Saturday, December 31, 2011


I never quite "got" the Fox Movie Channel.

Considering how many titles must be in the Fox library, the same ones kept popping up again and again - and only a precious few were letterboxed, usually the more recent titles. "April Love"? Forget it.

Anyway, this halfhearted attempt to celebrate the films of Twentieth Century-Fox has been altered.

Very recently (and quietly), the Fox Movie Channel was reduced to daytime programming exclusively, with the remainder of the schedule handed over, piggyback-style, to something called FXM, or the FX Movie Channel, which is devoted to, well, mall movies. And, unlike the now-limited Fox Movie Channel, FXM airs with "limited commercial breaks."

Happy New Year!

Thursday, December 29, 2011

the smile

You'll get no argument from me. Michel Hazanavicius’s novelty film, "The Artist," is an artful charmer but it's little more than that, taking its inspiration from such Tinseltown chestnuts as "A Star Is Born" and "Singin' in the Rain" as it tracks the downward spiral of fictional silent film fave George Valentin following his willful refusal to make talkies.

And that's it.

It's difficult to get fully invested in George's plight because, unlike Jean Hagan's Lina Lamont in "Singin' in the Rain," the problem apparently isn't a horrible speaking voice. He just doesn't want to be seen talking on film.

Why? Well, because he doesn't believe in it.

Anyway, getting engaged in the life of someone who willfully sabotages his own career is hardly worth the time. Frankly, it makes no sense.

The one element that does engage us - or me, at least - is star Jean Dujardin as George. Dujardin is a terrifically magnetic actor, but it's his wide smile that's irresistible and that attracts us - a smile made for CinemaScope. The fact is, when Dujardin is on screen, you can't take your eyes off him. He's a real Movie Star. This is masterful casting. And playing Esther Blodgett to his Norman Maine, Bérénice Bejo is pitch-perfect as an ingénue who lives up to her name - Peppy Miller.

Now, on to other things...

The film's composer Ludovic Bource (or perhaps Hazanavicius himself) has appropriated a huge hunk of music from Alfred Hitchcock's "Vertigo" (1958) - namely, Bernard Hermann's extended Love Suite - for the middle section of the film. I'm referring to the 10-minute sequence (spoiler alert!) in which (1) Dujardin spots himself in the reflection of a store window, (2) finds all his belongings that Bejo clandestinely purchased at the auction and then (3) goes home to commit suicide, a sequence that crosscuts to a frantic Bejo driving through L.A. hoping to rescue him.

Hermann's music receives the usual perfunctory, miniscule mention in the end credits, which doesn't seem nearly enough. And exacerbating the situation, the title "Vertigo" isn't invoked at all for some curious reason.

I believe that it can be safely assumed that Bource will be a major contender for a scoring Oscar - and will be the presumed winner, given that the film is literally wall-to-wall music. His score is very good, but the fact is, the most impressive piece of music in "The Artist" was written by...

Bernard Hermann.

It's likely that most viewers (and perhaps even some uninformed Academy voters) will not be aware of this; I don't think any critic has mentioned it so far. I wonder if, should he win the Oscar, Bource will mention Hermann's contribution to the film. I'm a little disappointed that the Hitchcock and Hermann estates would allow such an appropriation without more prominent screen credit: Hermann should be mentioned in the opening credits - below, or parathentical to, Bource's credit.

Any opinions on this? Share!

Addendum: After writing this, I learned that several others concur with me regarding the use of the Hermann music in the film, including one of the stars of "Vertigo," Kim Novak. Here's what Anne Thompson has to say on the matter of Novak's protest.


David Fincher has demonstrated his penchant for transcending conventions, as evidenced by his filmography - "Fight Club" (1999), "Panic Room" (2002), "The Curious Case of Benjamin Button" (2008), "The Social Network" (2010) and his unoffical policier trilogy, "Se7en" (1995), "Zodiac" (2006) and now an English-language remake of the Swedish sensation, "The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo."

An adaptation of the inaugural book in Stieg Larsson’s best-selling “Millennium” trilogy and, less directly, Niels Arden Oplev's first 2009 film version of the book, Fincher's "The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo" looms as a shrewd commingling of up-to-minute, kick-ass grrrl outlawism and the core idea from Dashiell Hammett's "Thin Man" creation.

Despite the new paint job with its modern look, Fincher's hugely atmospheric film is driven by two characters who hark back to Nick and Nora Charles in their taste for righteousness and antiauthoritarianism.

In this case, it's disgraced journalist Mikael Blomkvist (played by a soulful Daniel Craig) and punk computer hacker Lisbeth (Rooney Mara, most mesmerizing), an abused young woman whose need for vengeance dovetils with Mikael's assignment to track down "a killer of women."

Withdrawn, never making eye contact and telegraphing a hurt that is palatable, Rooney Mara is a revelation in the sheer solipsism of her performance. Her Lisbeth personifies a term that has been applied to someone else on our cultural scene - she is very much The Other.

Which means she is singular.

Saturday, December 24, 2011

blood sport

"Carnage," Roman Polanski's sinewy adaptation of Yasmina Reza's play, "Le dieu du carnage," is a cozily evil little acting exercise whose four characters amuse as they struggle, without a hint of success, with civility.

Two sets of parents are brought together in the handsome Brooklyn apartment of one of the couples to iron out the differences which brought their respective sons into a schoolyard fracus. Penelope Longstreet (Jodie Foster), a rather rigid left-wing stereotype whose son suffered a dental injury, wants to document the incident in writing - with the help, of course, of her rough-hewn husband Michael (John C. Reilly), who claims he was "forced to dress as a liberal" for the occasion, and the parents of the other child, The Cowans, Alan (Christoph Waltz and Nancy (Kate Winslet).

Matters don't go well.

The guarded defensiveness that each one initially exhibits eventually disintegrates into an afternoon of blame and accusation, hilariously so.

Given that one of my (many) editors once referred to me as "evil" (a charge that fit but for reasons that will go unexplained here), I relished the verbal bloodletting that trivializes the couples' misguided intentions.

