Wednesday, December 26, 2007

MovieWatch: "Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street"

"Sweeney Todd"
Director: Tim Burton
Fien Print Rating (Out of 100): 45
In a Nutshell: [This is gonna be the last blog post for at least the next week, possibly longer. I'll be back in the New Year in full form. Worry not.]

I'm not going to name names, because that would be rude, but when I was a freshman and sophomore in high school, there was an upper classman who was the bee's knees when it came to the theater department. He had the lead in all the plays, which was appropriate because he was a pretty solid actor, particularly by the standards of your basic high school play. But in addition to doing one big play each year, we also did one big musical each year and as inevitably as the play lead would go to this one guy, he'd also get to topline the musical. The problem? As solid as his acting was, he couldn't sing. At all. He couldn't carry a tune or hit a note or stay on rhythm. Knowing both the available lead and his limitations, the theater advisor attempted to choose musicals in which the main role didn't require vocal chops, something like "The Music Man," where you can talk your way through all of the songs.

I kept thinking of this former classmate of mine as I watched Tim Burton's "Sweeney Todd" on Tuesday night as part of my family's obligatory movie-and-Chinese Christmas.

Unlike my former classmate, "Sweeney Todd" leading man Johnny Depp is capable of carrying a tune. Don't get me wrong. However, unlike "The Music Man," "Sweeney Todd" is a show that requires more than just staying on beat. Stephen Sondheim musicals present particular challenges and Depp is, alas, up to none of them. His vocal failings and the even more grating failings of co-star Helena Bonham Carter contribute majorly to the disappointment I felt watching "Sweeney Todd," but they really weren't the only ones.

Follow through after the bump for a bit more in the review department, though this may be short-ish, since I'm on a tight schedule today...

Click through...

I'm usually capable of making exceptions when actors can do one thing required for a role and not others. I, for example, think that Kevin Costner is good in both "13 Days" and "JFK" despite the fact that he cannot do Boston or Southern accents and his tin-ear occasionally hurts. I just happen to think there's more to what he does in those movies.

With Depp in "Sweeney Todd," it's one thing that the melody of every song has been clipped because his range is mighty limited. He barks out every line in the same gruff brogue, all in a three or four note range. Because he's talking through most of the songs, he keeps his British accent intact (more than, say, [the far more melodically gifted] John Travolta singing in "Hairspray" can say) and between the accent and the necessary over-production of his vocals, many of the words get muffled as well. So if you have a leading man who causes the melodies to be trimmed and causes the words to be lost, what business does he have a Sondheim musical? None, I'd say.

To make matters worse, Depp never changes his expression the entire movie. I get it. Sweeney Todd is miserable and vengeance only makes him less happy. But I've seen Depp do Kabuki-painted sorrow before in Tim Burton movies and Edward Scissorhands was a character with much more variation And how much of Depp's performance comes courtesy of that make-up anyway? The hair, the costumes, the make-up? It's a mighty superficial turn.

Depp is so unremittingly morose that he at least makes Carter look like she's committed to a well-rounded performance, even though she's essentially mixed Bellatrix Lestrange with just a dash of Marla from "Fight Club" and called it a day. While Depp's voice is negligible, but not tin-eared, Carter just mewls in the same high pitched voice, only occasionally finding the tune. And Mrs. Lovett is a part that has drawn Broadway legends including Angela Lansbury and Patti LuPone. Singing really isn't optional. Look, I'm not going to say that Carter -- a perfectly talented actress, don't get me wrong -- doesn't find a few emotional grace notes in the movie's final act, but if she can't sing the part, she isn't doing the job.

The funny part is that there are people in the cast who *can* sing. Basically, if you recognize the actor, their voice is at best limited. If the actor is somebody you've never seen before, they'll be able to sing. So Jamie Campbell Bower, Laura Michelle Kelly, Jayne Wisener and Ed Sanders, the film's younger and less known stars, all have strong voices and one can only imagine the production chores necessary to blend the on-pitch stars with Carter or Depp on several duets.

I'd blame Depp and Carter more, but Burton made his own bed here and he almost seems to be using the limitations of his actors as an excuse to limit himself. After one glorious effects shot in which the camera zips from the harbor through London to Lovett's Pie Shop, Burton mostly keeps his more flamboyant tendencies in check, resulting in a might claustrophobic movie. There's virtually no choreography for the actors and the camera work and editing are also needlessly restrained. With the exception of "By the Sea," Burton and DP Dariusz Wolski's color scheme is unremittingly and dully dark. The splashes of blood are supposed to provide variation, but once you've seen seven or eight spurts of arterial blood, haven't you seen them all? Burton seems to be convinced that viewers will continue to either be amused or discussed by the same throat-slashing effects and the same body dumping shot every time, but I grew bored quite rapidly. I wonder why Burton didn't approach SFX and make-up master Greg Nicotero to deliver some original and varied throat slashing. It really might have made a big different.

Even production director Dante Ferretti, one of my absolute favorite talents, is working on utter autopilot with his limited London cityscapes and miniature-laden skylines. Since this is the sort of thing Ferretti does in his sleep, maybe somebody else should have been handed the job for more inspiration.

"Sweeney Todd" isn't a boring musical. It's mighty gloomy, but it has Sondheim's wit throughout and it actually had romance if done properly. Burton's interpretation, for my money, was wrong on most every level. I've gotta put this one down as one of my bigger disappointments of the year.

Saturday, December 22, 2007

MovieWatch: "Lars and the Real Girl"

"Lars and the Real Girl"
Director: Craig Gillespie
Fien Print Rating (Out of 100): 67
In a Nutshell: [Side note: This is gonna get written up in a dozen trend pieces by Monday, but since I haven't seen it anywhere, I wanna get it out there: There have been plenty of small-screen casualties of the writers strike already, but the Judd Apatow produced "Walk Hard" is the first big screen product to whither because of the strike.

It was partially Sony's mistake, releasing "Walk Hard" at a time when the movie was never going to be able to generate maximum buzz anyway. Sony got cocky about the power of the Judd Apatow name, which isn't, it turns out, 100% magic. Duh.

But "Walk Hard" never stood a chance because it was too hard to market based 100% on TV ads. People didn't have a clue what the mockumentary was supposed to be, how they were supposed to response. You know what would have helped? John C. Reilly on every talk show in America, both as a guest and performing songs from the movie. How about John C. Reilly as host of "Saturday Night Live" with musical guest Dewey Cox. Maybe a surprise Reilly cameo with Jenna Fischer on "The Office"?

Things like "I Am Legend" and "National Treasure 2" and "Alvin and the Chipmunks" and even "Enchanted" sell themselves. Even "Enchanted," though... Nobody's going to say it, but that movie hasn't come close to performing up to the standards set by something like "Night at the Museum" last year. That movie should have started playing at Thanksgiving and by Christmas it should have been over $200 million, but instead it's going to top out at $120 million, even if it gets a holiday bump. Based on cost and advertising, "Enchanted" isn't a smash hit at all, regardless of what media reports might have suggested. But if Amy Adams had been able to run the late night gauntlet, that movie's awareness would have been far better. I hate to say it, but for a movie like "Enchanted," that difference in box office isn't just about money, it's about whether or not Adams receives an Oscar nomination. After its first weekend, I'd have told you she was a sure thing. Now? Doubtful.

Would "The Golden Compass" have tanked somewhat less if Dakota Blue Richards had gotten to sit down next to Letterman and Leno? I doubt it, but it wouldn't have hurt. Getting Gerard Butler out there for "P.S. I Love You" would have helped that movie and Tom Hanks is always gold on the late night circuit and it looks like "Charlie Wilson's War" could have used a bit of a boost.]

Anyway, follow through after the bump for my thoughts on "Lars and the Real Girl," since that's what the blog subject line promised...

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I was telling a friend last night that "I Am Legend" was a great movie to see alone, or perhaps just accompanied by your friendly German shepherd. "Lars and the Real Girl" is another mighty good alone movie, particularly when seen in the Landmark Theatre's living room screening room, where my nifty little love seat might have been perfectly shared with a life-sized sex doll.

I'd sort of held off on seeing "Lars and the Real Girl" for fear that it might come across as both unnecessarily twee -- finally a chance to use that word outside of the context of "Pushing Daisies" -- and out of fear that Gosling's inevitable actorly affections might irk me. I mean, nobody's arguing that Gosling's one of his generation's very best actors, but nothing he does a thespian is invisible. You're constantly aware that he's put a lot of effort into creating a character, even if it's in something as forgettable as "Fracture." So I was a bit concerned that Gosling playing a twitchy, mustached outcast might be more than I could handle.

Ultimately, "Lars and the Real Girl" wasn't even vaguely troubling or offensive or disturbing (the latter perhaps to its detriment). It was sweet, touching and mighty slight, though all of the actors -- from Gosling on down -- do admirable and watchable work.

I wrote my first casting stories about "Lars and the Real Girl" for Zap2it in the late summer of 2006 and it was hard not to be amused by the premise, described as the story of "a lonely man who falls in love with a doll he finds on the Internet."

Under normal circumstances, Nancy Oliver's script probably would have gone one of two directions: If it ended up in the hands of, say, the Farrelly Brothers, some of it would have been rewritten, but the result would have been a raunchy, R-rated lark with almost the exact same structure and concluding sweetness, but a lot more references to vacuum sucking action and precision molding. Or, if it had ended up in the hands of, say, Eli Roth, the main character's doll -- a wheelchair-bound beauty named Bianca -- would have eventually encouraged Lars to start killing people so that they could be together forever, like Anthony Hopkins' character in magic.

