Wednesday, August 31, 2005

Hurricane Relief

There's no time at the moment, and probably no need, to summarize all the terrible updates about the losses of life, the destruction of landscapes, resources, and property, and the onset of major health hazards along the Gulf Coast of Louisiana and Mississippi. As we all keep abreast of the news, please make room even if your personal budget is meager to donate to the Red Cross fund for Hurricane Relief. With major hospitals and airports underwater, critical-care patients being roughly transported to faraway sites, and other cataclysmic obstacles to the caretaking initiative, the Red Cross will need all the help it can get, and quickly.


Monday, August 22, 2005

Stumping for Cinemarati

I'm still hacking my way through overdue obligations and way-delayed correspondence, the true legacies of having moved. (At least my apartment is finally in shape. Just don't open the closets, or pay too much attention to the still-blank walls.)

One of my biggest oversights on this blog was that I never got around to my intended advertising blitz for the redesigned, newfangled, and blog-formatted version of Cinemarati, the on-line critics' organization of which I've been a member for almost three years. Content on the new site is more member-driven than in the old, roundtable-vased incarnation, but wide-ranging discussions among diverse and exciting people from all walks can still be found in all of the Comments sections. I know how lame it can sound when you're tooting the horn of your own colleagues, but I've really been taken with the mini-essays my colleagues have been posting on the new site since the mid-July reinvention, and I admit that I've had a hootenany of a good time writing for it. Just this evening, I posted a capsule review of the 1919 D.W. Griffith film Broken Blossoms, a movie which should delight early-cinema enthusiasts and soft-hearted romantics alike.

I hope y'all will squeeze some room into your day for the Cinemarati site if you aren't already doing so—not least because the graphics themselves have been irresistible delicious, largely thanks to your friend and mine, ModFab. Just check out those witty adverts for the site I've posted at the top of this entry. When I can look at even a single image from the reviled Matrix and chuckle instead of hurling, genius must truly be involved.


The Hottest State

First, my fabulous new home-state of Connecticut became the third state in the country to legalize gay marriage, and the first to do so through the pure initiative of the state legislature (i.e., without responding to any lawsuit or institutional pressure). Today, Connecticut becomes the first state to challenge President Bush's ridiculous No Child Left Behind edicts, which every public-school teacher that I know finds crippling, excessive, and misplaced in its emphases. If you live in Connecticut, but even if you don't, feel free to contact State Attorney General Richard Blumenthal and thank him for his proper and active advocacy for teachers who know how to do their jobs.

While Bush languishes away with a 36% job approval rating from the American public (thanks, Brilliant at Breakfast), let him eat Blumenthal's dust. Meanwhile, raise a glass to Connecticut today, or at least eat something with nutmeg in it. (Props, Shirleen!)


Sunday, August 21, 2005

High Drama

In yet another winning pick from the ClassicFlix collection, I enjoyed Dudley Nichols' three-hour adaptation of Eugene O'Neill's Mourning Becomes Electra, which I've reviewed in full here. O'Neill is an incredibly strange and difficult playwright, but also an indispensable one, and the thing that impressed me most about Mourning Becomes Electra—besides the fine acting by Michael Redgrave and Raymond Massey and the priceless camping of Katina Paxinou—was that director-screenwriter Dudley Nichols flat refuses to tame the weirder impulses and transparently Athenian ambitions of O'Neill's piece. Mourning Becomes Electra at least hails from an era in Hollywood filmmaking when famous works of the stage still prompted a good number of movies—whereas now, W;t and Angels in America unfold on cable TV and the isolated cinematic transplant like Proof seems heavily embattled. Still, even the best American plays have always had trouble getting their richest, fullest layers onto the screen. Look at what Richard Brooks did to Cat on a Hit Tin Roof, and even when the bowdlerizing was fascinating, as in the gonzo screen version of Suddenly, Last Summer, it still doesn't serve the play all that well.

Mourning Becomes Electra is long, dense, formal, demanding, and uncomfortably furious in its emotions, as is the play. It is inconsistently effective, and you can spot plenty of room for Nichols to have shaped up his adaptation a little—Rosalind Russell, in particular, is a problem, and murkier lighting and a location shoot would have helped. Still, there's an integrity and a conviction to this piece which I appreciated.

