Wednesday, April 30, 2008

Whole Foods update

My checkout guy today? Perfectly stoned. Not even a close call.

Just in time for Iron Man ....

You too can have your very own homemade wrist-fit flamethrower, if this isn't an Internet hoax. The perfect Christmas gift - for arsonists! I love how these things always seem to come out right at the same time as a movie using them. I suspect the Paramount PR department.

Speaking of the Inferno

Is there any lower rung of hell than watching a comic book movie right next to a snickering-under-his-breath fanboy? Yep, I saw Iron Man last night.

Tuesday, April 29, 2008

Abandon all hope ...

I've decided walking into the Whole Foods Market in West Plano, the health-food superchain where I regularly purchase salads, is like walking into Dante's Inferno. A beehive of noisy, disorganized activity. People milling about in a cauldron of indifference to your fellow man. Stoned check-out clerks whose apparel suggests darker sexual tastes. Beautiful, rich housewives weeding through slimming foods and exotic vitamins in the name of their own vanity. Dead-eyed chefs slaving through menial tasks without expression, into eternity. And it's freezing the closer you get to the center.

Summer '08, Part II

Craig Kennedy has finished his entertaining summer preview. Nothing really stands out here, except The Dark Knight and August's Judd Apatow-David Gordon Green collaboration The Pineapple Express. Maybe Tropic Thunder, which has some buzz, and I'm interested in Hamlet 2.

How did we not stop Patrick Dempsey in the 1980s?

I didn't realize that Patrick Dempsey was McDreamy in Gray's Anatomy until recently. Fine and dandy. We wish everyone well in their career, even Pizza Boy. But with Dempsey returning to screens, first in Enchanted and now in Made of Honor, the typically bad-pun female counterprogramming to Iron Man, I shudder. This is one I'm not happy to see.

Men, I hope you don't have a girlfriend at this moment. If you do, break up with her, see Iron Man, and then get back together afterwards.

Monday, April 28, 2008

Seitz leaves

There have been a lot of departures from the film critic ranks in the past couple of years, usually less than completely voluntary. Today, the brainiac film critic for The House Next Door, Matt Zoller Seitz, has announced he's hanging up the popcorn. It's a big loss. He's one of the smartest critics around. Unlike a number of hyper-intelligent critics, you never felt lost in his reviews, and never sensed he was writing for people brighter than you. He will be missed. And I suppose that means one less dead link on my blogroll.

Saturday, April 26, 2008

Summer '08

Here is a list of early summer's releases, as humorously compiled by Craig Kennedy over on Living in Cinema. Some initial thoughts:

1) With Iron Man, then Speed Racer, then Narnia, then Indy in the first four weeks, I would have to be at least a little concerned, were I a studio executive, about getting traction. That's a lot of box office oxygen being used up. I would guess that Speed Racer would be, fairly or unfairly, the one that gets lost in the shuffle. Although Narnia might be better served by remaining in December.

2) Although Iron Man is right there next to Aquaman in my Pantheon of Unnecessary Superheroes, the idea of Robert Downey Jr. as a superhero is original and intriguing stunt casting. But when was the last time that Downey was in a big hit? The Average American Moviegoer might be surpised to find that eighties guy showing up again all of a sudden after twenty years.

3) Poor Anne Hathaway. If she had just stuck with Knocked Up, she'd be the indisputable biggest young female star in the world, thereby fulfilling my prediction that she would be the real star to emerge out of Brokeback Mountain. Think about it, I could already be rubbing it in as we speak. Instead, she's in Get Smart. Oh, I'm sure it will make big money, as predicted. It has that whole Pink Panther vibe going on. Of course, that's the problem.

4) The Dark Knight could be huge, fulfilling the dark-fable potential of the first film. But I have to admit .... when I watched Batman Begins, it struck me as the worst film I had seen up to that point in my then-brief film reviewing career. I thought it was an absolute turkey. While my retrospective respect for what it was trying to do made it palatable, it was still a very troubled film. The fight scenes were shot way too close in, and its editing was disturbingly frazzled. Let's hope Christopher Nolan has worked some things out.

Friday, April 25, 2008

Be my Baby (Baby Mama)

Baby Mama [PG-13]
Starring: Tina Fey, Amy Poehler, Greg Kinnear, Steve Martin
Grade: C

It came to light recently that America might be jumping into a new baby boom.

Birth rates reached their highest point since the early sixties. One only needs to tool around places like Stonebriar Mall in Dallas – where the wise pedestrian takes out a stroller collision policy – to see the new America emerging from the womb.

Hollywood, with the greatest demographers that wooden Keanu Reeves performances can buy, is naturally up with the curve. Which could explain why there has been a rash – ha! – of pregnancy comedies being dropped off by the stork at a theater near you.

This week it’s Baby Mama, the first out-front role for a familiar bespectacled face – Saturday Night Live writer/performer Tina Fey. Playing a neurotic victim of a narrow uterine channel, the organic foods executive sees baby faces everywhere she goes. It’s starting to take over her life and her job, managing the company for a swim-with-the-dolphins eccentric (a scenery-eating Steve Martin. We don't know if celluloid is organic.)

To hit the snooze button on the cruel biological clock inside, she throws her eggs and her money into a surrogacy clinic headed by the very fertile Sigourney Weaver. The clinic employee in charge of matching mother and surrogate must have a real eye for comic premises. For the upscale, uptight Fey, he sends over an Odd Couple opposite, an uneducated skank (SNL’s Amy Poehler) with a smoking habit, a drinking habit, and probably other habits we don’t want to know about. Soon Fey is buying Poehler health food and driving her crazy. Poehler is chomping on Cheetos and peeing in Fey's sink.

And then, Heavens to Betsy, they’re forced to move in together! And then a man (Greg Kinnear) enters the picture! How sprouted, dehydrated, free-of-pesticide nuts!

