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March 3, 2014

Oscars and money for the pizza guy

Ellen asking for tip money for the pizza guy at the Oscars

Last night's Oscars didn't offer many surprises or memorable moments--I was pretty much OK with all the winners, and the night's predictability meant that I did *really* well in my office pool. My favorite moment was probably Robert Lopez and Kristen Anderson-Lopez and their cute rhyming acceptance speech for Best Song. Robert Lopez was one of the writers of The Book of Mormon and is now a proud member of the very exclusive EGOT club.

But the weirdest moment was when Ellen, having ordered some pizzas in a folksy stunt, went around with Pharrell's hat asking all the famous audience members for money for a tip. The men dug out their wallets and obediently put some cash into the hat. But then Ellen started chiding them for their cheapness. She called out Brad Pitt for only contributing a twenty, and then things heated up. People started leaning over each other to put more money into the hat, and for a few seconds we had a bunch of celebrities literally throwing their money around on TV, showing the world how amazingly generous they were in their tipping of an anonymous low-wage worker.

I can't tell if Ellen was doing it on purpose--goading the very rich and very famous into competitive coerced generosity--but it made the whole night look desperately show-offy. We all know the Oscars are about self-congratulation, but we don't usually get to see all those glamorous celebrities be such transparent camera hogs.

I hope the pizza guy got all that cash.

(Oh, he did!)

February 20, 2014

Stop explaining, James Franco!

James Franco in a wig

I've had fun watching the ongoing experimental performance art that is James Franco's career. First he stars in the Spider-Man movies and a Julia Roberts romance. Then he's on "General Hospital" playing a tortured artist named "Franco". Then he's hosting the Oscars. Then he's directing tiny indie movies about Hart Crane and Sal Mineo, and an impressionistic adaptation of As I Lay Dying. Then last year he played an ingeniously unflattering version of himself in This Is The End, and Florida drug dealer Alien in the craziest movie of the year Spring Breakers. And also starred in Oz the Great and Powerful, which wasn't good by anyone's standards but was a huge hit. Oh, and he's also had shows in art galleries and appears to be pursuing doctoral degrees at several top universities simultaneously.

James Franco is the only person I can think of whose career is in itself a smart commentary/critique of what it means to be a movie star, while also actively being a movie star. He's wildly prolific, and takes on incredibly disparate projects that I assume he's doing because he's genuinely interested in trying new things. Especially if those things fuel speculation about his sexuality, like the "30 Rock" episode where his character, "James Franco", is having a secret romance with a Japanese body pillow, or last year's Interior. Leather Bar., which he directed and starred in, which re-imagines 40 minutes of gay S&M footage cut from Cruising. I don't know what he's doing, exactly, but I admire him for it.

But his latest trend of writing these explanatory pieces for the Times are starting to ruin it. Last year he wrote about why he posts so many selfies on Instagram, describing the up-close-and-personal access the public feels like they're getting through the celebrity selfie. Today he's got an opinion piece about Shia LaBeouf's recent anti-celebrity antics, which he thinks are part of LaBeouf's effort to "reclaim his public persona." It's a smart piece, and I'm sure his ideas about why famous people rebel against celebrity are accurate.

But he's too close to tipping his hand. I don't want to read James Franco's essays about how his appearances on "General Hospital" dismantle the hierarchy of entertainment. I just want the freaky, confusing experience of watching his scenes on YouTube, which he pretty much pulls off. I want to be confused. Whatever James Franco is doing is a lot more interesting when he does it without explanation.

Out of the ten (!) movies he's got scheduled to come out later this year, one is an adaptation of The Sound and the Fury. He's directing. And playing Benjy. It will also feature Seth Rogen and Danny McBride. This movie sounds utterly impossible and probably disastrous, but I want to see it anyway -- I just don't want to read Franco's philosophical musings about his craft and why Caddy smells like trees.

February 3, 2014

Why it's especially awful to lose Philip Seymour Hoffman

Philip Seymour Hoffman in Pirate Radio

There's been shock, regret, and sadness in responses to yesterday's news that Philip Seymour Hoffman had died of a heroin overdose. It was public knowledge that he'd struggled with addiction in his youth, and again recently, but he wasn't exactly a hellion bent on his own self-destruction. Amy Winehouse's death was tragic, but not exactly a surprise.

Something about losing PSH feels like more of a personal loss. I'm more affected by it than other celebrity deaths, in part because of how talented he was and how much I love his movies. There's no better actor out there. I remember noticing him in some earlier roles, like in The Big Lebowski and Boogie Nights, and in a Broadway production of True West in 2000 I was lucky enough to see, and feeling like I'd found out about something big and important that the world wasn't quite aware of yet. Think about PSH in Happiness. Then think about him in The Talented Mr. Ripley. Then in Synecdoche, NY. Then in Pirate Radio. The guy could do anything, and he made so many movies.

But the best actor we had was also a middle-aged father of three and appeared to be a nice, smart, down-to-earth guy. He seemed to be genuinely respected and admired by everyone, both people who actually knew him and regular fans. It's hard to think of a person you admire doing something as foolish as getting sucked into heroin abuse. Again. This is what makes addiction so scary, and so hard to understand from the outside: he must have known how dangerous it was to start using again, and he couldn't stay away from it.

Here's how I'm thinking about it all:

1) We're lucky that the best actor we had worked so much and made so many movies, right up to the end of his life. I don't think there's a single actor who I've seen in more movies and plays.

2) We're unlucky that our best actor was addicted to heroin.

3) Heroin has gotten really incredibly dangerous lately, with spikes in deaths being reported all over the country. There seem to be batches out there that contain a lot of fentanyl. And as Russell Brand keeps reminding us, addiction kills.

Here's a great Times Magazine profile of PSH from 2008.

May 17, 2013

Terrence Malick out-Malicks himself

To The Wonder

I'm a fan of Terrence Malick's movies. I love the dreamy, impressionistic, heart-achingly beautiful non-linear flow, the extended shots of the natural world, and the emotion in his stories and characters, even when they hardly say anything and nothing much happens. I love the whispered voice-overs and lazily swaying fields of wild grass that someone always seems to be lightly brushing with their hand.

And I'm totally OK with Malick taking 8-20 years to produce these movies. Which is why it was such a shock when To the Wonder came out recently, a mere two years after The Tree of Life. Is it possible to make a movie in his unhurriedly gorgeous style so quickly, and have it be good?

No! I was so disappointed by To the Wonder that I'm a little upset about it. The biggest problem with this movie is the story, which is this: the world's most annoying couple falls in love, then breaks up, twice. In the process, they move from a spectacularly Malickian Paris to a hideous sub-division in Oklahoma (that Malick still manages to infuse with incredible natural beauty) which is probably a big part of what goes wrong. But actually, we really have no idea why they're in love, or what goes wrong with their relationship, either time. "Love" acts as an external force that bestows itself upon them for a while, then goes somewhere else, probably to find a couple that isn't so insufferably irritating to be around.

Which brings us to the characters and actors. If you want to create emotional resonance and depth of feeling in your main characters, you probably shouldn't cast Ben Affleck and a Bond girl. Ben Affleck spends the movie brooding silently, and Olga Kurylenko mostly twirls around in blowsy outfits, probably going for "adorably free-spirited girlish imp", but coming across as "immature clingy woman-child who wants to be a pretty princess ballerina". These are not people I want to spend time with, and we're given no understanding about the workings of their relationship, so I found it impossible to care about them. I think this might be what people who don't like Malick's movies complain about--there's nothing to latch onto.

What's most upsetting is that Malick still uses his (and Emmanuel Lubezki's) cinematographic chops to create moments that are so quietly, perfectly gorgeous that they seem to take on spiritual meaning. There's a scene at the beach near Mont St. Michel and some magic hour scenes with Rachel McAdams in a field that are as beautiful as anything he's ever done. But when they're part of a movie with utterly hollow characters and the sketchiest of plots, they feel a little cheap. Yeah, yeah, nature is holy and beautiful, now can we maybe get a couple lines of dialogue, or one minute without Olga Kurylenko twirling?

Roger Ebert wrote his very last review about To the Wonder, and luckily, he liked it. Whatever he saw, I didn't see it.

April 4, 2013

Ebert's Leave of Presence turns into Leave of Absence

Roger Ebert

Just two days after announcing his "leave of presence" from the Chicago Sun-Times so that he could focus on the 10,000 other movie-related things he's doing, Roger Ebert has died.

In his latest/last essay, he explains "What in the world is a leave of presence? It means I am not going away." Was that just his own, kind way of saying goodbye? Or was his sudden downturn truly unexpected? We knew cancer had returned, but he was living his life as though he had plenty of time left and lots of projects still going. I'm stunned.

Growing up watching "Siskel & Ebert" on TV was what got me excited about movies, and Roger Ebert will always be a personal hero. His writing style and thoughtful approach to movies make him one of my favorite critics, even if I don't always agree with him. He was first and foremost a newspaper man, and he was incredibly generous and prolific--the guy was writing upwards of 300 reviews a year and thousands of excellent tweets even while sick and weak.

I can't wait for that Steve James/Martin Scorsese documentary about his life--it'll be a great story.

Esquire did a long feature on Ebert in 2010 about his life, and especially his struggles with cancer that left him without a voice since 2006. If anything, this limitation seemed to unleash an even greater commitment to writing and sharing his thoughts about movies, culture, politics, and Life Itself, and he faced all his physical problems with admirable strength, humor, and genuine happiness. It's a fantastic read.

March 19, 2013

Tina Fey, Actor

Tina Fey in Admission

We all love Tina Fey and can talk at length about all the amazing things about her: she's funny, self-deprecating, fearless, an inspired and successful comedy writer, and she helped Obama win the 2008 election. "SNL", Mean Girls, Bossypants, "30 Rock"--everything she does is great.

But I don't ever hear that Tina Fey is a talented actor. The Sarah Palin act was its own special kind of genius, but for all the praise she gets for her many gifts, it's not usually for her acting chops. Sure, she delivered the news on "Weekend Update" with an appropriately no-nonsense half-smirk, and we all saw a little of ourselves in the perpetually harried, big-sandwich-loving, grown-up nerd, Liz Lemon. But I think Fey gets more credit for creating Liz Lemon than for playing her on screen.

Which brings us to her new movie, Admission. Tina Fey plays a Princeton admissions officer who is very smart, a little uptight, and stuck in a safe but boring life. She's unfulfilled, but not sure what to do about it. This role isn't a big departure from Liz Lemon and the frustrated single lady in Baby Mama, but this movie is the first time I noticed it: Hey, Tina Fey can act! Her character goes through more emotional extremes than I've ever seen her take on before, and she carries them all with total credibility. The plot is a little convoluted, and it's not the greatest movie overall, but Tina Fey shows some impressive range--big emotional scenes and more subtle moments that all work.

The other great thing about the movie is the brilliant decision to cast Lily Tomlin as Tina Fey's aging radical off-the-grid mom. It's perfect. Everything Lily Tomlin says and does is hilarious, and it's like a symbolic passing of the torch from the 70's pioneer to today's gutsy comic superstar. Hard to believe they've never done anything together before now.

I really don't want to see Tina Fey try to become Kate Winslet or take on serious Oscar-bait roles like "feisty Depression-era widow cotton farmer" or "double-amputee killer whale trainer", but I hope she gets some recognition for being a good actor as well as a great comedian.

March 13, 2013

Soda: sugar, water, and a ton of money

Beyonce's Pepsi campaign

There's a great article in the Times today, one of many they've done about the failed soda size limit law in NYC, about the relationship between the soda industry and civil rights groups that spoke out against the policy. It isn't exactly news that companies like Coke and Pepsi are big supporters of the NAACP, the Hispanic Federation, National Council of La Raza, and the US Hispanic Leadership Institute, and in some cases have been for decades.

What's so great about today's article are the quotes from leaders at these organizations, and spokespeople from soda companies, expressing their shock and outrage that anyone could think that there's any connection between a company giving money to an organization, and that organization's public support of the company's political agenda.

Check this out:

  • "We never ask our foundation or community relations partners to engage in public policy issues on our behalf," said Jeff Dahncke, a spokesman for PepsiCo. "The nature of these relationships is focused on diversity and inclusion."
  • Katelyn Jackson, a spokeswoman for Coca-Cola, said in an e-mail, "The suggestion that our community philanthropic efforts are motivated by something other than good will is grossly inaccurate and ignores our history of true partnership for well over a century."
  • "We don't support soda taxes and things like that, any kind of grocery taxes, because we think they hurt our community more than helping," said Christina M. Martinez, spokeswoman for the US Hispanic Leadership Institute. "We have a great partnership with PepsiCo."
  • Coke and Pepsi have given over $10 million to La Raza, and executives from each company serve on La Raza's board. And guess who La Raza's anti-obesity program's sponsor is? Pepsi! "They are a company that produces some very healthy products," says their Senior VP for Programs.

I don't blame these organizations for taking corporate money--they have programs to run and are doing important work. But to suggest that there's no connection between the source of an organization's revenue and the policies they support or oppose is incredibly naive and delusional. My point is that soda companies have essentially bought themselves credibility by funding civil rights organizations that represent diverse communities, who then speak publicly in support of soda companies's political goals. These companies have been doing this forever, starting when Coke wanted to shed its image as a racist company back in the mid-20th century.

Of course, soda companies also spend a fortune on marketing, a financial bludgeon that overwhelms relatively tiny investments in research on the effects of soda on public health, and the budgets of nonprofits trying to educate people in their communities about what happens to you if you drink loads of soda.

Then there's Beyoncé. She's gotten a lot of flak for her $50 million deal with Pepsi, especially since she also served as a spokesperson/danceperson for Michelle Obama's Let's Move anti-obesity campaign. But let's be honest: Beyoncé has endorsed Pepsi for many years. And McDonald's. She obviously has no problem shilling for unhealthy crap. Maybe she wasn't a very wise choice for a White House campaign promoting healthy food.

But the point is, soda companies don't do this stuff by accident. Their product is basically sugar, water, and food coloring, so they have extensive profits to spend on making people want to drink their stuff, and co-opting the respectability of popular celebrities and admired civil rights groups.

I pretty much agree with Justice Tingling who ruled against the soda size limit. And I love his wonderful name. Bloomberg's proposal was capricious, legally nonsensical, and doomed to fail--there's no legal category of "sugary drinks" that includes things like soda, but not things like chocolate milk. Our government doesn't regulate sugar like it regulates tobacco and alcohol, and until it does, it's going to be hard for cities or states to make laws limiting public consumption of sugar. Until the ATF becomes the ATFS (maybe change it to FATS?) they might not get anywhere. It also might help if organizations that speak for disenfranchised people stopped pretending that money doesn't affect what they say and do.

March 7, 2013

Who'dat?™: transformations

Today's edition of Who'dat?™ features a celebrity who has so altered her look in recent years that even after I found out who this is, I still don't see how it's possible.

Here's the picture:

Who'dat?

To play, try to figure out who this is, then click on the picture to see if you are right.

For the record, some of my wilder guesses included Hayden Panettiere, Christina Applegate, and Madonna (which encompasses a 30-year spread of blond celebrity age confusion.)

February 25, 2013

Surprises at the Oscars

Oscars acting winners

Considering that just about all of my picks for last night's Oscars were wrong, I thought there were a lot of surprises in the winners. My favorite movie, Zero Dark Thirty, was shut out of every award (besides that tie for Sound Editing,) so though I didn't agree with many of the winners, at least the awards got spread around a bunch of different movies, with no clear overall winning movie. If a piece of conventional rom-com mediocrity like Silver Linings Playbook can win a major award (Best Actress), at least a great movie like Django Unchained can take two (Supporting Actor and Original Screenplay.)

Same thing goes for Life of Pi, a visually beautiful and technically amazing movie that was pretty thin on every other aspect of moviemaking. Was Ang Lee the best director of the year? Probably not. But I take great comfort in knowing that a (generally) wonderful director like Ang Lee now has two Best Director Oscars, and Ben Affleck has zero.

Speaking of which, I wonder if Argo would have become such a popular choice for Best Picture if Affleck had been nominated for Best Director, and the Academy hadn't been driven to reconsider its lukewarm response to the movie when the nominations were decided? The directors' branch of the Academy, who shut Affleck out, wasn't nearly as impressed with the movie as the Academy as a whole was. Either way, whenever two different movies win Best Picture and Best Director (like when Crash won Best Picture,) it usually means they got at least one award wrong. In my opinion, both winners this year will look pretty questionable in the future--I just can't accept a movie that stars Ben Affleck winning Best Picture. He's gotten to be a pretty good director, but he's still so flat and unbelievable on screen.

As for Seth MacFarlane's hosting job, I liked the song and dance numbers intended to appeal to the geriatric viewer, but too many of his jokes were mean. If a joke is mean but really funny, that's one thing, but most of his jokes were mean and not nearly funny enough. (Gawker cut his jokes into one video.) The one exception was the video of him propositioning Sally Field in the green room, and I mostly liked it because of how game and funny she was. "I've got a bottle of wine and some Boniva, we'll have a great time" was his best line of the night (starts at 0:42 in the Gawker video.) I admire Sally Field for doing a skit that hinged on her admitting she had no chance of winning an Oscar this year, something I can't imagine hardly any other actor doing.

I was happy to see Quentin Tarantino get an Oscar for writing Django, but did you notice that instead of praising his cast, like most people would do, he pretty much said that he deserved an additional Best Casting Oscar for the amazing job he did casting them in his movie? Considering he didn't get his first choice cast members in many, well-publicized cases, maybe some of the credit should have gone to the actors.

My favorite comment about the night was Matt Singer's tweet: "Silver Linings Playbook is a movie made entirely of Oscar clips." Which describes why I don't like that movie better than anything I've come up with yet. The best suggestion I heard was from a friend who pointed out how much more awesome it would have been during the In Memoriam tribute (which included MCA!) if Barbra Streisand had sung "Sabotage".

December 30, 2012

Directors and their egos

Kathryn Bigelow on the set of Zero Dark Thirty Quentin Tarantino

The Times has an interview with Kathryn Bigelow that seems to want to be a character study of who she is, what her creative process is like, and what her body of work says about her as a person. But it almost completely fails: the interviewer concludes that she's incredibly self-effacing, generous in praising her crew, modest about her own formidable chops, and would rather let her work speak for itself than do much reflecting on her craft.

Case in point, after she goes on about her amazing production designer, editor, sound editor, and finally her cinematographer for Zero Dark Thirty:

Greig Fraser, her "tremendous" cinematographer, who pulled off shooting the raid sequence with night-vision technology after Ms. Bigelow decided that filming in the dark was the only way to capture that moment realistically.

At this point Mark Boal [the screenwriter], who had joined the lunch, interrupted.

"Kathryn, can you give yourself a little credit?" he said. "It was really risky — there was no precedent for that kind of technique — and you and Greig embarked on that risk together."

Ms. Bigelow said quietly, "That's true."

Contrast this with an interview the Times did about a week ago with Quentin Tarantino, which makes him sound so self-aggrandizing and egomaniacal that he would be repellent if we didn't already know, hey, that's QT.

In this bit, he's asked about how his actors seem to give wonderful performances in his movies. He responds:

I think it's a three-way thing. I write good characters for actors to play. I cast actors with integrity, as opposed to trying to just match whoever's hot with something going on ... And then I do know how to direct actors, how to modulate them, get the best out of them. And I understand my material. I know how to help them navigate it, and when they deliver something magnificent, I know enough to realize it's good and stay out of their way.

So the great performances actors deliver in Tarantino movies are attributable to: 1) Tarantino's writing, 2) Tarantino's casting, 3) Tarantino's direction, and 4) Tarantino's understanding of Tarantino's material.

I wonder if the movie industry and everybody would feel so positively about Kathryn Bigelow if she gave interviews like that. I don't necessarily think she's so highly regarded because she's modest and deflects praise so graciously, but these are traits that tend to be admired in women more than traits like, for instance, hogging all the credit.

