Wednesday, December 13, 2006

the movie year. 2006.

Is it me or was there a slight whiff of anti-Americanism that seemed to connect the year's most noteworthy movies? With that said, here's the best of 2006 - in order of preference, natch, and ever a work in progress:

Best English-Language Films

"United 93" (Paul Greengrass, Universal)

"Talladega Nights: The Legend of Ricky Bobby" (Adam McKay, Columbia)

"Children of Men" (Alfonso Cuarón, Universal)

"The Departed" (Martin Scorsese, Warner Brothers)

"Little Miss Sunshine" (Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris, Fox Searchlight)

"Notes on a Scandal" (Richard Eyre, Fox Searchlight)

"Thank You for Smoking" (Jason Reitman, Fox Searchlight)

"Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan" (Larry Charles, 20th Century-Fox)

"Shadowboxer"(Lee Daniels, Teton Films)

"Crank" (Mark Neveldine and Brian Taylor, Lionsgate)

Best Foreign-Language Films

"Babel" (Alejandro González Iñárritu, Paramount Vantage)

"Letters from Iwo Jima" (Clint Eastwood, Universal/DreamWorks)

"Pan’s Labyrinth"/"El Laberinto del Fauno" (Guillermo del Toro, Picturehouse)

"The Death of Mr. Lazarescu"/"Moartea domnului Lazarescu" (Cristi Puiu, Tartan Films)

"The Curse of the Golden Flower"/"Man cheng jin dai huang jin jia" (Zhang Yimou, Sony Classics)

Best Documentary

"Shut Up and Sing" (Barbara Kopple and Cecilia Peck, The Weinstein Company)

Best Belated Release

"Army of Shadows"/"L'Armee de ombres" (1969) (Jean-Pierre Melville, Rialto Pictures)

Honorable Mention

"Inland Empire" (David Lynch, Studio Canal) ... for its sheer, naked bravado.

And, alphabetically...

"Bubble," "Casino Royale," "The Da Vinci Code," "Death of a President," "Deliver Us from Evil," "Domestic Import," "L'Enfant"/"The Child," "Fast Food Nation," "Flags of Our Fathers," "Happy Feet," "The History Boys," "An Inconvenient Truth," "Infamous," "Kinky Boots," "Look Both Ways," "Looking for Comedy in the Muslim World," "Manderlay," "Marie Antoinette," "Miss Potter," "Monster House," "La Moustache"/"The Mustache," "The Notorious Bettie Page," "The Painted Veil," "Le Petit Lieutenant"/"The Young Lieutenant" "A Prairie Home Companion," "The Queen" and "Volver"/"To Return."

Best Cinematography

"Children of Men" (Emmanuel Lubezki). If only for Lubezski's staggering, seemingly single-take shot of Clive Owen making his way through a war-torn village.

Best Performances

And, finally, kudos to Grethcen Moll and Ryan Gosling for their respective work in "The Notorious Bettie Page" and Half Nelson," the year's best actress and actor; and to Jackie Earle Haley and Judi Dench for their fine supporting work in "Little Children" and "Notes on a Scandal," with Dench sharing her honor with Sandra Bullock for her career-revitalizing turn as Harper Lee in "Infamous," a vast improvement - dare I say it? - over Catherine Keener's take on the same role in 2005's "Capote."

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

And, for what it's worth, here's The Last Best list of ... 2005 - again in order of preference...

"The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada" (Tommy Lee Jones, Sony Pictures Classics)

"A History of Violence" (David Cronenberg, New Line Cinema)

"Good Night, and Good Luck" (George Clooney, Warner Independent)

"Munich" (Steven Spielberg, Universal/DreamWorks)

"The Constant Gardner" (Fernando Meirelles, Focus Features)

"Brokeback Mountain" (Ang Lee, Focus Features)

"Crash" (Paul Haggis, Lions Gate Films)

"The 40-Year-Old Virgin" (Judd Apatow, Universal)

"The White Countess" (James Ivory; Sony Pictures Classics)

"The Weatherman" (Gore Verbinski, Paramount Classics)

Best Foreign-Language Film

"Caché" ("Hidden")(Michael Haneke, Sony Pictures Classics)

(Artwork: from top: Scenes from Paramount Vantage's "Babel," starring Brad Pitt and Blanchett; Doug Jones in Picturehouse's "Pan's Labyrinth"; Lino Ventura in Rialto Pictures' "Army of Shadows"/"L'Armee de ombres"; Laura Dern and Justin Theroux in Studio Canal's "Inland Empire"; Cate Blanchett and Judi Dench in Fox Searchlight's "Notes on a Scandal," and Tommy Lee Jones in Sony Pictures Classics' "The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada")

