Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Witherspoon located

Reese Witherspoon has been located! She has a film coming out in the next month or two, with Vince Vaughn, called Four Christmases. Judging by the trailer, perhaps Ms. Witherspoon would have been better off by keeping up the Greta Garbo routine.

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

LAT buyouts

The buyouts by the LA Times of film critic Carina Chocano and entertainment reporter Sheigh Crabtree raises the troubling quesiton of whether the Times is discriminating against apparent babes. :)

But seriously ....

I've never understood the distaste you sometimes read on blogs toward Chocano. I'm not a religious reader of hers. But there are two occasions of importance where I know I agreed strongly with her. The first was in her overwhelming praise for Terrence Malick's The New World. The second was in her willingness to go against the grain of critical response and call out Judd Apatow on the sexism of his films while reviewing that stalker fantasy, Forgetting Sarah Marshall. Her reviews are extremely thoughtful and well-written. She'll be missed.

HIgh School Musical 3: We're doomed

High School Musical 3 made a gob of money this weekend. I'm reminded of a radio interview i once heard with Neal Howe, the generational theorist. He thinks of High School Musical as a quintessential example of positive, communitarian Millenial Generation entertainment. He said he once told a Gen Xer who was asking about HSM that if he were going to watch it, he'd better be prepared to go into a diabetic coma from all the sugariness. I think it's safe to say that it's Howe's view that this sort of thing, particularly musicals, is a future trend.

Saturday, October 25, 2008

Rachel Getting Married, second viewing

As it is one of my favorite films of the year, I paid to see Rachel Getting Married for the second time. These are some thoughts and things that I noted on the second viewing. I'm not sure if there will be spoilers, exactly, but there almost definitely will be some stuff in here that you might not want to know ahead of time if you haven't seen it.

1) It's an interesting question that some are asking: Who is better in the film - Anne Hathaway as the drug addict drama queen Kym or Rosemarie DeWitt as the quietly good daughter Rachel? There's been some disagreement about this topic, as some critics have favored DeWitt. On second viewing, I was more impressed by DeWitt than I had been the first time. Yet I think often, critics assume the less showy role is the more difficult and better acted. That's certainly true in a good number of cases, Demme's The Silence of the Lambs possibly being one example. I also think that it flatters critics to believe that, because it meams that critics are the keepers of some secret knowledge that only they can discern.

All that said, I still think Hathaway's is the film's true blow-away performance. It's the tougher role. It has much more range than simply uptight, upset sister. It requires and achieves sympathy where one might not expect it. And it simply lights up the screen.

2) At the beginning, as Kym and her nurse are walking to the car, Kym says something like, "You're not even going to give me your number?" The nurse answers, "That was one time and it was a mistake. I nearly lost my job for that." And of course, at the end of the film, the nurse picks up Kym and takes her off, presumably back to rehab.

Over on IMDb, that exchange has provoked a mini-contoversy with different interpretations. Some take the conversation to mean that the nurse had previously given Kym, a patient, personal contact information in violation of the institutional rules. But some think it's a reference to a sexual encounter, and that perhaps at the end, she isn't going back to rehab, but she is sneaking off from the family to be with the nurse.

I have to say, the sexual interpretation crossed my mind on this viewing. In the end, I think the evidence is against it. There's the obvious stuff ... Kym's sexual encounter with the best man and their farewell snogging at the end. But also, when they load Kym's stuff into the nurse's car, the nurse has a baby stroller in the trunk. And presumably, given the automobile wreck, Kym would need a lift back to rehab. So I think the non-sexual interpretation is the best interpretation. An interesting question, though.

3) In the post-rehearsal-speech argument, as Rachel, Kym and Dad head off into another room to continue their fight, there's a great little moment where step-mom Carol and fiance Sidney give each other a look that says, "Can you believe we're marrying into this?" Very subtle, but watch for it next time.

4) I'm not sure what to make of Kym's attachment to her dog, Olive. Perhaps it's the only family member from whom she feels only love and no tension. A reminder of an innocent time? A reminder of her brother?