Elated to see a play that survived to the screen with its essential character intact, I also gave the DVD of Closer another spin, and the film has only improved in my mind from when I saw it theatrically last December. Spiky, unpredictable, and daringly histrionic, this is a film that really puts itself out there, demanding our patience and our interest with a series of break-ups and betrayals but refusing to divulge any of the connective tisssue of romance or commitment that intercedes between all the backstabs and crying jags. Closer is not a great play but it's a very good one, and the impeccable cinematography and art direction—crucial in giving the film the elegant sheen it needs as counterpoint to all the brutality—transition perfectly onto smaller screens. Jude Law and especially Natalie Portman both get better on second look, and Clive Owen and Julia Roberts, who already stunned in the theater, reveal new sides of their performances. Away from the hype, the breathlessness of awards season, the desperation with which Sony was coveting a Best Picture nod, I am hpoing Closer is finding more converts on DVD. I am also hoping that more good, punchy, distinctive plays will make the move into cinema without sacrificing what's distinctive about them. (To whomever out there has inevitably optioned Doubt, I'm speaking to you.)

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Saturday, August 20, 2005

Saint Joan

The birthdays this week are just totally out of control: first Madonna, then Sean Penn, and now Joan Allen, quite possibly the best actress in Hollywood, give or take Julianne Moore, and quite possibly the sexiest actress in Hollywood, even if no one else agrees with me. And no, not because she is rail thin, which actually makes me worry, but because talent. is. sexy. (See also Penn, Sean; Crowe, Russell; Lange, Jessica; Elliott, Missy.)

If Joan Allen has ever given a bad performance, I haven't seen it. She's just a sublime presence; along with Moore and Tilda Swinton, and with Streep and Blanchett in their best moments, she has the gift of making not just her feelings but her thoughts almost uncomfortably lucid. It's like there's acting going on in her pupils, in her pores. Certainly there is acting going on in her neck and her limbs. That rail-thin body that can be such a challenge for awards-show gowns is impeccably expressive, swan-like, on screen. Allen is one of those actresses who make you realize that acting is supposed to be work as well as pleasurable as well as delicious. You can tell how subtly prepared she is, but she doesn't stand in the way of our acquaintance, our absorption in the character. I do not know how she does it.

If you're not a convert, a rough chronology of hits could begin with Manhunter, where she defies her future typecasting as the blind lab assistant turned on by a serial killer (the role Emily Watson inherited in Red Dragon). Next off the shelf could be Searching for Bobby Fischer, Steven Zaillian's gorgeously observed drama about a chess-playing child prodigy, with Allen immersed in a sea of gifted performers. Then the consecutive Oscar nods for Nixon and The Crucible; she is staggering in both, and deserved the Oscar for either one, though Mare Winningham, Kate Winslet, Barbara Hershey, and Marianne Jean-Baptiste were all her equals in exceptionally good years for that category.

In 1997, Allen was the best thing about Ang Lee's overrated Ice Storm, a film that is much stronger in its female characterizations even though the book was imbalanced in the other direction. In the same year, she nailed a supporting turn in the terrifically deranged crowd-pleaser Face/Off, which is basically where I decided she could do anything. Finally, she has great moments in Pleasantville, When the Sky Falls, and The Contender, but you could also slide forward to her bristling Pamela Landy in last year's The Bourne Supremacy; somehow, when she goes mainstream, Allen always seems to wind up in the summer's best blockbuster. And this year she's been everywhere, stunning and flexible in The Upside of Anger, frank and seductive in the treasurable Off the Map (just out on DVD), and apparently quite a hot dish in Sally Potter's Yes, which keeps eluding me in town after town... The worst part about moving is that it really screws with your moviegoing itinerary.

Anyway, happy 49th, Joan, and seriously, don't be bashful about calling or writing. You always have a place to stay in Hartford, CT.


Nick Comes Knocking on 'Broken Flowers'

It's a bird... it's a plane... no! It's an actual full-length movie review on Nick's Flick Picks! Will wonders never cease?

Too bad the film in question is Jim Jarmusch's promising but dismayingly fallow Broken Flowers. During the Cannes Film Festival in May, where Broken Flowers won the Grand Prix (i.e., the runner-up prize for Best Picture), all the hubbub was that this film was poignant and layered, and much better than Wim Wenders' Don't Come Knocking, which also centers around a father seeking out a son he didn't know he had (and, not to be discounted, the mother of the son, too.) Based on how much I disliked Broken Flowers, I'm perversely expecting that Don't Come Knocking might be more my cup of tea. Since I can't seem to get with the critical or popular consensus at all this year—I didn't like Mysterious Skin but enjoyed 9 Songs, I much prefered The Interpreter to Walk on Water, I found Hitch utterly charmless, and I'm positive that Johnny Depp was the worst thing about Charlie and the Chocolate Factory—it'll just go to show if I wind up championing all the movies that everyone else hates. Wouldn't be the first time.