Bigelow's got a good chance of winning another Best Director Oscar in 2013--Tarantino was also nominated when she won in 2010. I guess he'll probably get nominated again for Django Unchained, which is good, but not as good as Inglorious Basterds, or a bunch of his other movies. (It would be great if he won for writing, though.)

Basterds had great style, a few incredible scenes, and a phenomenal and glorious revenge sequence with the movie theater going up in celluloid flames and Shoshanna's laughing ghostly face. It was awesome. Plus the movie had Christoph Waltz, who is absolutely mesmerizing in everything he says and does.

Django is similar: stylish, a great revenge story, some really good scenes, Christoph Waltz. I hope all Tarantino's movies from now on will feature an exceptionally well-mannered German-Austrian professional killer for Christoph Waltz to play.

But the final showdown scenes (both of them) weren't as satisfying as any of Tarantino's other recent revenge scenes. Think about that burning movie theater in Basterds, or the girls making Kurt Russell cry in Death Proof, or every time The Bride killed one of her old partners in Kill Bill. Those sequences were a lot more creative and exciting than what we got in Django--we've all seen big final shootouts a million times in other movies, and this one didn't add much.

The best things about Django are the long scenes with Christoph Waltz and Leonardo DiCaprio going through the charade of their evil business transaction, dripping with sinister charm. And the very end, where Django essentially blows up Tara. Slavery isn't something American movies have tackled well at all--before this, we pretty much had Gone With the Wind and Amistad. And in neither of those movies does a former slave get to mow down an entire plantation full of white people who uphold and profit from slavery in an extended sequence of righteous, bloody justice. So that counts for a lot.

I also like the beautiful montage sequence of our two heroes riding around in snow-covered western mountains, hunting bad guys and forming an unlikely partnership, with Jim Croce's "I Got a Name" on the soundtrack. It's always Super Sounds of the Seventies, even in a slavery revenge western.

December 19, 2012

Zero Dark Thirty: this is America

Jessica Chastain in Zero Dark Thirty

It already feels like the debate over Kathryn Bigelow's new movie Zero Dark Thirty has been going on forever, and it just opened in theaters today. I watched it last night and was totally knocked out. It's one of the best of the year: powerful, tense, complicated, heart-breaking--everything you want in a great movie. Plus, it shows how freaky Mark Strong looks with hair.

But the debate hasn't been about the movie itself; it seems to be about the access to classified information the filmmakers may or may not have had, and most of all, the morality and tactical utility of torture. Is the torture of our enemies ever OK? What constitutes torture? And does it work?

These are all the wrong questions, in my opinion, at least when talking about Zero Dark Thirty. The movie isn't asking any of these questions. Torture happened in our name, whether we like it or not. So did a lot of other things in our country's effort to avenge 9/11, kill bin Laden, and thwart terrorism: bribes, bombings, occupation of sovereign nations, many thousands of military and civilian deaths, and lots and lots and lots of public money spent on wars. These are all things our country did, and does.

The real question here, from the movie's perspective, is: was it worth it? After all that, did we get what we wanted? There isn't a clear answer in the movie, but those questions are a lot more interesting, and maybe scarier, than a rehashed debate over the effectiveness of torture. And for the record, no useful information is extracted during a torture scene in this movie. It's Jessica Chastain and her brain that find bin Laden, not waterboarding.

As technically amazing as it is, I found it hard to get inside the movie at first, because I wasn't feeling emotionally involved in the characters or the story. That all changed by the end, but the chilly, detached style of the movie and the characters is one of the filmmakers' strengths. Just like in The Hurt Locker, we see war and intelligence through the eyes of people who aren't ideologues or deciders. They're hunting terrorists or defusing bombs because it's their job, and they're good at it. It's a procedural about our national desire for revenge, as performed by the people who fight our wars and avenge our deaths for us. It's a view of who we are as a country that we don't often get to see, and it's not comforting. The Hurt Locker is about a guy happily doing the incredibly dangerous job he was born to do, but Zero Dark Thirty barely has any of that triumphant spirit. It all ends in tears.

This movie is going to win Best Picture, isn't it? That's gonna be one bleak clip montage.

Also, it generated my favorite movie poster of the year. The redacted one. So great.

December 13, 2012

Can we get some Coens?

Coen Brothers

That wan, listless feeling you're experiencing could be due to a number of things: not enough sleep, iron deficiency, or clinical depression. But it's probably related to the past two years we've been living on this planet without a new movie from the Coen Brothers. From 2007 through 2010, we had a new Coens movie every single blessed year, each one great in its own way (yes, I'm including Burn After Reading. It's funny, OK?) But True Grit came out back in December 2010, and life hasn't been the same since.

Thankfully, 2013 is the Year of the Glorious Coen Return! Two of their projects will arrive next year, returning sunshine and John Goodman to our land. In February, we'll get Inside Llewyn Davis, their movie about the folk scene set in the Village in early '60s New York, starring Carey Mulligan, Garrett Hedlund, Justin Timberlake (!), and the guy from Drive. It's said to be based on the life and career of Dave Van Ronk, aka The Mayor of MacDougal Street, an early folk figure who I think is famous but I only found out about just now.

Then there's Gambit, a movie about an art con that's been kicking around for over a decade. The Coens offered their services to rewrite an unfunny script in 2003, then it went through many potential directors (including Robert Altman and Alexander Payne) and actors before finally getting produced last year, starring Colin Firth, Alan Rickman, Stanley Tucci, and Cameron Diaz as a Texas rodeo queen. Hopefully the Coen magic survived. It comes out, probably, in the Spring.

I feel better already.

November 20, 2012

Hitchcock, the Underdog Auteur

Anthony Hopkins in Hitchcock

The first movie director I ever heard of was Alfred Hitchcock. Actually, before I knew there were such things as movie directors, I knew who Alfred Hitchcock was. I used to watch reruns of "Alfred Hitchcock Presents" on TV, and I assumed he must have written all those stories until my mom told me he was actually a director, not a writer. Then I heard that Alfred Hitchcock's movies were suspenseful and scary and had lots of murder in them, then I watched Vertigo and Rear Window, and then I thought maybe I should spend the rest of my life watching as many movies as possible.

The name "Alfred Hitchcock" is probably more widely known and recognized than any of his movie titles, and it's been that way since the 1950's. Pretty amazing! That's why it's so strange to see him as he's presented in this new movie, Hitchcock, as a scrappy underdog fighting the studio system to make his radical self-financed experimental art film, Psycho. This is where the movie is best: the scenes about the genius and sweat that went into making Psycho, from the original novel's inspiration by real-life murderer Ed Gein, to the money talks with the studio heads, the bickering with the prigs in the Production Code office over violence and nudity, casting, shooting the shower scene, editing, the score. All the technical stuff is fantastic.

Unfortunately, a lot of the movie deals with Hitchcock's relationship with his wife and collaborative partner, Alma Reville. She's played by Helen Mirren, who it goes without saying is fantastic, but their petty jealousies are nowhere near as interesting as the creative spark at the core of their relationship. Alma was Hitchcock's main collaborator in everything he did, and was already a successful writer and editor while Alfred was still learning his way around a set. (The Times has a great article about Alma in the two recent biopics about the Hitchcocks.)

Even though Psycho was massively popular and pretty much changed our definition of horror movies, it was seen as a risky proposition at the time. One of the reasons Hitchcock is so good at portraying Alfred Hitchcock as an unconventional indie hero is its director: Sacha Gervasi, who's only other feature is a great documentary about a metal band that never quite made it big, Anvil: The Story of Anvil.

Unlike Alfred Hitchcock, Anvil really are underdogs, admired by superstars of rock like Lars Ulrich and Slash, but still plugging away without major success, working cruddy day-jobs and going on depressingly mismanaged tours like an unfunny version of Spinal Tap. Sacha Gervasi calls himself "England's #1 Anvil fan", so this guy knows his lovable losers. I'm really impressed that he captured that same hardcore, outsider spirit in a movie that includes scenes of Alfred Hitchcock writing $900,000 checks and tossing back buckets of foie gras.

September 17, 2012

Paul Thomas Anderson and Maya Rudolph, the great mystery

Maya Rudolph and Paul Thomas Anderson

I went to see this week's big new movie, The Master, which is the latest one from the talented and intense Paul Thomas Anderson. He's made six movies, and they all fall somewhere on the great-to-masterful spectrum. It's been a long 5 years since his last movie, There Will Be Blood, but the time he takes always pays off.

A lot of The Master is pretty inscrutable, but as a character study and a reflection on power, control, and the magnetic appeal of cult leaders, it's dead on. Anderson's main man Philip Seymour Hoffman plays a charismatic leader of a pseudo-scientific spiritual organization called The Cause, which purports to unlock human potential and relieve suffering by helping people understand their past lives. It's a lot like Scientology, but that doesn't really matter: Anderson's interested in his characters, not Scientology. Hoffman's character is a gifted performer, and laser-like in his ability to identify weak, disturbed people who need someone to follow and obey.

Joaquin Phoenix is back, and actually really good, as Freddie, a ferociously messed-up alcoholic vet who returns from WWII with major problems with sex, violence, women, men, and most human interaction. He falls hard for PSH, but he's pretty much the definition of an unreliable narrator, and sometimes it's not clear what's really happening and what's only in Freddie's deranged mind. It's also not at all clear whether his involvement in The Cause helps him in any real way, but it sure is interesting and strange to watch. The movie is visually beautiful, the soundtrack is amazing, and the songs in the movie all speak to the kind of devotion and fidelity that followers like Freddie want to give to their leader.

It's a good movie and all, but here's what I really want to know: What is life like at home for Paul Thomas Anderson and his longtime partner Maya Rudolph?

They've been together for around 10 years, they have three kids, they seem to be happy, and they're both gifted in their lines of work. But while PT Anderson is writing and directing these dark, wrenching, intense portraits of emotionally disturbed people and exploring the deepest recesses of history, the American dream, love, success, evil, violence, and self-destruction, Maya Rudolph is doing her own thing, such as pooping in the middle of the street in a wedding gown.

I don't mean to imply that Anderson's craft is somehow better or more important than Rudolph's; on the contrary, watching Maya Rudolph do Bronx Beat or play Whitney Houston on SNL is vastly more rewarding than that opening oil-well digging sequence from There Will Be Blood. They're both talented and successful, but their styles could not be more divergent. The closest things PT Anderson has to a comedy is probably Punch-Drunk Love, which is actually more about alienation, intimidation, and rage than it is about love. His '90's relationship with Fiona Apple didn't work out, but it made more immediate sense.

I'm glad these two are so happy together, and sincerely hope that they never work together on any projects.

August 14, 2012

The Dennis Hopper-ification of McConaughey

Matthew McConaughey in Killer Joe

2012 is the year of Matthew McConaughey. Not the McConaughey of bland romantic comedies co-starring Kate Hudson or Jennifer Lopez, but the McConaughey of strange, surprising, dark, dirty movies where his Texan charisma has a serpentine streak, and audiences get unprecedented exposure to his ball sack.

I watched Killer Joe last night. McConaughey plays the title character, a Dallas detective who moonlights as a hired killer. This movie got an NC-17 rating, which we hardly ever see anymore, but this one really deserves it. There's a ton of brutal violence and leering menace, with clear shots of the aforementioned McConau-junk, but I'm guessing what earned the rating are a couple of scenes of sexual engagement that are at times so disturbing and inexplicable that I can't say for sure if I understood what was going on, but I'm positive it was filthy. McConaughey delightfully describes his character as a "black panther", by which I think he means a mysterious and dangerous animal, not a '60's revolutionary leftist. He's a sadistic sociopath, but at the same time he's so controlled and dominating that he's magnetic to watch.

See that black leather jacket McConaughey's wearing above? Check this out:

Dennis Hopper in Blue Velvet

It took Dennis Hopper decades of cultivating his particular brand of wild, unpredictable genius to become the only actor who could play Frank Booth in Blue Velvet. We knew he was talented (Easy Rider, Cool Hand Luke, a million Westerns) but we also knew he was a maniac (Apocalypse Now, a seemingly impossible daily drug intake, the time he blew himself up with dynamite.) Then in 1986, David Lynch cast him as Frank Booth. Next he was in River's Edge as Feck, a reclusive delusional murderer in love with a blow-up doll. Dennis Hopper was back.

I feel like McConaughey is having a similar moment. He's spent all these years cementing his brand as the flamboyant golden-boy stoner, shirtless in a do-rag, holding a surfboard, playing the bongos, and supporting his lifestyle with endless disposable crappy movies that make tons of money. But all the while, he was building that charismatic energy into a force field of gonzo intense star power. Enter: Steven Soderbergh and Magic Mike. McConaughey plays the owner/MC at a male strip club who is actually named Dallas, a role so consummately made for him that it would teeter into self-parody if McConaughey wasn't so irresistibly, sleazily charming. Plus, the ball sack.

Next we'll see him in The Paperboy, where the Times says he's "playing a closeted gay reporter with a taste for rough sex and a raging death wish." Keep riding that wave, MM.

August 9, 2012

Next celebrity to get weirdly naked in a Lars von Trier movie: Shia LaBeouf

Shia LaBeouf in Sigur Ros video

Today we learned about an exciting new collaboration between two people who are into nudity that's kind of arty, but if we're being honest, is mostly just freaky and unsettling: Lars von Trier and Shia LaBeouf. Von Trier is known for emotionally apocalyptic movies involving gang rape, genital mutilation, and the end of the world, and Shia LaBeouf is a super rich and famous action movie star whose current relationship with celebrity is either estranged or outright hostile.

LaBeouf's latest role is in an arty, inexplicable 8-minute Sigur Ros video for an instrumental song, in which he appears totally naked, bearded, and getting busy with a blonde (above). Clearly this is an actor who's not afraid to get naked in front of the camera for a director who's into taking risks and/or being nuts.

Enter: Lars von Trier's new movie, Nymphomaniac! Shia LaBeouf is in talks to appear in this movie, which will follow title character Charlotte Gainsbourg through a lifetime of sexual exploits, including during completely inappropriate ages, such as infancy. There will apparently be both "hardcore" and "softcore" versions filmed, though I sense that the softcore version will be no less bizarre and perverse.

In the meantime, Shia LaBeouf will appear in some movies that don't include full-frontal, including Robert Redford's The Company You Keep (assuming Redford hasn't made a radical genre shift since The Legend of Bagger Vance.)

July 30, 2012

The Extremely Serious Dark Knight Rises

As part of my preference for avoiding death threats, I'm not going to say anything outright negative about The Dark Knight Rises, a movie that was the subject of so much anticipatory fantasy and hyperventilation before it came out that it couldn't possibly live up to everything we wanted it to be. I've got just two things to say:

1) I wish everyone involved with this movie, including me, had half as much fun with it as Anne Hathaway and Tom Hardy did with their roles.

2) The big climax at the end features a red LED screen ticking down the seconds on a time bomb. Really?! That's the climax of the summer's best and most intelligent superhero action movie? From the guy who came up with storylines as complex and creative as Memento and Inception, I expected something that the whole world hadn't already experienced in ten thousand other action movies and half the episodes of "The A-Team".

I suppose that one unusual use of the red LED screen counting down the time bomb was that, the first time we see it and realize that a bomb is going to go off, it reads something like 19 minutes. Which, for an action movie, might as well be a week and a half for all the tension it creates. Look at the bomb timer now! What does it say? It's at 16 minutes! Hurry! And how about now? 12 and a half minutes! And...how about now? ... ... Oh, sorry, I must have nodded off there.

As interesting as the political attitude of this movie is (still trying to untangle the Occupy Wall Street side from the Law & Order side) and as confusing, dark, and cool as its vision of superhero-dom is, I can hardly believe all the predictable by-the-book elements came from someone like Chris Nolan. Well, at least it's over and now he can go back to making more of the movies I really like.

July 18, 2012

Maybe now Katie Holmes can be an actress again

Katie Holmes and Michael Douglas in Wonder Boys

It's been many years since Katie Holmes was primarily known as a TV and movie actress, and her marriage to and masterfully-orchestrated extrication from Tom Cruise, Inc. are probably going to be the subject of most of the attention she gets for the next few months. But one of these days, Katie Holmes will emerge from the cloister she's more or less lived in for the last six years, and will be talked about because of stuff she does that isn't related to her ex.

Katie Holmes isn't the most talented actress out there, and she sometimes falls short of spectacular. But back in the late 90's, when she was a TV actress first making her way into movies, she had a run of roles in some of my favorite movies from that period. The movies weren't necessarily great because of Katie Holmes, but she was respected enough to get the attention of really good directors, and held her own against many excellent famous actors. Michelle Williams is the major talent to emerge from "Dawson's Creek", but Katie Holmes did OK, too.

Let's take a look at some of her career highlights:

  • The Ice Storm. Ang Lee's movie from 1997 about sad rich families in the 70's. She plays Libbets, Tobey Maguire's unrequited high school love interest. Her most memorable moment is at the end of a booze-and-pharmaceuticals party in her parents' apartment, when she states, "I'm so wasted," and passes out in Tobey Maguire's lap.
  • Go, Doug Liman's 1999 movie about the LA rave scene and nice kids in over their heads in drug deals gone bad, it's like the fun, light, inconsequential version of Pulp Fiction. Katie Holmes is a grocery checkout girl who unwittingly ends up serving as collateral with hot and menacing drug dealer Timothy Olyphant while her friend Sarah Polley goes out to sell a lot of fake ecstasy. Memorable moment: an enthusiastic make-out session with Olyphant on a staircase.
  • Wonder Boys from 2000 (photo above), directed by Curtis Hanson, adapted from Michael Chabon's book about a washed-up, shambling writer at a small college (Michael Douglas) and his exploits with his students (Katie Holmes, together again with Tobey McGuire, their scenes together are good), flamboyant agent (Robert Downey, Jr) and mistress (Frances McDormand). A wonderful, strange little movie.
  • The Gift, Sam Raimi's excellent (and undervalued) Southern Gothic supernatural thriller about Cate Blanchett, a psychic single mother, trying to help solve a missing person case. There's all kinds of grisly stuff in here as Blanchett's visions get more scary and violent, and I'll admit this movie scared the bejesus out of me when I first saw it. Katie Holmes plays the first role that was a real departure for her: she's a rich, entitled, bitchy little Georgia princess, all sweetness and propriety on the outside, with a raunchy, slutty side that we in the audience get to lap up. Here's a clip of her first scene. Plus: brief topless shot!

About The Gift: it's a worthwhile movie (has Sam Raimi ever made a bad movie?) but uneven. The setting is the kind of overgrown, swampy Southern backwater that's both beautiful and decrepit, and the whole movie is kind of like that. Some performances are great, like Cate Blanchett, Giovanni Ribisi, and even Greg Kinnear as the likeable guidance counselor who Katie Holmes the princess is inexplicably engaged to. Hilary Swank and Katie Holmes are both good as women living on opposite ends of the socioeconomic spectrum.

Then there's Keanu Reeves. He plays a redneck villain, who is presented as so evil and sociopathic that he not only beats his wife and threatens everybody he doesn't like with violence, but he also claims to kill cats for no reason other than that he is evil. Keanu Reeves doesn't possess any of the menace or scariness to pull this off, so he mostly just glowers and rasps his way through lines like, "Messing with the devil's gonna get you burned." It's bad, but everything besides Keanu and his dead cat holds up.

But back to Katie. She starred in Pieces of April in 2003, a small movie that defines indie quirk, and the first Chris Nolan Batman, but her movie career since then has been slow and unremarkable, probably because it was so tightly controlled by Cruise, Inc. Now that she's on her own, she's going to star in a modern retelling of The Seagull with a great cast (Allison Janney, Jean Reno, Cherry Jones.) If casting agents can pretend the last seven years never happened, hopefully she can get some movies with great directors again. She'll never be the best actress around, but she's good, and at a time when Kristen Stewart is our highest paid actress, I'm happy to have her back.