Baby Mama is not the mother of invention. It possesses a worn premise and conventional sketch-comedy mentality – ranging from the suspect relationships down to the comic timing. But it takes a worn premise and a conventional sketch mentality and at least fertilizes it with some funny lines. Like some pregnancies, the cleverness of writer-director Michael McCullers’ writing (and the likely considerable improv) is unexpected.

Like childbirth, much of the success has to do with the delivery. It’s good to see that Fey – maybe the funniest woman in the world – can not only write a line but hit one, as well. While the largeness of the silver screen makes Poehler’s talent seem as scrawny as her stomach, Fey seems at least comfortable in the expanded canvas. A star is born? Ask me later.

Thursday, April 24, 2008

Talking Heads

It's apparently a new important ritual in films nowadays. If you have a scene involving babies, the Talking Heads song Stay Up Late ("I Want to Make Her Stay Up All Night," that one) must be played. Baby Mama has it. So did Nim's Island. Add that to the two Talking Heads geezer rock performances in Young@Heart (Road to Nowhere, Life During Wartime) and it's a huge year, heck month, for the David Byrne and company on the silver screen. They are the favorite band of group coordinator Bob Cilman.

Trivia time

What was Dorothy's last name in The Wizard of Oz?

Monday, April 21, 2008

Rotten Tomatoes

Okay, so today, one of my editors sends me a message that he would like me to get onto as a critic. And I look it up, and apparently I already have a page set up. How that happened, I don't have a clue. Anyway, I'm trying to get things up and running. We'll see.

Expelled performing

Anyone else surprised by the performance of the Ben Stein intelligent design documentary Expelled? It cracked the top 10 this week, drawing $2.9 million on about 1,000 screens. Healthy business. Pretty amazing, given the subject.

Saturday, April 19, 2008

Judd Apatow's penis obsession

Wong Kar-Wai is in at the pinnacle of his filmmaking ability. New, exciting filmmakers from places as remote as Romania and Israel are making their mark. Meanwhile, how is the reigning Toast of Hollywood, Judd Apatow, spending his intellectual capital? Figuring out ways to stick more penises into his movies.

"America fears the penis, and that's something I'm going to help them get over," Apatow is quoted as having said in a World Entertainment News Service story in December. "I'm gonna get a penis in every movie I do from now on. . . . It really makes me laugh in this day and age, with how psychotic our world is, that anyone is troubled by seeing any part of the human body."

Who says Hollywood filmmakers lack ambition?

Friday, April 18, 2008

Songs of the Heart

Young@Heart [PG]
Grade: B

It’s almost irresistible.

A group of twenty or thirty senior citizens, average age of 80, who perform songs by James Brown, Sonic Youth, Talking Heads, and The Clash. That’s what makes the Young@Heart chorus a hit in its native Northampton Mass., as well as on its tours across the world. And that’s what makes it a perfect subject for director Stephen Walker‘s documentary.

This infectious look into the songs and stories of the world’s oldest cover band becomes something more than just a documentary and more than just a happy singalong. At its best, it crosses the bounds of its genre to rise to a celebration of life.

The film pays ample attention to its cast of real-life singers – the flirty 92-year-old, the septuagenarian daredevil driver, and touchingly, two old hands who left the group after having health problems. More importantly, it captures the vital place that the chorus holds in their lives. It’s as if they have lived seven decades to find their true life calling.

The film isn’t perfect. While I love the subject, the filmmaking is a little lacking. Like a song’s chorus, the rehearsals –swaying between success and screw-ups – become weaker with each repeat. And when members of the chorus pass away during filming, it is possibly overplayed for its natural fountain of sympathy. It left me yearning for that sympathy to be bundled with a level of insight into mortality that never quite materializes. For instance, what does the group’s director Bob Cilman think about working so closely with so many people who will soon pass away?

And yet, you find some of those answers in the group’s boisterous performances. The joy of singing becomes something more than a form of entertainment. The vitality they find in performance is a repudiation of the death that stalks them. They will not go quietly, as they rage against the dying of the light.

Thursday, April 17, 2008

Judd Apatow: Misogynist?

Is Judd Apatow a misogynist?

I don’t know. I’ve never met the man. For all I know, he may do volunteer desk duty at the battered women’s shelter on Tuesday and Friday evenings. But if misogyny is not part of his personality, it’s rather undeniable that it is part of the personality of his films.

The driving force of Apatow Women – to coin a phrase – isn’t intelligence, or a developed personality, or an independent mind. They exist primarily as the unattainable goddess in flesh, made attainable only as a reward for male epiphany. Increasingly, Apatow Women have seemingly little existence outside the fantasy lives of the Apatow Men. Her basic subservient role is to ratify the nerd fantasy found in each of the writer/director/producer’s grasping male losers.

The trend started as a disturbing sidelight to the admittedly funny Knocked Up, written and directed by Apatow. The most alive and best-thought-out female character is an intrusive, controlling, manipulative wife, the scourge of fantasy baseball leagues everywhere. Naturally, Apatow saw in this character no one other than his own wife, Leslie Mann. Meanwhile, Katherine Heigl’s mother-to-be floats through the movie as a galling question mark. What do we know about her? What do we know, if anything, about how she feels about her pregnancy? Does she feel any motherly joy? Does she have thoughts about her predicament outside of whether or not to ditch Seth Rogen? Is she anything more for Rogen than the idealized goddess and a reward for getting his act together? Do we know nearly as much about her as we know about Juno? Somehow, Apatow has managed the astonishing feat of making a pregnancy comedy in which the mother is the least interesting thing in it.

Of course, that isn’t so much hate as startling neglect. Watching it, I reached the conclusion that Apatow simply did not have the confidence or experience to create a strong character in a young woman. I gave him the benefit of the doubt. It wasn’t until this year’s Apatow releases that I have become more concerned that it might be a malignancy. The Apatow-label films have become increasingly slanted toward misogynistic adolescent male views, and negligence and disrespect toward women. In terms of character development, these releases make Knocked Up’s mother look like Norma Rae.