Co-scripters Polanski and Reza, working from Michael Katims' English language adaptation, provide their actors with one juicy moment after another. Foster's pinched, brittle persona, in particular, is exploited to the hilt under Polanski's direction, while Waltz, a standout here, absolutely nails his unctous careerist. Winslet turns in a shrewdly witty performance as the most reasonable and most sensitive of the group. The only wink link is Reilly who can't redeem the bore he's playing.

And through no fault of his own: It's a poorly written character.

These roles in New York were played by Marcia Gay Harden and James Gandolfini (as The Longstreets) and Hope Davis and Jeff Daniels (as The Cowans). Ralph Fiennes played Alan in the British production, and Isabelle Huppert created the role of Penelope (who was actually named Veronica on Broadway and Véronique in France) in the original French version.

Tuesday, December 20, 2011


Sometimes we outgrow films and filmmakers, even those we adore.

At least, I did - and still do. As a working critic, this often put me at odds with some of my colleagues who, from my perspective, harbored a blind loyalty to their favorites. This may sound harsh, but there's really no place for loyalty in film criticism. Only hardcore honesty.

Case in point: Robert Altman. As a young pup, I lapped up, devoured, memorized and repeatedly viewed his films. I couldn't get enough of "Brewster McCloud" (1970). But as I aged, we grew apart. I became less titillated by Altman's penchant for overlapping dialogue, cluttered mise-en-scène and trendy contempt for his characters - a cinematic style that reached its nadir (for me, at least) with 1978's nasty "A Wedding," which has become something of a staple on the Fox Movie Channel.

But there are contemporaries who still swoon at the mention of his name and, when I'm in their company, I know to keep my mouth shut about Altman and about my own sacrilegious flipflopping tendencies.

Even guilty pleasures can become less, well, pleasurable.

Taking inventory recently of my home entertainment collection and purging, I finally tossed out my DVD copy of Randall Kleiser's "Grease," a loud, rather unwholesome movie musical - also from '78 (if that means anything) - that, for some unaccountable reason, I once thought of as engaging and fun but that I now find mirthless and unwatchable.

As I placed it in a giveaway bin, I remembered the enthusiastic review I wrote in 1978 and also realized that, almost unconsciously, I had slowly evolved - or should that be "devolved"? - into an avowed flipflopper.

Throwing away "Grease" felt cathartic, liberating and healthy.

There were no regrets or rancor.

Sunday, December 18, 2011

of consequence

Photo by Jaap Buitendijk – © 2011 GK Films. All Rights Reserved.


1. Hugo

2. Margaret

3. The Double Hour (La doppia ora)

4. The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo

5. Shame

6. The Descendants

7. Higher Ground

8. Young Adult

9. Margin Call

10. A Somewhat Gentle Man (En ganske snill mann)


The Artist


In Time

Love Crime (Crime d'amour)


Midnight in Paris

Salvation Boulevard

Win Win

J. Edgar


The Lincoln Lawyer

Rise of the Planet of the Apes

Just Go with It

Super 8

Brighton Rock

Magic Trip

Twelve Thirty

Everything Must Go


Top Leads

Michael Fassbender/Shame

Charlize Theron/Young Adult

Top Support

Armie Hammer/J. Edgar

Shailene Woodley/The Descendants


Jean Dujardin & Uggie/The Artist

Joseph Gordon-Levitt/Hesher

Stellan Skarsgård/A Somewhat Gentle Man

Anna Paquin & Jeannie Berlin/Margaret

Viggo Mortensen/A Dangerous Method

Daniel Craig & Rooney Mara/The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo

George Clooney/The Descendants

Chloë Grace Moretz & Asa Butterfield/Hugo

Elizabeth Olsen/Martha Marcy May Marlene

Viola Davis & Octavia Spencer/The Help

Leonardo DiCaprio/J. Edgar

Brad Pitt/Moneyball & The Tree of Life

Vera Farmiga/Higher Ground

Ryan Gosling/Drive, The Ides of March & Crazy, Stupid, Love

Owen Wilson & Michael Sheen/Midnight in Paris

Brendon Gleeson/The Guard

Melissa McCarthy/Bridemaids

Matthew McConaughey/The Lincoln Lawyer

Emma Stone/The Help, Friends with Benefits & Crazy, Stupid, Love

© 2011 Paramount Pictures and Mercury Productions, LLC. All Rights Reserved.

the "other" medium

Morning Joe (MSNBC)

Pan Am (ABC)

The Middle (ABC)

Revenge (ABC)

Enlightened (HBO)

The Big Bang Theory (CBS)

Ringer (CW)

Two Broke Girls (CBS)

Prime Suspect (NBC)

Keeping Up with the Kardashians (E!)

Friday, December 16, 2011

dark holiday

Bridges and Jones shine in an atypical holiday movie.
Every Christmas, my wife and I treat ourselves to a double-bill of two of our favorite films, titles which are only peripherally related to the holiday.

Our matinee is Morton DaCosta's "Auntie Mame" and our evening program is Richard Quine's "Bell, Book and Candle." Perhaps not coincidentally, both were major year-end holiday releases in 1958.

We never divert.

But if we did, I'd suggest two other titles are are far removed from the usual suspects - you know, "It's a Wonderful Life" and "Miracle on 34th Street."

First, there would be Tim Burton’s exquisite “The Nightmare Before Christmas” (1993), one of the best film musicals of recent years that clearly prepared Burton for the task of taking on Stephen Sondheim's "Sweeney Todd – The Demon Barber of Fleet Street” - and almost as triumpantly. Like the Sondheim classic, "Nightmare" boasts a major song score by Danny Elfman, gloriously symphonic and gloriously idiosyncratic.

The combination of Elfman's songs, Burton's strangely appealing little characters and director Henry Selick's wonderous stop-motion animation combine to make "The Nightmare Before Christmas" compulsively watchable.

Then there's Daniel Petrie's superior 1969 TV film, "Silent Night, Lonely Light." The estimable Robert Anderson (who penned "Tea and Sympathy" and "I Never Sang for My Father") wrote the lovely play on which Patrie's movie is based - about two lonely people who have a chance meeting as a cozy New England inn during the Christmas holiday.

Each one is there for personal, troubling reasons.

