Sunday, December 10, 2006

There Are No Words

Even in a year of dubious artistic choices, have you seen anything so obviously wrong as this poster for Venus, intended to be Peter O'Toole's comeback vehicle? Don't they want people to come see it? Do they want us to think it's the story of a fruity, 175-year-old wax model? Didn't anyone explain the Wonder Boys Factor to the marketing people of Miramax—namely, that you can make an extraordinary movie (which Wonder Boys is, but which I somehow doubt that Venus is), but if the poster-art looks like someone's fey bachelor uncle fuglying it up into late middle age, no one but no one will come?

Friday, December 08, 2006

The DVD Wears Prada, and Other Second Dates

The promoters behind the DVD of The Devil Wears Prada have asked me to lend them a little bit of extra publicity, and who am I not to oblige? By all means, rent it. I myself am eager for a second look at Prada, particularly to revisit its best performance—which belongs not to Meryl Streep but to Emily Blunt, as the exasperated assistant who torments Anne Hathaway before they forge a sort of terrorized entente. It's no mystery why Streep feels able and entitled to push Hathaway around and make her work to claim her own starring vehicle, but there's a moment when Blunt asks Hathaway whether she's on her way to some sort of "hideous skirt convention" and I realized that Blunt, without quite hustling her way into the spotlight, was nonetheless staken her own unbashful claim on the movie and getting the maximum zing out of all of her lines fly.

My memory of Prada is that too much of it doesn't zing, or not as often as it should. Simon Baker is especially (and typically) ruinous as a caddish journalist in one of many subplots that the movie doesn't know how to handle, but I'm not even sure the central storyline between Hathaway and Streep really jelled. All the same, I remember having a perfectly zesty time while I was sitting there, and I'm frankly eager just to see the clothes again, so that's why Prada rates on the list of second dates I've lined up for myself in the final, list-preparing weeks of 2006, along with springtime favorites like Clean, Dave Chappelle's Block Party, and Tristram Shandy: A Cock and Bull Story. Already, a recent rencontre with The Notorious Bettie Page, a movie I admired rather less than those other three, proved to be an eye-opener: it turns out the film measures up to its sensational lead performance much better than I understood at the time, and it revealed new layers and ironies beneath that patented, chilly, slightly stolid Mary Harron exterior (see also: American Psycho).

Now, to you, the birdie: besides the upcoming holiday releases and compensatory rentals of films you missed in the theater, what are some titles from 2006 that you're curious to test-drive for a second time?

(Image © 2006 20th Century Fox Film Corp.)

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Thursday, December 07, 2006

The Good, the Bad, and the NBR

The National Board of Review, once upon a time the closest thing to a ratings board for Hollywood movies, is now a diaphanous and fairly dubious group who nonetheless bestow the first major awards in the pre-Oscar qualifying heats. Every year, we awards trackers lend them further and false credibility by continuing to predict, await, scrutinize, and discuss their choices. Yes, it's a silly ritual with no valid defenses—auguring only for the future silliness of the Golden Globes and the Oscars, and not always very accurately. But no, we can't help it, and yes, we frigging love it. So, winners and responses:

Best Film: Letters from Iwo Jima This movie may well be wonderful, and God knows there isn't a strong case to be made for many of its competitors among already-released movies. Eastwood's Mystic River also won here, and Million Dollar Baby was a big hit with this group in 2004. Still, Eastwood's recent run of awards success has made him seem like old hat, and his increasingly divisive status among audiences and Oscar-hawks, plus the lack of an existing fan-base for Letters until it opens on December 20, are likely to make this an unpopular NBR win.