Take for instance the high-school love interest, played by Valerie Tian, in Drillbit Taylor, a critical disaster from Apatow Productions. In fairness, nobody in Drillbit is a well-rounded character. But in practice, she is by far the most barebone example of the Apatow Woman. She barely appears. When she does it is completely as a romantic goal and an object of fantasy for the story’s pencil-necked geek. Her duty in the film is to crown him, through the crystalline insight of her romantic interest, as a full man.

That brings us to the reprehensible Forgetting Sarah Marshall, also from Apatow Productions. Star Jason Segel’s screenwriting debut is, in the words of my review, an “outright stalker fantasy.” How shallowly are the females developed in this film? It’s easier to buy into Segel’s relationships with the television star Sarah Marshall (Kristen Bell) and the resort’s front desk girl (Mila Kunis) if you just accept they are the pathological hallucinations of a nerdy, nice-guy Travis Bickle.

Concurrent with this downward spiral of quality parts has been the downward spiral of the talent of the actresses cast to play them. It starts with the greatly respected Catherine Keener in The 40-Year-Old Virgin. We have now reached the weather-girl-style eye candy Bell and Kunis. As little as this makes sense in terms of quality, it makes much more sense in terms of economics. Why would an Apatow film need to pay for top-level female talent? There’s no need for a Katherine Hepburn, Rosalind Russell, or Irene Dunne. The women here are intended as objects of male worship, to set up raunchy male humor, and to emotionally fellate male fantasy lives. Then the women can take a few bucks and leave. Notice I diplomatically chose to say “leave” rather than “blow.”

I have no objection to the basic Apatow template of screw-up meets dream girl. Comedy does not need to be tightly wedded to reality. It’s no more unrealistic than screwball-era heiresses marrying detectives, journalists, and scatterbrained professors. There also is certainly a level of Mars-Venus misogyny in screwball comedies, because most comedy rests on a level of playful cruelty.

At the same time, the screwballs found value in their women. Yes, The Thin Man’s Nora Charles might be a bit of a nag, a bit of a fantasy wife, and too nosy about her husband's business. But Myrna Loy’s character is also brainy, scrappy, spunky, and her wealth accords her with a sense of power and independence. She often gets the laugh on her husband. While Preston Sturges clearly thought of women in sexual terms, he also could write The Lady Eve, with the intelligent con woman (Barbara Stanwyck) getting the beat on the oblivious man meat (Henry Fonda).

Those examples highlight the problem with Apatow Women. They are getting less and less independent, less and less intelligent, less and less important, with less and less of an existence beyond fantasy.

Of course, it’s not Apatow’s fault that fanboy adulation means he must masquerade as the New Preston Sturges. He simply wrote or directed or produced films that appealed to him. What I do not get is the declaration of his genius, while he is simply selling a shallow version of the light misogyny that pervades out culture. What I find odd is that few film viewers and critics see it. Or care.

Sarah Marshall: Forgotten

Forgetting Sarah Marshall [R]
Grade: F

Forgetting Sarah Marshall reminds me of that famous Steve Buscemi line from the opening of Reservoir Dogs.

“Dick-dick, dick-dick, dick-dick, dick!”

A cavalcade of uninspired dick jokes – going so far as to scorch our retinas with the sight of star Jason Segel’s one-eyed monster – Forgetting Sarah Marshall also represents a dubious landmark in the history of the Judd Apatow Comedy Factory. It’s the moment when the uncomfortably increasing misogyny finally crosses over into outright stalker fantasy. Frankly, its male-female relationships make more sense if you accept them as the pathological hallucinations of a nerdy, nice-guy Travis Bickle.

Here, in Zagat's form, is roughly what the press materials say about the plot:

Peter Bretter (Jason Segel) has his world "rocked" after his girlfriend of six years, the television star Sarah Marshall (Kristen Bell), dumps him.“To clear his head," Peter heads for a Hawaiian resort "where he is confronted by his worst nightmare!" Sarah and her new guy, a highly sexualized British rock star, are staying in the same hotel. "But as he torments himself with the reality of Sarah's new life," he strikes up a relationship with Rachel (Mila Kunis), a "beautiful resort employee" with a "laid-back" approach that "tempts him to rejoin the world."

(You know it’s not me, when you see the word, “rocked.”)

I describe the plot thusly:

Shit, my ex-girlfriend dumped me. I loved her last week, but she’s a total bitch today. Did I mention she’s a television superstar? Because I’m the type of dweebish schlub who can pull the gorgeous television hotties. What? Oh no. This isn’t all in my head.

And she still has feelings for me. Yes she does. And if I just happen to arrive accidentally at the same Hawaiian resort hotel – because these things are always accidents – she won’t mind me hanging around for the weekend. And by the way, have I mentioned that her new boyfriend is a sex-crazed lunatic who’s going to dump her as soon as the next good thing comes along? Moving on to the next thing, that’s not a problem for me.

And believe me, I’m the only one who really understands her. Who can comfort her. Who knows what she needs. When she’s done with him, she’ll come crying back to me. But by then I’ll be dating that pretty girl at the front desk. Yes I will. Because like all pretty women, she has a thing for unattractive mopers with passive-aggressive tendencies. And when the superstar tries to get me back, she’ll be punished for her error in judgment, in a way that legitimizes my creepy behavior. Heh, heh. That’s the way this works.

You kind of figure this guy will end up in front of David Letterman’s mansion, swearing he has borne him children.

Vulgar humor isn’t an automatic violation of screenwriting decorum. But even vulgar humor needs standards. When vulgarity is used to outlandishly accent a perceptive observation, it works. When it isn’t, it doesn’t. It reverts to locker room humor. I think you can tell from my tone which one applies here.