On stage, "Silent Night" was directed by Peter Glenville with Henry Fonda and Barbara Bel Geddes in the leads and Lois Nettleton, Bill Berger, Peter De Vise and Eda Hainemann in support. It opened at the Morosco Theater on December 28th, 1959 and was immediately snapped up for filming by Universal which then let the project linger for ten years.
No, the film version of "Silent Night, Lonely Night" was not made for theaters. Nevertheless, it's an excellent movie, intimate and involving.

Lloyd Bridges (outstanding) and Shirley Jones (an Emmy nominee) take over the Fonda-Bel Geddes roles (and would subsequently be reteamed in Richard Brooks' "The Happy Ending" the same year); Carrie Snodgress plays the Nettleton part and Lynn Carlin and Cloris Leachman show up in roles created for the film by adapter John Vlahos, who wisely retained most of Anderson's script. Its dialogue is nearly verbetim.

It's a wrenching work that, for some bizarre reason, is never telecast during the holiday season and is available only on out-of-print VHS tapes.


Thursday, December 08, 2011

the guiltiest

"Morning Joe," the compulsively watchable political coffeklatch hosted every morning by Joe Scarborough and Mika Brzezinski on MSNBC, is without exception my favorite television show.

But I have one minor quibble and it involves the Kardashians, of all people. On a recurring basis, Mika gratuitously bashes the Kardashian shows, without giving the slightest indiction that she's ever actually watched the show. Her misguided superior 'tude towards the Kardashians seems to be based on hearsay and buzz - which makes her opinion, well, worthless. Because it really isn't an opinion, see? It's just snark.

Joe occasionally goes a step further. In order to inflate his own importance, he'll comment that the people who watch his show and who read The New York Times - you know, smart people - aren't the people who watch the Kardashians.

Say what?

Well, here's one person who watches both "Morning Joe" and E!'s "Keeping up with the Kardashians" (and its assorted off-shoots). Does that make me a different kind of ignoramus, Joe? And is it necessary to pump yourself up by denegrating something else?

The Kardashian shows are the most misunderstood programs on TV. They're not reality shows, pre se, but very shrewd sitcoms - better than the beloved, overrated "Modern Family." They're fast, funny and smart - the guiltiest of all guilty pleasures. And Kris Jenner outsoars the mother of all stage mothers, "Gypsy's" Momma Rose. She's a force of nature.

Alas, the only people who don't like the Ks seem to be those, like Mika and Joe, who have never seen an episode. If they did, they'd be hooked.

Anyway, I wouldn't think of missing my daily helping of "Morning Joe" any more than I would deprive myself of my nightly Kardashian fix. So there!

Thursday, December 01, 2011

cinema obscura: George Cukor's "The Chapman Report" (1962)

Long unavailable on home entertainment, George Cukor's "The Chapman Report" of 1962 is rescued from oblivion by - you got it! - Turner Classic Movies, which has scheduled it for an early screening on Wednesday, December 21 - at 7:15 a.m. (est) and 4:15 a.m. (pacific time).

A mischievious, willfully sordid take on Kinsey's findings, this guilty pleasure offers up four text-book case examples of sexually dysfunctional women before concluding, despite everything that preceded its fade-out scene, American women are indeed sexually healthy. Talk about having it both ways - titillating the men in the audience and appeasing the women.

Not surprisingly, Cukor has four terrific actresses taking his cues here - Shelley Winters as a bored housewife who momentarily entertains the idea of running off with another man; Jane Fonda as a young widow who has lost interest in sex; Claire Bloom as a nymphomaniac who is punished via a gang rape for her avid interest in sex, and Glynis Johns as an arty type who finds that testosterone is responsible not only for a man's physical perfections but also for his brutish qualities.

The reliable Andrew Duggan plays the titular Dr. Chapman, and Efrem Zimbalist Jr., a Warner contract player wasted by Warners in largely TV roles, plays his assistant, a thoughtful guy who doesn't believe Fonda is frigid and wants to prove it. Camp doesn't get any better than this.

Jane Fonda and Efrem Zimbalist Jr. in scenes from the film

The other token men here are played by Harold J. Stone (Winters' husband) and Ray Danton (as her lover), and John Dehner (Johns' husband) and another Warner contract player, Ty Hardin (as her fleeting interest).

I don't know about you, but I'd like to see "The Chapman Report" again.
One of these days.

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

cinema obscura: Sidney Lumet's "Garbo Talks" (1984)

When Sidney Lumet passed last April, the assorted appreciations rhapsodized predictably about his hard-edged New York dramas devoted to the city's outsiders, misfits and miscreants. But nary a word about his three comedies - "Bye Bye Braverman" (1968), "Just Tell Me What You Want" (1980) and, most atypical of all, "Garbo Talks" (1984).

"Bye Bye Braverman" and, to a larger extent, "Just Tell Me What You Want," were admittedly singled out by my friend and colleague Carrie Rickey in her Flickgrrl post for The Philadelphia Inquirer, but both are every bit as rough around the edges as Lumet's dramas. He was a pop-New York virtuoso. The genial, sentimental "Garbo Talks," however, was a real departure for Lumet (not unlike his film version of the musical "The Wiz") in that he suddenly came upon new-found softness and warmth in the familiar haunts of the city.

The premise is a mere wisp. A dutiful son is determined to make his dying mother's final dream come true - namely, to meet Greta Garbo.

I know, I know. On paper, it sounds awful. But in the hands of Anne Bancroft and Ron Silver, as mother and son, it's irresistible.

Carrie Fisher rings in as Silver's wife, from whom he becomes estranged during his single-minded search, and a very desirable Catherine Hicks (who enjoyed a brief movie career and deserved better) is the dream woman who joins him on his adventure. Such New York fixtures as Howard Da Silva, Dorothy Loudon, Harvey Fierstein, Hermione Gingold, Richard B. Shull and Michael Lombard make appearances that add color.

And, best of all, there's musical-comedy legend Betty Comden, that Garbo lookalike, as The Face herself. Uncredited, natch.

"Garbo Talks" receives a rare screening on Turner Classic Movies at 3:45 a.m. (est) on Thursday, December 1st. Worth watching. Worth recording.

Monday, November 28, 2011


At once exhilarating and graceful, Martin Scorsese's masterful "Hugo" takes one by surprise - and aback - despite its maker's credentials.

