Wednesday, March 30, 2005

Man with a Movie Camera

As in, does anybody put one to better use than Stuart Dryburgh, the English cinematographer who celebrates his 53rd year today? At least in his two collaborations with director Jane Campion, Dryburgh managed to create startlingly modern images that nonetheless hearkened back to the earliest days of photography—not just in the stop-motion trick shots in The Portrait of a Lady or the wedding-picture scene in my all-time favorite movie, The Piano, but in all of the tight close-ups, gleaming skin tones, aquefarious blues, sepia mists, and daguerreotype purples. These are easily two of the most gorgeous English-language movies of the 1990s, and aside from a weakness for wild angles and a few self-quotations (like Barbara Hershey framed at her piano in Portrait), their styles are admirably distinctive. Don't tell me you can look at these images...

...and not want to see the movie that they are from. In fact, don't admit to me that you haven't seen the movie that they're from. Don't even live like this. LOG. OFF. and go rent it. Really, you should be renting out the 35mm reels and projecting those babies on the side of your house, because the available DVDs for both Piano and Portrait are hair-risingly careless in their transfer quality and packaging materials. But that's a fight for another day. Just savor these images. Look at that closeup of Holly Hunter's hand caressing her piano keys through a crack in the packing-crate. Tell me that isn't from a silent movie.

Meanwhile, my man Stuart has not exactly had the career I would have expected since the two-shot with Campion. The same year as Portrait, he lent some nice photography to John Sayles' sprawling and subversive Lone Star (another great rental), but for some reason, he's been dicking around ever since in a bunch of romantic comedies, whether agreeable (Bridget Jones's Diary), forgettable (Kate & Leopold), or downright execrable (Runaway Bride, whose look was as garish as the writing, the performances, and the premise). The forthcoming Aeon Flux may or may not inspire confidence.

Come back to the 5 and Dime, Stuart D, Stuart D.! Obviously, this dude works well with women directors and he's a genius at the 19th century, so I'm hanging my hopes on Liv Ullmann's forthcoming adaptation of A Doll's House, starring Kate Winslet (!), John Cusack (?), and Tim Roth (mmmm...). Meanwhile, I can't be playing favorites, so here's some luscious Portraiture to look at on your way out, including the most remarkable dying scene in recent memory, when John Gielgud's character yawns himself into permanent sleep. Happy birthday, Stu. You changed my life, man.

Photo of Dryburgh © 1996 by Samuel Goldwyn Film. Photos from The Piano © 1993 by Miramax Films/Artisan Home Entertainment. Photos from The Portrait of a Lady © 1996 by Gramercy Pictures/Polygram Filmed Entertainment.

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Tuesday, March 29, 2005

He's the Top

The best English director whom the mainstream still hasn't heard of, and whom the American art-house keeps shrugging off, is the preternaturally prolific Michael Winterbottom, who turns 44 today. In the last ten years, Winterbottom has produced 13 full-length features, and most of them have been terrifically good. You have to reach back to Fassbinder—a hero to Winterbottom, by the way—to approximate that kind of track record. (Or maybe you don't, but I can't think of any rivals.)

Mike recently wrapped principal photography on his upcoming, appropriately tricksterish adaptation of the great 18th-century novel Tristram Shandy, which will hopefully upset literary purists as much as Tony Richardson's Tom Jones did in the early 1960s. Before we find out, there's obviously plenty of good-to-great Winterbottom to explore at the rental store. Go know!

  • Butterfly Kiss (1995) is a road movie about two women caught in a sort of sadomasochistic endgame, with Amanda Plummer (Pulp Fiction) as frenzied as she's ever been as the bondage-wearing, nerve-rattling serial killer in the couple. Sounds wildly over the top, and every once in a while it is, but there is an impressive emotional sincerity to the film, and the feeling of being a caught in a relationship you can't get out of is scarily well-evoked. This is thematically somewhere between Monster and Heavenly Creatures, and if it isn't quite their equal in quality, it's still not easily ignored.

  • As much as Butterfly Kiss intrigued me, I really got on the Winterbottom train with Jude (1996), his bracing adaptation of Thomas Hardy's Jude the Obscure. The essential coldness of the story has not been diminished, though the spirit, intelligence, and enormous charisma of Christohper Eccleston, Rachel Griffiths, and not-yet-a-star Kate Winslet warm the whole thing into something remarkably human and brilliantly accessible. One of the very best of the mid-90s costume dramas, in no small part care of cinematographer Eduardo Serra (The Wings of the Dove, Girl with a Pearl Earring).

  • Welcome to Sarajevo kind of got lost in December 1997, with Miramax leaning so heavily behind Good Will Hunting, but it should have helped Winterbottom cross over. The portrait of English and American journalists covering the standoffs and urban massacres of the Bosnian War is tense and evocative in the spirit of good Costa-Gavras. You do come to care about the characters, especially when Stephen Dillane's taciturn reporter makes a heroically illegal (and vaguely audience-pandering) attempt to smuggle a young Bosnian girl back to England as his child. Whatever its occasional limits, there's no arguing with the editing, the performances, or the well-earned sobriety of the piece.

  • Winterbottom does Hardy again in The Claim, although this time The Mayor of Casterbridge has been transplanted to a McCabe-era Pacific Northwest. Regular Winterbottom screenwriter Frank Cottrell Boyce does a splendid job both of adapting the novel and of particularizing it to its new context, and the acting by Peter Mullan, Sarah Polley, Nastassja Kinski, and where-did-he-go American Beauty alum Wes Bentley is excellent. (Even Milla Jovovich pans out in this film.) Laurels, however, are reserved for Michael Nyman's score and for cinematographer Alwin Küchler, a hero in the making who would return to Winterbottom's side for Code 46.

