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.

Thursday, July 14, 2011

façade: John Goodman


I first noticed the remarkable character actor John Goodman in David Byrne's 1986 new-style film musical, "True Stories," a film that Goodman made after having just scored big on Broadway in Roger Miller's 1985 musical, "Big River," and having played small roles in such films as "Sweet Dreams" and "Revenge of the Nerds."

He became a staple in some of the best films of the late 1980s and a household name on the TV series, "Roseanne." The choice supporting roles continued to roll in, but in the early '90s, Goodman started to score lead roles, starting with Frank Marshall's "Arachnophobia" in 1990. His name was suddenly above the title - for a while - and then things went back to the way they had been.

I was reminded of this by "The Babe," the 1992 Arthur Hiller film in which Goodman played Babe Ruth and which pops up occasionaly on HBO. Around this time, Goodman had the star roles in Joe Dante's "Matinee," David S. Ward's "King Ralph" (opposite Peter O'Toole, no less), Brian Levant's "The Flintstones" and Luis Mandoki's remake of "Born Yesterday" (in which Goodman replaced Nick Nolte). He was also Bette Midler's leading man in "Stella," a re-do of "Stella Dallas."

But as dazzling as these roles may have been for Goodman, they paled beside the exceptional supporting turns he did, particularly those for the Coen Brothers -"Raising Arizona," "The Hudsucker Proxy," "Barton Fink," "The Big Lebowski" and "O Brother, Where art Thou?"

More recently, Goodman single-handedly rescued Andy and Larry Wachowski's "Speed Racer," as only he can.

A true supporting player, invaluable.

Monday, July 11, 2011

cinema obscura: Otto Preminger's "Tell Me That You Love Me, Junie Moon" (1970)

While the resourceful Olive Films, which has access to the sadly neglected films in the Paramount library, has come to the rescue of two latter-day Otto Preminger films - 1967's “Hurry Sundown,” based on Preminger's favorite source, the bestsellers, and 1972's “Such Good Friends,” a dip into trendiness via Elain May's pseudonymous script - the title that came between these two is still missing.

"Tell Me That You Love Me, Junie Moon," based on another best-seller (by Marjoria Kellogg), was released in 1970, the year of Altman's "M*A*S*H," Wadleigh's "Woodstock" and, yes, Hiller's "Love Story." It seemed to fit in nowhere - neither in the radical cinema of Altman nor the more traditional mode of Erich Segal. Which made sense, given that the film itself is about a ragtag family of misfits.

This most affecting "little" film features Liza Minnelli in the title role as a young woman with a grotesquely scarred face (courtesy of battery acid tossed at her by her boy friend) and, as her roomies, Ken Howard as an epileptic and the late stage (and occasional film) director Robert Moore as a wheelchair-using gay man.

James Coco, who would star along with Howard again in "Such Good Friends," was also in the cast.

"Tell Me That You Love Me, Junie Moon" was an anomaly for Hollywood at the time, as was Coppola's "The Rain People" - namely, an art film made within the constraints of a hulking studio. It didn't stand a chance. It was doomed. It also appears to be lost.

Note in Passing: Robert Moore would direct a trio of Neil Simon films - "The Cheap Detective," "Murder by Death" and "Chapter Two" - before his death in 1984; he also helmed the 1976 televison version of "Cat on a Hot Tin Roof," with Natalie Wood, Robert Wagner, Laurence Olivier, and Maureen Stapleton.

Wednesday, July 06, 2011

ox-bow, updated

Not surprisingly, the American lynch-mob mentality reared its ugly head following the Casey Anthony trial. The judgmental vitriol exhibited is reminiscent of “A Cry in the Dark,” Fred Schepisi's excellent 1988 film in which Meryl Streep played Lindy Chamberlain, the Australian woman demonized because her form of grief following the killing of her child didn’t meet societal standards, making her suspect.

It's a disturbing film and the American public should be forced to watch it so that it can witness a mirror image of itself.

To that end, "A Cry in the Dark" should be played on a loop with Billy Wilder's prescient 1951 film, "Ace in a Hole" (aka, "The Big Carnival"), which indicted the ravenous meat-eating ways of the media and its penchant for turning human tragedy into a circus.

And that was 60 years ago.

Sunday, July 03, 2011

huh?

The ubiquitous Alec Baldwin has apparently become a permanent staple of Turner Classic Movies' weekly The Essentials series, which he co-hosts with Turner's house expert, Robert Osborne, and where he makes facile quips with great authority and misguided confidence.

He often seems silly, never more so than after Saturday's screening of Charles Chaplin's 1931 silent gem "City Lights" - "a comedy romance in pantomime" - when he pronounced that Chaplin's modern heirs are two comic actors who have worked with Baldwin. Jim Carrey and Ben Stiller.

Say what?

Osborne looked stricken, with back arched as he clutched the arms of his chair in disbelief - and with an expression on his face resembling something out of an Edvard Munch painting. Much to his credit, the usually deferential Osborne did not let the ridiculous comment slide but actually challenged it.

