Tuesday, November 30, 2010

He said/She said: Morning Glory

Norma Desmond famously asserted in Sunset Blvd. "I AM big. It's the pictures that got small."

Not Morning Glory. This underappreciated gem starts with a small picture - quite literally. Director Roger Michell (Notting Hill, Changing Lanes) frames the image so that it fills just a small portion of the screen. Then, as the scene progresses, the image gradually expands until it fills the wide movie screen. 

That's not only an apt metaphor for a movie about a TV show - it turns out to be an apt metaphor for the movie as a whole, which is smarter than most films of its kind.  My colleague Hannah Poturalski agrees, writing, 

"I was so excited to see Morning Glory, and it was way better than I thought it would be. The plot became increasingly interesting as the film went on and didn’t feel as stale as typical rom-coms."

After workaholic TV producer Becky (Rachel McAdams) gets canned from her longtime job at a local news program, she finds another position in New York, but its not exactly dreamy. It's producing the lowly fourth-place morning show that's behind "whatever the CBS show is called," as her acerbic producer (Jeff Goldblum)  puts it.

Becky struggles initially, with most people telling her she'll quit or be fired. Everyone else has. But she hits on a brainwave. She fires the jackass male anchor and decides to hire her hero, news anchorman Mike Pomeroy (Harrison Ford), who alienates everyone he meets. He wants nothing to do with the morning show. When Becky pitches him the job, he caustically responds, "Half of your audience has lost the remote,  and the other half is wating for the nurse to turn them over."

That kind of sharp dialogue by writer Aline Brosh McKenna (The Devil Wears Prada) helps Morning Glory rise above most of what passes for rom-com these days, but not all of McKenna's writing is so smart. 

The movie's worst fault is that McKenna tries to shoehorn in a romance between Becky and one of her co-workers played by Patrick Wilson. It feels forced; it seems to be there just because these movies are "supposed" to have a "hot" romance. As Hannah puts it: 

"Patrick Wilson (Hard Candy) played the love interest, and while he was dreamy, his character was weak and one-dimensional. I hated how he and Becky’s relationship went straight to sex and didn’t seem to have any depth."

Besides, Morning Glory didn't need that relationship at all. It already had a romance, just not a sexual one. The relationship between Becky and Mike is the heart of the picture. Ford and McAdams have great chemistry together. Their characters' personalities are quite different, but both are devoted to being tops in their fields, and they bring out the best in each other. The other key anchor, played by Diane Keaton, gets somwhat overshadowed, but she still has some fun momets as her character softens from a hard-bitten cynic to a fun-loving reporter.  

For Hannah and myself, the picture resonated for personal reasons. Being an entertainment editor, I have often felt the uncomfortable push-pull between entertainment and news. Hannah, who is a relatively new reporter, writes: 

I liked most of the movie taking place in the work area. It made it harder for characters to reveal their true selves because they had to act in a professional setting. But then they grew together like a family and were able to be informal and caring. I thought the mix of characters was awesome because you never know what kind of personality you will meet at a new job.

Morning Glory has been somewhat overlooked as the holiday juggernaut snowballs, but those who discover it just may find it to be a welcome ray of sunshine.

Read Hannah's full take here.


Sunday, November 28, 2010

REVIEW: Tangled Rapunzel

Disney's Tangled literally glows, particularly when our heroine Rapunzel, and our hero, Flynn are riding in a boat watching the launching of countless lanterns that float like luminous orbs around them. It is the single most magical, romantic scene in any Disney film since the ballroom dance in Beauty and the Beast.

If only the rest of the movie were that great.

Make no mistake, Tangled is very much worth seeing. I recommend it highly. But in a number of ways, it's a beautiful disappointment. No one should have expected it to stand alongside the triple crown of The Little Mermaid, Beauty and the Beast and Aladdin. But except in fleeting moments, it's not even as good as last year's Disney movie, the criminally undervalued The Princess and the Frog.

I've always hated the fact that Disney switched the title of the film from Rapunzel to Tangled. Most people know immediately what Rapunzel means, and even if they don't, it doesn't take much explaining: princess with really, really long hair. A generic title like Tangled sounds like it could be about anything from people who can't tie knots very well to defective hairspray products.

In a way, however, the title is appropriate in ways the filmmakers never intended. Tangled is a better title for the movie's tortured development process than for the film itself. It began in the hands of master animator Glen Keane and then ended up in the hands of the folks who made Bolt. The look changed from a moving oil painting to a pretty but less adventurous visual scheme. The lead role went from Kristin Chenoweth to Mandy Moore.

That's not to say all the changes are for the poorer. The hero, voiced by Chuck's Zachary Levi,  is dashing and witty. Rapunzel's sidekick, a chameleon named Pascal, is silent, but visually hilarious. Flynn's horse, Maximus is a rare breed - a handsome steed who is actually mostly antagonistic toward its rider. The villain, Gothel (Broadway vet Donna Murphy) poses as Rapunzel's mother but is actually a greedy woman who kidnapped Rapunzel to use the magical healing powers of her hair. Gothel is the best kind of villain - one who can seem supportive at one moment, only to turn dastardly the next.

Best of all is Rapunzel herself. She is one of Disney's most fascinating princesses - a neurotic mess with magical hair who's a lot of fun to be around. In a very funny and touching scene, when Rapunzel leaves her tower for the first time, she alternates between jubilation at being free to despair at being disobedient and afraid of the outside world. Much as I love Kristin Chenoweth, Moore turned out to be an ideal choice for the role. I've always through Moore was an underrated talent, both as an actress and as a singer.