  • The Berlin Film Festival prize-winner In This World is both a typical and an atypical Winterbottom picture. Its non-actor cast of mostly displaced Afghanis strive for weeks to smuggle themselves to faraway Europe, with uneven results. Filmed in a heartbreaking series of close quarters, agonizing waits, brushes with disaster, and rays of hope, In This World cuts right to the heart of modern problems of asylum, fugitivity, and border-crossing as a means of staying alive. The music is occasionally sentimental, but the editing and the (non-)performances never are, plus the photography and the sound design are modestly scaled miracles. Maybe Winterbottom's best.

  • Released in the US last year to exactly no fanfare, Code 46 has a decent chance of a belated, Blade Runner-type cult following. Formally, it's a film at loose ends, to be sure, which is perfectly consistent with its story and themes. In the near future, tolerable life conditions are found only in the largest, best-fortified cities (echoes of In This World), emotions are downloadable and injectable like antibodies, and the normalized practice of human cloning leads to an epidemic problem of unconscious incest (echoes of Jude). Bear in mind, though, that "incest" isn't a bad synonym for the totally inbred self-absorption of our wealthiest cities and states—yes, even now. If you're a sci-fi fan, even on an occasional basis, you'll marvel at how fully (yet cheaply) Winterbottom and his crack visual team have invented a future. If you're a Samantha Morton fan, you'll remain one. This title is still on the New Releases shelf, right between Closer and Collateral. Stop ignoring it.

In my own Winterbottom adventures, I still have his modest pop success 24 Hour Party People to go, as well as Wonderland, which looks to be his stab at a Hannah and Her Sisters-style female dramedy. (Thanks, Tim!!) 9 Songs, released last year, was widely derided for its mind-boggling amounts of unsimulated sex between its actors, all in the service of not much story—but when it eventually makes its way to America, I'll give it a go. Winterbottom excels at films about journeys, even when they're only internal, which pretty much means that I'll follow him anywhere.

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Monday, March 28, 2005

The Years, The Waves

The anniversaries keep coming, folks, but we are back on the serious tip. And I have to admit, I'm feeling a little melancholy about this one, because 64 years ago today—March 28, 1941—was the day that Virginia Woolf drowned herself in the River Ouse. It's troubling enough to remember anyone who took her own life, much less one of the greatest writers the language has ever seen. (My favorite Woolf novel is generally whichever one I have read most recently.) But it's hard for me to recall the circumstances of Woolf's death and not think in terms of parallels to our current global moment. The massive revival of warfare around the world played a huge role in prompting Woolf's deep, final depression, the last of several serious bouts she experienced during her life. At times, a story like that gets repeated so often and grows so distant in our collective past that it becomes a way of romanticizing a writer's spirit—how Woolf felt the world so deeply that she couldn't bear the war, etc. But living as we do today, both in the thick and on the precipice of what seem like countless conflicts and disasters, it seems remarkably easy to grasp how she might have felt. I'm not trying to bring down the room on Monday morning or make it sound like I personally am in any sort of grave state. But this year, Woolf's death doesn't seem like a literary anecdote so much as a cautionary tale, not just something she did but something anyone now living might do.

Consider this passage, plucked virtually at random from Jacob's Room, one of her most luminous novels. Remember her gift for connecting the most basic issues of personal identity and experience to the broadest conundrums of ethics and of life. The narrator is speaking rather specifically here about sexual politics, but it reads just as well as a statement on the limits and needs of human compassion:

It seems then that men and women are equally at fault. It seems that a profound, impartial, and absolutely just opinion of our fellow-creatures is utterly unknown. Either we are men, or we are women. Either we are cold, or we are sentimental. Either we are young, or growing old. In any case life is but a procession of shadows, and God knows why it is that we embrace them so eagerly, and see them depart with such anguish, being shadows....

Such is the manner of our seeing. Such the conditions of our love.

Photograph © 1902 by George Charles Beresford, c/o The National Portrait Gallery, London. Passage from Jacob's Room © 1922. Harvest Book Edition (New York: Harcourt Brace, 1960), pp. 71-72.

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Friday, March 25, 2005

Dear, Dear 'Diary'

149 lbs. (same as three years ago? - v.v.g.!), cigs: 0, calories: however many are in a sausage & cheese omelette, consecutive hours awake: 24, dissertation pages added: 9, free DVDs received in mail: 2, DVDs on which my work appears: 2 (v.v.v.g.!)

Inner poise has been massively compromised by arrival in mail of two complimentary copies of the Collector's Edition DVD of Bridget Jones's Diary. Plus-size mailing envelope had official MIRAMAX logo as return address and everything. Reason for package is inclusion of self's own film review of Bridget Jones's Diary as Special Feature on DVD. Am not kidding! As am geeked out, please allow me to share image-captures taken from Special Features menu:

Was delighted and surprised last fall when was contacted by Miramax with request to include review. Surprise was partially due to company's interest in review despite modest grade of B– given to film in question. However, must report that Miramax has been dream to deal with, contracting to print whole review word for word (rather than excerpts out of context), and advertising website URL right on DVD. Had figured, too, that review was to be part of massive collection, so am further shocked to see self amidst list of only five, which also includes Roger Ebert and Peter Travers!

Feel like Oscar nominee. Except insofar as: all-nighter has led to bad breath, baggy eyes, and half-outfit of old sweatpants and, for some reason I don't remember, only one sock. (Wonder where other sock has gone?) Currently resemble character from Quest for Fire, plane-crash movie, or similar. Must obviously tend to self in preparation for papparazzi onslaught. Must double-check how to spell "papparazzi." After which, must shit-can dissertation and set self instead to exclusive work-diet of writing B– reviews for Miramax films. Wonder if was rash to publicly wish Commentary Pulitzer on Frank Rich just last night; would not want to jinx self!