UPDATE: Katie just got cast as the star of Theresa Rebeck's new play, Dead Accounts, which will be on Broadway in the fall. Go, Holmes!

July 11, 2012

Janis Joplin biopic surges boozily back to life

Janis Joplin and Nina Arianda

There have been Janis Joplin biopics in development for the last 12 or 20 years, with all kinds of problems related to rights to songs and biographies preventing such a movie from actually getting made. There's also been the problem of finding an actress to play Janis. If you're going to create a credible movie version of Janis Joplin, you've got to find someone who can sing, has magnetic charisma and bold sexual swagger, combined with agonizing vulnerability and self-doubt. (See the great Vanity Fair feature on Janis and the early San Francisco hippie scene.)

And, most of all, she can't be pretty in a conventional Hollywood kind of way. Clearly, this last point has been the toughest, stickiest point for producers. This isn't the 70's, when Sissy Spacek could pull off Coal Miner's Daughter, win an Oscar, and bring in loads of money at the box office. Now if you need an actress to play a real-life person who wasn't beautiful, you cast Charlize Theron or Nicole Kidman, and if you need someone to play the dorky, not-pretty girl on TV, you choose Lea Michele or Zooey Deschanel.

Deschanel was one of the many actresses briefly attached to a Janis Joplin movie over the years. Here are some others:

Britney Spears
Scarlett Johansson
Lindsay Lohan (in retrospect, maybe a smart choice?)
Renee Zellweger (in a rival project that was going to be called Piece of My Heart)
Lili Taylor
Brittany Murphy

The wrongest candidate to date: Amy Adams.

And maybe the best candidate to date: Pink. Pink had the flamboyant grit, gutsy voice, and appropriate unattractiveness to be a compelling Janis, but dropped out in 2006 when the project floundered. Clearly, casting for this movie has always been more about popularity than getting the right person for the role. Pink said at the time, "They're trying to turn it into some circus pop contest - who's the 'it' girl who wants to play Janis."

Today's it girl is apparently Nina Arianda (above), who in yet another iteration of this tired old story, got cast in a movie called Joplin. BUT: this one sounds good. It has a producer, a budget, and even a director--Sean Durkin, who did last year's Martha Marcy May Marlene--and might actually get made.

Arianda has only done a few movies (a small role in Midnight in Paris as Michael Sheen's wife, and a better role in Higher Ground as Vera Farmiga's drug dealing sister) but her real claim to fame is her freaking super-humanly amazingly sexy and incredible performance in Venus in Fur, which was on Broadway until last month. In this play, she goes from desperate to absurd to funny to seductive to ferociously powerful to actual human embodiment of a Greek god in 90 minutes.

She's really unlike any actor I've ever seen on stage, and she is gonna play the shit out of Janis Joplin. But can she sing? Of course she can! She can do anything! The New Yorker says she grew up singing both the male and female arias in Rigoletto, and it's just a tiny baby step from opera to ballsy Texan Southern Comfort-soaked blues, so, there you go.

Just one thing: couldn't we get a better title than Joplin for this movie? Something like, say, "Sing Them Blues, White Girl: The Jackie Jormp-Jomp Story"?

June 25, 2012

World gets ready to scream, tear the spangly thong off of Magic Mike

Matthew McConaughey and Channing Tatum at the Magic Mike premiere

Magic Mike premiered in LA over the weekend, and today's Hollywood Reporter is like a hormone-addled divorcée going into a frenzy over a catwalk full of tan manflesh in fringed chaps. As we all get ready to head to the Xquisite, the fictitious Tampa venue in which Channing Tatum and his stripper buds collect dollar bills in their American flag thongs, I thought I'd share some of the finer moments of the recent press surrounding the movie.

At an interview before the premiere, dedicated Method actor Matthew McConaughey relates the moment when he was concluding one of his routines on set, and the women in the audience (who now that I think about it probably weren't professional actors) rushed the stage, jumped McConaughey, and ripped off his thong, leaving McConaughey "naked in a pit of screaming women." I'm sure when audiences see this scene, we'll all be transported by McConaughey's commitment to absolute artistic integrity and truth.

When asked what criteria they all used in selecting their individual thongs, by color, size, or fabric content, Steven Soderbergh, that coy little minx, modestly stated, "It was a very personal process. I know what I like, and it didn’t take long."

Stripper costumes featured in the movie include: fireman, cop, soldier, sailor, cowboy, and in the case of Matthew McConaughey, "black leather pants with the butt that comes off."

OK, this is quickly devolving into a journey into the mind/soul/ass-less leather pants of Matthew McConaughey, but the man is just a quote machine. When asked what it was like to work with Steven Soderbergh, here's what he said, with his no-rules approach to word usage:

He's very much a minimalist as far when he implements himself. He hires people for a reason, so you better show up with your bags packed and ready to work, and know your man. That kind of schedule is great for an actor because as time suppresses, you don't have time to over think stuff. Don't talk about it; show me. Press 'record' is what I like to say.

As for McConaughey, when he implements himself as club owner Dallas, the Hollywood Reporter review describes him as a "hilarious self-parody", a "gonzo showman in leather vest and tear-away pants", and a "self-deifying nut job". That's our McConaughey!

I'm not quite sure how to read the tone of this review, especially when it pointedly describes the stripper posse as "a heterosexual rethink of The Village People", then immediately describes their routine to gay anthem "It's Raining Men". Which reportedly begins with trench coats and umbrellas and, I'm going out on a limb here, probably ends with a row of naked dudes with shaved chests. I guess all strip clubs that feature male strippers have a similar aesthetic, whether it's women or men in the audience. At least in Tampa.

June 20, 2012

Celebrity lovebirds

The Daily News is running my current favorite celebrity photo: Mary-Kate Olsen, her 42 year-old boyfriend (aka Nicolas Sarkozy's half-brother,) and his tween daughter, out together in the West Village:

Mary-Kate Olsen and Olivier Sarkozy

She owns her own fashion label; he's a managing director of politically terrifying private equity firm The Carlyle Group. And they're 16 years apart. But look at that cigarette-cellphone-sunglasses body language--it must be love!

June 4, 2012

Who'dat?™: On-screen grit, off-screen glam

In today's edition of Who'dat?™, we consider an actress whose look in her movie career bears pretty much no resemblance to her look as created by stylists for the red carpet. The photo below was taken at a recent movie premiere, but it had me completely stumped.

To play, look at the photo below and try to figure out who this is. Then click on the photo to see if you're right.

Who'dat?

[tx ADM!]

I like this actress a lot and am glad to see her get more high-profile movies this year. Click below for news on her upcoming movies, which look like they'll be some wonderful combination of lurid, salacious, and bizarre.

Continue reading "Who'dat?™: On-screen grit, off-screen glam" »

May 18, 2012

Bernie: the best little murder movie in Texas

Jack Black and Shirley MacLaine in Bernie

Richard Linklater's new movie, Bernie, came out three weeks ago. It stars Jack Black, Shirley MacLaine, and Matthew McConaughey. Somehow, it's only made $540,000 so far. Whoever's job it was to promote this movie has majorly blown it, because this is probably the best movie I've seen this year--it's funny, dark, and strange, and it's full of hilariously wonderful East Texan townspeople that are so charming and believable they reach a Coen Brothers-level of grotesque authenticity.

The movie recreates the real-life story of Bernie Tiede, a warm and gregarious assistant funeral director in small town Texas who shocked everyone by murdering Marjorie Nugent, the rich (and mean) old lady who had become his companion. Shot her in the back and hid the body in the freezer under the Marie Callender chicken potpies.

What makes it even more bizarre is that Bernie was so popular and beloved by everyone in town, that even after he confessed to the murder, people either refused to believe it or thought it would be best to just forget about the whole thing and let Bernie get back to singing in the church choir and directing high school musicals. Oh yeah, Bernie's gay and closeted.

I'm a Jack Black fan, and I think this is by far the best role he's ever done. He's just as magnetic as he is in High Fidelity and School of Rock, but he's less manic and shows some real range. Bernie isn't just a version of Jack Black, even if he still does a lot of singing and dancing and chewing of scenery--it's a more measured and focused performance than the other stuff he's done. The townspeople who give documentary-style commentary are so exuberantly flamboyant that I really wasn't sure if they were actors or not. A few real residents of Carthage, TX were apparently hired to play versions of themselves, but most of the townspeople are played by character actors, many of whom were also on "Friday Night Lights", so you know they're the real deal.

The nephew of the murdered Mrs. Nugent, Joe Rhodes, wrote a great piece in the Times Magazine a few weeks ago called "How My Aunt Marge Ended Up in the Deep Freeze" that includes anecdotes about growing up with his incredibly mean and probably psychotic aunt, and stories from the movie set. He also interviewed the real Bernie, who's serving many decades in prison. Some family members are upset about the movie, and some townspeople are offended that a comedy was made about their tragedy (of losing Bernie, not Mrs. Nugent.) But the nephew, to his credit, understands why this movie is a comedy:

The whole thing felt like farce from the moment it happened, even to the family. I mean, seriously, under the chicken potpies? Shot and then frozen by the nicest man in town, who spent her money to finance the Boot Scootin' Western Wear store (and also, it turned out, some German gay porn)? How is that not funny? There has been some talk that, if the movie does well, a producer might even be interested in a Broadway musical version. This does not strike me as a terrible idea.

Here's the trailer, which might be part of the marketing problem--it's heavy on the quirky camp, while the movie pretty much plays it straight. Here's a clip of Jack Black singing along with The Florida Boys' excellent southern gospel version of "Love Lifted Me". And here's a great interview with Linklater about this project, which he's been working on for 10 years!

May 8, 2012

Dark Shadows and 70's horror camp

Dark Shadows, Johnny Depp

Dark Shadows, the TV show, was a daily afternoon soap that premiered in 1966 just as The Munsters and The Addams Family were ending. This period was clearly the heyday of pulpy goth television, and the lovably creepy families from all three shows have lived on through multiple reincarnations, which I sort of doubt we're going to see with, say, The Vampire Diaries 40 years from now.

I went to see Tim Burton's Dark Shadows movie, which is a nostalgic tribute to a TV show that Burton and Johnny Depp obviously loved when they were growing up. But the sad reality of Tim Burton these days is that he doesn't make very good movies anymore (possible exception: Sweeney Todd), and this one is an incoherent mess.

The style is cool (it's set in 1972,) and the gothier he goes with the story, characters, and design, the better. Tim Burton is great when he's dark. But several characters and entire plotlines felt tacked on and arbitrary, like the only reason he included them in the movie was that they were in the TV show. It doesn't hang together as a cohesive movie and probably would have been better if he'd made an episodic TV show, or series of vignettes about flamboyant Victorian vampire Johnny Depp, his creepy and possibly supernatural modern-day family, and Eva Green's cleavage.

The best thing about this movie is that it prompted revisiting of the half-hour daily TV show, which ran from 1966-71 for an astounding 1,225 episodes and was one of the most popular daytime soaps during its run. The Times has a wonderful article about it (the most repeated word in the piece is "weird".) It turns out that the show's creator, Dan Curtis, didn't set out to make a supernatural soap, he just started throwing in ghosts and vampires to chase ratings, much like today's soaps keep audiences guessing with evil twins, amnesia, or resurrections from the dead. Barnabas Collins, the Johnny Depp character, didn't even show up until 200 episodes in! Here's an excerpt from the Times:

In the context of late-'60s daytime drama these choices were, to put it mildly, counterintuitive. A few years later we would learn to call such desperate moves "jumping the shark," but what Dark Shadows proved at the moment Barnabas's cold, pale hand reached out of his coffin was that soap-opera narrative is in its essence an act of desperation, like the telling of bedtime stories by weary parents to wakeful kids: the stories just seem to go on and on and on, and the longer your audience stays with you, the more sharks, inevitably, will have to be jumped.

The show eventually included "a staggering number of witches, warlocks, doppelgängers, mad scientists, werewolves, and, of course, ghosts," which Tim Burton tried to recreate by introducing a seemingly random slate of supernatural characters at odd moments in the movie. It feels like an arbitrary, disjointed mess, but even if the movie doesn't work, I can appreciate the homage to what sounds like a delightfully bizarre show.

Jonathan Frid and Grayson Hall on Dark Shadows

A box set of the entire 5 season run of Dark Shadows is being released on DVD in July, packaged in an adorable coffin, for $420. A staggering 131 discs! That's a lot of vamping. You can also watch 160 episodes on Netflix streaming and catch some of the show's alleged line flubs and crew members visible on screen.

Here's a clip from the TV show from the episode when the Barnabas character is introduced. It's not as hammy as it could have been, but there's some excellent suspense in delaying the first time we see the face of Jonathan Frid.

May 5, 2012

MCA's other hugely successful career

Adam Yauch at Tribeca Film Festival

You can look at Facebook, Twitter, and all global media to witness the explosion of love that poured out yesterday when the news hit that MCA had died of cancer. We all love The Beastie Boys, and it seems like hardly anyone knew how sick Adam Yauch really was, or that he was in serious decline. I can't think of another recent death that my generation felt this personally.

Beyond his Beastie status, Yauch was also a major force in indie film. In just four years his distribution company Oscilloscope Pictures (a division of his larger company, Oscilloscope Laboratories that also produces movies and music) has put out a whole lot of awesome movies, including some of the best things I've seen in recent years.

Here's the whole list of movies they put out--highlights include Exit Through the Gift Shop, Wendy and Lucy, Meek's Cutoff, Treeless Mountain, Dark Days, The Messenger, his own directorial debut Gunnin' For That #1 Spot, and Bellflower. I haven't seen that last one, but this EW article includes an interview with the writer/director of Bellflower, who spent time with Yauch last year when the movie was coming out:

I've hung out with him a couple of times. He's awesome. He took me to go meet Jack White when I was in Nashville. I was like, 'What the hell has my life come to? This is crazy!' Adam, oddly, has a lot in common with me. When I met him he was like, 'Were you one of those kids who used to make bombs?' I was like, 'Yes. This one time I almost blew my friend up.' And he was like, 'I did the same thing!'

When Criterion released a DVD anthology of Beastie Boys videos (with many directed by Yauch under the name Nathaniel Hornblower), Adam Yauch listed his Top 10 Criterion Collection movies, with funny non-sequitur commentary that almost (but not quite) hides the fact that he was a major movie buff.

Also related to his film career, here's a funny, goofily defensive proto-Borat attack letter he wrote as Hornblower to the NY Times in 2004 in response to their review of the B Boys' "Ch-Check It Out" video. This letter's having a second life since yesterday; the Times reviewer, Stephanie Zacharek, tweeted that he was right.

Here's MCA crashing the VMA's in 1994 when "Everybody Hurts" won best video instead of "Sabotage". He's in character as Nathaniel Hornblower, Swiss filmmaker, both pre-empting and outdoing Kanye and Sacha Baron Cohen. He comes on at 2:48.

April 23, 2012

I am powerless to resist you, Channing Tatum

Channing Tatum in Magic Mike

I don't know how this happened, but about half an hour into 21 Jump Street, I suddenly became a Channing Tatum fan. I'd seen him in other movies, and he's always been fine, I guess, but not especially memorable. He delivers his lines a little flat sometimes, he's got that tan and those eyes that are set close together and that thick neck and muscle-bound body--he's someone else's kind of movie fantasy guy. Ladies like me, we go for Joseph Gordon-Levitt or Clive Owen. Guys who at least occasionally appear in movies where they don't take their shirts off.

Well, so much for that. Those days are over and now I love Channing Tatum. It turns out he's really funny! I don't think he had done a comedy before 21 Jump Street, not that I've seen, but he's got excellent timing and reactions, and when he pretended to hump a new arrest or stuck his fingers down Jonah Hill's throat to try to make him barf, I was won over forever. I'm never watching The Vow or the dozens of other romances he'll probably do in the next ten years, but any comedy where he says "Let's just finger each other's mouths," I'm there.

Cue: the Magic Mike trailer. Now that Steven Soderbergh has cast Channing Tatum in two movies in a row, I think I've got some cinematic credibility to cling to. He's good! Steven Soderbergh says so! In the Times article about Tatum's inevitable Next Big Star status, Soderbergh says, "I certainly would never place him in that category of young actors who get hired just because they look good. He comes with ideas that are well thought out but also doesn't take himself too seriously, which is really refreshing." This guy is so good at not taking himself too seriously that he can star in a movie (based on his own life) as a super hunky stripper in which he comes off as a modest, decent, kind of sweet guy. (In the trailer, which is good enough for me.)

Of course, he's got Matthew McConaughey as his flamboyant father-stripper-figure foil, who, as my friend T-Rock said, steals the show in the 5 seconds he's on screen ("I see a lotta law breakers up in this house!") I predict this is going to be one really fun movie with irresistible charm and unstoppable abs, and I don't want to discuss how many times I've watched this trailer.

April 9, 2012

Goon: Canadian minor league hockey = comic gold

Goon with Seann William Scott

The most overlooked movie out right now might be Goon, the raunchy comedy starring Seann William Scott that doesn't involve Stifler or his mom. Goon is a hockey comedy and it's the best extremely realistically violent movie I've seen in a very long time. The violence in Goon isn't about being artistic or stylized, it's about showing you what it's like to stop a puck with your face while a bunch of Quebecois meatheads spit on you. Hilarious!

There are lots of reasons this movie should be doing better than it is (it's only made $4 million at the box office.) Hockey is a perfect subject for a filthy-mouthed sports comedy (e.g. Slap Shot), the script is by Evan Goldberg (who wrote Superbad with Seth Rogen) and Jay Baruchel, two Canadians from the Judd Apatow school of inept, lovable man-children and and good-natured dick jokes. It stars Seann William Scott, who bulked up into a thick-necked bruiser for this role. An inspired casting choice, Liev Schreiber plays an aging icon of Canadian hockey brutality with a spectacular handlebar moustache and authentically flat a's. I think it's the best role I've ever seen him do. And Alison Pill as the rowdy, slutty hockey fan love interest--she's fantastic in everything I've ever seen her in (Scott Pilgrim, Milk, Midnight in Paris) and she's a riot in this.

Sometimes Seann William Scott goes a little too far with the dumb lug routine, but mostly he plays the character as a sweet, sincere boy from Mass who loves beer and mashing the opposing team's faces with his big meaty fists. The character is based on real-life Doug Smith, an enforcer in 1980's hockey. The biggest change to the character was to make him Jewish (his last name is now Glatt), which was important because it allowed Eugene Levy to be cast as his dad and for fans at the games to hold up signs saying "GLATT is Hebrew for FUCK YOU!"

It's probably not going to be in theaters much longer, but you can watch it on demand. Here's the red-band trailer.

April 6, 2012

Damsels in Distress

I'm a fan of Whit Stillman, and I've missed him as much as anyone. Metropolitan came out when I was in high school, and I rented it on VHS many times from my local video store. I loved the window into the lives of rich smart kids in Manhattan, and the way they spoke like they were confident, well-educated grownups, though they were really just teenagers who spent most of their time hanging out with their friends at their parents' houses talking about movies and playing truth or dare and mildly risqué card games. It was funny and smart in a way I hadn't seen outside a Woody Allen movie, but it made fun of these rich kids and their privileged lives, too. When one character explains his new term "UHB" ("urban haute bourgeoisie") to describe themselves, another says, "Is our language so impoverished that we have to use acronyms of French phrases to make ourselves understood?"

Anyway, we all missed Whit Stillman in the 14 years or whatever since his last movie (Last Days of Disco). So maybe that explains why the reviews of his new one, Damsels in Distress, are so positive. I saw it last night, and thought it was a failure. The movie makes a valiant attempt at creating an imaginary world where college girls offer tap dancing as therapeutic treatment for suicidal students and date comically moronic frat boys as part of their charitable efforts to improve the world, and other twee little things like that. But the plot is all over the place--it's a series of events and revelations that are barely connected to each other except by their tweeness.

