Thursday, December 22, 2005

Play with Me!

I love reading plays. Truth be told, I love reading them even more than I love seeing them. Don't get me wrong, I love a great production, but following a great script, reading it, re-reading it, reading as different characters in my kitchen or in bed or in the tub, poking around all the possible production choices, whipping up entire revivals in my proscenium imagination.... can't get enough.

Y'all know about the New Year's resolutions I make every year to see 24 Anglo-American movies and 24 international ones that had previously eluded me. I never come close to reaching them all, although in better years than this one, I manage about half. Anyway, I do the same thing with 24 plays, no more than one by the same author. (Also with 24 novels, but we won't get to that till another post.) I've only scratched six from my list this year—again, blame my dissertation, the new job, etc.—but I read many more than that. My favorites, in no particular order, were:
  • Jean Genet's The Screens, which was timely as all get-out as well as being astonishing in every other way

  • John Guare's Landscape of the Body, which I read well before I knew about the upcoming Signature production

  • Tug Yourgrau's The Song of Jacob Zulu, which so bravely avoided easier ways out of its story

  • Martin McDonagh's The Pillowman, whose thrilling Broadway production was almost exactly what I'd envisioned from the script, except the wobbly Goldblum and Ivanek perfs

  • John Patrick Shanley's Doubt, a deserving Tony winner in any other year, whose Broadway production was notably unlike what I'd envisioned

  • Will Eno's Thom Pain (based on nothing), which was a hoot and a holler to perform, twice, while I baked

  • August Wilson's King Hedley II, which at long last debuted in print from TCG

  • Bertolt Brecht's Edward II, which I thoroughly enjoyed even before seeing Creative Mechanics' delicious Off-Broadway production this past September.
Anyway, what I need now are recommendations for what else I should be reading. With plenty of readers who love the thea-tah and know it 1000x better than I ever will—I'm looking atchoo, ModFab, those are your ears burning, Webloge—I'm looking to have my mind blown by new stuff, provided it's in print. What are your favorite plays? What tickled your fancy recently? What are you reading now? Come one, come all, classics and newbies.

Making it harder: I've still got all the 2005 plays I didn't get to moving onto the 2006 list, so these authors are already spoken for: Bullins, Calderón, Chekhov, Churchill, Congreve, Fornès, Ibsen, Kane, Kramer, Lorca, O'Neill, Orton, Racine, Shakespeare, Shaw, Wilde, Wilder, and Yew.

Now, I know y'all are still up to it. Throw down some titles and make your case. Get everyone talking drama, no matter what Mary J. say. Here are some hints—I'm definitely on the market for a good Soyinka or Fugard, or a Pinter that will challenge the impressions I've formed from The Caretaker, The Homecoming, and The Room. Extra points for any good African-American drama, since it'll come in handy for my Spring 2006 seminar. My absolute favorite playwrights are Adrienne Kennedy, Tennessee Williams, Caryl Churchill, and Bertolt Brecht, if you need some guidance on taste.

Now: ready, steady.... go!

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Monday, December 19, 2005

Do You Hear What I Hear?

Since Nathaniel is more with it than I am, he's able to do year-end roundups about music as well as movies. Failing my ability to do the same, at least in a straight 2005 context, I figure I could at least fess up to what happens to my iTunes when I sort by Play Count. And considering that I didn't buy iTunes till February 4 of this year, this works just as well as anything to reflect what I've been listening to this year. (Oh, and I know my taste probably sucks and is totally stuck in 1989-95. And that Pebbles and Soundgarden aren't supposed to co-exist, and Cinderella maybe shouldn't exist at all. What, like your favorite music isn't still what you listened to in high school?)

1. Expression, Salt 'n' Pepa
  The first song I bought, but that's not the only reason it's tops.

2. In da Club, 50 Cent
  Repeats of this and "Candy Shop" prove they really are the same.

3. Hollaback Girl, Gwen Stefani
  I know y'all are played out of this one, but I still love it.

4. Uh Huh Her, PJ Harvey
  An i-Tunes exclusive for which I was actually grateful.

5. Candy Shop, 50 Cent
  See above. Also see the 50 Cent section of this.

6. Seasons of Love, Film Cast of 'Rent'
  No, I didn't go original cast. The film was my original.

7. Mercedes Boy, Pebbles
  Is Pebbles still rolling on all that $$$ she stole from TLC?

8. Hella Good, No Doubt
  I only just learned this spring that this was a No Doubt song.

9. It's Like That, Mariah Carey
  Hardly the best of Mimi, but it was the preview taster.

10. Rub You the Right Way, Johnny Gill
  Not the softened "Greatest Hits" version, the LP track.

11. Solsbury Hill, Peter Gabriel
  Stuck in my head by that In Good Company trailer.

12. Getting Money, Junior M.A.F.I.A.
  A different song than "Get Money" by the same outfit. For real.

13. Rock Your Body, Justin Timberlake
  Oh, leave me alone.

14. Don't Know What You Got (Till It's Gone), Cinderella
  Perfect karaoke track when marooned in straight bars.

15. Rebel Yell, Billy Idol
  Last spring, I was really hitting the 80s rock revival.

16. I've Been Thinking, Handsome Boy Modeling School & Cat Power
  I love Cat Power, and my friend Chad pointed me to this.

17. Jesus Walks, Kanye West
  I'm that dunce who learned this from the Jarhead trailer.

18. Fell on Black Days, Soundgarden
  Great mashup idea with Whitney's "How Will I Know," dontcha think?

19. Twilight, Elliott Smith
  First heard before Open Water at the Angelika.

20. Hold You Tight, Tara Kemp
  One of the great one-hit wonders of early '90s dance pop.

This past month has been all about Notorious K.I.M. and the Bamboozled soundtrack, especially the hilarious but still awesome Blak Iz Blak by the Mau Mau's, the deluded but righteously angry hip-hop group in the film. ("The way Frantz Fanon put it? They lucky I ain't read Wretched yet!") Also Will I, now that I know the Rent soundtrack in toto. Tune in next year to see those up top.


A Word About Best Lists

These are already starting to pop up all over: keep up with GreenCine Daily and OscarWatch and you'll know when all the major critics check in.

Mini-minor critic that I am, I'm hoping to have a Top 10 list posted for the year by around the first week of January. Of course, one always hopes to have seen everything and, without a press card or any other means of keeping up, one never has. The only films left which I refuse to make a Top 10 without seeing are: Brokeback Mountain, Kings and Queen, Munich, The New World, Sometimes in April, and Wolf Creek. Don't give me guff about April: I know it only aired on HBO, but it played the Berlinale, and if Hollywood can't Bring It a little better than it did this year, I'm all over making room for strong cable TV by big-time directors like Raoul Peck. And don't give me guff about Wolf Creek, either, because it has superb buzz, and I'm all about the well-made horror; f'rinstance, even in an exceptional year like last year, no way I wasn't making room for Dawn of the Dead.

Given where I'll be in the next two weeks, I'm also hoping to catch Down to the Bone, Memoirs of a Geisha, Mrs. Henderson Presents, The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada, and TransAmerica, but—call me prejudiced—I'll consider my Top 10 pretty safe if I haven't. I'd love to reserve judgment till Caché and Match Point cross my path, but I'm worried that won't be for a while.

