Monday, June 30, 2008

The Egg Theory

At Awards Daily, Ryan Adams comes up with a WALL-E theory concerning Eve the Robot. Simply put, he sees her and her shape as that of an egg, and the story as an allegory of Christian rebirth and redemption for a dead world. Nice theory. Potentially gives the film a bit of intellectual and artistic depth and credibility. The problem is that even if true, it doesn't impress me all that much. That doesn't rank highly enough on the artistic continuum to suddenly fall at its feet. But it will probably allow the film's ardent fans to continue to proclaim it the greatest movie ever made.

Stunt casting at its ..... stuntiest?

Helena Bonham Carter may join the ranks of the next Terminator movie. Perhaps the cyborg must go back to the Victorian Age to eliminate John Connor's great-great-great grandmother.

Saturday, June 28, 2008

Bowen Animation Dystrophy bamboozled

Oh, boy. Two of the three films on the Anti-D Select are animated - Wall-E and Kung Fu Panda. There goes my research grant proposal for Bowen Animation Dystrophy, my up-to-now condition of being unable to enjoy animated features. Let's hope I get back to disliking them.

Wall-E hype alert, No. 1

"It's just adorable and smart and interesting. It has more character development and emotion than any movie I've seen this year." - unidentified studio bigwig quoted by Nikki Finke

Adorable and interesting, I buy. Smart, probably more often than not. Emotional, I'll give it that.

"More character development ... than any movie I've seen this year?" Oh, come on. We're not exactly exploring the deepest darkest chasms of a human or robot existence.

Friday, June 27, 2008

National Post: Wall-E best film of the decade?

No. It's not. While I admire Wall-E, the hype for it is quickly growing out of hand.

My first objection is that its satire isn't strong enough. Have you seen The Wizard of Oz as an adult? Now that's how to embed biting social commentary into an all-ages movie. The spaceship-bound, immobile, advertising-saturated, lard-boat humans represent the main attempt at satire. But the Pixar-ites don't do much beyond the idea. Their idea of bite is having the captain fail to realize that pizzas do not grow on trees. Man, they don't care whose toes they step on.

But my stronger objection to such a notion is this - Wall-E is not strongly artistically substantive. It does have an ecological message, and what some feel is a touching love story between its robot lovebirds. Great. That makes it E.T. But that hardly puts it up there with A.I. or Blade Runner, which use similar material to examine human identity. I'm troubled by the notion that real intellectual stimulation has slipped so far down the list of things we look for in movies. To raise Wall-E to the status of "film of the decade" - over films like Grizzly Man, The New World, or The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford - would demonstrate the lowered expectations that we have for our movies.

Young robots in love [Wall-E]

Wall-E [G]
Grade: B
Director: Andrew Stanton

So, what, you want me to admit it?

Fine, I’ll get the admissions out of the way.

Wall-E is a brilliantly executed, technically impressive animated feature about the last pollution-cleaning robot on an abandoned, trash-heap future Earth. God bless the blistered fingers that ran around a keyboard to create its astounding level of animated detail. I don’t think any animated feature has ever looked or felt as tactile as this thing. Yet I also find it to be more of a technical accomplishment than an imaginative one.

There is a shot in Pixar’s last film, Ratatouille, that takes the Paris skyline and makes tangible its reputation as the City of Lights. In a single frame, it feels like you can reach out and hold the sparkle in your hand. It’s that illusion of spectacular realism that Pixar seems to be building for, an essential blurring of that made by computer and that made by billions of years of geological, chemical and biological interaction.

With this, we see the potential dawning of something new – animated realism. That’s hard to say about a movie centered on young robots in love. Particularly one that takes place in outer space and on a lonely, trash-choked Earth. But think of it like Kubrick’s 2001, which takes unreal elements and places them in a convincingly real space. Wall-E pulls a similar trick. Until it reaches space, the film largely avoids animation’s traditional distorted fantasy, preferring a living, breathing, dusty (alternative) reality.

From its three-dimensional look to the ominous skyscrapers of rubbish, Wall-E has found this feel. But in doing so, it launches the animated feature into an identity crisis over how far we have come from the pen and the flipbook. Is this the right direction, tossing aside the dancing-hippo fantasies? I don’t know. Count me as impressed, but hesitant.

Like many classic cartoons, Wall-E is virtually silent. Our two lovebird robots, Wall-E and Eva, only beep and whirr (and chirp out an electronic version of each other’s name), making goo-goo talk that only R2-D2 could understand. Director Andrew Stanton says that part of his inspiration was Buster Keaton silent comedies of the twenties. It certainly apes them as much as possible.

It’s difficult to talk about Wall-E’s teeming environmental conscience. After all, we all love trees. To the degree that it gives children a positive message of caring for the world, it’s admirable. However, the film’s premise of an uninhabitable planet indulges in designer apocalyptic pessimism. Afterward, every candy wrapper falling from your pocket will screw with your kid’s head. As environmental films go, Wall-E is a bit of a dour scold.

Along these lines, the film possesses a palpable misanthropic bent, reducing your friends and neighbors to fat and happy dipshits living on milkshakes and gravy in outer space. This would work as Bradbury-style sci-fi satire if there were any macabre wit about it. But it's short on wit. And that’s disappointing.