So it is a great pity that she gets no great songs to sing. Tangled's single greatest Achilles heel is its pedestrian song score, one of the least memorable Alan Menken has ever composed. Menken needs a great collaborator to soar. Certainly no one can fill the shoes of the late Howard Ashman, but Menken has done strong work with Stephen Schwartz, his lyricist on The Hunchback of Notre Dame and Enchanted, among others. Unfortunately, his partner in Tangled is Glenn Slater, who worked with Menken on the similarly bland tunes for Home on the Range.

The Tangled songs are OK but no more than that, and worst of all, they sometimes get in the way of the story. For instance The song "I've Got a Dream" is not only a pale retread of "Gaston," but its goofy style clashes with the more sentimental tunes.

And the film as a whole suffers from that inconsistency in tone. When the film tries to be straightforward and romantic, it works wonderfully. But at times the filmmakers try too hard to be hip and contemporary, and the results are jarring.  Memo to Disney: Stop trying so hard to be sassy and hip. That is not your strength. Leave that to DreamWorks. Don't be afraid to be a bit retro, because if you focus hard enough on the heart of the story, the rest will take care of itself.

I find it ironic that one of the key story points is that if someone cuts Rapunzel's hair, it turns brunette and loses its power. Somewhere along the way, that's what happened when Rapunzel became Tangled. If Mermaid, Beauty and Aladdin are the gold standard, then The Princess and the Frog is the silver standard, and Tangled is the bronze standard.  It's only occasionally excellent. Disney can - and should - do even better.


NOTE: I saw the film in 3D and found the effect very similar to what Pixar does with their movies. It's a nice bonus, but not essential to the film.

Thursday, November 25, 2010

Sir Critic is thankful for ...

Never mind the turkey - Thanksgiving itself gets killed every year.

The holiday gets so lost in the shuffle between Halloween and Christmas. There are loads of Halloween and Christmas movies, but precious few that cater specifically to Thanksgiving.

So that's why, for the first time I'm writing a Thanksgiving post.  I'd like to thank several parties who have contributed significantly and/or memorably to my film-loving journey.

Long-established directors who have worked at least as long as I've been alive, such as Steven Spielberg, Woody Allen, and especially Martin Scorsese. Thank you for reminding people that yes, they do still make 'em like that anymore.

Newer directors that have risen to prominence in the 80s and beyond, such as the Coens, David Fincher and Christopher Nolan. Thank you for giving me the assurance that great, director-driven films will flicker for a long time to come.

Turner Classic Movies, for being the best channel on TV and for giving every filmmaker and film viewer something to strive for and to cherish.

Roger Ebert, for maintaining the platinum standard of film criticism, no matter what hurdles you had to leap.

TV screens are getting bigger, wider, and prettier. That's fine. But thank you to those who remember that no matter how fancy, or how much cheaper the home viewing experience is, it can never compare to the TRUE big screen. 

Amy Adams for being so damn lovable and talented. I'm thankful for you, even if you did get engaged to someone else and had his baby. I'm still looking forward to The Fighter.

Scott Copeland, for being my fellow film buff, and even more importantly, my best friend for almost exactly 20 years. Write more often when you can.

Allison Dickson, for so scarily mirroring my thoughts and especially for being a local friend again. You ought to write more reviews. You're better at it than you think you are.

Kimberly Scampone, for being my first protege and even for disagreeing with me fairly often. It's actually rather refreshing. My toenails are wearing down!

Merrilee and Todd Embs, for sharing my great love for TCM, for all the great movie nights, and crediting me for their deeper appreciation of film.

My new reviewing partner and colleague Hannah Poturalski for joining me on the He Said/She said blogging adventure. I look forward to working with you more, and I promise I'll get that Morning Glory review up soon.

Susan Egan, for being so sweet to me all these years and supporting and promoting my writings. I hope I get to see you again soon.

Angela Allen and Hilary Johnson, for being such cherished friends although neither of you is into movies (or the Beatles!) much. Thanks for understanding that being friends with me means going out to the theater every now and again or sitting down to watch one of my old favorites.

To my family near and far, who created, indulged and supported my movie mania for decades. If it ever gets tiring, just remember it all started with you.

And finally, to my audience - to everyone who has ever read my blogs/reviews even once. No matter how small or large you get, you are all very important to me, even if I'll never meet some of you.

Thank you one and all. Now go get more out of life. Watch a movie.

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

REVIEW: Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 1

Yes, it delivers. And no, it should not have been one movie.

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 1, is to be sure, a long tease of a movie. Watching it, I got the distinct sense that the real fireworks won't explode until Part II comes out next July. Still, it was fun to watch the long fuse burn and see the sparks shoot off it.

Some detractors have complained that nothing really happens in this movie, that it's all setup and no payoff. Furthermore, certain wags have said that splitting Deathly Hallows was merely a commercial move, not an artistic one.

I haven't read Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows yet. I own it, but have only read the first couple of chapters, because I didn't want memories of the book to influence my viewing of the film. Even so, I can tell that splitting the book into two movies was the right thing to do.

Anyone who pays attention knows that JK Rowling jam-packs the Potter books with plot and details. To cut into them too far is to cut some of the spirit out. To those who say this should have been one movie, I ask "OK, genius - where do you make the cuts?"

Sure, you could argue that there are an awful lot of scenes of our heroes wandering through the woods and brooding as they try to find the pieces called horcruxes that would destroy Voldemort. And indeed, there are a few scenes where the pacing is a bit slack. There are too many fades to black, which stall the momentum of the story, But on the whole, the movie works because of those scenes in the woods, not in spite of them.