And finally, as I'm surveying my current lists of five in the acting divisions for the Nick's Flick Picks Honorees, I'm noting that the 20 performances hail from 18 different movies. Without even trying to spread the wealth on purpose. Proof in my eyes that 2005 was all about the buried treasures in farflung and often inconsistent movies, rather than the outta-the-park home runs. (Again, though, those last movies to come could change all of this.)


Forget Turkish Delight

This message has been brought to you by Häagen-Dazs Dulce de Leche. Don't be scared of the Flavor Finder™. Hunt this stuff down. It's amazing what this ice cream and a phone chat with findfinishfreedom, my sister in struggle, can do for a day full of end-of-term grading. (Don't worry, students, you'll have your marks soon!)

Of course, the standard creature comforts help a lot, too, and on that end I can report that The Family Stone mostly sinks, despite the potential embodied in its handful of good scenes, and Easy Rider is, as they say, a trip—just don't ask it to be more than that. (Rent Home for the Holidays and Zabriskie Point instead and get better bangs for your buck...literally, in the latter case.)

Saturday, December 17, 2005

A Good Partial Equation

As I wait to get back into David Thomson's The Whole Equation, a probing and delicious but very prosy and quite eccentrically focused dissection of Hollywood, I offer you Anne Thompson's short Hollywood Reporter piece about DreamWorks' demise for its sharp, succinct illumination of the business side of contemporary movies. It's a short article, not meant to change the world, but I don't write much about the apparatus behind the movies I review, so I like to point it out when something good and helpfully expository comes along. (Hat tip: Daily GreenCine)

Preparing for 'Munich'

It's no surprise that I'm not much excited for Steven Spielberg's Munich. It strikes me as a stunningly good topic for a movie, maybe putting in some of the teeth that were missing from this year's earlier Mossad drama, Eytan Fox's Walk on Water. I wasn't much taken by Munich's trailer, though, I have no idea why they felt the need to rush through production and editing so swiftly, and I've been pretty disgusted throughout by the steaming, pistons-firing publicity campaign behind this movie that constantly insists that there is no publicity campaign. Whatever. I'll wait for the movie to prove me wrong, as I truly hope it does.

Where I got sucker-punched was with One Day in September, Kevin Macdonald's Oscar-winning documentary about the 1972 Olympics in Munich and the tragic hostage crisis whose aftermath Spielberg's film will explore. I've never heard a bad thing about One Day in September, though perhaps the fact that I was so frustrated by Macdonald's last film, Touching the Void, should have turned on the warning lights. One Day in September is an important film, rich in material, but it's also, finally, a deeply craven one and at moments even disgusting in its refusal to probe the yawning chasms of widespread complicity that keep suggesting themselves, and in its reverse decision to style itself as, of all things, a thriller. I have no idea whether to recommend the film for what it at least powerfully suggests or to damn it for chickening out in such a palpably commercialist way—Macdonald all but cops to that—and leaving its real work up to other people. My full review of Macdonald's film is here.

In a strange way, this raises my hopes for Munich, since One Day in September so desperately lacks any follow-through, though I'm not sure if I could stand seeing this story mismanaged twice in short succession. Let's keep our fingers crossed. (The report filed by a student who attended a Munich preview screening did not inspire confidence.)

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Oh, Sure, I'll Play Along

I have only realized in recent years that I am not as good at the whole game of Oscar nomination predicting as I used to think I was. I lose my head for which studio is backing what movies, I expect more dark horses and more sharing of the wealth than ever actually transpires, and I project my feelings onto the AMPAS voters, of whom I have very little sense, apart from what's reflected in their past choices. But hey, everyone else is doing it, and it's not like I haven't been thinking about it. My own choices, foolhardy as they doubtless are, about whom I expect to be running in front of the pack for major nom's, who's waiting in the wings to snatch a slot, and who's at least still in the hunt, if only distantly:

BEST PICTURE: Brokeback Mountain; The Constant Gardener; Crash; Good Night, and Good Luck.; Match Point
In the Wings: King Kong; Munich
In the Hunt: Cinderella Man; Syriana; Walk the Line; The New World
Brokeback and GNGL have clear shots. Gardener and Crash strike me as having too many hotly devoted fans to miss out, and I expect Match Point to be a popular cause during balloting season, while I'm banking on Munich to flop about like Amistad, looking for someone to love it, and mostly failing at same.

BEST DIRECTOR: Woody Allen/Match; David Cronenberg/A History of Violence; Peter Jackson/King Kong; Ang Lee/Brokeback; Fernando Meirelles/C.Gardener
In the Wings: George Clooney/GNGL; Steven Spielberg/Munich
In the Hunt: Terrence Malick/The New World; James Mangold/Walk the Line; Ron Howard/C.Man; Paul Haggis/Crash
I know people are calling Clooney a lock, and maybe even a winner, but rather than pull a Redford or a Costner, I think he's more likely to go the route of Rob Reiner in '92 and Ron Howard in '95: the Academy will like his movie, but the directors will hold back. One of the big guns who sailed through the precursors always falls at the end. Meanwhile, Cronenberg looks perfectly situated for the standard auteur giveaway, and Jackson, if he hasn't exhausted the directors with his brand of big spectacle, should get a lot of support from the helmers who wish they were he.

BEST ACTRESS: Joan Allen/The Upside of Anger; Judi Dench/Mrs. Henderson Presents; Felicity Huffman/TransAmerica; Laura Linney/The Squid and the Whale; Reese Witherspoon/Walk the Line
In the Wings: Naomi Watts/King Kong; Keira Knightley/Pride & Prejudice
In the Hunt: Charlize Theron/North Country; Zhang Ziyi/Memoirs of a Geisha; Maria Bello/AHOV; Vera Farmiga/Down to the Bone
Yes, my Allen fandom is prejudicing me, but SAG could put her right back in the hunt, and if so, I still think she could win, even though Witherspoon is a clear front-runner. Speaking of, how clear is it by now that if Mrs. Harris had gotten any kind of theatrical run, this trophy would have hot-footed its way straight to the Oscar-cursed Annette Bening? I bet that is one mad chick. Meanwhile, to fill out the category, I'm assuming some likeable face will get bumped up from supporting, and Linney is much more endeared to AMPAS than Weisz or Bello.

BEST ACTOR: Ralph Fiennes/C.Gardener; Philip Seymour Hoffman/Capote; Terrence Dashon Howard/Hustle & Flow; Heath Ledger/Brokeback; David Strathairn/GNGL
In the Wings: Jeff Daniels/Squid; Joaquin Phoenix/Walk the Line
In the Hunt: Russell Crowe/C.Man
Hoffman, Ledger, and Strathairn are comfortable, with the former two duking it out for the win. As you can see, I'm expecting a major Gardener surge, and I expect Howard to be first on lots of ballots while Daniels is running behind some of the others. (He and Phoenix both have a much tougher climb ahead than their leading ladies.)

BEST SUPPORTING ACTRESS: Scarlett Johansson/Match; Shirley MacLaine/In Her Shoes; Emily Mortimer/Match Point; Rachel Weisz/C.Gardener; Michelle Williams/Brokeback
In the Wings: Gong Li/Geisha; Maria Bello/AHOV
In the Hunt: Laura Linney/Squid; Amy Adams/Junebug; Catherine Keener/Capote; Frances McDormand/N.Country
In every acting race, I'm expecting a rebound from someone who missed at the Globes, and since this is Woody Allen's lightning-rod category, and I'm expecting Match Point to be cresting at just the right time, I'm taking a wild bet on Mortimer to join her more famous costar. Weisz and Williams are in popular films, and MacLaine pockets the older crowd. Category questions abound, which could help Gong sneak in.