Then again, before ego swells into shape of Hindenburg, should focus on DVD MovieGuide review of DVD, which features much carping about inclusion of reviews in general, plus capper line, "The authors are ... and Nicholas K. Davis from something I've never heard of called 'Nick's Flick Picks.'" DVD MovieGuide reviewer obviously not feeling pop and sass of review. Is okay. Will call Lisa Schwarzbaum or Anthony Lane later this afternoon (after sock is found) and commiserate, talk shop, etc.

Love Miramax, Chocolat notwithstanding. Love Bridget Jones's Diary, when Renée still spoke in her loud voice and approximated physical proportions of homo sapien. Love mail. Love DVD. Is truly top technology.


Thursday, March 24, 2005

I Keep Checking My TV... make sure that it hasn't turned itself on. Remember this little girl? No, she isn't another metaphor for my lurking, wrathful, and eternally returning dissertation. (Although, come to think of it...)

Actually, I'm just scared of her. Which is sort of odd, because The Ring Two, like its predecessor, is not such a well-made film. They're both full of narrative cul-de-sacs, images that don't relate to anything, characters that fall flat, and unnecessary "reminder" images (remember this ladder??! remember this tree??!). Having just seen the sequel today, I can also assure you that Rachel's propensity for making jaw-droppingly awful decisions at the worst possible times has only increased. Hugely, in fact.

But these films have a great villain in the spookily, hairily, hotly mad-as-fuck Samara, and the two things that work best in this franchise—the sheer force of her fury and the twisty perversity of her hysterical, incestuous mythology—actually derive fuel from the sloppiness of the narratives. It's like Samara's anger is earthquaking not just the plots and the other characters, but the movies themselves. Several sequences have zero momentum, and no crucial relevance to the plot, so there's no reason why Samara can't bust into any single scene and start throttling people with her dead-girl hands. (Yikes, people!) Did anyone share my sense in these two movies that, at any moment, this girl could burst out of the movie screen and just lay waste to everyone? Both The Ring and The Ring Two excel at isolated images, and the nearer to Samara the better. In fact, it was a mistake for me to buy one of those Caspian Sea-sized sodas at the theater this morning, because just the sight of Samara scratching at the wallpaper almost made me pee the entire thing. There's a sequence involving a herd of angry deer in this movie that doesn't make a lick of sense, and when the art directors try to pick up the motif in a later sequence, it's hilariously stupid. But the image of a deer who's also mad as fuck, for no other reason than that Samara is (kind of) around, is scary. The teaser trailer for The Ring Two, especially if you're in the dark, is still the best movie I've seen all year. Less of Samara is more, I've decided...even though my friend Caetlin Benson-Allott just wrote a 30-page hermeneutic analysis of The Ring and video-era paranoia that made me rethink the entire first movie in serious depth. (Caetlin is as smart as Samara is angry; her jelly is gonna get published, I'm sure of it, and if it does, I'll let y'all know.)

But by the same principle, just a little bit of Samara goes a long way. That's why, as I write this at 1:42am, I keep looking nervously over my shoulder.

Anyone who feels like posting a comment and explaining that Samara is fictional is officially invited to do so, because I am seriously tripping! I am usually a calm and collected FlickPicker, but tonight, I am set to bug. {{ shivers }}

Photo © 2005 DreamWorks Pictures

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Wednesday, March 23, 2005

Six Minutes in Heaven

Dang, y'all, it's not that kind of blog!

Q: What to watch when you are working hard and pressed for time, but nonetheless crave a full, complete movie-movie experience?

A: Short films, especially those commissioned as anniversary Preludes for the 25th Toronto International Film Festival, back in 2000ki. The festival organizers asked ten of Canada's top filmmakers to make original six-minute short films to play as prologues to the official screenings, and some of these gems are available now on DVD.

Of the two I watched tonight, Guy Maddin's The Heart of the World is the mind-blower everyone said it was, a comic, faux-silent surrealist fantasia about two brothers, a mortician and a Jesus impersonator, who are rivals for the love of a bewitching geologist who correctly prognosticates a seismic eruption at the earth's core—i.e., an imminent breaking of the world's heart. The doomsday atmosphere on earth (equal parts orgies and revivalism), the competition betwixt the brothers to win Anna's hand, and the lurid intercession of an East European industrialist are the major plot strands...and did I mention that all of this gets covered, wittily and elaborately, in only six minutes? The two frame enlargements are a paltry tribute to the film's stunning and often hilarious visual opulence, and the whole thing works beautifully as an allegory of the birth of chauvinist cinema conventions. One-of-a-kind, and scaled just right for Maddin—if, like me, you were a little over-tired by The Saddest Music in the World or Cowards Bend the Knee. Rent the DVD from GreenCine, which, as per usual, has all the wacko artistic hook-up that Netflix can't handle. On that disc, you'll get Maddin's features Twilight of the Ice Nymphs and Archangel as well; given how much I liked The Heart of the World, I'll hope to give these two flicks a spin, too.

Though David Cronenberg is usually much more by cup of tea than Maddin is, his contribution to the Preludes, called Camera, is a bit more labored, but it isn't without interest to Cronenberg fans or to fans of crusty old men fulminating in their living rooms. Camera is easier to find than The Heart of the World, since it's included as a bonus feature on the Criterion two-disc set of Cronenberg's visionary Videodrome, which you can (and should) buy for 33% off plus free shipping at the nifty website Check out all those other special features on the Videodrome set, too, including James Woods and Deborah Harry on a commentary track. Fuck, but Videodrome is an amazing movie; what Cronenberg sees lurking at the heart of the world is even sicker than what Maddin does, but you should still find out for yourself.