Given Carrey's penchant for physical comedy, one could almost - almost - see his similarity to Chaplin. It's a stretch. It requires squinting your eyes.

But Ben Stiller! He's an urbane, funny performer, actually the polar opposite of Chaplin.

The sad fact is, there is no modern equivalent to Charlies Chaplin.

Movies have moved on, replacing his sophisticated simplicity with coarse simple-mindedness.

It's rather like comparing Alec Baldwin to ... Cary Grant.

Friday, July 01, 2011

so far

The movie year 2011. So far. Not your usual movie year. Which is something I appreciate. In fact, it's been a real grab-bag of oddities.

Which I also appreciate.

Case in point: The following oddball ten - which I consider to be the best of 2011. To date. Be forewarned, however. The choices are a tad eclectic.

1. Hans Petter Moland's “A Somewhat Gentle Man” (“En ganske snill mann”) - A veritable one-man film, showcasing the estimable talents of Stellan Skarsgård, who gives a deft, droll performance as an ex-con/ex-murderer trying to redeem himself in an ugly world. A small, wry film with an amusing supporting cast - the women are especially, well, colorful.

2. Woody Allen's
“Midnight in Paris” - Woody Allen doing Woody Allen, with Owen Wilson also doing Woody Allen. And perfectly. The Paris setting is the whipped cream on this dreamy confection.

3. Dan Rush's “Everything Must Go” - A slip of a Raymond Carver short story has been ever-so-gently molded into a feature-length film about the melancholy - and euphoria - of losing everything. Will Ferrell is our guide through his hero's travails, both witty and sad.

4.
Giuseppe Capotondi's
“The Double Hour” (“La doppia ora”) - At once creepy, sexy, sordid and compulsively watchable, Capotondi's Italian crime drama stars Kseniya Rappoport as a hotel maid and Flippo Timi as an ex-cop turned security guard who meet intially at a speed dating seminar - and elsewhere. Their paths keep crossing, lethally.
5. Dennis Dugan's “Just Go With It” - A genuinely hilarious modern comedy about deception/mistaken identity, an update of Abe Burrows' "Cactus Flower" (by way of a French stage comedy by Pierre Barillet and Jean-Pierre Grédy), with Adam Sandler continuing to hone his soulful side and Jennifer Aniston proving, as The New Yorker's Richard Brody so aptly put it, to be "a genre unto herself." She has great comic timing, terrific rapport with Sandler and does a mean Mean Girl duet with good sport Nicole Kidman. This hastily dismissed film "nicely combines Adam Sandler's acerbic sweetness with Aniston's down-to-earth warmth," as critic Mick LaSalle wrote in The San Francisco Chronicle.


6. Tom McCarthy's
“Win Win” - McCarthy (that's him on the left), who seems like Sturges, Wilder and McCarey roled into one, delivers another of his sharp character-driven dramedies, in which nice people do bad things and often - now get this - on purpose. Paul Giamatti, Amy Ryan, Bobby Cannavale, Jeffrey Tambor, Melanie Lynskey, Burt Young and the magnificent Margo Martindale make fine company here.

7. J.J. Abrams' “Super 8” - Abrams brings the Spielberg oeuvre kicking and screaming into the New Millenium, replete with a knockoff John Williams score by Michael Giacchino.

8. François Ozon's “Potiche” (“Trophy Wife”) - A slight, very slight love letter to Catherine Deneuve, which actually ends with the cast applauding the star. Shameless. (Based on a play by the aforementioned/ubiquitous Barillet and Grédy.)

9. Brad Furman's “The Lincoln Lawyer” - A throwback to the 1970s, an era of filmmaking that Furman nails. Matthew McConaughey channels Burt Reynolds.

10. Terrence Malick's “The Tree of Life” - Sure it's pretentious and ponderous and ever-so-entitled but it's a Malick, after all. Which also means that it's gorgeous and, more to the point, thoughtful, a rarity in modern movies. Once again, Malick has made a film in which his actors are so muted they're almost irrelevant to his filmic mission statement. And once again, Malick has made a film difficult to ignore.

And the fascinating combos:

“Source Code”/”Unknown”/”Limitless”/”The Adjustment Bureau” - All wannabe Hitchcocks and all fairly effective.

“Twelve Thirty”/”Lebanon, Pa.” - Two genuinely old-fashioned indie films, the kind made before film festivals and studio boutique branches bastardized them.

"Bridesmaids”/”Bad Teacher” - A duo that proves that filthy-mouthed women are more palatable than filthy-mouthed men. There's been no greater guilty pleasure in movies this year than the sight of Melissa McCarthy in "Bridesmaids" - stradlding a sink, sick with diarrhea - ordering Wendi McLendon-Covey (who is busy vomiting in the toilet) to "Look away!" Her reading of that two-word line is perfect.
The dinner that leads to all kinds of intestinal mayhem