Monday, September 29, 2008

Eagle Eye

Did anyone see $30 million for Eagle Eye coming?

I guess we have to get used to Shia LaBeouf for sure.

Fine by me, I think. I picked him at as a future star with his three minutes in Constantine. Why I have a radar for that sort of thing, I have no clue.

Okay ...

who had Ryan Reynolds at 24 in the office pool?

By the way, I just noticed that I have the same birthday as the newly minted Mrs. Reynolds.

The state of film criticism

Does Kent Jones really believe that Paulene Kael was leading a national dialogue of film criticism in the 1970s? Who paid attention to film criticism in the 1970s? Elites, yes, but prior to Siskel and Ebert, did people in Peoria really pay that much attention?

The truth is that film criticism is more alive and influential today, because of the access provided by the Internet, than it ever has been. Too many elite film critics mistake the state of film criticism with their personal job security.

Sunday, September 28, 2008

Paul Newman, rest in peace

As you likely know, Paul Newman passed away from cancer Friday evening. My favorite Newman role is Hud Bannon in Hud, the type of mournful ranch movie that the country is too urbanized to make anymore. He was a screen legend by the time I was born and he remained one to the end. Rest in Peace.

Saturday, September 27, 2008

Duked out [The Duchess]

The Duchess [R]
Grade: C
Cast: Keira Knightley, Ralph Fiennes, Hayley Atwell, Simon MacBurney
Director: Saul Dibb

It’s fitting in The Duchess that, despite the obvious passage of years, no one seems to age.

It’s a wonderful analogy for British film and the way it seems frozen in time. No film industry in the world more needs a swift kick in the knickers. If Martians landed and could only use modern films to assess British culture, they might conclude all Britons present are gangsters and all Britons past were bed-hopping aristocrats.

The Duchess, as the title implies, falls squarely in the aristocratic bed-hopping category, the latest “sumptuous” fall film built on grand marble estates, beautifully elaborate (and unbelievably spotless) period costumes, and Keira Knightley’s pout.

Saying that about Knightley is easy and unfair. She’s a capable actress, even if she doesn’t always choose to show it. Few 22-year-old performers could reasonably be trusted to carry a film of this scope. While not equal to her magnetic turn in 2005’s Pride and Prejudice, her performance proves dutifully tragic as Georgiana Spencer, an 18th Century aristocratic wife trapped by matrimony and tradition.

Married as a teen, Georgiana becomes the wife and virtual slave to the quietly caustic Duke of Devonshire (Ralph Fiennes), who needs a male heir and sees little point in marriage other than productivity. Taken to the lovely but dead surroundings of his London estate, Georgiana’s womb proves to be an X-chromosome factory, sprouting one daughter after another to the Duke’s silently burning disapproval.

Disappointed by his wife, the Duke takes up with other women. He eventually seduces his wife’s best friend, forcing the three of them to live in the same home. In response, Georgiana explores a romance with Charles Gray, an adolescent flame and a rising politician. Her only other comfort is her growing public adoration, as her fashion and frivolity makes her a star of the 18th Century press. As a playwright puts it, the Duke is the only man in London who isn’t in love with his wife.

What has the modern British press all atwitter is that, in real life, Georgiana Spencer came from the same family as Lady Diana Spencer. Given the seeming similarities of their fates, there appear to be “overtones” here.(Or are they “undertones?”) Like Stephen Frears’ The Queen, The Duchess is a fragment of continuing British Diana obsession that, as an American, seems alien. It comes from something in the British soul that I don’t quite understand. Without it, I’m not sure the film packs the same energy.

Costume dramas are notorious for swallowing their characters in beautiful fabric .To the credit of the actors, The Duchess avoids this fate. That said, what does get swallowed is the story. Director Saul Dibb doesn’t add much to a familiar feminist nightmare of aristocratic patriarchy. It would help if the men weren’t so weakly drawn. It’s hard to share in an obsessive love for a man living up to a last name of Gray.

My own sense is that if you want a really good film about the injustices of European aristocratic life, you should hire an American director. Perhaps it’s because Americans are less dazzled by the surfaces and more awake to the dark humor of it. Sophia Coppola’s Marie Antoinette captures the dehumanizing lunacy of court life at Versailles. Stanley Kubrick’s Barry Lyndon turns the aristocratic costume drama into a biting dark comedy of the human condition.

Like most European period pieces, The Duchess pays unbending attention to the details of court life. These films make you wonder if British film producers keep a storage shack of candelabras, and whether British drama training requires a course in dorky court dances. But the question remains, how often can the British get past the pomp and the sex and the reverence for their history to deliver a period piece that is something truly more than itself? One time too few, for certain.