All photos © 2000 Toronto International Film Festival, Inc.

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Monday, March 21, 2005

"You are my Goldmine, my only Goldmine..."

"You make me happy, when skies are gray...
"You'll never know, dear, how much I love you...
"Please don't take my Goldmine away..."

I get anxious and twisted trying to find the right words and the right argument and the right inspiration for my dissertation chapter, but then I tell myself, go look at how beautiful and amazing this movie is, and it makes we want to keep writing! To wit:

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Sunday, March 20, 2005

Y Kant Nick Read?

The scintillating and bookwise Dr. S posted a comment to my last entry in which she heartily recommended a new book by Jonathan Safran Foer (I assume she means this one). I'd love to read it; I'd love to read everything. Sadly, as you watch the titles drop like flies from that "On My Nightstand" roll-call in the right-hand margin, you'd be wrong to get the idea that I am finishing these tomes. Great Expectations started deliciously, and my long-distance love-button and I were trying to read it in tandem, but he lapped me a long time ago and I can't catch up.

I have been relishing The Divine Husband by Francisco Goldman even more. It's a tantalizing, perversely embellished, and wittily historical story about two young novitiate nuns in 19th-century Guatemala and their rebellious libidos, acrid jealousies, religious confusions, and their intersections with various real-life characters from that volatile moment in Central American history. If I'm making it sound dry, it isn't. Read the first page or two, and you're in. But I'm still having the Jabba problem, so I haven't picked it up again in three weeks.

The one book I did finish recently was another academic read, D.N. Rodowick's Gilles Deleuze's Time Machine (pictured above), which is a sort of graduated explication of Deleuze's theories of film, as propounded in his pair of famous Cinema books. Rodowick is a more than reliable Virgil if you're still trying to keep all of Deleuze's dazzling but dizzying categories straight in your mind; at the same time, it's not the kind of book you can read instead of the Cinema volumes, because Rodowick's translations and expansions already assume that you've made your own first pass through Deleuze (even if it was a slightly bewildered one, which, c'mon, is likely). So, I recommend the book, but it's kind of got limited appeal.

Plus it's not what you wanna take with you on Spring Break. If I had my druthers right now, I'd sail through the rest of Divine Husband and quench my desire to read a good play, which I haven't done in a while: piling up in my living room, I've got Jean Genet's The Screens (think The Battle of Algiers as staged by Artaud), John Guare's Landscape of the Body (a personal fave of Tony Kushner, apparently), and the collected works of Maria Irene Fornès. With the Pulitzer announcements just around the corner, I always get a hankering to read good plays. They're amazing, and they're short.

What's everyone else reading?

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Saturday, March 19, 2005

Ten Most Wanted: Oscar's Best Pictures

Having recently screened and enjoyed John Ford's How Green Was My Valley on DVD, I now have only ten more winners of the Best Picture Oscar left to see. (How Green Was My Valley, if you don't know, was a huge critical and popular favorite in 1941, but is most notorious today as the film that swiped the top Oscar from Citizen Kane.) Like a lot of pop-movie nerds, I've had a goal for a long time of seeing all of Oscar's Bests, though as I look at these assembled posters, I can see the reasons why they're the ones left to go. Devoted readers of NicksFlickPicks will note that the common threads linking these films don't mesh real well with my personal tastes. After all, these movies are...

Biopics: The Great Ziegfeld '36, The Life of Émile Zola '37, and Gandhi '82

Bloated Epics: Around the World in 80 Days '56 and Ben-Hur '59, plus the plus-sized Ziegfeld and Gandhi

Musicals That Aren't Really Musicals: The Broadway Melody '29 and The Great Ziegfeld (again!)

1960s Musicals Minus Barbra or Julie: Oliver! '68

Movies Starring Charlton Heston: Ben-Hur and The Greatest Show on Earth '52

Ocean's Twelve-Style Movies Where Famous People Fuck Around Without Really Acting: Around the World in 80 Days, and arguably The Broadway Melody and The Greatest Show on Earth

The classed-up star vehicles Mutiny on the Bounty '35 and Mrs. Miniver '42 probably inspire the most confidence at this point, though Ben-Hur is probably the best-known classic of the bunch. I'm hoping by the end of the year, I'll see them all—hell, after Cavalcade '33, Going My Way '44, and most of the mid-to-late 1980s (Africa, Rain Man, Miss Daisy, oh my!), I can take anything. Soon, I'll be posting a link to my entire ranked list of all the Best Picture winners, plus a complementary digest of all the nominees that were good enough to have deserved a statue.

But meanwhile, which of the ten I have left do you think I should start with? Any recommendations, warnings, wild guesses? What are you favorite and least favorite Best Picture winners?

(Okay, back to my dissertation...)

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Friday, March 18, 2005

Ithacans, for Better and for Worse

The good news: my dear friend Gabriel Shanks is one of those precious few souls working full-time in the theater who is both brilliant and kind-hearted. How many others can say as much? This is already good news in itself, but it gets better, twice. For one, Gabriel will be directing a production of Bertolt Brecht's Edward II from September 8-25, 2005, at the Bank Street Theatre in NYC's West Village. Last year, I saw a piece that Gabriel wrote and directed called Stealing Pears, which was freely, darkly, and lusciously adapted from the final chapters of Cervantes' Don Quixote, and it was a high-point in my last few years of theater-going. Anyone in or near NYC should buy tickets now for Edward II. (Type "Creative Mechanics" or "Edward the 2nd" in the Search window to find the show; neither "Edward II" nor "Edward ii" works.)