Of course, it doesn’t help that Segel (who wrote the script) and the rest of the actors are far below par. There’s probably more humor here than the bland eye-candy cast has the talent to pull off. Take the ending – a would-be-crazy Dracula puppet musical. It’s funny, but like much of the occasional funny stuff, it’s about two or three degrees less funny than it should be. You suspect the idea seemed more gut-busting when it was thought up, seemingly over reefer.

You see many bad movies. But some actually are dangerous. Those are the films that lower our standards, but for some reason are held up as glowing examples. I fear that that is the destiny of Sarah Marshall. For my money it would be best if she were simply forgotten.

I Want to Believe

Am I the only one OK with the title of the upcoming X-Files movie - I Want to Believe? It's probably a better idea than the film, the sole virtue of which is giving the underused Gillian Anderson something to do.

When Ellen Page becomes an adult

Here's a contest for fun ... when will be the first time that Ellen Page plays a role that is at her actual age?

I'll bet 2011. Any thoughts?

Tuesday, April 15, 2008

Ollie Johnston, Rest in Peace

Craig Kennedy at Living in Cinema notes the passing of longtime Disney animator Ollie Johnston.

One long Indy?

According to Hollywood-Elsewhere, Indy IV could run 2 hours and 20 minutes. If that's true, and who knows if it is, then the bloat is noticeable from here.

Monday, April 14, 2008


I got my first screen invitation for a summer movie today. Iron Man. I can't wait for the summer film season. I'm not sure why. Every year it offers some awful films. But I just want something with some scale. Is that so wrong?

Sunday, April 13, 2008

Black Jack!

For the second week in a row, the box office of 21 dropped only in the 30-percent range from the previous week. That most likely means it's getting good word of mouth, and has basically become the first big word-of-mouth hit this year (The Bank Job being a modest word-of-mouth hit). It probably means that Jim Sturgess can now be called a new young star.

Why do I care? Because I was right about it, naturally.

It also points out something I increasingly feel about film critics. Too many have lost the ability to go to a film and just kick back and have fun with a breezy, entertaining fantasy. Look at Boston Globe critic Ty Burr's capsule review of 21, in which he calls it a depressingly shallow morality tale, or something to that effect. To which I reply, duh! Anyone who is watching 21 to examine the morality tale is either 1) missing the point, or 2) setting it up to fail. In style, it's like calling The Thin Man a depressingly simple-minded murder mystery. It misses the point entirely.

21 is a light nothing, in the end. But it's a very satisfying light nothing. Which explains why the screening audience that I saw it with gave it the best ovation that I've heard in a while. Which explains why its box office is going the way it's going.

Saturday, April 12, 2008

"Are you ready to be my Sledgehammer?"

Some extra Snow Angels notes that did not make the review:

1) The film has many good scenes, but three really stick out.
a) A drunken Sam Rockwell, rejected in love, staggering around to the music in the bar. A birthday cake with lit candles sits on a pinball machine. It intertwines satire and pathos until there isn't a difference.
b) A conventional set-up with the teenager Arthur discussing with his father the fact that he has left the family. It's an unusually frank discussion in a movie full of them.
c) The opening scene, in which the high school marching band massacres Peter Gabriel's "Sledgehammer." From there, the bandleader leads into one of those inspriational speeches that teachers give, declaring "I have a sledgehammer in my heart" and asking the kids to bring out their inner sledgehammer. More quotable than "I drink your milkshake."

2) There's a lot of disagreement about the quality of Kate Beckinsale's performance. Was she good or bad? Or was she, and the film, a victim of miscasting? I thought she was good, as she usually is when not chasing vampires. I think it's arguable that she was miscast. That arguments has two prongs. One, what is arguably the most beautiful woman in the world doing living in a remote town, and two, what is she doing dating these losers? Having lived in small towns, I'm personally aware that they often have great beauties and that makeup has reached the hinterlands. So the first doesn't bother me. In fact, it's kinda refreshing. The second is a little harder. She did go to Oxford, and it's hard to hide her intelligence. Generally, I was fine with it, though.

3) Tim Orr remains magnificent.

Facial hair re-visited

Jeff Wells' Hollywood-Elsewhere site has a discussion going on the role of the moustache in Smart People and movies in general. As you might see below, I have declared a new genre called The Moustache Film.

What is this thing called Love? [Snow Angels]

Snow Angels [R]
Grade: A

For a film widely reputed to be three corpses short of a full mortuary, we’ll start talking about David Gordon Green’s Snow Angels in an odd place. We’ll talk about its sense of humor.

The latest entry from the rural film poet takes full advantage of the quirks of its snowbound northern town. An estranged father cooks hot dogs in a toaster. A tattooed tough guy stands accused of adultery while doing laundry in a fluffy robe. A Chinese restaurant employs a staff of Caucasians without an Asian in sight. The style isn’t sufficiently clandestine to call “subtle.” But it doesn’t dance for the camera, either. Green has a spongy eye for the casually inane detail, found in small things in small places.

For all the visual glory of his two indie standards George Washington and All the Real Girls, Green’s real strength is the Faulknerian knowledge that he feels for his characters and their isolated worlds. This is a man who knows how they eat their pizza (cheese and pepperoni first). Green is often compared to his friend, mentor, and basketball teammate Terrence Malick. But where Malick is a lyric poet adept at intellectual speculation, Green moves to lonely heartbeats, exploring the explosiveness of love.

It’s odd that Green demonstrates such a grasp of details, because details of their emotional conditions are precisely what elude his characters. A running Green theme is the overpowering mystery of love and the hopelessness of words (and minds) to lasso it and express it effectively. In what appears to be a meaningless scene but isn’t, the film’s teenage lovebirds, Arthur and Lila, go so far as to look up the meaning of “blowjob” in a slang dictionary. The film’s older couples know the words and the routines, but it doesn’t lead to a clearer understanding. Notice no adult has advice for the teen-agers, no secrets of love, beyond to say it’s complicated. At the same time, they are aware that its sweet venom can be carried in something as simple as the right song.

