Sunday, December 31, 2006

A 'Prairie Home' New Year

Sorry to be so tardy in posting this, but better late than never: Garrison Keillor tonight will host a live New Year's Eve broadcast from Nashville's legendary Ryman Auditorium, the original home of the Grand Ole Opry (the inspiration, Keillor has always admitted, for his own Prairie Home Companion radio series). Of course, as we all know after watching the late Robert Altman's delightful final film, Keillor doesn't do eulogies. But I really wouldn't be surprised to hear some affectionate mention of Altman amid the festivities.

In any event, you can see the program tonight on most PBS stations. Or you can downstream the audio, and listen along with folks from Chattanooga to New Orleans, from Toronto to Liverpool, all over the world.

And BTW: Happy New Year, to one and all.

Keith Olbermann for President

Seriously. Well, OK, maybe not so seriously. But one can dream, right?

Friday, December 29, 2006

Honoring the memory of Adrienne Shelly

Here is news of a new nonprofit organization dedicated "in loving memory to the uniquely gifted actor and filmmaker Adrienne Shelly, whose highly accomplished life was tragically cut short November 1, 2006." First priorities include "the creation of the Adrienne Shelly Scholarship Fund, which will help young women attend film school; to award grants which will help women finance independent film projects; and to produce readings of deserving scripts." Doations will be gratefully accepted.

Casino Royale II: Battle of the Bonds

Anne Thompson links to an extraordinarily clever 007 mash-up.

Thursday, December 28, 2006

Coming soon to a theater near you: James Brown

Spike Lee will direct an "authorized biography" of The Godfather of Soul. Paging Eddie Murphy...

Hemingway's cats on the rampage

OK, I admit, there's not much of a movie connection here. Well, not unless you count the fact that Ernest Hemingway wrote To Have and Have Not and A Farewell to Arms while living in the Key West abode (now preserved as a museum) that has become a haven for "Ivan, an orange tomcat born in 2004, the year Hurricane Ivan killed dozens of people in the Caribbean and the USA. According to [neighbor Debbie] Schultz, Ivan the cat wreaks another type of havoc on the cat population outside the museum wall...

"'I saw Ivan many times loose,' she says. 'Ivan is a very unneutered, very macho male cat, and in each case, he had one of the street cats pinned down,' she says."

Maybe Ms. Schultz would not be so upset if Ivan took a more romantic approach while tomcatting around.

Wednesday, December 27, 2006

How not to rob a liquor store

With all due resepct to Borat, I'd have to say that this is the funniest documentary I've seen in a long time.

Tuesday, December 26, 2006

The incredible shrinking movie audience?

OK, I know this appears in the New York Post, so it should be taken with a grain of salt. But... Well, you know what they say about a clock being right twice a day.

Monday, December 25, 2006

Not very merry

Just got back from seeing Black Christmas – and, yes, it’s every bit as horrid as you might have expected. But even as I endured this chuckleheaded nonsense about the eye-gouging, head-crushing and wall-to-wall slaughtering of comely sorority sisters, I found myself thinking of something far more disturbing than anything that appeared on the blood-splattered screen. To wit: Just what the hell were the two dozen or so other people in the theater doing there?

Let me explain: As a critic, I have to see things like Black Christmas, because that’s my job. I get paid to do it. If it were my job to pick up the corpses of animals that had been struck and killed by cars and trucks on the highway, and I were unlucky enough to pull the Christmas shift – well, I would get up bright and early, and start scooping up the dead doggies and kitties, because that’s how I earned a living. But I wouldn’t expect anyone else to do it without getting paid. In fact, I would have serious concerns about anyone who chose to do it for sport, as a hobby.

So: There I am at the 12:25 matinee of Black Christmas – the first showing of the day, Christmas Day, at the Edwards Grand Palace here in Houston. I’m there because it’s my job to be there – and, of course, because there certainly weren’t any press previews for this tawdry slasher flick. But what about those other folks? I mean, think about it: These people made a conscious decision to get up early, open their presents, and then rush out to see the very first friggin' showing of Black Christmas – on Christmas Day. Not Christmas night, mind you. It’s not like they’d been stuck at home all day with visiting relatives, and decided on the spur of the moment to go see some movie, any movie, just to get out of the house for a few hours. No, each had planned this, probably as early as a day or two before: “On Christmas Day, I’m going to go see the first showing of a movie in which a significant number of attractive young women will be violently murdered.”

Now I know what you’re thinking: “Oh, they must have been geeky fanboys, the kind of guys who couldn’t get laid on Death Row of a women’s prison with a pocketful of pardons.” But no: Many of the ticketbuyers appeared to be reasonably attractive adult males. There were even a few couples – guy-gal pairs – sprinkled into the mix. (Boy, I’d love to hear how that date was pitched: “Hey, honey, want to go see Black Christmas on Christmas Day?” “Why, darling! How romantic! Of course!”) And as far as I could tell – not one person walked out of the movie. Not when even when a character baked (and consumed) Christmas cookies made from hunks of human flesh. Ho, ho, ho? No, no, no.

At the risk of sounding snobbish: I made sure not to sit next to anyone else in the audience. To be frank: Whatever they had, I didn’t want to catch. (Something tells me Nikki Finke would agree.)

As for the movie itself: Well, there is a long and ignoble tradition of borderline-unwatchable movies being released on Christmas Day without press previews. But I have to admit: Black Christmas almost made me nostalgic for the likes of Roberto Benigni’s Pinocchio . That bad? That bad.

Dying in America

The hardest working man in showbiz has taken his final bow.

Monday, December 18, 2006

It's a wonderful film

During its umpteenth rerun Saturday night on NBC, Frank Capra’s It's a Wonderful Life scored a slight but measurable ratings victory over Elf (on CBS) and Finding Nemo (on ABC). And yes, I admit: I watched (for the umpteenth time), and likely will watch again (when NBC re-reruns it on Christmas Eve).