Even sooner on the calendar, Gabriel's theater company, Creative Mechanics, will be producing an evening of nine short plays, collectively billed as Stage This!, on April 4 in the Y on 344 East 14th St, also in Manhattan. The nine entrants were selected from an international contest, and would'nt'cha know, one of the winners is David Guaspari, from right here in Ithaca, NY! Good on you, David, whoever you are (I've probably passed you in Wegman's, or sat next to you on a TCAT bus), and good on Gabriel and his talented troupe! (The photo here is from Gabriel's much-fêted 2004 production of The Fall of the House of Usher; more of these stylish and decadent production photos are available at the Creative Mechanics website linked above.)

This news tickles me so much that I almost hate to put what follows in the same blog entry, but here goes: Paul Wolfowitz, one of the sadist-savants behind Gulf War II (and the infamous comb-licker of Fahrenheit 9/11), is Bush's nominee to head the World Bank. Word around Washington was that his runner-up selections were Oliver North, Star Jones-Reynolds, and the Tasmanian Devil. Wolfowitz is such a gruesome person that I almost can't bear to joke about him, and so aptly named that I almost don't need to, but the last laugh is on me, because it turns out Wolfie is from Ithaca! Graduated from Ithaca High School and Cornell. And here I thought everyone reared in Ithaca grew up to be a hemp activist, a literary critic, or a gardener of herbs, or at least an author of short plays. Maybe Wolfowitz will go see Edward II and learn something about intolerance, cynical politicking, and the just desserts of petty zealots.

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Thursday, March 17, 2005

"You Have Dissertation Sickness... Your Website Will Return in Time..."

Geeks of all ages will catch the Return of the Jedi reference. Basically, here is me:

Dissertation sickness is exactly like hibernation sickness. It's like the rest of the world stops, and you're in double trouble... not only are you completely confined in one position for what seems like an eternity, but you have your hands up in constant protest and this ghastly grimace kind of stuck on your face, even if you're enjoying what you're doing (which, thankfully, I am). Now, in an interesting metacritical departure from the Jedi model, you are both Han Solo and Boba Fett, because nobody put you in this damn position except yourself (especially if you are, say, an inveterate procrastinator, except re: things that don't technically matter). Hyperspeed hellion + bounty hunter = dissertation slave. To add tone and temperature to the analogy, the part about Han being frozen in carbonite is easy to approximate if you happen to be writing your dissertation in Ithaca, NY.

Here is your dissertation:

It is effulgent. It is morbidly obese. It is your gargantuan captor and tormenter. It grows ever bigger, despite never seeming to do anything. It eats everything. It is just sitting there, blobbed down, staring you in the face throughout the waking day, no matter how/where you try to avoid it. It forbids being in touch with your friends, especially the ones in far-off places like Cloud City (San Francisco), the ice-planet of Hoth (Chicago/Detroit), the Creature Cantina (New York), the Jedi Academy (other universities), or the Death Star (Washington, DC). If you look to Jabba's left (i.e., your right), you'll notice the vat of what I take to be Mountain Dew that is ubiquitously present around the dissertation. Dissertations are not accomplished without Mountain Dew; the less said about what counts as a "meal" while writing a dissertation, the better.

You of course have the option of just not finishing it, but the prospects that follow from this plan of action are not all that pretty:

So, I'm'a have to do my best with this thing, but I just wanted to offer an illustrated apology for why my website still sucks so bad of late, and is probably going to keep sucking until around the middle of June. Believe me, I have plenty I want to say! - I've had an Aviator review in the hopper for weeks, I've got a couple things to say about the very few movies of 2005 that I've managed to catch in the opening quarter, and there's all my usual Oscar follow-up stuff left to do, like the Rental Guide. (Here's last year's, so you know what I'm talking about.) But I'm a frozen FlickPicker for right now. Please don't abandon me! I know that falling off the wagon this hard is the best way to commit web-suicide, but for the time being, there's no way around it. I hope y'all will still be here when I resurface. (And do keep checking the blog, anyway, since it will stay marginally more active than the website. Small pleasures.)

All photos © 1983 LucasFilm Ltd. Y'all know that the last thing I need right now is George Lucas' lawyers hopping on my broke a**.

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Monday, March 07, 2005

Their Eyes Are Watching Oprah

I mean, maybe it isn't a total friggin' albatross. Maybe tonight's TV film adaptation of Zora Neale Hurston's resplendent novel Their Eyes Were Watching God turned out just fine, despite the sigh-inducing posters, atonal TV ads (is this a Noxzema commercial?), and the wacked-out sight of how Halle Berry looks in this photo. But I'm pretty sure this is a mess.

And how is Oprah going to splash her name on top of yet another classic book? This woman is losing control. Last weekend, she managed to make the Oscars as much about her as humanly possible for a non-presenting non-nominee, and now she's made herself infinitely more conspicuous in the ads for Their Eyes than Zora Neale Hurston is. Does she really need to be on the book cover, too? Oprah has some great qualities, but the megalomania is getting the best of her. Will she be happy the day she has burned an image of herself and what she likes right into all of our retinas? Did the title of Their Eyes Were Watching God simply get her to thinking, "Well, why aren't they watching me?" I don't really believe that about Oprah, but she's gotta calm down if she expects to be interpreted generously.