Honor Roll of Runners-Up: Babel, Blood Diamond, The Departed, The Devil Wears Prada, Flags of Our Fathers, The History Boys, Little Miss Sunshine, Notes on a Scandal, and The Painted Veil I'm surprised by the rousing favor shown to Edward Zwick's Blood Diamond, both despite and because of the embarrassing fact that the NBR was equally kind three years ago to Zwick's The Last Samurai (Best Director and runner-up for Best Picture). Samurai's reviews were middling and Diamond's have mostly been awful, but this strange affinity persists. Most of the rest of this list is predictable for this group, which means it is dispiriting in the extreme, and virtually incoherent outside of studio allegiance. I'm sorry to see the mediocrity of Flags get bestowed with a medal of honor, and however much fun their performances are, it's hard for me to imagine endorsing The Devil Wears Prada or Notes on a Scandal as films. Still, in a bum year, it's hard to be too critical.

Top Independent Films: Akeelah and the Bee, Bobby, Catch a Fire, Copying Beethoven, A Guide to Recognizing Your Saints, Half Nelson, The Illusionist, Lonesome Jim, Sherrybaby, 10 Items or Less, and Thank You for Smoking Invariably a strange and qualitatively variable list, ranging from the exceptional (Half Nelson) to the proficient (Akeelah, Guide, Sherrybaby) all the way to the dolorous and overrated (Bobby, Catch a Fire, Illusionist, Thank You for Smoking). I walked to the theater twice to become the only person on my block who saw Copying Beethoven, and both times I turned around, unable to commit. Now I'll never know. 10 Items or Less is currently playing downtown, but I am telling you, I'm not going. There's just no way. There's noooo way.

Best Director: Martin Scorsese, The Departed Hopefully the beginning of a good roll for Marty. I actually have a hard time seeing anyone but him winning Best Director. The Departed's three biggest threats for Best Picture are probably Dreamgirls, Letters from Iwo Jima, and The Queen, but I think Scorsese is certain to trump Condon, Eastwood, or Frears even if their movies win.

Best Actress: Helen Mirren, The Queen Neither the film nor the performance struck me as digging very deep or accomplishing very much. An Oscar for Mirren seems pretty inevitable; I'm hoping that it isn't, but if not her, who? Cruz can't beat her. Dench can't. Streep would be a major, major upset.

Best Actor: Forest Whitaker, The Last King of Scotland One of my favorite NBR picks, especially since this group seems tailor-made for the Peter O'Toole and Will Smith camps. Whitaker was sensational in Scotland, but the buzz was flagging due to the picture's middling performance. This prize ought to keep him near the head of the pack.

Best Supporting Actress: Catherine O'Hara, For Your Consideration Not a supporting performance, really, but a very funny and proficient one, especially given her saggy vehicle. Is this how she'll stay categorized throughout the season?

Best Supporting Actor: Djimon Hounsou, Blood Diamond I've been calling Hounsou a contender for months. Oddly, now that he's actually won something and people are calling it a surprise, I feel less sure than ever that he'll be an Oscar nominee: the NBR doesn't have a great track record in the Supporting races, and as stated above, they're such an easy lay for Zwick movies that this citation feels less than sincere. Still, it's a wide-open race, and any awards recognition can help (especially if you're a past Oscar nominee, like Hounsou is). An extra fun twist: after 2001, when the Berry and Washington wins sparked this absurd furor of "OH MY GOD, ALL THE WINNERS ARE BLACK!!!", I can only imagine how the media will hyperventilate about TWO actors playing African men being awards contenders in the same year... a "trend," surely?

Best Foreign Language Film: Volver Not the most exciting or creative pick, but it's a very agreeable movie, and there hasn't been much auspicious competition this year.

Best Documentary Feature: An Inconvenient Truth Not the most exciting or creative pick, but it's a topical and informative movie, and there hasn't been much auspicious competition this year.

Best Animated Feature: Cars Not the most exciting or creative pick, but it's a very profitable movie, and there hasn't.... hey wait, AGAIN? (I hope one of the other groups goes for A Scanner Darkly, which at least pushes the bounds of animation a lot further than Cars does, or else the deliciously macabre and beautifully designed Monster House.)