* * *

Anyone interested in perusing some 2060 of my film reviews, dating back to 1994, can do so by simply going to RottenTomatoes.Com

Thursday, September 07, 2006

american film idiocy

The American Film Institute, is at it again, having conjured up another one of its inanely gratuitious, highly arbitrary film lists. This one is devoted obsensibly to "The Greatest Movie Musicals" of all time, although "Most Popular" would be a more apt and honest description of the list. The fact that the list consists of only 25 titles, instead of AFI's usual 100, tellingly says something about what AFI really thinks of the musical film genre.
Not surprisingly, the usual suspects abound. Is it any surprise that "Singin' in the Rain" tops the list? No. And, of course, such faves as "The Sound of Music," "West Side Story" and "Cabaret" have been dragged out for the occasion, too. Am I the only musical fan who finds that these three titles have grown increasingly unwatchable with age, particularly WSS?

Number 25 is actually -- drum roll, please! -- "Moulin Rouge" (and NOT the John Huston version). Look, I like "Moulin Rouge," thoroughly enjoyed it, but it's more of an anti-musical than a musical, if you get my drift.

And "All That Jazz" (number 14) isn't a musical either.

Too many wonderful musicals have been overlooked. I won't name them all, but frankly, I don't know how one can put together a list like this and manage to skip Warner Bros.' grand 1962 film version of "The Music Man," arguably the most perfect movie musical, better than even -- dare I say it? -- "Singin' in the Rain." Blasphemy? Probably, but I think theater hand Morton DaCosta set the standard with "The Music Man." Apologies to Stanley Donen and Gene Kelly.

Anyway, as with all of AFI's announced lists, expect the inevitable TV special to be fashioned around the picks, as well as a lot of aggressive DVD tie-ins.

(Artwork: top: Robert Preston and Shirley Jones march on the dustjacket cover of Warner Home Video's VHS edition of the film; bottom: Preston leads the kids in "The Music Man," )

* * *

Anyone interested in perusing some 2060 of my film reviews, dating back to 1994, can do so by simply going to RottenTomatoes.Com

Sunday, September 03, 2006

half nelson, all gosling

First, let it be said that Ryan Gosling is currently delivering an Oscar-worthy performance in Ryan Fleck's wonderful first feature, "Half Nelson."

The popular theme of the inspirational teacher reaching out to a student who needs help, a story nearly as old as film itself, is redefined and reinvented in "Half Nelson," which Fleck expanded from his Jury Prize-winning 2004 Sundance short, “Gowanus, Brooklyn.”

The twist in “Half Nelson,” however, is that the teacher needs as much help as the student, arguably more. Both are adrift in a society that has little patience and, in fact, varying degrees of uneasiness for those souls who live on its fringes. Shareeka Epps, a holdover from “Gowanus, Brooklyn,” plays 13-year-old Drey whose family has been torn apart by drugs and drug dealing and perhaps because of this, she feels a vague empathy for a teacher at the inner-city high-school she attends.

Dan Dunne – a character brought fully, achingly to life by the talented Gosling (“The Believers”) – teaches history by day and gets wasted at night. He’s able to keep these two sides of his personality separate, engaging his students in class and even coaching the girls’ basketball team on the side, until he slips one day and is found by Drey strung out on crack in the locker room.

Further complications are triggered by a drug dealer who has finessed his way into Drey’s household. More than ever, these two – student and teacher – need each other’s moral support. Fleck has directed “Half Nelson” in a matter-of-fact way, going for documentary realism, while eschewing any hint of judgment, sensationalism, sentimentality or glorification. He keeps things real and in doing so, has crafted a film that honors an offbeat but wholly credible friendship, bracingly so.

And he's abetted by Gosling who makes sure that we don't miss a thing. You can't take your eyes off him.

(Artwork: Shareeka Epps and Ryan Gosling in a scene from ThinkFilm's "Half Nelson.")

* * *

Anyone interested in perusing some 2060 of my film reviews, dating back to 1994, can do so by simply going to RottenTomatoes.Com

Friday, September 01, 2006

glenn ford, 1916-2006

Glenn Ford stood apart from his peers who also became Hollywood legends.