Sorry, but I turn a deaf ear and a blind eye whenever some cynic tries to convince me that this enduring classic is nothing but cloyingly sentimental Capra-corn. Indeed, I’ve always been struck by the movie’s hard edges and dark undercurrents as it considers the life of George Bailey (James Stewart at the top of his form), a small-town savings-and-loan manager whose grand ambitions have always been stifled by civic duty and family responsibility. On a particularly bleak Christmas Eve, he thinks of suicide as a way to end what he feels has been a useless, worthless existence. (Hey: Been there, felt that.) But George sells himself much too short. And thanks to the intervention of a guardian angel, he comes to appreciate that his life has touched and enriched many other lives, much the same way we all affect (for better or worse) the people around us, often without our knowing.

For the past two or three decades – thanks in large part, of course, to countless TV airings -- It's a Wonderful Life has become enshrined as America’s official Christmas movie. But don’t let that keep you away if you’ve never seen it, or want to see it again: It speaks in an optimistic and encouraging voice to all of us, and can brighten your spirits at any time of the year.

As for the cynics who would dis this classic – well, consider this: Unlike many other indie filmmakers – including some who would profess to be influenced by the late, great John Cassavetes – Cassavetes himself refused to sneer at the idealist who made It's a Wonderful Life. “Frank Capra,” Cassavetes once proclaimed, “is the greatest filmmaker that ever lived. Capra created a feeling of belief in a free country and in goodness in bad people… Idealism is not sentimental. It validates a hope for the future. Capra gave me hope, and in turn I wish to extend a sense of hope to my audiences.”

On the other hand: I suspect Cassavetes also would have enjoyed a version of It’s a Wonderful Life starring bunny rabbits.

Sunday, December 17, 2006

Weekend b.o. blues?

From the Associated Press, good news and bad news about the weekend b.o. figures:

"Overall business was off, with the top 12 movies taking in $112.3 million, down 8.3 percent compared to the same weekend last year, when two blockbusters — King Kong and The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe — were Nos. 1 and 2.

"This weekend's holdover films retained strong audiences, though, a sign that many current movies may have a long shelf life, said Paul Dergarabedian, president of box-office tracker Media By Numbers.

"'It's hard to say this is a positive thing that this is a down weekend. But the strength of this weekend has been the holdovers,' Dergarabedian said. 'There is a lot of depth to the marketplace. It's a direct reflection of audience satisfaction. That's more important I think than beating last year's competition.'"

Well, maybe. One thing is certain: As Leonard Klady notes, it was another great weekend for Will Smith.

Coming soon to a theater near you: John Sayles' 'Honeydripper'

Thanks to Anne Thompson for the head's up: The lovely and talented Maggie Renzi, John Sayles' long-time producing partner, announces on her new blog that Sayles' latest feature, Honeydripper , has just completed principal photography in Alabama. They'll start editing the movie in their garage Jan. 8.

"And I’m damned," Renzi writes, "if after all this work we’re going to see another movie sacrificed to the Petty God of Bad Distribution. We’re working with Emerging Pictures to see if we can reach these 2 simple goals: see the movie reach its audiences, and see the filmmakers pocket the profits.

"Stay tuned as we try to remake a broken system. Help us if you can."

To be continued...

Saturday, December 16, 2006

'Happyness' is being No. 1

Nikki Finke has the early b.o. info.

Going for the gold

As a long-time friend and colleague often says: Why bark if you own a dog? In my own case, I've figured: Why obsess over the Oscars when others are willing to do that for me? Which is why you'll note, over to the left, some new links under the heading Oscar Madness. Enjoy.

Friday, December 15, 2006

News flash: Rupert Murdoch actually has some shame

The "enfant terrible of American publishing" has received her walking papers. As James Mason once noted in The Last of Sheila: Apparently, there is a God.

Obviously, her career isn't the only thing that's going to the dogs

Maybe Natasha Lyonne is getting ready for a role in Sleeping Dogs Lie II?

Follow-up: She beats the rap.

Arthur Penn wird geehrt

Some good news about Arthur Penn: The veteran filmmaker will be honored with the Golden Bear award for lifetime achievement next February at the 57th annual Berlin Film Festival.

BTW: I'm more than a little amused to note how, more than three decades after its release, Night Moves is listed so high on Penn's list of credits -- right up there with Bonnie and Clyde -- and how much praise is routinely (and, I hasten to add, justifiably) heaped on this spendid neo-noir thriller. Go back and take a look at how the film was treated by critics during its original 1975 theatrical run. To describe the reviews as mixed would be charitable -- and, alas, inaccurate.

Yes, it's true: Sometimes, the critics get it wrong. Very wrong. But if you're very lucky, as Penn has been, you get to stick around long enough for some revisionist thinking and insightful reappraisals. It reminds me, of course, of the Chinese proverb: You sit by the river long enough, and you'll see all of your enemies float by.

More important, it also makes me wonder: What contempoary films that have been under-rated (or assaulted) by critics will, three decades from now, be acknowledged as classics? I would nominate Don't Come Knocking as a likely candidate. Any others?

TV or not TV

With equal measures of misty-eyed nostalgia, socioeconomic savvy and common-sense insight, USA Today writer Robert Bianco offers some provocative suggestions for improving the future of television by borrowing a few pages from the medium's past. He's especially spot-on while discussing the undervalued worth of variety shows:

"There were obviously downsides to the old days of three networks per TV and one TV per household, but the combination did force us all to learn something about each other's tastes. Ed Sullivan offered The Beatles for the kids, Judy Garland for their parents and opera for their grandparents. To get to one, you had to sit through the other. It broadened the younger generation's musical tastes, and it gave the older generation some clue as to what their kids were listening to up in their rooms.

"Both would still be very good ideas."

A little less cultural insularity -- if not a lot less of what academics describe as demassification -- might be good for all of us.

Thursday, December 14, 2006

If nominated, he will not campaign... No, seriously, he won't...

Richard Johnson of the New York Post has an interesting item in today's Page Six column. But I hope he'll forgive me if I respectfully suggest that he may have buried the lede. The item nails reporter L.A. Times reporter Paul Liberman for "recycling" quotes from a 2005 piece to create the illusion that he recently interviewed Martin Scorsese regarding the Oscar potential of The Departed. But Johnson save the really intriguing info until the very end: "The director, who's been nominated five times for Best Director and never won, is said to be purposefully not campaigning this year. 'He was embarrassed by all of the hoopla over The Aviator and Gangs of New York,' said Leslee Dart, Scorsese's rep."