Lots of mildly humorous things happen, there are small triumphs and mishaps and a lot of pastel cardigans, then there are two song-and-dance numbers, then roll credits. The fact that both my viewing partner and I fell asleep during the last 20 minutes or so is only a partial explanation for my failure to grasp any larger ideas at work. A movie with a plot that reads "and then", "and then", "and then" with no direction apparently isn't enough to keep me conscious for an hour and a half.

The story is hardly a story, and the actors don't seem to know what to do with it. The dialogue is contrived to a Wildean level, which could be a good thing, but only Greta Gerwig seems to be able to handle it. She delivers every bizarre, perfectly constructed sentence with precision and possibly-crazy conviction, and she's always fun to watch. Everyone else seems to think they're supposed to be winking at the camera, which doesn't work. Aubrey Plaza tries hard, but even she's wasted.

This movie is like Clueless if it were remade as a bad Wes Anderson movie. It's Clueless plus Metropolitan with most of the good parts taken out. Glad you're back, Whit Stillman! Please make a better movie next time!

March 27, 2012

Today's Carrie: she's really pretty

Chloe Moretz in Dark Shadows

There's some more news today about the remake of Carrie, which I've been curious about since it was announced last spring. Maybe no one will be able to top the perfection of Sissy Spacek in the original (one of those rare perfect casting choices, as That Fuzzy Bastard noted) but the success of the remake will rest with the lead actress and her gym-incinerating prowess.

And hey! It's going to be Chloe Moretz! Wow. She's only 15, but she's definitely got the guts to pull off a dark, violent role (see Kick-Ass, Let Me In). The only problem I can find is that Moretz looks a lot more like one of the popular pretty girls who torment Carrie than a social reject whose rage bursts out of her in a swath of telekinetic scorched earth.

Chloe Moretz looking very pretty

But what are you gonna do, cast an ugly girl? In a major motion picture? Please.

The other news is that Kimberly Peirce is directing, who has exactly one good movie to her credit (Boys Don't Cry). But at least she knows how to make movies about rebellious young women who don't fit in and experience major trauma when they get their period.

For Carrie's scary psycho-religious mom, I still like Amy Ryan, or maybe--think about it for a second--Courtney Love. Terrifying, right?

March 26, 2012

Cronenberg's Cosmopolis

Cosmopolis trailer

A mini-trailer is out for the David Cronenberg adaptation of Don DeLillo's book Cosmopolis. Last year's A Dangerous Method was Cronenberg's first time making a sorta-biopic period piece, and overall it was OK but a little disappointing. Cronenberg just doesn't do Protestant repression and propriety as well as he does fatalistic descent into uncontrollable chaos, savagery, and squishy sexual weirdness.

Thankfully, we've got all that delicious Cronenbergian perversity and mayhem packed into this new 30 second teaser trailer (that's in French, and not exactly SFW.) Cosmopolis is about a 28 year-old coolly-detached rich guy and his journey by limo down the entire length of 47th Street in Manhattan. Things don't go as planned, and it gets pretty surreal and horrific. It might not be DeLillo's greatest book (reviews were "mixed to negative") but it gave Cronenberg plenty of disturbing material to work with: riots, naked people, stabbings, freaky limo sex, and what appears to be Robert Pattinson shooting himself through the hand.

By the way, Cronenberg has been touting Pattinson's acting chops all year, and recently said he was a dream to work with on the (Toronto, obvs) set. "A ray of sunshine." So sweet! I believe him when he says Pattinson's got more to offer than Twilight would suggest.

Here's the trailer:

The rest of the cast includes Paul Giamatti, Samantha Morton, Juliette Binoche, and Jay Baruchel--pretty great! We'll probably end up seeing most of these people get either naked or eaten by a giant rat.

March 15, 2012

Death of a Salesman. (Spoiler alert! He dies.)

Philip Seymour Hoffman in Death of a Salesman

I'm going to be honest here. I think Death of a Salesman might be the worst Great American Play. Sure, it's sad and tragic, and we can all agree that the American Dream often fails to bring any happiness or satisfaction to people who chase it. But the story of Willy Loman is told with zero nuance or depth, and the themes are made obvious by the characters reciting them, repeatedly, in actual lines of dialogue. When a play has lines like, "Willy doesn't know who he is", "I get so lonely", and "The only thing you've got in this world is what you can sell," and they're repeated over and over, it seems like more of a reading comprehension exercise in a 9th grade English textbook than a great work of literature. This is what wins Pulitzers?

But for some reason, it's on Broadway, directed by Mike Nichols and starring Philip Seymour Hoffman. They do a pretty good job with limited material. The acting is mostly great, especially (of course) PSH at Willy Loman and Linda Emond, who plays his wife Linda. Willy Loman is a small man, but PSH has made a huge performance out of him. Linda Emond is more restrained than the other actors, and conveys the quiet desperation that I think is a good overall tone for a play this ham-handed.

The thing is, really high quality performances almost amplify the mediocrity of the script. I kept wishing I could see all these believable, compelling characters in a better play. The whole production seems to try to make up for the bad script by simply turning up the volume--there's a LOT of yelling, and lesser actors like Andrew Garfield fall into the trap of mistaking loud talking for acting.

But seeing Philip Seymour Hoffman on stage is a wonderful thing. Willy Loman is maybe the least cool character in literature, and PSH doesn't hold back with the unlikeable blowhard bravado, or with the disillusionment, self-loathing, and shame. He's amazing to watch, but he's so in control that sometimes I lost sight of how out of control Willy is. Maybe there's just no way to do a good job with a play this bad. The play opens tonight, so we'll see what the real critics think.

You know what would be nice? If Philip Seymour Hoffman got to do some more comedies. Remember how hilarious he is in The Big Lebowski showing Jeff Bridges around the house? Wow.

March 9, 2012

Johnny Depp as Tonto

The Lone Ranger

Have you seen this still image from Gore Verbinski's new action movie and probable first installment in an inevitable trilogy, The Lone Ranger? We've got Armie Hammer as the Lone Ranger, and Johnny Depp as that embarrassing reminder of bad cultural stereotypes in entertainment, and genocide, Tonto.

So, what's with that look, Johnny? If Captain Jack Sparrow was the flamboyant union of Keith Richards and Pepe Le Pew, Tonto appears to be a mishmash of Captain Jack Sparrow, a Victorian milliner, the Village People Indian, and either Peter Criss from KISS or a Juggalo. As to how that will play out in his characterization, I can't wait, but considering that Depp is doing this role in part to reinvent how Native Americans have been represented "throughout the history of cinema", I wonder what bizarre vision of cultural sensitivity and reimagining of post-racial frontier male bonding we're going to get.

My favorite imagined caption for the photo above comes from the AV Club: "So who's got the most distracting hat now?"

March 6, 2012

Who'dat?™: Photographers go one step further with their guess

Last week we played a round of Who'dat?™ with a photo of a weirdly puffy, facially warped, and (in my opinion) completely unrecognizable Lindsay Lohan. We asked you to name the celebrity, and also guess what decade of her life she was in, because in the picture she looks like she could plausibly be in her 30's, 40's, or 50's. (She's really only 25.)

Lindsay

But apparently I didn't go old enough for New York's paparazzi, who seem to have mistaken Debbie Harry for Lindsay.

Debbie Harry

Debbie Harry is 66 YEARS OLD. Sure, she's a remarkably gorgeous 66 year-old, but this still means that Lindsay Lohan appears to the public to be an elderly woman. Lindsay's own paternal grandmother is 71.

For context, here are some of the guesses I heard about who the Who'dat? picture was:

  • Joan Jett
  • Nicole Richie
  • Jennifer Tilly
  • Lil Kim
  • Donatella Versace

But I like the photographers' guess best of all. They're the professionals.

[tx ADM!]

February 29, 2012

Who'dat?™: Which decade?

Time for another round of Who'dat™? In today's game, look at the celebrity in the photo below and try to guess who it is. Early test rounds suggest this is a tricky one, so as a bonus question, you can also try to guess the general age of this person. Is she in her 30's? 40's? [gasp!] 50's? Be sure to look around the photo for other little clues.

Here's the picture. Try to guess who it is, then click on the picture to see if you are right.

Who'dat?

For the bonus Which decade? question, pick your decade and find the answer here.

Oscar follow-ups

Jean Dujardin in Les Infideles and No Strings Attached

In the unpredictable world of movie release dates and awards season, it sometimes happens that an actor gives a great performance, dominating awards shows with triumph after triumph, then follows up their Oscar victory with an appearance in a very different kind of movie. Last year, at the same time Natalie Portman was hefting her pregnant belly up onto a succession of stages to accept endless awards for Black Swan, there she was lasciviously buttoning a dress shirt at Ashton Kutcher on the posters for No Strings Attached. I can still hear her perky, nasal voice chirping "I think monogamy goes against our basic biology!" in the trailer, which perhaps didn't project the image of an accomplished thespian she may have wanted to cultivate while campaigning for her Oscar.

But then she continued the downward trajectory with the wretched Your Highness and Thor, so maybe she's less interested in cultivating thespian status than I thought.

This year, immediately after winning the Oscar and pretty much every single other major award for The Artist, Jean Dujardin appeared in ads for his next movie, which is called Les Infideles in French, cutely translated to "The Players". Dujardin wasn't exactly marketed as a serious dramatic actor here in the US, but there's still a sizable gap between the image of the charming, dapper Valentino-esque silent film star and a dude about to nail some faceless woman who, in keeping with the movie's title, is not his wife. Dujardin created the movie, and co-wrote and co-directed--the guy can do anything.

Check out the next poster in the ad series, representing another emphatic step down from the gravitas of "Academy Award™ Winner" (though I just realized this is actually his co-star, Gilles Lellouche):

Les Infideles

(Would a poster this vulgarly funny fly in America? Probably not.)

Nods also to Philip Seymour Hoffman for following up Capote with Mission Impossible III (though I'll acknowledge he was the best thing about the movie) and Halle Berry as a Bond girl in the worst James Bond movie ever after Monster's Ball.

February 23, 2012

Oscar Predictions

The Artist

I can't say I'm looking forward to this Sunday's Oscars with enthusiasm or anticipation. But like the folks over at the AV Club, I embrace the mediocrity of the Oscars. Sure, there were many really great movies that came out last year, but hardly any of them are going to win any awards. What will probably win are the movies, actors, and other artists that are pleasant enough, easy to like, or that the Academy suddenly realizes it forgot to give an award to after all these years.

Here's what we have to look forward to: Sasha Baron Cohen, who the Academy has sternly instructed not to show up in character as The Dictator, which I'm hoping he will interpret as a thrown gauntlet. The list of presenters includes people like Zach Galifianakis and Tina Fey, but don't we know better than to get excited about actors we like presenting Oscars, when they have to stand there and dutifully read limp jokes that aren't any funnier than the ones they give to Angelina Jolie?

I'm only going to make predictions for the categories that I know anything at all about, to spare myself the annual admission that I barely watch any documentaries and don't know the difference between sound mixing and sound editing.

Here are the nominees, and the ones I think will win:

BEST PICTURE
The Artist [It's become the inevitable winner, but that doesn't mean it's a bad movie]
The Descendants
Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close
The Help
Hugo
Midnight in Paris
Moneyball
The Tree of Life
War Horse

BEST ACTOR
Demian Bichir in A Better Life
George Clooney in The Descendants
Jean Dujardin in The Artist [He's expressive as hell and out-charms Clooney. Still, I wish Gary Oldman would win.]
Gary Oldman in Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy
Brad Pitt in Moneyball

BEST ACTRESS
Glenn Close in Albert Nobbs
Viola Davis in The Help [She's gonna win, right? This isn't the strongest category, in my opinion. Where's Charlize Theron? Elizabeth Olsen? Kirsten Dunst? Tilda Swinton?]
Rooney Mara in The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo
Meryl Streep in The Iron Lady
Michelle Williams in My Week With Marilyn

SUPPORTING ACTOR
Kenneth Branagh in My Week With Marilyn
Jonah Hill in Moneyball
Nick Nolte in Warrior
Christopher Plummer in Beginners [Wait, we never gave an Oscar to Christopher Plummer?! Whoops!]
Max von Sydow in Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close

SUPPORTING ACTRESS
Bérénice Bejo in The Artist
Jessica Chastain in The Help
Melissa McCarthy in Bridesmaids
Janet McTeer in Albert Nobbs
Octavia Spencer in The Help [The one thing that would make me love the Oscars is if Melissa McCarthy won.]

BEST DIRECTOR
Michel Hazanavicius for The Artist [It's a fluke, but at this point he can't lose.]
Alexander Payne for The Descendants
Martin Scorsese for Hugo
Woody Allen for Midnight in Paris
Terrence Malick for The Tree of Life

CINEMATOGRAPHY
Guillaume Schiffman for The Artist
Jeff Cronenweth for The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo
Robert Richardson for Hugo
Emmanuel Lubezki for The Tree of Life [It's not going to win any other awards, but this guy really deserves it.]
Janusz Kaminski for War Horse

EDITING (living with an editor means I'm required to include this category)
Anne-Sophie Bion and Michel Hazanavicius for The Artist
Kevin Tent for The Descendants
Kirk Baxter and Angus Wall for The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo
Thelma Schoonmaker for Hugo [Hugo looked really good, so I think Thelma will get it. Remember, "Best" usually means "Most" for the technical categories.]
Christopher Tellefsen for Moneyball

FOREIGN LANGUAGE FILM
Belgium, "Bullhead"
Canada, "Monsieur Lazhar"
Iran, "A Separation" [Glad it's the favorite, maybe a few more people will see it if it wins.]
Israel, "Footnote"
Poland, "In Darkness"

ORIGINAL SONG
"Man or Muppet" from The Muppets [Could have easily been an all-Muppet category.)
Music and Lyric by Bret McKenzie
"Real in Rio" from Rio
Music by Sergio Mendes and Carlinhos Brown; Lyric by Siedah Garrett

ADAPTED SCREENPLAY
The Descendants [Most of the other nominated scripts were actually quite bad.]
Hugo
The Ides of March
Moneyball
Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy

ORIGINAL SCREENPLAY
The Artist
Bridesmaids
Margin Call
Midnight in Paris [This is my favorite category--these movies are all great and well-written. Giving it to Oscar-dissing Woody would be a very mature gesture on the part of the Academy, which might mean it's not happening.]
A Separation

Any other predictions you want to throw out? Any guesses on how long it'll take to watch the Oscars on our DVRs, once we fast-forward through all the montages and boring parts? Less time than it takes to watch an episode of "Louie"?

February 21, 2012

Lena Dunham: a voice of a generation

Here's a trailer for Lena Dunham's new series on HBO, "Girls". If it's as good as it looks, it's my new favorite show that I won't get to watch for another 18 months when HBO gets around to releasing the DVD.

A few notable cast members:

Lena Dunham's line delivery somehow achieves a balance of self-confident, self-righteous, needy, wry, and deadpan, which magically adds up to funny and likable. She's amazing.

February 17, 2012

More from the Linky

Jeremy Lin Hey Girl

The Robot Linky over there on the right of the screen is still having technical problems (how 'bout supporting an RSS feed for Plus, huh, Google?) so here are a few things from the past few days:

  • Inevitable: Jeremy Lin Hey Girl Tumblr.
  • A good piece about the ongoing battle between Presbyterian minister Jane Spahr (an old family friend of mine) and her church. Spahr was the first out lesbian minister leading a congregation and has been marrying same-sex couples within the church for years. She's an inspiring crusader for gay rights in a religious context, and has always spoken about marrying same-sex couples within the church as her spiritual calling, which pretty much means the Presbyterian church is arguing that God is wrong.
  • Nicolas Cage has been talking for years about his innovative acting technique he calls "nouveau-shamanic" and the rest of us would probably call "mental", but now he's comparing his inexplicable career choices to Led Zeppelin, which I hope means he's going to play a Norse hermit blues guitarist wizard soon.
  • Ken Jennings' response to yesterday's "aspirin between the knees" attempt at folksy contraception humor by Foster Friess that became an instant self-parody:

    I call b.s., BOTH my kids have been conceived with an aspirin between my knees. (Long story, pharmacy-themed roleplay.)

[tx, Cushie!]

February 15, 2012

Britney is indestructible

Britney in Chaotic

The Robot Linky feed isn't working today, so here are a few little things about politics and Factory Records and Britney Spears:

  • Over at the AV Club, Nathan Rabin continues his "My World of Flops" series with a look at the brief, unwatchable reality TV show that Britney Spears created during her ill-fated romance with Kevin Federline, "Chaotic". This "Flops" series is a continuation of Rabin's "My Year of Flops" in which he takes a fresh look at a movie (or TV show, or album) that was a commercial and critical failure, and considers why it flopped. Sometimes he finds heretofore unacknowledged value in the flops, which is not the case with his review of "Chaotic", possibly the worst TV show ever made.

    Rabin comes away hating Kevin Federline with such intensity and venomous rage it's almost worth reading just for that. But his analysis of the disaster that Britney was unwittingly getting herself into, in the form of a marriage and subsequent breakup that was so awful it made her literally insane and probably almost killed her, is the interesting part. If Britney could survive being married to someone as horrible and parasitic as Kevin Federline, he argues, she can survive anything.

    Here's an excerpt:

    [The show] captures the bizarre, counterintuitive power imbalance at the heart of Spears and Federline's relationship. Spears may be the world-famous, multi-millionaire sex symbol ogled and desired by tens of millions, but Federline is the one with all the power in the relationship. In "Chaotic", Spears looks to Federline for the approval, validation, and affection she gets constantly from the entire world, but he's able to control and manipulate her by strategically withholding them. In her mind, she's the lucky one. She's the one dating an older, wiser, more sophisticated man who's kind enough to let her experience the benefit of his wisdom.
  • In excavating the old bank that will be the site of his new restaurant in Manchester, Jamie Oliver stumbled on some Joy Division master tapes in a safety deposit box. [!?!?] Whoa! What's on them? Are there any new songs? Covers of "Louie, Louie"? Was it Factory Records founder Tony Wilson's safety deposit box? I worry we'll never get the follow-up this story deserves.
  • With the camps pretty much over, the Occupy movement is looking at one-day protests and actions, which I think is great--this has to be about something more than camping in public spaces. But a story today reports a planned event for February 29th: "Shut Down the Corporations Day". Um. I want to get behind this movement, but moronic non-strategies like this make it hard.
  • Kraftwerk is coming to MoMA! Ralf is going to do a series of 8 shows, one for each of their albums. Cool.
  • And if you didn't find Romney's insistence that he is "severely conservative" creepy enough, how about this: he mistreats dogs. Dogs Against Romney is doing two protests this week. If it takes stories about dog abuse for people to think twice about voting for Romney instead of his policy ideas, that's fine by me.

January 31, 2012

Casting The Hunger Games

Jennifer Lawrence in The Hunger Games

The movie adaptation of The Hunger Games is coming out in a couple of months, and since I just recently finished reading the book, I've joined the swarms of 14 year-old girls who are braiding back their hair and perfecting their rabbit-skinning skills in anxious anticipation. I'm just starting to understand how important these books have become to young fans of dystopian fiction, so I can imagine how big a deal it was when the role of Katniss Everdeen was cast.

The first time I heard about the books was when Jennifer Lawrence was cast back in March. After reading the book, I feel like I can work backwards and envision director Gary Ross looking around for young actresses that could bring a combination of toughness and teenage vulnerability to the role.