The skill on display in this so-called "family film" is underlined by the audacious camerawork of Scorsese's new house cinematographer, the great Robert Richardson who, starting with the film's initial sequence, pulls us in, embracing us and whirling us along. It's a dizzying, delerious journey (which helps the modern 3-D process realize its potential), seen from a child's point of view but not necessarily a journey for children.

"Hugo" may have a young protagonist, embodied by the excellent Asa Butterfield as a kid who lives within the innards of the complicated clockworks of a Parisian train station, but its soul is old.

No, this is not a "family film" (unless it's a family of particularly sophisticated children). Scorsese uses little Hugo, the hero of Brian Selznick's source book, “The Invention of Hugo Cabret,” as an excuse to conjur up a lovelorn, movie-fed daydream about the humble beginnings of film via the revolutionary vision of Georges Méliès (played here with an aching sadness by Ben Kingsley).

A film that does not condescend or compromise, "Hugo" remains faithful to its own vision - one that's quiet but intense. Blessed with a remarkable ingénue performance by the preternaturally gifted Chloë Grace Moretz and an atypically dimensional one by Sacha Baron Cohen, "Hugo" looms as a touchstone of films in the new millenium.

Note in Passing: Scorsese quotes other films and filmmakers here, but unobrustively. I was particularly taken by the scenes in which young Hugo views the conversations shared by the characters played by Frances de la Tour and Richard Griffiths from a distance - in his clocktower. Like James Stewart spying on his neighbors in Hitchcock's "Rear Window," Hugo hears only heavily gestured mumbles, muttering and half-sentences.

Saturday, November 26, 2011

false negative

Simon Curtis's "My Week with Marilyn," a minor film backed by a major marketing campaign, requires a certain amount of suspension of disbelief.

First, one has to believe author Colin Clark's claim that he spent one (relatively) wild week with Marilyn Monroe while she was filming "The Prince and the Showgirl" in London and he was working as a production assistant on the film.

With just about everyone connected with the film now deceased, who's around to challenge his boast?

Secondly, there's Michelle Williams, an actress who has been very good on occasion but whose sole credentials for playing Monroe are that she's female and blonde.

To the film's credit, it is not entirely reverential of its central icon. In many ways, it ventures into risky "Mommie Dearest" territory. The Marilyn here is in touch with her own naked feelings but oblivous to the feelings of others, almost to the point of casual sadism.

And her work on "The Prince and the Showgirl" is so painfully awful, at least as portrayed here, that one spends the film wondering exactly what was so special about her or why anyone would put up with her.

A very odd movie.

Friday, November 25, 2011

doris, janis & jean

Happily, Charles Walters' generally overlooked 1960 comedy, "Please Don't Eat the Daisies," has become something of a Turner Classics staple. The MGM film pops up with some frequency - more recently at 6 p.m. (est) tonight - and becomes more watchable with each viewing.

Based on the book of the same title by the late Jean Kerr, who was, of course, the wife of the great New York Times theater critic, Walter Kerr, the film slyly fictionalizes her adventures as the wife of an influential critic and benefits strongly from the offbeat teaming of Doris Day and David Niven in the roles of Jean and Walter, here named Kate and Larry Mackay.

The titantic supporting structure of the film is Day who turns in one of her most naturalistic, effortless performances (this film was wedged between her roles in 1959's "Pillow Talk" and 1960's "Midnight Lace") and her chemistry with the always game, smoothly professional Niven is singular.

And for a filmic soufflé, the movie astutely suggests the essence of criticism, which can be heady and dark. (It isn't long before Larry is cracking cruel, snarky jokes in print and Kate is wondering if he made up his mind beforehand about how he'd respond to a play he just panned.)

The ace supporting cast includes Jack Weston, Richard Haydn, Patsy Kelly, Spring Byington, the invaluable Carmen Phillips and ... Janis Paige, who here comes full circle with Day.

Paige and Day first appeared together in Day's debut film under her Warner contract, Michael Curtiz' 1948 "Romance on the High Seas." Six years later, in 1954, Paige starred on Broadway as feisty Babe Williams in the Jerry Rose-Richard Adler musical, "The Pajama Game," playing opposite John Raitt. Day, of course, was recruited by Jack Warner to play the same role, also opposite Raitt, in his 1957 film version, directed by Stanley Donen and George Abbott.

Three years later, Day and Paige were together again in "Daisies."

Getting back to Jean Kerr, her life as a writer of books and plays and as the wife of a drama critic was also chronicled in Don Weis' 1963 comedy "Critic's Choice" (also for Warners), with Bob Hope as a theater critic whose wife, played by Lucille Ball, decides to write her own play.

"Critic's Choice" is based, in turn, on the 1960 Ira Levin stage comedy which was directed by Otto Preminger and starred Henry Fonda in the role of the critic.

The ever-resourceful programmers at TCM were cleverly enough to pair "Critic's Choice" with "Please Don't Eat the Daisie" on November 6th. To complete this "Jean Kerr package," they might have gone all the way and added "Mary, Mary," Mervyn LeRoy's film version of the 1960 hit play by Kerr that inspired Levin to pen "Critic's Choice."

In his Friday, October 25, 1963 review, Bosley Crowther of The New York Times wrote of the Warner film:

"Obviously, Mervyn LeRoy did a little bit more than merely place his camera in the Helen Hayes Theater and shoot a straight running photograph of a performance of 'Mary, Mary' to get a film of the Jean Kerr comedy. But you would hardly be able to tell it from the rigidly setbound quality of his film version of the long-run stage play, which came to the (Radio City) Music Hall yesterday."

That just about says it all. Rarely has a film of a play been as faithful as LeRoy's film version of Kerr's urbane comedy, which was the most acclaimed stage farce of its time. As Crowther indicated, the work of LeRoy's art director John Beckman and set decorator Ralph S. Hurst borrows heavily from the play's celebrated designer, Oliver Smith. Debbie Reynolds took over Barbara Bel Geddes's stage role, but the play's leading men, Barry Nelson and Michael Rennie, were back on that familiar set.

Yes, the film - about a divorced couple brought together for income tax purposes - is stagebound, but that's what I find wonderful about it. I like the idea of being transported back to the Helen Hayes Theater in 1960. LeRoy's movie perfectly approximates the joy of attending a matinee performance of a stylish, sophisticated comedy.