Kiefer looms large(r)

How big a star is Kiefer Sutherland? Well, consider: Here's the poster for I Trust You to Kill Me the great rockumentary (and 2006 Nashville Film Festival world premiere) that had a fleeting theatrical run this past fall:


And here's the cover of the DVD, set for release in January:
Any other questions?

Global news

Clint Eastwood versus Clint Eastwood for Best Director? Leonardo DiCaprio versus Leonardo DiCaprio for Best Actor? Some interesting match-ups among the Golden Globe nominations announced today.

When Al Met Lindsay...

Elizabeth Snead asks the burning question: Is Lindsay Lohan stalking Al Gore? Is it just a wild rumor or an inconvenient truth?

Wednesday, December 13, 2006

Star Wars Episode VII -- Return to Tatooine

Yes, Star Wars fans, it's true: You can go back to where it all began.

R.I.P. Peter Boyle (1935-2006)

If you came of age while protesting against the Vietnam War, then Joe (1970) was your worst nightmare, starring Peter Boyle as a badass bogeyman. As Joe Curran, a flag-waving, beer-swilling, gun-loving, foul-mouthed factory worker who hated hippies, minorities and homosexuals with a genuinely scary (and ultimately homicidal) fury, Boyle made the sort of indelible impression that can instantly turn an actor into an icon.

To be sure, he later displayed impressive versatility in a wide variety of movie and TV roles, playing everything from a tap-dancing Frankenstein's Monster to a savvy Senate campaign advisor to everybody’s favorite curmudgeonly paterfamilias. But I must admit that I never got over my first impression of the guy as the hardhat from hell. (If you’ve never seen Joe – think Archie Bunker with no redeeming qualities, and ready access to deadly weapons, and you’ll get the idea.) And that impression was only reinforced when I saw his Emmy-nominated performance as Sen. Joe McCarthy in the 1977 TV-movie Tail Gunner Joe. Indeed, I couldn’t help thinking when I saw Boyle more recently as the viciously racist grandfather in Monster's Ball that, hey, there’s Joe Curran again – older but no wiser, and still as nasty as he wants to be.

Given Boyle’s real-life political leanings – he was a self-described “conservative radical” who performed in ‘70s anti-war revues with Jane Fonda and Donald Sutherland – I guess he’s a textbook example of a great actor: Someone who can successfully and stunningly turn himself into something he’s absolutely, positively not.

Here is a link to an enlightening 1970 New York Times interview with Boyle that ran while Joe was all the rage. And here is his Associated Press obit.

Monday, December 11, 2006

Sunday, December 10, 2006

More victories for 'Iwo Jima'

Letters from Iwo Jima makes the American Film Institute's annual Top Ten list -- and claims the top prize from the L.A. Film Critics. Are we talking about a relentless, unstoppable march toward an Academy Award for Best Picture? Or is it Brokeback Mountain all over again?

Saturday, December 09, 2006

Holy Mary

I am just throwing this out there for the sake of discussion. I don't know if it's significant or not. But...

Up until Friday, Apocalypto reportedly had been tracking especially well with Hispanic audiences. And yet, while some folks are estimating the movie will gross $12 million this opening weekend, other folks (including David Poland) are describing that take as less than spectacular.

So here's something to consider: On Friday, a Spanish-language, English-subtitled movie called Guadalupe -- a drama about the appearance of the Virgin Mary 475 years ago at the hill of Tepeyac, near Mexico City -- opened in 230 theaters nationwide (mostly in cities with large Hispanic and Catholic populations). The release was set to coincide with the Dec. 12 Our Lady of Guadalupe feast day, not to compete with Apocalypto. But might Guadalupe be siphoning off moviegoers -- i.e., Hispanics and/or faithful churchgoers -- who might otherwise have gone to see a movie by the director of The Passion of the Christ this weekend?

I ask this not as a Mel Gibson apologist, but as someone who thinks that we often underestimate the size of Hispanic and Christian audiences -- groups that strongly supported Gibson's Passion during that film's very spectacular theatrical run.

And speaking of Apocalypto -- who came up with that grammatically incorrect tagline? "No one can outrun their destiny" should read "No one can outrun his destiny." Or "her destiny."

'Apocalypto' slays 'em at the b.o.

Nikki Finke reports: Mel's movie makes moolah.

Thursday, December 07, 2006

Film of infamy?

To commemorate this historic day, I'm going to come out of the closet and admit that I rather liked the near-universally panned Pearl Harbor. Indeed, the more I go back and review Hollywood war dramas that were produced just before and during WWII, the more I appreciate what director Michael Bay (and, yes, producer Jerry Bruckheimer) accomplished with what I described in 2001 as "an unabashedly old-fashioned and irony-free wartime romance infused with gee-whiz pyrotechnics and rah-rah patriotism." (A random thought: I wonder how much more -- or less – Pearl Harbor might have scored at the box-office had it opened a few months later, after 9/11.)

In the spirit of openness and honesty, I ask readers and fellow bloggers: Do you have a similarly guilty pleasure in your closet? Do you secretly (or not-so-secretly) embrace a movie scorned by all but you?

Wednesday, December 06, 2006

'Unforgiven' at MFAH


The retired gunfighter who must return to his bloody business one last time. The hotheaded youngster who must back up his bragging when push comes to shove. The small-town sheriff who must face down the hired killers riding his way. The brutally wronged woman who must rely on the firepower of a steel-eyed stranger.

Unforgiven – slated to screen at 7:30 p.m. Saturday and 7 p.m. Sunday at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston as part of MFAH’s “The Modern West” series -- abounds in the time-honored stereotypes that have been the staples of Westerns since the heyday of Tom Mix. Which isn't at all surprising, considering the Best Picture of 1992 came to us from Clint Eastwood, who played a major role in demythologizing many of these elements for the better part of four decades.

First as an actor, in such films as A Fistful of Dollars and Hang 'Em High, and later as his own director, in star vehicles such as High Plains Drifter and The Outlaw Josey Wales, Eastwood upended clichés, sullied stereotypes, and challenged assumptions — sometimes in dead seriousness, sometimes with sardonic humor.

