Monday, December 31, 2007

the movie year. 2007. the top twelve








































Feel free to disagree.

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

the movie year. 2007. a baker's dozen












Thirteen companionable films that deserve a list of their own:

-"Two Days in Paris"

-"Joshua"

-"Hairspray"

-"Year of the Dog"

-"The Bourne Ultimatum"

-"Waitress"

-"Romance & Cigarettes"

-"Margot at the Wedding"

-"Dan in Real Life"

-"The Savages"

-"Gone Baby Gone"

-"Enchanted"

-"Lars and the Real Girl"


(Artwork: From top,Vera Farmiga in "Joshua," Ryan Gosling in "Lars and the Real Girl," Nicole Kidman and Jennifer Jason Leigh in "Margot at the Wedding" and Julie Delpy and Adam Goldberg in "Two Days in Paris")

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

the movie year. 2007. acting up


Cate Blanchett in "I'm Not There"? Let's see. She puts on a wig and a pair of sunglasses, mumbles her dialogue and a bunch of impressionable critics (who should know better) are reduced to drooling fools.

I don't get it.

Ellen Page in "Juno"? Exactly what's the fuss? She plays a creepy, preternaturally articulate teenager who actually talks like a jaded, middle-aged screen writer and, well, jaded, middle-aged critics are reduced to writing veritable love letters to her.

I don't get it.

Daniel Day-Lewis in "There'll Be Blood"? He comes out of "retirement" like clockwork every five years and the critics immediately start talking Oscar. In this case, he does an extended vocal impersonation of John Huston, although not nearly as good as Albert Finney's in "Annie" (which was actually directed by Huston).

I don't get it.

So exactly who gave the best performance of the year?

My vote goes to Chris Crocker, the 20-year-old Britney Spears fan whose tearstained My Space plea, unofficially titled "Leave Britney Alone," has totaled something like 45 million plays so far. Beyond that, it's a tight, tidy performance that's simplistic in execution and that actually builds convincingly in power. He makes his heartfelt point in far fewer minutes than most overlong Oscar-bait movies.

Am I serious? Am I kidding? My answer to one of those questions is no.

In the meantime, here are the professionals who impressed me:

Best Actress: Laura Linney, a criminally neglected actress, always overlooked, who knocks out all the competition with her turn as one of the two grown children in Tamara Jenkins' "The Savages."

Best Actor: Philip Seymour Hoffman, so good this year in "The Savages" and "Charlie Wilson's War," actually topped himself (and every other actor) in Sidney Lumet's "Before the Devil Knows You're Dead."

Best Supporting Actress (shared): Saoirse Ronan, Romola Garai and Vanessa Redgrave who individually take on the crucial role of Briony Tallis at different ages in Joe Wright's "Atonement." The gifted Ronan has been reaping most of the praise, but it's that reliable chameleon Garai who has the most difficult, transitional role here.

Best Supporting Actor: Hal Holbrook, a grizzled vet who had his belated breakthrough in films last year in Sean Penn's "Into the Wild."

Best Ensmble: The cast of Adam Shankman's
"Hairspray" - Nikki Blonsky, John Travolta, Amanda Bynes, James Marsden, Michelle Pfeiffer, Queen Latifah, Christopher Walken, Zak Effron, Allison Janney, Elijah Kelley and Brittany Snow. Not a bad performance among them.

(Artwork: Laura Linney, with Philip Seymour Hoffman, in "The Savages"; Britney fan extraordinaraire Chis Crocker; Saoirse Ronan as the young Briony in "Atonement," and Christopher Walken and John Travolta, representing the ace ensemble of "Hairspray")

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

Friday, December 28, 2007

overrated


"It was Exquisite! Enchanting! Exciting! Enjoyable! And Extraordinary!"

o·ver·rate
verb (used with object), -rat·ed, -rat·ing. to rate or appraise too highly; overestimate: I think you overrate their political influence.
(The Random House Unabridged Dictionary, © Random House, Inc. 2006.)


Given the sheer number of movies now produced every year by the studios and the independents, the odds that most of them aren't very good are high. This provides something of a quandary for critics who occasionally have to find something, anything, to praise - or risk being branded (by readers and editors alike) as miserable cranks or curmudgeons deserving of their misery.

Modern film reviewing is now a relentless treadmill process, with untimely screenings and tight deadline schedules often resulting in hastily-thought-out reviews. Movies are routinely overrated (or underrated, as the case may be). The luxury of taking time to "read" a film - to think about it and savor it in a leisurely fashion - is now largely a thing of the past.

Today, I'm eshewing the usual suspects popping up on the various year-end lists to instead single out (alphabetically) those ten titles that have been seriously overrated by our overworked movie critics. I hasten to add that these are not bad or even inferior films, just wildly overrated ones. Here goes:

-"Charlie Wilson's War"

-"The Diving Bell and the Butterfly"

-"Grace Is Gone"

-"I'm Not There"

-"Juno"

-"Knocked Up"

-"Lust, Caution"

-"Once"

-"Superbad"

-"La vie en rose"


Feel free to disagree.