5) One of the reasons that I go to a second viewing is to sample an audience reaction to a film I saw in a theater with seven film critics. It always amazes me how things I might find really funny fly over the audience's head, while something I find dramatic might seem comic. One example here is at the moment when Rachel reveals she's pregnant in the middle of a fight with Kym, and Kyn tells her that it isn't fair to reveal that sort of thing in the middle of a fight. I thought it was clearly a tense moment. The audience laughed. And it is kind of funny, looked at in a certain dark way.

6) How is it that if you want to watch an Anne Hathaway movie on Saturday night in Dallas-Fort Worth, the nation's fourth or fifth lagrest metro area, it's easier to find Passengers, the Hathaway film Sony is trying to bury, than it is to find Rachel, the film Sony Pictures Classics is trying to promote? This has got to be the most agonizingly slow platform release in history. HEck, it would be a shorter trip to go see Get Smart at the dollar theater for a buck-fifty, The good news is that the theater I was in was nearly full, with the movie showing on two screens in its second weekend. Impressive.

Synedoche, New York

I'm in the curious position again of having my review of Charlie Kaufman's Synedoche, New York posted over at Stage and Cinema and Screen Comment, but not here. So you can zip over there for that one. It'll be here whenever it releases in Dallas.

I will say that it's the type of film that I would have liked 10 years ago in my mid-twenties, when I knew more about books and ideas and less about life. That's probably about the best description I can give of it, actually.

Friday, October 24, 2008

Change is ... meh [Changeling]

Changeling [R]
Grade: C
Cast: Angelina Jolie, John Malkovich, Gattlin Griffith, Michael Kelly, Devon Conti, Jeffrey Donovan
Director: Clint Eastwood

With its overwrought emotions and black-and-white morality, melodrama is a form of storytelling that we believe our society has moved past.

We’re too sophisticated now to toss popcorn at the stage. “Melodramatic” is almost always a negative adjective. We almost never see a melodrama that isn’t saturated with post-modern irony.

So as Clint Eastwood dresses up Angelina Jolie in flapper garb, soaks her giant peepers in tears, and sends her out into Changeling, we have to ask, how do we deal with a film aiming for an antiquated style? I’m open to it, in some forms, but need convincing. Which should explain my down the middle reaction.

A tale of one woman’s fight against big city corruption, Changeling shows the importance of picking a good story. Scratching and finding a lost treasure from history (and embellishing it, wink)can make up for a bunch of sins. In 1928 in Los Angeles, single mother Christine Collins (Angelina Jolie) comes home one day to find her son Walter missing. The search for her son eventually entangles her in a battle between a crusading minister (John Malkovich) and the city’s violent, corrupt police force. Think L.A. Confidential.

Battered by bad press, the police find her son and return him with great fanfare to LaLa Land. One problem. It’s not her son. But that doesn’t much matter to the police (boo, hiss, twist the mustache), who are just happy to have the case closed and the press happy. Collins pushes the police to re-open their search, and finds herself in danger.

Eastwood has taken one of his favorite motifs – the male child abduction, and this time filters it through a female perspective. However, the film’s melodramatic tendencies mean that the emotions come across too simply, without the proper complexity. The tenderness feels too contrived for the needs of the story.

However, the shocking tale itself keeps unwinding in new and interesting directions. Some will think it unfocused. Eventually, as a new story of a psycho killer enters, the multiple stories become scattered, as does the editing. Until then, it’s mostly terrific – you never know where it’s going. Told through simple dialogue and simple filming, the story carries a very natural suspense.

Flat, expository dialogue is an excellent test of acting skill, and the film has plenty of test. Some critics love Jolie’s performance, but I think the exposition reveals her deficiencies. Watch the way some of this stuff dances in Malkovich’s mouth. Then watch how the flat language stays flat in Jolie’s. Her main affectations consist of crying, eyelash-batting, crying, shouting, crying, placing her hand on her mouth, and crying some more. This is perhaps the most blatant case of a star trying to cry her way to an Oscar that you’ll ever see.