Cue Winter's Bone. Lawrence's character in that movie, Ree, is so similar to Katniss I almost feel like Debra Granik should get some sort of retroactive casting agent fee. After all, Granik is a small independent filmmaker who spends years raising money between movies. She cast Jennifer Lawrence in a difficult role where she lives in a poor, rural, dangerous environment, she's lost her father, her mother is distant and useless, she's responsible for the care and feeding of her younger siblings, and knows how to shoot and skin squirrels to make really gross-looking stew. She can get the crap beaten out of her and keep on going. She's a gutsy-yet-terrified survivor in pretty much exactly the same way Katniss is. Gary Ross says putting her in The Hunger Games was "the easiest casting decision I ever made in my life."

(By the way, Gary Ross may not be the most exciting director (Seabiscuit) but he wrote and directed Pleasantville, which was OK, and he wrote Big, one of the better 80's hits and, I would argue, the best work Tom Hanks has ever done.)

I think Lawrence is perfect, but there was some outrage when the casting decision was announced, partially because of Katniss's indeterminate race in the book. The character has straight black hair and "olive skin", and many readers assumed she was probably racially mixed. But the casting call requested only white actresses, and the selection of blonde, blue-eyed Jennifer Lawrence was regarded as white-washing by some readers eager to see a non-white ass-kicking heroine. In stills from the movie, she's dyed her hair brown, but she's definitely a big ol' white girl.

The male leads also show how their characters were translated for the movie: Gale is played by Liam "Thor's little brother" Hemsworth, and he's hot and hunky. Peeta is played by the kid who played Laser in The Kids Are Alright. I worry that they'll make the character too sensitive and wimpy and lovelorn--the unrequited teenage romance isn't the greatest part of the book, in my opinion. But I guess protracted love triangles are the name of the game for young adult fantasy series, so I'll just have to cover my eyes for the mushy stuff, i.e. any time Katniss has to suspend her survivalist awesomeness to pretend to like Peeta.

Here's the trailer. I'm very excited to see Woody Harrelson as the hero-turned-drunk, staggering around boozily and slurring "sweetheart" to the girls.

Here's the cover of this year's Hollywood issue of Vanity Fair, with a re-blonded Jennifer Lawrence front and center.

January 25, 2012

Haywire! (Which deserves an exclamation point)

Gina Carano and Ewan McGregor in Haywire

Haywire is not a complicated movie, and it would be silly for me to try to fabricate a complex analysis of a movie whose primary pleasure is watching Gina Carano beat the daylights out of her co-stars. Hopefully others will share their reactions to the movie and thoughts about how it fits into Soderbergh's large and ever-growing assembly of genre movies.

First: it's a genre movie. There are aspects of the plot that don't 100% hang together (like, what exactly is the business of Mr. Studer, the evil French-Irish businessman who will kill people to protect his industry? Does it matter? Of course not!) and the part of the plot that does matter can easily be described in one sentence. Some critics saw this as a sign of the movie's flimsiness; I see it as a sign that we should look elsewhere for the thing that makes the movie good.

Which is this: watching Gina Carano and her incredible athleticism and physical confidence on screen. The fight scenes are great, of course (especially the brutal hotel room sequence with Michael Fassbender that's in the trailer--they really look like they're laying into each other) but my favorite scene might have been Gina Carano evading the people chasing her around Dublin. She nimbly hauls herself up drain pipes and ledges and leaps across rooftops with amazing muscular grace. Watching Gina Carano solve physical problems within a Steven Soderbergh movie means that there's just enough narrative and stylistic substance to make Haywire a fun movie, but it might not be categorically better than watching her destroy her opponent in an MMA cage.

One of my favorite lines in the movie involves two men plotting to kill Gina Carano. The intended assassin expresses some hesitation, saying "I've never done a woman before." "You shouldn't think of her as a woman," replies the other man. "That would be a mistake." Maybe it doesn't say very good things about the variety of roles for women that it's still such a pleasurable novelty to see a physically powerful woman utterly dominate her male co-stars in an action movie. But, hey, it is. I'll take it.

As for the formal stuff, I liked the out of order scenes and some of the non-linear stuff that Soderbergh is so good at. I wish some of the fight scenes had been just a little better lit (especially the scene at Gina Carano's dad's house) and I could have done with even longer shots and fewer cuts, to really let the audience watch the fights. But I was grateful to see as much as we did in the action sequences, without all that Greengrass-style shaky cam and edits that are so fast they seem intentionally disorienting.

David Holmes' soundtrack was super cool in a very Out of Sight/The Limey kind of way.

Other reactions?

January 18, 2012

Gina Carano and Haywire

Gina Carano

Steven Soderbergh's newest movie (his 25th!) Haywire comes out this week, and one early review from Hollywood Reporter has a lot of enthusiasm for Gina Carano and the ass-kicking she delivers to pretty much the entire cast. Carano is a top mixed martial arts star who Soderbergh caught on TV by chance one day--she's an experienced performer, but this is her first time doing conventional movie acting. I'm not expecting a nuanced story or anything like realism, but the fight scenes are going to be freakin' amazing. From the review:

Soderbergh shoots her half-a-dozen or so fight scenes without doubles or cheat editing, emphasizing his star's abilities to the extent that the semblance and extremity of the combat's reality becomes the film's entire raison d'etre.

As solid as all the male actors are, in the end the show belongs to Soderbergh, who took a risk with a largely untested leading lady, and Carano, whose shoulders, and everything else, prove plenty strong enough to carry the film. The director shrewdly determined what she could and perhaps couldn't do, and she delivers with a turn that makes other actresses who have attempted such roles, no matter how toned and buff they became, look like pretenders.

Soderbergh also cast performers who weren't conventional actors in The Girlfriend Experience, which was a pretty good movie, but I was left cold by Sasha Grey's flat, slack-jawed performance. Since Soderbergh gives Gina Carano something to do in Haywire, and seems to rely on her ability to throw a punch and not on her emotional expressiveness, I'm expecting better things. Plus, I'm delighted to see a female action movie star with arms that actually look like they could pound someone. As evidenced by her excellent photo shoot in this month's GQ (which praises her "debutante prettiness and skull-crushing thighs"):

Gina Carano in GQ

There's a great in-depth interview with Soderbergh at The AV Club about how he found and cast Carano, how he conceptualized the script, and why he doesn't use a handheld camera for fight scenes when his actors actually know how to fight (yay.)

A few excerpts that make me really excited for this movie:

I basically said, "Look, it's kind of a female version of The Limey. I want it to be nonlinear, and it's a revenge movie. I want her to beat her way through the cast." And [screenwriter Lem Dobbs] said, "Got it."

It took Gina a while to learn how to pull her punches. She hit a couple of the coordinators by accident. But she got there. That was a tricky scene for her, since we were able to give Michael Fassbender a little bit of padding, because she's really strong. She hits really hard. But she didn't get any padding, because she's in a cocktail dress. She had to keep telling him, "You can hit me harder than that. It's not going to look good if you don't."

I just find it annoying that in these [fight] sequences, traditionally, there's music trying to pump you up. I don't like that, personally, as an audience member. There were days, especially for the scene on the beach on the end, where some people were trying to convince me to put score over it, and I just wouldn't. I just thought, "No, it's great. We have the waves, we have the sound of their feet on the sand, and the sound of her punching him in the face."

Soderbergh's got three more movies in the pipeline, but still claims he's quitting after that. Hmph.

January 13, 2012

Totally Unacceptable Ricky Gervais, back again

Ricky Gervais at the Golden Globes

Even if you couldn't care less about movie awards shows, there are two good reasons to watch the Golden Globes on Sunday night: to listen to celebrities try to pronounce "Hazanavicius", and to see Ricky Gervais find new and interesting ways to insult the very people who came to be celebrated. Last year, the Hollywood Foreign Press Association said his offensive references were "totally unacceptable", but hey, the ratings were pretty good, so get ready for jokes about Glenn Close in drag and anal rape.

Here are the nominations. There's some pretty good material for Gervais to work with in this list. Two movies with nominations in Comedy categories make jokes about cancer (50/50) and racism (The Guard), so we're off to a promising start.

The Times has a good feature on Gervais in this weekend's magazine, which suggests that Hollywood's relationship with him has reached a comfortable equilibrium. "He has become the entertainment industry's favorite irreverent person, because he manages to be irreverent in such a deeply reverent way." I hope he'll take this accusation of "reverence" as a challenge to come up with some really unsettling, perverse stuff Sunday night.

Gervais has a new show called "Life's Too Short" (coming to HBO next month) about the career of a little person actor. The Times piece references a wonderful scene with Liam Neeson, who appears in one episode as himself, interested in starting a career in sketch comedy. I love this clip:

[thanks, sbk!]

December 14, 2011

Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy and the cool, ugly 70's

Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy

I watch a lot of movies, but every time I watch a spy movie, it's like I forget every convention used in filmmaking. I'm utterly confused by story twists, can't keep track of which character is on which side and who's double-crossing who, fail to catch 100% of subtly drawn hints about the central mystery, and often completely miss major plot points. All those shadowy whispers and code names and messy political alliances are completely lost on me.

So I was majorly relieved when my moviegoing partner came out of the theater after watching Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy and was just as clueless as I was about pretty much everything that happened in the entire movie. That's not to say I didn't like it: when I decided to forget about trying to understand anything and just enjoy one of the best casts I've ever seen in my life and some truly phenomenal stylish/ugly set design, everything was great.

Apart from the central story about uncovering a mole in Britain's MI6 in the mid-70's, which I only faintly grasp even now, there are some wonderful subplots that I found much more compelling. Benedict Cumberbatch, whose name sounds like it's made of tweed and leather elbow patches, as Peter Guillam was my favorite part of the movie. He has the movie's most exciting scene, and its closest thing to an action sequence, involving a file room, a luggage tag, and a phone call from a mechanic. My other favorite automotive part of the movie is Guillam's car, a gorgeous 1966 Citroën DS 21 that looks like this (though as commenter Maddy points out, the photo is a 1970 model):

Citroen DS 21

Other than that cool, sleek car, the movie revels in cluttered dinginess. As the revealed mole says at the end of the movie, "I had to pick a side, and it was an aesthetic choice as much as a moral one. The West has become so very ugly, don't you think?" The movie's design is amazing--it's as dedicated to drab 70's bureaucratic mustiness as "Mad Men" is to early 60's tidy modernity. The office scenes are like catalogs of outdated technology. In his review, Ignatiy Vishnevetsky notes that they must have had one hell of a typewriter budget.

My other favorite performance is by Tom Hardy as Ricky Tarr, the conflicted AWOL spy in love. The role was originally given to Michael Fassbender, who I guess was unable to squeeze it in around the 7,000 other movies he's done this year. Fassbender would have been good, sure, but Tom Hardy is probably a better rogue agent with that voice and those lips and all that handsomeness.

Director Tomas Alfredson, who also made the wonderful Let the Right One In, really knows what he's doing with casting, mood, and set design. Maybe if he'd been directing in his native language he might have illuminated the opaque script a little better. Or maybe I should have just read the book first.

December 12, 2011

That Diablo Cody, she's really got something

Young Adult, Charlize Theron and Patton Oswalt

Let me tell you, I wasn't wild about Juno. The acting was pretty good and I liked the characters OK, but the dialogue (especially the first 20 minutes) made me want to stab myself, the soundtrack was a catastrophe, and the whole storyline was just a little too cute and tidy. Diablo Cody won an Oscar for her script, which I conceptually support because I conceptually like Diablo Cody, but there's no way that cutesy hyper-indie-self-aware script was the best one that year.

Her new movie is Young Adult (with Charlize Theron and Patton Oswalt, above) which like Juno was directed by Jason Reitman. I love this movie. It seems like Diablo Cody had to get all that contrived, pretend-hipster-teen-speak out of her system with Juno and, to a lesser extent, Jennifer's Body, then started doing some good, funny stuff in "United States of Tara", then finally arrived where she was always meant to be: back in small-town Minnesota, in Young Adult.

Young Adult starts with a classic romantic comedy plot line: What if your high school love was actually The One? Let's get him back! But this movie realizes that this particular story line is totally insane, and a person who decides that she and her (married) high school boyfriend are meant for each other is not really a hopeless romantic ready to rediscover love in her hometown, but a mentally ill jerk.

Several scenes in this movie fall within rom-com standard operating procedures, but they all get subverted and end up going in a totally unexpected direction. The heroine from the big city does not learn the value of family and small-town life, she doesn't come to see that the ex-boyfriend's wife that she initially loathes is actually a wonderful woman and that he belongs with her now, and she does not realize that high school is over and she should love her besotted but un-handsome best friend.

Mostly, she just gets hammered and complains about her relatively glamorous, comfortable life, until she realizes the following important life lesson (spoiler alert): she doesn't give a shit about small-town losers, and she's better off without them. Who has the guts to make a movie like that? It's phenomenal.

Charlize Theron is completely amazing and great. Her character, Mavis, is beautiful, selfish, and mean, and over the course of the movie doesn't really experience any growth as a person. Though she does come to embrace the same self-confidence/self-righteousness that she possessed as a popular girl back in high school. Plus she's a drunk. It's not a likeable character, but she's totally compelling and I couldn't take my eyes off her. She plays Mavis in a way that expresses the character's entire life--she feels like a real person that you want to watch in spite of how horrible she is.

And it goes without saying that Patton Oswalt is very funny and excellent as a high school outcast type who never left his hometown. He's just as bitter and miserable as Mavis is, but sees things a little more clearly than she does, which forms the basis of their strangely believable world-hating alliance. Their scenes together are so natural and fun to watch, it's not surprising that they seem to have become legitimate drinking buddies in real life.

Diablo Cody's last movie, Jennifer's Body, didn't do so well, but between that one and this she's creating a weird, dark body of work about the prettiest girls in high school. She's good at subverting femininity and all that post-feminist-stripper stuff, but she's so much better with boozy, un-romantic comedy than horror and teenagers. It's probably one of this year's more warped movies, and one of my favorites.

December 7, 2011

Who'dat?™: great work ethic, somewhat questionable dye job

In today's edition of Who'dat?™, we ask you to consider a young celebrity who's got to be one of the hardest-working actors in her age group. This young lady is already almost in the same league as J.K. "six movies a year" Simmons, and she was born the same year I graduated from college.

To play, look at the celebrity photo below, try to guess who it is, then click on the picture to see if you're right.

Who'dat?

I think she looks sort of like a combination of Kirsten Dunst and Frances Bean Cobain in this shot.

November 21, 2011

Muppet Domination

Muppets Twilight poster

The world is bracing itself for the explosion of Muppet adoration that's going to burst all over everything in an avalanche of felt and chicken feathers when The Muppets opens on Wednesday. I thought I'd point out a few things about the funny and ingeniously creative marketing campaign, which has been so good it makes me a little worried that the movie can't possibly live up to my expectations.

The parody trailers. My favorite is "The Pig With the Froggy Tattoo", a funny take on the greatest trailer I've seen all year, the one for David Fincher's Girl With the Dragon Tattoo remake that still gets me so revved up I want to hurl a golf club at a serial rapist every time I see it. They also came out with a pretty good Bollywood one a week or two ago.

This morning NPR's Susan Stamberg did a good interview with some Muppeteers about the technical aspects of their work (lots of squatting, no CGI) and some of the voice actors about their characters. The funniest part is a segment with Muppet captain Bill Barretta, who does the voice for Rawlf, the Swedish Chef, and new character Pepe the Prawn. He based Pepe's outrageous accent (which I assumed was Cajun) on his wife's Spanish aunt: "She only spoke in statements. 'Iz a black shirt, OK. Come on, Beulah, we go to the mall, OK.' That's what she said all the time: 'OK,' at the end of everything."

Over the weekend, the Times released a video of Bret McKenzie, of "Flight of the Conchords" fame, singing his Muppets theme song "Life's a Happy Song" with Kermit--if the movie itself is this sweet and unpredictable and weird ("Life's a taco!") it's going to be as good as we all hope.

But the real question while watching all the ads: What about Frank Oz? The voice of Kermit hasn't been Jim Henson since he died in 1990--it's been Steve Whitmire since then, and he comes pretty close to the original.

But Frank Oz is alive and well. He was also, I just learned, writing his own Muppet movie script when Disney went forward with the Jason Segel-written one. Oz decided not to be part of the movie, saying he doesn't like Segel's script: "I don't think they respected the characters." Other veteran Muppeteers seem to agree, and some said they thought about taking their names off the movie.

You know what really bugged them? Fozzie's fart shoes. They're featured loudly in the trailers. "We wouldn't do that," a veteran Muppeteer said, "it's too cheap."

I agree, fart jokes aren't exactly Muppet orthodoxy, though I guess you could argue that Fozzie's always making bad dumb jokes. I still have faith.

November 13, 2011

Lars von Trier is psyched for the end of the world

Melancholia

After sitting through that interminable implement of character/audience torture that is Lars von Trier's Dancer in the Dark, I thought I swore off his movies for good. They're so disturbing and sadistic they make my stomach hurt, and he seems to equate bad lighting, awkward camera angles, and no score with cinematic virtue.

But I broke down and watched 2009's Antichrist on streaming video--all those reports of psychosexual anguish, talking animals, and genital mutilation made it sound like Lars von Trier had actually out-Lars von Trier'ed himself. I still can't figure out if that movie is pro-woman and anti-misogynist, or anti-woman and anti-misogynist, or anti-humanity. Whatever it is, it's ridiculously graphic, and it's really something to behold. I can't tell if it's good or not.

Anyway, Melancholia is better in pretty much every way. When von Trier decides to use some decent production values, he can make one gorgeous movie. The opening scenes that show the end of the world are spectacularly beautiful, sort of an apocalyptic bookend to Terrence Malick's dawn of the universe sequence from The Tree of Life earlier this year. And that soundtrack! (Here's a video with some of it.) The movie is available on demand, but if you watch it at home, be sure to use the good speakers and turn the stereo up really loud: Wagner works best at maximum volume.

Von Trier says he made the movie as a reflection on a period of severe depression, as represented by sad bride Kirsten Dunst. She's really good. As grimly fascinating as it is to watch her depression destroy her reception, career, relationship with her family, and brand-new marriage, all in the space of a few hours, the cooler part is the second half of the movie, when rogue planet Melancholia threatens to destroy Earth and kill everyone in the world. Kirsten Dunst handles impending doom with impressive calm, while everyone around her is losing their minds. If you already believe that life sucks and the whole world is total bullshit, who cares if the end is nigh?

The movie is one big vindication of being incredibly depressed. There's a righteousness in depression: as long as the end of the world is at hand, it's actually the correct state of mind. It reminded me of Take Shelter, another movie that seems to argue that being mentally ill, in that case delusional and paranoid, is a pretty reasonable way to be.

Kiefer
plays a rational, scientific, resolutely non-depressed brother-in-law (a lot like Willem Dafoe's character in Antichrist), and things don't go so hot for him. One thing we learn about Lars von Trier is that he can't stand rational people who wish their depressed family members would just cheer up already.

Another thing Lars von Trier hates: big elaborate weddings. Kirsten Dunst's total lack of interest in her own hugely expensive wedding is a little gleeful and rebellious, and in a few scenes he makes it look perversely fun to be depressed, because then you can bail on your wedding and drive off in a golf cart with your poofy dress spilling out the sides and not care. Then when the end of the world comes, you can watch in wonder as cool electrical filaments start twisting out of your fingertips before the planet explodes in fiery obliteration.

It makes for a good movie, but I doubt von Trier's therapist would say this counts as a breakthrough.

November 9, 2011

Now R. Kelly has an autobiography

The title and cover of R. Kelly's autobiography were just released. This is it:

R. Kelly's Soulacoaster

Kelly announced that he was writing this book two years ago, because he was "tired of being misunderstood." Finally, we'll get a chance to hear straight from the man himself (and his co-writer) about his protracted court case for having sex with and peeing on an underage girl, what was happening with that midget ("Midget! Midget! Midget!") in his hip hopera opus "Trapped in the Closet", his illegal marriage to/impregnation of a 15 year-old Aaliyah, and his forthcoming album "Black Panties".