Wall-E is enamored of its own importance, both in terms of aesthetics and social responsibility. The former is truly groundbreaking. The reaction to the latter will be interesting to see. While I’m left with hesitations about what it is doing, I have to hail the effort. It certainly isn’t rubbish.

For the Want of a Tale [Wanted]

Wanted [R]
Grade: D
Cast: James McAvoy, Angelina Jolie, Morgan Freeman, Thomas Kretschmann, Common, Terence Stamp
Director: Timur Bekmambetov

If each film has its own cinematic vocabulary, then Wanted would mainly consist of the seven words they wouldn’t let George Carlin say on television.

It 's not just that the comic book feature, directed by Russian Timur Bekmambetov, doesn’t flinch from its aggressive bloodshed – or flinch from, well, anything. Instead, it’s the film’s mash-up of the unnecessaries. The harsh camera angles. The epileptic editing. The frenzied action beats. The polluting voiceover. The film language – heck, the film itself – is egregious, profane, and empty.

In the latest nerd-cum-action hero adventure, James McAvoy leaves Dilbert-land to join a cult of talented assassins, led by Morgan Freeman and Angelina Jolie. His father was one, and despite the geeky exterior, he has the same skills deep down. Soon, men and woman are flying from skyscraper to skyscraper, pulling car stunts, and knocking off targets. For those easily impressed by Matrix-like Bullet-Cam, the film offers plenty.

However, the trailer unloaded most of the mindless thrills. If you’ve seen someone curve one bullet, you’ve seen them all. What stunned me, though, is how often Wanted resorts to peanut-butter-and-jelly foot chases that lead to little bang. On top of that, the film often looks terrible. When it’s not a money shot, it’s a grainy one, enough so that you wonder about the adequacy of the budget.

While Wanted piles on the mindless action mileage, it overlooks another part of the comic book mentality. These assassins derive from a cult of medieval weavers. They work in a sweater factory. They get the names of their targets by consulting “The Loom of Fate.” Jolie tells the looniest backstory you’ll ever hear. All of this done as if lost in a Bergman movie. Now, is it just me, or does a film that can’t pull humor from that milieu completely miss the joke? It seems like the source material has a sense of humor that the film doesn’t share. I mean, “The Loom of Fate?”

The one saving grace is the wack-o ending, in which all the elements weave deliciously together. The action is striking and well-paced. The use of exploding rats is breakneck bizarre at its best. It’s a blast to send you out the door. And maybe, just maybe, that’s all you will need to remember.

Wednesday, June 25, 2008

Kermit Love, rest in peace

The man who created Big Bird's outfit has died at 91. I hate to break it, but Big Bird was in fact not a real bird but a man in a suit.

And for the record, Mr Love says no, he was not.

Why do the British hate Keira Knightley?

At the height of her popularity in the early nineties, a friend of mine noted that the British really did not feel warmth Emma Thompson, or her then-husband Kenneth Branaugh, for that matter. So maybe it's a uniquely English thing for such a fate to befall Keira Knightley. FYI, I thought she was great in Pride and Prejudice.

Monday, June 23, 2008

25 years, 100 (+1) movies

Entertainment Weekly has named its (fairly suspect) top 100 movies of the past 25 years (since 1983). Given I'm thinking about doing my top 100 or so films, I thought devising my own top 100 (0r 101) list of those years would be a good head start.

Here would be my top 25 (actually 26, couldn't pick one to cut), in rough chronological order:

The Right Stuff
Blue Velvet
Wings of Desire
Drugstore Cowboy

My Own Private Idaho
Dazed and Confused
The Piano
Schindler's List
Chungking Express
Dead Man
The Big Lebowski
Flowers of Shanghai
The Thin Red Line
Eyes Wide Shut

In the Mood for Love
Requiem for a Dream
Amores Perros
Mulholland Drive
Man on Fire
Grizzly Man
The New World
The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford

Here's the rest:

The Road Warrior
The Year of Living Dangerously
Paris, Texas
This Is Spinal Tap
Raising Arizona
Au Revoir, Les Enfants
The Last Emperor
Days of Being Wild
Die Hard
Bull Durham
The Thin Blue Line
Do the Right Thing
Sex, Lies, and Videotape
Field of Dreams
Say Anything
Crimes and Misdemeanors
The Double Life of Veronique

Ju Dou
A Midnight Clear
Dances With Wolves
The Silence of the Lambs
Raise the Red Lantern
Terminator 2: Judgment Day
The Last of the Mohicans
Howard's End
The Age of Innocence
Groundhog Day
Short Cuts
A Perfect World
Hoop Dreams
Before Sunrise
Fallen Angels
Breaking the Waves
Bottle Rocket
Mother Night
The Ice Storm
Ulysses Gaze
The Sweet Hereafter
Saving Private Ryan
Out of Sight
Waiting for Guffman
The Wind Will Carry Us
The Limey

George Washington
The Royal Tenenbaums
Morvern Callar
Confessions of a Dangerous Mind
All the Real Girls
Russian Ark
Lost in Translation
City of God
United 93
Marie Antoinette
Casino Royale
Children of Men
No Country for Old Men

The Alba Curse

The LAist suggests "The Alba Curse." You can imagine what that is - critical and box office poison. Needless to say, it struck again this weekend with the tank job of The Love Guru, although Mike Myers accounts for most of that.