Anway, next time around, TCM, a Jean Kerr triple-bill is in order.

Note in Passing: Whoever writes the film capsules for The New York Times these days misidentifies the source of "Please Don't Eat the Daisies," crediting it as being based on "Jean Kerr's play."

This is The New York Times, folks.

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

bad "art"

Cannes, an annual filmic exposition living on dusty credentials, has a penchant for honoring movies and performances that eventually, inevitably, slide into oblivion by the time Oscar season rolls around.

This year, the festival showcased "Melancholia," a bit of addlepated provocation/pretension by Lars von Trier, who's described in some quarters as an enfant terrible of cinema - and who, complicitly, works to accomodate this pseudo-flattering profile by behaving that way.

Me? I see von Trier, who functions more as a poseur than an actual filmmaker, as a brilliant crackpot. That said, in "Melancholia," which runs about two hours longer than it should, he juxtaposes one person's immobilizing depression (apparently his own) with the end of the world as exacted by an angry planet named - ta-da! - Melancholia.

Kirsten Dunst, a pleasing but lightweight actress way in over her head here, is von Trier's on-screen surrogate as he works out his problems in a public forum. Not surprisingly, she won the best actress award at Cannes. Which means she won't be nominated for an Oscar. Charlotte Gainsbourg, who plays Dunst's sister (even though they look nothing alike, not even remotely), is seemingly better as the seemingly well-balanced sibling.


Thank heaven for a movie-saving Stellan Skarsgård, who enlivens the film's painfully prolonged opening wedding sequence with a performance that underlines that "Melancholia" isn't an art film but a parody of one.

Manuel Alberto Claro is responsible for the relentless hand-held camera work which doesn't so much capture the sensation of depression as it approximates what it feels like to be in hell.

Saturday, November 19, 2011

the new money

For some bizarre reason, Andrew Niccol's prescient "In Time" came in under the radar, despite its urgent timeliness and first-rate storytelling.

The film is a scifi allegory for the current economic woes, only it isn't money problems that nag the country's population. It's time - which is running out. Money is nothing here. Time is the new commodity, with people bartering, stealing and losing time as, well, time runs out. It's a clever premise and Niccol ("Gattaca" and "Simone") pulls it off with verve and with a very slight bow to Hitchcock. I sense that the filmmaker used Hitch's "North by Northwest" as a template for the chase that ensues.

Justin Timberlake is terrifically twitchy and anguished as a guy living on borrowed time who takes up with a woman who fairly drips in timely wealth - played by Amanda Seyfried with her trademark anime eyes and a Louise Brooks bob. Cillian Murphy is the "timekeeper" on their trail as they steal time, Bonnie & Clyde-style, and give it away, and Olivia Wilde has an amusing, yet poignant bit, as Timberlake's eternally young mother, who stopped aging at 25 and knows her time is up soon.

"In Time" deals with timeless movie conventions with a smart modernity.

Note in Passing: Kudos to The San Francisco Chronicle’s Mick LaSalle, The New York Times’ Manohla Dargis and The New Yorker’s Bruce Diones for seeing the value in this otherwise critically undervalued film.

Thursday, October 20, 2011

clipped wings

"The Big Year" is, well, an odd bird. (Bad pun intended.)

Seeemingly a comedy with an ace cast, it never takes flight. (There I go again!)

The problem is that the film, from source material by memorist Mark Obmascik, isn't a comedy. Which is a tad confusing, given that it's toplined by Steve Martin, Owen Wilson and Jack Black as obsessed bird-watchers (that's right) who use this curious pasttime as yet another excuse for male competitiveness. But it isn't necessarily a drama either. It isn't much of anything - a gentle, anecdotal, lovingly filmed nothing.

"There is no there there," to borrow from Gertrude Stein.

The three stars have zero chemistry, but more alarming is that, despite detailed work by director David Frankel ("The Devil Wears Prada" and "Marley & Me") and his scenarist Howard Franklin ("Quick Change"), the film fails massively to engage us in "birding," as it's called.

Nevertheless, it has a handsome cast - Brian Dennehy and Dianne Weist as Black's parents; JoBeth Williams as Martin's wife; Rosamund Pike as Wilson's wife; Joel McHale and Kevin Pollak as two of Martin's business associates; Rashida Jones as a potential love interest for Black; Tim Blake Nelson as another birder; Jim Parsons as a birding blogger - and Frankel has conjured up quite a few cozy, companionable sequences set in restaurants and bars. The tony narration is read by John Cleese.

Tuesday, October 04, 2011

unmoored, brilliantly

Lonergan directs Damon and Paquin

Kenneth Lonergan's long-awaited/long-delayed "Margaret" submerges a willing viewer in the scattered yet fascinating day-to-day activities of a privileged New York teenager named Lisa Cohen - or, as Lisa describes herself to one of her teachers, "an entitled liberal Jew."

The movie is an Altmanesque ensemble piece anchored by a major performance by a very game and very brave (and very young) Anna Paquin, who would normally be a shoo-in for an Oscar if "Margaret" wasn't made way back in 2005 and if it hadn't been mired in distracting legal and editing issues. Paquin's Lisa attends a progressive private school whose precocious students are smarter, more probing and verbally quicker than their teachers (who include Matt Damon and Matthew Broderick).

Particularly Lisa.

The lynchpin of Lisa's otherwise aimless life is a horrific accident that Lisa causes when she distracts a bus driver (Mark Ruffalo) who promptly mows down a pedestrian (Allison Janney). This brilliantly staged sequence shrewdly juxtaposes the death of one person with the rebirth of another.

Lisa, now no longer adrift, is jolted by bracing, powerful feelings. She's been enlightened and, once one is enlightened, there's no going back. Lisa can't unlearn this harsh lesson and return to her former self.

Lonergan's movie runs two-and-a-half hours (reportedly shortened from the director's three-hour cut by Martin Scorsese and Thelma Schoonmaker) and, frankly, I wanted more. More of Paquin. And more of the cast surrounding her - J. Smith-Cameron and Lonergan himself as her divorced, estranged parents; Jeannie Berlin as a middle-aged woman who becomes Lisa's unlikely new best friend; Jean Reno as a European sophisticate romancing her mom, and Rosemarie DeWitt as Ruffalo's wife.