BEST SUPPORTING ACTOR: George Clooney/Syriana; Clifton Collins Jr./Capote; Matt Dillon/Crash; Paul Giamatti/C.Man; Bob Hoskins/Mrs. Henderson Presents
In the Wings: Jake Gyllenhaal/Brokeback; Oliver Platt/Casanova
In the Hunt: Kevin Costner/Upside; Geoffrey Rush/Munich; Donald Sutherland/P&P; Frank Langella/GNGL; Will Ferrell/The Producers; William Hurt/AHOV
Still the widest spectrum of possibilities, all of their fortunes dependent on the popularity and nomination tallies of their films. I'm looking for Collins to pop up at SAG and make the leap from there.

BEST ORIGINAL SCREENPLAY: Cinderella Man; Crash; Good Night, and Good Luck.; Match Point; The Squid and the Whale
In the Wings: Mrs. Henderson Presents; Munich
Three sure things, plus Squid feeling right up the alley of this category, and the two self-serious dramas desperate to be loved duking it out for spot #5—but only because the Munich team has been waffling for months on the question about how closely it's based on the Vengeance book. If it all starts feeling too heavy, Mrs. Henderson could lighten the mood.

BEST ADAPTED SCREENPLAY: Brokeback Mountain; Capote; The Constant Gardener; Munich; Syriana
In the Wings: A History of Violence; Walk the Line
In the Hunt: King Kong; Pride & Prejudice
It's almost creepy how tidily this category stacks up at the moment, which surely means that nomination day will roll around and introduce some totally alien interloper. But for the time being, these sure look like the five.

BEST CINEMATOGRAPHY: Brokeback Mountain; Capote; The Constant Gardener; Good Night, and Good Luck.; The New World
In the Wings: The White Countess; Memoirs of a Geisha
In the Hunt: Munich; Jarhead; 2046
The White Countess, despite its low buzz, could finally get Christopher Doyle into the Oscar mix, but with much bigger guns trying to rack up those nomination tallies, it'll have an upward climb. Black & white, no matter how resplendent, tends to have a tough time here, so GNGL is less of a sure thing than it should be. Meanwhile, The New World has its best and perhaps only chance of an award here—and if you ask me, Emmanuel Lubezki has waited quite long enough.

Tallies of Above: Brokeback, C.Gardener: 6; Match Point: 5; Capote, GNGL: 4; Crash: 3; Cinderella Man, Mrs. Henderson Presents, Squid, Syriana: 2

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Round on the Ends, Hi in the Middle

Two of my favorite bloggers had a totally unplanned meeting of the minds tonight. Both of them filed field reports from their current sojourns in Ohio, though one is a country mouse and the other is all city. It also just so happens that both of them are back in the Buckeye State after having lived there before, been away for a while, and now returned to see it with some fresh eyes. Both entries are delicious reads, serenely detailed like a chapbook story in the case of Dr. S, who's finally got that blog we've all waited for her to have (woo-hoo!). Meanwhile, Safire keeps honing her game of cutting culture, family life, and regional moods all to the absolute quick, in her uniquely amazing way of being gut-bustingly funny (comma) yo while also saying something truly provocative. Why both women are not (yet) writing for a national magazine with a big, broad readership... well, search me. We'll be able to say we knew them when.


A Quick Diagnosis

The hits just keep on coming with Apichatpong Weerasethakul's Tropical Malady, a Thai drama strung somewhere between awkward romance, Borgesian meta-narrative, Jungian parable, and erotic dream. Yes, it's as strange as you've heard, and yes, like most movies that are as strange as you've heard, I really liked it, though Blissfully Yours remains my pick of Apichatpong's triad so far. Very quick thoughts here, at the bottom of my 2005 New Year's Resolutions...

...which, surely I'll be getting around to all 36 of those unseen movies in the next two weeks? I am nothing if not goal-oriented, with a sparkling gift for follow-through.


Friday, December 16, 2005

Picked Flick #68: Chronicle of the Smoldering Years

I write this capsule, so many of 2005's movies have attempted to delve into the ongoing crises and entrenched corruptions of the developing world, with especially strong epicenters in the Middle East (Paradise Now, Syriana) and central Africa (The Constant Gardener, Darwin's Nightmare). To recognize that Syriana was written and directed by an American, Darwin's Nightmare by an Austrian, and The Constant Gardener by a Brazilian does not deprive their films of any claim on authenticity, but it remains noticeably rare that the filmmakers of the so-called Third World acquire the license and resources necessary to make films about their own national histories and struggles, and even rarer that these films "play" on the world market. The three-hour Algerian epic Chronicle of the Smoldering Years, aka Chronicle of the Years of Embers, was something of an exception, garnering the Cannes prize in 1975, but clearly its exceptional status has only gotten so far. The film is all but impossible to see outside university archives and screenings. Even in the hour of its victory, amid a field that included Antonioni's The Passenger, Herzog's Mystery of Kasper Hauser, and Martin Scorsese's Alice Doesn't Live Here Anymore, the film didn't make as much headway as you might hope among the Western critical mandarinate; in the Film Comment writeup of that year's Cannes, the writer blithely confesses to having skipped "the three-hour Algerian movie" to dally around the Croisette, and describes how many of her cohorts were stunned, but not quite shamed, when it claimed the top prize.

Like Within Our Gates, my #69 Flick, Chronicle of the Smoldering Years is a film that I like in no small part because I am rooting so hard for its point-of-view and its projects, including its own unlikely and prodigious existence on film. But also like the Micheaux picture, the film commands awe and respect for what it shows and does, not just for what it represents. Director Mohammad Lakhdar-Hamina works powerfully with extreme long shots of crowds; he loosely strings his story around the tale of a serially displaced worker and sometime convict played by Yorgo Voyagis but remains clearly more invested in the massive, tidal clashes among the Algerian people and between Algeria as a whole and its imperial foes. The very first shots follow various rural Algerians already grown furious with the penury and difficulty of their lives, barging off to the city and its mirage of promises. Even these brisk and muscular shots, however, focalize the crowds of fellow citizens trying hard to keep their communities together at least as much as the outraged emigrés. Quickly following is one of the movie's most impressive sequences, a fierce skirmish between two colossal clans over a listless, shallow, and muddy river that lies in the desert like something half-dead and flung down. Then, mid-brawl, a rain falls, and the fantasy of a truce with each other and with the world is temporarily realized. The stakes and sources of these people's misery are not hard to discern, and Lakhdar-Hamina's filmmaking neither employs nor requires much subtlety in revealing them, but his steady refusal to individualize his tale is fresh and revelatory to audiences accustomed to tales of the noble outsider or isolated freedom-fighter. They also pose a challenge to the editing of the film, since the standard grammar of alternating crowd shots with close-ups on heroes or favored personalities is so clearly out the window much of the time. Beyond the Voyagis character, a couple of key relatives, and Lakhdar-Hamina's own admittedly romantic role as a mad prophet of colonial-Marxist rebellion, precious few faces hold themselves aside in this movie, but the progress of the movie never feels clunky or sluggish or ungrounded in human experience. You actually experience history in a different way, watching it happen to groups of bodies rather than unique victors or sufferers, and even more than the geography and perimeter of the film's concerns, hardly over-exploited in world film, the very approach is illuminating.