The film opens with the wrong song, the strains (and we mean strains) of the world’s worst high school marching band, wandering innocently out of step and out of tune. Shortly, the scene surrenders to a less pleasing sound of love – two gunshots, sharp, distant cracks across the everlasting snow. With this introduction, we launch into the romantic entanglements that give the film its bleak reputation. The sweet experimentations of Arthur and Lila (Michael Angerano and the going-places Olivia Thirlby) are often accompanied by her trusty classic camera. Later, we see another photo of a teenage couple, an old photo of Annie and her estranged husband Glenn (Kate Beckinsale and Sam Rockwell). That picture has given way to gloomier circumstances. She is a newly single mom trying to care for her child while dealing with an agonizing swirl of men. He is a friendly but mentally disturbed man, who has turned to Christianity to try to tame the demons inside. The two relationships stand opposed, yet we know from experience that one can spiral into the other. Spiritually in between these two poles stand Arthur’s parents (Griffin Dunne and Jeanetta Arnette), who seem to ebb and flow between affection and alienation.

Green is in transition from poetic lyricism to a more direct dramatic style. This transition has its rough edges. At times, especially the climax, he goes with drama when a touch of poetry might work better. For the most part, though, things go smoothly, showing Green’s ability to address the same themes in a broader way. Yet those familiar with his other movies will find comfort in the presence of cinematographer Tim Orr, who gives the film its snowy majesty, painting a moment of frozen desperation.

Snow Angels is a healthy rebound from 2005’s Undertow and a calling card for more conventional (and more commercially viable) projects (Green might as well attach resumes to the reels.). But in the true auteur sense, Snow Angels holds fast to the interests and concerns that move its director – namely, the sledgehammers that lie in the heart.

Friday, April 11, 2008

Mild genius (Smart People)

Smart People
Grade: C

After watching Smart People, I plan to present to the highest filmmaking authorities evidence of the existence of a new genre. I call it the Moustache Film.

This new genre will include any and all earnest family dramas in which the male stars each grow facial hair to stress their grounded sincerity. In Smart People, Dennis Quaid grows a full beard to play a petulant literature professor. Thomas Haden Church grows a light moustache to play his adopted brother, a congenital slacker graduate of the University of a Thousand Joints. Ellen Page does not grow a moustache to play Quaid’s Alex- P. Keaton of a teenage daughter. But it must have been tempting.

Smart People is the type of serious-minded, nicely observed, affectionately rendered project, from director Noam Murro, that feels like the cinematic version of kissing your sister (or in this case, your uncle - just watch!). Indie, but not too indie. A little different, but far from daring. Yet thoughtful, well written and strongly acted, which on some level you must respect.

Quaid plays a self-sufficient, self-absorbed genius professor. His idea of writing a book is to pen an unreadably brilliant treatise on poetry. His idea of a date is pontificating for 45 minutes on literary theory over dinner. Escaping his attention are his protective but frigid daughter, his collegian son, and the sibling that has moved into the spare room. Not to mention the name of every student who has ever taken his class.

When he suffers a seizure and loses his license, he suddenly must depend on those little people surrounding him known as “relatives.” Long scarred by the death of his wife, he lightly and clumsily treads into a relationship with a younger doctor (Sarah Jessica Parker), a former student whose student-dom he does not recall. The imperfect romance blossoms, but his personality is not exactly suited. He is a man without social skills awakening to his need for others.

The film’s intelligent ordinariness gets a wonderful burst from Quaid. He is part of a quiet trend that’s going largely unremarked upon – the young generational star from the eighties who is now making a living off wrinkled brows and pattern baldness. (John Cusack in Grace Is Gone. Matt Dillon in Crash and Factotum). Recently I watched The Right Stuff, with Quaid's boyishly sunny-faced portrayal of the Mercury Program astronaut Gordon Cooper. This makes his job here even more interesting. There seems to be a multitude of lives between the two men.

What makes Quaid’s professor sufferable is that in watching his condensed story, we see a task that we unspeakingly face each day – how to be a better person. While his situation might be more greatly exaggerated than most, it’s still a struggle shared by all. And for that reason, he never loses us. Even when he can’t remember our name.

Thursday, April 10, 2008

The BIg Sleep

Before My visit to the bathtub, I continued the tour of "rewatching things I watched in high school." Last night, it was "The Big Sleep." Needless to say, since the film is basically all about implied sex, it's a lot easier to get into for an adult. The plot still doesn't make a whole heck of a lot of sense, however.

Tornado warning

Well, early this morning was an eventful time. I woke up at about 3:45 a.m. with my area of Dallas County in a tornado warning. You can't imagine the lightning show going on outside, with the wind swirling. I looked out the window and realized, this has got to be tornado weather, but had to flip to a different radio station before I found out, yes, it was in fact tornado weather. Areas of circulation were being spotted in my general area. The sirens went off at some point. I thought for sure a twister was going to drop out of that skyI spent a good 20 minutes in the bathtub. April in Texas.

Last I heard, they were still checking to see if the wind damage came from straight-line winds or if a tornado touched down north of my home in Plano.

Tuesday, April 8, 2008

Foreign flavor (My Blueberry Nights)

My Blueberry Nights [PG-13]
Grade: B

Many first-rate directors dream of sailing the seas and setting an artistic foot in a culture other than their own.

Ultimately, this is more than a cinematic vacation in the sun. It’s a test of not only the artist but the idea of cinema. Is film truly a universal medium, as it likes to believe? Is there a common baseline of human experience that it can relate? Or does storytelling arise peculiarly from a certain place and certain people?