By paring the action down to its bare essentials, screenwriter Steve Kloves forces the movie to rely on what has always been the series' greatest strength - the chemistry between Daniel Radcliffe, Rupert Grint and Emma Watson.

Watson has always been my favorite of the three, and she turns in her best performance of the series. Hermione has always been bright and resourceful, but especially in this film, she has to show strength and a vulnerable core at the same time. Watson is especially good at acting with her eyes. The look on her face when she casts a memory-erasing spell on some loved ones is heart-wrenching.

Grint's strengths have always been the comedic moments, and he has a few in this film, but this story forces him to tap into his dramatic strengths to show just how loyal Ron is. He disappears for a good portion of the picture, and when he returns, it's a powerful moment.

All this leaves Radcliffe playing something of the straight man this time, but he is strong as usual, and it's clear the next movie is when he will truly take the spotlight.

Deathly Hallows also boasts some of the best visuals of the series. Director David Yates seemed a little unsteady when he took the chair on Order of the Phoenix, but he has grown in strength and visual inventiveness each time out. The dazzling presentation of the Deathly Hallows, played in digital shadow puppets and narrated by Watson, is the best moment in the movies since the time travel scenes in Prisoner of Azkaban.

The Potter series has often been compared to the Lord of the Rings trilogy, and what's particularly striking about Deathly Hallows is how much it resembles the Rings movies, especially The Two Towers: Heroes separated from their allies, take long trek on foot left mostly to their own devices, heading into ever more foreboding danger.

I know pretty well how the story ends, thanks to ever-so-pervasive spoilers. The fact that doesn't bother me is a testament to how strong Deathly Hallows 1 is. If this is Harry's Two Towers, then Part II is shaping up to be like The Return of the King. We'll find out in what now seems like eight very long months.


Sunday, November 21, 2010

Memo to Disney: And no one lived happily ever after

I just read the story on the LA Times Website that says, in a nutshell, that Disney is shelving fairy tale stories for the foreseeable future. I hope to Tinkerbell that's not true. 

The article says 

""Films and genres do run a course," said Pixar Animation Studios chief Ed Catmull, who along with director John Lasseter oversees Disney Animation. "They may come back later because someone has a fresh take on it … but we don't have any other musicals or fairy tales lined up." Indeed, Catmull and Lasseter killed two other fairy tale movies that had been in development, "The Snow Queen" and "Jack and the Beanstalk."

Now, in fairness to Mr. Catmull, after this piece was published, he had this to say on  Disney's Faceboook page: "A headline in today’s LA Times erroneously reported that the Disney fairy tale is a thing of the past, but I feel it is important to set the record straight that they are alive and well at Disney and continue this week with Tangled, a contemporary retelling of a much loved story. We have a number of projects in development with new twists that audiences will be able to enjoy for many years to come."

As Grumpy might say "Hah! Mush!" 

Quite frankly, I find Mr. Catmull's about-face more than a little suspect. Consider his quotes in a previous LA Times piece: 

“We did not want to be put in a box,” said Ed Catmull, president of Pixar and Disney Animation Studios, explaining the reason for the name change. “Some people might assume it’s a fairy tale for girls when it’s not. We make movies to be appreciated and loved by everybody.”
Pixar’s movies have been huge hits because they appeal to girls, boys and adults. Its most recent release, “Up,” grossed more than $700 million worldwide.
“The Princess and the Frog” generated considerably less — $222 million in global ticket sales to date.
“Based upon the response from fans and critics, we believe it would have been higher if it wasn’t prejudged by its title,” Catmull said.
Hmm. Sounds to me like Mr. Catmull has been less than 100 percent supportive of fairy tales in the not-too-distant past.Was he misquoted then too?
Here's something else that makes me suspicious: Consider this LA Times article that predates the others. 
John Lasseter said: “One of the first decisions we made, when [Pixar and Disney Animation Studios President] Ed Catmull and I came to Disney was to return to the sincere fairy tale,” Lasseter said. “I never quite understood why Disney hadn’t made a sincere fairy tale since ‘Beauty and the Beast.’ My two nieces would dress up in princess outfits all of the time. I realized there was this huge audience out there for this.”
Lasseter said this only about a year ago.  And now all of a sudden Disney is turning its back on fairy tales?  What gives? My suspicion is this: I notice that quotes about the Disney company lately come more from Mr. Catmull, who seems to be listening too hard to the marketing suits. We haven't heard much from Lasseter lately. I know he came in to co-direct Cars 2, and that may be eating up his time, but my educated guess is that Lasseter was stung by the relative underdperformance of The Princess and the Frog, and so has faded into the background - publicly, anyway. 
I wouldn't be at all surprised that someone at Disney (maybe even Lasseter?) saw today's LA Times story, and said "WHAT??!??!" So now Catmull is backpedaling, saying "No, no, no, that's not what I meant!" 
I really hope it's not, Mr. Catmull. Because if the LA Times piece was correct, then that saddens and angers me. 
In the LA Times Story, an "expert" is quoted thusly: "By the time they're 5 or 6, (girls are)  not interested in being princesses," said Dafna Lemish, chairwoman of the radio and TV department at Southern Illinois University and an expert in the role of media in children's lives. "They're interested in being hot, in being cool. Clearly, they see this is what society values."
Oh really?
If the fairy tale is really so uninteresting to little girls, why did Disney just re-release Beauty and the Beast on disc? And if girls really don't like fairy tales anymore, who do so many of them pack the Bibbidi Bobbidi Boutiques at the parks? They're not all under 5 years old, either. 