In his Oscar-winning Unforgiven, however, Eastwood ventured even further into the dark underside of the Western mythos, and to the very top of his form as an actor and filmmaker. But here’s the killer irony: Unlike most classics that earn their exalted status by launching or defining a film genre, Unforgiven may have actually ended a genre. Since its release in 1992, there hasn't been a Western of any true significance, arguably because, in the wake of Eastwood's magnum opus, there's nothing left to say, nothing new to add.

In a terrific cast, Eastwood is first among equals as William Munny, a gunfighter once feared as "a man of notoriously vicious and intemperate disposition." He was reformed by the love of a good woman and domesticated by the demands of a pig farm and two children. Unfortunately, as Unforgiven begins, Munny's wife is two years dead, the pig farm is failing—and Munny's worried about how he will provide for his offspring.

Meanwhile, off in the remote town of Big Whiskey, Wyoming, the local sheriff, Little Bill Daggett (Gene Hackman), maintains law and order with a whim of iron. Two drunken cowboys cut up a prostitute in a late-night fracas, and the other hookers demand prompt, equally brutal justice. But Little Bill merely orders the cowboys to pay a fine of six horses — to the owner of the bordello, not to the disfigured prostitute herself — and lets it go at that. "It's not like they were tramps, or loafers, or bad men," Little Bill explains.

So the prostitutes, led by the fiery Strawberry Alice (Frances Fisher, once Eastwood’s off-screen significant other), pool their savings to raise a $1,000 bounty on the two cowboys. In no time at all, a hotheaded (but, alas, nearsighted) youngster named The Schofield Kid (Jaimz Woolvett) shows up at Munny's door, seeking Munny's help in collecting the reward. Although initially reluctant, Munny unpacks his guns and approaches another retired gunfighter, Ned Logan (Morgan Freeman), to suggest a three-way split for the blood money in Big Whiskey.

For a revisionist Western, Unforgiven is in many respects almost defiantly old-fashioned. Eastwood is deliberate, even contemplative, in his unhurried pacing, suggesting the slow, steady build of a gathering storm. And he fully understands the dramatic, thematic, and emotional impacts that can be gained simply by creating the illusion of real time passing. When Munny, Logan, and the Kid track down and shoot one of the errant cowboys, it takes a long time for him to die —long enough for at least one of the bounty-hunters to be profoundly affected, and for the audience to be shaken out of its instinctive sympathy for the nominal good guys.

Later, the cocksure Kid breaks down as he fully grasps the enormity of cold-blooded murder. "It's a hell of a thing, killing a man," Munny agrees. "You take away all he's got, and all he's ever going to have." The Kid suggests that the victim had it coming. Munny replies: "We all have it coming, Kid."

Time and again during Unforgiven, Eastwood shoves our faces in the consequences of violence, the horrible consequences for killer and victim. There are no true heroics here, only varying degrees of violence and self-delusion. Everything leads to a final shootout that is as terrifyingly bloody and chaotic as any ever staged for a Western. The big difference with this one is, Eastwood gives you a strong sense that this is how such things probably happened in real life, with no clear-cut heroes or villains, with dying men groaning that they don't "deserve" their fate. "I'll see you in hell," a victim warns Munny. Munny isn't moved. Hell will hold no surprises for him.

Unforgiven is a great movie, and a major source of its greatness is Eastwood's (and screenwriter David Webb Peoples') sternly ambiguous view of the very things that made most of us so fond of Westerns in the first place. Indeed, after seeing Unforgiven, some people have never again been able to look at any other Western, by any other filmmaker, in quite the same way.

“Violence is painful,” Eastwood told me during a 1992 interview, “and not the kind of comedic thing that it might appear in other stories. And I like that in Unforgiven. It was a statement about violence I wanted to make. But it wasn’t an action picture, it was more of an anti-action picture, so I thought it would be a tough sell. It was much more successful than I thought it would be.”

So I had to ask: Did Eastwood think of Unforgiven as an act of self-criticism?

“You mean doing penance for sins of the past?” he asked, not testily, exactly, but not altogether playfully.

OK, take two: Did Eastwood think that some of his films – say, the Man With No Name movies, if not the Dirty Harry melodramas – may possibly have desensitized audiences to violence during the 1960s and ‘70s?

“Maybe,” Eastwood replied, thoughtfully warming to the subject. “But at the time, it didn’t seem like a big deal. We all had grown up with films that had Jimmy Cagney shooting somebody down, or drilling somebody in the trunk of a car – and that didn’t make us all violent people.

“I must say, though, that in recent years, I’ve viewed a lot of films where the violence has turned into a gruesome dismembership thing. Not very pleasant. But, then I start thinking: Am I just getting older, and I’m criticizing someone else who’s coming along, maybe doing something that [makes me feel the same way] that people felt about some of my things at some point? I don’t know.

“Really, there’s been no conscious effort [on my part] to correct anything, or look back over my shoulder. It’s just, this is the way I feel today. I’m not haunted by anything, like William Munny. But today I feel that, with the way the world is now, maybe violence shouldn’t be treated as humorous. Maybe Harold Lloyd walking into a wall, or Tom and Jerry in a cartoon, that’s different. But in reality, killing is not justifiable.”

Let the awards season begin: The National Board of Review honors 'Letters from Iwo Jima'

From Variety: Clint Eastwood's Letters From Iwo Jima has won the National Board of Review's top prize, taking home the first award in the kudos race for 2006. The rest of the top 10: Babel, Blood Diamond, The Departed, The Devil Wears Prada, Flags Of Our Fathers, The History Boys, Little Miss Sunshine, Notes on a Scandal and The Painted Veil.

Farts on a plane?

I wonder if this could have impeded -- or repelled -- those snakes?

Tuesday, December 05, 2006

Slamming

IndieWire has the lineup for next month's edition of Slamdance, the upstart rival to the Sundance Film Festival. Sight unseen, two world premiere documentaries seem especially promising: Seth Gordon's King of Kong, an up-close and personal view of obsessive video-game competitors who evidently share my fascination with Pac-Man; and Jeremy and Randy Stulberg's Off the Grid: Life on the Mesa, a study of neo-"Wild West" life in a New Mexico desert community inhabited by survivalists, teen runaways and Gulf War vets.