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

Wanted - Film Advocates


This may not be the most original observation, but it's become increasingly apparent to me that something is askew at most of home entertainment divisions of the studios.

I mean, it doesn't make sense, for example, that Columbia/Sony managed to put on DVD everything that The Three Stooges ever did for the Poverty Row studio, but has inexplicably overlooked two affable comedies by one of its more reliable contract players, Jack Lemmon, for more than 30 years now. Neither "Operation Mad Ball" (1957) nor "The Notorious Landlady" (1962), both directed by Richard Quine, has ever been available on any format of home entertainment. Exacerbating matters, neither film has been televised in years.

Paramount, meanwhile, has been busy releasing boxed sets of mediocre TV series from the 1950s and '60s, while ignoring such once-popular titles as "The Rat Race" (Tony Curtis-Debbie Reynolds), "Love with the Proper Stranger" (Natalie Wood and Steven McQueen), "Come Blow Your Hort" (Sinatra) or any number of late Otto Preminger films ("Such Good Friends," "Hurry Sundown," "Tell Me that You Love Me, Junie Moon" and "Skidoo").

The problem? Well, I get the impression that the home divisions are peopled with "kids" (a relative term, I know) who think that film began with "Star Wars" and that anything made prior to 1970 is undeserving of attention. What's clearly missing are film advocates - people who know films, have had a long relationship with films and are keenly aware of titles worthy of attention, maybe even something made in the 1930s or '40s. Imagine that.

The studios need to bring film advocates into their home entertainment divisions who will fight for old Preminger or Lemmon films the way someone at Columbia went to bat for the Stooges - and the way that every other current DVD producer can't wait to get the latest Sandler or Apatow on discs.

(Art Work: Natalie Wood and Steve McQueen in "Love with the Proper Stranger," a superior version of "Knocked Up" from the 1960s)

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

Monday, December 24, 2007

The Secret to Making a Successful Film Musical



There has been a New Wave of film musicals this year - "Hairspray," "Once," "Across the Universe," "Romance & Cigarettes," "I'm Not There," "Enchanted," "Honeydripper" and, of course, "Sweeney Todd - The Demon Barber of Fleet Street," Tim Burton's daringly direct film version of the Stephen Sondheim musical. "Sweeney Todd" is that rare modern film musical that makes no excuses for its characters bursting into song.

As fans of the form await the box-office fate of "Sweeney Todd" - and the future of the film musical in general - it occured to me that there's one way, and only one way, for a screen musical to hook a potential audience.

Yes, modern-day movie audiences have a difficult time suspending disbelief when a character suddenly breaks into song on screen. Somehow, it's embarrassing. It makes them, well, uncomfortable. However, audiences have proven that they have no problem with on-screen singing when the plot in question is about music itself.

Think about it. With the possible exception of "My Fair Lady" and "West Side Story," the more popular and enduring film musicals of the past 40 or so years have been tied to music, embracing plots that give their characters a legitimate reason to sing both on stage and off. Here, in no particular order, is a scratch-pad list off the top of my head:

-"The Sound of Music" (of course)

-"The Music Man"

-"Chicago"

-"Moulin Rouge"

-"Cabaret"

-"Gypsy"

-"Hairspray"

-"Bye Bye Birdie"

-"Dreamgirls"

-"Grease"

Does "Grease" count? Its characters seem driven by music. Of course, three recent film musicals - "The Phantom of the Opera," "Rent" and "The Producers" - were all music-oriented, but none of them was exactly a huge hit. Of course, none was a huge flop either.

It's just a theory, but I think it makes sense. I also think it's no accident that "Singin' in the Rain," arguably the most beloved screen musical of all time, is about the filming of a musical - or that most musicals in the library of MGM, the self-proclaimed king of the film musical, are about putting on shows.

"Sweeney Todd" is definitely not about putting on a show, at least not the usual kind of show, if you know what I mean. It'll be interesting to see if audiences sit still for it and maybe even embrace it. Time will tell.

Anyway, next up: Universal's "Momma Mia!," starring Meryl Streep, Amanda Seyfried, Pearce Brosnan, Colin Firth, Christine Baranski, Stellan Skarsgård and Julie Waters.
- and inspired by a catalogue of hummable songs by ABBA.

(Artwork: Rosalind Russell, as Madam Rose, tries to nose her way into daughter Ann Jilliann's act in Mervyn LeRoy's "Gypsy"; Meryl Streep as Donna in the upcoming "Momma Mia!")

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

Tim Burton and Stephen Sondheim's "Sweeney Todd"



First, full disclosure.

I saw the original Broadway production of Stephen Sondheim’s “Sweeney Todd – The Demon Barber of Fleet Street” 13 times between 1979 and 1980. (I’m dating myself here, I know.) Yes, 13 times. And that doesn’t include the piece’s various incarnations on the road and in concert form.

To say that I was obsessed is putting it mildly. I still am. I also feel a strong, unnatural propriety towards it. Consequently, I awaited Tim Burton’s new film version with a combination of heated anticipation and debilitating dread.

I mean, I’ve waited nearly 30 years for this film.