You say in the newest LA Times piece: "If you say to somebody, 'You should be doing fairy tales,' it's like saying, 'Don't be risky,'" Catmull said. "We're saying, 'Tell us what's driving you.'" If that's true, sir, and fairy tales really are out of fashion, isn't presenting a fairy tale itself a risk?
There is no doubt we live in constantly changing times. There is no doubt that tastes have changed over the years. Some of us may be lamenting the fact that this isn't our world anymore. It happens when you get older. 
But little girls will always be little girls. And there are many girls who are still little at heart even if the rest of their body is bigger. 
I really hope Mr. Catmull means it when he says the fairy tale isn't really dead at Disney. It wasn't so long ago that Roy Disney blasted the company for being rapacious and soulless. For awhile it seemed that Disney seemed to find its soul again. But now, I get the distinct feeling the bean-counters are riding herd. If Disney really does abandon fairy tales, it won't just be soulless. It will have broken a lot of hearts. 
Pull out the other glass slipper, will you? 

Saturday, November 20, 2010

Oeuvres: Tony Scott - including Unstoppable

Sometimes I can't figure out whether Tony Scott wants to be taken seriously or not. At his best, he's one of the most solid action directors we have. His visual sense is so strong that even his terrible movies look great. However, his narrative sense often does not measure up to his visual sense. If he's handed a weak script, Scott can do nothing to save it, and he comes across like the bargain version of his brother Ridley. If he's handed a strong script, however, Tony is very much his own man. He sees-saws between the two extremes, making for one of the most uneven filmographies in the business,

The Hunger: Scott's first film as a director is very typical of his early work. It has visual style to spare, but it doesn't make a lick of sense, even for a vampire movie with Catherine Deneueve and Susan Sarandon. It's a Skinemax movie with better cinematography and a lot of blood. GRADE: C

Top Gun: Scott made his name with one of the most seminal movies of the 80s. Notice I said "seminal," not best.The story is as deep as a birdbath and as predictable as thunder after lightning. But the actors are appealing and the action scenes are fun.  It's junk - but it's entertaining junk. GRADE: B

Beverly Hills Cop II: I have sort of a soft spot for this movie because it was one of the first times I was able to identify a director by the visual style. That doesn't mean it's actually any good. The first movie was a very funny comedy with a few good action scenes. The second movie was a by-the-numbers action flick where the jokes blew up too. GRADE: C

Revenge: Quentin Tarantino counts this boring, turgid, pretentious slop one of Tony Scott's best movies - which just goes to show there's no accounting for QT's taste. GRADE: D+

Days of Thunder: Pick your automobile-related put-down. Top Car or Formula One. Either of them fits. GRADE: C

The Last Boy Scout: I only watched about the first half hour of this, before I realized Netflix had it in the wrong aspect ratio, but I saw enough to know that Tony should never, ever direct a sports-related movie again. Unfortunately, he did.

True Romance: Talk about a rebound. Working from a script by Tarantino, Scott turns in a wild ride. Tarantino's voice sounds out loud and clear, but so does Scott's eye - and the result is one of his most purely entertaining films. GRADE: A-

Crimson Tide: The rebound not only continues but soars with this underwater battle of wills between Gene Hackman and Denzel Washington. One of the best submarine movies ever made - and Scott's best film to date. GRADE: A

The Fan: Rebound? Never mind. Scott followed up his best film with his worst, a preposterous, thematically ugly film pitting De Niro's psycho versus Wesley Snipes' stuck-up ballplayer. The only thing I can say in favor of this piece of shit is that it's well shot. GRADE: D-

Enemy of the State: Scott rebounds again with this taut techno-thriller about Big Brother's electronic eye watching you. Maybe the director should have made more movies with Gene Hackman. GRADE: A-

Spy Game: The teaming of Robert Redford and his metaphorical son Brad Pitt was entertaining enough but should have been much better. It might have helped if Scott hadn't made me so dizzy with all the swooping helicopter shots. GRADE: B-

Man on Fire: Scott's visual style went into Oliver Stone-like overdrive here, with wild cutting and hallucinatory visuals. The tone is sometimes ugly and off-putting, but as revenge thrillers go, this one is better than many. GRADE: B

Domino: There's a good story in the life of the former socialite turned model Domino Harvey, but Scott buried it with the same visual fireworks he used in Man on Fire, and this time they smother the story. Keira Knightley tries hard, but she's miscast. GRADE: C-

Deja Vu: Sure, the story is ludicrous, but Scott seems to have a knack for hi-tech stories. The action scenes are thrilling and even rather inventive, which helps overcome the thin dramatics. GRADE: B+

The Taking of Pelham 123: This hostage train thriller pitting Denzel Washington against John Travolta made for a great battle of wills but only an OK action movie - the end result was curiously subdued. It didn't help that the original film with Walter Matthau and Robert Shaw is far superior. GRADE: B

Unstopptable: One might think that Scott would have wanted to avoid trains after Pelham underwhelmed. Thank goodness he didn't, because this time he really gets a train movie right. Yes, it's similar to Speed in that both are about imperiled vehicles, but what sets Unstoppable apart is that there's no human villain. The machine is the nemesis - which allows Denzel Washington and Chris Pine to team up very effectively.  I only wish Scott hadn't thought he was Paul Greengrass in that he got too happy with the qucick-zoom, a visual tic that distracts from a very strong story. GRADE: B+

Thursday, November 18, 2010

He said/She said: Alice in Wonderland

I reviewed Tim Burton's Alice in Wonderland when it was released in March. My colleague and reviewing partner Hannah Poturalski only recently caught up with it, and has posted her critique.