About the title, Soulacoaster. It's everything we've come to expect from Mr. Kelly: nonsensical, grandiose, funny, and painful. It's so far removed from having any meaning that I don't think you could really call it a metaphor. The photo makes R. Kelly look simultaneously like an egomaniac and a reluctant star. Like, does he want all those microphones to be there? Or is he angstily dismissing them, like, he's gotta get off this crazy Soulacoaster? Does he think he's Jesus in Ray-Bans?

Well, the book comes out next week, and R. Kelly is a born quote machine--one of my favorites, from 2004: "In life, you have people that love to party. That's me. People that love God. That's me. People that love sex. That's me. People that love people. That's me. And people that make mistakes. That's me also." So get ready for an avalanche of breathless excerpting all over the internet.

November 2, 2011

Justin Bieber's paternity suit, as reported by the girl's grandfather

Justin Bieber

The day has arrived: Justin Bieber's been hit with his very first paternity suit and, according to the AV Club, "is a man now." He's also getting mental high-fives from Eddie Murphy, Chris Rock, Lil Wayne, Tiger Woods, Mel Gibson, and Steven Soderbergh. Welcome to the club!

There aren't many surprises to this one (he denies even meeting her, girl says it lasted a mere 30 seconds--hey, he was a busy then-16 year-old with places to be!)

But my favorite part of the story is that some reporter wrote up an interview with the girl's grandfather. A 20 year-old woman in LA says she had backstage sex with Justin Bieber and gave birth to his son. The world wants to know: what does her grandfather think?

Here's what the grandfather Eddie Markhouse thinks, a beautiful example of how people have nothing but wonderful things to say about their family members even when they're in the news for allegedly having sex with underage pop stars backstage: "I don't know the whole story. But, from what I understood, she met him at a concert and he sent two security guards down off of the stage to bring her backstage to meet him. She said they partied, had some drinks and they indulged in sex … She's basically an honest good person. She's got a big heart. She's a good kid and she loves this baby."

October 26, 2011

DC High Heel Drag Queen Race

DC High Heel Drag Queen Race 2011

Last night was the first time I got to attend DC's annual High Heel Drag Queen Race, which happens the Tuesday before Halloween. It might be the only truly unusual experience I've ever had in Washington, a town I associate with smart, conservatively-dressed people who walk around the city wearing their building photo ID badges and, despite their dedication to arriving at their desks on time, wouldn't dream of crossing the street against the light (it's illegal!)

Twenty minutes after the race was over, cops were out in full force, notifying everyone that the fun was over, the brief window in which men are allowed to wear eyeliner and sequins was now closed, please put on some pants. Stern officers on motorcycles rode along the edge of the street, hustling some dawdling Divine-inspired ladies out of the gutter.

But there were loads of spectacular drag queens and thousands of people there to watch, so even if the party was short, it was a good time. The race served as a little preview of what I expect to see at New York's own Village Halloween Parade on Monday. Each year's crop of costumes seems to follow trends, and it's amazing how the same inspiration strikes so many parade-goers every year.

Here's what we can expect to see this year:


October 20, 2011

Women in Cults! double feature

Elizabeth Olsen and Vera Farmiga

I've seen two movies lately that would make a great double feature if you're interested in creepy patriarchal societies and how they squash independent-minded young women: Higher Ground, starring (and directed by) Vera Farmiga, and Martha Marcy May Marlene, starring non-twin Olsen sister Elizabeth Olsen.

I really like both of these movies. Each of the protagonists first conform to the rigid and oppressive rules that other members of their group have accepted as the only way to live, then start to rebel against them, and ultimately look outside their groups for something else.

And it's pretty amazing how much they have in common. Both are about insular communities led by charismatic, charming, authoritarian male leaders. These communities appear to be about cooperation and togetherness and love, but as soon as our quietly rebellious female leads step out of line, all that goes out the window, and suddenly the purpose of the group seems to be the men controlling the women and not a whole lot else.

The two leads even look a lot alike: they both have those luminous, translucent, moon-like faces and big bright eyes. It's easy to be interested in the inner struggles of these women to figure out who they are when they're as expressive and beautiful as Vera Farmiga and Elizabeth Olsen.

Martha Marcy May Marlene (which I keep wanting to call Maggie and Milly and Molly and May) is a lot more extreme. People are talking about it as the Girl Escapes a Cult movie, which is accurate, though no one in the movie ever says the word "cult". Martha doesn't know she's part of a cult, which makes watching her decide to leave it and struggle to get her head together afterwards kind of maddening, because neither she nor anyone else around her realizes how completely fucked in the head she is. I kept wanting to grab her oblivious older sister, whose house she goes to after escaping the cult, and shake her shouting "Your sister was seduced by an evil brainwashing cult and is now extremely obviously displaying every PTSD symptom that exists! Call a shrink NOW!" It's a little frustrating sometimes, but it's still good.

Higher Ground is a lot less culty (and less violent and rapey.) The community Vera Farmiga lives in is like a Christian fundamentalist version of a '70's hippie commune or the Dharma Initiative from "Lost". It's a more subtle movie than MMMM, but it also didn't make me feel like hiding under my bed after watching it. I'm still a little shaken by MMMM.

That's mostly because of the one actor who's in both movies: John Hawkes. This is the year that everybody starts knowing who John Hawkes is. This guy is phenomenal. He plays Vera Farmiga's dad in Higher Ground, who loves his family but blows it as a husband and father, and the suave, manipulative cult leader in MMMM. He said in an interview that he didn't research cult leaders in preparing for the role, but he nails every quality that famous cult leaders possess. He's totally terrifying and great. (coincidence: he also played Lennon, member of the Dharma Initiative!)

Potential Future Oscar Nominee Elizabeth Olsen
is getting a lot of attention, and she's good, but it's hard to see what kind of character is underneath all that clinically diagnosable crazy-girl stuff. I wonder if people would be exclaiming about her so much if she were less beautiful or less naked in front of a very unhurried, lingering camera, but she does OK.

But Vera Farmiga--wow. I could watch her in anything. She's one of the best things about every movie I've seen her in, probably one of the better actresses around now. And a pretty great director, too! Hope she keeps getting good parts in movies without having to direct all of them.

October 19, 2011

David O. Russell being David O. Russell

Mark Wahlberg and David O. Russell talk about The Fighter

I just heard about the surprising, but probably inevitable, destruction of the friendship between writer/director and Level 10 Tantrum Thrower David O. Russell and his frequent collaborator Mark Wahlberg. Russell hasn't made a lot of friends in Hollywood, and since his screaming matches with Lily Tomlin got out, many people probably think he's borderline mentally ill.

But Mark Wahlberg has stood by him ever since starring in Three Kings (probably Russell's best movie, looking back on his career.) He was, in my opinion, the only really excellent thing about the confusing and uneven I Heart Huckabees, and it's because Wahlberg wanted him that Russell got to direct his biggest hit, The Fighter, after the original director Darren Aronofsky dropped out.

Now that he's back on top and has lots of movies lined up, David O. Russell decided he would rather not cast Wahlberg in their next project, The Silver Linings Playbook, but would instead go with the cheaper and less talented Bradley Cooper. The story about the ensuing friendship-destroying fight came from Russell's cousin, Matt Muzio, who has appeared briefly in some of his movies and, interestingly, also had a recent fallout with Russell.

This Silver Linings movie is about a guy returning home after years in a mental institution and trying to piece his life back together with his parents and ex-wife. Robert DeNiro and Jackie Weaver (the evil grandmother from last year's Australian gangster movie Animal Kingdom) play the parents, but get this: Jennifer Lawrence plays the ex-wife. 21 year-old Jennifer Lawrence. She's a full 20 years younger than Mark Wahlberg (15 years younger than Brad Cooper), and her character would have theoretically married him when she was a teenager. Not sure why Russell decided to cast such a broken down old hag for that role--was Elle Fanning not available?

Other projects that Russell and Wahlberg had been planning together are now in question, like Cocaine Cowboys, an adaptation of the 2006 documentary, and what sounds like a disaster waiting to happen, The Fighter 2. I can't believe this movie was actually going to get made, which probably explains why I will never get hired by a movie studio. When a $25 million movie brings in $130 million, you ALWAYS DO A SEQUEL.

I feel bad for poor jilted Mark Wahlberg, but I guess this is what happens when you throw in your lot with a creative partner who drove James Caan from the set of the never-released Nailed because of a fight about whether it's possible to choke on a cookie and cough at the same time.

October 13, 2011

Farmers, Cowboys, and Karen O

Karen O

I thought about using the photo above of Karen O, singer of the Yeah Yeah Yeahs and legendary hellion of live performer, as a Who'dat?™ last week, because I never would have recognized her with that new, New York Times-photo-shoot-appropriate haircut and sensible makeup, and without beer poured all over herself.

But now she's back in the news: she recorded a cover of Waylon Jennings and Willie Nelson's "Mamas Don't Let Your Babies Grow Up to Be Cowboys", a song I really love. Her minimalist version is sort of atmospheric and spooky with that cracking voice of hers, and it's good.

The odd thing is that she recorded it for Chipotle, which uses it in a video connected to its new foundation, Chipotle Cultivate Foundation, that's going to give money to sustainable agriculture and healthy eating organizations and The Nature Conservancy and groups like that. Which is nice enough, I guess.

They released a beautifully shot video to go with the Karen O song, about three kids who break into an old abandoned farm house at night and walk around tearing stuff up and jumping on the beds before it dawns on them that this used to be somebody's home, and family farms are closing, industrial agriculture is bad for America, maybe we should read more of Mark Bittman's columns even when they involve confusing dissections of the Farm Bill, etc. It was made by David Altobelli, who also made some good videos for School of Seven Bells and M83.

Here's the video:

Does anyone else see a problem here? Using a song about cowboys to support farmers? Do the people at Chipotle not possess even a passing familiarity with the Great American Songbook, or at least popular high school musicals? As is clearly described in Rodgers and Hammerstein's "The Farmer and the Cowman Should Be Friends" from Oklahoma!, farmers and cowboys hate each other's guts [video]! During this number in the musical, a huge dance-fight breaks out between farmers and cowboys that stops only when Aunt Eller fires a gun in the air and then forces each warring Oklahoman faction to sing cordially to each other at gunpoint.

Farmers and Cowmen in Oklahoma!

Despite the Oklahoma! indiscretion, the Karen O song is nice, and if you go to Chipotle in costume on Halloween you can get $2 burritos and make a contribution to Farm Aid.

September 20, 2011

Who's Older?™ Birthday boys

Hugh Grant and James Gandolfini: Who's Older?

Two celebrities had birthdays recently, and the two men chose to celebrity their special days in ways that show what matters most to them.

Hugh Grant has been loudly protesting the British police and Conservative government's failure to stop News Corp's media outlets from hacking people's phones, which now looks like wasn't simple failure but some kind of evil right-wing parliamentary corporate collusion. Speaking to the press shortly after his birthday, he said he was glad British politicians had finally "grown balls" over this issue, which he hopes they'll keep. He's heading to Scotland soon, where he'll shoot Cloud Atlas with the Wachowskis. I bet he'll be playing Adam Ewing out on that South Pacific island.

James Gandolfini spent his birthday partying at a restaurant in Soho with friends, which he reportedly departed by hoisting himself onto the seat of Mario Batali's Vespa, which was also supporting Mario Batali, and lumbering off into the night like a half a ton of beef cheeks balanced on a gravy boat. "We thought they were going to die," said one partygoer, who I'm pretty sure was not joking.

Now let's think about how many candles were on each man's formidable birthday cake. It's time to play Who's Older?™!

To play, pick which one you think is older, then click on their names to see if you are right.

Who's Older?™

Hugh Grant or James Gandolfini?



One note about Hugh Grant: I'll admit that I loved his sensitive romantic-lead style when I was in high school and he played a wispy Chopin in Impromptu, but since Woody Allen cast him as a scheming double-crosser in Small Time Crooks, he's had a string of great movies where he's gotten to do some excellent work playing selfish jerks. He's gotten crinklier since the early 90's, but he's finally found the delicious kind of role he's best in, which has nothing to do with floppy haircuts and stammering.

September 14, 2011

Drive and the 80's

Drive movie poster

I went to see the new arty action movie Drive last night, which I think is this year's 28th movie starring Ryan Gosling. I liked it for its unabashedly stylized approach to action movie standards like car chases and people getting shot in the head, and especially for all the 80's design. As much as I liked this stuff, I don't understand it at all.

Take a look at that movie poster, with the inexplicable anachronistic hot pink cursive font. What's that about? Some people have drawn comparisons to classic 80's movie posters, like the one for Heathers, but I see some other inspirations. Like this:

Risky Business poster

And a little bit of this:

Purple Rain

And let's not forget:

Tiffany album cover

The director, Nicolas Winding Refn, stopped by for a little Q&A after the movie, and he came right out and said he ripped off the Risky Business poster. He explained that, as a Danish director coming to America, he found LA to be a city stylistically trapped in the 80's. I'm not sure I totally get what he means, but I'll admit there do seem to be an awful lot of restaurants that incorporate glass bricks and walls unironically painted turquoise out there.

Then there's the music. The soundtrack (by Cliff Martinez, Steven Soderbergh's main man) is hyper-self-conscious 80's pop synth. The theme songs sound a lot like OMD's "Souvenir" or Q Lazzarus's "Goodbye Horses", which is featured in both Married to the Mob and Silence of the Lambs.

What all this 80's stuff is doing in a contemporary action movie is beyond me, especially one with scene after scene of gruesome, brutal violence that seems to explode out of nowhere. The killings in this movie are so graphic and violent that audience members started laughing in disbelief.

Then there's the acting. It's the opposite of the horrific violence and the synth soundtrack. It's terse. Minimal. Dialogue is sparse, stylized, and often sort of weird. Ryan Gosling is, as one reviewer says, a closed book. But, wait, then there's also Bryan Cranston and Albert Brooks, playing smaller roles with funny, snappy dialogue, plenty of warmth, and a dollop of sinister fiendishness.

The director explained that he used the lush, warm, synthy music to balance out the harsh violence and the (sometimes) cold acting style. But watching the movie, I wasn't sensing "balanced" so much as "mentally ill". The word that describes the feeling I got from the collective tones and styles of this movie is crazy. Specifically, either Nicolas Wearing Refn is crazy, or I am.

The poster font, the soundtrack, acting that's all over the place, Albert Brooks saying lines like "I used to make movies in the 80's. Action films, sexy stuff--one critic called them European." People getting stabbed in the eye with a fork. It's like if you took Michael Mann's Thief, Collateral, and the first season of "Miami Vice", then went nuts, then remade them into one crazy Scando-American movie. And it's good!

I was curious about Refn's next project, which will be a movie called Only God Forgives, also starring Ryan Gosling. Here's the description: "A Bangkok police lieutenant and a gangster settle their differences in a Thai-boxing match."

So maybe it's not just me.

September 13, 2011

Lana Wachowski

Wachowskis and Arianna Huffington

Some articles floating around today about Hugh Grant joining the cast of the movie adaptation of Cloud Atlas highlight an interesting bit of Hollywood gender confusion: what to call Larry Wachowski, erstwhile Wachowski Brother, now that he's become Lana Wachowski. On IMDb and everything.

That's Lana up there on the right with the adorably cartoonish fake pink dreads, next to her brother and, for some reason, Arianna Huffington. A lot of articles, including one by the trans-insensitive AP, refer to the directors of Cloud Atlas as "The Wachowski Brothers", the name they've used in credits of their other movies like The Matrix. Hollywood Reporter is one of the few publications I've seen today that just calls them Andy and Lana Wachowski.

Back in January of this year, the Wikipedia entry for "Wachowski Brothers" was redirected to "The Wachowskis" after what looks like several years of passionate, politically-charged debate over what to call them and how to refer to Larry/Lana. I'm glad we settled on that rather than the clunky Wachowski Siblings.

If Cloud Atlas is twice as good as Speed Racer, I'll gladly call them anything they want. German director Tom Tykwer is co-directing with the Wachowskis. If Cloud Atlas is half as good as Run Lola Run, I might start remembering his name, too.

I love the book, and I'm glad to see the adaptation is looking pretty great, and a little unconventional. The rest of the cast includes Susan Sarandon, Ben Wishaw, Jim Sturgess, Jim Broadbent, Hugo Weaving, and other people like Academy Award Winners Tom Hanks and Halle Berry who I guess will be OK. According to Ben Wishaw, the actors playing the main character in each of the 6 storylines that make up the book will also appear in smaller unexpected roles in the other storylines. For example, Wishaw plays three characters: a 1930's era pianist, an American woman in the '70's, and an extra in a nursing home in the 2000's.

About the movie's casting, Wishaw says, "Everybody's swapping race and gender, so it's very ambitious and quite fun. I'll really love playing a woman!"

Any guesses on whose idea that was?

September 12, 2011

Contagion, social distancing, and lots of dead bodies

Jude Law's biohazard suit in Contagion

Watching the Contagion trailer, I thought this was the movie Steven Soderbergh was born to make. Is there a single genre or sub-genre he can't do? He's done a political crime thriller (Traffic) and a sexy crime thriller (Out of Sight) better than just about anyone, so it's time he got around to a virus thriller. Chilly scientists, dogged scaremongers, aversion to human contact, and total, panicky desperation--this is the stuff Soderbergh eats up. Plus, Elliott Gould! I was all over this one.

The rest of the country was ready for a big deadly disease movie, too--Contagion was easily the #1 movie this week. I'm not sure exactly what our country has learned over the last decade, but the 10th anniversary of 9/11 seems like a good time to indulge in some old-fashioned social paranoia.

The movie is a terrifically good time, tense and fast-paced and almost relentlessly pessimistic. It reminded me of that incredible moment in Traffic when a well-dressed, very pregnant Catherine Zeta-Jones says "Get out of the car and shoot him in the head!" into a cellphone. One reason it's so good is that it never stops long enough for you to think about why the disease is happening or what it means, or if it represents some ethical or political message. It doesn't. It's just a great big disaster movie with some of the planet's most famous and beautiful people getting sick and dying horribly right in front of our eyes, and it's a blast. As Soderbergh once said about his style, "It's harder to be pretentious when you're moving really fast."

My favorite part of disaster movies like this is the moment when things go from bad to total catastrophe, social order breaks down, and all the rules we normally live by go out the window. Soderbergh has a scene outside an ill-fated FEMA truck that could be a case study in a seminar on Breakdown of Social Order in Disaster Movies. He's got a few scenes of every-man-for-himself mayhem that, along with sequences of people unwittingly handling contaminated touchscreens, water glasses, and cellphones, make you realize how screwed we would be if an epidemic like this ever happened. We're so sloppy about germs and cleanliness we might as well be rubbing each other's snot all over our faces.

The cast is great. Soderbergh gets excellent, understated performances out of Matt Damon, and he's great in this as a bereaved man who's going through emotional hell, but keeps his head down and holds it together to keep his daughter healthy. You know who else is really good? Gwyneth Paltrow! She's surprisingly believable as an average married Midwestern corporate manager who maybe likes to have a little too much fun on business trips. I haven't seen a lot of Jude Law lately, but I loved his morally ambiguous, possibly deranged, self-promoting blogger/prophet with his homemade biohazard suit (above).

As in every Soderbergh movie, the music is fantastic, with his usual collaborator and former Red Hot Chili Peppers drummer Cliff Martinez keeping things moving with a cool, bass-heavy electronic soundtrack.

Thanks to Matt Damon (who Soderbergh said is "as discreet as a 14 year-old girl") we know that Soderbergh isn't retiring right away. He's still got Haywire (the one with the mixed martial arts champ and former American Gladiator Gina Carano), Magic Mike (the one about male strippers with Channing Tatum and (yes!) Matthew McConaughey), The Man From U.N.C.L.E. remake, and Liberace (with Michael Douglas as Liberace and Matt Damon as his boyfriend.) But I guess the planned 3D rock-opera about Cleopatra with music by Guided By Voices, Cleo, was too crazy be true.