That said, Jolie does have power and presence, and she never loses our sympathy. Taking the overall film into consideration, there’s a way to be kinder to her histrionics. Look at the following elements: Its star’s oversized facial features and overdone gesticulations. The film’s overwrought melodrama, simple story, and basic emotions. The heroine’s pure white hat and the villains’ pure black ones. The intensely visual storytelling style, with its long takes and classical framing. As suggested by its 1928 setting and its beginning in black and white, Changeling could easily, easily transform into a silent movie. That might be the best way to think of it in all of its elements – as an ode to a lost time.

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Whatever happened to ....

Reese Witherspoon?

Three years ago, she was on top of the world, winning the Oscar for Walk the Line. Since then, she's been in Rendition, a meh political melodrama, and I don't remember anything else.

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Oscar season

I think the Oscar prediction game is something of a racket. That said, I find it fun to read the articles. David Poland's are always fun at MCN.

Saturday, October 18, 2008

Could someone explain this to me?

Say you had a buzz-worthy indie film. It's getting very good to great reviews. It will be on a pretty good number of top ten lists at the end of the year. It's being mentioned strongly in the Oscar race in multiple categories. It has a name director, albeit one that hasn't had a big success in a while. It has a pretty bankable star, moreso than most indies. That star has given an awards-buzz performance. That star was on the cover of Entertainment Weekly two weeks ago with an article talking up her Oscar chances. That star was also on the most watched Saturday Night Live in years on the weekend of the movie's first small release.

Say you had all these things going for you, and you were staging a platform release, i.e. expanding the number of theaters and screens from one week to the next. How many screens would you have it on two weeks after the initial release, after that sort of publicity and buzz? 300? 500? 1,000?

The answer: According to Variety, Rachel Getting Married is at 71 theaters this weekend.

As a comparison, Man on Wire and Frozen River, limited release pictures from a couple months ago, are still on 50+ screens. Tell No One is still on 70+ screens.

Great job of catching the momentum, Sony Pictures Classics.

Rachel, dishwashers, and Bob Fosse

Rachel Getting Married has a lot of great little stories about its origins and making. I mentioned the one about Paul Thomas Anderson being offered the part of the groom Sidney. Here's a second. The dishwasher-loading contest came to screenwriter Jenny Lumet from a disagreement from her childhood between her father Sidney and Bob Fosse. The two men got into an intense friendly disagreement about the proper way to load a dishwasher and took about an hour of fiddling around with different configurations.

On the Button?

A note on Hollywood-Elsewhere about David Fincher's The Curious Case of Benjamin Button .... an extremely positive third or fourth or fifth-hand review from a projectionist. "It's over" is the quote about the best picture race.

Friday, October 17, 2008

The Needle and the Damage Done [Rachel Getting Married]

Rachel Getting Married [R]
Grade: A
Cast: Anne Hathaway, Rosemarie DeWitt, Bill Irwin, Debra Winger, Tunde Adebimpe, Mather Zickel.
Director: Jonathan Demme

Have I ever mentioned the time that I picked Anne Hathaway to be the biggest star to emerge from Brokeback Mountain? I love that story!

Most critics treated the performance kindly but lightly, seeing only another Disney teen queen trying to stretch her career beyond drinking age. More astute observers (aka: “me”) saw a classic beauty riding into the movie like a star, convincingly portraying 20 years of life in 15 minutes, and nailing her one big scene. While she hasn’t always been perfect since, I admire the way she has taken her job seriously and studiously.

So it means something when I say even I didn’t know she had this in her. By this, I mean her astounding performance at the center of Jonathan Demme’s Rachel Getting Married. The first stage of stardom is finding a bankable screen persona. The second stage comes from bravely smashing through it. The sound you hear is of shattering glass. It’s no longer a question of whether Hathaway can be this good. It’s now a matter of whether she can ever be this good again.