Best Ensemble Cast: The Departed My second trip through this movie today only confirmed that it deserves every Ensemble Cast award in sight. Damon, DiCaprio, Wahlberg, Farmiga, Sheen, Baldwin, Winstone, Anderson, O'Hara, Rolston, Dale... all of them sensational. And even though Jack begs too much for attention and affection, he fit the piece better on second look than he did on the first.

Best Original Screenplay: Stranger Than Fiction One of two unforgivable citations. An unfunny, unromantic "romantic comedy" that can't even make sense of its own devices (is Harold real or not?) or keep track of a tiny ensemble (who is Queen Latifah playing?) or live up to its basic conceptions (shouldn't Karen's novel sound better than things I ordered from Arrow Book Club in fifth grade?). And this is the NBR's pick for the best-written movie of the year. Stranger than fiction, indeed, and also more outrageous.

Best Adapted Screenplay: The Painted Veil Brought to you by Ron Nyswaner, the genius craftsman who wrought for us Tom Hanks' florid exegesis on opera in Philadelphia. But, I haven't seen The Painted Veil, so maybe this honor is deserved. (What, I don't sound convinced?)

Breakthrough Performance Female – Tie: Jennifer Hudson, Dreamgirls and Rinko Kikuchi, Babel I found Kikuchi serviceable but a little opaque, and if her character weren't deaf, I wonder if she'd be receiving all this praise. As for Hudson... I really want Dreamgirls to knock me over when it comes. Really, I do. But I keep being underwhelmed by the appetizers: I don't like the trailer, I don't love "Listen," and Hudson's take on "And I Am Telling You, I'm Not Going" sounds over-rehearsed and bizarrely phrased, like someone trying awfully hard not to recycle an earlier and still-definitive rendition. Maybe watching her perform it will help. Serve me these words on a saucer if I'm wrong. But the hype on Hudson is starting to feel like homework: "You're gonna love me!" indeed.

Breakthrough Performance (Male): Ryan Gosling, Half Nelson Will any of the other critics' groups have the gumption to cede Best Actor to him? I have hope for the NYFCC, at least. Hilary Swank started here for Boys Don't Cry, then conquered the Manhattanites, and finally rode her momentum all the way to Oscar. No one since has so fully deserved to repeat that trajectory as Gosling does.

Best Directorial Debut: Jason Reitman, Thank You for Smoking The other unforgivable award, not just because Smoking is so smug and empty, but because the direction is the worst part: indulging some actors while neglecting others, and supervising one of the ugliest-looking comedies in some time. Still, the movie made money, so here's a trophy. And it's from the people who gave the same prize to Garden State, against which most of the same complaints could be lodged, so go figure.

Freedom of Expression Award: Water and World Trade Center For so handsomely beautifying and simplifying complex cultural problems, though at least Water offered some stirring scenes and one exceptional performance along the way.

Get Outta Our Face Award: Apocalypto, Borat, Fast Food Nation, The Good German, The Good Shepherd, Hollywoodland, Little Children, The Pursuit of Happyness, United 93, and Venus Little Children especially seems like the NBR's cuppa, and In the Bedroom was a big hit with them, so Todd Field can't be happy. (But then, judging from his movies, is he ever?) People will say Dreamgirls lost out big here, too, which is pretty true... and yet, the Hudson nod isn't negligible, and bear in mind that the NBR also "snubbed" the Lord of the Rings trilogy. Boy did that kill some Oscar momentum.

(Images © 2006 Warner Bros.; © 2006 Lions Gates Films/Starbucks Entertainment; © 2006 Fox Searchlight Pictures; © 2006 Sony Pictures Classics; and © 2006 ThinkFilm)


Tuesday, December 05, 2006

'Apocalypto' Now

A commenter rightly observed below that I had skewered Apocalypto without properly articulating my position. I hope this review counts.