At the end of Gillo Pontecorvo's infinitely more famous The Battle of Algiers, the chorus of wailing women and rising armadas in the far-off hills of Algeria imply that while the European colonials have won the most recent round of combat, Algeria's self-liberation is still imminent. Pontecorvo's film has become such a cultural shorthand for the Algerian experience of their own struggle that the hinted-at but mostly withheld tale of village-level agitation can lapse into abstraction or invisibility—unless, of course, we do something truly revolutionary, like take our history from books and testimonies instead of just the movies. Don't worry, Kettles, I'm the pot in this equation the vast majority of the time, but Chronicle of the Smoldering Years, in itself and in its solidarity with the Third Cinema movement, helps to keep our eyes re-opened, our memories challenged, our vistas expanded. (Click here for the full list of Nick's Picked Flicks.)

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Poking Around the Middle East

Can you tell that classes have ended? Any guesses as to why I suddenly have the time and energy to reflect fully on the movies I'm seeing?

Catching an early matinée of Paradise Now this afternoon was not only provocative in itself, both in the film's strengths and in its disappointments, but it helped to clarify the reactions I've been puzzling through with regard to Syriana, another film that didn't fully work for me, but which has convinced me over the last week to take it semi-gladly for what it's worth. I've posted a joint review of both films here.

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See No Evil, Hear Only Evil

The semi-finalists for the Visual Effects Oscar have just been announced, and there ain't no surprises among these magnificent seven, which will later be pruned down to three official nominees by the sages of the Visual Effects branch:

Batman Begins
Charlie and the Chocolate Factory
The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe
Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire
King Kong
Star Wars, Episode III: Revenge of the Sith
War of the Worlds

Not only are there no major travesties in this bunch, at least as far as the Visual Effects go, but it actually shapes up to be a pretty gangbusters category no matter how you cut it. I'd drop Narnia most quickly, since it tended toward chintz much too often, but that was as much an effect of the production design and stolid direction as the effects work. Batman and Charlie enervated me a little, but that hobgoblin hood in Batman and the exponentiation of Deep Roy in Charlie were pretty striking stuff. My own ballot would encompass Kong, Star Wars, and War of the Worlds, all of them deserving of the statue (though I'm betting Harry Potter bumps either the Lucas or Spielberg films on Oscar's list).

Meanwhile, as terrifying as King Kong and War of the Worlds often were, they've got nothing on the pure, wretched horror elicited by this list of the 42 finalists for Best Original Song, which manage almost completely to sidestep the Golden Globes' nominees and still look like absolute crap. (Nathaniel, as usual, was onto this press release before I was.) My guesses for the final five are "Dicholo" from The Constant Gardener, "In the Deep" from Crash, "I've Gotta See You Smile" from Because of Winn-Dixie, "There's Nothing Like a Show on Broadway" from The Producers, and Dolly Parton's "Travelin' Thru" from TransAmerica, with outside odds on the cuts from Narnia, Dreamer: Inspired by a True Story, Mad Hot Ballroom, The Upside of Anger, and Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants. But just typing that just made me hurt inside. (If either of the Hustle & Flow tracks gets nommed, especially "It's Hard Out There for a Pimp," I want a notarized contract on someone's desk that says either Céline Dion, James Ingram, and/or Melissa Manchester has to sing it.)

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I'm Not a Sister, But I'm Back in the Habit

When you have the fortune to see two great movies in a row, and you're trying to recover your review-writing mojo, why not write them both up? This latest review has been brought to you by Theo Angelopoulos' Trilogy: The Weeping Meadow, and as you'll read, if you haven't heard of that one, it's not your fault. But do seek it out. (It will help of course, when a DVD release is ever announced for this two-year-old film, which only hit metropolitan American screens in September.)

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Thursday, December 15, 2005

The "Four" Meme

When you're tagged for a meme, it's bad form not to respond, though I'm not sure I have much to add here that I haven't already flapped my jaws about on this blog. Ah well, here goes:

Four jobs you've had in your life: College professor, bathroom janitor, hotline counselor, corporate receptionist

Four movies you could watch over and over: The Piano, When Harry Met Sally..., Aliens, Morvern Callar

Four places you've lived: Most recently, before now: Ithaca, NY; Cambridge, MA; Fairfax, VA; Hanau, Germany

Four TV shows you love to watch: The Oscars, the Golden Globes, Good Morning America the day the Oscar nominations are announced, and Once & Again before the creeps canceled it

Four places you've been on vacation: These were more visits or day-trips than vacations, but: Paris, Switzerland, Italy, Prague

Four websites you visit daily: IMDb, Bloglines, The Film Experience, mainlymovies

Four of your favorite foods: Pink and bloody hamburgers, Ethiopian anything, Italian anything, and a recent discovery, Häagen-Dazs Coffee-flavored ice cream (which – actually – hold on just a sec...)

Four places you'd rather be right now: With Derek in NYC; with Nathaniel and Gabriel at the Landmark Sunshine; with the grads of the Cornell English Dept. at a big ol' dance party throwdown; with Joan Allen, shooting the breeze, catching up on Xmas shopping, or just doing whatever (I'd so leave it up to you, Joan)

Four bloggers you're tagging: Fecundmellow, Ann, lylee, Girish


Don't Call It a Comeback...

...I've been here for years! But I haven't much been on my main site these last couple of months, for any number of reasons. But if King Kong can return, rather majestically, 72 years after he first rumbled out of the jungle, I figure I can at least show up to write a real review of this big, long, emotionally and intellectually complex entertainment. Enjoy, and post your own reactions below.

(By the way, re: my refusal to take the Golden Globes category of Best Song at all seriously, is this the kind of thing you expect to hear about timeless, award-winning art? Check that last sentence, for chrissakes.)


Tuesday, December 13, 2005

As the Golden Globes Turn

I didn't post earlier today about this morning's Golden Globe nominations because, frankly, I was too frigging cold. The furnace went out in my apartment last night, right around the time it hit 10°F in Hartford. I woke up this morning the spitting image of Rose DeWitt Bukater Dawson, clinging to my little plank, blowing on a whistle, realizing that the only omitted touch that could have made that scene in Titanic any more gruesome would have been a little pile of papers floating next to Rose, waiting to be graded. (It's the end of the semester, honey, and there just aren't enough boats.)

I do care about the Golden Globes, I do. But I disagree with anybody who says that these nominations really establish anything Oscar-wise. No film is ruined that wasn't already in trouble, and some of the "omissions" were predestined: neither Peter Jackson nor Terrence Malick has recently been this group's cuppa. By the same token, precious few people or films should be taking any Academy nods for granted. To make this all a little more specific, especially since it's all. so. important, here's a category rundown. The nominees in the paler font are the ones I haven't seen, though check back in tomorrow, after I've rumbled in the Kong jungle, and again this weekend, when I've at least tested my quavering suspicions about The Family Stone.

BEST PICTURE (DRAMA): Brokeback Mountain; The Constant Gardener; Good Night, and Good Luck.; A History of Violence; Match Point
I didn't expect Munich to be a major nominee, guessing that it would only cop Picture and Director nods, so I admit that I'm a little surprised to see Match Point in its slot (at least, that's the way I read it). I'm not totally ready to hand Brokeback Mountain the Oscar just yet, but like Ang Lee's Sense and Sensibility a decade ago, it at least looks to have the Globe all sewn up. (My own vote as of now, before seeing the others: A History of Violence)

BEST PICTURE (MUSICAL/COMEDY): Mrs. Henderson Presents; Pride & Prejudice; The Producers; The Squid and the Whale; Walk the Line
Four inevitabilities—The Producers benefits from the HFPA's total suckerdom for filmed Broadway musicals—but I thought Squid's spot would get gobbled by Wallace & Gromit. I'm delighted to see Squid mentioned, which would narrowly get my vote over the radiant Pride & Prejudice, but I'm suspicious we're going to be asked to stomach a Walk the Line sweep all through this M/C division.