Monday, September 19, 2011


"Contagion," the new metathriller gorgeously shot and rather playfully directed by Steven Soderbergh, is the filmmaker's Altmanesque take on a deadly disease that takes down a good part of the world's population in record time and, disturbingly, without any promise of surcease.

As the challenged professionals who work in disease control and prevention scramble to find clues and a cure, both the disease and the film itself breathlessly crisscross among locations and among an A-list cast.

The ever-reliable Matt Damon, who has slowly become this generation's Jimmy Stewart, anchors the film as a confused, frightened Everyman, but the acting honors here go to Jude Law who really rips into his entertaining role as an unctious San Francisco blogger named Alan Krumwiede (pronounced "crumb-weedy"), a creep replete with crooked teeth, and Jennifer Ehle (that's her above), who brings a Meryl Streep calm and professionalism to the role a committed scientist.

Topping it off is Cliff Martinez's jangly electric score which, like "Contagion" itself, is discordant, unnerving and yet perfectly right.

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

getting bucked

The base "Bucky Larson: Born to Be a Star" never stood a chance, not even with Adam Sandler's imprematur stamped on it.

Sandler may be able to get a movie made, via his Happy Madison company, natch, but he can't get a studio to respect it.

In a year of dubious comedies that pushed buttons and envelopes - namely, "Bridesmaids," "Hall Pass," "Bad Teacher," "Horrible Bosses," "The Hangover 2" and, worst of all, "A Good, Old-Fashioned Orgy" - "Bucky Larson" was the only one to be treated as if it had cooties.

Jeez, even the soiled, god-awful "A Good, Old-Fashioned Orgy" was screened for critics. But "Bucky" was hidden from the press, with all its pans running in Saturday papers. If Columbia felt so embarrassed by the film, why greenlight it in the first place? Oh, yeah, right - Adam Sandler.

This is not to indicate that "Bucky Larson" is a good or even not-bad film. But it says something about an industry that finds something harmlessly hilarious about women vomiting and defecating uncontrollably (as they did in the big setpiece in "Bridesmaids") but gets all judgmental about a film about a bucktoothed nerd with a tiny penis who has pretensions of becoming a huge porn star (that would be "Bucky Larson").

And he does become a porn star because of that small member. See, it doesn't intimiate the guys who download his films and it makes the women more admiring of their boyfriends/husbands, regardless of size.

Tom Brady, who directed, is no auteur (far from it, his two previous accomplishments were "The Hot Chicks" and "The Comebacks"), but he is smart enough to stand back and let his rather estimable cast members(Christina Ricci, Don Johnson, Edward Hermann, Miriam Flynn, Kevin Nealon and Stephen Dorff, among them) take a bat at the low material without exactly embarrassing themselves except when they want to.

Nick Swardson, who limns the role of Bucky, is a reliable Sandler house player ("Just Go With It" and "Don't Mess with the Zohan") and funny character man ("The House Bunny" and "Grandma's Boy") who has been sitting on the sidelines too long and deserves a breakthrough.

"Bucky Larson" is not exactly the film that will put him on the map and, hopefully, it won't completely derail his career. As he has in other films, Swardson makes the most of theoretically unplayable material, working beyond the call of duty as his film's star who is also its best team player.

Adam Sandler obviously likes and has nurtured him, but at this point, Nick Swardson needs a Judd Apatow in his life. Like right now.

Sunday, September 11, 2011

cinema obscura: Dore Schary's "Act One" (1963)

The playwright-director Moss Hart co-wrote both ''You Can't Take It With You'' and ''The Man Who Came to Dinner'' with George S. Kaufman and won his Tony as director for Lerner and Loewe's ''My Fair Lady.''

He also wrote the autobiography, “Act One,” which was filmed for Jack Warner and Warner Bros. by the legendary Dore Schary in 1963.

The little-seen, now-forgotten film, which stars George Hamilton as Hart, dwells on the early part of Hart's career, before he met and married Kitty Carlisle, and boasts an impressive supporting cast – Jason Robards as George S. Kaufman, Jack Klugman as Joe Hyman, Eli Wallach as Warren Stone, Sam Levine as Richard Maxwell, George Segal as Lester Sweyd, Bert Convy as Archie Leach (who would, of course, become Cary Grant) and the great stage actress Ruth Ford as Beatrice Kaufman.

It’s not a particularly good movie, but it does capture the atmospheric New York theater milieu with impressive accuracy – the glittering New York life that Moss Hart and Kitty Carlisle represented. Ambience.

You know - when life was all about the opening night on Broadway of “Auntie Mame,” a cocktail party on Beekman Place, a charity soirée at the Museum of Modern Art and a late-night supper at the Stork Club.

"Act One," like the golden era it depicts, was gone until Turner Classic Movies somehow unearthed it; it airs on TCM at 6 p.m. (est) on 13 September. That's your ticket for front row center.

Friday, September 09, 2011

façade: Margo Martindale

Now is the time to praise Margo Martindale, an actress who goes down easy, akin to a soft, soothing bourbon.

One of the more reassuring presences in modern film, Martindale first took my attention with an early role - her supporting turn as Birdy in Robert Benton's "Nobody's Fool" (1994) - and perhaps was most memorable ten years later as Hilary Swank's crude, cruel "white trash" momma, perfectly named Earline, in Clint Eastwood's wrenching "Million Dollar Baby" (2004).

Most recently, she's shined as John C. Reilly's mother in "Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story"; in  brief bits in Tamara Jenkins' "The Savages" and Tom McCarthy's "Win Win," and as Minnie Driver and Eddie Izzard's strange, game neighbor on the FX series, "The Riches."

But Martindale's long-coming breakthrough role, also on television, is as the irrepressible Mags Bennett on Timothy Olyphant's "Justified," for which she's been Emmy-nominated. And this season, she shows up, opposite Patrick Wilson, on ABC's "A Gifted Man." That said, her most satisfying turn to date (arguably) came as Carol, an American tourist, in "14ème Arrondissement," Alexander Payne's wry segment for the omnibus French film, "Paris, je t'aime" (2006), speaking fractured French with her familiar drawl.