August 31, 2011

Paul Dano as Karl Rove, conniving nerd

Karl Rove in college

Richard Linklater has chosen his star for the upcoming College Republicans, his movie about young Karl Rove when he was campaigning for Nixon and running for chairman of the national College Republicans. Rove's political talent emerged early: he worked on many local and national campaigns, and toured the country training campus conservatives in tactics he'd engaged in, like going through his opponent's garbage to look for dirt. At age 19 while campaigning for the Republican candidate for Treasurer of Illinois, he stole his Democratic opponent's letterhead and made fake rally flyers advertising "free beer, free food, girls and a good time for nothing." A corrupt little strategic genius.

He was also, in his own words, a complete nerd. In an interview with a youthful Dan Rather on CBS News in 1972, he already wore his full head of hair in a comb over [video]. You can see 21 year-old Karl Rove talking to Dan Rather starting at 4:00--it's so freaking creepy to hear that familiar voice coming out of such a skinny little kid.

Anyway, Paul Dano is going to play college-age Rove in the Linklater movie. I'm not the biggest Paul Dano fan, but he was convincingly earnest and self-righteous in There Will Be Blood and believably lily-livered in Meek's Cutoff, so he'll probably do OK. Plus, he often wears his hair in a 70's Rovian sweep. Add the sideburns and those hipster glasses, and he'll either look like young Karl Rove or a member of Animal Collective.

A couple things I just learned about Karl Rove: he was student council president his junior and senior years of high school, he never finished college, his mother committed suicide when he was 31, and his stepfather was gay.

I'm sure Linklater will do a good job with Rove and his Republican activist friends, but I wonder if he'll be able to resist filling up the supporting roles with dozens of bohemian stoner types who dominated campuses in the early 70's. And oh, please God, let Matthew McConaughey play an acidhead adjunct sociology professor and part-time bassist for Iron Butterfly.

August 29, 2011

Who'dat?™: Celebrity Frump edition

I had a lot of trouble identifying the celebrity in today's Who'dat?™, and even after I found out who it is, the next time I saw the same image, I looked at this person and said, "Wait, who is that again? Annette Bening with a terrible imitation of Chrissie Hynde's haircut?"

To play, look at the photo and try to guess who it is. Then click on it to see if you're right. It's not Annette Bening.

Who'dat?

Once you've played, take a look at the original source material.

I guess you've gotta go all out on the frumpy styling in order to make a beautiful woman credible as an investigative journalist.

August 22, 2011

Jerry Leiber wrote the hits

Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller

Jerry Leiber (right), the lyricist of the famed songwriting duo Leiber and Stoller, died today at age 78. Leiber and Stoller wrote loads of the great R&B songs recorded in the 1950's and '60's, and you could argue that they were responsible for rhythm and blues crossing over from black performers and audiences to Elvis, white audiences, and everybody in the world.

I love lots of songs by Leiber and Stoller, but my favorite might be The Coasters' "Down in Mexico", which is featured in a great scene from Quentin Tarantino's "Death Proof", the second half of the undervalued Grindhouse.

Here's the whole 7 minute scene, featuring a dazzlingly menacing Kurt Russell, which leads up to the greatest lap dance ever performed in flip-flops, by Vanessa Ferlito. "Down in Mexico" and the accompanying dance start at 4:25 if you want to skip ahead.

A few other Leiber and Stoller favorites: The Exciters' irrepressible "Tell Him", Big Mama Thornton's original 1952 version of "Hound Dog", Elvis's pep talk for nerdy girls everywhere "(You're So Square) Baby I Don't Care", and the Coasters' tremendously fun "Youngblood".

August 18, 2011

"The Hour" on BBC America

The Hour on BBC America

Broadcast News

The first episode of a new BBC series "The Hour" was on last night. It's pretty great! Watching something good on TV again was so gratifying that I didn't realize until now how long it's been since I got excited about a new show.

Every single review I've seen for this show has gone out of its way to stress how "The Hour" is nothing like "Mad Men", though both are set in the workplace in an era when people dressed sharply while behaving terribly, and drank whiskey and smoked, both have ambitious, compelling female characters who want more than their chosen industries are comfortable with giving them, and both are located in a mid-century period when the world is about to change forever.

But "The Hour" is about TV news. As far as I'm concerned, News > Ads, so there's pretty much no way I wouldn't be into this show.

But, OK. It's not really like "Mad Men". The mid-50's London setting is a lot darker and dingier than the bright, shiny offices of early-60's Sterling Cooper. The news rooms are small and cramped, and oppressive class distinctions are positioned front and center. Life in post-war London probably didn't feel sleek, modern, and hopeful, it probably felt stifling and hard. Rationing was in place until 1954, and the empire was disappearing.

I love this stuff, so I'm all over this show. The actors in "The Hour" are fantastic--Ben Wishaw as the scrappy, talented journalist with an investigative instinct, Romola Garai as the hot, brassy, but insecure producer (have you see this woman in other stuff? She's phenomenal) and Dominic West as the slick, charming news presenter who seems to get his way a little too easily, and is even better looking than Don Draper.

This triangle is literally exactly the same as the one in Broadcast News, the movie with Albert Brooks as the talented journalist who lacks social graces, Holly Hunter as the fiesty producer, and William Hurt as the style-over-substance ladies' man news presenter. Broadcast News is just about a perfect movie, so I have no problem with lifting the characters straight out of it and plopping them in the early days of BBC TV news.

Let's watch one of the great scenes from Broadcast News that will probably be more or less recreated in some dark, ugly bar or basement news room sometime in the next few weeks:

Even with the food rationing and all those cigarettes, everyone in "The Hour" is a whole lot handsomer than anyone was in Broadcast News. Really, how did we ever see William Hurt as a sex symbol?

The scrappy Albert Brooks-like investigative journalist basically serves as the Don Draper of the show, and watching him speak passionately about news in one great scene where he predicts the next day's headlines (accurately, we later see) is as good as Don Draper's best sentimental pitch.

In later episodes, we'll learn more about the ghoulish Peter Lorre-like figure who keeps murdering prominent people for some shadowy political reason, and watch Dominic West dashingly seduce everything in a skirt.

August 12, 2011

Jani Lane and Cherry Pie

Jani Lane from Warrant

The lead singer of 80's hair metal band Warrant, Jani Lane, was found dead in a Comfort Inn room in the Valley yesterday. 47 years old. Cause of death hasn't been determined yet, but he had problems with alcohol and was in jail last year for DUI.

Like a lot of people my age, I watched the video for "Cherry Pie" several thousand times in the early 90's on MTV. Like a lot of songs from the glam metal era, it is not good, but it's indelibly catchy and uncomfortably memorable, the kind of song that will probably seep into your consciousness for no reason on a regular basis for the rest of your life. Band members say it was written in 15 minutes on a pizza box as an afterthought, when the label said they needed a hit for the album.

The level of blatant sexual innuendo in the lyrics is still a tiny bit shocking to me, even now. Maybe because I was an easily embarrassed 15 year-old when it came out? The song is 100% consistent in its themes and structure and is about only one thing: the singer doing it with his hot, probably underage girlfriend.

The album cover is a perfectly literal visual translation of the idiom suggested by the title, and still makes me laugh, gasp, and roll my eyes all at the same time.

Cherry Pie

My favorite verse:

Swingin' in the livin' room, swingin' in the kitchen
Most folks don't 'cause they're too busy bitchin'
Swingin' in there 'cause she wanted me to feed her
So I mixed up the batter and she licked the beater

[blush]

The other notable thing is Jani Lane's remark about "Cherry Pie" on a VH1 show about metal: "I could shoot myself in the fucking head for writing that song."

Jani did get to marry the girl in the video, Bobbie Brown (which might be the name that best captures the feeling of the late 80's/early 90's, along with Tawny Kitaen.) The video, which is both tame and terrible, was banned by Canada's Much Music for being too sexist (cue Nigel: what's wrong with being sexy?)

Pitchfork has more details on Lane's life in and out of the band, his recent appearance on "Celebrity Fit Club", and tour with the beleaguered Great White. But the sad thing is, when everyone hears about his death today, the first thing they'll think about is "Cherry Pie". RIP, Jani.

August 8, 2011

Another bum TUSH year

Katy Perry and Adele

It's that time again. I've been on the road for weeks, traveling the country on a mission of cultural exploration, listening to passing car stereos and piped music in convenience stores across the land, trying to identify the Totally Ubiquitous Summer Hit of 2011!

This hasn't been much of a fun conversation for the last couple of years. In 2010, I lamely tried to deny the undeniable "California Gurls" juggernaut, because I can't stand Katy Perry and it's a terrible song without even a glimmer of anything real or funky or good. It's light and catchy, but not particularly fun.

Instead, I claimed that last year's TUSH was Cee-Lo's wonderful "Fuck You", which came out in late August and had every single quality that makes a TUSH a TUSH, except the part about being ubiquitous. But! That came later. By last fall, "Fuck You" was unavoidably overplayed, thanks to "Glee" and Gwyneth. I called it! (Three months early.)

The year before, the TUSH was the Black Eyed Peas' "I Gotta Feeling". I'm pretty sure I was right about that one, because I still hear this song all the time. I'm not happy about this.

This year, we've got a couple of non-compelling options: Katy Perry (again) with "Last Friday Night" from that same damn album of hers that came out an entire f'ing year ago (and is probably going to break Michael Jackson's record of generating five #1 singles. Barf.)

It's a song about partying, so at least it's in the TUSH ballpark, but, like last year's hit, it's irritating as hell. I hear it far too often. Shouldn't we be at least a little bit happy every time we hear the current TUSH? She's releasing a remix with Missy Elliott, which lends "Last Friday Night" some TUSH cred, since Missy's own "Get Ur Freak On" was the 2001 TUSH.

The other big contender is Adele's gigantic hit "Rolling in the Deep". This one has the ubiquity part cold. I heard it at a gas station in the middle of nowhere in Wyoming, I heard it at a family picnic when my teenage cousins' cover band started their backyard set with it. It's everywhere. Friends tell me just about everyone they know likes it, no matter what their usual preferences are.

So maybe it's just me, because I'm not wild about it. It's a downer, which makes it a clumsy fit for a TUSH. It also came out in November of last year, though didn't hit #1 on the charts until late May, where it stayed for 7 weeks.

A few things about Adele that bug me: she owes a lot of her success to Amy Winehouse, who tragically failed to overcome her addictions, but was a far superior artist. Adele may not like the comparison, and it's possible that she wasn't directly influenced by Amy Winehouse, but her career probably wouldn't exist if "Back to Black" hadn't sold millions of copies.

And did you hear her rich-person rant about having to pay taxes earlier this summer? Awful.

There's also this song, "Party Rock Anthem", by uncle-nephew duo LMFAO which is currently at #1 in sales and radio play. Have you heard it? It's like six months old and intended to be a joke, I'm pretty sure. At this point, I don't care, it's ridiculous and fun, so if I start hearing it at Duane Reade or the Korean noodle lunch place on 48th St, it'll be a perfectly serviceable TUSH.

We've certainly got some ubiquitous songs this summer, but there's a certain laziness in identifying the season with songs that have been kicking around since last year. If I'm missing some great, sunshiny tune out there, please let me know!

July 22, 2011

The state of movies

Tom Cruise in Mission Impossible 4

I have only the flimsiest understanding of the Avengers superheroes and their related movie and merchandising tie-ins, but I think Chris Evans is pretty good, so I went to see Captain America this afternoon. Ehhh. While I barely remember anything about the movie just a few hours after watching it (probably because I fell asleep more than once), the trailers that came before the feature were very memorable. Specifically, I remember thinking, dear lord, if this is the best Hollywood is coming up with, I sure hope the Paul Thomas Andersons and Nicole Holofceners of the world keep picking up the slack.

A few notable things about these trailers:

This is hardly news, but we appear to have run out of new ideas for movies. I don't attach any sacred value to existing movies and am totally OK with remakes and sequels, as long as they're good in themselves. It just feels like we have very few new ideas to look forward to in the action movies Hollywood is lining up. Mission: Impossible 4 [trailer]. Rise of the Planet of the Apes [new trailer]. And especially the trailer for The Amazing Spider-Man. I had somehow convinced myself that the "rebooted" Spiderman series would be some kind of interesting variation on the series that Sam Raimi just made less than 10 years ago (2002-2007).

I assure you, it is not. This new Spiderman movie that stars Andrew Garfield looks like the exact same movie that Sam Raimi made in 2002. Except that it has different actors, and it won't be as good, because Sam Raimi didn't make it. The last movie the guy who directed the new one did is (500) Days of Summer, which would be OK, I suppose, if Spiderman was about pretty Los Angeles architecture and twee little emo hipsters.

If Hollywood is looking for successful movies to rehash, I've got a great series remake idea for you right here. Harry Potter. With the final installment's release last week, it's due for a reboot!

At least the new Planet of the Apes movie is an origin story, adding a new angle to both the original series and the Tim Burton movie from 2001. And it offers more fodder for all those people irritated by James Franco's tendency to blithely turn up in every single genre and art form that exists.

Also, two of the major Pixar directors are branching out into live action. Brad Bird (The Incredibles, Ratatouille) is directing the latest in the Mission: Impossible series, in which Tom Cruise will presumably do all his own stunts and scenery chewing. The movie also features the wonderful Jeremy Renner, who I guess has decided to go full-on action since The Hurt Locker.

Andrew Stanton, who did Finding Nemo and WALL-E, is directing what I think was the only movie with an original concept whose trailer I saw today, John Carter. This one's about a Civil War veteran who is magically transported to Mars, and has a great cast (Bryan Cranston, Samantha Morton, Ciaran Hinds, and the guy from "Friday Night Lights".) It's also not a remake of any other movie that I can identify. Cool.

July 12, 2011

Horrible Bosses and Donkey Kong

Billy Mitchell in King of Kong

I haven't watched Horrible Bosses (but I kind of want to after reading A.O. Scott's half-embarrassed positive review, in which he compares the crude, idiotic, absurd style of humor to snorting cocaine) but there are a couple of interesting things about it that I thought I'd point out:

  • It's directed by Seth Gordon, whose first movie was one of the more entertaining documentaries I've ever seen, The King of Kong, about the world's most dedicated classic video game players and champions of Donkey Kong. The most memorable figure in King of Kong is Billy Mitchell, reigning Kong champ, extravagant megalomaniac, and collector of dazzling patriotic ties (see above).
  • Colin Farrell allegedly based his horrible boss character on Billy Mitchell, after Seth Gordon gave him a copy of Kong to watch. Gordon says, "It was wonderful that Colin was open to the role and really breathed life into it. At the first meeting, we talked about giving him a belly and a clubbing enthusiasm -- and Colin wanted a comb-over. As soon as we saw the first attempt at that I knew it was right."
  • Seth Gordon now says that he wants to remake King of Kong, a straight-up documentary, as a mockumentary. The original has such grandiose and over-the-top characters that it sometimes edges into mocking territory, but Gordon was inspired by his recent experience directing episodes of "The Office" and "Parks and Recreation" and wants to try that style with the Kong remake.

    In my opinion, the reason the original is so wonderful is that the characters are all real people who are completely sincere in their dedication to video games. They say things like, "I wanted to be a hero. I wanted to be the center of attention. I wanted the glory, I wanted the fame. I wanted the pretty girls to come up and say, 'Hi, I see that you're good at Centipede' " or "No matter what I say, it draws controversy. It's sort of like the abortion issue." And THEY MEAN IT. A mockumentary about these people could easily slide into mean-spiritedness and winking at the camera.

  • One more thing about Horrible Bosses: do you know who wrote that cinematic cocaine that made A.O. Scott so giddy? Sam Weir! John Francis Daley, who played little Sam in Paul Feig's "Freaks and Geeks" now writes offensively vulgar comedies! I'm so proud.

July 7, 2011

Let's make Phife Dawg some money

Michael Rapaport and Phife Dawg

I can tell you exactly what I'll be doing tomorrow when the office closes: heading to 42nd St to watch Michael Rapaport's A Tribe Called Quest documentary Beats Rhymes & Life [official site]. I bet a lot of other people are going to do that, too, for the following reasons: it's the maybe the only feature-length documentary about a single hip-hop group; it's about one of the greatest groups ever; and the drama surrounding the movie and the group's vocal lack of support for it have just about eclipsed the movie itself.

The arguing about the movie seems to be mostly over at this point, especially since both Phife Dawg and Ali Shaheed Muhammad attended the screening at Tribeca and Ali said he was "representing Q-Tip" and that they were all happy with the finished version. Good thing for director Michael Rapaport, the world's biggest Tribe fan, who at times sounded like he was coming unhinged trying to get this movie out. In a letter to Landmark Theatres, he writes, "I didn't realize the movie was going to be as interpersonal as it turned out!" which I think is code for "I love these guys, but working with them has been a total f'ing nightmare!"

Here's what I think the drama was really about: 1) money and 2) Q-Tip's ego.

First, the money. Michael Rapaport initially promised the band 50% of net profits, which sounds pretty good, but then Q-Tip wanted the band to be credited as producers, too. Then some idiot producer, in a classic example of a cc screw-up, sent an email suggesting that they rush the movie poster into print without the band listed as producers, "then we'll fuck them on everything else." And Q-Tip was copied on it. So they freaked out (understandably), Michael Rapaport relented, and they got their producer credit (see full credits here.) Plus, drama and ticket sales have a dependably direct relationship.

Second, Q-Tip. I don't have any insider knowledge of the dynamics of the band members, but I think Q-Tip and Phife Dawg had a relationship reminiscent of other great two-headed groups that ultimately blew apart. Lennon-McCartney. Strummer-Jones. André-Big Boi. A tactfully written Slate piece on the movie describes the basis of their rift as "the simple fact that Q-Tip has always been the group's star despite Phife's abundant talent."

Here's my prediction about how the two of them come off in the movie: Q-Tip will seem like a consummate front man, and a little bit of an egomaniac who needs to have total control over his image, and Phife will seem like a funny, beleaguered, sympathetic guy who's been through hell. He really has had it rough: Phife has diabetes and apparently goes through a lot of medical difficulties in the movie. The band's 2008 reunion tour largely happened to help him pay his medical bills.

So let's get him some cash money! Maybe he's never had a cavity, but Phife needs his dialysis.

June 30, 2011

Pixar remembers girls like movies, too

Merida in Pixar's Brave

A new short trailer is out for Pixar's 2012 feature, Brave, which I'm pretty sure will be the first Pixar movie with a female lead character, the fiesty, curly-headed Merida. And it's definitely the first Pixar movie written and co-directed by a woman (Brenda Chapman).

Here's the trailer:

We don't know a whole lot about the story yet, except that it's sort of vaguely pagan and mystical and Scottish, but the Pixar Wiki says it involves Princess Merida, an aspiring archer who has no truck with ancient Scottish tradition, which she defies at every opportunity. This leads to problems: her attempt at being a contrary little feminist unleashes "chaos and fury" into the kingdom, then when she's granted a wish from a witch to try to fix all that chaos and fury, she blows that too. Somehow, I'm going to guess, it all works out.

But it sounds cool! Not only a female protagonist (about time) from the most consistently great mainstream animated producers out there, but a protagonist that screws up a lot! And then has to shoot a lot of fierce beasts with her bow and arrow and generally save the kingdom! Disney is certainly no stranger to female protagonists in its long history, but rarely have its heroines been what you could call tough or gutsy or even especially flawed (though I didn't see Tangled, which sounds kinda weird.)

Kelly Macdonald is the voice of Merida, which sounds more like a Mexican city than a Scottish princess, but, OK. I totally love her accent in Trainspotting and Gosford Park, so listening to her sass some druids for 90 minutes sounds great to me.