Certainly, there is plenty of evidence to torch film’s lofty claim. Think, for instance, of Alejandro Gonzalez Inirritu’s command in his Mexican settings, as opposed to the strain he shows in America and elsewhere. Yet cinematic travel is always an interesting experiment and sometimes a magnificent breakthrough, bringing perspective to a culture lost on its inhabitants.

Often when moving to America, this brings us to riding along somewhere in the southwestern desert, where like John Ford the filmmaker hopes to stand astride the American myth. Such a trip happens in Wong Kar-Wai’s debut in American spaces, My Blueberry Nights. The film also pays a visit to the bluesy New York streets of Martin Scorsese, a valued inspiration to many an Asian filmmaker.

A move from the crowded confines of Wong’s native Hong Kong makes sense. Certainly with the sci-fi passages of 2046, he was dreaming of new worlds to conquer with his art. In Blueberry, he places his human poetry in the wanderings of Elizabeth (the singer Norah Jones), a young New Yorker on the edge of a breakup with her boyfriend. Awash in heartbreak, she finds comfort in the kind ear of a British restaurant minder (Jude Law), as he quietly woos her with late-night blueberry pies.

To put things at a distance, she will oh-so-metaphorically move to other cities, living under different names at each stop. This is an oh-so-metaphorical way to place distance from the memory of her sour past. In doing so, she only manages to run into the sour pasts of others. In Memphis, she will befriend an alcoholic police officer (David Strathairn) who cannot move on from his ex-wife (a great Rachel Weisz). In Nevada, she will learn lessons from a shady gambler (Natalie Portman) with a foggy relationship with her father and the truth.

While the physical settings may be new, the thematic ones are less so. Wong is still discussing the themes of love, loss, time, and memory that have become his terra firma. One interesting wrinkle is the extension of memory into the concept of trust. With sad humor, Portman’s hustler refuses to believe that her father is really on his deathbed. It is, after all, a lie he has told her in the past.

More illustratively, Law records all of his activity on the restaurant’s security cameras. He keeps the ones he’d like to remember, to hold forever the moment. That habit will become a motif. Wong creates a cinematic language of distance – shooting through windows, in exaggerated colors, or with a security camera’s fuzziness. It does more than make us feel like we're looking into the past. It makes real the loss of the present to time.

In the most pivotal scene, for my money, a man pulls a gun on a woman. He tells her not to walk out the door or he’ll shoot. Her three-word response instead shoots a hole in his theory. “And then what?” This throw-away line evolves into a thesis. The disappearance of her physical presence will not relieve him of living knee-deep in her memory. It will simply drag more misery into his wallowing. This point will be made soon thereafter, in a way that you might not expect.

The film’s greatest weakness (besides Portman’s blonde dye job) is the underdevelopment of its main character. Jones does not impose herself on the film. That’s fine. She’s only meant to observe and digest the actions of others. But when late in the film she makes an epiphany about her trusting nature, the film has not established her as a trusting soul. It comes from the ether, and makes you recognize what little sense you have of the character’s being and growth.

A thorny question remains. Can a foreign artist make a film about memory set in a culture famed for its amnesia? Or is such a piece of art destined to fall short? I’m not sure that My Blueberry Nights works as a convincing piece of Americana. But using America as a mythic playland for Wong’s ideas, it finds a decent recipe.

The film critic stays in the picture

I keep reading articles bemoaning the state of film criticism. Like any idea that gains currency, there's often some truth to it. At the same time, I think newspaper critics too often equate the health of film criticism with the health of their job security.

Goldstein makes the claim that critics are less influential than they used to be and viewed as cultural dinosaurs. Really? I think critics are more influential, if for no other reason than that they are more available through the Internet. Goldstein uses the non-response of his child to a video game review to come to the shocking conclusion that - gasp! - word of mouth exists and people trust their friends' opinions. I know, stop and wonder. His idea that film critics were cultural arbiters in the 1960s and 70s - that Americans en masse were choosing their viewing based on Paulene Kael's recommendations - seems like an insular fantasy. Outside of a few coastal enclaves and college towns, my sense is that before the rise of Siskel and Ebert to popularity in the 1980s average Americans paid little attention to film critics. If you want evidence of film critics' current influence, just look at how critic-favorite-y the Oscars have been over the past couple of years. Or look at the less-than-expected box office of something like Leatherheads after cool reviews. Look at the fact that No Country for Old Men earned as much as it did.

Are film critics losing their jobs because readers no longer pay attention to them? That's not quite right. At most newspapers, film reviews generally are not just being dumped. Local reviews (and local reviewers) are being replaced by reviews from the newswires. If you're an editor facing dwindling ad revenues and having to choose between a reporter or a film critic, that's the only way to get both and lose neither. Unfortunately, that means fewer voices, but it does not mean less availability for reviews, at least not for the major releases. Film reviews are one item in the newspaper that works as appointment reading, that makes a person purchase a newspaper. They're not about to disappear.

I do agree, however, that film critics need to pay more attention to audiences. Too many critics bloviate, write to impress each other rather than their audiences, and generally carry on as if they were writing for Cahiers du Cinema in the 1950s. Too many are too easily dismissive of entertainment. Critics need to recognize that the public has a significant role in determining what is and is not a film that's going to last through the ages. See My Dinner with Andre versus The Terminator. Understanding the audience's responses to the filmmaking of an era is essential to grasping the merit of a film.

When I joined the ranks of critics in 2005, it quickly became apparent to me that the grand age of a film critic's lifestyle might be coming to an end. The man-of-letters lifestyle - working at home, reading the Times, showing up to a movie once or twice a day, and going home to write about them - seems to have its days numbered. But film criticism itself is durable. It will find new shapes. Like this. Or like others.