In the hands of Craig Gillespie -- whose only other feature credit was a 90-minute movie spun out of the lone joke that it's antagonist's last name was "Woodcock" -- what it ultimately settles for is to be a saccharine fable with an interesting enough psychological underpinning that's finally less important than the Capra-esque theme about communities banding together to support the individual. "Lars and the Real Girl" is about one man's internal fantasy, but anybody watching the movie is likely to think that the whole film is set in a fantasy land.

Some of the more boorish characters make a joke about how Bianca's the perfect woman because she can't talk back. That vein of misogyny vanishes pretty early because you never doubt that the doll is sort of being used as pneumatically sculpted set of training wheels for the inevitable real girl, played by Kelli Garner.

While there are several references to the doll's anatomical correctness, she's almost immediately desexualized. From the first time she's introduced, Lars goes out of his way to make her stay with his brother and sister-in-law just so that there can never be any consideration that he's using the doll as anything other than a romantic surrogate. While she arrives dressed like a tawdry call girl, she's quickly redressed to the standards of bland upper Northwest asexuality and although she's initially made up like a bit of a tart, her painted face is as flexible as her body and by the end she isn't wearing any make-up at all. Her threat to the community, in fact, is almost entirely governed by her degree of sexuality, but by the end of the movie, Bianca is almost interchangeable with the main character of "The Diving Bell and the Butterfly."

[Oye, I could go on with the comparison between "Lars and the Real Girl" and "The Diving Bell and the Butterfly" -- a treatise on the ways in which people read their own values and desires onto largely inanimate objects, but that might get too problematic and over-intellectual.]

The fact that nobody views Bianca as a sex doll after the initial description saves Oliver and Gillespie from getting into any sort of murky water. My initial guess, upon Bianca's arrival, was that what it would take to shake Lars out of his spell would be him catching somebody using Bianca for her God-created purpose. It's a bit astounding that the filmmakers never go anywhere near that direction. Because Lars obviously isn't having sex with Bianca and because no other man thinks to experiment on her, she can be safely pushed aside as a longterm threat. Garner's Margo may be a bit awkward, but she's still played by Kelli Garner -- albeit Garner in her indie "I'm wearing no make-up so you might believe me as anything other than a pillow-lipped bombshell" mode -- so you know that she can do better than Lars. This is a bit like "Happiness" or "Little Children" where we're forced to accept that Jane Adams is so un-beautiful that she'd most attract perverts and pedophiles.

Lars is neither of those things, but nobody's going to leave capable of figuring out what he is. Is he just a Walter Mitty-esque dreamer with mommy issues? Are the mommy issues far worse than a little daydreaming and could Lars really use several decades of therapy with Patricia Clarkson's versatile Dagmar? Does Lars have Asbergers or some other form of low-level autism? Probably we're not supposed to think it matters.

There's some weird subtext in the movie that argues that people in OntarWisconsMinnesDakota (whereever it takes place) are so very bored that they'd gladly get together and take part in this sort of communal delusion, because it beats shoveling or it's a nice break from bowling. And then there's the next step that argues that women in OntarWisconsMinnesDakota are so starved for man-love (presumably a kind of man-love that doesn't come home drunk and abusive) that they (or Garner's adorable Margo) can look at Lars and go "Well, other than the INSANITY [and fashion sense and anxiety and moustache], that guy's a catch]." That's a big suspension of disbelief, but I kind of made it.

Similarly, some people have complained about my first point in the last paragraph, that the whole movie hinges on a couple meetings and well-timed e-mails that miraculous caused everybody in two towns to play along with Lars' delusion. I mean *nobody* says a hostile or mocking word to him. I'm OK with that, because it all fits into a Capra-esque framework, like the way that Gary Cooper's Mr. Deeds was, as one old woman put it, just a bit pixilated, but everybody was OK with it because if you live in a small town, everybody has secrets and weirdness and you put up with it because it's home. At the end of the day, I found this giant hoax far more believable than, say, David Fincher's "The Game," in which several thousand residents of at least two countries got together to throw an obnoxious rich guy a surprise birthday party.

I wonder if maybe Gosling -- as good as he is and as acclaimed as the performance has been and as much as nobody would be seeing the movie now with said acclaim -- was the wrong actor for this kind of story. The story may be Capra-esque, but Gosling is giving a Method-style performance and his commitment to realism is a weird match. I guess "Harvey" a movie I might want to compare with "Lars," but Jimmy Stewart's performance in "Harvey" (and in the Capra movies) isn't the sort of performance Stewart was giving later in his career. He's an Everyman, who sees a giant bunny. Gosling isn't an Everyman. His presence may make "Lars" a more respectable movie, but it just may not be what the genre demands. Regardless, he's good.

Also contributing greatly are Emily Mortimer and Paul Schneider. Mortimer's one of my very favorite actresses working now and several websites, when her unspecified casting was initially announced, speculated that she might have been playing the doll. That idea intrigues me. I'm also intrigued by what a fine supporting actor Schneider has been this fall (see also "The Assassination of Jesse James...") and by just how many millions of viewers will love the links between Schneider's work in "Lars and the Real Girl" and his work in David Gordon Green's "All the Real Girls." MILLIONS.

OK. I'm way past rambling now. Time to start packing.

Thursday, December 20, 2007

MovieWatch: "The Diving Bell and the Butterfly"

"The Diving Bell and the Butterfly"
Director: Julian Schnabel
Fien Print Rating (Out of 100): 58
In a Nutshell: [Sigh. Another of those reviews I just couldn't make myself write. And, as always, I blame my Zap2it responsibilities, Facebook and Twitter. But here goes...]

As a story, the tale of paralyzed Elle editor Jean-Dominique Bauby, who suffered a paralyzing stroke but still wrote a book about his experiences with "locked-in syndrome" by blinking one one eye, is about as remarkable as they come.

Julian Schnabel's film about Bauby (Mattieu Amalric) is an intellectual exercise, just about as experimental a film as the mainstream media and award-givers have embraced in the past 30 years.

More after the bump on why I'll gladly salute cinematographer Janusz Kaminski, as well as Amalric to some degree, but why I can't get behind the movie...

Click through...

This actually isn't difficult to explain. "The Diving Bell and the Butterfly" is supposed to be a movie that transports you, it's supposed to trap the viewer in the body of a man who's trapped in his own body and then it's supposed to set the viewer free, as Bauby's imagination liberated him.

Unfortunately, the only mind I was transported into was Schnabel's. I was conscious of every contrived aspect of formal calculation.

For around 15 minutes, I was filled with admiration. I loved the way Schnabel and Kaminski created the perspective of a man whose entire universe seems to be limited to the orbit of his eyeball. Schnabel and Kaminski make every blink feel like the slamming of a door and every tear runs the risk of obliterating everything. To eyes unaccustomed to the flooding sun, every woman is like an auraed angel.

You don't really get many first-person POV movies. The list includes curios like "Lady in the Lake" and the interesting first third of "Dark Passage" and as hard as the entirely subjective camera is to pull off in a mystery, where at least the viewer is conspiring with a character out to solve a murder, it's even more difficult here. Since we're party to Bauby's internal monologue, which is at least somewhat screenwriter Ronald Harwood's invention, the restriction isn't total and the POV isn't pure, so it only feels like a minor sell-out when Schnabel begins to cheat the conceit.

It's one thing, I think, for Schnabel to break strict POV for Bauby's fantasies and his memories, but the camera steps outside the confined body on a number of occasions within the hospital. That, to me at least, felt like a cheat. Christ, once Schnabel was forcing viewers to sit through every flippin' blink of Bauby's florid ocular dictation, he might as well have just stuck to his guns. I mean, obviously people are just crazy-impressed by Amalric's compelling and convincing and emphatic eye-rolling as the paralyzed Bauby, but I wonder how much of that is a cheap stunt. And I'm not saying it's a stunt by Amalric, who looks like he was probably having a mighty unpleasant time. But it's a stunt for Schnabel. The more you show of the invalid Bauby, the more full-of-life the memories and fantasies of the fully able Bauby seem to be. Despite the fact that we're lead to believe that Bauby was this fun-loving bon vivant, nothing in the fantasies or flashbacks really reinforce that idea, so it's all about the contrast. When Amalric gets to behave normally -- and I remain perpetually distracted by his resemblance to Roman Polanski -- it's heightened by extension of those omniscient POV cutaways, those cheating moments.

Because Schnabel's approach to the material was the true star of the movie, I can't say that I ever felt anything for or about Bauby. So I say wondering how much that was intentional. I wondered if the viewer is supposed to care for and about Bauby only through the dew-eyed affection of every nurse, therapist and former lover who enters the room. Everybody keeps discussing Bauby as heroic, as being soulful, as miraculous. And, as I started this review, I have no doubt that he was. So again, Schnabel gets to take a shortcut and show us unwavering affected imagery coupled with the sort of flowery prose that's best written, I guess, by hormonal teenagers and paralyzed Frenchmen. Everybody on-screen swoons, so viewers do as well.