To make matters worse, the dumber-every-day New York Times ran this review that cynically and stupidly takes down Zora's book along with the drossy-looking movie. If you don't know how to read, lady, and if you can't find any meaning behind the "dialect" and "plot gaps" in this novel, you need to sign over your ID badge and get a job where you aren't secretly trying to cover over your lack of credentials. I love critics with whom I agree or disagree—it's the whole point of the profession—but critics who flaunt that they don't know what they're writing, thinking, or talking about really get me mad.

At least Their Eyes... finally answers the question of whatever happened to Darnell Martin, one of those rare black female directors in Hollywood, who tore up the joint with the funny, serious, lusty, and charismatic I Like It Like That back in '94 and then went off the radar. Hopefully, she'll be back with something else that Oprah hasn't glossed and micro-managed before she could even get into it.

But now I'm doing the other worst thing a critic can do: razzing something I haven't even seen yet. Mea culpa. But discussing this thing over at fecundmellow's has got me nervous.

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Saturday, March 05, 2005

The Following Previews Have Not Been Rated

Post-Oscar, and faced with the dross of most January-April releases (The Pacifier??), it can start to feel like no movie is ever going to be good again. Thank goodness for the following 25, which are my biggest mouth-waterers for the coming months of 2005:

  1. The New World
    The Thin Red Line is the best English-language movie of the last ten years (that is, since Todd Haynes' Safe). Malick has made three masterpieces in three tries; he's the only filmmaker I can think of, from any period or culture, who can say that. Colin Farrell and the John Smith/Pocahontas narrative in general wouldn't necessarily get my heart leaping, but this artist is impossible not to trust. And the trailer gave me goosebumps I can still feel.

  2. The Holy Girl/La Niña Santa
    No one has confirmed that this movie will be released this year, but after racking up some rapturous reviews at last year's Cannes, it seems like the right time. I'm always rooting for breakout female directors, especially from abroad, and Lucrecia Martel of Argentina already has an ardent following after two movies. The Almodóvar brothers in the producers' chairs and the hilarious Theremin version of Carmen on the soundtrack augur for something weird and likable; the still photos remind me of Buñuel or Campion, and that's a huge turn-on.

  3. Yes
    Joan Allen anchoring a movie by landmark feminist/formalist director Sally Potter (Orlando, Thriller), about a middle-aged woman's passionate sexual affair with a Lebanese exile, all rendered in iambic pentameter. I have always had nerdy tendencies, but films like this I just can't wait to see. Joan!

  4. All the King's Men
    Robert Penn Warren's novel (read it!!) is so good that even after a well-above-par screen adaptation in 1949, I am eager to see a second take, and with the year's best cast for an American film—Sean Penn as Willie Stark, Jude Law as Jack Burden, Patricia Clarkson as Sadie Burke, Kate Winslet, Anthony Hopkins, Mark Ruffalo, and James Gandolfini—lines should start forming now. Prestige screenwriter Steven Zaillian has proven to be a great director in both Searching for Bobby Fischer and A Civil Action, guiding more strong casts through complex stories, rendered with unexpected visual sophistication. Bring it, Steve. Set the Louisiana Capitol a'burnin'.

  5. A History of Violence
    David Cronenberg is one of my favorite directors, bar none, although Spider didn't grab me the way a lot of his others have. This tale could be even more conventional, with grizzled men avenging their daughters (or something), but this auteur always commands attention, and Ed Harris and Viggo Mortensen oughta help.

  6. Manderlay
    Dogville didn't floor me across the board, though certain sequences, performances, and aspects were extraordinary. And I'm still a Dancer in the Dark disciple; in fact, even when I'm not into a Von Trier picture (see Zentropa or The Five Obstructions), I'm still piqued. So bring on this ante-bellum parable of American self-betrayal and fling modesty and artistic humility once more out the window, shall we? Payoffs could be major.

  7. Savage Grace
    I can't tell whether the rumors that Clive Owen has been ousted from the cast are true; I hope they aren't. But there's plenty else going for this fact-based murder story set in '72: the return of New Queer Cinema director and mentor Tom Kalin (Swoon), another producing effort from the producer I most admire, Christine Vachon (Safe), and Julianne Moore working again in the post-New Queer niche where she's done her absolute best work. Shivers!

  8. The Dying Gaul
    Could easily be one of those movies that only exists to indulge its tony cast, and friends at festivals haven't been raving, but when egghead sex symbols (and real-life sweethearts) Campbell Scott and Patricia Clarkson get together for a drama where they both bed Peter Sarsgaard as well as each other, you're not gonna dim my enthusiasm that easily.

  9. Woman Is the Future of Man
    Of the recent Korean hits still making their way to these shores, this romantic comedy-drama that rocked the Cannes and New York Film Festivals in '04 is highest on my list. Close behind is Oldboy, which is rumored to be horrifically violent but formally impressive.

  10. Howl's Moving Castle
    I'm not hearing that Howl's is the equal of Miyazaki's last film, Spirited Away, but I'm hearing that it comes close. Close would be enough: I haven't responded to a single other animé feature in any significant way, but Miyazaki may have the stuff to make me a believer.

  11. 2046
    For some reason, I'm nervous that I'm not going to like this. I'm getting tired of the way Wong Kar-wai cultivates this rebel-hero persona with his perpetually delayed movies and sunglasses-only personal style, and I'm not as hyper-susceptible to either Tony Leung or Zhang Ziyi as some. Still, fetching actors in William Chang's swooning production designs (he's the one member of the Wong team who never, ever slips) offer plenty to be gassed about. And my hunch could easily be wrong.

  12. Clean
    After Irma Vep and demonlover, it would be foolish not to be an Olivier Assayas fan. And Maggie Cheung: does this woman have more pure star charisma than any actress since Garbo, or is it just me? You can just sit and stare at her face, and infer all kinds of potential movies based on a single expression. And yet she's also a terrific actress, with a meaty part to play. Gimme, please.