Edited to add: My review has been up for less than 24 hours at Rotten Tomatoes, where it is currently receiving a much worse response than the movie is. (Currently Apocalypto is hanging in there with a 63% Fresh rating, with very few precincts reporting, and a significantly lower 40% approval from major print critics.) Note that I'm getting docked all around for writing a long review (guilty) and for invoking Gibson too often (though surely it's fair to scrutinize a filmmaker's history of images and past body of work in light of a new release?). Note also that it took less than a day for somebody to ask, "Are you a Jew?" Creepy.

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Monday, December 04, 2006

Still Remembering Robert Altman

Stop Smiling Magazine continues to be unaccountably generous to me, this time by inviting me to contribute a short piece in memoriam of Robert Altman. The invitation was perfectly suited to the man we mourn: rather than review a whole movie or anatomize a major set-piece, the editors asked me to reflect on a stray moment or detail in one of Altman's movies that made a lasting impression on me. I couldn't help but talk about Shelley Duvall's skirts in 3 Women, which keep snagging in her car door when she drives. Another respondent writes about 3 Women's peculiar genesis in a dream of Altman's, and two other writers celebrate McCabe & Mrs. Miller (as well one might!) and A Wedding (which I've never seen). If this isn't enough Altman for you, and it shouldn't be, click back to the full-length interview with Altman that Stop Smiling published five issues back. And then go watch one of his movies. And then watch another one. And then go talk over someone while they're still finishing their sentence. (And then remind yourself that the glorious praises of Ronee Blakley and Lily Tomlin will doubtless be sung by all of the mockingbirds gathered together at next month's Supporting Actress Sunday roundtable for 1975. It's never the wrong time to venture back into Nashville.)

(Image © 1977 Lions Gate Films/20th Century Fox Film Corp., and reproduced from DVDBeaver's review of the sensational DVD)

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Sunday, December 03, 2006

Nearing the End of the Tunnel

We've got about a month left of 2006, and only 20 major releases left for me to consider before I shift into that fifth gear of listmaking that I love so much: the Top 10 of the year, the Oscar predictions and debates, and the Nick's Flick Picks Honorees in all categories. (Here are the esteemed laureates of last year, and the year before, and the year before that.) Some people view the winter holidays as a chance to reunite with family and friends, gather 'round the hearth, feast on stuffing and gravy, or carol in the streets. Exquisite, all of these, but to me, no yuletide is complete without also sitting in the dark before a flickering screen, hemming and hawing about the five best instances of cinematic art direction I observed in the previous year, and paying too much money in cab fare during my late-December professional sideshow as I shuttle amongst the far-flung urban arthouses where the truly eleventh-hour releases are finally coming to light. Here, then, is the remainder of my list to Santa, plus four lost causes and two turtle doves which I expect will elude me, unless I'm truly in the right place at the right time.

Inland Empire (12.15) - Come back to my cerebral cortex, Davey Lynch, Davey Lynch!
The Death of Mr. Lazarescu (DVD) - The reviews couldn't have been better, but the film kept eluding me in its arthouse mini-release; now, the time has come A
Battle in Heaven (DVD) - Extremely divisive reception commercially and at Cannes, which always encourages, plus high ideological and formal ambitions B–
The Good German (12.8) - "Written by Paul Attanasio" is all they had to say; the rest is candy, but terrific candy D
When the Levees Broke: A Requiem in Four Acts (DVD) - Technically a small-screen offering, but seems destined to emerge as one of the year's seminal film projects

Children of Men (12.25) - A tendentious story is to be assumed, but the visual possibilities are exciting
Notes on a Scandal (12.25) - May not add up to much, but when two Oscar-winning actresses start jousting, and getting their Sister George on, I'm there C
Shut Up & Sing (10.27) - A promising documentary with a pointed edge and a legendary co-helmer in Barbara "Harlan County" Kopple B
The Dead Girl (12.29) - Karen Moncrieff's debut Blue Car built confidence, the cast entices, and the Indie Spirit voters took strong notice