Finally, it’s here. Finally, a show that is perhaps the single most cinematic stage musical of all time has made it to the screen - three decades late/later. The inexplicable nature of the situation is actually easily explained: “Sweeney Todd” got caught in the plight of the film musical, a venerable genre that has been allowed to die a slow, painful, humiliating death because (1) there are virtually no film-musical advocates among New Hollywood’s ranks and (2) the general moviegoing public has become terminally masculinized (women included) and homophobic (again, women also included). No self-respecting modern man would admit to enjoying a film musical. That would imply a testosterone deficiency. Exactly when did the film musical become so seriously taboo for men? My father loved musicals (as well as Westerns, war films and comedies) and it was always a big event for the family to go to big, lavish roadshow musicals. It’s called entertainment.

Frankly, I never thought “Sweeney Todd” would make it to the screen – I had no faith in the process – and it’s a miracle that it actually got made. In the ‘80s, I thought that only Stanley Kubrick would have knack or the clout to pull it off. When Columbia announced way back in January of 1992 – 16 years ago! – that it was negotiating to produce a film version, Burton was attached as director. And he seemed like a good fit, too. But that idea fizzled out, until it was reborn a couple years ago with Sam Mendes on board to direct John Logan’s adaptation. Russell Crowe was Mendes’s choice to play Sweeney and a good one it was.

But all speculation and fantasy is over. Burton delivered a more-than-satisfying film that works as a triumph of fidelity and compromise. The first thing he got right: He retained the full title – “Sweeney Todd – The Demon Barber of Fleet Street.” (I’m sure there were powers who wanted to shorten it.) Also, Burton, being who he is, took large risks here, some of them quite radical, and, against all odds, just about all of them work. Burton got to make the film according to his own, idiosyncratic vision and also one that honors its legendary source material.

He has deconstructed and redefined “Sweeney Todd,” creating a film that beautifully compliments its stage predecessor. His “Sweeney Todd” is at once different from the play and yet not different at all. It’s a unique achievement.

Given my status as a foremost “Sweeney Todd” expert (indulge me here!), I’d like to extend and comment on ideas already expressed in the film’s pre-release publicity and the subsequent reviews. Here goes…

-The film’s running time. It’s been mentioned on more than one occasion that scenarist John Logan whittled a three-hour stage play down to a two-hour movies (117 minutes, to be specific). To the best of my knowledge, the stage “Sweeney” never ran three hours. In fact, the Warner Bros. DVD recording of a 1982 stage performance at Los Angeles’ Dorothy Chandler Pavilion (starring Angela Lansbury and George Hearn) runs 139 minutes, sans intermission break. That’s two hours and 20 minutes. The actual performance probably ran closer to 150 minutes with the intermission.

-Eliminating the show’s chorus. Much has been made of Burton’s decision to cut the crucial chorus number, “The Ballad of Sweeney Todd,” which not only bookends the show but is strewn throughout it. That’s just the tip of the iceberg. If you look closely, you’ll notice that the film has no chorus at all. It was eliminated also from “Pirelli’s Miracle Elixir” and, most glaringly, from “God, That’s Good!” The latter has been cut back so much that its title no longer even figures into the lyric. The bulk of the show's singing is now carried by the two leads, Johnny Depp and Helena Bonham Carter, with the five supporting players getting one or two songs each. Along the same lines, the film also eschews dancing, even though Francesca Jaynes is listed as choreographer.

-Cut songs. Burton has been amazingly faithful to Sondheim's epic score. There are 20 tracks on the Nonesuch soundtrack album. He has estimated that his film consists is 75% singing. That’s a lot. Still, realistically, some songs had to go. In addition to the aforementioned "The Ballad of Sweeney Todd," also missing are "Ah, Miss," "Kiss Me," “Wigmaker Sequence.” "The Letter" and "Parlour Songs." A third version of "Johanna" - yes, Sondheim wrote three separate songs titled "Johanna" - that was sung by the Judge Turpina character when the show when it originally opened, was eventually cut and has had the tendency to come and go from the various productions of "Todd" that I've seen over the years.

Also, the second half of “The Contest,” which also appeared and disappeared in different productions of the show, is not in the film. And like “God, That’s Good!,” another number, “Ladies in their Sensitivities,” was cut in such a way that it’s title is no longer mentioned in its lyric. Its middle section has been cut.

-“The Ballad of Sweeney Todd.” Burton has never fully explained his decision to cut this song which many believe to be the heart of Sondheim’s show and the key number in his score. It’s in John Logan’s shooting script, strewn throughout the story as it was on stage. The official word is that the song was dropped when the set had to be closed down for two weeks while Johnny Depp was away tending to his sick daughter, Lila-Rose. That makes sense, I guess. But wasn’t the song recorded in advance of filming, along with the rest of the score, and, if so, why isn’t on the soundtrack album? Reportedly, half-a-dozen actors were hired to sing the song as ghosts in the film, including veteran actor Christopher Lee. Lee, who can sing opera, told Britain’s Telegraph.co.uk, "It would have been worse if I had done the scenes, but I never got to film them. It's a shame as the lyrics were wonderful, but these things happen."