  13. Syriana
    Buzz around Hollywood for years has held that this long-completed screenplay marked a real attempt to characterize American-Middle Eastern relations and military frictions in mature detail, with genuine depth of character and political scope. Is that really possible, especially for a movie produced now? I certainly hope it is. I'm 10x more excited for this than for Sam Mendes' Gulf War film Jarhead, but I'm pulling for both of them to really have some ideas in their rucksacks.

  14. Sin City
    I'm not generally one to get my knickers in a twist about comic-book or graphic-novel adaptations, but the trailers for Sin City are just too delicious for words (which, obviously, is exactly what screen images should be). For some reason, I'm not feeling this'll reveal itself as a Sky Captain-style tease; I'm banking on a genuine stylistic coup with some storytelling chops to back it up.

  15. Proof
    I didn't love the play, and I still wish they'd cast Mary-Louise Parker, who instantly made herself synonymous with this role. But I'm a lover of American drama, which is so rarely done well (or done at all) on American screens, so I'm rooting for this. My man Alwin Küchler (Morvern Callar, Code 46, The Mother) is the lensman, so it might even look smart.

  16. Kings and Queen
    I actually don't know a ton or even an ounce about the plot of this French drama, but lotsa critics I trust singled it out at last fall's NYFF, and director Arnaud Desplechin is an up-and-comer I haven't sampled yet. I give credit to those recent American dramas that have chased tragic grandeur, but a lot of them haven't wound up with much to show for it. (The Human Stain was what the title promised, instead of what the book promised.) Let's hope the French know how to do it better.

  17. The Upside of Anger
    One of my straight-up Hollywood picks, and lookee, it's coming out in a week! Probably destined to be described as Joan Allen's stab at a Something's Gotta Give crossover hit, and who deserves it more? The trailer makes her look sensational (not just physically, but in terms of her performance), and it even augurs well for Kevin Costner, who may re-center his early gifts for comedy. The actresses playing Allen's daughters are a who's-who of the best teen girlz in the biz. I'm ready to buy my bucket-sized Coke and drink it all up. (Will Joan win the Golden Globe for Musical/Comedy? Between this and Yes and perhaps Off the Map is it Her Year?)

  18. Paint
    I like the Altman movies that hit big (Gosford Park), the ones that don't (The Company), and even the ones that actively annoy a lotta people (Dr. T and the Women), so whenever this redundant-sounding "exposé" of mean tempers and schemes in the art world bows, color me eager.

  19. The Fountain
    I had reservations about Pi and even more about Requiem for a Dream, but I still don't think we've seen Darren Aronofsky show his real stuff as a director: those two films felt like workshops toward what a true, integrated directorial vision will be like. The plot and tone of this one sound even more elliptical and challenging, and the cast is intriguing. Third time's the charm?

  20. The Ring Two
    Considering that I liked the first American Ring just fine but not extravagantly, I'm not sure why I'm so psyched about this. Wait, yes I am sure. The teaser trailer was terrifying, and the new, fuller-length preview is comparably so. Jesus, I'm nervous now just typing this. (That trailer for the similar-looking Dark Water is kind of a chiller, too.)

  21. Saraband
    Reports imply that Ingmar Bergman himself isn't fully pleased with his 30-years-later postdate on Scenes from a Marriage, and Bergman in DV sounds like a shame, but "A New Film from Ingmar Bergman" is a phrase you just can't brush off, whatever caveats are attached.

  22. The Constant Gardener
    City of God was good enough to make me wonder what else Brazilian director Fernando Meirelles has up his sleeve, and I'm ever hopeful that lead actor Ralph Fiennes will reignite his career, which was so exciting in the mid-90s. Here's hoping this is the right project with the right people at the right time.

  23. The Interpreter
    Director Sydney Pollack has been short-changing his talent for years, and maybe the trailer has already said it all...but doesn't that seem a little too obvious? Are there even more surprises in store? Even if not, isn't there already Sean Penn, Nicole Kidman, and Catherine Keener in a UN-set thriller with paranoid undercurrents, James Newton Howard on the soundtrack, and Darius Khondji handling the images? That'd be plenty, unless it all somehow gets garbled. We'll know soon enough.

  24. Brokeback Mountain
    Speaking of crossed fingers, I'd love to believe that this is going to work, but the literary self-seriousness of The Ice Storm (also directed by Ang Lee) really didn't work for me, I haven't cottoned to what I've read by Proulx, and the Heath Ledger/Jake Gyllenhaal love story seems destined to be watered-down. Still, if the studio (Focus) really nurtures it, if Rodrigo Prieto keeps up his streak of gorgeous-looking movies, and if the greenhorns in the cast discover unforeseen charisma, I'll be clapping loudest.

  25. Even Bigger Unknowns...
    Will Batman Begins be as solid a summer blockbuster as last year's Bourne Supremacy? Will Theo Angelopoulos find a US distributor for Trilogy: The Weeping Meadow? Will these two movies ever be jointly considered again? Is Thumbsucker a boring American indie or a hint of genuine new talent? (Either way, it's got Tilda Swinton.) Is Woody Allen really back with Melinda and Melinda? What else is looming that I don't know about, or that I'm forgetting? There's always more magic on the way than you realize.

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Thursday, March 03, 2005

Why Isn't There More to Say?