Clean for nine months as a drug rehab careerist, Hathaway’s Kym Buchman returns to her family’s blue-blood Connecticut estate to attend her sister Rachel’s wedding. Rachel (Mad Men’s Rosemarie DeWitt) has lived her whole life in the shadow of her sister’s drama, addiction, and endless need for attention. She wants her wedding day to Sidney – a sari-wrapped Bollywood spectacular – to be her one day at the center of family life, a mission that goes predictably haywire when her sister arrives.

The sisters share an opposite’s admiration for one another. But they bicker religiously. They each own a piece of the family’s wounding secret – a tragedy created by Kym’s addiction. Raining on this wedding are unspoken words, collective guilt, and the difficulties of forging forgiveness. The family dynamic is haunted. But it isn’t hateful. That’s an important thing to keep in mind.

Upon placing a ring on his bride’s finger, the groom (Tunde Adebimpe of the band TV on the Radio), a professional musician, breaks into an a capella rendition of Neil Young’s “Unknown Legend.” But the Young song best fitting the film is “The Needle and the Damage Done.” If every junkie is like a setting sun, then Kym is clawing at the horizon, refusing to go gently into the darkness.

The cigarettes that rarely leave Kym’s lips signal fear, desperation, paranoia, self-loathing, any number of things. They guard her sobriety and, possibly, express a longing for a speedy death. Her self-deprecating personality is a mad scramble of defense mechanisms designed to preemptively soften her next slip. She feels a deep need for love, but also a deep fear of its potential for rejection, and her caustic nature sabotages her best intentions. Yet she isn’t dead. She is the lively one. The witty one. And you see why the family, despite her worst, doesn’t want to lose her.

Her selfish, painful toast at the rehearsal dinner turns into a disaster of 12-step exhibitionism, self-loathing, affection, and a sincere apology spoken in a gallows humor that can’t help but come across badly. Yet there’s something to be said for it. It’s the most alive and deeply felt of all the speeches, the least practiced and polished, the single one that couldn’t be repeated at any wedding.

Most choose to see the story as the assassination of the perfect wedding by the attention whore Kym Buchman. That’s certainly how Rachel sees it. But that thinking goes a little too far in choosing sides. To outsiders, the family has a talent for stealth public relations, the carefully considered word, a willingness to favor image over reality (a fact that slightly contributes to the tragedy).The exuberant headache that is Kym – for better and worse, in sickness and in health – forces the family to own up to its reality. Rachel Getting Married is about struggling for the perfect wedding and finding the acceptably and therapeutically imperfect one in its place.

While it’s easier to play the role with the audience’s sympathy, DeWitt brings fierce, layered intelligence to the overlooked bride. Bill Irwin, as the father riding the line between loving and enabling, is the film’s quiet marvel. Debra Winger as the distant mother, enters the film with the panache and mystery that should emanate from a vanished star. Some would like an Oscar nod. But one would only be for Hollywood’s sins against 50-year-old actresses.

No one is ready to admit it yet, but Rachel Getting Married is a better film than Demme’s Silence of the Lambs. His approaches – handheld camerawork, overlapping dialogue, the loose vibe – all take risks and mostly work. He gets wonderfully rewarded by his willingness to allow his creators the room to create. Some critics have made noise about the presence of recognizable musical stars friendly to Demme – a violation, they feel, of the film’s verite leanings. But a director earns his indulgences. Demme definitely earns them here.

Declan Quinn’s hand-held camera becomes beautifully embedded in the ceremony. The debut script by Jenny Lumet, the daughter of director Sidney and granddaughter of Lena Horne, pays for its occasional narrative conveniences with impeccable characterization and emotion. We don’t often talk about casting directors, so send a big Sarah Palin wink to Bernard Telsey. Every last actor, down to the 12-steppers and the cowboy-shirt relative, finds the right feel.

Some critics have stressed the film’s moments of joy, love, and redemption. But that description is misleading. I don’t pretend to say that this sad, sad story is an easy film. But it is the type of film that a critic sits in the dark for 52 weeks a year to get two hours of.