There was nothing timid about Ford, and yet he's the only major actor of his generation one doesn't immediately link with a certain role or with certain films - the way one does with such Ford peers as, say, William Holden ("Stalag 17" and "Sunset Boulevard"), Henry Fonda ("The Grapes of Wrath" and "Mr. Roberts") and Jimmy Stewart ("It's a Wonderful Life" and "The Philadelphia Story").

This is odd, because Ford's screen persona had always been a compelling one - at once easygoing, tough and introspective.

And yet he, somehow, curiously, established no personal identity - either on screen or with the public.

What this means is that Glenn Ford starred in movies, almost 100 of them, without ever dominating or overwhelming them. He never demanded attention from the viewer, with the result being that he was rarely recognized by critics for his body of work and he was never recognized by his own industry for some truly solid, if somewhat self-effacing, performances. His son, Peter, had unsuccessfully lobbied for the past few years for the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences to give his father a lifetime achievement Oscar.

The fact that Glenn Ford never won an Academy Award and was never nominated for one might have something to do with his choice of roles (or the roles that his studio, Columbia, picked out for him) and the kinds of performances he gave. Ford was never shamelessly sentimental or emotional on screen (the kind of qualities that breaks hearts and wins Oscars) and he was always too much of a generous performer and team player to nudge his co-stars off screen.

He was an adjustable wrench among actors: He turned in highly credible, lifelike performances in a wide variety of roles and movies, moving from film to film, churning them out but never looking over his shoulder for the recognition that he so richly deserved.

"I had always marveled at the subtlety of his work," Sidney Poitier, his co-star in "The Blackbaord Jungle, told The Associated Press at the time of Ford's death on August 30th, 2006.

Ford was much more of a character actor who happened to play leading roles than an out-and-out lead player, and much more of an actor and less a personality than the other superstars of his generation.

Much of this had to do with the fact that Ford almost literally started life as an actor, even though there wasn't a history of acting in his family. Born Gwyllyn Samuel Newton Ford on May 1, 1916, in Quebec City, Canada, Ford moved to Santa Monica with his family when he was 8. His father was an executive in railroads and manufacturing, and his family was peopled with names prominent in both Canadian and U.S. politics, including the MacDonalds and the Van Burens.

But Ford was interested in acting, and early on he used to stage his own plays in his family's barn, coaxing his friends and the neighborhood kids to play along with him. He had no formal training in theater at this age; he "invented" theater for himself and was soon playing parts in school plays, becoming active in the theater department of Santa Monica High School. He opted for several West Coast stage companies over college and by the late '30s was a staple of the New York theater scene, where he was spotted by a Hollywood talent scout and tested and signed by Columbia Pictures.

Ford's father went along with his son's ambitions, insisting only that Ford learn how to use tools in case he needed a trade to fall back on. He didn't, of course, although throughout his life Ford used the crafts he learned as both a hobby and form of off-screen relaxation.

His first notable stage role was as the grocery boy in the West Coast company of Lillian Hellman's "The Children's Hour," touring the West before becoming a resident player of the Santa Monica Players, for whom he portrayed the brutish Michael Rakovsky in Elmer Rice's "Judgement Day." Before and after his signing with Columbia, he played in a string of Broadway plays, the most notable being the lead in Clifford Odet's "Golden Boy" (a role played on film by his good friend, William Holden).

Originally, Columbia wanted to call him John Gower (after Gower Street, on which the studio was located) because Gwyllyn was too hard to pronounce. There was a compromise, however, when Ford remembered Glenford, the mill town in Quebec where his father was born.

This is how "Glenn Ford" was born.

His first movie role was a supporting one - for Fox, on a loan-out - in Ricardo Cortez's "Heaven With a Barbed Wire Fence" (1940). Ford then went on to make 13 films for Columbia between 1940 and 1943, including George Marshall's popular "Texas" (1941) with Holden, before his career was halted by World War II.
Ford served in the Marine Corps until 1946. When he returned to films, he was in the singular position of having to start over again because, again, he had established no personal identity with the public in those first 14 films.

And although he revived his career with meaty roles in two successful 1946 films - Curtis Bernhardt's "A Stone Life" with Bette Davis and Charles Vidor's "Gilda" with Rita Hayworth (with whom he would make several steamy films) - he couldn't get over the first impression he had made, namely that of a chameleon, workmanlike actor.