So I got annoyed by that. I got annoyed by the POV. And I got distracted by the fact that I was never exactly sure how many women there were in the movie in the first place. The one I was best able to keep track of was Emmanuelle Seigner and that was largely because I kept debating if she'd been cast entirely because she's married in real life to Amalric's "Chinatown"-directing doppelganger. And while I know it's racist to say that all French Brunettes look alike to me, but reading the IMDB credits has already caused me to realize that the woman I thought Bauby was in Lourdes with wasn't, in fact, the woman he was really in Lourdes with, which must mean either that I wasn't paying close enough attention or that my that time I was going off into my own locked-in world.

There you go. I know lots of people love this movie. I know lots of people are moved (as opposed to bored) to tears by it. And all I can say is that I felt like I was watching an art gallery film installation that was meant to be seen in five minute snippets before moving on. Perhaps after checking out other parts of the gallery, you could return, discover that the main character was still blinking out an over-written sentence (he really ought to have gone more Hemmingway-esque) and leave again. Sitting for 112 minutes at a stretch was too much, but maybe if I'd gone and watched 45 minutes of "Juno" in the middle, I might have had more tolerance for the bookending.

I put "The Diving Bell and the Butterfly" in a similar category to "I'm Not There." They're both movies that are so superficially intellectualized that critics are falling over themselves to think the intellectualization is worth the effort. I guess I'm a boor.

[P.S. Max Von Sydow is a lion. Whenever he was on screen I was instantly more involved and more moved than when he was gone. I'd rather have watched a movie about a 90-something man in failing health who have to cope with the idea that his son has become even more infirm than he is.]

Sunday, December 16, 2007

2008 Golden Globe Nomination Reax -- TV

I used my "I Am Legend" review as an excuse to resist finishing my Golden Globe reactions.

Now I'm using the second half of my Golden Globe reactions as an excuse to resist finishing a review of "The Diving Bell and the Butterfly."

I'm using both as excuses to resist blogging on the second season finale of "Dexter" for Zap2it.

If blogging is an excuse to avoid other blogging and other blogging is an excuse to avoid writing for other blogs, where does the cycle begin and end?

I don't know. What I do know is that after the bump, I'll complain a little bit about the TV side of this week's Golden Globe nominations announcement.

The movie side complaints are here.

Click through...

Best TV Series, Drama

"Big Love," HBO
"Damages," FX
"Grey's Anatomy," ABC
"House," FOX
"Mad Men," AMC
"The Tudors," Showtime

REACTION: Can we just get this one out of the way first. The HFPA nominates SIX dramas in this category, but can't find a place for "The Sopranos," "Dexter," "Friday Night Lights" or "Lost"? That's unbearable. It was a poor year for "Grey's Anatomy." "The Tudors" was an often-dreadful soap opera. And "Damages" had a seven or eight episode swoon in the middle. So it's not like this six-nominate category doesn't have soft spots. But I'm ever-so-glad to see "Mad Men" nominated and, given the other contenders, I'd love to see it win.

Best TV Series, Comedy

"30 Rock," NBC
"Californication," Showtime
"Entourage," HBO
"Extras," HBO
"Pushing Daisies," ABC

REACTION: Did anybody in the HFPA watch "Entourage" this year? Apparently not. Jeez it was awful like 15 episodes. "Californication" was beyond erratic and probably should only have been recognized for Duchovny's performance. Nominating those two shows and ignoring "The Office" and "Weeds" pretty much invalidates any grouping of nominees. I mean, I respect the desire to mix up the usual assortment of names, but not just to nominate random things for the sake of nominating random things.

Best Miniseries or Movie

"Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee," HBO
"The Company," TNT
"Longford," HBO
"The State Within," BBC America
"Five Days," HBO

REACTIONS: I have nothing to say here, though I keep meaning to eventually sit down and watch my screener of "Longford." It looked good. If only I had time enough...

Best Actor, Drama Series

Michael C Hall, "Dexter"
Jon Hamm, "Mad Men"
Hugh Laurie, "House"
Jonathan Rhys Meyers, "The Tudors"
Bill Paxton, "Big Love"

REACTIONS: It's not that I don't like Bill Paxton's performance on "Big Love," much less the show itself, but I don't see it as actually being award-worthy. What Hamm is doing in "Man Men" may be a touch too subtle, but I'm glad it got recognition. In fact, given a vote, I'd go with Hamm, but Hall wouldn't be far off. But where's James Gandolfini, y'all? I know he doesn't "play the game" and kiss up in the ways that the HFPA likes and he isn't hip and pretty like Rhys Meyers, but good gravy...

Best Actress, Drama Series

Patricia Arquette, "Medium"
Glenn Close, "Damages"
Minnie Driver, "The Riches"
Edie Falco, "The Sopranos"
Sally Field, "Brothers & Sisters"
Holly Hunter, "Saving Grace"
Kyra Sedgwick, "The Closer"

REACTION: In case you didn't know, this is the golden age for white actresses in TV dramas. Is there any other way to approach this list of seven nominees? It's group that contains two Oscar winners, plus two additional former Oscar nominees, plus two former Emmy winners and the only person not to fit in any of those categories is Sedgwick and she won the Globe last year. Tough category. Also a weird category, since Close and Field arguably aren't the female leads on their own shows. I continue to lament the absence of Connie Britton in categories of this ilk. Or maybe Jeanne Tripplehorn for "Big Love"?

Best Actor, Comedy Series

Alec Baldwin, "30 Rock"
Steve Carell, "The Office"
David Duchovny, "Californication"
Ricky Gervais, "Extras"
Lee Pace, "Pushing Daisies"

REACTION: I like what Pace is doing on "Pushing Daisies," but to my mind he's essentially the straight-man and the laughs are coming from Kristen Chenowith and Chi McBride who were both, as you'll see, left off the supporting list. There are so few comedies on TV that I can't even bring myself to think of anybody who's been clearly and unjustly left off this list. Baldwin is the obvious deserving winner, particular if the voters have recently watched his scene with Tracy in the psychiatrists office. I'd still expect Duchovny to win for smirking for 26 minutes a week.

Best Actress, Comedy Series

Christina Applegate, "Samantha Who?"
America Ferrera, "Ugly Betty"
Tina Fey, "30 Rock"
Anna Friel, "Pushing Daisies"
Mary-Louise Parker, "Weeds"

REACTION: Isn't it impressive how quickly the bloom has gone off the rose of last year's new Globe favorites? Ferrera's the only "Ugly Betty" nomination and "Heroes" has vanished entirely. I love Christina Applegate's performance in "Samantha Who?" It has a force-of-nature quality about it in that she's obviously trying to hard to make it work even when the scripts aren't necessarily all that funny. That's impressive, but then I think of how sitcom-y and unremarkable "Weeds" would be with any other leading lady. Mary-Louise Parker should really just win everything always. Oh and the thing about America Ferrera is that even though she's playing the main character on a show called "Ugly Betty," in real life she isn't ugly at all. I haven't mentioned that for a while.

Best Actor, Miniseries or Movie

Adam Beach, "Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee"
Jim Broadbent, "Longford"
Ernest Borgnine, "A Grandpa for Christmas"
Jason Isaacs, "The State Within"
James Nesbitt, "Jekyll"

REACTION: If there is an iota of justice in the world, 90-something thespian Ernest Borgnine will finally get the respect he deserves for being one of my all-time favorite guest voices on "The Simpsons." Otherwise, James Nesbitt probably deserves it. He was pretty spectacular at times in "Jekyll." I suspect, though, that Borgnine would have made a more compelling Jekyll, though, than Nesbitt would have made a believable grandpa for Christmas. Advantage, Borgnine.

Best Actress, Miniseries of Movie

Bryce Dallas Howard, "As You Like It"
Queen Latifah, "Life Support"
Debra Messing, "The Starter Wife"
Sissy Spacek, "Pictures of Hollis Woods"
Ruth Wilson, "Jane Eyre"

REACTION: Hmmm... The Queen or Opie's Daughter? The Queen or My Favorite Skrunt? Hmmm... I'm goin' with Sissy Spacek, even though her movie had nothing to do with taking pictures of a forest.

Best Supporting Actor, Series, Miniseries or Movie

Ted Danson, "Damages"
Kevin Dillon, "Entourage"
Jeremy Piven, "Entourage"
Andy Serkis, "Longford"
William Shatner, "Boston Legal"
Donald Sutherland, "Dirty Sexy Money"

REACTION: The Golden Globes used to love Donald's little boy and that FOX show he does. Poor Kiefer. Wasting away in jail. I think we should give Donald the Globe just to make up for the embarrassment of having to go visit his son in the hoosegow. Really, I'd vote for ANYBODY who isn't Jeremy Piven. Yes, we all liked Ari three years ago. Hug it out, bitch! HAH!!! Still funny. But enough already with the love for The Pivs. I'm going with either Kiefer's Dad or Gollum.

Best Supporting Actress, Series, Miniseries or Movie

Rose Byrne, "Damages"
Katherine Heigl, "Grey's Anatomy"
Rachel Griffiths, "Brothers & Sisters"
Samantha Morton, "Longford"
Anna Paquin, "Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee"
Jaime Pressly, "My Name Is Earl"

REACTIONS: Katherine Heigl's all "Hmmm... Maybe if I hadn't shat all over the movie that made me a movie star in Vanity Fair, maybe I'd have two Golden Globe nominations, just like Cate Blanchett." Rose Byrne's all, "Wait. I'm the lead actress in my show." Anna Paquin's all "Isn't it disturbing how hot the little girl from 'The Piano' has gotten?" Jaime Pressley's all "If anybody ever asks me about being a trampy Maxim model again, I'm gonna kill 'em." And Samantha Morton's all "I'm the best actress in the group... LOVE ME." I've already forgotten that Rachel Griffiths was nominated.