Be Nighted [Nights in Rodanthe]

Nights in Rodanthe[PG-13]
Grade: B
Cast: Diane Lane, Richard Gere, Viola Davis
Director: George C. Wolfe

As the brand-name middle-age romances of the moment, “Diane Lane Movies” have one good thing going for them. Diane Lane stars in all of them.

The torch has been passed down decade to decade from Doris Day to Meg Ryan. But it’s a pleasure to have as rich an actress as Lane filling the niche for this space in time. Even better, her reputation is built on making the most of less-than-first-rate material. That’s pretty darn essential for a puffy weepie like Nights in Rodanthe, adapted from the Nicholas Sparks novel.

One thing is for sure, Diane Lane is now a certifiable formula. Here’s a 10-point recipe. You take
1) a restless single or divorced fourty-ish beauty in need of a
2) personal reawakening, who leaves her home for a
3) remote, picturesque vacation locale, where she is joined by
4) a diversity-friendly best friend, and she meets
5) a successful, attractive, stimulating love interest, an encounter that usually involves
6) fine wine and
7) gourmet food and
8) love letters, errrr
9) oh, no no no no no, Wait! Not just love letters but
10) HANDWRITTEN love letters!

Throw in an artist somewhere to remind us of the richness of life and there you go.
That pretty much boils down Nights in Rodanthe. Lane plays a recently divorced mom with kids in need of a personal re-birth. For a week, she takes over her friend’s bed and breakfast along the serene coast of North Carolina. There she strikes up a friendship (heh, heh, heh) with the inn’s sole visitor, a surgeon operating on his own emotional wounds.

Gere and Lane have done this sort of thing before. They possess a breezy, realistic chemistry that smoothes over some of Rodanthe’s swoonier melodrama. Lane has that natural thing that makes you want the best for her, which you pretty much have to have to succeed in this sort of thing. I like that she achieves this feeling without the need to pour out her sauce and play to the audience.

If a scientist wanted to conduct an endurance tests for eye-rolling, he certainly could to catch the 2:45 show. At the same time, even if I would have been a model test subject – and I definitely would have been a model test subject– I recognize that this is a film that wants to be that way. I find it impossible to punish a movie for being what it wants to be.

No miracle work [The Miracle at St. Anna]

The Miracle of St. Anna [R]
Grade: D
Cast: Derek Luke, Michael Ealy, Laz Alonso, Omar Benson Miller
Director: Spike Lee

Spike Lee’s World War II epic The Miracle of St. Anna reminded me of a certain film critic’s dilemma – is it legitimate to criticize a film for being “too long?”

I think the answer is generally no. Unlike the filmmaker, the critic doesn’t slave over the movie for months thinking deeply about his options. A critic doesn’t have to worry about pace and continuity and giving the film its full dimension, and a critic never gets to see how other options might work or fail. Generally, for a critic to flippantly say that the filmmaker could have trimmed this and that shows a lack of respect for the involved labor.

That said, I think there is a case for it with the 160–minute St. Anna. This is not because there are four or five scenes that could easily hit the wastebasket and send us home ten minutes earlier. Lee simply keeps running headlong into a new story and then another new story. He never quite figures out when to stop and chew the story that he has.

An unexplained murder in a post office in 1984 leads to the story of a mysterious missing sculptured head from a bridge in Italy. Which leads to the story of the all-black 92nd Infantry division and a memory of a 1944 skirmish along an Italian river. Which leads to the story of four soldiers stranded behind enemy lines on the wrong side of the waterway. Which leads to the story of finding an Italian orphan with an imaginary friend. Which leads to the soldier’s time hiding in a small Italian mountainside villa. Which leads to the story of its inhabitants and their legends about the nearby mountain. Which leads to a story of Italian partisans fighting in the hills. Which leads to the secret of a Nazi massacre in a neighboring town. It’s not that it’s too much to follow. It’s just that following means never staying in one place long enough to fully appreciate.

I think this points partially to Spike Lee’s dilemma as a filmmaker. He makes films for two reasons. He wants to tell important stories. More than that, he wants to right past racist wrongs. It’s an admirable mission that makes for passionate filmmaking. But when placed in the context of something as broad as World War II, it can lead the story all over the place. His soldiers are not merely asked to fight Nazis. They’re asked to fight every injustice Lee can find.