Also in Logan's script is the full "God, That's Good!," replete with the responses from the chorus. Again, I would love to know Burton's rationale for eliminating the chorus from the piece.

-Excision of the show’s humor. On stage, Sondheim’s show was a prime example of Grand Guignol, mixed with musical comedy. As a result, it was very, very funny, albeit in a sick way. The “God, That’s Good!” number being a prime example, with the chorus pounding on tables and demanding “More pies! More hot pies!,” while juices run out of their mouths. Burton, however, set out to make more of a horror movie in the tradition of Hammer Films. He opted for chills over laughs.

-Toning the cannibalism. The film of “Sweeney Todd” attracted immediate pre-release interest when the ratings board of the Motion Picture Association of America awarded it an R rating for its rampant blood-letting. While Burton gleefully bathes his film in blood, it’s curious that he downplays the cannibalism aspect of his story. True, Mrs. Lovett still bakes the remains of Sweeney’s victims in pies, but we never really see her customers devouring them. Again, this was plainly socked across in “God, That’s Good!” in its full, original form.

-The main Broadway connection. Despite the various tweaks, Burton’s film is amazingly faithful to what Sondheim originally attended. The filmmaker honors his composer by having recruited two of Sondheim’s house players to handle the movie’s score – Jonathan Tunick, who orchestrated the music (cleaving close to his original stage orchestrations) and Paul Gemignani who conducted the 78-piece orchestra. Both are long-time associates. Burton may have made his horror film but it comes with some exhilarating Broadway bombast.

-The stage recording versus the soundtrack. “Sweeney” on film sounds great, never better, thanks to that huge orchestra, and non-singers Depp and Bonham Carter are more than impressive in their interpretation of Sondheim. But the original stage recording with Lansbury and Len Cariou remains the definitive recording of “Sweeney” (even over other stage recordings of the score). While Depp’s and Bonham Carter’s voices both come across as too small and too quiet on the CD soundtrack, perhaps a little too moody, their renditions soar on the big screen. It’s a case where the actors’ faces and their expressiveness add to their reading of Sondheim’s intricate lyrics. As a result, I enjoyed their voices much more during the performance than on the recording.

With that said, it will be interesting to see if the public accepts this very demanding film musical. As the New York Times so handily put it, "it's not 'Hairspray.'" I think "Sweeney Todd" will be the litmus test for the film musical and its future as a marketable entity.

Note in Passing: The tale of "Sweeney Todd" has been filmed twice in the past decade for major, songless TV productions - Dave Moore's "Sweeney Todd" (2006), starring Ray Winstone and Essie Davis, and John Schlesinger's "The Tale of Sweeney Todd," starring Ben Kingsley and Joanna Lumley. There are also two antique versions - George Dewhurst's "Sweeney Todd" (1926) and George Dibdin Pitt's "Sweeney Todd" (1928).

(Artwork: Depp and Bonham Carter in the "My Friends" number and singing "A Little Priest"; Sondheim's hand-written lyric and music for "The Ballad of Sweeney Todd," excluded from the film; Depp and Alan Rickman duet on "Pretty Women," and Depp as Todd)

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

Saturday, December 22, 2007

Joe Wright's "Atonement"



In the past 20 years or so, American movie studios have become so preoccupied with comedies, action films and special effects that they've lost the knack for making what I think of as "normal" movies. Films about people connecting in a wholly human way.

They've fallen out of the habit of offering their patrons a full menu, so to speak, and one of the staples taken off the menu is the classically contoured love story. That genre is now fully owned by foreign filmmakers, most notably the British. It's easier to dismiss the genre with a derogatory, sexist term ("chick flicks"), as Americansare wont to do, rather than re-educate their filmmakers and audiences in the pleasures of variety.

Joe Wright's British-made "Atonement," an elegant, sinewy and yet basically simplistic film about love denied, is an excellent example of the kind of movie America has become (almost willfully) incapable to make anymore. Staged across several decades, thereby taking on a deceptive complexity and density, the film is really about two people, the camera that loves them and the lush music that soars around them. No more than that, and yet it's brilliant.

Keira Knightly and James McAvoy play a couple separated, irrevocably so, by a precocious child's lie (shades of Lillian Hellman's "The Children's Hour" here). Things will never be the same. But there's a crucial, deeply-felt subterranean plot that examines the sexual and eventual political awakening of the child in question, Briony Tallis, brought memorably to life in her early incarnation by the preternaturally gifted child actres Saoirse Ronan, with Romola Garai and Vanessa Redgrave taking over the role as Briony ages.

Based on Ian McEwan' best-seller, "Atonement" is a hearteningly mature, emotionally generous film that studies an inevitable yet thwarted love and the wars of the heart that accompany it.

(Artwork: Top: Saoirse Ronan, brilliant as the young Briony in the first act of Joe Wright's "Atonement." Bottom: Ronan with James McAvoy)

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

Jake Kasdan's "Walk Hard - The Dewey Cox Story"



There really isn't much to say about the sadly inert, new Judd Apatow-driven comedy, "Walk Hard - The Dewey Cox Story," an alleged spoof of that subgenre, the crooner biopic. Not a bad idea but, as executed here, that's all it is - an idea, unfulfilled.