Saturday, December 15, 2007

MovieWatch: "I Am Legend"

"I Am Legend"
Director: Francis Lawrence
Fien Print Rating (out of 100): 65
In a Nutshell: I actually went out to see "I Am Legend" on an IMAX screen -- something I don't usually do -- because I wanted to see the first six minutes of "The Dark Knight." Unlike "I Am Legend," which was shot in a standard format and augmented for the IMAX screen, parts of Christopher Nolan's sequel to "Batman Begins were actually shot in 70mm, including the opening.

A seemingly standard-issue bank heist that introduces Heath Ledger's Joker, the six-minutes were probably enough to convince me that when I see "The Dark Knight," it'll be in IMAX. The sheer enormity and detail of the prelude was outstanding, with the opening Gotham cityscape -- daytime, probably Chicago -- proving unexpectedly breathtaking. The dialogue cracked, William Fichtner has a kickass early appearance and Ledger looks to have taken the Joker character in a new and different direction.

I'm probably anticipating "The Dark Knight" more than any other film next summer, including "Indiana Jones and the Quest for Profit."

As for "I Am Legend," the movie was probably better than I expected, since my expectations were fairly low. For at least an hour, it's a moody, evocative, depressingly thrilling studio ride, all anchored by a performance from Will Smith that's sure to be underrated. It's a bit of a dead end by the conclusion, but at least Mark Protosevich and Akiva Goldsman's script doesn't 100% turn on Richard Matheson's novel.

More on that later. After the bump. And the appropriate spoiler warnings.

Click through...

Goldsman and Protosevich have cobbled a Frankenstein's monster of a script that pulls in elements from both Matheson's short novel, but somewhat more from the 1971 Charlton Heston "classic" "The Omega Man." If you're familiar with both source materials, it's easy to imagine them pulling plot points from one and then the other, picking and choosing.

The thing, and I think I've said it before, is that "I Am Legend" presumably cost well over $100 million to make, but a straight forward adaptation of Matheson's novel could be made for a tenth that, even with a recognizable star. With a box office behemoth like Smith, you could still adapt Matheson for, say, $50 million. With "28 Days Later," Danny Boyle proved you can make a city look evacuated on a shoestring budget if you're clever. With "The Descent," Neil Marshall showed how darkness and a well-spent costume budget showed how creature-based terror can also be executed on the cheap.

Francis Lawrence, who also directed the rather awful "Constantine," is giddy with the idea of turning New York City into a ghost town (in the book and "Omega Man," it's LA). The first 20 minutes of the movie is one pull-back shot after another to expose the desolation of Times Square, Washington Square, the Met, etc. It's all done with a rather heavy computer assist, because it isn't enough to have Manhattan empty, you have to also get a corn field growing next to the TKTS line. I'm not sure on the agricultural believability there, but it's no biggie. Extra expense is thrown in, for no meaningful reason, to show herds of deer racing through the city. Granted that viewers are likely to appreciate the overkill, it's overkill nonetheless. Expensive overkill. For me, the shots that were provided by cinematographer Andrew Lesnie were better than the ones manufactured by the effects house.

The movie's best special effect, and hardly its cheapest, is Smith. At least a half-dozen times during the movie I found myself thanking the studio Gods that the long-gestating project never went forward with Arnold Schwarzenegger in the lead. With movies like "Predator," California's governor proved he's capable of being the only actor on the screen for large periods of time, but Smith's likeability holds "I Am Legend" together. He's able to find rueful humor where few actors could, he's convincingly physical and, mostly, he holds the screen when nobody else is around. He's acting with mannequins and a dog for most of the time, but despite the lack of human bounce-back, his energy never falters. I also appreciated the filmmakers' willingness to let Smith's Neville be just as nearly deranged as you'd expect a man to be if he'd spent 1000 days in a concrete jungle battling unseen creatures.

Since Smith is mostly talking to himself (or his wonderful German Shepherd Sam), the dialogue is minimal, which is good because the more he talks, the more clumsy the movie gets. One of the writers must have had what he figured was an epiphany that the perfect soundtrack to "I Am Legend" would be Bob Marley's "Legend." Unfortunately, having moved beyond the coincidental names, that writer had to add scenes justifying the linkage, somewhat to the movie's overall disadvantage. That's one of those things where a writer is better off letting the audience decide if they want to connect the dots, rather than forcing the issue.

"I Am Legend" is hardly an art movie, but it occasional exhibits an indie movie's willingness to let viewers connect the dots. Many aspects of our hero's day to day life are left to the viewers' imaginations. Everything from the final decline of humanity to how Neville came to have key works of art hanging in his apartment are hinted at if you care, but left unspoken. I think a similar less-is-more approach would have been better for the creatures as well.

In Matheson's "I Am Legend," the adversaries are called vampires. In "Omega Man," they're far closer to albino zombies. In this "I Am Legend," they're called "Dark Seekers" and beyond the idea that they're wicked fast, wicked agile and wicked hungry for living human flesh, we don't learn much about them. They're scary, but the best scenes of the movie are mostly Smith dealing with his own paranoia and the traumatic memories of what happened to his wife and child.


In Lawrence's vision, the Dark Seekers aren't capable of speech and they're mostly computer generated whenever possible. One of the most haunting aspects to Matheson's book is the idea that the creatures still have some vestigial memory of their former lives [like the hero's neighbor returning to his house every night wailing "Neville!"] and one of the most scary aspects is that they're learning. "Omega Men" went a little overboard on this, to the point that the zombies' speech patterns have become weirdly colonial or Victorian without explanation. The most provocative idea in the book, in my opinion, is that the creatures are an extension of human evolution, that Neville's resistant DNA might be the unacceptable mutation, not theirs. The creatures are ready to open up shop on a new level of humanity and they're being tormented by this regressive Old Human. Neville is the insurgent preventing them from restoring order. Lawrence's "I Am Legend" doesn't get close to that and the ending of the movie suffers accordingly. The idea that the Dark Seekers are becoming less scared of the light and that they're maybe capable of setting traps is mentioned, but never realized. The creatures just grunt.

I think there was a question of how far the filmmakers were willing to go with the post-9/11 undertones to the city. Repeated references to Ground Zero and uncanny images of New York City in panic aside, "I Am Legend" only tiptoes around what might have been the point of a differently focused film. Turning the Dark Seekers into the lawful inhabitants of New York, battling against the unmovable American military force? It might have made a point, but probably not the one they wanted to make. So instead you get an ending that isn't a happy one, but it's hopeful in the way that "Omega Man" is hopeful, rather than the way Matheson ends his book.]

Friday, December 14, 2007

2008 Golden Globe Nomination Reax -- Movies

I meant to get to this yesterday, but between computer problems, the Mitchell Report, an office lunch and general exhaustion, I failed.

The Golden Globe nominations are always a good chance to look at the state of affairs when it comes to Oscars, but also to mock the Hollywood Foreign Press, so I'll do that.

Since my Zap2it colleague Rick took the trouble to format the nominees, I'll just react to everything as best as I can after the bump. I guess this'll be long. And probably pointless. They *are* just the Golden Globe nominations after all...

I've split my reactions into movies and TV nominations. The movie nomination reactions are below. The TV reactions will be in a different post. Maybe later today, maybe over the weekend.

Click through...

Best Picture, Drama

"American Gangster"
"Eastern Promises"
"The Great Debaters"
"Michael Clayton"
"No Country for Old Men"
"There Will Be Blood"

REACTION: Seven nominees? Way to go out on a limb. I haven't seen "The Great Debaters," but I have friends who assure me that it has no place on this list. I know that "American Gangster" doesn't belong here. And as much as I'd never hesitate to salute David Cronenberg, "Eastern Promises" falls apart in the end and isn't really worthy of its place. It's a good race between "Atonement" and "No Country For Old Men."

Best Picture, Musical or Comedy

"Across the Universe"
"Charlie Wilson's War"
"Sweeney Todd"

REACTION: Problem: I desperately want to make fun of the selection of "Across the Universe" here, because the trailers were so very bad, but I haven't seen the movie. So I can't. Fortunately, I've seen "Hairspray," so I'm comfortable saying that that slot could have been better occupied by "Waitress," "Once," "Knocked Up," "Superbad," "The Hoax," or even "The Savages." "Sweeney Todd" probably wins here, though this could be a good test of the dark-horse status of "Juno."