After all the build-up, the post-Oscar silence at NicksFlickPicks has been admittedly odd. Blame the flu. But also blame a not especially interesting ceremony featuring a not especially inspired list of winners and nominees. It's not altogether surprising that years with a lot of good movies tend to yield bad Oscar vintages: cult faves like Eternal Sunshine and Kill Bill, Vol. 2 and Before Sunset and Maria Full of Grace register strongly in their niches, but while the art fans are busy dividing themselves over these pet projects, consensus picks that lotsa people like but few people love tend to sweep up. Will anyone ever seriously discuss Finding Neverland or Ray or even The Aviator ever again? There were few if any pop phenoms at this year's awards, few if any upsets, no songs worth whistling, no swans as dresses, no Cher as Spiderwoman. But here are ten things I've still dug up to say:

  1. You mean Best Picture doesn't have to be a letdown?
    Million Dollar Baby is the first Best Picture winner since at least American Beauty, and really since Titanic, that seemed really and truly deserving. It struck me as the easy pick of this litter, though a Sideways win would have been satisfying in its own way. Still, I was psyched. If you want to know why, check out my new review.

  2. But even that wasn't the best Oscar of the night...
    ...since the Original Screenplay citation for Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind at least guarantees that the Academy has some cognizance of what counts as a masterpiece, in at least one category. The Incredibles win for Animated Feature was also gratifying, if unsurprising, as was the triumph of "Al Otro Lado del Rio" as Best Song. Even though I don't swoon over that song (even when sung by the right people!), at least three of the others were such drivel that it was a joy to see them shut out... also, it was the only category where I scored right with a "surprise" prediction. So there's that.

  3. And speaking of Eternal Sunshine and Bests...
    No one looked better than Kate Winslet. No one. No one even close.

  4. Tragedies
    Why did Laura Linney come as Brad Pitt in Troy? Is she trying to announce her candidacy for People vs. Larry Flynt/Sid & Nancy roles? Alternatively, if they decide to remake The Neverending Story, she's a shoo-in for the Southern Oracle.

  5. What did I think about Hilary's speech?
    I was fine with it, though I think I was alone among the group I watched it with. Sure it milked the trailer-park thing a little, but I don't get that Hilary is any more "fake" than anyone else in these circles. She probably would have been my fifth choice of those five, but I still thought she did a good job—this year's race happily lacked a Naomi Watts in 21 Grams, a Salma Hayek in Frida, or a Juliette Binoche in Chocolat, where you're just like "Whaaaa?"—and if I won an Oscar, even my second one, I'd thank everyone in the damn world, too. And by the way...

  6. Is Hilary Swank the new Sally Field?
    Sally began in an inauspicious background: Gidget, The Flying Nun; Hilary was a 90210/Karate Kid/Buffy-the-Movie girl. Sally won in '79 and '84. Hilary won in '99 and '04. I'm not sure either is a great actress (though Hilary was at least unqualifiedly great in Boys Don't Cry). They are both kind of personality performers who really go for the gumption thing. Characters you underestimate till they prove their mettle, unionizing, boxing, farming, writing false news stories, conning Marie Antoinette, shooting Robin Williams, that sort of thing. Sally Redux was all, "You like me, you really like me!" Hilary Redux was all, "I'm just a girl from a trailer park." If history keeps repeating, Hilary's run at Oscar is officially done. (Sally went 2/2 but hasn't been nominated again in 20 years, even in the Year of Gump.)

  7. How about those Oscars presented from the audience?
    Jamie Foxx's Gramma in heaven should whup someone for this. No respect, no dignity, no clips from the winners or even the nominees from Makeup, Animated Short, Live Action short. That's just fucked up, y'all. If Valli O'Reilly and Bill Corso and Chris Landreth and Andrea Arnold want to come to my house and personally show me footage and tell me all about their hard work, they may consider themselves invited.

  8. And what about the Rock?
    I thought he was funny at the beginning, which is the only time I ever really notice the host. He didn't seem to "fit" the Oscars format all that well, and he certainly wasn't all that funny or finessed in introducing the presenters. The Bush/Gap stuff was funn-nee. The ersatz disses on Jude Law/Colin Farrell/Rock himself were hilarious, though Jude obviously is amazing, so my boyfriend Sean Penn may be excused for (rather over-seriously) stepping up for him. Best joke all night: "I had to deal with this movie called Soul Plane. I'll trade you ten Passion of the Christs for one Soul Plane." That said, Whoopi and Steve are still, by far, my faves. And I reiterate: do we need a host? (You know who would be great, smart, funny, elegant, pretty, and articulate, with backgrounds in stand-up and in serious acting? Emma Thompson. Which will also never happen, obviously.)

  9. Am I seriously done ragging the bad stylings and failed humor?
    Josh Groban, be silent. Beyoncé, one note per syllable usually suffices. Robin Williams, shut it: you've been peddling the same "improv" for at least 10 years too long. Salma and Penélope, hop in my Chrysler, it's as big as a whale! Scarlett, stop frying and bleaching your hair. Kirsten, what's with the platinum blonde? Laura Bush, what's with—oh wait, that's Drew Barrymore. Sean, you haven't called in weeks. Renée, EAT, and speak in your friggin' normal voice, the one you use when you're acting. And Melanie, you can't... I feel like... no. It hurts too much. Melanie has become the actress equivalent of the train-wreck in The Fugitive. With her around, I barely noticed that Sally Kirkland was MIA.

  10. But class is class...
    And Cate Blanchett and the extreeemely dapper Morgan Freeman have it. Morgan has such integrity and expresses himself with such sincere authority that I actually believed he was honored to work with Hilary Swank, rather than the other way around. And Cate, I'd love to have seen you win this for Ripley, but it's impossible to begrudge you anything. Talk about charm and grace. Let Marty Scorsese's daughter make her own way. I hope I marry your son. (Sorry, Derek. Sorry, Sean.)

Now, you know y'all have thoughts to share, too...

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