The title alone is emblematic of the film's desperately infantile humor - "cox," being the operative word. Cox. Get it? Nudge-nudge. What can I say? Some critics managed to locate humor in it.

I do, however, have one urgent question that I hope at least one person out there can answer: What is with the three - count 'em - three close-up shots of the flacid penis of a faceless, unidentified day player in the film's hotel orgy sequence? Is Apatow that anxious to obtain R-ratings for his films? I ask because nothing in this witless film warrants an R-rating, aside from the poor extra's penis whose inclusion, incidentally, is wildly gratuitous and which does nothing to advance what passes for plot here. But I'm happy to report that penis in question isn't particularly large; in fact, it's somewhat shorter than the attendant testicles behind it.

But I digress... The main problem with "Walk Hard - The Dewey Cox Story" is that it isn't remotely funny, followed by the fact that it recycles ideas and situations from other Apatow comedies from the past two or three years. If the scene of star John C. Reilly as rebel country singer Dewey Cox maniacally running around the street in just a jock strap seems naggingly familiar, that's because Will Ferrell did approximately the same thing just last year in Adam McKay's far superior "Talladega Nights - The Ballad of Ricky Bobby," which Apatow produced and in which Reilly co-starred. In fact, much of "Walk Hard" feels like a Will Ferrell reject.

Although Jake Kasdan is nominally listed as the director here, Apatow's finger prints are all over "Walk Hard." He even managed to encourage his unofficial mentor Harold Ramis to do a walk-on as a Hasidic record producer, a bit that's so offensive that even anti-Semites might be offended.

Current reservations aside, I think Apatow is generally great. His "Freaks and Geeks" TV series was a minor delight, while his 2005 directorial debut "The 40-Year-Old Virgin" was something of a heartening revelation - a breezy, in-your-face male-fantasy comedy but one with a big heart.

Nevertheless, Apatow's attempts to imitate the forumla in subsequent films - "Knocked Up" (whose smart heroine defied even loose movie-comedy logic and actually hooked up with a slacker/loser) and "Superbad" (whose main hero nurtured an out-of-control penis obsession) - have hinted at an early creative bankruptcy. Regressive males remain interesting - and droll - for just so long. After that, the characters become unattractive and their humor desperate and strained.

The critics who prematurely, and rather hastily, declared Apatow a comic genius - the latest Golden Boy in Hollywood to have all the answers for what ails the industry - have done him a disservice. He's no Preston Struges, as one noted reviewer implied (or, rather, exaggerated). And he's no Billy Wilder. At least, not yet. But he could be - if he's willing to move on, evolve.

As for the talented Reilly, between this film and "Criminal," it's become apparent that he's not ready to carry a film. He's one of film's top and most reliable character actors/second bananas. Given the right role and the right opportunity, he might grow into a Star. But "Walk Hard" doesn't provide that role.

Note in Passing: For what it's worth, "Walk Hard" looks great - thanks in large part to the contributions of cinematographer Uta Briesewitz, production designer Jefferson Sage, set decorator Dominic Silvestri and costume designer Debra McQuire. Actually, it looks too good. Too slick. Its opulence works against the antic comedy it's attempting.

(Artwork: John C. Reilly, in the title role, and Jenna Fischer duet in "Walk Hard - The Dewey Cox Story")

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

Tuesday, December 18, 2007

Cheers to Dave



Dave Kehr does it again. Arguably America's most astute/knowledgable film critic and its foremost DVD reviewer (via the New York Times), Dave has become invaluable as much for his brave, outspoken observations as for his sophisticated, educated taste in film.

Case in Point: His take this week on "United Artists' 90th Anniversary Prestige Collection," MGM Home Entertainment's pricey - and rather grotesque - 110-disc package of titles from its UA arm. The collection, which lists at a whopping $869.98, includes all the usual suspects. Can't get enough of "West Side Story," "Rocky" and James Bond? Well, then, this set was made for you.

Oddly enough, as Dave notes, MGM didn't think of including any work by the key people who were the "artists" at United Artists - namely, its four celebrated founders. None of them is represented. Writes Dave:

"... if the new administration intended to establish its link to the great UA tradition, it has fallen short. The company was founded in 1919 by four of the most powerful figures in Hollywood at that time: the actors Mary Pickford, Charles Chaplin and Douglas Fairbanks, and the director D. W. Griffith. Not a single film by the founding four has made its way into the UA box, which instead picks up in 1944 with “The Woman in the Window, a Fritz Lang film made for the independent studio International Pictures that was initially released by RKO and fell into UA’s hands only because of a series of mergers and acquisitions."

Dave has a couple other complaints about the set, but this glaring omission struck me as being particularly inept.

P.S. Be sure to check out Dave's invaluable blog, "Reports from the Lost Continent of Cinéphilia."

