Monday, April 23, 2007

Update to the DVD Spotlight

This week's selection for the DVD Spotlight is Martha Fiennes' Onegin, a gorgeous and beautifully judged rendering of Pushkin's classic novel in verse. Sadly, Onegin suffered the same inglorious fate of several other Ralph Fiennes films that bowed so close to the end of December that Stateside audiences barely noticed them: the same was true of the exemplary Oscar and Lucinda, the terrific-until-it-collapses The End of the Affair, the intriguing but annoyingly hermetic Spider, and last year's wildly uneven but nonetheless worthwhile The White Countess, notable mostly for a strong score and creative sound design. Ralph has really gotta get on the phone with his distributors and ask them what exactly it is about his aquiline beauty and finely-etched acting that makes them think "let's bury this film after Christmas."

Anyway: Onegin is on my mind because I recently enjoyed a high-definition broadcast of the Metropolitan Opera's terrific production of Tchaikovsky's opera, beamed right into the AMC Rivers East 21 in Chicago, Illinois. The opera production was superb; in fact, the acting as well as the singing by Dmitri Hvorostovsky, Renée Fleming, Ramón Vargas, and Elena Zaremba was all so strong, the stylized lighting and sets were so gorgeous, and the conducting of Valery Gergyev was so luscious that Eugene Onegin ranks easily as the richest experience I've had in a movie theater in 2007. Liv Tyler plays a much more remote Tatyana in the movie than Fleming does onstage, and Fiennes is a less domineering Onegin than Hvorostovsky is, but the film is still a pristine and affecting piece of work, lit to chilly perfection by the superb cinematographer Remi Adefarasin (The House of Mirth, Elizabeth). If you missed Onegin in theaters—and Samuel Goldwyn virtually guaranteed that you did—check it out on DVD, and follow up with my review!

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Wednesday, April 18, 2007

New: DVD Spotlight

One new feature of my revised website is a weekly "Spotlight Review" of a film on DVD, where I showcase a full review of a film available on DVD. These choices may be selected for their topical relevance to recent news, or because I've recently revisited the film, or because the filmmakers or actors have another film in current release, or simply because I feel like sharing some love (or venting some opprobrium). Last week, I linked to my review of The Devil Wears Prada, since it was the last DVD review I composed before the site entered its winter hibernation; I also couldn't help stumping for Silkwood, to showcase the difference between good Meryl and great Meryl. Now, in its second week, the Spotlight shines, if that's quite the right word, on Freedom Writers, a good-hearted but gummy-headed 2007 release starring an eager but awkward Hilary Swank. Freedom Writers bows this week on DVD.

Photo © 2007 Paramount Pictures/MTV Films

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Tuesday, April 17, 2007


As someone who mostly grew up in Virginia and who once upon a time knew lots of people who went to Virginia Tech, and also as someone who works on a college campus, I'd like to take a moment to express my condolences to the students, faculty, staff, and administration of Virginia Tech, and also to the community of Blacksburg. I hope they will all be able to support each other through the severe and baffling aftermath of yesterday's devastating losses.

I am also saving thoughts for the families of yesterday's victims, and in a distant but important way for everyone who attends a college, or works at one, or in any way supports a student or a university service. We all deserve each other's sympathy, fellowship, and compassionate attention. We can always stand to remind ourselves of the precious value of a campus, and of the depth of our commitment to ideas, to the ideal of improved understanding, and to each other. For some of us, the impact of yesterday's violence was very immediate. For most of us, we shudder to realize the arbitrariness of that violence: how easily our own selves or our own communities could have woken today to the scale of mourning that Virginia Tech is experiencing, and how much we have in common with the mourners. How abruptly and profoundly yesterday's events may have diminished our sense of safety, but hopefully awoke our spirit of camaraderie.

I ask us all, on any campus, to remember to be solicitous of each other, and to be grateful for our various privileges, our protections, and our civility, for the care we extend to others and for that which we receive. From the Gwendolyn Brooks poem on my office door: "We are each other's harvest: / We are each other's business: / We are each other's magnitude and bond."


Monday, April 16, 2007

Best Actress Update: 5 More Down, 75 to Go

Jane Alexander in Testament (1983) ★ ★ ★ ★ ★
(Lost to Shirley MacLaine in Terms of Endearment)
The major disappointment of this batch is Jane Alexander's proficient but doomed work in Testament. When I say "doomed," I don't mean the plot of this post-apocalyptic family drama so much as the flat, slipshod direction that zombifies most of the cast, bungles all the edits, and refuses any trace of style. It's clear that the script is aiming for a ground-level view of massive cataclysm; occasionally, a terse vignette like that of a mother sewing up a dead child's body in her own bedroom curtains is allowed to do its chillingly intimate work. Much more often, though, Testament botches its aspirations toward subtlety with moist speeches, heavy symbolism, and scenes that push way too hard to underline director Lynne Littman's clunky interpretations of the patchy script. Within that context, Alexander saves what scenes she can, and her sour, haunted watchfulness is an interesting, unsentimental basis for the character when the director lets her get away with it. But in other moments, even Alexander is sunk by false theatricality (a stagy search for a teddy bear, an unpersuasive collapse into despair followed by an overly rhetorical kiss), and neither the dialogue nor the filmmaking supplies her with the tools to create a sustained, interesting performance. I know a lot of people love Testament, and love Alexander in it, but I have to demur on both counts. Fellow nominee Meryl Streep in Silkwood runs circles around her for multifaceted revelation of character and for conjuring the pure terror of nuclear contamination.