Sunshine in a bag [Happy-Go-Lucky]

Happy-Go-Lucky [R]
Grade: D
Cast: Sally Hawkins, Eddie Marsan, Alexis Zegerman
Director: Mike Leigh

You either love Poppy or you don’t.

Count me among the don’t. The blissfully clueless teacher at the center of Mike Leigh’s Happy-Go-Lucky puts a smile on everyone’s face, but not this one viewer, at least.

Poppy (Sally Hawkins) has a talent for perpetual sunshine, until the day that her beloved bicycle gets stolen and she’s forced to take driving lessons around the streets of London. Even then, not much can put a dent into her elastic cheerfulness.

The film centers mostly on Poppy’s relationship with her driving coach, an unstable, bigoted, conspiracy-minded jerk (Eddie Marsan) who rants about bad drivers and security cameras as she handles the wheel. He takes it upon himself to teach her lessons of the real world while he teaches her left turns. Poppy meets his cynicism with cartoonish optimism.

There is a long cinematic heritage of happy idiots. (Although in fairness, Poppy isn’t stupid. Just annoying and not particularly awake.) Forrest Gump comes to mind. A more accurate comparison would be Peter Sellers’ simpleton Chauncey Gardiner in Hal Ashby’s Being There.

In Chauncey, Ashby found a wry, accidental commentator with the secret wisdom of happiness, an antidote to the self-important political culture that he wanders into. In a film starring two actors approaching their deaths (Sellers and Melvyn Douglas), Ashby’s fable reflects on the supreme, simple joy of happiness.

It seems like Leigh is going for something along those lines. But I could never quite fathom his purpose. Does Leigh admire Poppy’s ability to always look on the bright side, despite life’s pitfalls? Or is he satirizing her as the ultimate representative of a culture that’s too happy to stop and think? Is the joke on her or us? Either way, it seems a long way to go for a short point. And one made previously with superior execution.

If by acting we mean embodying the character on the page, Hawkins does fine. Her one-stop happy machine comes across. But it’s almost completely one note. The role doesn’t allow for much range. At the climax, Poppy does finally confront a nasty situation with the driver, forcing a moment of angst. But it feels like a contrived ending to a contrived dichotomy.

But there are a number of unsung amusing moments – most deliciously flamenco lessons from a Spanish instructor(Karina Hernandez) in the middle of a messy breakup, a woman with a grudge against marmalade. Wonderful energy. If only it had more.

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Hello, Clarice

Tom Maurstad talks to Anthony Hopkins about his symphony. No telling if it involves screaming lambs.

William Ayers

Director Sam Green of the documentary The Weather Underground defends former member William Ayers, who is at the heart of a controversy involving his relationship with Barack Obama. Whatever you think about the political use of William Ayers in this campaign, Ayers and his wife Bernadine Dohrn were effectively terrorists who advocated and used violence to gain their political goals in the late 1960s and early 1970s. Had they and their cohorts not sucked at their jobs an blown themselves up, they likely would have killed hundreds of soldiers and family members at Fort Dix, New Jersey. If Green got taken in by such a person, whatever. But I wouldn't be.

Another one bites the dust

Frost/Nixon starts taking a beating. That doesn't surprise me. Every year there's a play - musical or drama - that everybody, or at least everybody in the New York media ciricles, thinks will sweep through to Oscar glory. Every year it fails. My guess is that the same fate awaits Doubt, although that one might have a little bit more potential and Streep will probably do well.

But wait ...

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

As if to prove my point ....

about the current gap between British and American box office stardom, Simon Pegg's How to Lose Friends and Alienate People finished No. 1 in England last week, after bombing in the U.S.

PT Anderson and Rachel

A neat nugget I found while working on my Rachel Getting Married review .... Jonathan Demme offered the role of the groom to There Will Be Blood director Paul Thomas Anderson. That would have been interesting.