(Artwork: Douglas Fairbanks, Mary Pickford and Charles Chaplin, three of the original four founding members of the venerable United Artists; Not pictured: D.W. Griffith)

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

Tamara Jenkins’ "The Savages"


For anyone who has taken on the role of caretaker for an immobolized or emotionally needed parent, Tamara Jenkins' quietly brilliant new film "The Savages," plumbs depths of grief, frustration and empaty as no other recent work has. Her film - about two grown children dealing with their elderly and ultimately dying father - comes with the kind of integrity which makes both its pain and humor recognizable. "The Savages" is authentic.

And rarely has that contradictory expression, "grown children," made more sense than via the self-abandoning performances of Laura Linney and Philip Seymour Hoffman as Wendy and Jon (yes, Wendy and Jon) Savage, two middle-aged half-people with literary pretentions who go through life as if they were still in college.

Hoffman has been on a winning streak ever since "Capote" - he's at that point in his career where he can do no wrong - and, as a result, has been reaping more attention and more film-group notices than Linney who, I'm afraid, has become The Most Overlooked Great Gctress of Her Generation.

She's been in no fewer than seven films of varying quality in the past year - "The Savages," "The Nanny Diaries," "Breach," "Man of the Year," "Jindabyn," "The Hottest State" and "Driving Lesson" - but her excellence has never wavered.

Give this woman an Oscar already! Prefferably for her spot-on performance in "The Savages."

(Artwork: Philip Seymour Hoffman and Laura Linney as Jon and Wendy Savage - to be confused with the Darling children)

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

Monday, December 17, 2007

"I Am Legend"/"Juno"/"The Great Debaters"


You've heard it before, but here goes anyway: The latest version of Richard Matheson's "I Am Legend" is half a great movie. It's fine for the first hour when it is a lean, two-character piece featuring Will Smith (as possibly the last human survivor on earth) and his character's pet German Shepard, named Sam.

Smith has the kind of effortless chemistry with this lovely dog that's evaded most of his performances opposite humans. For its first 60 minutes or so, "I Am Legend" portrays the best on-screen romantic relationship than any other current film ("Atonement" included).

And, then, quicker than you can say "Old Yeller," the filmmakers kill off Sam and pair Smith with a bad actress (Alice Braga) and a nondescript but essential child actor (Charlie Tahan). Fuzzy decision-making here, because a perfectly good film then nosedives into a stinker.

I've no idea if it was planned or not by Smith, but for its first half, "I Am Legend" works as an effective "anti-Michael Vick flick." I mean, Smith's regard for and kindness to the dog are that inspiring. Given the timing - of the Vick case and this film's production schedule - one has to wonder.

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Every so often a perfectly fine little film is claimed by well-meaning movie critics as a cause celebré and, well, turned into the most overrated movie of the year. Case in point: Jason Reitman's "Juno," a perfectly fine little film - but not much more.

This not a popular opinion. I'm in the minority here but then I've become accustomed to going it alone when it comes to film.

"Juno" is Hollywood latest "unplanned pregnancy" comedy in which abortion is never an option. Right there, the film lost me. But what really had me keeping the film at bay is the abrasive performance of star Ellen Page, who has becvomethe flavor of the month - the latest darling of movie critics.

I don't get it. I found Page - and her trademark brand of sarcasm (already showcased in the repugnant "Hard Candy") - highly resistible.

A friend, a critic whose taste I admire and respect, has waxed poetic about Page: "It's been years since performer and performance so captivated me."

On the other hand, another friend (and critic), who watched "Juno" on a DVD screener, opined: "The kid was such a smart alec I just wanted to slap her after twenty minutes, so I did the next best thing and hit the 'eject' button."

I guess I'm not really alone after all. As they say, misery loves company...

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In the TV ads for Denzel Washington's "The Great Debaters," there's a scene in which Washington grabs a kid by his shoulders and shouts, "I am here to help you take back your righteous mind!"

Exactly what does that mean? Please explain. It sounds good but, from where I sit, that statement just makes no sense at all. What's a "righteous mind" exactly?

(Artwork: Will and Sam carry the first half of "I Am Legend" to perfection - then they bring in a woman and a kid; Ellen Page and Olivia Thirlby in "Juno," Denzel Washington, left, in "The Great Debaters")

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

Thursday, December 06, 2007

Alert! "At Long Last Love" and "The Victors" sightings


Two lost films showcased as Cinema Obscura items here have been sighted...

Peter Bogdanovich's brilliant and criminally misunderstood film musical, "At Long Last Love," profiled here last May, has been plucked out of movie purgatory by San Francisco-based film buff Jesse Hawthore Ficks for a one-time showing at S.F.'s legendary Castro Theater at 7:30 p.m., Friday, December 7th.

The long-neglected film - Fox never bothered to issue it on home enterainment in any format - is part of a Burt Reynolds evening at the Castro, which will also include Reynold's other film musical, "The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas" (1982), also underrated; "Smoky & The Bandit," which gets a midnite screening, and scores of trailers from other Reynolds films.

Last May, I wrote of "ALLL": "Bogdanovich was arguably at his most creative on this movie, filming it in color but designing it largely in black-and-white, so that the only colors in the film are his actors' skin tones. He also enlisted his cast of game, nonprofessional singers to perform their songs live, every one of them, and despite the hasty assumptions that were made at the time of the film's release, the singing is fine here - more than fine actually, given that Shepherd, Kahn and Del Prete all sport trained voices, while Reynolds affects a soothing Dean Martin-style croon.