While St. Anna lags in too many places, it has patches of excellent filmmaking. The soldier’s river crossing while the Germans blast Axis Sally propaganda is among Lee’s most gripping scenes. It says in five crisp minutes all the things about race that he dithers with for two-and-a-half hours. I also love how during the climactic battle Lee uses the geography of the village – its hills and tight cobblestone alleys – to create a different style from the open-field slaughters common to World War II films.

There was an impressive World War II film from several years ago called Days of Glory which dealt with similar racial issues from the French and North African perspective. Glory is trimmer, more fluid, more subtle, and more effective. It wouldn’t surprise me if Lee has seen it. If not, I wish that he had.

I hereby resolve ...

to get back in the habit of posting daily.

Thursday, September 25, 2008

RIcky Gervais, Oscar Host?

EW says that Ricky Gervais is being rumored to host the Oscars. One question. Does anyone in Flyover Country know who Ricky Gervais is?

Saturday, September 20, 2008

Top 10 movie titles

Christopher Campbell lists his 10 best movie titles of the last 10 years. There Will Be Blood, All About My Mother, and The Perfect Storm (as one that has entered the American vernacular) are good choices.

I'll draw up a 10 list, as soon as I think of one.

The best title of all time could well be Things to Do in Denver When You're Dead. Has anyone actually seen the movie? Yet everyone knows the title.

Solace review

I enjoyed reading through this James Bond fanboy thread on It's a discussion on the authenticity of an alleged IMDb review of the new one Quantum of Solace. The posters dig in on both sides. I'd say I'm 70-30 in favor of it being authentic. If so, it's good news. The review, loaded with spoilers, is glowing.

The Duchess

I can't post my review of The Duchess here yet, but it should be up at the sites that I write for.

They're in New York and LA, where it opened. I'm in Dallas, where it hasn't yet. I'll post it here next week.

A-ghost [Ghost Town]

Ghost Town [PG-13]
Grade: D
Cast: Ricky Gervais, Greg Kinnear, Tea Leoni
Director: David Koepp

Do you know many people perfectly matched to their job? With Dr. Bertran Pincus, dental work fits his personality like a drill in a cavity. Without the Novocaine.

For a misanthropic British crown maker, it’s always a gleeful moment when you can stick cotton in a person’s mouth anytime they try to start a conversation. Oh, the majesty of a good fluoride rinse. Be a dentist, indeed.

As if living people were not enough of a hassle, Pincus (British comedian Ricky Gervais) soon gains a new set of non-friends. Non-breathing non-friends. After temporarily dying on a surgical table, he sees dead people, flocking to him and asking for favors. Among them is a recently deceased philanderer (Greg Kinnear) who wants Pincus to drive away the new fiance of his widow (Tea Leoni), an archaeologist. With whom our lonely dentist, over decaying Egyptian dental remains, shortly falls in love. Because, darn it, that’s how zany Hollywood can be.

If that sounds like the plot of Ghost turned into a high-concept comedy, well, that’s probably exactly how Ghost Town was pitched. The movie, particularly Gervais, isn’t a dull pain. But what kills Ghost Town is the nagging feeling that no one involved ever wanted it to be anything more than blah. It shoots for mediocrity and hits somewhere in the vicinity.

Gervais is one of a number of British comedians looking to take their act to the movies stateside. This is his first lead in an American film, and it’s not quite a smooth transition for the star of the British version of The Office. For a performer known for obnoxious human creations, Gervais’ dentist here is relatively a big teddy bear waiting to be hugged. While some of that dynamic arrives intact, Ghost Town is too tame and conventional to be a proper vehicle for his talent.

Thursday, September 18, 2008

DVD still king

The LA Times is shocked to find that most film consumers still use DVDs rather than online streams, etc. Am I the only one not surprised by this? And am I the only one suspicious of the idea that consumers are going to cease going to the theaters so they can watch movies on iPods and never leave the house?

I'm inherently a techno-skeptic. I don't own a cell phone. And I think as technology develops more and more quickly, we'll find that people cling more and more to the old familiar. Take the little Bluetooth ear things. They aren't the wave of the future. In fifteen years, they'll be what people use to make fun of this era.

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

The Diane Lane Movie: All the Essentials

After watching Nights in Rodanthe last night, I thought it would be fun to collect all of the essential elements of the "Diane Lane Movie." You know the one. The middle-aged romance.

Be warned, if you post here, your idea is subject to ending up in my review.


Lonely single/divorced forty-ish woman.
The remote, picturesque vacation locale.
The successful, attractive, stimulating love interest
The multiethnic best friend
Love letters. Oh, no no no no no. Wait! HANDWRITTEN love letters.
Fine wine.
Someone is an artist.