Best Actor, Drama

George Clooney, "Michael Clayton"
Daniel Day-Lewis, "There Will Be Blood"
James McAvoy, "Atonement"
Viggo Mortensen, "Eastern Promises"
Denzel Washington, "American Gangster"

REACTION: Looking forward to seeing "There Will Be Blood" and nothing I've seen from the trailers do anything to indicate that Day-Lewis isn't, as always, award worthy. Clooney and McAvoy have a similar Old Hollywood star power that anchors their movies. As much as I'd have removed "Eastern Promises" from the picture field, I'm glad to see Mortensen here. That leaves Denzel Washington for the overhyped, overrated "American Gangster." It's a fine performance but nothing in it offers anything that we haven't seen Denzel do a dozen times. Folks I'd have wanted to see nominated in Washington's place could have included Philip Seymour Hoffman ("Before the Devil Knows You're Dead"), Josh Brolin ("No Country For Old Men"), Christian Bale ("Rescue Dawn"), Joseph Gordon Levitt ("The Lookout"), Joaquin Phoenix ("We Own the Night"), Gordon Pinsent ("Away From Her") and maybe even Emile Hirsch ("Into the Wild"). I'm also not sure which categories Russell Crowe ("3:10 to Yuma," *not* "American Gangster") and Chris Cooper ("Breach") were submitted for, but whether supporting or lead, they deserved consideration. I figure Clooney upsets Day-Lewis here, because the Globes lurv him.

Best Actress, Drama

Cate Blanchett, "Elizabeth: The Golden Age"
Julie Christie, "Away from Her"
Jodie Foster, "The Brave One"
Angelina Jolie, "A Mighty Heart"
Keira Knightley, "Atonement"

REACTION: Because the musical/comedy field is extra strong for actresses this year (more on the misplaced Marion Cotillard later), the actress-drama category is extra weak this year, hence Blanchett and Foster for movies that people hated and Knightley for a good performance that isn't the sort of thing award-watchers usually remember. Thinking back over the year, I have a difficult time thinking of other performances that even deserve to be here. Christie probably wins, but don't under-estimate the HFPA's love for Jolie.

Best Actor, Musical or Comedy

Johnny Depp, "Sweeney Todd"
Ryan Gosling, "Lars and the Real Girl"
Tom Hanks, "Charlie Wilson's War"
Philip Seymour Hoffman, "The Savages"
John C. Reilly, "Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story"

REACTION: I probably need to go see "Lars and the Real Girl," don't I? Sigh. Don't feel like it! This category is strange because "The Savages," as I've said before, isn't really a comedy and although funny things happen to Hoffman's character, his isn't a comedic performance. It's a very good performance, but he isn't doing the same things as Hanks or Reilly or Depp. I'd personally have replaced Hanks with Glen Hansard ("Once") or possibly Richard Gere ("The Hoax"). From what I can guess, the other four nominees are really just fodder for Depp anyway. He can't possibly lose.

Best Actress, Musical or Comedy

Amy Adams, "Enchanted"
Nikki Blonsky, "Hairspray"
Helena Bonham Carter, "Sweeney Todd"
Marion Cotillard, "La Vie en Rose"
Ellen Page, "Juno"

REACTION: It wasn't that hated "Hairspray," but this category realistically had four locked-in nominees, with one free-floating spot. It went to Nikki Blonsky solely for being exuberant. It's here that I'd have rather seen Keri Russell ("Waitress"), Marketa Irglova ("Once"), Katherine Heigl ("Knocked Up") or, particularly, Laura Linney ("The Savages"). Don't get me started, though, on Marion Cotillard's presence here. Not only is "La Vie en Rose" not a musical, but Cotillard just lip-synched her role anyway, so if the movie *were* a musical, she wouldn't have anything to do with its musicality. The Globes *love* coronating Hot Young Things and Amy Adams is this year's Hot Young Thing. Unless Ellen Page is this year's Hot Young Thing. Could be interesting!

Best Supporting Actor

Casey Affleck, "The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford"
Javier Bardem, "No Country for Old Men"
Philip Seymour Hoffman, "Charlie Wilson's War"
John Travolta, "Hairspray"
Tom Wilkinson, "Michael Clayton"

REACTION: It can never be said enough: The Golden Globe voters are -- pardon my vernacular -- star-fuckers. Otherwise there can't be any justification for including John Travolta's mediocre "Hairspray" performance, in which he spoke with one horrible Baltimore accent and then sang in a different voice entirely. If it was a weak year for supporting performances, that would be one thing, but this is the category where we could have had Hal Holbrook ("Into the Wild"), Tommy Lee Jones ("No Country for Old Men"), Philip Bosco ("The Savages"), Irfan Khan ("The Namesake"), J.K. Simmons ("Juno"), Robert Downey Jr. ("Zodiac"), Ed Harris ("Gone Baby Gone") or Ethan Hawke ("Before the Devil Knows You're Dead") and that's just off the top of my head. I'm gonna be rooting for Bardem and Hoffman here, but I wouldn't complain about Affleck.

Best Supporting Actress

Cate Blanchett, "I'm Not There"
Julia Roberts, "Charlie Wilson's War"
Saorise Ronan, "Atonement"
Amy Ryan, "Gone Baby Gone"
Tilda Swinton, "Michael Clayton"

REACTION: Roberts' inclusion is another example of pure-and-simple star-fucking. She's not bad, but she doesn't belong. I also can't really imagine Saorise Ronan getting an Oscar nomination, though I thought she was perfectly worthy, as such things go. The race between Blanchett, Ryan and Swinton may be one of the night's most interesting. Blanchett has the star-power, but Ryan has been scooping up the awards by the dozen. Who else might I have liked to see recognized? Jennifer Jason Leigh ("Margot at the Wedding"), Kelly MacDonald ("No Country For Old Men"), Marisa Tomei ("Before the Devil Knows You're Dead") or Jennifer Garner ("Juno").

Best Director

Tim Burton, "Sweeney Todd"
Joel Coen and Ethan Coen, "No Country for Old Men"
Julian Schnabel, "The Diving Bell and the Butterfly"
Ridley Scott, "American Gangster"
Joe Wright, "Atonement"

REACTION: Because the Globes split dramas, musical-comedy and foreign into never-the-twain-shall-meet categories, the melting pot screenplay and director categories are always more interesting and crowded and usually do a better job of foreshadowing the Oscars. In this case, Ridley Scott's inclusion is comical. Not having seen "There Will Be Blood," I can't guarantee that Paul Thomas Anderson's directorial craft is superior, but I'm gonna just make that assumption, eh?

Best Screenplay

Diablo Cody, "Juno"
Joel Coen and Ethan Coen, "No Country for Old Men"
Christopher Hampton, "Atonement"
Ronald Harwood, "The Diving Bell and the Butterfly"
Aaron Sorkin, "Charlie Wilson's War"

REACTION: These will eventually be split out into adapted and original screenplays for the Oscars and that's, you know, the sane and reasonable thing to do. How do you compare the Coens' ultra-literal adaptation of "No Country" to Cody's linguistically marvelous, structurally familiar "Juno"? And how do you grade Sorkin for the cushy, light-minded version of "War" that made it to theaters or for the far tougher, far more political script he actually wrote? And how could this list possibly not include Tony Gilroy's "Michael Clayton" script?

Best Original Song

"That's How You Know," from "Enchanted"
"Grace Is Gone," from "Grace Is Gone"
"Guaranteed," from "Into the Wild"
"Despedida," from "Love in the Time of Cholera"
"Walk Hard," from "Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story"

REACTION: My motto is that as long as "Lyra" from "The Golden Compass" and that awful Annie Lennox thing from "In the Valley of Elah" aren't nominated, it's all good. That being said, surely there ought to have been room for a song from "Once." This is one of the categories that the Golden Globes are notoriously far separate from the Oscars on.

Best Original Score

Michael Brook, "Into the Wild"
Clint Eastwood, "Grace Is Gone"
Alberto Iglesias, "The Kite Runner"
Dario Marianelli, "Atonement"
Howard Shore, "Eastern Promises"

REACTION: Dario Marianelli's score for "Atonement" is brilliant. Alberto Iglesias' score for "The Kite Runner" is comically cheesy. I really liked what Carter Burwell did on both "The Hoax" and "Before the Devil Knows You're Dead." Somehow Burwell has never been nominated for an Oscar. I don't get that.

Best Animated Film

"Bee Movie"
"The Simpsons Movie"

REACTION: No "Beowulf"? Vaguely interesting. "Persepolis" wasn't eligible, so don't read anything into this.

Best Foreign Language Film

"4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days"
"The Diving Bell and the Butterfly"
"The Kite Runner"
"Lust, Caution"

REACTION: "The Kite Runner" doesn't really belong here, but the Golden Globes have weird eligibility rules. Finally gonna go see "The Diving Bell and the Butterfly" this weekend. As it is, I've been very poorly behaved when it comes to foreign language movies this year. Where's "The Orphanage," darnit?

Monday, December 10, 2007

MovieWatch: "Atonement"

Director: Joe Wright
Fien Print Rating: 82
In a Nutshell: [Before getting into this already delayed review... I've been so hard on "How I Met Your Mother" this season that I've gotta give it up for tonight's episode, which probably the season's peak and not just because it gave extra screentime to Wendy the Waitress (who could now become the Gunther of McLarens). So what are the chances that Stella the Tattoo Remover is The Mother? I suspect the kids would have caught on.]

There may be better movies in 2007 (though I can only think of two or three thus far), but no other 2007 release is likely to match "Atonement" in terms of prestige spit-and-polish. Based on the acclaimed novel by Ian McEwan, "Atonement" is made with a technical meticulousness and an old-fashioned flair that you don't see very often. Throughout the film, I kept thinking of the literary craftsmanship that Anthony Minghella brought to films from "The English Patient" to "Cold Mountain" to "The Talented Mr. Ripley" (one of the underappreciated masterpieces of the past decade), the respect for the idea that filmmaking with the glint of awards in your eyes isn't always a recipe for disaster. That's why, in one of the final scenes, I was able to identify Minghella as he did a cameo as a TV interviewer. I guess I know what he looks like anyway, but even if I wasn't sure, it just seemed right.