Greer Garson in Blossoms in the Dust (1941) ★ ★ ★ ★ ★
(Lost to Joan Fontaine in Suspicion)
In her first of several teamings with director Mervyn LeRoy, and at the outset of a remarkable string of five consecutive Best Actress nods, Garson plays Edna Gladney, a Midwestern debutante who becomes a champion of orphans (though she hates the word!) and "illegitimate" children (though she hates the word!) in Fort Worth, Texas. As so often, there is something so precious and safe about Garson's radiant refinement—her gleaming smiles, her flaming red hair, her accent incongruously posh by way of Wisconsin—that one feels a bit duped in praising or enjoying her work, as though one has fallen for a crashingly obvious marketing ploy. But radiant she is, and particularly once the script catches up with her age, her emotional generosity, ease of movement, and expressive face and voice go an incredibly long way toward selling the treacly script. She also interacts beautifully with Felix Bressart, a gem as a loyal and wisecracking pediatrician, and on the few occasions when Blossoms allows Edna a moment of unsavory affect (envy, annoyance, self-pity), Garson's smart enough to underline it and spry enough to win us right back.

Susan Hayward in My Foolish Heart (1949) ★ ★ ★ ★ ★
(Lost to Olivia de Havilland in The Heiress)
Hayward, predictably, is at her best as the taunting alcoholic we meet in the suburban frame story, slurring out some delicious dialogue without too much focus-pulling or fussy mannerism. (Some of the choicest bits include "Who said, 'To forgive is divine'? Probably not somebody I'd care to meet, anyway" and, on the subject of jealous husbands, "They want to think you've spent your whole life vomiting every time a boy came near you.") Still, the very ordinariness that grounds Hayward's work whenever she plays an addict or a rager (which was often) works against her when she's cast as a co-ed, a romantic dreamer, or the very kind of average gal she very much looks to be. She's trapped by unimaginative casting in a thin role throughout much of My Foolish Heart's extended flashback narrative, made worse by Mark Robson's stolid direction, which shares none of Hayward's enthusiasm for the character's darker shadings. Thus, we're only interested when she's nursing a cocktail or cozying up to a witty father (a terrific Robert Keith) who shows, as they say, a little too much friendly interest in his daughter.

Carol Kane in Hester Street (1975) ★ ★ ★ ★ ★
(Lost to Louise Fletcher in One Flew over the Cuckoo's Nest)
Two things can happen in years when Oscar faces a paucity of obvious choices: either the voters challenge themselves to nominate strong work in the kinds of movies and roles they would usually avoid (Keisha Castle-Hughes in Whale Rider, Samantha Morton in In America) or they pad the field with serviceable but unremarkable efforts that achieve little for Oscar besides filling the five-wide quota (Miranda Richardson in Tom & Viv, Susan Sarandon in The Client). Carol Kane's nod, garnered in a year so thin that former winners filed a protest, somehow falls on both sides of this fence. On the one hand, it's lovely to see Oscar pay such headlining attention to a modest, stylistically distinctive, culturally specific tale about Jewish immigrants and forced assimilation, even if nothing in Hester Street, only partially by design, accedes much beyond the thematic or narrative sophistication of The Jazz Singer. Kane isn't the helium-voiced, helium-minded daff we've come to know. She's lonesome, panicked, and finally angry, and she delivers almost her entire performance in Yiddish, to boot. However, she's also a bit overstated in her tremulousness, and she doesn't find much in her character beyond what is asked by the mannered direction and the quaint, predictable screenplay. Like her fellow nominee Glenda Jackson in Hedda, Kane stitches some smart, powerful moments into a somewhat routine performance, in a movie that vacillates between trying too hard and not trying enough.

Barbara Stanwyck in Stella Dallas (1937) ★ ★ ★ ★
(Lost to Luise Rainer in The Good Earth)
What is it about Barbara Stanwyck that makes every one of her superb performances something of a surprise, no matter how many of them she gives? That low, husky voice, that downturned mouth, the narrow eyes, the nearly immobile features of her improbable face, the Brooklyn-bred, working-class butchness that pervaded her whole persona—all of these imply typecasting limitations that simply prove irrelevant to her greatest work, ranging all the way from film noir to screwball comedy to Westerns to melodramas to social realism to thrillers to B-movie macabre. Here, her flinty toughness offers an ideal through-line beneath her engaging, cackly impatience as Stella Martin, then her marital ambivalence as Stella Dallas, and finally her nimble balancing of the dear and the grotesque as one of Hollywood's most famously self-sacrificing mothers...though there's also a mean streak, a brutal cunning, and an obliviousness to Stanwyck's Stella that tend to vanish from popular memories of the character. Laserlike with her smart, forceful gestures and insinuations, keeping the movie alive even when the direction is flat, and interacting exquisitely with all of her co-stars, Stanwyck hits one of her highest peaks.

