrorism and there's bad terrorism. Also, I really got sick of that mask.

  • The "comedy" Employee of the Month imagines a world where working at a Wal Mart-style store is a perfectly acceptable career goal. A slacker (Dane Cook) tries to change his ways to impress a girl (Jessica Simpson) who reportedly digs Employees of the Month. Bad acting, no laughs, and a paean to big-box, soulless, superstores. Memo to director Greg Coolidge: hire some trained actors next time.

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    But the unwatchable, senseless, what-the-hell-were-they-thinking winner of the worst film of 2006 is Neil LaBute's The Wicker Man. A piece of misogynistic nonsense that somehow managed to entice several name actors (Why,Molly Parker, Why?), The Wicker Man was the most excruciating time I had at the movies in 2006.
  • Thursday, January 04, 2007

    Overheard in a bar....

    Last night I heard the live version of "Still Haven't Found What I'm Looking For" (w/ gospel choir) from U2's Rattle & Hum for the first time in years. I remarked to a (younger) friend that it was from U2's "movie" (the Rattle & Hum documentary) and she didn't know what I was talking about.

    When the film came out post-Joshua Tree, U2 was at the height of their pseudo-Messianic period, before Bono had even asked for a single nation's debt to be forgiven. Don't get me wrong, I'm a fan. But the late-'80s were the height of the group taking themselves (and us taking them) way too seriously.

    Haven't rock docs gotten better in the last few years? Great films have come out about Wilco, Metallica, the Pixies, and more. I'm sure others have written more astutely on this subject than I, but I think the rise in rock-related cinema is due to :

  • the fact that technology makes it easier to make films on the go and to follow bands

    and

  • a post-Kurt Cobain interest in vulnerability from musicians....
  • Tuesday, January 02, 2007

    Why We Love Movie Stars

    Imagine watching a movie in which a woman prevents an elderly man from reaching his walker. Horrific, right? I've just described a scene in The Holiday (d. Nancy Meyers) and a bit of business between a house-swapper played by Kate Winslet and her L.A. neighbor (Eli Wallach).

    The bit with the walker is actually a minor moment in the film. Winslet's character is trying to build up her new friend's strength so that he can walk across a stage unaided to receive an award. The movie as a whole barely skates by on the charm of Winslet and Cameron Diaz (as the L.A. workaholic who takes Winslet's cottage in England). By the sheer force of their personalities, these two take an insubstansial movie about women who decide they really need a vacation and then totally reorder their lives in two weeks and make it watchable.

    Photobucket - Video and Image HostingNeither Winslet nor Diaz will be mentioned for any awards for these roles, but there's something about the experience of being won over by a beautiful woman on a large screen that Netflix can never duplicate. The same sort of alchemy happens in We Are Marshall (d. McG), the story of how the Marshall University football program rebounded after a plane crash in 1970 killed almost the entire team, as well as coaches and boosters.

    Matthew McConaughey plays Coach Jack Lengyel, who takes a job nobody wants. McConaughey apparently based his characterization on Christopher Lloyd's character in Back to the Future (or maybe The Music Man). He plays Lengyel as a semi-crazy huckster who assembles and prepares a team on sheer willpower, winning over a coach from the pre-crash team (Matthew Fox) in the process. McConaughey provides all the film's energy, but even his eccentric and winning performance can't make up for the fact that it's impossible for this movie to have a truly satisfying conclusion. The team wins its second game back, but that's not much comfort to the father (Ian McShane) whose running back son died in the crash.

    Monday, January 01, 2007

    New Year, New Blog

    Check out what I'm doing here.....

    The best (so far)

    Photobucket - Video and Image HostingThe natural instinct is to look back at a year in movies, but since I live in out-of-the-way Greenville, SC most of the serious Oscar contenders haven't made it here yet. But, it is New Year's Day. I'll offer a few Best-Ofs, subject to change. In another month or so I'll hopefully have more to work with, and I'll also make some choices based on the Oscar nominees:

  • Best Picture - Little Miss Sunshine - I find myself drawn to Sunshine precisely because it's the kind of film that doesn't win Best Picture. A family on the verge of complete disintegration is saved by a series of unlikely and absurd events. It would have been so easy for this to be ugly or condescending, but it wasn't. Full-length review here.

  • Best Actress - Helen Mirren in The Queen - This one's not going to change.

  • Best Supporting Actress - Rinko Kikuchi in Babel - Yes, Jennifer Hudson is a major talent. But Kikuchi's performance as a sexually tormented deaf girl required a good deal more acting and a hell of a lot of bravery. Probably my favorite performance of the year.

  • Best Director - Paul Greengrass for United 93 - For finding the perfect way to tell this story. Honorable mention to Spike Lee for directing a great crowd-pleaser (Inside Man) and a monumental work of history (When the Levees Broke).

    I don't have a feel for Best Actor, since I haven't seen Forest Whitaker's turn in The Last King of Scotland yet, but watch this space.
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