I don't know what is a fair expectation. No one has ever mistaken her for a good actress, and when she gets too thin (see Good Luck, Chuck) she loses the sweetness in her face. She's one in a long line of bombshells whose appeal lasts for a few years and then fades. Denise Richards is an older example. Meghan Fox is the currently rising one. In four years, there will be a new one on the horizon.

Nailed vs. Quantum

What film is having more difficulty getting made - David O. Russell's Nailed or the new James Bond film, Quantum of Solace? Nailed has just shut down production for the fourth time due to financing issues, according to this report. Meanwhile Quantum, which just finished shooting, has been a worker's comp attorney's delight - two or three car crashes, a stuntman hospitalized, a crew member stabbed, and Daniel Craig sent to the hospital with a laceration.

Saturday, June 21, 2008

Smart choice?

So I have to reconcile myself to the fact that I have now recommended Get Smart while disparaging the year's best reviewed big-tag indie, The Visitor. Would I do it the same way? You bet. Unless they've recently started handing out blankets and pillows at the Angelika like a cross-country flight.

Thursday, June 19, 2008

Get Smart: Dumb fun

Get Smart [PG-13]
Grade: C
Cast: Steve Carell, Anne Hathaway, Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson, Alan Arkin, Terence Stamp
Director: Peter Segal

Get Smart is dumb fun. It falls in the category of “better than it has any right being.” It’s a seemingly crummy idea, turning Mel Brooks’ sixties spy spoof show into a modern-day action comedy, but they made this sucker about as well as they could. The handful of big laughs pilots you through the merely smile-inducing. It’s the type of film that critics will hate to admit laughing at. Likely some will pretend that they didn’t.

Much of it relies on Steve Carell’s comic magnetism and masochism. Who else would you want to see bury blow darts into his face, like an adventure in acupuncture? Or eavesdrop on a Russian conversation in a Siberian loo between trickles? Or plant a big masculine moneymaker on The Rock? Carell plays Maxwell Smart as a brilliant office dweeb (huh?) turned inept emergency field agent – a spy-game idiot savant. There’s no bumbling that he can’t think his way out of. And no think his way out of that he can’t bumble back into again.

Get Smart is blatant Hollywood summer flubber, and subject to its most poisonous demands. It stumbles out of the gate as well as to the finish. It ends with a balls-out action piece that’s too eager to lose the comic tone found in the film’s earlier and better set pieces. In those, a strong one-upmanship chemistry exists between Carell and Anne Hathaway’s tomboyish expert, Agent 99. She’s the straight woman with a straight right. He’s the punch line and punching bag. The plot, a mission across Russia to flout a fiendish KAOS nuclear plot, stockpiles clever low humor like processed uranium. Even the eggheads get tossed a witty line about existentialism. Everyone gets a bone.

Hathaway drops her Hollywood good girl image for a more vulpine attitude, for once. Her tall, lean athleticism shouldn’t dim the Audrey Hepburn comparisons (I know, stand-ins account for some of it). The Rock as Max’s idol, the heart throb Agent 23, gets to do what the charming musclehead does best – comedy. One day, some enterprising filmmaker will write him the perfect supporting role, and we’ll be at risk of giving him an Oscar. Carell gets, and takes, a chance to erase some of the pungent memories of last year’s jillion-dollar nautical disaster, Evan Almighty. More humor. Less beard.

When you throw in a scene-stealing Alan Arkin (the plastic-swordfish-through-the-windshield gag from the last trailer really is piercing), this is a cast you would like to see in more fruitful material. Carell and Hathaway should do a Nick-and-Nora update, if just to enjoy the looks of horror on the faces of overly serious cineastes when they hear about it.

I suspect that Don Adams dead-enders will find things to nitpick. But they’ve been waiting for this film since the Tet Offensive. If you come into contact with someone telling you how brilliantly and satirically the show captures the sixties zeitgeist, slowly roll up the car window. They won’t attack unless provoked.

The best way to measure a film like Get Smart is by voting with your lips. I left with a dopey grin on my face. I suspect many of you will, too. It should last at least until the next mindless entertainment distraction.

Cyd appreciations

Today seems to be the day for more expansive appreciations of Cyd Charisse (My word, are feature writers ever precious princesses who take their time.). Here's are links of the most interesting:

David Thomson, a great, great critic, but prone to tossing out interesting, radical, provocative notions such as that Nicholas Ray's Party Girl was Charisse at her best.

Manohla Dargis, strangely describing The Girl Hunt as not sexy. No guy would say that. :)

Klinkenborg, New York Times, a splendid example of analyzing film at a level where it doesn't matter anymore.

Ty Burr, dead wood version

Ty Burr, blog version, with clips

Washington Post

D.C. Examiner

L.A. Times

Hartford Courant

Obviously, we've been Cyd-heavy, but when else will we ever again have the chance to be so?

Wednesday, June 18, 2008

Two unlikeliest positive reviews of the year ...

Both Andrew Sarris in the New York Observer and J. Hoberman of the Village Voice give mild and moderate positive reviews, respectively, to Get Smart. All we need is for Jonathan Rosenbaum to follow suit, and it will soon be pushing for membership in The Canon.