Ford's most productive period was the mid-1950s, a time when he'd bounce from dark dramas such as Richard Brooks' "The Blackboard Jungle" (1955) to tearjerkers like Curtis Bernhardt's "Interrrupted Melody" (also '55). It was during this period when he appeared in a series of popular armed services comedies - Daniel Mann's "The Teahouse of the August Moon" (1956) and Charles Water's "Don't Go Near the Water" (1957) - as well as some wonderful Westerns - Russell Rouse's "The Fastest Gun Alive" (1956), Delmer Daves' "3:10 to Yuma" (1957) and "Cowboy" (1958) and George Marshall's "The Sheepman" (also '58).

Ford loved Westerns and, reportedly, had some firm ideas about them. He saw them as a peculiarly American art form irrevocably linked to the physical American West itself - that the magic of it was the sense of place it conjured up. They had to be filmed in the real place, not in Yugoslavia or Italy.

If a Glenn Ford Film Festival were put together, the films that should be screened would include "Texas," "Gilda," "The Blackboard Jungle," "3:10 to Yuma" and "Cowboy," as well as George Marshall's antic "The Gazebo" (1959), Anthony Mann's remake of "Cimarron" (1960), Frank Capra's "Pocketful of Miracles" (1961), Blake Edwards' "Experiment in Terror" (1962), Delbert Mann's "Dear Heart" (1964), Burt Kennedy's "The Rounders" (1965) and Richard Donner's "Superman" (1978), in which Ford played Clark Kent's father.

Hell, I'd use them all!

Glenn Ford's films:
Heaven With a Barbed Wire Fence (1940)
Men Without Souls (1940)
My Son I Guilty (1940)
Convicted Woman (1940)
The Lady in Question (1940)
Babies for Sale 91940)
Blondie Plays Cupid (1940)
So Ends Our Night (1941)
Texas (1941)
Go West, Young Lady (1941)
The Adventures of Martin Eden (1942)
Flight Lieutenant (1942)
Destroyer (1943)
The Desperadoes (1943)
Gilda (1946)
A Stolen Life (1946)
Gallant Journey (1946)
Framed (1947)
The Mating of Millie (1947)
The Loves of Carmen (1947)
The Return of October (1947)
The Man From Colorado (1948)
The Undercover Man (1949)
Mr. Soft Touch (1949)
The Doctor and the Girl (1949)
The White Tower (1950)
Convicted (1950)
The Flying Missle (1950)
The Redhead and the Cowboy (1950)
Follow the Sun (1951)
The Secret of Convict Lake (1951)
The Green Glove (1952)
Young Man With Ideas (1952)
Affair in Trinadad (1952)
Terror on the Train (1953, a.k.a. Time Bomb)
The Man From the Alamo (1953)
Plunder of the Sun (1953)
The Big Heat (1953)
Appointment in Honduras (1953)
Human Desire (1954)
The Americano (1955)
The Violent Men (1955)
The Blackboard Jungle (1955)
Interrupted Melody (1955)
Trial (1955)
Ransom! (1956)
Jubal (1956)
The Fastest Gun Alive (1956)
The Teahouse of the Augut Moon (1956)
3:10 to Yuma (1957)
Don't Go Near the Water (1957)
Cowboy (1958)
The Sheepman (1958)
Imitation General (1958)
Torpedo Run (1958)
It Started With a Kiss (1959)
The Gazebo (1959)
Cimarron (1960)
Cry for Happy (1961)
Pocketful of Miracles (1961)
The Four Horsemern of the Apocalypse (1962)
Experiment in Terror (1962)
Love Is a Ball (1963)
The Courtship of Eddie's Father (1963)
Advance to the Rear (1964)
Fate Is the Hunter (1964)
Dear Heart (1965)
The Rounders (1965)
The Money Trap (1966)
Is Paris Burning? (1966)
Rage (1967, a.k.a. El Mal)
The Last Challenge (1967)
A Time for Killing (1968)
Day of the Evil Gun (1968, a.k.a. Evil Gun)
Smith! (1969)
Heaven With a Gun (1969)
Santee (1973)
Jarrett (1973, for TV)
Punch and Jody (1974, for TV)
The Greatest Gift (1974, for TV)
The Disappearance of Flight 412 (1974, for TV)
Midway (1976)
Goodbye and Amen (1978)
Superman (1978)
Day of the Assassin (1979)
The Visitor (1979)
Evening in Byzantium (1979, for TV)
Beggarman, Thief (1979, for TV)
The Gift (1979, for TV)
The Sacketts (1979, for TV)
Virus (1980)
Happy Birthday to Me (1981)
Border Shootout (1990)
JFK (1991, scenes deleted from released version)

(Artwork: A vintage publicity shot of Glenn Ford)

* * *

Anyone interested in perusing some 2060 of my film reviews, dating back to 1994, can do so by simply going to RottenTomatoes.Com

Thursday, August 10, 2006

fair use

"Copyright Disclaimer Under Section 107 of the Copyright Act 1976, allowance is made for "fair use" for purposes such as criticism, comment, news reporting, teaching, scholarship, and research. Fair use is a use permitted by copyright statute that might otherwise be infringing. Non-profit, educational or personal use tips the balance in favor of fair use."