Friday, October 10, 2008

Lies and spies [Body of Lies]

Body of Lies [R]
Grade: B
Cast: Leonardo DiCaprio, Russell Crowe, Mark Strong, Golshifteh Farahani
Director: Ridley Scott

Say this one thing for Ridley Scott – he makes my job easy.

His garishly inefficient directing style (Why do in two shots what you can do in five?) works as a cinematic canary in a coal mine. When a scene is successfully building tension(ala Blade Runner), it’s whistle while you work all the livelong day. Yet you’ll know the instant Tweety starts sucking gas (ala American Gangster).

Watching his new spies-and-terrorists thriller Body of Lies, you get a galloping gulp of each. The first two acts move swiftly and explosively through the inside baseball of the Middle Eastern intelligence game. It develops an intelligent story based in the technological reality of modern spycraft and the methods ancient cultures find to resist. Then in the third act, the mandatory love story – carried down on stone tablets from Mount Screenwriter – unwraps its interest and credibility. The bird falls flat to the floor.

Roger Ferris (Leonardo DiCaprio) has had enough of the spy game, but he’s too busy getting wounded to notice it yet. Scouting about Iraq with a pistol and a shaggy beard, he runs into information about a terrorist cell in Jordan executing a series of bombings in Europe.

As Ferris moves to Jordan to take over the investigation, he gets stuck between his shady boss (Russell Crowe), always one cell phone away in Washington, and the scary, urbane head of Jordanian intelligence (Mark Strong). Things get even more complicated when he meets the nurse of his dreams (Golshifteh Farahani) over a rabies shot. When doesn’t a needle in the stomach mean love?

The screenwriter is William Monahan (from the David Ignatius novel), a man whose talent lets him get away with things that he shouldn’t. His intricate screenplay bears considerable resemblance to his script for The Departed – sticking tough-guy Leo in the middle of a game of shifting alliances among the spymasters. More notably, it deals with the same conflict between hierarchical systems of power (organizational charts) and personal systems of power (friendships and tribal ties). The American spies have the satellites, yes, but the Jordanians have the intimate system of family allegiances. The right mother can be more powerful than billion-dollar technology.

Playing Ferris’ personal loyalty to the nurse against his professional loyalty to the mission, the film ultimately tries to personalize this conflict in its third act. Characters act in entirely unlikely ways. Until then, Body of Lies sleekly burns its pulp and pace – one of Scott’s better recent efforts.

I’m not sure DiCaprio ever gives a complete, consistent performance. There are too many times when you feel his acting. Occasionally, you want to help him sound out the words. But he usually knocks down his big scenes, and so he does here. This is the first time in a while that Crowe so willingly sinks into a character. I appreciate his performance.

Each new “sand movie” has been met by the public with indifference and exhaustion of real life. With Scott, DiCaprio, and Crowe, Body of Lies his is one of the most star-studded to date. Its fortune will be interesting to see.

Tuesday, October 7, 2008

Were the 1990s the best decade of film?

On in the movies section of a message board I frequent, they are playing a game in which each player chooses one year in the history of the film. Then the next player chooses another year, and so on down the line.

What occurs to me while watching this game is something that I've secretly suspected - the 1990s might well have been the best decade of film. Not necessarily the best 10-year period of film. But in terms of the first three digits being 1 and 9 and 9, it's very impressive. There just isn't a weak year.

While the early 1970s were strong, the late seventies were not so much. I wouldn't say the war years were particularly great in the forties. The strength of the 1930s is slanted toward the late years of the decade. The fifties, maybe. The sixties, eighties, and everything else are a no-go, IMO.

Sunday, October 5, 2008

British stars dying in America

The circular firing squad that was the box office this week (roughly ten new significant releases) ended with Simon Pegg's film, How to Lose Friends and Alienate People, bleeding on the ground. The box office death of another hyped British star trying to cross into the American market makes this a good time to raise this question - has there ever been a bigger gap between acting fame in England and in America?