Perhaps because she was not as familiar with the world of Alice as I was, she enjoyed the movie much more than I did. I found it Burton's weakest film to date, writing:

There are many things to admire in this film. Wasikowska is excellent as Alice - all at once vulnerable, yet crafty and determined. Helena Bonham Carter devours the scenery with relish as the Red Queen, Unlike other reviewers, I rather liked Anne Hathaway's icy take on the White Queen. And as is true of most of Burton's films, it looks great, with its wildly weird designs and mostly wonderful effects.

Still, Linda Woolverton's rather tortured screenplay obfuscates these good qualities. This may seem like a strange thing to say for a Hollywood film, but this screenplay "thinks" too much, trying to provide the characters with motivations, with  reasons for being. For example, we're treated to the backstory of the Mad Hatter, who apparently went mad because of a past misfortune.
As George Carlin once said "I did not need to be TOLD that!" I don't want to know why the Mad Hatter is mad. His madness is part of his intrinsic appeal, and to explain that away is to lessen that appeal. 

However, coming at the material from a very different perspective, Hannah found delights in the film I could not. She writes:

I think I was able to enjoy this film as much as I did because I had no preconceived ideas of any of the characters or places and what they should be. A lot of the people I talked to didn’t enjoy it as much because of the previous renditions, but I was able to just take it for what it was — an entertaining adventure that touched on important themes, such as coming of age, being yourself, taking risks, etc. ....
For whatever reasons unknown, I don’t usually enjoy Tim Burton films (Edward Scissorhands, Sweeney Todd). I’m not saying I hate Burton films, but this one I really loved. The film sets and characters were so detailed that it almost put the viewer in Alice’s shoes.

I only wish I could have seen the movie Hannah saw. I'm glad she agrees with me about Wasikowska. Personally, I'm looking forward to seeing how the actress fares in another period remake: Jane Eyre.

Watch this space when we co-review Morning Glory with Harrison Ford, Rachel McAdams and Diane Keaton.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Trailer peek: Green Lantern, Cars 2, Yogi Bleccch

More long-form reviews are afoot, but first, some more short-form reviews are at hand.

Cars 2: Well, last month's teaser of a teaser wasn't just teasing. Cars 2 really IS about espionage. Not the angle I would have expected - which actually bodes well for the film. Since I didn't unabashedly love the first film, my anticipation for a Pixar film is a little lower than usual. But only a little. PROSPECT : A

Cowboys and Aliens: Wow. Looks really .... kinda .... original! Almost forgot what that was.  I think this just vaulted to the top of my summer-want-to-see-list. PROSPECT: A+

Green Lantern: After the innovative-looking Cowboys and Aliens, Green Lantern looks almost disappointingly straightforward, but Ryan Reynolds was an ideal choice, and director Martin Campbell (Casino Royale) remains terminally underrated. I'm in. PROSPECT: B+

Gulliver's Travels: Eeewwww. Normally, I would like the prospect of Jack Black and Emily Blunt working together, but this looks awful. So much so, I'm not gonna even embed the clip here. If you wanna watch this crap, find it yourself. PROSPECT: F

Yogi Bear: So let's see. Not only are we once again taking cute 2D characters and making them into ugly CG versions, but now we can't even get the voice of the main character right. Dan Ackroyd sounds like a drunk jackass at a party trying to imitate Yogi. Meanwhile, Justin Timberlake absolutely nails Boo-Boo. Who'd-a thunk? PROSPECT: D

Sunday, November 14, 2010

I watched Heaven's Gate so you don't have to

They say that curiosity killed the cat. Curiosity didn't kill the critic - but it sure bored him stiff for three and a half hours.

For you see, I finally saw Heaven's Gate. And while I'm not going to be a complete wag and call it Hell's Gate, Purgatory's Passageway makes for an apt title.

I had just finished reading Final Cut, the book about the making of the infamous film and the demise of the studio that financed it: United Artists, the company founded by movie pioneers Douglas Fairbanks, Mary Pickford, D.W. Griffith and Charlie Chaplin. For decades, it was known as the most artist-friendly studio in town, having been the home of Woody Allen and Billy Wilder, but it also could ride herd on big commercial juggernauts like the James Bond movies. If  Heaven's Gate were as excellent as the book, United Artists might still be a viable name today. And indeed, there might have been no book, and you might not be reading this right now. 

But since you are reading this right now, it falls to me to tell you that the book is one of the best Hollywood insider stories ever written, if not the best. Written by the late Steven Bach, a UA production executive, the book lays out in painstaking and often self-deprecating detail how United Artists came to make Heaven's Gate - and how Heaven's Gate unmade United Artists. 

I will not recount all those details here. You can find them out for yourself, via this excellent documentary based on the book, viewable on YouTube. It was the viewing of this documentary that piqued my interest in the book. Having finally read the book, I said to myself, "You know, I really ought to see the movie." 

Part of my rationale was that I simply wanted to fill in the blanks left by the book. Part of it was simple curiosity. Could the movie possibly be as bad as legend said it was? New York Times critic Vincent Canby savaged the film, likening it to a "forced four-hour walking tour of one's own living room." Roger Ebert pretty much agreed, calling it "the most scandalous cinematic waste I have ever seen." 