BEST DIRECTOR: Woody Allen; George Clooney; Peter Jackson; Ang Lee; Fernando Meirelles; Steven Spielberg
As you can see, I don't have much room to comment quality-wise, though again, check back tomorrow. Lee is the obvious choice for the win, though the HFPA does love to shake it up in this category, so Woody Allen is a close alternative, and Clooney and Jackson should at least show up in dressy shoes. (Note, too, that you can smuggle a Cronenberg film into the party, but you can't make it too obvious.) Updated: Jackson has it all over Clooney and Meirelles, but I'd still say there's room for others to surpass him in my esteem.

BEST ACTRESS (DRAMA): Maria Bello; Felicity Huffman; Gwyneth Paltrow; Charlize Theron; Zhang Ziyi
Prediction-wise, a two-way race between Huffman and Zhang, who seems like the sort of fashion-plate dumpling that the HFPA favors when they aren't guilted into a Brenda Blethyn. I'm giving Zhang the edge. Meanwhile, I'm hoping Bello didn't just introduce unnecessary category confusion into her campaign, and I hope Paltrow and Theron get to share a table and knock back some Cosmopolitans in the name of all that is blonde. (Gwynnie was good in her movie, and since she seems to be the target of some kind of popular-favor fatwa these days, I admit I'm pleased for her. Still voting for Bello, though.)

BEST ACTOR (DRAMA): Russell Crowe; Philip Seymour Hoffman; Terrence Howard; Heath Ledger; David Strathairn
The year's most crowded acting category, and indeed, this is a formidable list. With the certain-to-win Ledger still waiting on my dance card, I'll take the underdog position and confess my ballot goes to Howard, who raised a whole film on his shoulders with nothing—no mimicked mannerisms, no star cachet—to help him. And it's not just a degree-of-difficulty vote; good as Crowe, Hoffman, and Strathairn were, I think Howard was better...and I'm frankly stunned to see him here. (Fiennes seemed fated.)

BEST ACTRESS (MUSICAL/COMEDY): Judi Dench; Keira Knightley; Laura Linney; Sarah Jessica Parker; Reese Witherspoon
Category make Nick angry. Admittedly, glad Danes is missing. But Where Is Joan Allen??? (cuz that film wasn't no drama). Sacrificing Allen's thistly, funny, sexy, and scary Upside of Anger turn to Sarah Jessica Parker, a stiff wet blanket in the Family Stone trailer, is by far the year's major indignity—especially since you know Parker's only here because she's been such a cutesy ballerina every time she won for Sex and the City. Doesn't matter since Witherspoon's a lock anyway, but that's nearly as dismaying. She's better than I've ever seen her in Walk the Line, but I'll be repeating this from now till March (get used to it, Gabriel): if Reese Witherspoon wins the Best Actress Oscar, it'll be the least impressive performance to do so since Sally Field walked her own dusty road in Places in the Heart.

BEST ACTOR (MUSICAL/COMEDY): Pierce Brosnan; Jeff Daniels; Johnny Depp; Nathan Lane; Cillian Murphy; Joaquin Phoenix
Meanwhile, the worst of this year's acting nominees so far as I have seen is certainly Johnny Depp, who shot a bullet of Too Weird right into the beating heart of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory and literally killed it from his first entrance. His opposite is Jeff Daniels, who strides into The Squid and the Whale with perfect, lithe confidence, playing someone with gallons of overconfidence, and even if the movie weren't already so special, Daniels would make it so. Kisses to him, but the trophy, obviously, to Phoenix. (Oh, and I was sure Ledger would double-dutch with a Casanova nod, but apparently, he couldn't even squeeze into an already expanded list.)

BEST SUPPORTING ACTRESS: Scarlett Johansson; Shirley MacLaine; Frances McDormand; Rachel Weisz; Michelle Williams
Johansson's another one whose performance doesn't do it for me in the trailers; her line reading and coy playing of "No one's ever asked for their money back" carries the distinct Chanel of teenagers playing dress-up. Anyone here could win except for McDormand—MacLaine is least likely after her, but the HFPA has always really liked her. I'd be casting a strong vote for Weisz myself: an actress I used to dread who bravely played against The Constant Gardener's transparent favorite-choosing among its own characters.

BEST SUPPORTING ACTOR: George Clooney; Matt Dillon; Will Ferrell; Paul Giamatti; Bob Hoskins
A perfectly wide open category, every which way. Clooney will win at least something at the ceremony, and maybe it's easiest to honor him here. The Crash-heads are passionate and legion. Ferrell suits HFPA's celebrity appetites. Giamatti is getting a big, undeserved push. Hoskins is heard to be a delight in a Jim Broadbent role, and seems like a Globes type. With no great choices and no bad ones, I'd check Clooney's name for myself and then forget that I did.

BEST SCREENPLAY: Brokeback Mountain; Crash; Good Night, and Good Luck.; Match Point; Munich
The voters are going to have to work in close concert to make sure Allen gets one prize and Clooney gets one, too. The stories behind both victories are just too lickable for the Globes to pass up. I'm guessing it's Allen here, but GNGL won't sign off easily, and none of the others can be written off, either. (Crash would normally suffer for lacking a Picture nod, but given its reputation for Really Saying Something, I wouldn't rule it out. And with only GNGL to compare it to, I'd vote for it.)

BEST FOREIGN-LANGUAGE FILM: Kung Fu Hustle (Hong Kong); Merry Christmas (France); Paradise Now (Palestine); The Promise (China); Tsotsi (South Africa)
With Munich and Paradise Now both in contention, I really wish Vanessa Redgrave were going to be around. But I'm betting, based on dust, wisp, and stupid intuition, that the winner comes down to the kinetic Kung Fu Hustle and the purportedly touching and Toronto-stamped Tsotsi.

BEST ORIGINAL SCORE: Brokeback Mountain; The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe; King Kong; Memoirs of a Geisha; Syriana
Alexandre Desplat is my boy, but the minimalism of his Syriana atmospherics don't really seem like a Globes choice, though it sure outclasses the dull dull dullery of the Narnia tinkling. Brokeback will notch one here on the way toward its morning-after headline tally. Updated: I tend to like James Newton Howard's scores, and I did again here, so I'd call it about a draw quality-wise with Syriana's.

Okay, you know what? NO. Just no. This category should have been euthanized so long ago. Every year, the HFPA, just like Oscar, has to scrape together some nonsense, but this year is especially tinny. That Alanis Morissette track over the Narnia credits was close to risible, and yet it's nominated. (A little bit ironic—dontcha think?) Mel Brooks did what all the show people do and wrote a new song explicitly to grovel for a trinket. Let's just ignore this category and see if it goes away.

CECIL B. DeMILLE AWARD: Anthony Hopkins
Spool the montage. I want to see him gobble the ground round in Titus, totter around the tablets in Alexander, potter around the greenhouse in Amistad, act with his wig in Instinct, and go crack crazy in Legends of the Fall, and I still want Jodie Foster to call him "inspiring" and "impeccable" in that heavy-lidded, lower-lipped way of hers. If at all possible, I would like this to go on for 39 minutes, with lots of surprise cutaways to see who is drunk.