Dreamgirls (12.15) - I know the buzz is high, but the trailers aren't convincing me; still, it's not like I'll be anywhere else when this finally opens
The Good Shepherd (12.22) - Destined either to plod or to surprise, and a potentially good role for Damon
Breaking and Entering (12.8) - Risk runs high for self-involved irrelevance, but the attractive cast and estimable crew deserve a shot
The Painted Veil (12.15) - Pretty scenery, but seems like the White Countess of '06; then again, Nathaniel found much to admire
Venus (12.15) - Redgrave, O'Toole, and Michell: good enough for two hours, even if there's nothing else on offer in the film
Happy Feet (11.17) - Not on my radar for a long while, but the reviews have made a reasonably strong case C+
Letters from Iwo Jima (12.20) - Flags of Our Fathers slashed my confidence, but I suspect this one might have more to say

The History Boys (11.22) - I was underwhelmed upon reading the play, but I'm intrigued to see the performances C
Blood Diamond (12.8) - Another great subject, doubtless on its way to trivialization C
The Pursuit of Happyness (12.15) - Will Smith's a charmer, but his vehicles so rarely appeal to me B–
Curse of the Golden Flower (12.22) - I'm sorry, but haven't we seen this movie a half-dozen times in the last half-dozen years?
Factory Girl (12.29) - Most of the cast is already dead to me, but you never know when someone will pull a Charlize '03

The Holiday (12.8) - The preview trailer is pandering and shapeless, and I can't bear to watch Winslet strike out three times in one year
The Nativity Story (12.1) - I was inexplicably intrigued as the release date approached, but now I can't be bothered
Perfume (12.27) - Sure looks awfully tawdry, in several senses, but if the reviews are there, I'll show
Miss Potter (12.29) - Please kill that Oscar buzz now; Renée and I are still taking time off from each other, and I can't fathom why Ewan and Emily are content to play second-fiddle to her

Days of Glory (Indigènes) (12.15) - A stirring premise and good response at Cannes; how hard will the Weinstein Co. push?
Our Brand Is Crisis (DVD) - Perhaps a case history of perverted political economy to set beside The Corporation? Or at least an above-average documentary?
The Piano Tuner of Earthquakes (11.17) - I didn't understand Institut Benjamenta, but the Brothers Quay are worth another stab
Sweet Land (12.1) - Adoring reviews and Indie Spirit attention for this micro-indie. Wny not give it a shot? C

Inland Empire isn't scheduled to open in Chicago until January 26, so don't expect a Top 10 before then. Especially in a comparatively fallow year, I'm not moving a finger till I see what that queer one, Mr. Lynch, has brought to the table. In the meantime, what are you looking forward to, and what are you hoping to revisit or catch up on from earlier in the year?

(Image © 2006 Universal Pictures/Strike Entertainment)

Saturday, December 02, 2006

This Is How It's Done

As 2006 continues its quest for a great, definitive movie well into the final month of the year, why not flip back a half-century to 1954 and remember how a real, thorough-going masterpiece is supposed to look, sound, feel, and resonate? The majestic Music Box Theatre of Chicago recently hosted a one-week retrospective of restored 35mm prints of Kenji Mizoguchi's movies, and though my end-of-quarter schedule only allowed me to attend one film, Sanshô the Bailiff turned out to be a pretty unimprovable choice. I have never seen a Mizoguchi movie, partly because I was waiting for a curated opportunity just like this one. The VHS transfers of his movies, almost none of which are available on Region1 DVDs, have a besmirched reputation; furthermore, after finally introducing myself to Mizoguchi's countryman Yasujiro Ozu via the pristine Criterion DVD of his exemplary, affecting Tokyo Story, a part of me nonetheless wished that I had held out for a theatrical screening. Cinema this good deserves to be experienced at its full, shimmering size and in its intended venue.