Monday, December 04, 2006

R.I.P.: Claude Jade (1948-2006)

Much like her character captivated Antoine Doinel (Jean-Pierre Leaud), Francois Truffaut's autobiographical alter ego, actress Claude Jade delighted international audiences when she made her film debut as Christine, Antoine's on-again, off-again girlfriend, in Truffaut's intoxicatingly bittersweet Stolen Kisses (1968). She and Leaud share one of the most delightfully disorienting scenes in the entire Truffaut canon when, at the very end of the film, she is confronted by a benign stalker who, without provocation or encouragement, walks up to her in the park one day, announces his undying love, promises to be available whenever she might beckon -- and then walks away. "He's mad," Christine tells Antoine. Antoine agrees, but the audience cannot help wondering: Didn't he just experience a jarring shock of recognition? Didn't that stranger merely give voice to what the wildly romantic Antoine also feels for this magical woman? (And I don't use that adjective arbitrarily: In the world according to Francois Truffaut, women are magic.)

Truffaut reportedly fell pretty hard for Jade himself -– hey, who could blame him? –- but that’s certainly not the only reason why he brought her back for two subsequent chapters of the Antoine Doinel saga. (A saga that began, of course, back in 1959 with The 400 Blows.) In Bed and Board (1970), the marriage of Antoine and Christine is threatened by his infidelity – the guy can’t help falling in love again and again – and she is driven to desperate measures to rekindle their romance. (A moment both uproariously comical and unspeakably sad: Mindful that he is having an affair with a Japanese beauty, Christine decks herself out as a faux Madame Butterfly to greet him one evening in their apartment.) But in Love on the Run (1979), Christine’s patience is spent, the marriage is dissolved – in the opening scene, no less – and Antoine must finally recognize the evanescence of passion. And yet, even as Antoine realizes that the perfect romantic love he has always pursued is an unattainable ideal, he doesn’t consider that a good enough reason to discontinue his pursuit.

Jade remained active on stage and screen in her native France for more than a quarter-century after Love on the Run. (She died Friday after a long battle with cancer.) Indeed, Internet Movie Data Base credits her with some 85 TV and film appearances throughout her entire career. I would argue, however, that with the exception of her supporting turn in Alfred Hitchcock’s Topaz (1969) -– which, by unfortunate coincidence, also featured the recently deceased Philippe Noiret – nothing else on her resume had an impact comparable to her enduringly affecting portrayal of the woman Antoine Doinel loved and lost. She was magical. And because she remains immortal on film, she is magical.

Friday, December 01, 2006

Hitler speaks again!

U.S. viewers will have a chance to see the Brit documentary that -- well, puts words into Adolf Hitler's mouth. On Dec. 16, The History Channel will air The Private Voice of Hitler, which uses high-tech recording equipment to dub heretofore silent footage of Der Fuhrer.

Just the facts, ma'am

In The Nation, Keith Olbermann explains how his experiences as a sports journalist prepared him to cut through the spin while covering the follies and foibles of the Bush Administration: "In sports, if a center-fielder drops the fly ball, you can't pretend he didn't." Sounds like the guy would have made a nifty film critic, too.

Thursday, November 30, 2006

Coming soon to a monitor near you

10 Items or Less opens Friday in theaters. But if you wait two weeks, you can download it onto your computer. For producer-star Morgan Freeman, it's part of a plan to level the playing field between Hollywood studios and indie distributors.

More Sundacing


IndieWire has the rest of the Sundance '07 lineup. Of particular interest: Craig Brewer's follow-up to Hustle and Flow, new films by indie stalwarts Tom DiCillo and Hal Hartley -- and the final feature directed by the recently murdered Adrienne Shelly.

Wednesday, November 29, 2006

'Apocalypto' now

For what it's worth: An acquaintance who's not given to excessive hyperbole -- but who is a pretty savvy industry observer -- called me today after seeing an early screening of Apocalypto. The verdict: "Amazing. You've never seen anything like it." Consider yourself forewarned: This year's Oscar race may be about to change...

Sundance '07: The frenzy begins

IndieWire has the scoop: The Sundance Film Festival has announced its competition lineup for 2007.

DeVito's drunken diatribe

Gosh! Do you think he started hitting the bottle after he read the reviews for Deck the Halls?

Post No. 200: Kim loves Godzilla (and Clint and Whitney)

For the 200th posting on this blog, I take -- well, pride probably isn't the right word in this context. Amusement, maybe? In any event: Kim Jong Il may not be able to get new films from Netflix after all if President Bush has his way. And that's a pity, because, as the Associated Press reports, Kim "is said to own an extensive movie library of more than 10,000 titles and prefers films about James Bond and Godzilla, along with Clint Eastwood's 1993 drama, In the Line of Fire, and Whitney Houston's 1992 love story, The Bodyguard." Maybe somebody will slip him a DVD of Casino Royale in return for a promise not to build nukes? (That is, unless Kim soured on 007 after seeing Die Another Day.) Or perhaps all great dictators really prefer Mickey Mouse?

Ode to Noiret

In LA Weekly, Bertrand Tavernier -- director of Coup de Torchon and Life and Nothing But, Philippe Noiret's greatest films -- fondly remembers the actor he describes as "a friend, a brother, a father." (Thanks to Movie City News for the head's up.)

Tuesday, November 28, 2006

Grand 'Motel'

At the risk of sounding presumptuous at best, paternalistic at worst, I must confess to stirrings of pride as I see Michael Kang's The Motel listed among the five nominees in the Best First Feature category of Film Independent's Spirit Awards. I wrote one of the earliest reviews for this excellent indie when I covered it for Variety at the 2005 Sundance Film Festival. And I've been raving about it ever since to anyone willing to listen. If I helped in any small way to attract some attention for this sleeper -- which I seriously doubt, but please indulge me -- well, I'm a very happy camper indeed.

As I noted in Variety: Kang covers some familiar territory in this coming-of-age dramedy about a precocious Chinese-American youth whose family operates a sleazy roadside motel in upstate New York. But Kang manages to stake his own claim to a patch of that well-trod ground by offering a fresh take on characters and conventions, and compelling interest with shrewd, sympathy-inspiring storytelling. In short, The Motel signals the arrival of a singularly talented filmmaker.