Almost every touted British star that has tried to cross the pond lately has met with less than expected success. Ricky Gervais just had his film Ghost Town do ho-hum business. Steve Coogan has never quite caught on. Cillian Murphy. Colin Farell. Orlando Bloom. Sienna Miller.

Even the ones who have had success haven't had quite the success expected. Clive Owen is well known, but never quite the star expected. Christian Bale, great actor that he is, is the most anonymous Batman, and that's what he is best known for. Along those lines, Daniel Craig isn't nearly as famous here as he is in England. He's still slightly "the new Bond." Famous as she is, most of Keira Knightley's non-Pirates box office success has been in presitge indies that are profitable compared to costs. She hasn't had her own star vehicle box office smash yet.

There are exceptions. James McAvoy might be one. But maybe not quite yet. Still, it's interesting to contemplate.

Diane Lane and the big 4-0

A nice article (and great picture) on Diane Lane. It touches on something that I think is happening in the movie world - more roles for older actreses. When you look at the Oscar race this year, it includes Streep, Melissa Leo, Kristin Scott Thomas, in their forties and fifties. Debra Winger perhaps in supporting, as well. For real actresses in particular, the age 40 doesn't seem like quite the impediment it once was.

Saturday, October 4, 2008

Star alignment

In some spooky cosmic alignment of stars, so to speak, this weekend's releases feature the two actresses for whom I'll admit being somewhat in the tank - Anne Hathaway and Gillian Anderson. I mean, I would never, ever write that they did well when they did not, but I do take special pleasure in seeing them succeed. The good news is that they are both making me look good.

Hathaway is drawing Oscar talk for Rachel Getting Married. I've yet to see it, as it doesn't arrive in Dallas for a couple of weeks. So I can't say either way. I'll say more when it gets here.

One or two negative critical notes aside, Anderson has drawn praise for a 10 to 15 minute support role in How to Lose Friends and Alienate People , with words such as "divine," "scene-stealer," "a vicious treat," etc. Her work since 2000's The House of Mirth (for which she came close to winning the New York Film Critic Circle's Best Actress award) has been generally hailed as very good to outstanding - this one, the BBC's Bleak House, The Last King of Scotland. Even The X-Files: I Want to Believe is one of the few times so far this year that I've seen an actress own a film, even if a lot of critics and audiences think it might not be much to own. All of which raises that ultimate question about her - how does a world-famous sex symbol with genuine acting talent coming off a bravura turn nearly disappear? How does Eva Mendes keep getting roles while Anderson sits in London collecting X-Files royalties?

I talk about her now, because you never know when you'll have the next opportunity. Her career is a riddle, one that hopefully is now moving toward better things. But the work has always been good.

Worst. Ripe. Tomato. Ever.

Nick and Norah's Infinite Playlist.

Wit is dead. Make way for drunkenly sticking your hand into vomit-filled toilets and retrieving your gum. Comedy.

St. Anna cameos

Am I the only one who watched Miracle at St. Anna without noticing the small roles for Alexandra Maria Lara, Kerry Washington, and John Turturro? I'm getting old. At least I can figure out who Lara was. I'm still blanking on the other two.

Friday, October 3, 2008

Alienated [How to Lose Friends and Alienate People]

How to Lose Friends and Alienate People [PG-13]
Grade: C
Cast: Simon Pegg, Kirsten Dunst, Danny Huston, Megan Fox, Gillian Anderson, Jeff Bridges
Director: Robert C. Weide

How does such a proven genre-deflater as Simon Pegg fall into such conventional quicksand?

Pegg undid the undead in the zombie film parody Shaun of the Dead. He uncuffed the cop action blowout in Hot Fuzz. So what happens when he tries to de-celebrate the celebrity culture in How to Lose Friends and Alienate People? Nothing quite so deflating. Which is deflating for the audience.