About that drawl: Martindale was born in Jacksonville, Texas.

Other roles include "Days of Thunder," "Practical Magic," "The Hours" and "The Human Stain," all with Nicole Kidman; "Lorenzo's Oil," "The Firm," "Twlight," "Earthly Possessions" and "Dead Man Walking," all with Susan Sarandon; and the recent trio,"Feast of Love," "Rails and Ties," and "Stop-Loss" (in which she simply contributes her mellow intonations in a voiceover).

On stage, Martindale orginated the part of Turvy (aka, "the Dolly Parton role") in "Steel Magnolias," was showcased in the remarkable one-woman show, "Always ... Patsy Cline" (playing a diehard Cline fane) and soared as Big Momma opposite Ned Beatty's Big Daddy in the recent revival of "Cat on the Hot Tin Roof," for which she was nominated for a Tony. Incredible.

~top: Margo Martindale in a scene from the Alexander Payne segment of "Paris, je t'aime"
~photography: First Look International and Canal+ 2006 ©

* * * * *
~bottom: Margo

Sunday, August 21, 2011


Franco bonds, believably, with Serkis' Caesar
"Rise of the Planet of the Apes," Rupert Wyatt's socially aware, achingly humane update of the venerable Fox franchise, is a supreme reminder never to assume. I mean, who thought that this seemingly well-worn series could be rehabilitated in such a clever, sophisticated way?

Wyatt and his scenarists Rick Jaffa and Amanda Silver surmounted this challenge by honoring the soul of Pierre Boulle's original French novel, "La planète des singes," while bringing a timeless modernity to the piece.

The Biritsh filmmaker has also contrasted the free-wheeling '60s of the original film with the unfortunate conformist mentality that pervades the so-called New Millenium, giving this update a '50s aftertaste.

James Franco is utterly convincing as a San Francisco scientist/idealist, with both a mission and an agenda, who is experimenting on chimps to find a cure for the Alzheimer's disease that afflicts his father (John Lithgow). And Wyatt brings a certain element to his film, one essential to all films, that has fallen in disrepair in recent years - namely, exposition.

He takes his time creating the timeline that will take baby Caesar, a chimp from Franco's high-tech pharmaceutical headquarters (named Gen-Sys), to his home where Caesar bonds with his father, to the animal refuge which is anything but. Here, "Rise of the Planet of the Apes" becomes a shrewd take on the prison-film genre, and the innocent, loving Caesar (brilliantly played by a digitally costumed Andy Serkis) becomes a hardened inmate. Think Eastwood in Don Siegel's "Escape from Alcatraz."

All of this plays as a commantary/allegory on the fate of all captive animals, including those who we think are comfortably domesticated.

The film's big setpiece is a standoff between Caesar and his fellow escapees and gun-toting authorities on the expansive Golden Gate Bridge (there's never any question which species is the superior one) - a huge action scene amidst a film that's largely spoken. The dialogue penned by Jaffa and Silver is often quick, alert and literate, but there's one word here, a mere monosylable, that speaks volumes. Memorably.

Tuesday, August 09, 2011

the corner

Every bit of news that comes out of Hollywood about song-and-dance films (we really can't call them musicals anymore) is bad news...

An unecessary remake of "Gypsy," starring the wildly age-inappropriate Barbra Streisand, who will be 70 in April, as Momma Rose (she'll probably be 72, if and when the film ever gets made)...

Willow Smith as "Annie," its score presumably to be fortified with an anachronistic hiphop sound...

Jim Carrey and Jake Gyllenhaal in "Damn Yankees," a project announced so long ago that it might actually be dead now...

Hugh Jackman's threats to remake "Carousel," which is both a musical and a period piece, two genres not exactly beloved among contemporary moviegoers...

A planned filming of "Miss Saigon," which seems a tad dated and inconsequential now...

And, the final nail in the coffin, Justin Beiber's fantasy of doing a reboot of "Grease" with Myley Cyrus.

On the horizon, of course, is the remake of "Footloose," which, if you go by its trailer, now looks like an action film.

Now comes the breathless announcement that Lionsgate has greenlit a remake of the late Emile Ardolino's "Dirty Dancing" (1987).

In her blog, Flickgrrl," for The Philadelphia Inquirer, my friend Carrie Rickey wrote, "'Dirty Dancing' is like 'The Godfather.' It's a classic and you don't mess with it or otherwise try to improve, rethink, or update it." And besides, asked Carrie, "How do you take Eleanor Bergstein's autobiographical story and transpose it to another period?"

The most obvious answer is, You do it anyway.

Clearly, the motivation for this latest Bad Idea is to film two physically attractive, personality-free young actors gyrating aggressively to the original movie's jukebox score (again, fortified with new beats) and ignore the little narrative curlicues that made the original somewhat original.

To elaborate on my response to Carrie's post, while “Dirty Dancing” is not a masterwork like “The Godfather,” it is definitely a populist classic – a film embraced by the average moviegoer, not necessarily the cinéphile.

What people forget - and what Carrie brings to light - is that the film was a shrewd period piece (set in 1962, I believe) and that it had a pervasive Jewishness (Kellerman's Lodge!) that gave it its backbone and color.

The original film was about more than just class differences. It wasn't that simple.

I’m sure these two elements will be discarded in the remake. Only the dancing will remain intact and I’ve a sick feeling that Baby and Johnny (so wonderfully immortalized by Jennifer Grey and Patrick Swayze, pictured) might even be gyrating to entirely different songs in the reboot.

One other thing: The new film won’t have the invaluable Jack Weston as Max Kellerman; Jerry Orbach as Baby's bigoted doctor father or Kelly Bishop as her sexy mother; the terrific Jane Brucker as her princess-sister Lisa, or Lonny Price as the unctuous Neil Kellerman, "the catch of the county" - all of them so crucial to the singular ethnicity of what everyone thinks of as just “a great dance movie.”

Tuesday, August 02, 2011

Two with Joanne Woodward

As usual, Turner Classic Movies turns its August schedule over to its daily star tributes - better known as "Summer Under the Stars."