What else?

Sunday, September 14, 2008

Sam Rockwell, King of the Indies?

Watching Choke the other day, I came to the conclusion that Sam Rockwell might well be the reigning monarch of the indie film scene. He's in a high percentage of the really good ones. His last few credits include Snow Angels and the arty Western The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford. He's on a roll.

David Foster Wallace, rest in peace

Heck of a novelist, was found hung in his home this morning, according to published reports. Quite sad. Had an adaptation of one of his books in the works.

Hurricane blues

My brother in Houston made it through yesterday's hurricane okay, although many of his possessions are a little bit damper. His apartment roof sprung some leaks, as apparently the building's roof was damaged. But he is apparently OK, and that is what counts.

Thursday, September 11, 2008

Not so rightetous [Righteous Kill]

Righteous Kill [R]
Grade: C
Cast: Robert DeNiro, Al Pacino, Carla Gugino, Curtis Jackson, Brian Dennehy
Director: Jon Avnet

The real reason—perhaps the only reason – to watch Righteous Kill is the rare matchup of screen giants Robert DeNiro and Al Pacino.

While they are forever linked to one another in acting style, cinematic era and New York attitude, they actually have only appeared in the same film twice (The Godfather, Part II and Heat) and have only shared screen time in Michael Mann’s bank heist epic. Unless someone films The Godfather: The Golden Years or Bucket List: New York, any time they get together could be the last time.

So it’s pleasing to see that in this Jon Avnet crime thriller, we have two old horses out to do honor to their reputations. The actor’s craft in Righteous Kill somewhat neutralizes its spastic editing, logical leaps and crooked storytelling.

The legends play longtime police detective partners on the trail of a serial killer who leaves lousy poetry at the crime scenes. The pair comes from that Hollywood version of New York where every police detective is hardball and streetwise. Slap the cuffs, read the rights, and kick the stomach. Soon police suspect the killings are being perpetrated by a policeman. Suspicion falls on one of the partners. But is he really the guy?

While no one will mistake Righteous Kill for their best work, it’s still nice to see the two actors in good form, as they haven’t exactly been throwing down aces lately. Pacino, in particular seems more comfortable here than he has in a long time – looser, funnier, more generous, and freed of the burden of delivering “Al Pacino” that has pestered recent performances. DeNiro dusts off the intensity that so long has been associated with his work.

What the performances bring the dull mystery brings down. It can’t decide whether it’s a whodunit or a how’d-they-do-it. As the answer gets more and more obvious, the film takes more and more time to get there. A film that begins with frantic editing creeps to an end with scenes that linger. And linger. And linger.

Some of the film’s silly improbabilities are really a riot. Have two senior citizens ever had more active sex lives? How do you hit a skateboarder with a clean shot right between the eyes? How could a cop kill 14 people related to his cases without getting nabbed around, say, five? Others are not as funny. Does every woman need to be a victim? Does every black man need to be a criminal?

Righteous Kill is a bit like a visit to older family members. A little bland and old-fashioned, but good to see that the folks can still get around.

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Thom Yorke and Devo

There is this one man whom I see occasionally around Dallas screenings who is a dead ringer for Thom Yorke of Radiohead. It's not just that he looks like him; he has done everything possible to play up the the resemblance. I walked out of a screening of Choke today and there he was, chatting with the publicist. That's especially strange, because Choke ends with a Radiohead song over the credits.

That goes on top of yesterday. I was over at a friend's house and kidding around with her CD collection. We were going to play a Devo album, except her player broke. Then later that night, I saw Nick and Norah's Infinite Playlist. The music for that film is assembled and performed by Mark Mothersbaugh, the former leader of Devo. Weird.

Rolling in their graves ....

are William Powell and Myrna Loy.

Saturday, September 6, 2008

Pucker up [In Search of a Midnight Kiss]

In Search of a Midnight Kiss [R]
Grade: B
Cast: Scoot McNairy, Sara Simmonds
Director: Alex Holdridge

It’s now official – I have lived long enough to see the films of my youth turned into homage.

I’m not sure how to mark the occasion. Should I cook a turkey? Bake a cake? Buy a cane? Or in the case of In Search of a Midnight Kiss, a Cyber-Dating-Age ode to Richard Linklater’s Before Sunrise, should I simply relax and enjoy, as sinking into fogey-hood has never been as sweet?