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Monday, December 12, 2005

NYFCC Also Goes for 'Broke'

Upon accepting the Best Actor prize from the New York Film Critics Circle in 1970 for her husband, George C. Scott, Colleen Dewhurst caused a minor scandal by admitting it was the only film prize that Scott thought was worth a damn. Slap-happy as everyone is to win anything these days, you'd be hard-pressed to find a second on that motion, but the NYFCC does tend to pick interesting winners, sparking recognition in recent years for films like Topsy-Turvy, Gosford Park, and Million Dollar Baby and for performers like Marcia Gay Harden, Helen Mirren, and Shohreh Aghdashloo, who had previously been far from the center of the awards radar. Sometimes their choices never do get any traction with other groups, Oscar included, but they deserve plaudits on their own accord. In bold below are this year's winners, just announced today, followed by my favorite selections from recent years in those same categories. (I often find them especially adept at picking Best First Films and Best Supporting Actresses, though curiously, I'm often unmoved by their other acting choices—patterns that all continue this year with the fabulous Bello and Capote and the lucky-duck Witherspoon and Hurt.)

Best Film: Brokeback Mountain (Fargo '96, LA Confidential '97, Topsy-Turvy '99, Mulholland Drive '01, Far from Heaven '02)

Best Director: Ang Lee, Brokeback Mountain (Curtis Hanson '97, Terrence Malick '98, Mike Leigh '99, Robert Altman '01, Todd Haynes '02, Clint Eastwood '04)

Best Actress: Reese Witherspoon, Walk the Line (Jennifer Jason Leigh '95, Emily Watson '96, Hilary Swank '99, Laura Linney '00)

Best Actor: Heath Ledger, Brokeback Mountain (Nicolas Cage '95, Nick Nolte '98, Richard Farnsworth '99)

Best Supp. Actress: Maria Bello, A History of Violence (Courtney Love '96, Lisa Kudrow '98, Catherine Keener '99, Marcia Gay Harden '00, Helen Mirren '01, Patricia Clarkson '02, Shohreh Aghdashloo '03, Virginia Madsen '04)

Best Supp. Actor: William Hurt, A History of Violence (Steve Buscemi '01, Clive Owen '04)

Best First Film: Capote (Babe '95, Big Night '96, Love and Death on Long Island '98, Being John Malkovich '99, George Washington '00, Maria Full of Grace '04)

Best Screenplay: The Squid and the Whale (You Can Count on Me '00, Gosford Park '01, The Secret Lives of Dentists '03)

Best Foreign Film: 2046 (Wild Reeds '95, Ponette '97, In the Mood for Love '01)

Best Nonfiction Film (joint citation): Grizzly Man and The White Diamond (The Gleaners and I '01)

Best Cinematography: 2046 (Breaking the Waves/Dead Man '96, The Thin Red Line '98, The Straight Story '99, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon '00, In the Mood for Love '01, Far from Heaven '02, Elephant/Gerry '03)

Best Animated Film: Howl's Moving Castle (Spirited Away '02)


NBR Says 'Good Night'

NBR stands for Never Best Roster and also for National Board of Review, a "critics' group" whose history of obsequious choices and mysterious practice really hit the fan this year, twice: the group almost disbanded when its own members called its integrity into question, and then their award announcements had to be delayed when it was revealed that some contenders had been left off the ballots. Somewhere between the Hertz of the NYFCC and the Rent-a-Wreck of the Broadcast Film Critics Association (which I refuse to even link to), the NBR putters along, occasionally siding with something interesting (Lupe Ontiveros in Chuck & Buck, Fernanda Montenegro in Central Station, Janet McTeer in Tumbleweeds), but mostly getting flummoxed by their own wheedling desires to spread the wealth and cover all their bases, if not by their own fine-tuned crosshairs on mediocrity (Shine, Quills, and last year's mouldy gumdrop Finding Neverland were all Best Picture winners, and The Last Samurai was a runner-up and a Best Director winner in 2003).

As of now, this year's NBR winners are up on OscarWatch but not on the group's own awards site (small points for the photo of Sean, though). George Clooney's overrated Good Night, and Good Luck. continues NBR's trend of picking as their Best Pictures well-intentioned and interesting movies that, at one level or another, don't quite work. (Gods and Monsters, The Hours, and Mystic River were also honorees; in their past decade of choices, only L.A. Confidential, Moulin Rouge!, and, when I'm feeling generous, American Beauty really made any sense to me.)

The nine runners-up are usually ranked for our enjoyment; they currently aren't on OscarWatch, and whether this is somebody's failing or just a new direction for the NBR is anyone's guess at this moment. That Walk the Line and Memoirs of a Geisha even qualified for the Top 10 is reason to raise an eyebrow. You can see those customary cookie-crumbling tendencies in the way Ang Lee wins Best Director but David Cronenberg gets something called the Billy Wilder Award for Excellence in Direction. Felicity Huffman has gotta be happy, and Philip Seymour Hoffman better start reinforcing those shelves. March of the Penguins is the utterly unadventurous choice for Best Documentary. Nothing is quite as goony-crazy as the award for "Outstanding Dramatic Musical Performance by an Actress" that they cooked up for Björk in 2000, but surely Phil Morrison and Bennett Miller directed better debut films than Julian Fellowes did, and in any event, nothing quite screams that this group has happed upon any newfound capacities for insight, either.


Sunday, December 11, 2005

'Brokeback' in Beantown

The Boston Society of Film Critics are probably my favorite of the major critics' groups. They don't have the prestige of the NYFC, they don't influence the Oscar race like the LAFC, and as they were only founded amidst the 1980 Oscar campaigns, they don't have the long history of brave choices that my other favorite, the National Society of Film Critics, can claim. My allegiance to the BSFC is predicated on two things. First, that I basically lost my movie virginity in Boston. I mean, I had kissed movies before, and I'll be married to my childhood sweetheart for my whole life, but as a young thing and a non-driver, I'd never been able to get myself to the movies until I went to college in Boston. My hottest and heaviest relationship in Boston was always with my beloved Kendall Square Cinema, of which there is still a framed picture in my current apartment, six years after my last viewing in that theater (My Son the Fanatic). Still, let's not short-shrift the heavenly Brattle and the marvelously convenient Sony Harvard Square and the delectable Coolidge Corner in Brookline and the cheap but art-friendly second-runs at the Somerville Theatre (in Davis Square, no less!) and the late, lamented, and enormous Sony Chéri, and the multiplex banquet at the Loews Fresh Pond (owned then by Sony) and the eggheaded mind-expansions at the Harvard Film Archive. All these places gave me the life I wanted, and still have, so I'm partial in every which way to the movie culture of that city.

More specifically to the BSFC, I first became aware of them in 1997 when they awarded Best Supporting Actress to Sarah Polley for The Sweet Hereafter, and even more adventurously, their runners-up for Best Actress were Katrin Cartlidge in Career Girls and Tilda Swinton in Female Perversions. That is what I call a critics' group. None of this snovelling around to publicists and trying to read Oscar's crystal ball. They've kept awarding their prizes over the years to unexpected and invigorating choices—Three Kings for Best Picture; Samantha Morton in Under the Skin, Tilda Swinton in The Deep End, and Maggie Gyllenhaal in Secretary for Best Actress; Jim Carrey for Man on the Moon and Colin Farrell for Tigerland for Best Actor; Toni Collette for About a Boy and The Hours as Best Supporting Actress (like, actual supporting performances!); Hands on a Hardbody for Best Documentary; The Dangerous Lives of Altar Boys for Best First Film; Taste of Cherry for Best Foreign-Language Film. Those are some great calls.