The interesting question might be if Joe Wright has already moved ahead of Minghella in the ranks of prestige filmmakers, if the disappointment of "Breaking & Entering" (a movie that lurks somewhere low in my Netflix queue) should put Wright at the top of the list to tackle any Booker Prize winning novel or novel by a Booker Prize winner. I've only seen two things directed by Wright, but I know the guy has mad chops.

His adaptation of "Pride & Prejudice" was smart and funny, but also elegant and romantic. Working on a larger scale with "Atonement," he shows a pure filmmaker's eye and ear. If there are flaws to "Atonement" -- and there are -- they come from a structure or flow that I have to assume came from McEwan's novel, a rhythm that satisfies a reader dedicating many hours to a work in a way somewhat different from the demands of an audience entranced for two hours.

More discussion [somewhat abbreviated by my standards, since I just wanna post this and be done with it] after the bump...

Click through...

[There are probably spoilers here... Not if you've read the book, I wager. And not MASSIVE spoilers regardless.]

I was hooked on the craftsmanship of "Atonement" almost instantly. The movie opens with the titles typed out on the screen, as from an old Corona typewriter. The typewriter is wielded by Saorise Ronan's Briony as she works on her latest literary effort and within seconds, Dario Marianelli's score picks up the percussion of the typing and integrates it. Then, as Briony goes running off with her play in hand, Wright and cinematographer Seamus McGarvey match the camera movement to the rhythm of the music and Paul Tothill's edit captures the syncopation perfectly. There is a precision to every gesture and technical aspect of "Atonement" and it's been put to use in a rather haunting story about the dangers and potential salvation of storytelling.

Storytelling and perspective are essential to "Atonement" and Christopher Hampton's adaptation unspools through a number of frames. There are flashbacks, fantasies and events shown from obstructed or partial points-of-view only to be retold again. The problem in the storytelling comes through the three ages of Briony. Ronan, Romola Garai and Vanessa Redgrave do more than just share the same haircut and birthmark. Their matching mannerisms create a through-line for the story. But there's no avoiding the fact that the first part of the story is the most entertaining, the second part the most powerful and then the third part exists just to tie together what came before. It doesn't do it badly by any means, but the momentum can't help but wane.

All three of the actresses playing Briony are splendid, but it's hard to think of any performance that falls flat. James McAvoy finally steps up as a movie star, giving a likeable and assertive turn. If he'd been as strong and memorable in "The Last King of Scotland," Forest Whitaker might have had to win his Oscar for supporting actor, instead of dominating the screen. He's matched by Keira Knightley, whose excellence isn't in the moments of brassy confidence, which we've seen her play well in the past, but in the glimpses of weakness and surrender. I don't know if any of the film's stars are showy enough to get the attention of Oscar voters, but that shouldn't detract from their actual quality.

I'm guessing "Atonement" will get plenty of Oscar attention across the technical board.

My second favorite movie of last year was Alfonso Cuaron's "Children of Men," one of those rare movies where everybody walked out talking about two or three amazing tracking shocks, head-scratching cinematic oddities that left everybody in awe of the director's vision and the cinematographer's craft. "Atonement" has a couple doozies as well, but the one that'll attract the buzz is a shot that surveys the wreckage of the British army on the beach at Dunkirk. The Dunkirk Beach Shot from "Atonement" probably doesn't have quite the same level of difficulty as the series of impossible tracking shots in the "Children of Men" Refugee Camp. Rather than breathlessly unfolding a full action scene in one take, the "Atonement" shot breathlessly unfolds the full scope of a dark hour in military history. You need know nothing at all about the Dunkirk evacuation to feel the hopelessness. It's beautiful.

McGarvey has to be considered at the forefront of this year's Oscar cinematography race along with Roger Deakins and, from what I hear, Janusz Kaminski. Throw in inevitable Oscar nods for costume, production design and hopefully for Marianelli's music and "Atonement" should play well through February.

OK. Seriously. Cutting this short. Good movie. Go see it. They don't make many like this anymore and when they make 'em like this, they're usually embalmed curios -- stuffy, fussy and dull. "Atonement" is none of those things.

Saturday, December 08, 2007

MovieWatch: "The Golden Compass"

"The Golden Compass"
Director: Chris Weitz
Fien Print Rating: 57
In a Nutshell: [I guess I should be glad that the Killer Landry subplot appears to be a thing of the past on "Friday Night Lights." I can't shake the idea, though, that after six or so episodes, the subplot resolved either at the same place it would have resolved if Landry had turned himself in after the premiere or the same place it would have resolved if Landry had *actually* behaved out of self-defense (as in the original premiere) or the same place it would have resolved if the whole stupid plotline had never been introduced in the first place. It was not worth the outrage and annoyance it caused. At no point in the arc did I nod and go, "Oh. So that's why this is happening." And thus... Baaaaad. Otherwise, though, it may have been the season's best episode. Lots of good character moments and quality scenes with Buddy, Tami, Julie and Coach Taylor. Even Street had a better subplot this week, contrived as it was.]

I bought Philip Pullman's "Northern Lights" when I was in England four or five years ago and grew perplexed that a series of books I'd never heard of before was a U.K. publishing phenomenon on nearly the same level of Harry Potter. I ready it quickly, periodically scratching my head in confusion, and plowed through the next two books in the Dark Materials trilogy with dutiful persistence. I didn't enjoy them, but I wanted to see where they ended up. It's not that I didn't somewhat respect the books, but the labored alternate dimension fantasy just wasn't my cup o' fish-n-chips, as the British don't say.

So I went into Chris Weitz's seemingly ambitious film with a fair amount of caution and trepidation, fully aware that the things that annoyed me about the books were likely to still annoy me in the movie.

The long-and-short is that Weitz has realized Pullman's aesthetic vision with occasionally remarkable assurance. Things that I never would have expected to work stand out with clarity and sometimes even beauty. That being said, Weitz has stripped Pullman's book of theme and subtext and delivered a movie that's all plot. It plows ahead for nearly two hours with a single-mindedness that's sometimes confusing and sometimes exhausting.

Follow through after the bump for additional thoughts...

Click through...

I guess I'll be generous and talk about the things that worked first.

The idea of the daemons -- anthropomorphized tag-along consciences/inner children/what-have-you that accompany humans in Pullman's universe -- is one that I'd have expected to play better on the page than the screen. The result onscreen could have been a mixture of live action humans and animalistic CGI clutter. Instead, by keeping group scenes to a minimum, Weitz lets the daemons we see do an acceptable job of representing their human counterparts. The real "characters" among the daemons are Ms. Coulter's (Nicole Kidman) golden monkey and Lyra's (Dakota Blue Richards) shape-shifting Pan, which are both well rendered in their expressive computer-generated way. I take some exception to the voice work for the daemons, particularly Freddie Highmore as Pantalaimon. Highmore's boyish tones aren't nearly well enough distinguished from Richards' voice and the result is an occasional conversational clutter wherein I wasn't sure if we were listening to girl or daemon. I accept the idea that since daemons are a kind of inner monologue, it would make sense for the voices to be fungible, but at that point, I'd have preferred if Richards had voiced her own daemon. Still, though, that worked well.

Working best of all, though, were the armored ice bears of the North. They're very close siblings to the playful Coke drinking polar bears of advertising fame (the friend I saw the movie with reminded me that Rhythm & Hues, one of like 50 effects houses to work on the movie, was also responsible for the Coke bears, so that makes sense), only bigger and more vicious. The fine pixel-work is aided immensely by the fact that the only two bears with speaking parts are voiced by Ian McKellen and Ian McShane, who are every bit as woundedly noble and insecurely villainous as can be. We can debate all day whether or not it's a bad sign that despite all of the top-rate human acting talent on display, the film's most emotionally satisfying scene is the brawl between the Ian-Bears.

Newcomer Richards makes an appealing and capable lead, ever reminding viewers that her Lyra is part elitist snob and part blue collar striver. Her voice and expressiveness are unexpectedly mature, but in a "The weight of the world has suddenly be thrust upon me" way, not in that "I'm actually a robot or alien bent on global domination" way that we've come to expect from another moppet named Dakota. Richards and her fellow young co-star (Ben Walker, I think) are so notably British that more than a few viewers will be hoping that the secret experiments being performed on the plot's missing children might include dental work.

Richards' Lyra is assisted by a slew of fine actors including "Casino Royale" stars Daniel Craig and Eva Green, who provide the requisite gruff masculinity and mysterious femininity. I'm also partial to any film willing to cast Sam Elliott as a heroic lead.

Face rendered unmovable either by an actorly choice or cosmetic work, Kidman is everything one could hope for in a Coulter, the glint of her eyes determining whether or not she's trying to be a maternal or wicked. Also representing the forces of evil to varying degrees are folks like Christopher Lee and Simon McBurney, adversaries who most newly arrived viewers will never, in a million years, associate with the Catholic church.

As you've probably heard, "The Golden Compass" has run afoul of the Catholic League, who have decided that since the book it was based on had a powerful distrust of the Church hierarchy, the movie must also be blasphemous. This is just one of those examples where actually seeing the movie might have saved a lot of trouble, because it'll take a mighty perceptive child to walk out saying, "Mommy. Daddy. Why was this movie so at odds with the religious hegemony of the Catholic Church. Parents, I've begun to doubt the existence of God entirely!!!"