New AFI list

I try not to get too worked up about American Film Institutes lists, which are notoriously compromised. But I accept that they are merely devices to get old classics into discussion in the public mainstream. While I don't take them very seriously, I'm glad someone's doin' the spade work.

EDIT: By looking at the list, I wonder, who did Howard Hawks tick off? Only Scarface and Red River. OK, OK, I guess two entries is decent. But no The Big Sleep, Bringing Up Baby or His Girl Friday? Cat Ballou beats out Rio Bravo as a Western. Not to mention Seven Men From Now, The Naked Spur Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid, She Wore a Yellow Ribbon, and The Man Who Shot Liberty Valence. off the top of my head. At least it has McCabe & Mrs. Miller. But Cat Ballou is one of the ten greatest westerns? OK, I'm spiraling.

MGM: How many stars are left?

The thought crossed my mind as I looked through stuff on Cyd Charisse: how many stars of the MGM musical era are still alive? Debbie Reynolds is still up and running, and she was quoted in various Charisse obituaries. Are there more? I assume so. Can anybody list a couple? I'll try to find some info and report back. It's terrible, but inevitable, that we're losing so many.

UPDATE: Here are some:

Debbie Reynolds
Mickey Rooney
Esther Williams

UPDATE: And.....
Lena Horne

And Cyd Charisse lives forever ...

One beautiful thing about YouTube for the film fan is that it brings back to life the great dance routines from musicals. Here are links to several of Charisse's best:

The Girl Hunt (a portion, I believe), from The Band Wagon:

Dancing in the Dark, from The Band Wagon:

Baby You Knock Me Out, from It's Always Fair Weather:

All of You, from Silk Stockings:

The Broadway Melody, in two parts, from Singin' in the Rain:

(I think those match. :) )

If you go to search and punch in "Cyd Charisse," you'll find a hundred-some videos. You can explore to your hearts' content.

Tuesday, June 17, 2008

Cyd Charisse, rest in peace

Every once in a while, a prominent film industry legend will pass away, and Anti-D will run a brief obituary. I always feel inadequate to the task of summing up a life, so often I don't write a long one. Mostly these are respectful, but only occasionally do they nearly suck the life out of me. Such is the case with this one. Cyd Charisse, the last star of the MGM musical, passed away today. She was either 86 or 87, depending on the press report.

She was born Tula Ellice Finklea in about the last place you would think could bring life to a powerful dancer named "Cyd Charisse" - Amarillo, Texas, in 1921. For my money, her career remains as one of the gemstone contributions of the Lone Star State to the art of film. Despite its exotic nature, Cyd Charisse wasn't a true stage name - it was actually legit. "Sid" was a childhood nickname, as her brother had trouble pronoucing "Sis." It was later creatively re-worked to "Cyd" by Hollywood. Charisse was the last name of her first husband, Nico, her dance instructor whom she married in her teens and later divorced. At the time of her death, she had been married to her long-time husband, the 90-something and still kickin' Tony Martin, since the forties.

She was practically a human special effect. Charisse was really the last star that the MGM Freed Unit produced in the 1950s, and she is considered arguably the greatest dancer in film musical history, certainly on the female side. Her style ranged from the balletic to the modern and the sexually provocative, at least in terms of 1950s filmmaking. For all her poise and lady-like dignity, her dancing gave off the whiff of reveling in being gorgeous and desirable. Watching her dance was to simultaneously appreciate the delicate artistic potential of the human body and to bet that she was great in bed.

As virtually every deep film fan knows, she gained fame for her spectacularly long, muscular legs, which were once insured by the studio for $1 million. Anyone who has seen Singin' in the Rain in a theater can attest to exactly how far across the screen her gams seem to go. The rest of her wasn't bad-looking, either - her face bore a striking resemblance to Ava Gardner. As a musical star, she had one big weakness - she really couldn't sing. Her singing voice was usually dubbed, usually by India Adams.

She was classically trained, and as a youth she moved away from Amarillo for more high-caliber instruction. As a teenager, she danced as a soloist with (if I recall correctly) an exile touring company of the Ballet Russes. She married Charisse in France and later moved with him to Los Angeles to open a dance studio, which would eventually lead to roles in the movies. She signed a contract with MGM during the forties and appeared in feature dancing roles, sometimes under the name of a relative, Lily Norwood.

She was in her early thirties when she became a true star with the "Broadway Melody" portion of Singin' in the Rain, famously taunting Kelly with her leggy sexuality until they join each other in step and melody. She would then spend the 1950s alternating between work with Kelly and Fred Astaire. Labeled "beautiful dynamite" by Astaire, her routines constituted about the only time that the twin First Men of the Musical had to fear being out-danced by their partner. That's not to mention being looked down upon - listed at 5-foot-9, she was taller than either of them. In the lavender-scarf section of the "Broadway Melody," she supposedly dances on a step above Kelly partly to blur the height difference.