Then again, I question my own convictions, because Sanshô the Bailiff is so dazzling that I recommend it whole-heartedly, even if a middling VHS print is the only available medium. The story is an intense, dramatic, and unpredictable reward in itself, beginning with the exile of a local governor in medieval Japan. The imperial lords have deemed this governor too sympathetic to the roiling, intensifying protests of the impoverished farmers and laborers in his region. Several years after his banishment, the governor's wife Tamaki, son Zushio, and daughter Anju are traversing Japan from its northern tip to its southern extreme, in the hopes of reuniting their family. However, in a frightful episode of deception and betrayal, marked by a horrifying score and harsh, unforgiving edits, Tamaki is separated from her children and impressed into a harem, while Zushio and Anju are sold into slavery in a distant compound, governed with an iron hand by Sanshô the Bailiff. Though the film and the age-old legend that inspired it take the name of this brutal overseer, the story emphasizes the heavy tolls on the son and daughter, as they struggle to retain the high moral principles imparted by their father and to nurture the ever-receding hope of reunion with their mother.

Mizoguchi's worldview is bleak in this picture. Corporal punishments and ethical corruption are ubiquitous in the various timeframes and locales in which the narrative unfolds, and the stark delineations of Good and Evil that one might expect in such a folkloric tale are persistently challenged. The BFI Film Classics monograph by Dudley Andrew and Carole Cavanaugh reveals that for all the consummate grace and exquisitely rendered light and framing in his movie, Mizoguchi offers a notably harsher, more daring version of the story than the one he inherited from the canonized retelling by Mori Ôgai that was a bestseller in Japan in 1915. Despite their pitiable circumstances, the grown children, Zushio and Anju, make difficult and morally debatable choices as they seek to escape a terrible destiny of unrewarded work and filial separation. They are hardly immune to the pressures of complicity and cowardice, which Mizoguchi invokes in strong but unsensationalized images of torture, suicide, and communal despair. That the film's gorgeous, fluid aesthetic of carefully composed images and thoughtful, evocative camera movements remains so constant throughout this melodramatic tale implies a mature, generous worldview that is equally informed by serenity, exploitation, pessimism, and hopefulness, and the acting, photography, soundtrack, and story structure operate in total synchronicity to tease out the psychological, political, and spiritual subtleties embedded in every scene. I am sure the film opens itself to even more layered readings for viewers better versed than I in Japanese history and religious traditions, though one need not press far into the film to detect its angry response to Japan's WW2-era militarism, or its determined separation of proud Buddhist ideals from overweening cultural separatism, or its aggrieved commemoration of the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombings. The whole country's midcentury crisis of national identity and cultural destiny registers powerfully at every register of this film, and yet Sanshô the Bailiff at no point seems beholden to any simplified political rhetoric or unilateral symbolic equivalence, and its emotional transparency is never compromised.

The single infelicity in the movie, for me, is a pivotal scene where a recovered memory of childhood and the echoing call of the longlost mother jostle the adult Zushio out of his hard-bitten attitude of selfishness and cynicism; having rewritten the Sanshô fable to emphasize naturalism over sentiment and guilty repressions over mythological contrivance, both the staging and content of this story-point struck me as overwrought and out of step with the rest of the picture. Still, the movie hardly loses its footing even at this uncertain juncture, and the depth, power, and heavily qualified optimism of the latter chapters strike me as beyond dispute. The culminating episode weds a generous indulgence of the audience's desires with a contextualizing cloud-bank of uncertainty and loss. For that reason, among others, it's almost impossible to reach the end of the tale without wanting to immerse yourself again from the beginning, in order to measure its final ramifications against its opening movements, and to trace how Mizoguchi has derived such powerful, intricate feelings and thematic assertions from what seem like such modest techniques. I haven't seen a more elegant, more fully realized movie in 2006, and I expect in 2007 to make my way even further into the Mizoguchi portfolio. The Criterion disc of Ugetsu is a logical place to start, but I know that The Story of the Late Chrysanthemums and The Life of Oharu are just as highly regarded. Recommendations are welcome. Enthusiasm is total.

(Images © 1954 Daiei Studios, reproduced from the Osaka European Film Festival webpage and this Geocities page in Japanese.)

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