The Flight of the Valkyrie

Everyone has an opinion about the release-date move of the Bryan Singer-Tom Cruise Hitler-assassination-plot-thriller Valkyrie, from October 2008 to Valentine's Day 2009. The movement from semi-Oscar season to the early part of next year doesn't look like a vote of confidence. It's true that some films have made late-year moves and have turned out well. The two best films of last year, Zodiac and The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, come to mind. But on the face of it, moving a Cruise-anchored film out of the prime season does not bode well.

The library

I've recently rediscovered the joys of the public library. Why? One near me has a beautiful rack. DVD rack, that is. All those "boring" films that teenagers hate from yesteryear? All there. Classic after classic to visit or re-visit. All for free. I know it's not technologically cool, like Netflix. But I'm a pretty retro dude.

Monday, April 7, 2008

A little more on Heston

It always skips my mind that Charlton Heston starred in Orson Welles' great Touch of Evil. The fact that he ramrodded Welles into the position against studio resistance is one great contribution to the history of film. You can question his ability as an actor. But you can't question his capacity as a icon and star. He grew to become a star of the magnitude that it is now difficult to achieve. More than an actor, he was an institution in American life.

Sunday, April 6, 2008

notes on The Asphalt Jungle

Two observations while watching The Asphalt Jungle tonight.

1) I'm more convinced of something that I previously felt, that Jean Hagen gives a terrific performance in Singin in the Rain. That's because her character here is so different from her blonde ditz. There really are only two ways to be a good blonde ditz on a screen - be a real-life one (see: Cameron "Cinematography" Diaz) or be a very good actress. My sense is that Hagen is the latter.

2) For an actress with modest talent whose career only lasted a decade or so, Marilyn Monroe had a habit of getting into movies that have worn well with time. All About Eve, The Asphalt Jungle, Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, Some Like It Hot, The Misfits. Probably other things that I'm not thinking of. That's about one every couple years. Not a bad rate.

Saturday, April 5, 2008

Charlton Heston, rest in peace

Just heard this news on the radio. That is one of the big ones.

And Shirley Bassey breathes a sigh of relief

It turns out that Mike Myers wasn't that far off. Ian Fleming once sought to change the name of his novel Goldfinger to Goldprick. It all involves a dispute with an architect of the former name, who didn't want his name used in the novel. Such a cold prick Ba Bwaaaah wah.

Cabezas de cuero (Leatherheads)

Leatherheads [PG-13]
Grade: Pass

Leatherheads kicks off with a faulty assumption by taking a bad handoff from modern Hollywood myth.

The myth of which I speak is that George Clooney is the new Cary Grant. Like all legends, there is some truth to it. He has charm to burn, certainly, and he can properly weight a zinger. But his default posture isn’t set on “three sheets to the wind.” The esteemed film critic David Thomson compares Clooney to William Holden, often a beat cop of a bruised world. In Clooney’s recent string of great burnout roles, there’s clearly something to that. So as he burns his charm, the gravity of his presence bends the firelight.

So could you imagine Bill Holden as Nick (or Nora)? Or Cary Grant in Sunset Blvd.? I’m sure some film archivist is out there picking through similar examples as we speak, but no, we can’t, either. Clooney isn’t quite that much of a misfit, but in Leatherheads, his ode to 1920s professional football and 1930s screwball comedies, you do wonder if director Clooney chose the wrong actor.

And yet Leatherheads can be, at times, splendidly alive. When it’s good, it’s outstanding – original, wacky, and delighting in its devotion to Golden Age filmmaking. It relies on screwball comedy’s quaint qualities – rapid-fire dialogue, romantic chemistry, and wit as a stand-in for sex. Indeed, when was the last time a romantic comedy had only one kiss to show for its efforts?

The setup is as classic as a wingback formation. While the college game thrives, professional football is in its infancy, played by barnstorming teams on muddy Midwestern fields in front of a few dozen spectators. After his team briefly folds, aging star Dodge Connelley bribes college football giant and celebrity war hero Carter Rutherford (The Office's John Krasinski) to join Duluth’s ramshackle team. In tow comes their girl Friday, a feisty female reporter from Chicago (Renee Zellweger). If she cooks the goose on the star’s fictional war story, she gets a promotion. Traveling with the team, she flirts with the All-American kid, trades barbs with Dodge, and before you know it …

For a screwball comedy, Leatherheads makes the unusual trade of velocity for depth. In human terms, it’s more The Awful Truth or The Philadelphia Story than Bringing Up Baby. This seems like a snooker, at first, as you expect a brand of comedy thirsty for pace. But as it goes on, you sense a bit of desperation at the bottom of the aging Dodge Connelley’s romantic longing and professional dreams. As the clock winds down on the final football game of his career, it adds an autumnal poignancy to the standard football finale.

To pigeonhole the film as a classical screwball comedy sells it short. Parts of the movie have a lot of artsy verve. A romantic speakeasy dance breaks into a Keystone Kops routine (as they give the cops the ol’ 23-skidoo) and ends in a negative-space kiss. A saloon slug-out between players and soldiers cuts quickly into an arm-in-arm singalong. The men play football in visceral mud pits of ick and saturated yellows, doused in comedy as much as collision. At times, Clooney seems to be lovingly busting genres with the esprit of Godard or Altman. Not only is Clooney a talented director, but also an adventurous one.

As much as I would like to declare Leatherheads a success, it can’t quite happen. I think too many film writers are beancounting chuckles and missing the quality of some of the filmmaking. Yet even I think it needs to be more humorous more often. While I’m thankful for its bearings, the dialogue doesn’t measure up to the best screwball material.

But is that a problem with the film? Or the expectations I bring to it? Is it as disjointed as it seems? Or is that a tolerable consequence of being a playful mishmash of styles? I can’t make heads or tails of it. So I’ll let you choose whether to receive.

Friday, April 4, 2008

Leatherheads and Snow Angels

For the record, I plan to have reviews of Leatherheads and Snow Angels by the end of the weekend. But first, I need to see them. Stay tuned.