After Rain, in her next and best performance, 1953's The Band Wagon with Fred Astaire, she left us with two sequences that are always listed among the greatest dance routines in film history - the quietly elegant "Dancing in the Dark" and the astonishing 11-minute pulp fiction satire "The Girl Hunt Ballet" (although I never forget her sunflower radiance in "I See a New Sun," either). Later, she starred in Brigadoon and It's Always Fair Weather with Kelly and Silk Stockings with Astaire. Previously, she had played supporting roles and appeared in featured dance routines in musicals like 1946's Ziegfeld Follies and The Harvey Girls. She also regularly acted in non-musicals, with no dancing involved, throughout her era of prominence.

She entered stardom near the end of the age of the dance musical. As tastes changed, time ran out for her in a way that might have seemed unimaginable at the beginning. The MGM Freed Unit machine that endlessly churned out delectable dance musicals in the forties and fifties soon came to an end. Later, she would perform nightclub routines with Martin and work in television. She would appear on Broadway for the first time in 1992. In 2006, she was presented by President Bush with the nation's highest artistic medal. As nostalgia for the age of the musical grew, film enthusiasts would come to see her as a looming icon, the woman who could outdo Kelly and Astaire. She took the elder stateswoman role as host of the 1994 That's Entertainment documentary profiling the musical's Golden Age.

Man, this one hurts. Thank you, and Rest in Peace.

The Anti-D Law of Depressing European Cinema

I'm not sure what it is, but something about The Visitor triggered this thought that had been sitting around in the cobwebs of my mind. But I think I can make it apply a little bit.

The law is:

When French films want to depress you, they present life's burden of pointlessness. When Russian films want to depress you, they shoot the kids.

In this model, The Visitor thinks it's being a French film, but it's really a Russian film. Carry on.

Unreliable source: Anne Hathaway leaves boyfriend

In other news, K. Bowen heads for the gym.

Monday, June 16, 2008

Deadly im-plants [The Happening]

The Happening [R]
Grade: C
Cast: Mark Wahlberg, Zooey Deschanel, John Leguizamo, Betty Buckley
Director: M. Night Shyamalan

There’s a scene early in M. Night Shyamalan’s brilliantly bad, ingeniously insipid The Happening that will set the tone for the rest of the film.

In a world of zombie-like mass suicides, standing in an eerie traffic jam, a dead-eyed police officer pulls his own gun and fires at his temple. He falls. The pistol skitters across the pavement. Slowly the camera follows. A second man walks slowly from a car, picks up the weapon and fires at his temple. His face is never seen, hanging somewhere above the screen, until it drops dead into the frame. Then the pistol skitters along the pavement and ...

In terms of imagination, composition and execution, it signifies a gifted cinematic mind. Chilled, it’s a prolonged gasp of agony that re-tools Hollywood’s Dream Factory for macabre nightmares. Yet it also suggests a film in slow-motion suicide, marooned with impractical dialogue, indifferent acting, and a script one or two edits short of a complete idea.

Few things more disappoint me to say. If there’s a last dog in the M. Night Shyamalan kennel, I might be it. I mean, does anyone else defend Lady in the Water? But with this tale of Mother Nature Strikes Back, I finally, mildly, and with true appreciation of its strengths, must release a little venom into the air.

As its greatest accomplishment, The Happening successfully sticks images onto our uneasy feeling of ecological peril. It does so by mining the horror film for all its supernatural currency. It offers no Frankenstein-like figure for the risks of fooling with Mother Nature. Shyamalan leaves nature’s dangerous mysteries to its own God-given green disguise.

The death of civilization begins in grassy, bushy Central Park. Pedestrians stop walking. They babble. They walk backward demonically. Then they find the nearest gruesome way to kill themselves (Hey, anyone gotta power mower?). This pattern will repeat itself. Among these deaths, some are bone-chilling, but some will become clumsily funny. The film is inconsistent in that way.

As the disease cleans out New York, we return to Shyamalan’s beloved Philadelphia, where a science teacher (Mark Wahlberg) and his estranged wife (the bubble-eyed Zooey Deschanel, who should have been a silent movie star) join the train-bound evacuation of the city. Soon, they’re stranded with their young niece in a remote town, after the train loses contact with the world at large.

Experts fear a terrorist attack. But naturally wisdom is only bestowed upon a balding crank with a thing for Ballpark Franks. This nursery manager, based on no apparent evidence, realizes that the plants are releasing venom into the air. Yes, the plants are killing us. Fearing for their own survival, they figure it’s us or them. I like people well enough. But I think I’m betting on the foliage.

Shyamalan has a brilliant, Spielbergian eye for imbuing dread into the most mundane image. A slit in a fabric can seem like the end of the world. However, his greatest weakness is his Lucas-esque dialogue. For instance, when a fleeing soldier approaches a car window, does he babble or blurt in panic? No. He calmly, and ridiculously, introduces himself and describes his situation. Even worse, the film passes the plate around for generous helpings of painful, quasi-scientific exposition.

The dialogue in early Shyamalan films got bailed out by quality actors. Toni Collette, Haley Joel Osment, Bruce Willis, and Sam Jackson set some Herculean records for line recovery. While Wahlberg brings a reassuring everyman presence, too much of the film slouches into type-written hell. If Shyamalan has no script doctor, he should hire one. If he has one, he should fire him.

I wish The Happening could switch places in time with Signs, with which it shares much (not to mention Spielberg’s War of the Worlds). The material feels potentially stronger, less goofy, less overbearing in its religious expression. It trades Signs’ monster-movie frights for a template of unsettling dread. Future generations not saddled with chronology might well find it the better view. Yet for us trapped in time, it too often feels like new paint on an old film.