I'm particularly interested in the star celebrated on 16-17 August - Joanne Woodward - largely because Woodward is an unsung gem among Hollywood's acting fraternity but also because two certain Woodward films - long lost - will be showcased.
They are titles that have been celebrated here in recent essays - Martin Ritt's "The Sound and the Fury" (1959), airing at 10 p.m. (est) on 16 August, and Paul Newman's "The Effect of Gamma Rays on Man-in-the-Moon Marigolds" (1972), slotted at 2 a.m. on 17 August. I can't wait. These are two Fox titles that don't even show up on the Fox Movie Channel anymore. Go figure. Both are worth checking out, as are some of Woodward's other titles - Leo McCarey's "Rally 'Round the Flag Boys," Ritt's "Paris Blues," Fielder Cook's "A Big Hand for the Little Lady," Irvin Kershner's "A Fine Madness," Gilbert Cates' "Summer Wishes, Winter Dreams," Burt Reynolds' "The End," Stuart Rosenberg's "The Drowning Pool," Gerd Oswald's "A Kiss Before Dying" and, of course, Newman's "Rachel, Rachel."

Other Star nights that I'll be checking out are Shirley MacLaine (10 August), Debbie Reynolds (19 August), Montgomery Clift (20 August), Cary Grant (21 August), Peter Lawford (26 August), Carole Lombard (28 August), Anne Francis (29 August) and Howard Keel (30 August).

Saturday, July 30, 2011

actresses, adrift

One of the more curious movie trends of late - either encouraging or distrubing, depending on how one's perspective - has been the terrific performances of some actresses in films that are fair-to-middling.

Case in point: Julia Roberts shrewdly thought-out bravura turn in "Larry Crowne," Tom Hanks' rather facile, TV-movie take on the current economic straits. Working with material that is nearly non-existent, Roberts (smiling above) effortlessly breathes some semblance of real life into a film determined to put a Happy Face on an unfortunate situation.

Running a close second to Roberts is Kate Hudson's full-fledged Movie-Star turn as a high maintenance good-time gal in Luke Greenfield's "Something Borrowed," a film which struggles to be something more, something deeper, than your usual by-the-numbers RomCom/Chick Flick, and that succeeds in its quest whenever Hudson (that's her below with Colin Egglesfield) is on camera. This is the kind vibrant great performance that's too ofter overlooked or hastily dismissed.

Two of our more refreshing young film actresses - Mila Kunis and Emma Stone - are currently also multi-tasking as rescue artists. Their respective films, Will Gluck's "Friends with Benefits" and Glenn Ficarra and John Requa's "Crazy, Stupid, Love," are agreeable but naggingly familiar RomComs - even though the former serves up some hip, rapid-fire dialogue and the latter adds a touch of Bromance for good measure. But Kunis and Stone (who actually manages to upstage a one-note Julianne Moore in her film) both give their movies a much-needed shot in the arm.

The singular Lucy Punch and Cameron Diaz are the game players who elevate Jake Kasdan's "Bad Teacher," while the affecting Jenna Fischer, long overdue for a starring movie role, is the only reason to see Michael J. Weithorn's well-intentioned downer, "A Little Help."

And, finally, there's Jennifer Connelly who soars, comedically, in a film that is way better than "fair-to-middling" - George Ratliff's wise and witty attack on organized religion, "Salvation Boulevard." As a religious fanatic on the verge of a serious meltdown, Connelly affects wildly avid facial expressions and hyper gestures that are topped by her maniacal line readings. She stands out in a cast that includes Pierce Brosnan (always a good sport), Greg Kinnear, Marisa Tomei, Ed Harris and Ciarán Hinds.

Wednesday, July 27, 2011

façade: Greg Kinnear

Affable and casually attractive in a way that would have been appreciated within the old studio system, Greg Kinnear is the kind of smoothly reliable actor who rarely commands attention - at least not from the critics.

He's the new Glenn Ford in that regard.

Ever since he made a surprisingly credible leading-man debut in Sydney Pollack's remake of "Sabrina" in 1995, Kinnear has worked steadily and without much fanfare, despite an Oscar nomination two years later for his work in James L. Brooks' "As Good as It Gets" (1997). A good sport and an all-around generous actor with his co-stars, Kinnear has moved from one movie to another in a little more than a decade, building up an interesting filmography dotted with a fascinating collection of directors - Nora Ephron ("You've Got Mail," 1998), Mike Nichols ("What Planet Are You From?," 2000), Neil LaBute ("Nurse Betty," 2000), Amy Heckerling ("Loser," 2000), Sam Raimi ("The Gift," 2000), Norman Jewison ("Dinner with Friends," 2001), Tony Goldwyn ("Someone Like You," 2001), Paul Schrader ("Auto Focus," 2002), The Farrelly Brothers ("Stuck on You," 2003), Richard Linklater ("The Bad News Bears," 2005, and "Fast Food Nation," 2006), Richard Shepard ("The Matador," 2005), Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris ("Little Miss Sunshine," 2006), Robert Benton ("Feast of Love," 2007) and Marc Abraham (the now-you-see-it, now-you-don't "Flash of Genius," a populist film from 2008 that, for some bizarre, inexplicable reason, never caught on).
In 2008, he provided what little quality and respectability that Michael McCullers'
negligible "Baby Mama" had and did a nimble Cary Grant/"Topper" turn in David Koepp's "Ghost Town."

But last year, Kinnear provided invaluable support to Matt Damon in Paul Greengrass's "Green Zone," and this year, he'll be reunited with his "Matador" co-star
Pierce Brosnan in "Salvation Boulevard," George Ratliff's second film. (Ratliff made his directorial debut with "Joshua.")

Yes, he's the new Glenn Ford. But wait. Every decade, there seems to be talk about exactly who is "the new Cary Grant." Most people point to George Clooney these days as the logical candidate. Makes sense. But Clooney seems to have respectfully excused himself.

"The new Cary Grant"? I go with Greg Kinnear. It's about time we start pointing at him. A little acknowledgement please.

Note in Passing: Kinnear has a third film with Pierce Brosnan in the can: Douglas McGrath's romantic comedy, "I Don't Know How She Does it," also starring Sarah Jessica Parker, Christina Hendricks and Busy Phillips.