"To complement the stress-free singing, choreographer Rita Abrams kept her dance routines light and easy-going. The result is that the dancing here has the off-the-cuff, scratch-pad casualness of the in-between numbers in the Astaire-Rogers films. The film doesn't feel choreographed."

For more information, check out Fick's terrific site, Midnites for Maniacs (www.midniteformaniacs.com)

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In an August 29th "Cinema Obscura" post, I profiled Carl Foreman's missing war epic from 1963,"The Victors."

The film will be televised on the Military Channel on January 19th. Hopefully, the three-hour epic, once considered a major film by its studio, Columbia, and now all but abanonded, will not be cut for broadcast.

Cinema Obscura is a recurring feature of The Passionate Moviegoer, devoted to those films that have been largely forgotten. Suggestions welcome.

(Artwork: Poster art for Peter Bogdanovich's "At Long Last Love" and Carl Foreman's "The Victors")

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

Saturday, December 01, 2007

turner this month - bravo!

Note: This is a regular monthly feature, highlighting, well, the highlights on Turner Classics' schedule. Why? Simple. Because Turner Classics remains a veritible college education in film.

Dec. 1: “From the Earth to the Moon,” Byron Haskin’s nifty SciFi with an unlikely cast – George Sanders, Joseph Cotton and Henry Daniell. Also Woody Allen’s nostalgic, companiable “Radio Days,” and “Guys and Dolls,” an entertaining yet disappointing version of the Frank Loesser musical marred by the characters’ refusal to use contractions when they talk. The dialogue between all the great songs is arch to say the least.

Dec. 2: Gene Kelly directs Streisand and Matthau (his “Guide for the Married Man” star) in an elephantine version of Jerry Herman’s enormously popular stage musical “Hello, Dolly.”

Dec. 3: Depardieu shines in Alain Corneau’s “Tous Les Matins du Monde”; a great black cast highlights Allen Resiner’s otherwise tepid “St. Louis Blues” and two musical versions of past popular films - June Allyson’s “The Opposite Sex” (based on “The Women”) and Jane Powell’s “The Girl Most Likely” (derived from “Tom, Dick and Harry”).

Dec. 6: “So Big,” William A. Wellman’s affecting film with a great Barbara Stanwyck performance and Bette Davis in a fine supporting performance. Also “Jeanne Eagles,” in which Kim Novak plays the ill-fated actress for her “Pal Joey"/”The Eddie Duchin Story” director, George Sidney; the mystery/thriller “The Bat,” which pairs Vincent Price with Agnes Moorehead; “Jessica,” featuring Angie Dickinson in a sexy update of the “Lysistrata” fable about women who refuse to have sex until their men stop fighting in a war, and “Footstep in the Fog,” Arthur Lubin’s atmospheric mystery with Jean Simmons and Stewart Granger.

Dec. 7: Frank Tashlin directs Doris Day and Rod Taylor in the antic “The Glass-Bottom Boat.” Also: “Where the Boys Are,” a curious (and curiously popular) teen romp with a gang rape smack-dab in the middle of it.

Dec. 8: An eclectic line-up – the gleefully cheesy “The Green Slime,” John Ford’s “Two Rode Together,” with Richard Widmark, Jimmy Stewart and Shirley Jones, and John Sturges’ tight, taut “Bad Day at Black Rock,” with Spencer Tracy.

Dec. 9: Two with Sinatra – MGM’s truncated version of Leonard Bernstein’s “On the Town” and “High Society,” Cole Porter’s musicalization of “The Philadelphia Story.” Also, George Roy Hill’s first film – “Period of Adjustment,” based on Tennessee Williams’ only comedy (about male chauvinism) and starring Jane Fonda.

Dec. 10: “Broadway to Hollywood,” a vaudeville-era saga with Frank Morgan.

Dec. 11: A good day to stay in and indulge in Robert Aldrich’s “Autumn Leaves,” Richard Brooks’ “Sweet Bird of Youth” and John Huston’s “The Misfits,” with three memorable performances by Joan Crawford, Geraldine Page and Marilyn Monroe, respectively

Dec. 12: “Night Nurse.” Vintage Stanwyck. Say no more.

Dec. 13: “You Can’t Run Away from It.” the long-lost 1956 Dick Powell-June Allyson pseudo-musical remake of Frank Capra's 1934 classic, "It Happened One Night." (This was the second remake, but more about that later.) By all accounts, this curiosity started out as a major production for Columbia Pictures, but something went wrong, with Columbia losing faith in the film. Somewhere along the way, a musical turned into a quasi-musical, with haasty, last-minute editing evident in the release version. The songs, written by Johnny Mercer and Gene DePaul – at least, what’s left of them – are literate and witty. The clever wordplay, for example, between June Allyson and Jack Lemmon during the Walls of Jericho number, titled “Temporarily,” has the kind of articulate sophistication that anticipated what Meredith Willson would accomplish, with much more acclaim, in “The Music Man,” a few years later. The “Thumbing a Ride” duet, which is complete on the Decca soundtrack album, is truncated on film, with just about all of Lemmon’s savvy lyrics deleted for some bizarre reason. Given that the film’s principals – Allyson, Lemmon and Powell – are all deceased now, one can only speculate what happened. And it’s unlikely that any of the missing musical footage is sitting on some shelf at Columbia. (Alas, the widescreen film is not being presented letterboxed on Turner, a true rarity, which leads me to believe that "You Can't Run Away from It" has yet to be restored by the people at Sony.)