I love the climax, and until it runs into cliché, the second half of the film seems stronger than the very weak first. Sticking with it never quite rewards you, but it does provide some moments.

Unwelcome [The Visitor]

The Visitor [PG-13]
Grade: D
Cast: Richard Jenkins, Haaz Sleiman, Danai Gurira, Hiam Abbass
Director: Tom McCarthy

The Visitor is not a movie. It’s a book.

It’s a book. Made into a movie. For film critics. Who hate movies. And love books.

It has the subtlety and depth of a novella, but not the pulse or juice of a film. It does nothing interesting cinematically whatsoever, which makes you wonder what the point of having a camera is. Writer-director Tom McCarthy (The Station Agent) simply chose the wrong medium for the story. Unfortunately, you have to pay for the mistake by sacrificing your consciousness.

A subdued economics professor nears retirement. He must attend a conference in New York, where he still owns an apartment he hasn’t seen in years. When he enters, he finds a pair of squatters – a young immigrant couple. He’s a musician, playing African drums. She makes and sells bracelets. After a brief scuffle, he invites the young people to stay in his apartment. He’ll only be there a few days. Soon Tarek, the young Syrian, teaches the professor, William, to play the drums, taking him to park performances in the Big Apple.

The blossoming odd couple act between the sixty-ish white guy and the young immigrant Syrian will get you involved. Then the film does the dumbest thing. It takes the one relationship that’s working and breaks it up halfway through. The Syrian goes to jail on immigration charges, and he takes the story with him.

His mother soon arrives from Detroit. As they fight to keep her son in the country, the repressed widower warms to her. At which point the filmmakers realize that someone might have to kiss someone else. They treat this potential open display of affection like a Pilgrim court. And you. Poor you. By this point you’re praying for God to grant you just one explosion, just one explosion, please!

I will say that the lead performance by Richard Jenkins is interiorized perfection. It keeps the film somewhat watchable. Or at least it keeps you from crawling into a fetal position. But the rest of the film indulges in all of the intelligently unadventurous devices that allow smart people to pat themselves on the back for appreciating. It’s when I watch a film like The Visitor that I wonder if indie people really get this vulgar medium at all.

Saturday, June 14, 2008

The Curious Case of Brad Pitt

I mentioned this on another site, and it seemed to get a good response. So I thought I would write something on it here. The premise is simple. Does any film star get less credit than Brad Pitt?

Here's a guy who could be throwing his golden looks and megawatt stardom at summer actioner after summer actioner. Yet he almost never appears in a film that's less than interesting and a bit unconventional. I was reminded of this fact while watching the otherworldly trailer of his upcoming The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, directed by David Fincher. That's the latest in a line that recently includes films like Babel and The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford. Even his box office numbers are directed by higher-end directors like Steven Soderbergh and Doug Liman.

Pitt has improved his acting over time. More importantly, he does what film snobs claim they want from the big stars, foregoing star vehicles for substantive work. Yet I rarely hear anything better than mixed feelings about him. It's a shame, because here's a guy in the prime years of his career contributing his star magnetism to the art. He deserves praise.

Speed Racer redux

During my trip to California, my friends and I watched Speed Racer once again. I was pleased to see that it held up pretty well to a second viewing. Here are a few thoughts on things the second time around.

1) The opening 10 or 15 minute section, which intertwines the backstory of Speed's childhood, the family's fractured relationship with his brother, and the film's first race, is breathtaking. I particularly like the way that the soundtrack and the sound design move you through these jarring sections with comfort and comprehension. Each section has its own musical thing thing going on, so you know exactly where you are. Really beautifully done.

2) Many complaints have revolved around the "incomprehensible" stock market explanations. The point is missed that they are supposed to be incomprehensible. You're only supposed to understand the basic idea, that the capitalists are corruptly profiting from the sport. The rest is supposed to be alien language to the purity of the competitive endeavor.

3) I liked Emile Hirsch more on this viewing, because I found his quietness/near-pulselessness to be within the character, rather than some shortcoming of his performance.

Anyway, if you can catch this box office bomb before it leaves theaters for good, please do so.

Thursday, June 12, 2008

Dazed and Confused cast update

I was thinking I would try to write a "Where are they now?" post for Dazed and Confused. It seemed like a good idea. In fact it's such a good idea that Moviefone beat me to it. And somehow they've worked out a system where they will get 36 clicks for it, too. Being that I'm neither that productive nor that entrepreneurial, I'll just link instead.

Some cool notes in there. Marissa Ribisi, aside from being the twin of her more famous brother Giovanni, is also Mrs. Beck. Milla Jovovich and co-star Shane Andrews eloped, but the marriage was annuled by her parents because she was underage. Although it's not mentioned here, it occurred to me that nagging feeling that I remember Adam Goldberg comes from Zodiac, where he played Duffy Jennings, Robert Downey's replacement at the Chronicle. And the one I knew but forgot to mention ... arguably the most famous person in the film is an obscure extra, Renee Zellweger.

Just got back in town ...

and I'm looking for a movie.

Missed The Happening. Maybe tomorrow afternoon.