Newcomer Jeffrey Chyau impresses with an unaffected yet engagingly expressive performance as 13-year-old Ernest, an overweight daydreamer and budding writer who lives with his cranky mother (Jade Wu), annoying kid sister (Alexis Chang) and ancient grandfather (Stephen Chen) in their family-run motor inn. Ever since his father abandoned them, Ernest has shouldered most of the everyday maintenance responsibilities. Which means that, each day after school, he gets graphic lessons in the seedier aspects of life while cleaning rent-by-the-hour rooms used mostly for illicit trysts.

Working from the novel Waylaid by Ed Lin, Kang emphasizes character detail over plot development, so that the loose-knit narrative evolves as a steady accumulation of sharply-observed, vividly-rendered details. When he isn’t avoiding the bellicose son of long-term residents -- a family even more dysfunctional than his own -- Ernest nurses a crush on Christine (Samantha Futerman), a slightly older teen waitress at nearby Chinese restaurant. Although Christine wants to remain “just friends,” she offers sincere congratulations when Ernest wins “honorable mention” in a local essay contest. But Ernest’s mother is far less supportive – she cruelly mocks her son for his literary ambitions, venting pent-up rage she feels over being abandoned by her husband.

Much of Motel pivots on the budding friendship between Ernest and Sam, a smooth-talking, sharp-dressing Korean-American twentysomething who checks into the motel for a quickie with a hooker, then remains as a long-term renter. Sam, charismatically played by Sung Kang (Better Luck Tomorrow), apparently views his stay at the seedy inn as a self-imposed exile in the wake of a messy break-up with his girlfriend. For all his bad habits – or, more likely, because of them – this obvious ne’er-do-well becomes a surrogate big brother for Ernest, imparting dubious wisdom while trying to prepare the fatherless adolescent for manhood. Not surprisingly, life lessons are taken to heart, with mixed results.

Taking his cue from Francois Truffaut, his most obvious influence, Kang refrains from making any character an out-and-out villain. Even the bully who torments Ernest is as much a victim as a victimizer. And Ernest’s mother, though embittered and often shrewish, has ample reason for her rancor. (Of course, it helps a lot that Jade Wu gives the role enough complexity to prevent the character from curdling into caricature.) But be forewarned: When she berates her son for wanting to tell stories – which, in her mind, is tantamount to lying – more than a few writers in the audience (and not just children of tradition-bound immigrant parents) will wince while remembering similar childhood experiences with disapproving parents.

BTW: The Motel continues to appear in sporadic theatrical release throughout the US marketplace -- it opens Friday in Portland, Oregon -- before its Jan. 30 DVD release. No matter what size screen you get to see it on, you'd do well to check into The Motel.

Monday, November 27, 2006

Yes, 'Two thumbs up!' made the final cut

The TV Land cable network has compiled a list of the 100 greatest catchphrases in television history, from the serious — Walter Cronkite's nightly signoff "And that's the way it is" — to the silly: "We are two wild and crazy guys!"

Kicking Christ -- and 'The Nativity' -- out of a Christmas festival

Ladies and gentlemen, boys and girls: I give you Bill O'Reilly's next great crusade. (And for once, I must admit, I will share his scorn for the PCers involved.)

Sunday, November 26, 2006

Rocky times in Iraq

On Wednesday, I got my first look at the trailer for Rocky Balboa. Later that evening, I heard more bad news about the latest casualty figures in Iraq. Ever since experiencing that bizarre confluence, I've been thinking about something Sylvester Stallone told me in 2003 -- back when many folks thought "staying the course" was a great idea. Stallone was talking about the enduring popularity of his Rocky character. But he also wanted to say something about the global influence of made-in-America pop culture -- an influence, I now fear, may diminish as the U.S. occupation continues. The money quote:

“Something like Rocky eventually gets out of your hands and becomes bigger than you personally could ever be. I’m always taken aback by how long that character has endured. I remember, when I was watching TV coverage of the Iraq War, I saw some Iraqi in some town hold up a flag with Rocky on it. And I thought, ‘You gotta be kidding me! Where did he have this flag for the past 20 years? Under his bed?’ I mean, what was he thinking? ‘Oh, yeah, the day they come here to free us, I’m gonna pull out my Rocky flag!’?”

Sunday linkage

In the New York Daily News, Elizabeth Weitzman talks with the dynamic duo of Jack Black and Kyle Gass -- a.k.a. Tenacious D -- about the mock-rockumentary Tenacious D in the Pick of Destiny. Gass: "We've determined that 83% of the movie is completely true. And the other 17% is ..." Black: "Utter lies."

Meanwhile, over at the L.A. Times, director Richard Donner claims that restoring his original version of Superman II (for DVD release this week) has allowed him to right the wrong that was done to him when he was fired by producer Ilya Salkind before he could finish the 1980 blockbuster. (Richard Lester wound up completing the sequel -- which, truth to tell, fared much better with many critics, including yours truly, than Donner's 1978 Superman: The Movie.) Times writer Geoff Boucher gives Salkind ample opportunity to respond to Donner's comments.

And when it comes to the new DVD itself -- well, Jeffrey Wells is not impressed.

Saturday, November 25, 2006

Michael Moore: Voice of reason

From Michael Moore, via Anne Thompson: "Tomorrow marks the day that we will have been in Iraq longer than we were in all of World War II. That's right. We were able to defeat all of Nazi Germany, Mussolini, and the entire Japanese empire in LESS time than it's taken the world's only superpower to secure the road from the airport to downtown Baghdad."

I say that it's time to say "Cut!" and pull the plug on this project. It's over-budget, over-schedule, and likely to be a flop...

Early b.o. scorecard

According to Nikki Finke, Michael Medved's least-favorite holiday movie is still raking in big bucks.

Keillor on Altman

Garrison Keillor in the Los Angeles Times: Robert Altman "was a very young bomber pilot in World War II, and perhaps that's one reason he didn't fit into the Hollywood system. When you've flown through clouds of shrapnel and survived, you have less respect for the corporate point of view. And he was a smartass, and that didn't help. But what really made Mr. Altman an independent was the fact that he wasn't about long-term planning or risk management, he was about doing the work. He believed in taking big chances and doing it with a whole heart. He didn't mind being talked back to. He said, 'If you and I agreed about everything, then one of us is unnecessary.' But he was the captain of the ship. He didn't care for meetings in which people discuss the arc of the story and whether we need a conflict at this point or not."