The good news is, no, Heaven's Gate is not that bad. The bad news is that Heaven's Gate is not that good, either. 

Some revisionists, particularly critics based in Europe,  have called the film a misbegotten masterpiece. It's not. While reports of the film's out-of-control budget may have colored the original reviews, the picture's ambition must not be mistaken for quality. Heaven's Gate has its virtues - but none of them can overcome the central problem: its formless blob of a screenplay. 

Many have faulted Michael Cimino for his his wretched excess, for shooting take after take after take and for letting the picture run grossly overlong. And it is true that Heaven's Gate suffered from a lack of control. Final Cut reveals that Cimino directed like Stanley Kubrick, only with half the artistry and none of the discipline.

But Cimino was not an untalented man. He had an excellent eye, and a decent ear for performances. Ebert was far off the mark when he called it "incompetently photographed." The "incompetent" photographer was Vilmos Zsigmond, who had just shot The Deer Hunter for Cimino and won an Oscar for Steven  Spielberg's Close Encounters. Maybe some of the visuals are overly diffuse, but on the whole, the picture looks great. Kris Kristofferson's performance is solid, and Isabelle Huppert is rather touching as the object of a love triangle between Kristofferson and Christopher Walken. David Mansfield's musical score is lovely. (Alas, the sound mix is not. Especially in large crowd scenes, the soundtrack is so muddled, I couldn't make out the dialogue.) 

But as any director (or critic) worth their salt will tell you, music, visual skill and even performances can only carry you so far if you haven't got a story. And Cimino's screenplay never gave me a reason to care about all that fuss onscreen. The romance between Kristofferson and Huppert barely registers, and the romance between Walken and Hupert doesn't register at all. Maybe there's a nugget of interest here or there that might have warranted a 100-minute film. There certainly isn't enough to support more than 200 minutes. 

I often disagreed with the legendary critic Pauline Kael, but I applauded her sentiments when she wrote: "While watching the three hour and 39-minute Heaven's Gate, I thought it was easy to see what to cut. But when I tried afterward to think of what to keep, my mind went blank." 

Mine too. 


Tuesday, November 09, 2010

The Documentary Watch: Lions and Nilsson and schools, oh my!

Over the past week I've gone on a nonfiction kick, watching a number of documentaries on the big screen and the small.

The Elephant in the Living Room: The best of the documentaries was the one that has gotten the least national attention, but that ought to change. It's a riveting look at the ownership of exotic pets, and the film was shot mostly in Ohio. It focuses primarily on two people. One is an Oakwood police officer who finds it is his unfortunate specialty to catch everything from cougars to deadly snakes. The other is a man who owns two fully grown lions he keeps in a pen in his back yard. By turns informative, heart-rending, astonishing and even suspenseful, it's a must-see. Its writer and director is Michael Webber, a West Middletown native.  GRADE: A

The Tillman Story: We thought we knew the story of Pat Tillman, the NFL player who gave up his football career to serve in the military and was killed in Afghanistan. This documentary reveals that there's a story even beyond the revelation that he was killed by friendly fire. And it's not only about the blatant chicanery in the cover-up of the circumstances of his death. More importantly, it's about the determination of his outraged family, and about the loss of an eminently decent,  unassuming man who never wanted all the attention he got in death. GRADE: A-

Waiting for "Superman" - The best-known documentary turns out to be the weakest of the lot, which is not to say it's bad - it's just not quite as revelatory as it thinks it is. To its credit, it presents startling statistics over just how badly our educational system is flunking, and it offers compelling evidence that a central problem is that the world has changed much faster than the schools. I especially appreciated the demonstration that good education can be achieved in even the poorest of neighborhoods. It's too bad  director Davis Guggenheim (An Inconvenient Truth) tries to wrap the movie up in bow and give it a neat ending by implying that charter schools are the answer. Sometimes they are, sometimes not - but the film makes a clear case we've got to start somewhere. GRADE: B+

Who is Harry Nilsson: To most people Harry Nilsson was the guy who sang "Everybody's Talking" and "Without You" - neither of which he wrote. To Beatlemaniacs like me, he was also John Lennon's drinking buddy/partner in mischief. This documentary, talking to everyone from Yoko Ono to Eric Idle to Brian Wilson to Randy Newman, shows Nilsson to be a supremely gifted talent who never got the full credit he deserved in life - partly because he was so self-destructive. Still, this documentary sets the record straight on his resonant influence. It's available on Netflix streaming. GRADE: A

Friday, November 05, 2010

The retro movies I've seen

It's time to catch up on the movies I've seen on the small screen of late.

Breathless: Was lucky enough to catch this in 35MM in Columbus a couple weeks ago. And I had never seen it all. Suffice it to say this pioneering film of the French New Wave absolutely deserves its reputation. It's one of those films that makes me wish I had been around to see it on its original release. Maybe Jean-Luc Godard became a pretentious ass later, but this film alone seals his place in cinema history. And Jean Seberg is very easy on the eyes  GRADE: A

Detour: This famous film noir has a reputation for having been made in two hours at a cost of $35 - and still being quite good. OK, I'm exaggerating.  A little. But not about the pretty good part. It was only available on DVD via a cheap public domain copy and the print was in terrible shape - but that actually added to its allure. GRADE: B+

The Defiant Ones: I watched Tony Curtis' one Oscar-nominated performance not long after his passing. Like many of Stanley Kramer's "message" pictures, it's a bit preachy and dramatically obvious, but thanks to Curtis and costar Sidney Poitier, it delivers. GRADE: B+