Enjoyed a trip to the Bay area in California. Will say more later.

Saturday, June 7, 2008

Making peace with the Inwood Theater, for one night

Regular readers might be familiar with my ongoing take on the decline and fall of the Inwood Theater, a classic Dallas theater that has been shucking its indie credibility in favor of more mainstream fare. Recently, they also yanked out the seats in the main auditorium and put in beanbags, love seats, sofas, and comfy chairs in their place.

Last night was my first encounter with the new look place. I attended a midnight screening of Richard Linklater's Dazed and Confused. I have to say, I kind of like the new comfy-seating set-up. It makes for a pleasant experience. Even if I might have some sentimental attachment to the old uncomfortable theater seating, I realize the kids of today might not agree. I figured my recliner would put me to sleep. Didn't happen. The film helped. It's an unusually fluid movie, built on stellar bits and pieces of teenage conversation. The amazing thing about it, as I've mentioned before, is that Linklater has written about 20 significant characters with each seemingly having his or her own particular quirks and vernacular. I'm guessing some of that is improv, but it's impressive however it was achieved.

The thing I always find funny about the film is the credits. Each actor is spotlighted with a clip of footage (sans sound) running next to the name. Of those 20 or so cast members, about 8 or 9 went on to significant entertainment careers of varying degrees after the film (Joey Lauren Adams, Milla Jovovich, and Rent's Anthony Rapp among them). Yet like many teenage films, a lot of the cast would be forgotten. That's where the humor comes. With the first 15 or so of the credits, you run through all the Jason Londons, the Wiley Wiggenses, and the Christin Hinojosas of the world. Then following all of those, within the last five credits or so, you get, oh, ..... Ben Affleck, Matthew McConaughey and Parker Posey. You know. The scraps.

In fact, I think Dazed and Confused, a small indie-ish effort at the time of release, strangely confirms the potency of star power. Even if other actors have more lines and screen time, the most strongly and fondly remembered performance is that of McConaughey. And Posey, in maybe a minute or two of screen time, gives the film one of its best scenes ("Okay, you little freshman bitches, Air Raid!") and stands out as possibly the most memorable of the female characters. That's not to say that the other actors fail to perform, or that if things hadn't worked out differently some of them might have made more of the opportunity. It's just that I don't think it was an accident that this trio moved on successfully.

Friday, June 6, 2008

Eastwood to Lee: Shut your face

Clint Eastwood, all 78 years of him, gives Spike Lee a piece of his mind. Personally, I'd still take Eastwood in a fight with Mars Blackmon.

Thursday, June 5, 2008

Fu you [Kung Fu Panda]

Kung Fu Panda [PG]
Grade: B

Let me begin this review of Kung Fu Panda with an admission – I really don’t get enthused by animation whatsoever.

Even on the occasions when I recommend an animated feature, it’s usually because of calculated respect, not multivariegated passion. Take Ratatouille, last year’s beloved Pixar release about a gourmet-minded French mouse. I can see the technical brilliance of it. But I couldn’t stand the rat. Or his family. Or his goofy human friend. Or his sappy story. That’s a problem.

You’re free to theorize what childhood horrors led me to such a soulless situation. You’re free to speculate whether I enjoy breaking children’s toys on Christmas. But we’re really not here to discuss that (and you can't pin it on me anyway). We’re here to review Kung Fu Panda, which I was pleasantly surprised to find enjoyable.

Dreamworks’ latest animated feature, the story of a floppy-stomached panda bear who dreams of becoming a light-footed kung fu hero, contains all the sappy childhood nostrums that can make cartoons so drearily predictable. But thankfully it doesn’t lay it on thick. It’s more Roadrunner and Wile E. Coyote. It’s interested in dynamic action, the motion and color of which pop off the screen. It's also quite funny. The fairly short film gets in, gets up, and gets out, without unduly turning a children’s movie into an unwanted epic, and that’s the best praise I can give it.

So you know that panda that’s been telling you to shut off your cell phone before the movies for the past, oh, year and a half? He in fact has a name. It’s Po, and he lives in a Chinese village, providing clumsy help at his father’s noodle restaurant. This panda’s father happens to be a crane. Don’t ask. I can’t figure it out, either. Of course, this overstuffed panda doesn’t dream of serving soup all day. He dreams of being a master kung fu fighter.

It just so happens that the local kung fu temple (because we’re in China, every Chinese village has a kung fu temple.) is in need of a hero. A rebellious master (a wildcat of some sort) is about to escape from his prison. In response, the kung fu master must identify the “Dragon Warrior” who will lead the fight against the threat. To the dismay of a legion of meticulously trained warriors and a wizened mouse teacher, the tubby soup server mysteriously gets the nod. So much for the wisdom of the ages.

Propelling the film along are some lovely, richly-visualized images accompanied by wonderfully quick action. The highlight – an explosive escape from an Inferno-like prison. That’s almost matched by a riveting five-on-one struggle over a falling footbridge. For balance, there’s a humorous and balletic fight over a flying dumpling. The film even has a bad guy (or bad leopard(?), I guess) whose cool enough to approach anti-hero status. You’re kind of happy when he beats up the sissies.