Now, I just need to dig up those notes I took during The Beat That My Heart Skipped, since that's a winner everyone seems to agree on...

Meanwhile, in attending to my Cinemarati duties, I've also posted a capsule review of George Stevens' Giant, which I just screened for the first time in the gorgeous Cinestudio theater on the campus of my new stomping grounds, Trinity College. The movie theaters of Hartford—I visited four of them in my first eight days of living here—deserve a blog entry of their own, but for now, it's all about Giant, one of those mid-century Oscar darlings that you expect will be awful until you give the thing a chance and come to find that, dang it, that's one thoroughbred of a mainstream American movie. It's the kind of film you expect will go to shit once Rock Hudson and Liz Taylor have got their hair painted silver so they can act more than twice their age, but even against the formidable odds of old-age makeup, they, and the movie, hold their own.

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Wednesday, August 17, 2005

The Doctor... Is Back In

A lot can happen in four weeks: I officially filed my dissertation, got my certificate, packed my house (with a little... okay, a lot of help from good friends), moved to Connecticut, unpacked, took a weekend trip to New York City, checked in with my family in Virginia, came back to New York to read some beautiful Walt Whitman poems at my friend's absolutely delicious wedding, arrived back in Hartford, and finally got my phone and internet turned on, two and a half weeks after I arrived. The e-mail DTs have been shaking and quaking me, and I know half the people in my life think I've met the fate of the Grizzly Man, but lo, I am alive, and this blog will be back up and running in no time.

After all, there is plenty to say, including:
  • A modified version of Cinemarati is back up, and it's more nutritious, better-looking, and more fun than ever!

  • The New York Film Festival looms on the autumn horizon, with a newly-announced lineup that includes Michael Haneke, Lars von Trier, and the much-hyped Romanian breakthrough The Death of Mr. Lazarescu.

  • Hayao Miyazaki's Howl's Moving Castle, the last movie I saw in Ithaca, is not quite up to the level of Spirited Away but is still enough to raise the bar on 2005 at the movies.

  • Can I just say again how sensational that wedding was? This probably won't be the last time I mention it. Props to same-sex couples expressing their devotion and commitment and love in public, and beautifully, too.

  • The year's best film so far, at least on my watch, is the tantalizing French character study-cum-thriller The Beat That My Heart Skipped, featuring some master-class editing by Juliette Welfling, and a stunning sound design that features another terrific score from Alexandre Desplat. (Yep, and the acting and the writing are top-notch, too.)

  • Michael Winterbottom's sex-filled and endlessly maligned 9 Songs is actually one of the year's more compelling films, if you ask me...

  • ...and if you keep asking me, and I hope you will, since you're reading this site, Jim Jarmusch's Broken Flowers, fresh from its Cannes prize and reveling in a warm batch of rhapsodic reviews, is actually a jaw-dropping piece of crap. Though the essayists at the interesting on-line film journal Reverse Shot mostly take Jarmusch's side.

More on all of this and more in the coming days, but finally, while it's still in the gloaming hours of August 17, don't let me forget to mention that today is the birthday of America's greatest working actor (Male Division—don't worry, Julianne and Joan), not to mention the official husband of this blog. You can catch My Sean acting exceptionally in almost every role he assumes. I first started paying attention during 1995's Dead Man Walking, but I really fell in love during 1998's one-two punch of his implosive, reptilian, and cracked lead performance in Hurlyburly (rent it!) and his complicated, muted character work in Terrence Malick's The Thin Red Line. Among his recent performances, the pick of the litter is in one of his least hyped films, last winter's peculiar true-crime snapshot The Assassination of Richard Nixon.

All right, you few, you patient. Hang in there with me as I get back to work! (And say a little prayer for Sean—namely, that the upcoming remake of All the King's Men does justice to the magnificent novel, and to the contemporary world that this 60-year-old story still has much to say to. I'm keeping my fingers crossed for you, Sean! Now blow out your candles!)

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