The Misfits: Clark Gable. Marilyn Monroe. Eli Wallach. Thelma Ritter. Written by Arthur Miller. Directed by John Huston. How can it not be great? Well, oddly. it's not. Sometimes a disadvantage of that much firepower is that everyone is trying too hard, and the effort puts a strain on the film. Miller's story in particular feels too high-minded. Still, it's a highly watchable film thanks to the performances GRADE: B

Hi Mom: This is very early Robert De Niro and very early Brian De Palma, before the latter began working in faux Hitchcock mode. Even in his early days, his direction is still show-offy, and I can see hints of later films, particularly Body Double, in that it shares a preoccupation with voyeurism.  It's fairly intriguing but the story wanders too often. GRADE: C+

My Neighbor Totoro: The film that made Miyazaki's name in this country is as magical as most of his movies. And I WANT a 12-legged cat bus. GRADE:  A

Panic in the Streets: This is a good, solid suspense film, but the odd thing about it is that it falters  when it tries to be deep and to explore What It All Means. And what's odd about that is, that's where director Elia Kazan usually excels. This time, however, Kazan is much more effective at delivering action beats in a story about criminals who have no idea they're spreading a deadly virus. GRADE:  B

The Snake Pit: A fascinating look at how society used to view "crazy" people and the psychiatric treatment of them. It's inevitably dated, but emotionally it works very well, thanks to the lead performance by the great Olivia de Havilland.   B+

Wednesday, November 03, 2010

Oeuvres: Woody Allen

People have often said Woody Allen is in a slump lately, but is that really true?

OK, maybe one misses the halcyon days of Annie Hall followed closely by Manhattan and Hannah and her Sisters followed closely by Crimes and Misdemeanors. But consider this: For nearly four decades, the man has cranked out a movie per year, with very few gaps.

A filmmaker that prolific is bound to have more peaks and valleys than, say, Terrence Malick. And out of those dozens of films, there are very few out-and-out misses. There are some disappointments, to be sure, but even when Woody misses, he very rarely bores. Even now, it seems wrong to refer to him as Allen. It's WOODY. Not many directors can lay that kind of claim. 

Please note this list only consider's Woody's theatrical movies as director - not the handful in which he is only an actor, like Play It Again Sam, which he wrote but did not direct. I have not yet seen Stardust Memories, A Midsummer Night's Sex Comedy, September or Another Woman. Unfortunately, I have seen the bloated mess that is the 1967 Casino Royale, but Woody's scenes are its sole saving grace.

I'll start with his newest film first, then work my way chronologically. 

You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger: Woody's latest, is, alas, one of his lesser lights. With a cast including Naomi Watts, Anthony Hopkins, Antonio Banderas and Josh Brolin, the performances certainly cannot be faulted, and there are enough high points to hold it together. Still, with unevenly written characters, this seems like a poor man's version of Husbands and Wives. GRADE: B-

Take the Money and Run: Woody's directorial debut is dated and rough around the edges but the funniest scenes are hysterical, particularly the marching band with the cello. GRADE: B+

Bananas: Very funny stuff, with a handful of slow spots. And it's fun to think that one of the muggers Woody outsmarts is a before-he-was-Rocky Sylvester Stallone. GRADE: A-

Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Sex but Were Afraid to Ask: Uneven, as most omnibus films are, but worth a rental for the "What happens during ejaculation"  all by itself. GRADE: B

Sleeper: My favorite of the "early, funny" films with hilarious slapstick, and it certainly helps that this marks the first teaming of Woody Allen and Diane Keaton. GRADE: A

Love and Death: Funny while it's on, but a little pretentious and not terribly memorable. GRADE: B-

Annie Hall: Still Woody's best film. Sometimes the obvious answer is the correct one. GRADE: A+

Interiors: Woody's first straight drama (and first film in which he does not appear) is quite affecting, with powerhouse acting. GRADE: A

Manhattan: Great, but not one of my favorites as it is is for so many, but this opening is Woody's best. Absolute magic. GRADE: A

Zelig: Ingenious mockumentary that also bears the distinction of being hilarious. GRADE: A

Broadway Danny Rose: A little inconsistent, but it's chock full of funny lines. GRADE: A-

The Purple Rose of Cairo: The brilliant conceit of this movie (movie star steps into the real world) is achingly sweet and sad.

Hannah and her Sisters: If Manhattan had Woody's best beginning, this film has the best ending. GRADE: A+

Radio Days: Slight but amiable period piece. GRADE: B

Oedipus Wrecks: Woody's contribution to New York Stories is a gem, with an hilarious performance by Mae Questel AKA Betty Boop. GRADE: A

Crimes and Misdemeanors: Woody's most ambitous film - and his other absolute masterpiece besides Annie Hall and Hannah and her Sisters. GRADE: A+

Alice: Very, very odd - and yet rather affecting for all that. One does not often get to see Mia Farrow fly. GRADE: B

Shadows and Fog: An intriguing Expressionist experiment that's more interesting for its form than its actual content. GRADE: B-

Husbands and Wives: The pseudo-documentary style put many people off, but I thought it made the film unique - and one of Woody's best in the 1990s. GRADE: A

Manhattan Murder Mystery: Criminally underrated, this hilarious film uses the same documentary style as Husbands and Wives with a very diferrent effect - but it works. GRADE: A-

Bullets Over Broadway: Woody's best film of the 1990s with loads of laughs. Everybody quotes Dianne Weist's "Don't speak" line, but I loved Chazz Palminteri's "You don't write like people talk." GRADE: A