Tuesday, August 01, 2006

welcome: an introduction to The Passionate Moviegoer

After spending most of my life at the movies (or at least thinking about them) and all of my adult life reviewing them professionally, I decided it was time to kick back with a little movie-free downtime.

But my wife Susan had other ideas. Convinced that I’m way too opinionated a soul to truly harness myself – and also too much of a movie aficionado to completely fast – she had this handsome blog designed for me. “Indulge yourself!,” she said. A compelling, possibly dangerous idea. After all, an idle mind can uncork some weird, comic demons, and this blog, I decided, would be devoted to my own personal demons - a collection of movie-fed daydreams.

My most intense movie passion revolves around those titles that are, well, not “the usual suspects." I'm not talking about great movies, but good, solid films that, as I point out in the introduction to your left, have been either neglected, overlooked, underrated, hastily dismissed or unfairly maligned.

These are films that are lost, plain and simple. They are just about impossible to see nowadays. Because of studio indifference/politics, they not only have never been issued on home video/DVD, but have also virtually disappeared from the airwaves, never or rarely televised anymore. Without some kind of acknowledgement and, yes, gratitude, these films have the potential disappear ...forever.

They are also the kinds of movies that critics rarely, if ever, return to – for the purpose of reevaluation that, by extension, would possibly adjust original first impressions that were perhaps the result of deadline pressures.

As a working critic, I had become keenly aware of how different a film can look when distanced from the prevailing hype (or bad press) that surrounded it on its initial release.

And, frankly, as a film enthusiast, I get weary of scanning the revival listings in The New Yorker magazine and The Los Angeles Times - only to find, yes, the usual suspects being honored and celebrated again. You know the culprits -“Citizen Kane,” “Nashville,” “The Wizard of Oz,” “The Searchers,” “Raging Bull” et al. These are films returned to by critics on a regular, predictable basis. There’s nothing left to say about them. Certainly, I have nothing to add. At this particular juncture in my life, such films seem to interest me less and less.

Rather, my goal is to share with you films of a rarer persuasion - movies likely to go through my head at any given moment, often bleeding together.

When the mood strikes me, I hope to comment on Natalie Wood’s “Inside Daisy Clover.” On another day, it might be the lost Pat Boone musical, “Mardi Gras,” a personal guilty pleasure. There will be viewpoints on films unavailable on DVD, such as Billy Wilder’s “Ace in a Hole” and Martin Ritt’s “No Down Payment" and pronouncements on those lost films that pop up occasionally and unexpectedly on American Movie Classics.

That said, I don’t mean to imply that this blog will devoted exclusively to lost movies, that there won’t be occasional comments on contemporary titles and new DVD releases. But I’ll make every effort to veer away from the current Hollywood blockbuster or the latest critics’ darling. One thread that I'd like to weave through this blog is what I call missed opportunities on DVD releases. For example, why on earth haven't Kevin Costner's deleted scenes in Lawrence Kasdan's "The Big Chill" ever materialized on home entertainment of any sort? And exactly where are all the songs excised from James Brooks' former musical, "I'll Do Anything"?

Speaking of musicals, I also hope to post periodic comments on the musical film, perhaps the most creative, least appreciated genre, one that embraces every possible art and craft. And I will certainly muse periodically about the appeal and talents of Jack Lemmon, an all-time favorite of mine, as well as the subject of two books that I wrote. There will be a LOT of Jack Lemmon here.

Anyway, on different days, in different moods, these movie-fed daydreams may vary, starting in one place and then going someplace else. And beware - my conclusions will be ever changing, too, sometimes maddeningly so.

I relish the idea of sharing these daydreams with you and sincerely hope that you will open up and share yours with me. And, by all means ... feel free to disagree. --Joe Baltake, 8/1/06

(Artwork: Natalie Wood, in extreme close-up, on a 1962 cover of SHOW Magazine.)