Not gonna happen. Weitz's film races through the key events in Pullman's novel, but lacks the necessary time for the complex buttressing of the novel. "The Golden Compass" is being compared to the "Lord of the Rings" and "Narnia" movies (it's better than the latter, inferior to the former), but those movies have had running times of at least a half-hour longer than the 113 minutes for "Compass." Here is one of those rare times when you're going to catch me saying that a movie ought to have been longer, but "His Dark Materials" without the Free Will/Anti-Church underpinnings is like "Narnia" without the Jesus Lion.

Of course, it's not like Weitz did such a good with the exposition he was forced to deliver. The movie begins with a lengthy voiceover that explains the rules of the alternate dimension and ends with an belabored set-up for a sequel. Any time, really, that the characters started laying the foundation for Pullman's books, my eyes started to glaze because it never sounded like the characters understood either. There's finally very little of that and very little by way of character or the overall franchise journey. For British kids raised on the books, that'll make the movie disappointingly incomplete. For American children plunked in cold, I'd bet things are hard to penetrate.

Then again, early tracking suggests that "The Golden Compass" probably won't reach $30 million for its opening weekend, a take that probably cripple's New Lion's hopes for a sequel.

[One last thing to mention: The closing credits song by Kate Bush manages to supplant Annie Lennox's post-"Valley of Elah" dirge for the title of the year's worst. Titled "Lyra," it's one of those over-literal songs that explains what happened in the movie and I swear it includes the lyric "Lyra/ With her soul beside-a." DREADFUL.]

Anyway, stay tuned for my take on "Atonement," though maybe not til tomorrow.

Friday, December 07, 2007

NetflixWatch: "La Vie En Rose," "Fay Grim," "The Namesake"

I feel like I've been too busy propositioning myself in the electronic media to write on my blog this week. I've wasted too much time on the ins and outs of Facebook (UGH!) and Twitter (follow my feed!) to bother writing on things like the double-episodes of "Life" (Titus Welliver adds to that show's brief-but-brilliant history with "Deadwood" alums), "Gossip Girl" (not nearly the softcore porn The CW's promo department caused me to expect) and "Grey's Anatomy" (YAWN!).

I had a pile of Netflix capsule reviews I jotted from last week's efforts to plow through 2007 releases.

Follow through after the bump for my brief takes on "La Vie En Rose," "Fay Grim" and "The Namesake."

And stay tuned tomorrow for my review of "The Golden Compass." I just recommende it to a friend "if you've ever wanted to watch a Bum Fight video featuring the Coca-Cola Christmas Polar Bears."

Click through...

"La Vie En Rose"
Director: Olivier Dahan
Fien Print Rating (Out of 100): 48
In a Nutshell: You'll have a hard time finding any 2007 performance -- male or female, starring or supporting -- more showy than Marion Cotillard's turn as Edith Piaf in "La Vie En Rose." Some people watched Cotillard's embodiment of the beloved Parisian chanteuse and felt elated and astounded. Me, I watched her twitchy, lip-synching impersonation and felt utterly exhausted. The layer of affectations -- all masterfully presented, I'll grant you -- ranges from a high nasal voice to a variety of slouched and uncomfortable postures and the only thing that properly conveyed to me the essence of Piaf's star power and her indomitable (allegedly) persona and personality was her singing. Of course, the singing in the movie was all recordings of the actual Piaf. The question of why this lip-synching star turn was less endearing to me than, say, Jamie Foxx's equally gifted and superficial Oscar-winning turn as Ray Charles probably has something to do with the inexcusable way "La Vie En Rose" is edited. If you're going to randomly throw your narrative in a blender, it can't *actually* be random. The earlier and later phases of the character's life have to resonate in ways so that one informs the other, so that dramatic irony is established to producer greater poignancy. With "La Vie En Rose," there's no rhyme or reason to why Dahan goes from one scene to the next and that prevents Cotillard's performance from developing an organic evolution. If you're able to follow the things that turned her from Act I drunken urchin to Act III hunchbacked dying drunken urchin, then the performance can chart that transition, making it seem human. Making a jumble accomplishes nothing except making me suspect that Edith Piaf's life would have been a lot easier if she's just been willing to wash her face. Oh and was Dahan just choosing the most obnoxious moments in Piaf's career or was she a singularly unpleasant woman to hang out with?

"Fay Grim"
Director: Hal Hartley
Fien Print Rating (Out of 100): 47
In a Nutshell: I love the idea of what Hartley sets out to do in "Fay Grim." Taking the characters from an earlier film -- "Henry Fool," which I neither loved nor hated, though plenty of people fall in one camp or the other -- and pulling them into a totally foreign genre and forcing them to operate within the conventions of that genre is a little bit awesome. In a perfect world, I guess it might be like Robert Altman and Leigh Brackett moving Philip Marlowe from a hard-boiled universe into an absurdist comedy for "The Long Goodbye." Hartley isn't operating on that level, though he's totally committed to this game he's playing. I haven't seen a mood so totally created with canted angles since a little film called "Battlefield Earth" (though, to Hartley's credit, he appears to have been doing it intentionally, while the director and DP on "Battlefield" just didn't know how to work a tripod) and I can't remember a plot that became so nonsensical so quickly. Was it the Russians, the Afghans, the Israelis, the French or the Americans behind the whole thing? I stopped caring after maybe 30 minutes, when it became clear that this was just a little parlor trick for Hartley. That being said, Parker Posey is quite comfortable in the milieu and "Henry Fool" veterans like Chuck Montgomery and James Urbaniak add quirky pleasures. Casting Jeff Goldblum and Leo Fitzpatrick as FBI agents adds a nice touch and any movie that features a woman named Olga declare, "I'm not a spy. I'm a stewardess. Really. Sometimes a topless dancer, but really a stewardess. I was trained." doesn't lack for oddball virtues.

"The Namesake"
Director: Mira Nair
Fien Print Rating (Out of 100): 60
In a Nutshell: There are plenty of reasons to respect "The Namesake," with particular praise due to the performances by Irfan Khan and Tabu, plus Frederick Elmes' cinematography (which handles the different urban nuances between the United States and India). It's telling, though, that the film's main domestic trailer did a better job of unfolding the plot than the final film. Sooni Taraporevala's adaptation of Jhumpa Lahiri's novel is chock-full of the sort of nuances and character development that work better on the pages of a book and seem abrupt and jumpy on the big screen. The passage of time in the movie is particularly cumbersome, forcing Khan to play both much older and younger than he actually is and forcing Kal Penn to be the least believable 18-year-old since the early days of "Beverly Hills, 90210." Because Taraporevala and director Mira Nair are obviously trying to work favorite scenes and moments from the book into the movie by any means necessary, I often lost track of whose story the movie was supposed to be and certain things that were clearly meant to be powerful to me fell flat because of the emotional distancing. The actual stuff about the central character's name really ought to be sculpted as the center of the story, but it's an anti-climax (if not a confusion for folks who haven't read Gogol). Plus, outside of the main three characters (Penn is far better when his character approaches his real age), there are a lot of blurry supporting turns. Credit Jacinda Barrett for trying to avoid making her Token White Girl character into a total stereotype, but theatrical commercial considerations seem to have required she get more screentime than the characterization could contain. And if anybody has a clue what Brooke Smith is doing in this movie, I'd love for them to let me know. I'd have to put Nair in an upper echelon of wildly frustrating filmmakers. As much as I loved "Monsoon Wedding" and parts of "Salaam Bombay!," she's also found a way to sneak in "Vanity Fair," "The Perez Family" and the overrated "Mississippi Masala."

Tuesday, December 04, 2007

It's like Deja Vu on "Heroes"

First, to get this out of the way, the best show on TV last night wasn't "Chuck" or "Life" and it certainly wasn't the "Volume Finale" of "Heroes."

It was the Patriots-Ravens football game, which kept my stomach in knots for nearly three hours. I love that the Ravens players are now whining like thuggy bitches about how the NFL wanted the Patriots to win and conspired. Sure, there were some spotty calls down the stretch, particularly when it became clear that the Pats weren't so eager to win the game by themselves. But the NFL didn't screw over the Ravens' defense by calling a time-out and nullifying a 4th down stop with two minutes left. The NFL wasn't mugging Moss, Stallworth and Welker all game in the secondary. The NFL didn't throw a temper tantrum and get 30 yards of penalties tacked on to the final kickoff. And the NFL didn't provide the wind that knocked down Kyle Boller's last ditch Hail Mary two yards short of the end zone.

The NFL also didn't cause Tony Kornheiser to spend nearly four quarters talking about what a huge upset this would be, as if there were no other subplots to discuss in the game or the wide world of sports. I love "PTI" and I admire Kornheiser, but he comes into every game with one or two talking points and then he has difficulties transitioning and adapting to the requirements of the game.

Meanwhile, if the Patriots can't get back to their previously impenetrable offensive line play soon, they'll get tough games from both the Steelers and Giants down the stretch.

Anyway, "Heroes" wrapped up the first pod of the new season with a series of anti-climaxes, a bunch of mighty familiar plot twists and one appealingly demented twist.

More on that after the bump.

Click through...

[Spoilers to follow.]