Friday, November 24, 2006

Radio alert

After warming up as a talking head on MSNBC, I'm ready for the big time: On Saturday, I'll be a guest on the popular New Orleans radio program Movie Talk at around 12:15 p.m. Host Dave DuBos wants to talk about Deja Vu, the time-tripping thriller that was filmed on location in The Big Easy -- my home town! -- and you can hear us streamed live from WGSO-AM by clicking here. We'll likely also discuss the recent loss of Robert Altman and Philippe Noiret. And, again, I wouldn't be surprised if a certain subversive movie about peguins figures into the conversation.

Altman obit addendum

Apparently, not everyone in Nashville liked Nashville.

R.I.P.: Betty Comden (1915-2006)

Alas, these things really do happen in threes. First Robert Altman, then Philippe Noiret -- and now the co-lyricist of the greatest movie musical ever made.

Thursday, November 23, 2006

R.I.P.: Philippe Noiret (1930-2006)

Let us now praise the late, great Philippe Noiret, a consummate artist whose subtlety, versatility and emotional eloquence qualified him as one of European cinema's most valuable natural resources. As usual, GreenCine Daily provides an invaluable assortment of links to admiring appraisals. To those tributes, I humbly add the heartfelt farewell of an unabashedly starstruck fan.

No kidding: I count among my most prized memories an afternoon during the 1989 Cannes Film Festival when Noiret -- looking grandly natty in a cream-colored suit – joined me for a long lunch on the patio of a posh hotel. We were supposed to chat primarily about his performance as the projectionist who brings magic and memories to a small Sicilian village in Giuseppe Tornatore's Cinema Paradiso (which had received a standing ovation after its festival premiere on the previous evening.) But the conversation – lubricated, I must admit, by some splendid wine – weaved and wandered lazily among other items on his lengthy resume. I tried very, very hard not to gush, and I think I may have succeeded. But if I didn’t, Noiret was too kind to make sport of me. Indeed, as we parted, he leaned over the table, looked deep into my eyes and graciously murmured: “You asked very interesting questions.” Short, dramatic pause. “And I do not say that to all of your colleagues.” I think I saw other movies, and interviewed other people, during the remainder of the festival. But I don’t remember any of them. All I recall is people asking me why I had such a goofy, glowing grin on my face.

A true international star, thanks in no small part to his fluency in English, Noiret appeared in Hollywood-financed films by Alfred Hitchcock (Topaz), George Cukor (Justine), Ted Kotcheff (Who is Killing the Great Chefs of Europe?), Peter Yates (Murphy's War) and Anatole Litvak (The Night of the Generals). But he was most moving and memorable in the European productions of such estimable auteurs as Francesco Rosi (Three Brothers), Philippe de Broca (Dear Detective), Michael Radford (Il Postino), Louis Malle (Zazie Dans Le Metro) – and, of course, Bertrand Tavernier, Noiret’s most frequent collaborator and the director of the actor’s two best films: Coup de Torchon and Life and Nothing But.

Still, it’s arguable that Noiret remains best known to U.S. audiences for Cinema Paradiso, a sentimental drama that speaks in a quiet but insistent voice to anyone who ever fell in love with (and at) the movies. When we spoke in 1989, he admitted that even he could not remain immune to the potent charm of the film’s seductive nostalgia. ''Yes,'' Noiret said, “I think all of us, we have a little bit of sadness, looking back to the great times of the movies in the theaters.'' In a similar vein, he also admitted to experiencing the occasional pang of melancholy as he remembered movie greats who were no longer with us. He was especially fond of recalling his brief collaboration with Alfred Hitchcock: ''He was so different from the image that he had . . . He was mad about food and filmmaking. So we spent our time talking about food and filmmaking . . . When people say he was bored with actors, that's not true. He was only bored with boring actors.''

Truth to tell, however, all this talk of yesterday was pretty boring to Philippe Noiret. An engagingly witty raconteur, he was never less than courteously forthcoming, and bountifully free with anecdotes, as he answered my questions about his credits. But he much preferred to talk about his new movies, and the movies yet to come.

''I'm not used to looking back to the past,'' Noiret said. ''I'm busy looking ahead, for as long as possible.'' Like most actors, he conceded, he feared each new project would be his last. But that, he added only half-jokingly, merely stoked his eagerness to pounce upon each new offer of gainful employment. ''You never know what will be the success of a film,'' he explained. ''And it's always comfortable to be making another film when you're reading terrible notices for your last film. You can say, 'Well, that's a pity, but I'm already working on another job.' It helps in your living. You see, if you're only making one film a year, or one film every year and a half, it's hard. Because when it's a failure, what do you do? What do you become? You're dead.”

Besides, he added, being a workaholic has its advantages: ''I never get bored. Tired? Sometimes. But bored? Never.''

(Directors, it should be noted, greatly appreciated Noiret’s work ethic. As Giuseppe Tornatore told me: “When you tell Philippe, 'OK, let's shoot a scene,' he'll say, 'Good! Let's play!' Because he enjoys moviemaking that much.")

Noiret was born in Lille, a northern French city near the Belgian border, in 1930. The early '50s found him in Paris, training for a theatrical career at the Centre Dramatique de l'oust. In 1953, he joined the prestigious Theatre Nationale Populaire, where he excelled for more than a decade in a diverse range of classical and contemporary roles. During this period, he also had a less prestigious but more lucrative career as a cabaret performer. ''The cabaret is a very good school for comedy,'' Noiret would say years later. ''Less austere than the theater, and more lively than the movies.''

He made his movie debut in 1956, in Agnes Varda's La Pointe Courte, and quickly attracted the attention of Louis Malle, who cast him – as a cabaret performer! -- in 1960's Zazie Dans le Metro. By 1968, he had graduated to the ranks of leading men, giving an inspired comic performance as a henpecked farmer who earns his liberation in Yves Robert's Very Happy Alexander.