Shot in black and white, a would-be screenwriter and a would-be starlet, broke-and-alone strangers, stroll around Los Angeles on New Year’s Eve – talking, laughing, running off on adventures, and contemplating an end-of-the-year liplock. Will they make it to midnight? And will they make it past New Year’s Day?

Midnight Kiss is a fireball of cinematic energy. This is the type of film that used to make the arthouses the hip palaces that they were, before they started burning out in recent years. I watched it thinking, my word, someone finally remembers how to make an indie. Amid the studio-indie biopics and trendy designer bleakness, it’s thrilling to have an indie that just wants to move and breathe – one that inhales the excitement and paranoia of modern romance.

One of the beauties of Midnight Kiss is its awareness and use of L.A.’s architecture. It gives the City of Angels a sense of place, depth, and rhythm, the way we often see with films set in New York or Paris. Often this element is missing from Los Angeles films, which suggests it's difficult for filmmakers to see the mystery in familiar surroundings. Some of the best examples – Chinatown and Point Blank, for instance – are made by foreigners. In this case, it’s made by a Texan – writer/director Alex Holdridge. We can debate whether that's foreign or not.

Like Linklater (who's thanked in the credits), Holdridge has a fluid style, a feel for youth, a fine ear for dialogue, and a way to suggest what isn’t being said. The film is hip without being snide. It gets two vivid performances from unknown leads as the laidback Wilson (Scoot McNairy) and the flaky Vivian (Sara Simmonds). And it makes a statement about who we are at this moment in this age. A very, very solid effort.

Thursday, September 4, 2008

Raiders at midnight

I've been meaning to get around to this, but at midnight Saturday I moseyed on down to the formerly great Inwood Theater to see Raiders of the Lost Ark. It was the first time I have seen it on a big screen since the early 1980s, and I think the first time since its original run. When I was young, trips to the movies were not that common, although my parents and I went to most of the major blockbusters that came out in my youth. It wouldn't surprise me if of all those films this was my father's favorite. He grew up watching Saturday morning serials, and I remember him explaining to me the origins of the character after our viewing.

My notes on Saturday include the following:

1) It's great. It still is. It's adventurous, fun, but still has the lurking specter of apocalyptic dread hanging over it. I expected it to be more cartoonish than I remembered, but it isn't. In it's mood and presentation, it has one foot, and probably three toes, stuck firmly in something resembling reality.

2) A lot of people feel alienated by Karen Allen's Marion Ravenwood. Detractors find her to be shrill and whiny. That used to be my impression. Not after this screening. I love the scenes at her bar in Nepal, and the way she ends it with "Guess what, Indiana Jones, I'm your goddamned partner. " Final ruling: feisty, not shrill.

3) The effects and stunts seem dated, but what film's do not after nearly thirty years. That said, a good fistfight lasts forever. The fistfight with the gigantic German around the rotating fighter plane is magnificent. I found my head unconsciously bobbing with each blow.

4) In my review of Crystal Skull, I mentioned a scene near the end in which Indiana Jones holds up the Nazi caravan carrying the ark with a rocket launcher, threatening to destroy the ark. Belloq dares him to do so ("Go ahead. Blow it back to God"), and he can't bring himself to destroy such an artifact ("Indiana, we are merely passing through history. This ... this is history."). It's the only scene where Jones and Belloq address each other by first names, and actually seem to have respect, almost a rivalrous affection, rather than hostility. And it goes without saying that Belloq is the only character who treats the ark as sacred, who hasn't eradicated its spiritual significance from his mind. On rewatching, it remains a brilliant little scene, a piece of soul that could never appear in the soulless Indiana Jones sequels.

5) The film ends with Jones and Marion locking arms on the steps, the ark crated up and disappearing Kane-style into the warehouse. And that, to me, is the end of the series. I categorically refuse to admit the sequels exist.


I know, I know, I know. I'm completely in the tank for Anne Hathaway. But I suppose this is why. A beautiful star showing up to the film festival premiere of her awards-buzz-generating movie in such a magnificent gown. This is the Hollywood Dream Factory at its best.

Tuesday, September 2, 2008

Jerry Reed, rest in peace

What are the shortest reads ever? British Cuisine. German Humor. And the list of Jerry Reed movies that deserve more than one star. A heck of a guitar picker, though. He has trucked his way into the afterlife, according to published reports. North bound and down, now.

Don LaFontaine, rest in peace

Don LaFontaine, aka "The Voice of God," has passed away. Known for his landmark intomations on movie trailers, "In a world" and such. One of our most indelible actors in our time. The theaters in Heaven will now be filled by his voice.