While it has its moments, the film never lives up to the quality of its absolutely awesome title, taken from a 2001 autobiography by Toby Young, in which the author records his inglorious stint as a Vanity Fair writer. His stand-in, Pegg’s Sidney Young, runs a shrimpy British magazine obnoxiously poking fun at the powerful, mainly to get them to notice him. When they run a naked cover photo of Sharps Magazine editor Clayton Harding (Jeff Bridges) Sidney expects a lawsuit. Instead he gets a job offer in New York.

Starting on the lowest rung, Sidney simultaneously wants to undress the celebrity culture and get into its pants. His outlandish tactics – singing drunken English football songs at lawn parties, bringing a lap dancer to work on Take Your Daughters to Work Day, asking an actor straight-up if he is gay, or Jewish — aim to puncture the cozy celebrity magazine culture and break the unwritten rules of celebrity journalism.

His act wears out his treacherous boss Lawrence Maddox (Danny Huston), befuddles his co-worker and unlikely love interest Alison Olsen (Kirsten Dunst), and frustrates PR cutthroat Eleanor Johnson (Gillian Anderson), who controls access to the largest stable of celebrities, including the luscious rising star Sophie Maes (Megan Fox), who likes strolling through pools fully clothed.

Sidney’s efforts to seduce Sophie end with his own seduction by the world he claims to despise. This should be fertile ground for comedy and theme, and sometimes it is, but it is left less developed than it could be. Unfortunately, the film also gets seduced by the worn staples of the romantic comedy. It’s when Dunst stops bashing the screw-up newcomer and the magic movie dust sprinkles love into the air that the film becomes less interesting.

And what do all these characters think about this uncouth intruder in their glossy-paged palace? It would be interesting to get a better feel from a strong cast. Bridges thrives in a rear-back-and-pitch-zingers kind of role. Squeezing Agent-Scully iciness for all its malicious potential, Anderson pads her status as the World’s Most Famous Underused Actress. When she rolls up a car window, watch your fingers. Can Megan Fox act? I don’t know. But she can pass as an ingĂ©nue and object of desire.

You suspect that the talented Pegg will eventually break through here. But he’s going to need better material. He would do well to pay attention to Sidney’s fate.

Infinite Jest [Nick and Norah's Infinite Playlist]

Nick and Norah’s Infinite Playlist [PG-13]
Grade: F
Cast: Michael Cera, Kat Dennings, Alexis Dziena, Aaron Yoo, Ari Graynor
Director: Peter Sollett

For a film stealing the names of cinema’s most famous husband-and-wife detectives, Nick and Norah’s Infinite Playlist produces only one mystery.

How is it that the cast members of a great cinematic accomplishment like The Dark Knight suffer a destructive curse, while the makers of this crap get away scot free? Does fate not have a sense of justice? Obviously it has a sense of humor, which is more than this film can say.

Implying an ode and ending up as sacrilege, this film’s title alludes to the classic Thin Man comedies of the 1930s. Yes, Nick and Nora Charles counted their drinks by the flask. But it’s hard to imagine Myrna Loy sticking her hand into a vomit-filled subway station toilet to fish out a cell phone. Much less doing so as an act of “comedy.”

But who needs wit and dash when you can have the puerile horndog comedy of Playlist, brought to you by the producers of American Pie. If this is an attempt at a more “mature” version of those films, then it means only that they have transported immature gross-out behavior to older people.

The thin man of this cinematic crime is Michael Cera, a nerdy college age musician recently dumped by his manipulative cutie-pie ex (Alexis Dziena) and now gently pursuing her enemy, the soulful Norah (Kat Dennings, who puts the mono in monotone).Thrown together less by fate than car trouble, they spend the night together trying to solve their own mystery – finding the New York club where their favorite band is playing a secret show. All comparisons to Before Sunrise should self-destruct upon contact.

The film is directed by Peter Sollett, who debuted with the much-respected indie Raising Victor Vargas. What he’s going for here, beyond a paycheck, I don’t see. Some reviews have already described the film as sweetly compelling. I don’t see that, either. Perhaps that’s because I covered my eyes for a good share of the screening.

The music is cool, though. Perhaps open ears and closed eyes is the perfect way to watch.