Mighty Aphrodite: Mira Sorvino is hilarious. 'Nuff said. GRADE: B+

Everyone Says I Love You: One can debate whether casting non-singers (including Woody himself) in a musical, but in places, it's as lovely and lyrical as most anything MGM made. GRADE: A-

Deconstructing Harry: How many films do YOU know of where Robin Williams appears only as a blur and Billy Crystal plays the devil? GRADE: B+

Celebrity: One of Woody's very few misfires never connects. Kenneth Branagh's too obvious attempts to imitate his director don't help. GRADE: C

Sweet and Lowdown: I'll always remember this quirky little film as my introduction to Samantha Morton. And what an intro it was. GRADE: B+

Small Time Crooks: Funny but slight, not terribly memorable. GRADE: B-

The Curse of the Jade Scorpion: An amusing trifle/period piece, with some choice exchanges. "You know, there's a word for people who think everyone is conspiring against them." Woody: "I know, perceptive." GRADE: B

Hollywood Ending: A great premise (director suffers hysterical blindness) offers some funny moments, but Woody surprisingly fails to milk it for all it's worth. GRADE: B-

Anything Else: Casting Jason Biggs as a Woody-esque figure with Woody actually IN the movie was a weird gambit, but it kinda sorta worked, resulting in a minor but entertaining work. GRADE: B-

Melinda and Melinda: This time Woody takes his great idea (feature the same character twice, but in a comedy and a drama) and executes it very well. Radha Mitchell is superb in the dual lead role, and in a minor miracle, Will Ferrell imitates Woody better than Kenneth Branagh did. Underrated. GRADE: B-

Match Point: Woody's first excursion into Europe was his best film of this decade. It's great to see Woody try to be Billy Wilder and still be Woody. GRADE: A

Scoop: Again we have a minor but satisfying comedy, with Woody and Scarett Johhansson meshing surprisingly well. GRADE: B

Cassandra's Dream: Woody tried again too soon to make another moody thriller and this time shot blanks. His weakest film. GRADE: C

Vicky Cristina Barcelona: The voice-over narration is a tad off-putting and not really necessary (a flaw shared by You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger) but the love rectangle of Scarlett Johansson, Rebecca Hall, Penelope Cruz and Javier Bardem makes for some very hot sparks. GRADE: B+

Whatever Works: Larry David makes for the funniest of the Woody surrogates so far, but not to be overlooked is the very fine and touching performance of Evan Rachel Wood. GRADE: B

Tuesday, November 02, 2010

To the MPAA ratings board, 'The King's Speech' is just as bad as 'Saw 3D' | The Big Picture | Los Angeles Times

More MPAA rating nuttiness: The King's Speech gets an R.

Money quote from director Tom Hooper: “This isn’t creating a precedent, since after all, how many films can claim to use swearing for its therapeutic effect? The floodgates aren’t going to open. But when you have a system that gives the same rating to Kick Ass and Saw as The King’s Speech, it feels like you’re in a world that has lost its mooring.”

Wow, so this must mean The King's Speech is just as foul as Once.

To the MPAA ratings board, 'The King's Speech' is just as bad as 'Saw 3D' | The Big Picture | Los Angeles Times

ADDDENDUM: After I wrote this initial post, my dear friend Kimberly emailed me with this pointed, and I think, well considered response. I post it here with her permission:

Taken from the article:

"It's rating decisions, which frown on almost any sort of sex, frontal nudity, or bad language but have allowed increasing amounts of violence over the years, are horribly out of touch with mainstream America, where families everywhere are disturbed by the amount of violence freely portrayed in movies, video games, and hip-hop music."

To the writer of the article:

The writer seems to have forgotten the word 'NOT' in the second part of the sentence. Apparently you don't have kids or pay much attention to what happens in society. It's why my teenage nieces (all god-fearing Christian educated girls) are walking around singing Ke$hia's "Tik Tok". Heard the lyrics on THAT lately? But they still buy the records and listen in droves.

Which film would I take my 12-year old to see? NEITHER YOU IDIOT. They shouldn't see Saw and they would be bored to death by The King's Speech. Which film will I be seeing? Possibly both.

Anyone who thinks that ratings have any effect at all on whether or not parents take their children to a theater hasn't BEEN in a theater in years, at least where I live.

Are ratings arbitrary? Sure. We all know this. But to think that people care about the rating (or enforce the rating, which is a whole other post), is even more naive than the MPAA.

Grow a set. Find something important to write about. I'm sure there's something. It is LA.

Wow. Thoughts? 

Monday, November 01, 2010

The TCM geniuses are at it again

Turner Classic Movies has come up with yet another brilliant programming scheme - quite possibly their best yet.

Throughout this month, starting today, the best channel on TV has a new documentary series exploring the history of Hollywood, from the turn of the century to the late 60s, when the studio system crumbled and the director became the dominant figure.

True to TCM form, however, the documentaries are not the whole show. Tonight for instance, we'll see several of the Edison shorts covered in the first episode. Later this week TCM will show Nickelodeon, Peter Bogdanovich's flawed but fascinating film set during Hollywood's birth years.

And if you are not fortunate enough to have TCM in your home (poor soul), check out the website devoted to the series, chock full of information and clips.

My DVR will be on overload this month with all this stuff - and I may even blog more about it. We may even get some more insight to that commonly expressed sentiment, "They don't make em like that anymore." Join me and find out how they did.

TCM Moguls and Movie Stars