Do I seem excited about this? Well, I suppose that I am a bit. I have no real complaints beyond the usual shortcomings of a film geared for children. Which makes this a puzzling place .But an enjoyable visit. Maybe I should try this more often.

Night defending

Brad Brevet at Ropes of Silicon writes an impassioned defense of M. Night Shyamalan. Good for him. Unbreakable is a great film about the role of belief in the nature of identity. I like most of the rest of his films as well, to varying degrees. Isn't it time critics admit that their excess vitriol against Lady in the Water stems largely from the obnoxious film critic character getting the axe? Even if you didn't like the film, and it does have its issues, you should have the honesty to admit that Paul Giamatti was terrific in it.

Did I mention ....

that the critic in the previous post also called Speed Racer "this year's Norbit." Anyway.

Wednesday, June 4, 2008


Kinda funny: Last night, I was at a screening of Kung Fu Panda. One of the local critics - possibly a name some of you might be familiar with - was talking to one of the publicist assistants in the theater, which naturally was crowded with children. They were completely oblivious that other people were there, particularly all the children in the theater. And they're just going on about risque cable television shows. They're talking fairly loudly about lesbian relationships and gynecologist characters who are undergoing sex changes and such. I look around and these moms looked like they were quietly shooting them disapproving looks. Those poor parents in earshot might have had some wrenching conversations this evening. (In fairness, it was probably forgotten after the film.)

(For the record, the conversation wasn't raunchy or anything. Just subject matter that I wouldn't personally speak about in front of first graders, especially other people's.)

Monday, June 2, 2008

Lawrence Kasdan

How good does this make Lawrence Kasdan, in retrospect? He wrote the two best blockbusters - Raiders of the Lost Ark and The Empire Strikes Back - within a couple years. True, I'm sure they had alterations, contributions from others, etc. But it's a nice feather in the resume

The problem with Indy ...

Every popcorn muncher who goes to three movies a year is going to go to this one. And they're going to be disappointed. And they're going to go home and complain that Hollywood doesn't do anything original or good. And then they won't return for any of the original or good movies that come out the rest of the year.

Sunday, June 1, 2008

Gratuitous DB Cooper post, Number 1

Every once in a while, I should be able to turn away from movies to another interest, right? Here's one ... every so often, I go off on a Google tangent on various events of the 1970s, things that I knew were going on, but didn't quite have the capacity to process in childhood. I have a chronic fascination with all those little unsolved mysteries. Those interests include the case of "D.B. Cooper," aka "Dan Cooper," the mysterious legendary skyjacker who leapt out the back of a 727 with $200,000 and a parachute into the Washington state wilderness in November 1971. Alive or dead, he was never located, and his alias has entered into folk legend.

So last week, an amateur Cooper sleuth named Galen Cook released his theory as to the identity of Cooper, written up in a small Oregon newspaper where the identified man, William Pratt "Wolfgang" Gossett, lived as he aged. There also was another theory posited in New York magazine last year involving a former employee of the airline, Kenneth Christiansen. That candidate was championed by Sherlock Investigations, a NY-based PI firm.

Cook's guy, reportedly now deceased, has the advantage of bearing an extremely strong resemblance in certain pictures to the FBI composite of Cooper, if the photographs are authentic. He allegedly was a military guy with parachuting and survivalist training. He allegedly told his sons about his identity, as well as a couple of other people. Keep in mind, though that this investigation started as a result of an appearance on Coast to Coast AM, the old Art Bell show. So take with a grain of salt.

The New York mag guy, also reportedly deceased, who worked for Northwest Airlines (then Northwest Orient) as a steward and a mechanic, allegedly had a background in military jumping, as well. He bought a ranch with cash a year after the hijacking. When shown a photo, one stewardess from the flight reportedly said it was the closest resemblance of any photo she has ever been shown. However, the FBI thinks the man is too short, too light, too pale of skin, with the wrong eye color to match multiple eyewitness descriptions.

Personally, I think the background of NY mag's guy is interesting, because Cooper was allegedly a copycat of a failed similar attempt two weeks before. His familiarity with the airline, the airplane, and flight routes might have given him an advantage, given the compressed timeframe. But man, one of those alleged photos of Cook's guy is such a dead ringer.

Keep in mind, claims of being Cooper come a dime a dozen, and certainly nothing is guaranteed. One of these men is for sure innocent, and possibly both. The FBI, of course, still holds that Cooper most likely died either during the jump or of exposure in the woods.

Anyway, I find this sort of thing interesting. Thought I would pass it along.

Universal fire

A raging fire has hit Universal studios. No one is quite sure what the damage is yet. Should be interesting developments all day.

EDIT: Doc, Doc, we've got to back in time and save the clock tower. The whole square has burned down!


While we're discussing Prada. here's an Anne Hathaway quote that should make you wince, concerning a stunt mishap on Get Smart.

"My shin split open and I had to have 15 stitches. I try not to wimp out. In this case, I could see my shinbones. And I was kind of like -- I knew we had one more shot to get, so I turned to the director. I was like, 'If I have Extra Strength Tylenol, I could probably do the shot.' And the script supervisor, my onset dresser and my makeup artist all came up to me. And they were just like, 'You get a plastic surgeon and you sew up your legs. And you finish working right now.' So I was trying to continue with it. But in that one, I was overruled."