The screening of "You Can't Run Away from It" will be preceded by Capra's "It Happened One Night" and the first remake of the material, "Eve Knew Her Apples," directed by Will Jason in 1945 and starring a very charming (and young) Ann Miller.

Dec. 14: A Riviera-based twosome – Hitchcock’s “To Catch a Thief” and Preminger’s “Bonjour Tristesse.”

Dec. 15: Penelope Spheeris’ alt-classic “Suburbia” gets an early-morning showing.

Dec. 16: Hitch rings in again with “Suspicion,” and there are two by Minnelli - “An American in Paris” and “Meet Me in St. Louis.” Plus Frank Tashlin’s “Susan Slept Here,” with Dick Powell and Debbie Reynolds.

Dec. 17: Some esoteric stuff - “The Plow That Broke the Plains,” Pare Lorentz’s Depression documentary, and G.W. Pabst’s “Kameradschaft.” Also, a fun Cary Grant trilogy - “The Bachelor and the Bobby-Soxer” and“Mr. Blandings Builds His Dream House” (both with Myrna Loy), plus “Every Girl Should Be Married” (with the sublime Betsy Drake).

Dec. 18: Poitier in the film of his stage success, “A Raisin in the Sun” and Sinatra as Joe E. Lewis in “The Joker is Wild.”

Dec. 19 : David Swift’s “Under the Yum Yum Tree,” with Jack Lemmon as a lech and “One, Two, Three,” arguably Billy Wilder’s best comedy with James Cagney as a motormouthed executive overseeing Coca-Cola’s German branch. With Arlene Francis, Pamela Tiffin and Horst Buchholz.

Dec. 20: “The Next Voice You Hear,” which stars God (well, sort of). Also Gable stars with Norma Shearer in “Idiot’s Delight,” Clarence Brown’s silky version of the Robert E. Sherwood play, and Irene Dunne soars in the neglected “Theodora Goes Wild.”

Dec. 21: Big day full of varied titles - “My Favorite Wife,” “Boys’ Night Out,” “The Pumpkin Eater,” “The Knack … and How to Get It,” “Night Must Fall,” three British Kitchen-sink flicks, “Saturday Night and Sunday Morning” “Look Back in Anger” and “This Sporting Life,” and “Love Story,” with Ryan and Ali.

Dec. 22: “Five Little Peppers and How They Grew” paired with “Five Little Peppers at Home,” and Sturges’ minor Western gem, “The Law and Jake Wade,” with Widmark.

Dec. 23: “Where It’s At,” groovy ‘70s Garson Kanin film with then-upcomers, Robert Drivas and Rosemary Forsythe; the watchable “Lovers and Other Strangers” (based on the Taylor-Bologna stage comedy) with a solid ensemble, and Lucy in “Yours, Mine and Ours” and “The Facts of Life.”

Dec. 24: Victor Erice’s playful “The Spirit of the Beehive,” with young Ana Torrent (star of Carlos Saura’s“Cria Cuervos”).

Dec. 25: Encores of “Meet Me In St. Louis” and “Susan Slept Here.” Plus “Ben-Hur” and two Jesus titles, George Stevens’ “The Greatest Story Ever Told” and Nicholas Ray’s “King of Kings”

Dec. 26: Donen’s “Seven Brides for Seven Brothers.” Terrific.

Dec. 29: OK, take a deep breath - “The Woman in White,” with Eleanor Parker; Ron Howard’s “Grand Theft Auto,” with Ron Howard; Ida Lupino’s “The Hitch-Hiker” with the wonderful Edmund O’Brien; the Duke’s “McClintock!”; Robert Rosen’s adult Western, “They Came to Cordura,” with Gary Cooper, Rita Hayworth and Van Heflin, and two more "Peppers," this time “Out West with the Peppers” and “Five Little Peppers in Trouble.”

Dec. 30: “Champion,” Mark Robson’s triumph with Kirk Douglas.

Dec. 31: Truffaut’s artful “The Wild Child”; Penny Marshall’s “Awakenings” and – what better way to spend New Year’s Eve? - an Astaire-Rogers marathon.

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(Artwork: Poster for George Sidney's "Jeanne Eagles"; Gene Kelly, Frank Sinatra and Jules Munchin in "On the Town"; posters for Powell's "You Can't Run Away from It," Preminger's "Bonjour Tristess" and Wilder's "One, Two, Three" and Arlene Francis and James Cagney, and Pamela Tiffin and Horst Buchholz in "One, Two, Three")

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