Things have been getting a little more conventional with the BSFC the last few years—last year's Sideways blitz was a yawner, though the Laura Dern/Sharon Warren tie in Supporting Actress was fun. This year, the Brokeback Mountain juggernaut keeps rolling through for Best Picture and Director, and Philip Seymour Hoffman, Catherine Keener, and Dan Futterman all repeated their LAFC wins for Capote. I'm kind of miffed by the buzzed-about but totally unmagical Reese Witherspoon in Walk the Line and Paul Giamatti in Cinderella Man as their Best Actress and Best Supporting Actor choices. Good as they both were, the very suggestion of "greatness" in their work is like a wet washcloth on my brain.

But, the Beantown crowd can still pick a good one: Pride & Prejudice's Joe Wright as the new filmmaker to watch. The fabulous and totally under-attended Murderball as Best Documentary. Kung Fu Hustle, a truly un-Decemberish choice as Best Foreign-Language Film, over the way more Cahiers-certified 2046. When the NYFCC and NBR announce tomorrow, things will either get more or less interesting, but even if I'm alone among all the awards watchers out there, I give it up to Jay Carr and Peter Keough and all those mandarins on the MTA!


Saturday, December 10, 2005

And the Trumpets Sounded!

The Los Angeles Film Critics Association, often the most Oscar-attuned of the major critics' groups and this year the first one to announce their picks, has crowned Brokeback Mountain their Best Picture of the year, and Ang Lee as their Best Director. David Cronenberg's A History of Violence was the runner-up in both races and scored one nod—oddly, if you ask me—for William Hurt's unimpeachably bold but not entirely persuasive supporting performance.

Capote was a triple winner, though only one prize, for Philip Seymour Hoffman's lead performance, was exclusive to this film. Dan Futterman's screenplay prize was shared with Noah Baumbach for The Squid and the Whale (two impeccable winners there), and Catherine Keener's win as Best Supporting Actress actually cited her entire stable of 2005 turns, which I'd rank in the following order, quality-wise: The 40-Year-Old Virgin (wonderful), Capote (really good), The Interpreter (perfectly sufficient), and The Ballad of Jack and Rose (um, no).

Best Cinematography went to Robert Elswit for Good Night, and Good Luck. and Production Design to 2046; each of those films was the runner-up in the opposite category. Animated Film went to Wallace and Gromit..., while the animated Howl's Moving Castle won for its Score, which I don't remember even slightly. Best Documentary went to my beloved Grizzly Man, Foreign-Language Film to Michael Haneke's post-colonial surveillance thriller Caché, and the New Generation Award to Terrence Howard, whom I still refer to as Terrence Dashon Howard, for Hustle & Flow and Crash. (Apparently, the LAFCA weren't paying attention in Glitter and Angel Eyes, like I was.)

I'm saving my favorite category, Best Actress, where the LAFCA endorsed a real dark horse, Vera Farmiga (pictured), for playing a drug-addicted housewife in Debra Granik's Down to the Bone. Both the performance and the film were Sundance victors, but the Academy-baiting theatrical run at the end of November was distressingly brief in NYC and LA, so Farmiga had better hope someone is sending screeners around Hollywood. Her selection by this group recalls their joint endorsement in 1998 of Fernanda Montenegro in Central Station, a Brazilian superstar unknown on these shores who actually did score a come-from-behind Oscar nod in a year as weak as this one. Montenegro tied, though, with Ally Sheedy in High Art, who was unjustifiably missing from Oscar's list. I'm betting that Farmiga goes the way of Sheedy rather than Montenegro, but the LAFCA's early laurel could really help.

Who this all really hurts is Joan Allen, and by extension, me. Allen, historically a favorite of this group, had her best chances of a big critical boost here, or else at the National Board of Review. It is crucial that Allen get a critics' prize, so that she can more likely be Oscar nominated, so that she can be a surprise winner, so that she can prove me right in my rather sanguine insistences throughout the fall that she is a front-runner. This dame needs an Oscar! (Alas, she wasn't even LAFCA's runner-up; Judi Dench was.)

Correction: Down to the Bone is still playing at the Quad Cinema on 13th St. in NYC, which gave Being Julia such a good long run last year, and at the Laemmle Fairfax in Los Angeles. Seek it out, people. Maybe it's time for me to get moving for a day.


Let them hear New Wave!

Dr. S beat even Daily GreenCine in bringing the new teaser trailer for Sofia Coppola's Marie Antoinette to my attention. If you've ever held a Virgin Suicides-meets-Barry Lyndon theme party at your house, you are way ahead of this movie. Otherwise, you probably aren't.

I was among the agnostics about Coppola's Lost in Translation, but I admit, the sheer unexpectedness of this trailer and the info that Judy Davis and Aurore Clément are both in the cast have really piqued my interest. The only person I feel for is Norma Shearer, who really acquits herself quite well in the 1938 version, but she sure is about to look awfully stodgy.

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Friday, December 09, 2005

Grammy Love

How kind of the Grammy Award nominators to court me so personally. My reply to these nominations?: I do, I do! My girl Mariah is right out there in front with eight nominations, including the fact that "We Belong Together" is the only song up for Record and Song of the Year. She even worked in a plug for "Mine Again," the Mimi track you are most likely to wail along to in your kitchen, while you cook, if you're me; this is what I call an Emancipation proclamation. Missy Elliott, booty-shakin' shaman of our age, didn't do too shabbily, either, with five nods for her own songs, her duet with Ciara, her production work with Neptunes, and her video for "Lose Control." Gwen Stefani's "Hollaback Girl" stomped its feet like this in a bunch of nominations, including Record of the Year.

But the nomination for Sean Penn? Grammy make me lose control.

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Tuesday, December 06, 2005

C+C Blogging Factory

That's Roman Numeralese for my 200th post, y'all. Keep coming back!

Monday, December 05, 2005

On the Road Again

First I let all the water out of my own website by getting uncontrollably addicted to the blog format. Now I'm giving away all my inspirations to other blogs while mine sits under dust, like Miss Havisham's cake. Don't worry, I'm too selfish to let his continue, but for now, you can catch my review of Richard Brooks' In Cold Blood over at The Film Experience. And when the semester finally ends and the oceans of grading have parted (not unlike the Red Sea), I will be hummin' comin' at'cha like Xscape, spitting chaw at Walk the Line, trying to make some room at the inn for the interesting, ambitious Bee Season, and letting y'all know that, whatever its flaws, I cried at Rent, like, five separate times, and I was so overjoyed to see an ensemble so committed to the story they were telling. What's with the flagging box-office? $10 is the cheapest Rent y'all will ever pay. Cough it up, now!

(Ed.: I have a hard time thawing to actresses I don't like, so imagine it happening three times in one day. Even if there are clear limitations to the performances of Reese Witherspoon, Juliette Binoche, and Idina Menzel in the aforementioned trio of movies, they all laid a heavier lien on my respect than they have before. Binoche was particularly interesting, even in a muted performance of an underwritten character that no one is talking about.)