The Pick of This Litter: You can practically pull out the scenes that got Alexander, Hayward, and Kane nominated, the last two in very dubious years for the category, but none of their performances dig deeply enough, largely because the films won't allow it. Before we feel too sorry for them, though, let's realize that Stella Dallas is no slam-dunk on the page except that Barbara Stanwyck makes the sauciness, the humor, the resentment, the intelligence, and the idiocies of her character so vivid and so bizarrely credible.

(Images © 1983 Paramount Pictures, reproduced from; © 1941 MGM Pictures, reproduced from; © 1949 Samuel Goldwyn Co./RKO Radio Pictures, reproduced from Carteles de Cine; © 1975 Midwest Films/Home Vision Entertainment, reproduced from Rotten Tomatoes; © 1937 Samuel Goldwyn Co., reproduced, oddly enough, from Stuff Kids Like)

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Friday, April 13, 2007

The Revisions Continue...

Before... After!, with updates to the new style and color palette, illustrated and reformatted full reviews (though I only wrote seven of these last year!), easy links for sorting by title or by letter grade, quick navigation to previous and subsequent years, and, as always, a no-frames version. My beloved also tells me that he likes being able to resize the frame borders, so he can maximize his reading window, and what am I if not accommodating?

Also, though this is something of an afterthought: Before... After!, notable for prettier pictures and a new e-mail destination. The NicksFlickPicks account has been screwy for months, devouring who knows how many e-mails I never saw, so I'm steering people away from it.

Finally, if on an unrelated note, happy birthday to Dr. S, a clever, sexy, talented, and incandescent MemoryChick who never, ever needs a redesign.

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Wednesday, April 11, 2007

Nick's Flick Picks Goes Under the Knife

The problem was bigger than Botox could solve. No mere nose-job did I need. Only an all-encompassing, LaToya-scale transformation was adequate to the problems facing Nick's Flick Picks, or the Fug Girls would be after my website for sure. And indeed, like some lank, shapeless, natural-fibered poncho that Chloë Sevigny might tie off with a lariat and accent with some wristbands and teal jellies on her feet, my site was fugging. We all knew it. So much text and so little pretty. Yards of empty space on both sides of your screen, especially now that all of our laptops have extra-wide Cinemascope monitors. And yes, I know: the white-on-black text. As you're still observing on this blog. Maybe in small doses, anyone can read anything, but with all that blinding-white Times New Roman spreading across the screen during one of my XXL film reviews? The one way my web-design filled available space was by swelling the screen with text that a lot of people had trouble reading.

I am the first to admit that the makeover is not yet complete, and that it's pretty badly dated. If I told you the programs I still use to write my html and make my graphics, you would weep a salty tear. STILL! Check it out:

Before... After! and After, and After, sexing up the joint with some graphics, and divvying out the reviewed movies, even those with only capsule or blog or externally-hosted reviews, from the chaff I just grade, or that I have seen but not graded. (You can still peruse those titles at the bottom of each page, in case you're wondering whether I've seen something.)

Before... After! Still bringing sexyback with the illustrations, even though The Movies of 2007 is so far the only yearly index that is fully up-to-date with the new style templates. But check it out: you can instantly sort 2007 releases by title, grade, or the order in which I saw them (the default option, so those of you who check frequently can see what's new up top). Lo and behold, too, six of the eleven movies I've seen so far in 2007 have reviews up: from the engagingly sluttish Black Snake Moan through the fascinating but inconsistent Zodiac to the overrated The Lives of Others and the horrendous Alpha Dog, a certain contender for worst-of-year dishonors. Note, too, that for those of you allergic to framesites, you can always take the other train; it leaves from the same station, with all the same goodies on-board, though it isn't as pretty.

I didn't save a "Before" of my Full Reviews page, but here's the After, for easy skimming without cycling through all the alphabetical pages.

Once more, I know I still have lots more work to do simply to integrate the new features and design components, to say nothing of retroactively restoring all of the previous pages. Headline features like the soon-to-resume favorites countdown, the Top 100, and the almost-finished Best of 2006 will be brought up to speed soonest, and everything else will follow as quickly as I can manage. I hope you'll enjoy the new layout, though; that you'll let me know of any changes or tweaks you suggest; and that you'll get back in the habit of reading the main site once I'm back in the habit of writing and maintaining it.

And with that, in my best Helen Mirren voice: ladies and gentlemen, I give to you, Nick's Flick Picks!