The one thing I want to give the "Heroes" episode credit for is the ultimate fate of David Anders' Sark... er... Adam. We don't usually think of Hiro as being a sadistic mofo, but burying an immortal guy alive in a tight coffin? that's pretty messed up.

It seems like just last May when "Heroes" left viewers disappointed by a season finale that included...

Nathan Petrelli's life in doubt after using his previously untapped brotherly bond to help contain Peter Petrelli's potentially unruly powers.

Poor technopath Micah having to deal with the death of a parent.

Claire the Cheerleader about to go into hiding to protect her identity.

So imagine my double-disappointment that Monday (Dec. 3) night's "Heroes" had to rely on the exact same plot triggers and that the shocking segue into the hypothetical next Volume -- Sylar's alive and he has all his powers back -- seemed plenty familiar as well.

As chagrinned as many fans may have been to see this latest lot of "Heroes" episodes, imagine being Ali Larter and sitting down with the writers last summer.

"So what do I get to do this season?"


"Oh. That's disappointing."

"It gets better."

"Well that's a relief."

"Not only will you be a non-factor for most of the episodes, but you'll lose your powers."

"I'm actually not sure what my powers are."

"Neither are we. But we've come up with a great finishing arc."


"Well, it's not so much as an arc as a great way to finish you."

"Ummm... Do I save the world? Do I defeat a super-villain?"

"No. But you pistol-whip a teenaged hoodlum and appear to die saving a newly introduced character in a subplot that only barely ties in with the main narrative."

"Screw you guys."

Poor Ali Larter. Her arc this season was more demeaning than trying to seduce Dawson Leary in a whipped cream bikini. Not that there's anything wrong with that.

Sorry to be all over the map, but can I go back to Sylar for a second. Do you want a microcosm of why this season has been so very, very underwhelming? Last year, everything built to him attempting to destroy the world using every power imaginable. On Monday's episode, he was able to carry out his master plan by holding a 10-year-old girl hostage and waving a gun around. Ah, budget cuts.

And this sets up an upcoming Volume in which Sylar has lots of powers and tries to take over/destroy/manipulate the world? Maybe it's time to start watching "Two and a Half Men" instead.

A few other random thoughts:

  • Are we just going to leave Peter's Oirish girlfriend in the bizarro alternate future? Or when that future ceases to be viable, does she magically bounce back to her own present? Does anybody care?

  • And Peter eliminated the virus by squeezing it really hard? That's how Superman makes diamonds. The twist I was hoping for was that the evaporated virus might have negated Peter, Nathan and Matt's powers. That would have been hilarious, if at the press conference Nathan had been all "I have the ability... to fly" and then he'd try flying away from the stage and fallen into the front row of hastily assembled press. Tee-hee.

  • I loved the picture of Veronica Mars' dad Ned Ryerson proudly smiling with his fish. I didn't understand why Ned's computer had the only security system in the world where you can actually read the password as it's being typed. Yes. "Midas." Very clever. Ned Ryerson's power didn't really come into play very much, did it?

  • Tell me that we're done with Obnoxious Flying West forever. Please?

    Anyway, I've got some Zap2it work to review. At some point I'll also try to go through my weekend Netflix haul, which was massive.
  • Saturday, December 01, 2007

    MovieWatch: "The Savages"

    "The Savages"
    Director: Tamara Jenkins
    Fien Print Rating (Out of 100): 68
    In a Nutshell: [I don't wanna dedicate a full blog post to last night's "Friday Night Lights," but it was an episode with some pretty great parts and some clunkiness.

    First off, thanks to the NBC promo department for spoiling Landry going into the police department to confess to murder. Were there not enough other plotlines you could have teased? Landry going hunting? Matt gettin' it on with Carlotta? Tammy blowing up at John from Cincy? Smash discovering that the world of college recruitment is EXACTLY like "He Got Game"?

    Speaking of Smash... Last year the dude went on steroids because of a low rating from a key scout. This year, he's had one good game and what appear to have been several games where he wasn't a factor at all. High school running backs with that profile not only don't get recruited actively, but they REALLY don't get the full-on Jesus Shuttlesworth treatment. At this point, he's an undersized running back known to vanish in games without his main fullback. That's not a blue chipper.

    But the Riggins subplot with the ferret wrangler was tolerable because it set up the episode's best scene, as Riggins refused to leave the field and Coach Taylor finally, as we knew he would, relented. Other great scenes include Julie's rage at her mother humiliating her and the touching last scene with Coach and Mrs. Coach.

    Oh and in answer to the question asked by the NBC promo department in the "Scenes from next week"... What Landry did originally, in the pilot sent to critics, was self-defense. What he actually did in the version that aired was murder, cold-blooded and simple. I look forward to seeing the show weasel out of legal logic. Sorry... Enough of this.]

    My actual review of "The Savages" will be after the bump. I promise...

    Click Through...

    So over at Jeff Wells' Hollywood Elsewhere bloggy-thing, Wells expressed shock and confusion the Hollywood Foreign Press Association's decision to put "Charlie Wilson's War," "The Savages," "Margot at the Wedding," "Juno," "The Darjeeling Limited," "Waitress" and "Lars and the Real Girl" in the musical/comedy category for the Golden Globes.

    The first problem, of course, is the HFPA for their on-going conviction that a drama is a movie without an iota of comedy.

    But yes, "Juno," "Waitress," "The Darjeeling Limited" and "Charlie Wilson's War" are absolutely closer to comedies than dramas. It's in the way they're written, edited and performed. They're comedies with dramatic elements. I haven't seen "Lars" and "Margot" is just plain tough to categorize. Noah Baumbach told me, though, that all of his movies star off as comedies when he's writing them. So I'll trust him,

    But "The Savages"? Well, somebody at Fox Searchlight did a brilliant job of cutting a trailer that makes the movie look like a pitch-black family comedy in the Wes Anderson/Baumbach vein, but guess what? "The Savages" is unquestionably a drama with comedic elements, rather than the other way around. Pitching that movie as a comedy is almost certainly a way to generate audiences, particularly younger audiences who may not have the most direct personal connection to the subject matter.

    "The Savages" was written and directed by Tamara Jenkins, who hasn't made a film since 1998's more straight-forwardly amusing "Slums of Beverly Hills" (a movie that other people, it should be noted, liked more than I did). It's about as simple a story as one could imagine -- siblings Jon (Philip Seymour Hoffman) and Wendy (Laura Linney) have to care for their estranged father (Philip Bosco), now suffering with dementia. On the level of naming, Jenkins isn't working in particularly subtle territory here, if the siblings stuck in arrested development are named Wendy and Jon (I guess naming Hoffman's professor "Peter" would have been *too* obvious) and the family, characterized by their often harsh and brutal exchanges, masked by exterior intellectual trappings, are the Savages.

    Jenkins also uses geographic location to determine tone with a fair degree of predictability. The film opens with a broadly comedic title sequence in Sun City, Arizona and that city's active seniors provide Jenkins with the chance for a few cheap laughs that vanish once the action shifts to Buffalo. Predictably (and realistically), Buffalo is presented as the darkest, grayest, gloomiest place on Earth, a contrast to the sunny Hell-on-Earth of Arizona.

    Beyond those steering elements, though, Jenkins dodges what would typically be the expectations of this sort of film. Your basic estranged family reunion flick is about a 95-minute build to catharsis. Repression and anger are overcome, secrets are revealed, hugs are exchanged and even the prospect of death is finally an additional liberation. Jenkins has no interest in that sortta thing. She uses the humor -- and it's frequent if not pervasive -- to spike an overall tone that's meant to be less gloomy and more "real life," or something like it. This isn't the sort of movie where senile old folks say unexpectedly offensive and funny things that are meant to make audiences laugh while also recognizing essential moral truths. This is the sort of movie where the old man with dementia is generally confused and difficult to manage.

    One of the things that irked me about "Little Miss Sunshine" was that Steve Carell's character was a Proust scholar, but with the exception of a cumbersome and contrived monologue, the Proust aspect has almost nothing to do with the character. With "The Savages," Hoffman's character writes and teaches about Brecht, so it's almost impossible not to try to view the movie through some Theater of Unrest framework. But although "The Savage" isn't at all a conventionally structured movie, it isn't confrontationally unconventional.

    Just as the events in "The Savages" only have a minor cumulative impact on the main on-screen characters, I've spent a lot of time musing on whether or not the movie actually had all that much of a cumulative effect on me as a viewer. Certainly it had less than I might have liked.

    But that doesn't mean that you aren't supposed to go to see "The Savages," if only for Linney, Hoffman and Bosco.

    Hoffman and Linney are veterans of this sort of cinema of discomfort, but just because their characters are consistently self-destructive doesn't mean they're similarly self-destructive. I'm not sure how I'd quantify the exact differences between this Linney character and her earlier wallflowers or this Hoffman character and his previous schlubs, but every line-reading or passing glance from these two pros is satisfying. Of course, it's an unavoidable problem that if you cast Linney in a film about estranged siblings, you draw comparisons to Kenneth Lonergan's "You Can Count on Me," which isn't a race "The Savages" can win.

    Although "The Savages" isn't really a comedy, you come out of the movie discussing the funnier moments, talking about Hoffman's elaborate neck sling, uncomfortable sex scenes or an awkward screening of "The Jazz Singer." The dramatic moments dominate, but are intentionally less memorable.

    Now it's time to watch USC-UCLA. Fight on.