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Sunday, December 04, 2005

More Brilliant Breakfasts

Just a plug for one of my favorite blogs, Brilliant at Breakfast, which not only keeps up a truly breathtaking pace of thorough, detailed, and truly important posts (and this is one-woman show, folks), but which occasionally outdoes itself with entries like two from yesterday.

The first details the LBGT-friendly commitments of the Wells Fargo bank—an enterprise I already like because of its historical ties to Wells College, where I once taught. The second, unbelievably brave not just in its candor but in its subtle, careful stance on an inflammatory topic, connects a recent and appallingly misogynist travesty of justice to a bleak moment in the blogger's own past. B@B manages to emphasize the ongoing scale and scandal of rape, sexual violence, and sexual assault in the world and also to explain the reasons why it might not always be helpful for all unwanted sexual encounters to be defined as rapes or assaults—especially in cases where outsiders insist on a definition that the person who lived the experience doesn't agree with or assent to. This same point, difficult but important, is thoughtfully ventured by Wendy Brown and Janet Halley in their anthology Left Legalism/Left Critique (Duke UP, 2002), one of many areas pinpointed by their book where current trends in law, especially rights-based and identitarian discourses, may actually work against the people whom these laws mean to empower or protect. A good read.

When I started work this fall, my college provided all of its incoming faculty with a statistical report that suggested that sexual assaults on this campus numbered in the low single digits last year, and in many years previous. I have no idea who devised this figure or what kind of research contributed to it, but it's hard not to be flummoxed, even incensed, by this kind of accounting. 2,000 college students living, partying, drinking, etc., in a cloistered campus for nine months, and sexual assault happens less than ten times? Um, no. In terms of how many are reported, much less prosecuted, I might buy that figure, but I'm not sure whom it helps to keep equating officially recorded cases with actual incidence. The cultural conversation about rape and sexual assault must be maintained, and judicial monstrosities like what's happening to the teenaged girl in Oregon need to be broadcast and protested. But as B&B reminds me and the rest of her readers, it's also important to leave room for everyone to assign their own names and terms to their own sexual experiences and identities, even the ones that are most tempting to name on someone else's behalf, even with the soundest of intentions. Thanks, B@B, for giving such fresh, rigorous, and honest airspace to these invaluable ideas!


Picked Flick #69: Within Our Gates

The most famously racist movie in American cinema is D.W. Griffith's 1915 epic The Birth of a Nation, a film whose boundary-pushing visual grammar and sophisticated devices for managing parallel narratives are deservedly celebrated, and yet whose white-supremacist mythomania is so overt and passionate that actually watching the film is invariably worse than anything you might hear about it in advance. Until you have beheld the Ku Klux Klan riding valiantly to the rescue of an imperiled white lily of Southern womanhood, you have not experienced the full, gobsmacking force of the racist musculature behind early American visual culture. (Wasn't it kind of me to say "early"?)

Enraged by what he saw in The Birth of a Nation, African-American filmmaker Oscar Micheaux rode to his own rescue and filmed Within Our Gates—one of his two most famous films (the other is 1925's Body and Soul), but nonetheless obscure to most moviegoers, even those who retrospectively recognize the fundamental disgraces in Griffith's movie. This circumstance actually speaks to another American problem, wherein we have better memories for Faustian masterpieces than for exemplary acts of redress. Indeed, Within Our Gates was deemed lost for many years before it resurfaced just over a decade ago, in mislabeled film canisters in a vault somewhere in Spain. Knowing the severe obstacles this film has faced for decades just trying to get itself seen—not to mention the obstacles you'll encounter trying to see it, unless you live near a university library, or unless TCM is having an especially emancipated day—only adds to its blunt force once unveiled. Rather than a white actor in blackface chasing a histrionic Mae Marsh, Within Our Gates sports a harrowing sequence in which Sylvia Landry, its African-American protagonist, is not only beaten and sexually aggressed by a white man, but by one who comes to realize amidst this very encounter that he is her father—speaking not just to his brutishness in the present moment but to an entire history of disavowed sexual violence and natal alienation. Just as thunderous, both in its anger and in its bold execution, is a long flashback sequence that details the lynching of Sylvia's family, a passage which was customarily excised by craven projectionist even when Gates played to American audiences in 1920. The desperate physicality of the actors in these sequences, as well as their comportment in the more serene but equally interesting passages of the movie, are a succinct rebuttal not just to American memories of its racial past but to the dominating aesthetic of American silent features, which usually opted for a gentility and a stylized theatricality that Micheaux frequently eschews. Lead actress Evelyn Preer, a bright light of the African-American stage, has a soft but womanly poise that offers key counterpoint to the willowy fragility with which Griffith tended to shoot Lillian Gish. Furthermore, Micheaux, who worked without a credited cinematographer, is a cunning visualist, alternating abstract and realist backgrounds behind characters in seemingly straightforward dialogue scenes, so as to comment subtly on the varying moral depth of their points of view, their relation to or else their avoidance of the world they mutually inhabit.

Within Our Gates is full of surprises, following a multitude of characters and plotlines without settling into predictable allegiances. Micheaux's critiques of bad habits within the African-American community are as lucid as his indictments of white-supremacist ideology. The film wholly avoids a Manichean division between black saints and white predators, and the introductions of romance and religion among the film's active concerns do interesting things to our views of several characters. The closing scenes are unforeseeably optimistic, and Gates has taken its licks over the years for making this turn, though it seems to me that the thinly motivated dissolve amidst the final shot squares it quite self-consciously in the realm of fairy tale. Of course, the most delicious surprise in Within Our Gates is that it exists at all, against the odds of America's post-WWI self-deification and despite Micheaux's omission from too many debates and film texts where he rightfully belongs. One particularly succulent reward came in 1992, the fourth year in the cycle of National Film Registry inductees, when Within Our Gates entered the Library of Congress' most esteemed collection of American films right alongside The Birth of a Nation. In the national archives at least, but hopefully in other places too, Micheaux can call Griffith's bluff in perpetuity. There is more than one way to write history in lightning. (Click here for the full list of Nick's Picked Flicks.)

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Saturday, December 03, 2005

Happy Birthday: Julianne Moore

Julianne Moore is 45 today, and we should all be feeling blessed and jubilant, effervescing on behalf of America's greatest living film actress. (Top 5, easy.)

However, generous soul that I am, I invite you to celebrate this august occasion not here but over at The Film Experience, which is the internet's true Julianne Moore headquarters. On behalf of his sainted Juli, Nathaniel has made it through, among other things, Tales from the Darkside: The Movie. C'est l'amour, n'est-ce pas?

(P.S. Not-so-generous soul that I am, I wrote the blurb at TFE, since Nathaniel's on vacation. Hurry back, FilmBitch!)


Thursday, December 01, 2005

World AIDS Day

I know that this blog needs a spiritual lift as soon as it can get one, and no I haven't abandoned my countdown (I've just been refreshing my memory of #s 68 and 69, neither of which I had seen in a while). And yes, I do still plan to see some new movies: I've cleared a massive swath in my weekend schedule of grading to see Walk the Line and Rent and Bee Season all back-to-back-to-back at the local 'plex.

But still, December 1 is World AIDS Day, and I feel it's important to acknowledge that&#151especially since your friend and mine at Queering the Apparatus wrote such a heartfelt, detailed, and eloquently angry commemoration of this grim but hopeful day. Please read it, and then consider donating money or absorbing the information at the websites for AmFAR or The ONE Campaign. Also, the Online Nursing Programs website has an AIDS-related page with terrific information and a bevy of pertinent links, including more places to donate your money and time.

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