''When I began to have success in the movies,'' Noiret said in 1989, ''it was a big surprise for me. For actors of my generation -- all the men of 50 or 60 now in French movies -- all of us were thinking of being stage actors. Even people like Jean-Paul Belmondo, all of us, we never thought we'd become movie stars. So, at the beginning, I was just doing it for the money, and because they asked me to do it. But after two or three years of working on movies, I started to enjoy it, and to be very interested in it. And I'm still very interested in it, because I've never really understood how it works. I mean, what is acting for the movies? I've never really understood.”

In the specific case of Philippe Noiret, screen acting was a meticulously precise art that appeared unaffectedly, and persuasively, artless. In the naturalistic, no-nonsense tradition of Spencer Tracy and Jean Gabin, Noiret created robust, full-bodied characters with a flawless professionalism that never called undue attention to itself. As I wrote in 1989: “Whether he is playing a fussy, fumbling professor (Philippe de Broca's Dear Detective), a cheerfully corrupt French cop (Claude Zidi's My New Partner), or a crafty duke who controls an under-age Louis XV (Tavernier's Let Joy Reign Supreme), Noiret doesn't appear to be acting at all. He simply is, with total conviction, and usually with the relaxed, rumpled look of an unmade bed.”

Noiret was rarely better, or more believable, than he was in Tavernier's Coup de Torchon, a 1981 psychological thriller based on a novel by the American master of hard-boiled potboilers, Jim Thompson. Tavernier re-located Thompson's story of Southern Gothic corruption to a French colony in 1938 Africa. Noiret played the anti-hero of the piece, Lucien Cordier, a lackadaisical police chief who's openly mocked by the low-lifes of his village and flagrantly cuckolded by his slovenly wife. One dark day, Cordier has an inspiration: Since everyone knows he is a coward, no one would suspect him of being a killer. So he begins a ''clean sweep'' of his village, disposing of the garbage -- brutal pimps, a wife-beating landowner, etc. -- no one will really miss. Unfortunately, Cordier gets carried away with his urban renewal program. Even more unfortunately, his resentments slowly percolate into psychosis. (Warming to the role of executioner, he announces: ''I am Jesus Christ, come back to earth with a new set of crosses!'') And yet, even at his most violent, Cordier remains, almost miraculously, a sympathetic, even vulnerable figure.

In conversation – well, OK, in the single conversation I had with him in 1989 – Noiret was reluctant to discuss his art, preferring to smile gratefully and remain silent when complimented for past achievements. But he did allow, when pressed, that the complexity of his best performances reflected his own off-screen contradictions.

''It's stupid and hard to say at the same time,'' Noiret said, ''but I certainly am an individual who is both fragile and strong -- knowing all the while that I am strong, thanks to a private victory which remains forever private.''

Some of Noiret's private life was spent at home in Carcassonne, near the Spanish border, with his wife, actress Monique Chaumette. ''How long have we been married?” he responded, chuckling at the question. “I don't remember. But we’ve lived together for 30 years now. We met when we were in the Theatre Nationale. And we have been married -- oh, I don't know, 25, 26 years.”

Revealingly, perhaps, Noiret's memory was much sharper when it came to his movie credits. Cinema Paradiso, he said, was his 99th film. Bertrand Tavernier’s Life and Nothing But was his 100th. And, to my mind, his greatest.

Noiret stars to perfection as Major Dellaplane, a career army officer who, during the aftermath of World War I, is obsessed with totaling the exact number of French casualties, and identifying the thousands of French soldiers listed as missing in action. For Dellaplane, the arduous task means keeping countless files, photographing and interviewing hundreds of shell-shocked patients in military hospitals, and personally visiting excavation sites where great numbers of fallen soldiers can be unearthed. A phrase uttered by an amnesiac, a watch or a cup found on a corpse, a letter from home uncovered near a battlefield -- any of these can end a family's long uncertainty, and close one of Dellaplane's files.

But there is always another file, another family. And Dellaplane is running out of time.

Tavernier once explained to me that he modeled Dellaplane after the gruff but compassionate cavalry officer played by John Wayne in John Ford's She Wore a Yellow Ribbon. And, indeed, Noiret plays the French officer with much the same moral authority, virile humor and hard-won wisdom that Wayne conveyed so vividly as Capt. Nathan Cutting Brittles. (When someone chides him for his brutal bluntness while telling a woman of her lover’s death, Dellaplane explains that the best way to deliver such bad news is “by stunning her. You have to strike once, so hard it's like a nightmare. Later you wake up and life seems gentler.”) If Dellaplane seems more contemptuous of his superiors than Brittles ever appeared, and more bitter about the absurdities of battle, well, he has good reason: Dellaplane's office has been ordered to find a French casualty who cannot be identified, to provide an ''unknown soldier'' to be enshrined at the Arc de Triomphe. For Dellaplane, the mission is a terrible charade -- an attempt to divert attention from thousands by focusing on an individual -- and a ridiculous distraction from his duty to end the desperate searches of families and loved ones.

There is a sharply satirical edge to the humor that laces the drama of Life and Nothing But. A sculptor expresses his great joy that, with so many towns ordering monuments to war dead, he will never be wanting for work. Villagers plot to change their boundaries, just so they, too, can claim fallen heroes as their own. Better still, there is a refreshing lack of melodramatic overstatement, in the storytelling as well as the performances. Tavernier never shows us a body, never exploits anyone's anguish. At one point, loved ones file onto a former battlefield to inspect the personal effects of dead soldiers. They don't cry, they don't even appear to be mad anymore. They simply want to bury the dead, so they can get on with life.

Much of Life and Nothing But focuses on Dellaplane's relationship with two women searching for their missing men. Alice (Pascale Vignal) is a young provincial schoolteacher whose fiancé never returned from the war. Dellaplane responds to her as a fond but stern uncle, warning her that, all things considered, she would be better off forgetting her missing soldier. Irene (Sabine Azema) is an aristocratic Parisian whose husband was wounded in combat, and then, apparently, disappeared without a trace. Dellaplane responds to her as -- well, he doesn't quite know how to respond to her.

Tavernier generates suspense and a subdued but palpable erotic tension as he continually allows Irene and Dellaplane to cross paths. Ultimately, she confronts him with a challenge more daunting than any he has ever faced in battle.

And that's when Dellaplane, a man so accustomed to death, must prove he has the courage for a new life.

Life and Nothing But is a great movie, with a great performance at its center. Philippe Noiret is dead. Long live Philippe Noiret.