Thursday, April 3, 2008

The Sea-cret of Nim

Nim’s Island [G]
Grade: C

Well, this is a tale of our castaways. Is Nim’s Island, the latest Walden Media children's release, sure to get a smile?

To be accurate, Nim (Abigail Breslin) isn’t a castaway. She lives on a remote volcanic island with her father (Gerard Butler), a marine biologist. They moved there after her mother was swallowed by a whale, apparently quite the occupational hazard for a marine biologist. Presumably cashing her whale-swallowing insurance, father and daughter move to the distant South Pacific. Nim lives there blissfully with the friendly island animals. Her main contact with outside reality seems to be adventure books and Talking Heads albums.

Her favorite books are those with an Aussie adventurer named Alex Rover. While little Nim cartwheels on the beach and talks to sea shells, the author, Alexandra Rover (Jodie Foster), is locked in her San Francisco apartment struggling with the ending of the latest Alex Rover book. Being locked in is not a worry. She does that all the time. The sweetly agoraphobic writer bolts herself into her apartment, behind the safety of her hand sanitizer. She lives her outside life solely through her fictional character, with whom she occasionally engages in Hamlet-like conversations. Yeah, I know. Batshit.

Needing research for her ending, Alexandra Rover emails Nim’s father. It turns out to be the perfect time to strike up a conversation, seeing as Nim’s father is lost at sea, and the little girl, without a mother, is left to fend for herself on the island. Talking to her imaginary character the whole way, Alexandra Rover ventures outdoors for the first time, to journey across the sea to save Nim.

You see where this is going, don’t you? Watching the inevitable pairing of the father and the writer left me with this question. Suppose your wife is swallowed by a whale. Yet she continues to live in the whale’s stomach. I’m no expert in maritime law, but technically, in the eyes of God, aren’t you still married? Just like Hollywood, trying to undermine the values of America’s children. Trying to push bigamy on our kids.

In her film work since capturing America’s heart with Little Miss Sunshine, Breslin has shown skilled comic timing for such a young girl. However, she has developed the disturbing habit of trying to grin her way through roles. I can only imagine the directorial instructions she receives – “Run. Stop. Grin. Great!” Over and over and over. Foster gets to have some motherly fun as the mentally and physically shaky author. I’m sure her children will enjoy it. Yet it’s sad that Hollywood too often feels mothering roles are the best use of her talent.

I wish there were more to say about this adaptation of Wendy Orr’s children’s novel. I have no strong feelings about it whatsoever. I couldn’t summon the energy to find anything too right or wrong with it. Harmless, painless, and a little drowsy. As for your kids, it shouldn’t hurt them, bite them, skin their knee, cause a rash, or keep them from eating their vegetables. It might encourage them to marry two women at the same time. If you're fond of the idea of extra grandchildren, my answer is ….. eh, whatever.

All you need is hate

Last week, I expressed my love for being pleasantly surprised by an apparently 60-40 film. This week, I'll mention one of the worst critic's feelings, watching more than one crap film in a day. I'm not going to mention names to spare the guilty (for now). But needless to say, it wasn't a pleasant day.

UA anniversary tour at the Inwood

For Dallas-Fort Worth area readers ...
The UA 90th Anniversary Film Festival will arrive at the Landmark Inwood Friday and run until April 26. United Artists (UA) was formed in 1919 by Mary Pickford, Charles Chaplin, Douglas Fairbanks and D.W. Griffith to encourage progressive filmmaking, giving each star the authority and autonomy to create the films about which they were most passionate.
The schedule is

DR. NO – April 5
RAGING BULL – April 18
ANNIE HALL – April 26

Wednesday, April 2, 2008

Dazed and Confused

A few days ago, I watched Richard Linklater’s Dazed and Confused. I don’t like writing full reviews of past films. I write enough reviews as is. But I’d like to point out a few things.

1) I once saw critic Andrew Sarris describe the genius of Preston Sturges by noting that Sturges could write funny lines in dozens of voices, doing it in each individual character’s vernacular. That’s a strength of Linklater’s voice in this film, writing lines for jocks, stoners, high school girls, nerds, and everyone else. The variety of voices is impressive. Of course, a decent portion of the dialogue here is reputed to be improvised, so it’s a credit to the actors, as well.

2) This film is one of the most colossal cases of bad marketing that we’ve seen. The studio lumped it together with the batch of stoner-heavy, slacker early 90s comedies. Apparently the suits didn’t notice the inspiration it takes in Truffaut’s casual lyricism. It’s an unusually fluid film, unusually artistic, and it’s a shame that some were discouraged to see it originally because it was treated like product.

3) You forget how many careers the film launched. Everyone knows Matthew McConaughey. But also Parker Posey, Ben Affleck, Joey Lauren Adams. Milla Jovovich became whatever she became. Even Anthony Rapp ended up in Rent, I believe. Renee Zellweger isreputed to be in the film for a couple seconds.

4) Few films achieve such an appropriate ending. For all the talk about this film being melancholy, I find a lot of joy in watching a group of kids willing to live fully in the moment of their youth, when an Aerosmith concert can be considered “the priority of the summer.” Gotta love that.

An issue of maritime law

So working on a review for this week for a film that I saw yesterday, and I have this question .... Suppose your wife is, say, swallowed by a whale. But she's still alive in the whale's stomach. Technically speaking, are you still married? And if you marry someone else, wouldn't it be bigamy? I've gotta think so. Til death do us part and all. Is there a lawyer around that can speak to this?

Anti-D Elsewhere

Well, a funny thing happened yesterday. I came home and my power was out. Whoops. Forgot to pay the bill. I was certain that I had, but apparently not. If you knew me, you would be surprised that this is the first time it has ever happened.

It was quickly rectified, and my power should be back today. Until then, I would like to thank the Richardson (Texas) Public Library for their assistance in my blogging efforts today.