Just cuz, let's look at Kelly Macdonald's funny, sarcastic speech to a flustered Mark Renton outside the club in Trainspotting, when she describes to him his unsophisticated approach to meeting women:

You don't normally approach girls - am I right? The truth is that you're a quiet sensitive type but, if I'm prepared to take a chance, I might just get to know the inner you: witty, adventurous, passionate, loving, loyal. (Taxi!) A little bit crazy, a little bit bad. But hey - don't us girls just love that?

(I can only find the video of that scene dubbed into Spanish, though it actually works pretty well.)

The movie also stars Billy Connolly and Emma Thompson as the King and Queen, and it comes out next June.

June 26, 2011

Who'dat?™

who'dat?

In today's edition of Who'dat?™, we invite you to consider the photo of a famous person above. She loves her cell phone and is quoted in the article accompanying this photo saying, "I definitely wanted [my artform] to be a spatial experience, where you can play with lightning or a crystal or the full moon."

Once you think you know who this is, click on the picture to see if you're right.

Here's the entire article, about phone apps, small apartments, and transistor radios, among other things.

June 22, 2011

Footloose remake

Footloose remake

The trailer for the remake of Footloose is out. If you're like me and you watched the original over and over again back in the 80's, you'll notice that there are many near-identical shots and sequences:

But because this is the 21st century, there's also 100% more backing it up.

Though the world has known this for over a year, I somehow totally missed that the guy directing this remake is Craig Brewer, who also made Hustle & Flow and Black Snake Moan, two movies about poor people living in Memphis, driven by their situations to extreme, desperate behavior, such as working as a prostitute, laying down a crunk track with DJ Qualls, or chaining Christina Ricci to your radiator. They're flawed movies, but they have incredibly compelling characters, excellent soundtracks, and dark story lines that stay with you even though they're wildly unrealistic.

So, Footloose? It turns out that Craig Brewer is an intensely devoted fan of the original, and used to listen to an audio recording he made of the entire movie on his way to and from school. "I know every moment of Footloose," he said in an interview from back when he started working on the remake.

He also wrote the screenplay, scrapping an early, probably far sunnier version, and putting his own spin on the story. He calls it an example of "working-class cinema", so I'm guessing it's grittier and a lot weirder than it started out.

One other good sign: remember Willard, the rhythmically-challenged kid who befriends Kevin Bacon and adorably succeeds in learning some smooth moves in the "Let's Hear It For the Boy" sequence, which was one of Chris Penn's better roles? Willard is going to be played by Miles Teller, who was totally great as the teenage boy in last year's very heavy Rabbit Hole. Looks like the original sequence is faithfully recreated (see above) except that the guys' outfits are, sadly, nowhere NEAR as tight as they were in the original.

Basically, if you're interested in watching Footloose, but with more bare midriffs and less Kenny Loggins, this is your movie.

June 16, 2011

Laundry horror

Woolite ad by Rob Zombie

The Times has a funny story about a recent ad campaigns that use elements of horror and action movies to sell laundry detergent--a nice departure from the usual earnest white-bread Mom vexed by dingy whites.

The best one is a new TV ad for Woolite, featuring a Leatherface-like maniac hauling a load of laundry through a barren, muddy field to the yard outside a ramshackle old house. Surrounded by classic horror movie props (abandoned dressmaking mannequin, scarecrow) he proceeds to "torture" some preppy women's garments, including an argyle sweater and a pink t-shirt (featured in my favorite shot, above.) He stretches, fades, and shrinks the clothes with rusted hooks and a scary looking medieval rack.

Here's the video:

The reason it's so simultaneously classic and campy is that it's directed by prolific musician, horror director, and vegetarian Rob Zombie. The best quote in the article is from Zombie about his relatively tame ad: "It's not like it's scary." The central character is "like Uncle Fester, not like some child killer out in the woods."

The other, less good ad campaign, for Era, is basically a rip-off of the sometimes funny Chuck Norris Facts that were making the rounds a few years ago. The print ads and Facebook posts just adapt the online Facts and claim Era is Chuck Norris Approved. (Yawn.) Hope he got a fat paycheck out of it.

June 13, 2011

Neil Patrick Harris can do anything

Neil Patrick Harris hosting the 2011 Tonys

I only caught the last 45 minutes or so of the Tonys last night, but did you see this rap that host Neil Patrick Harris did during the closing credits that recapped the entire show? It's good.

Doing the recap was NPH's idea, but it was written by two of the creators of "In the Heights", who wrote it really fast in the basement of the theater while the show was happening, throwing in references to the big winners and the funny, spontaneous stuff that had been happening throughout night. Then NPH learned it, while also keeping the show moving, then performed it like he'd been doing this kind of thing his whole life.

Can we get NPH to host every awards show from now on? He made the Tonys more fun than any Oscars I can remember.

June 9, 2011

The Trip is funny

The Trip

A new movie from prolific filmmaker Michael Winterbottom is coming out tomorrow: The Trip, which was originally produced for BBC TV last year. It's a largely improvised, loosely structured comedy about Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon playing unflattering alternate versions of themselves, on a fluff-piece assignment for a newspaper to drive around northern England and eat at fancy restaurants.

All 6 episodes of the BBC version used to be on YouTube (some seem to have been taken down) and it's hilarious, though the following description isn't going to make it sound like it is: The two guys ride around, eat dinner, bust each others' chops in a way that usually sounds like friendly competition between actors, but sometimes crosses into open hostility and jealousy, and do lots and lots of impressions that are, surprisingly, funny. It's better than it sounds.

Here's a clip of some impressions, all taken from a single episode:

If you've seen Tristram Shandy, also by Michael Winterbottom and starring the same two guys, you've seen how good they are at funny endless improvised bullshitting: both are unattractively desperate to build themselves up and brag about their careers, and would occasionally seem like they genuinely loathe each other if they didn't work together so often and play off each other so wonderfully.

I'm doing a terrible job at making this movie seem like it's worth watching, but I'm psyched for it. For what it's worth, Time Out gave it 5 stars. Cutting 6 episodes of the TV show down to 107 minutes is going to make it tighter and better, while hopefully still leaving in things like the great circuitous riffs on medieval period piece speeches:

and singing Kate Bush in the car:

May 31, 2011

The Tree of Life, the Universe, and Everything

Brad Pitt in The Tree of Life

Terrence Malick's The Tree of Life is only open in New York and LA, so it'll be a few more weeks before most people can spend 3 hours of their lives watching a non-linear, highly conceptual art film with hardly any dialogue about the dawn of the universe, the questionable existence of God, and a family in 1950's Waco, TX. The guys at Filmspotting wrote on Twitter, "Can I just call it the greatest movie ever and not see it, thus not spoiling the illusion?" It's a daunting movie with dangerously high expectations, but I loved it. Here are a few notable things, before I forget.

This is Malick's 5th movie, and if you've seen any of his other stuff, you know the story. Lingering shots of natural settings, gorgeous cinematography, whispered voice-overs that seem like audible subconsciousness. Light on plot and structure, heavy on mood and emotion.

But this one made me realize how much he relies on his actors to convey what's happening in a scene and with the story, often without letting them say anything. Most scenes don't have much action, but we learn something about each character through everything they do on screen.

This is especially true of Brad Pitt, who plays the father of the family at the center of the movie. I'm not a Brad Pitt fan, but he's great in this. It's not a likable character or a flashy role, and he has to embody internal conflicts and strange, seemingly contradictory aspects of his personality. A lot of the time I forgot I was watching a big star. Jessica Chastain is good as the loving, nurturing mother, but one of the movie's few flaws is that her character doesn't have much depth. She's all loving, all nurturing, all the time. She's the emotional core, and maybe her consistency as a source of goodness gives some answer to the question at the center of the movie.

Which is something like: Where is God, or are we alone in a meaningless universe? It's basically the same question the Coen Brothers ask in A Serious Man, but Terrence Malick asks it with wise-eyed children and dinosaurs instead of Jefferson Airplane and rabbis.

Malick really goes all out with the unconventional storytelling. We jump between 1950's Texas and a contemporary city (Houston?) where a morose Sean Penn, the oldest child in the family, wanders around his office building and appears to be completely untethered from his current reality. There's a long, unstructured visualization of the dawn of the universe, with spectacular, cosmic images of the natural world that are so overwhelmingly beautiful that they're sometimes hard to take.

A few months ago, I posted something about the movies that make you cry. This one's not only on my list, but I think it sets some personal record in terms of volume. I was a pathetic weeping mess. Which brings me to my main question about this movie: Is it just an expertly crafted tool of emotional manipulation? All those scenes of kids running around in fields glowing in the magic hour sun, playing kick the can and climbing trees: Malick really nails our collective American nostalgia for lost childhood. I experience something like cinematic patriotism watching it. It's uplifting and devastating at the same time.

Most of the heartstrings-pulling impact of the movie is sincere, but one or two moments toward the end, set in some mysterious communal time and place of reunification, veer toward emotional button-pushing. In general, it's admirably restrained and precisely controlled, so I can let some of the mushy stuff go.

One other thing: I don't know how Malick found the three young actors that play the boys, but he got some amazingly great performances out of them, and they carry some of the movie's best scenes. It's their first movie for all three.

May 25, 2011

Woody's leading men

Woody Allen and Owen Wilson on the set of Midnight in Paris

Over the years, we've seen lots of actors play the classic Woody role in Woody Allen's annual, whether you like it or not, movie release. This character is a man (usually) with neurotic tics and an overpowering fear of death who wears a lot of tweed jackets, loves high culture but loathes pretentiousness, and inadvertently falls in love with a beguiling woman who he (usually) can't have.

My favorite actor to play this role is still Woody himself, who plays it with a lightness and self-deprecation that makes the hapless character sort of charmingly, exasperatingly likeable, in spite of everything.

I wasn't expecting to think much of Owen Wilson, who stands in for Woody in his new movie Midnight in Paris, but as it turns out, Owen Wilson is absolutely perfect. He's sweetly bewildered at the English-major fantasy that forms the central plot. He's romantic, funny, and passionate, yet holds onto his standard chilled-out goofball aura that makes it seem like he ripped a gigantic bong hit right before the cameras turned on.

Somehow, it works. Owen Wilson's performance reminds me of the last time the Woody surrogate was cast so perfectly: in Melinda and Melinda, where Will Ferrell plays the Woody role. Both actors play it for laughs, but without any winking at the camera or an embarrassing attempt at a full-on Woody Allen impersonation.

Some less successful actors in the role are the people that you'd consider respected dramatic actors, like Anthony Hopkins and Josh Brolin in last year's You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger, Kenneth Branagh in Celebrity, and whatever Woody was trying to do with Scarlett Johansson in Scoop. Rebecca Hall in Vicky Cristina Barcelona is probably the only time he's given the Woody role to a woman and made it work.

Maybe he should stick with casting actors known for broad physical comedy to play the Woody role. Those actors can tone down their usual style and make the character funny in a light, believable way, and don't fall into the the neurotic impersonation trap that serious dramatic actors often do when they take on this style of comedy. Woody himself will appear in his next movie, which also stars Jesse Eisenberg, who could be either the greatest Woody role actor in history, or a stammering caricature in hyper-Jewish overdrive.

It also stars Alec Baldwin. Because someone's got to get all the best lines.

I loved Midnight in Paris, and it's good to be able to say that about a Woody Allen movie again. It's smart and literate, but not snotty. It makes jokes about the storyline of Buñuel's The Exterminating Angel. And it features the awesome Alison Pill, who I want to see in a whole lot more movies. Glad to have you back, Woody.

May 23, 2011

Casting the Carrie remake

Sissy Spacek as Carrie

We heard last week that Stephen King's classic adolescent horror revenge-fantasy Carrie is going to be adapted into another movie, and is supposed to be more faithful to the book than the 1976 Brian De Palma movie that made a star of Sissy Spacek and filled millions of pre-teen girls with abject terror about getting their periods.

Carrie is one of the few Stephen King books that I somehow didn't get around to reading during those heady days of 1989-90 when I went King-crazy and read everything the library had, even The Tommyknockers, which now that I think about it, had to be some kind of joke, right? Anyway, I don't know exactly what elements from the De Palma movie won't make it into the remake, but I'm guessing most of the big ones will still be there: Carrie's social reject status at school, her religiously oppressive and terrifying mom, the pig's blood at the prom, and the explosive and fiery demise that her telekinetic powers wreak on all those bastards. Probably, as The AV Club predicts, in 3D.

But the obvious question is: who's gonna play Carrie? Sissy Spacek was so great--even though she was 26 when the movie came out, she's still believable as a shy outcast who doesn't understand what's happening to her body, why the other kids are so mean to her, or the secret powers she has.

Stephen King has suggested one name only: Lindsay Lohan. Maybe he was kidding. Considering that at age 26, Lindsay Lohan already looks older than Sissy Spacek does today, I don't think she can pull off a role as a high school student anymore. Or a college student role, unless it's in a kooky comedy about a broken-down old hag attending college as a non-traditional student, sort of like Rodney Dangerfield in Back to School.

A few other ideas:

Carey Mulligan. She's 26, but was great at playing a naive kid in over her head in An Education, and I'd love to see her branch out into horror. Or, oh oh, yes: Dakota Fanning! She's already done more interesting, dark roles than most middle-aged actresses (child rape in Hounddog, drugs, addiction, nervous breakdown, and hooking up with Joan Jett in The Runaways) and can apparently do anything. She doesn't exactly look like most high school social rejects, but Hollywood loves to make beautiful women ugly for the tough roles. She's the baby-faced psycho I'd love to see.

Or maybe Emma Watson can break out of the Hermione cage by laying utter waste to prom.

And what about Carrie's mom? Piper Laurie in the original is probably the scariest crazy-eyed movie mom I've ever seen. For the remake, I can see Amy Ryan pulling some seriously twisted psycho-fundamentalist shit on her daughter. Or maybe Olivia Williams, who always seemed so gentle until we saw her all pissed off and bitter and possibly murderous in The Ghost Writer last year.

There's no director yet, but maybe Catherine Hardwicke can redeem herself and do something good again. I hear Red Riding Hood was a bust.

May 7, 2011

Watching The Beaver

Mel Gibson in The Beaver

Watching Jodie Foster's new movie would be an emotionally easier thing to do if Mel Gibson wasn't so amazingly good in it. When I first heard about this movie and watched the trailer, I thought it had to be a joke. The Beaver (?), starring Mel Gibson (?!) as a depressed family man who finds a way back into his life by expressing himself through a puppet (!?!), directed by Jodie Foster (huh???) How did any part of this absurd movie happen?

It's impossible to watch this movie without remembering all the terrible behavior, hateful tirades, and accusations of violence that have led to a tailspin of bad publicity for Mel Gibson. Whatever ongoing psychological crisis he's going through in real life seems an awful lot like what we see on the screen: a very troubled man who doesn't know how to deal with his problems through any socially acceptable methods, so he turns to an alter-ego in the form of a beaver puppet that talks like Ray Winstone. Or, in the real life version, the drinking, abusive spouting, raging bigotry, and "sugar tits". The world thinks both men are insane, but at the same time, we can see that the alternative to this bad behavior is utter self-destruction.

Why Jodie Foster decided to produce this wacky screenplay is anyone's guess, but it's obvious why she chose Mel Gibson to play the lead: because he's phenomenally good, he has real personal understanding of the pain this character lives in, and he's her friend. Foster's promotion of the movie puts her in a tough position of having to defend Mel, the actor, while distancing herself from Mel, the out-of-control asshole. She calls him a good friend while not excusing his behavior. Here's a clip from her interview on Letterman, where she deftly supports him as her star and her friend, while not offering any explanation for all the bad stuff.

The best article I've read about Hollywood's ongoing support for Mel Gibson, in spite of everything, is the Vanity Fair piece from a couple of months ago, "The Rude Warrior". There have been calls for Mel boycotts from powerful studio people, he lost a cameo in The Hangover Part II, and every new piece of news has been bad. Even so, he seems to be one of the most loved people in Hollywood. Danny Glover, Whoopi Goldberg, and Jodie Foster have all defended him in public, and many more producers, directors, and actors have only very positive things to say in the VF article.

Obviously, the guy's got problems. He's an alcoholic (he was going to AA meeting as early as 1989) and seems to turn into another person when he drinks. The scenes in The Beaver of drunken self-destruction are great in a scary, psychotic way. If anything, knowing that Gibson has his own real scary dark side only makes them better. The movie gets darker and stranger as it goes on, taking some gutsy, ugly turns that are definitely not what you'd expect if you've seen the goofy trailer that, strangely, makes the movie look like an oddball sentimental comedy.

There are some missteps, like an uninspired subplot about the older son and his shaky romance with Jennifer Lawrence, and Foster's character is curiously hollow, but what makes the movie compelling is Mel Gibson, who's stopped insulting women and Jews just long enough to turn in a brilliant and subtle performance of probably the weirdest movie role I'll see all year.

April 12, 2011

Melancholia trailer

Melancholia shot

Have you seen this trailer for Lars von Trier's new movie, Melancholia? That has Kiefer Sutherland in it?

It's a beautiful trailer, dark and foreboding as his stuff tends to be, but it has a lush, quiet beauty that's a departure from the howling desperation and genital crushing of Antichrist, his last movie.

As a testament to Von Trier's newfound ability to work harmoniously enough with an actress that she would agree to be in another one of his movies, Antichrist star Charlotte Gainsbourg also stars in this one, along with sad bride Kirsten Dunst, both Stellan Skarsgard and his foxy son Alexander, and the always phenomenal Charlotte Rampling. Von Trier has said it's his first movie to have an unhappy ending, because he's apparently forgotten what happens in all his other movies. This one seems to be about a troubled family at a wedding, moodily anxious about a planet (named Melancholia) that's about to hit earth and kill everyone.

But, of course, that won't happen. Because come on, we've all seen "24". We know Kiefer's going to go rogue, break into a local air force base, sacrifice his girlfriend as part of an emotionally agonizing but ultimately pragmatic negotiation to secure a military plane, fly into the stratosphere, and shoot nuclear warheads into the planet to blow it up before it hits the earth. Obviously.

April 2, 2011

Clair Huxtable vs. Billy Crudup

Clair HuxtableBilly Crudup

I'm still disappointed at how un-transcendent the new Broadway production of Tom Stoppard's Arcadia is, and I've been thinking of things that might have made it better and more fun to watch.

Here's one. There's a scene when Billy Crudup, playing a sort of manic literature professor and Byron scholar, recites the opening lines of "She Walks in Beauty", in order to emphasize Lord Byron's genius and the immortality of his words. But the way he says them is weirdly halting and raggedy, which totally overwhelms the language and the subtle rhythm of the lines.

Compare that to the first time a lot of my generation probably heard those words: as spoken by Clair Huxtable in a funny episode of The Cosby Show, "The Card Game". You can watch her smoothly and, I'm just going to say it, sexily recite the first stanza in the first two minutes of this episode here, starting at 1:45.

Did you realize Phylicia Rashad was that hot?

March 23, 2011

Liz and Dick

Richard Burton and Liz Taylor in 1970

Hollywood and celebrity obsession today don't have much in common with the era of Elizabeth Taylor, but her death still feels like the end of some lost, revered image of glamour and excess (see tan, makeup, cleavage, and jewelry, above.) She was such a gigantic star for so long, she was so beautiful, and she so far outlived her stardom and beauty. In a lot of ways, we've been losing her for the last 30 years. Here's the NY Times obituary.

Last summer, Vanity Fair published an excerpt of a book by Sam Kashner and Nancy Schoenberger (my one-time professors) called Furious Love: Elizabeth Taylor, Richard Burton, and the Marriage of the Century. It's a great read. I knew the world was obsessed with Liz and Dick, as the papers called them, and their tumultuous, scandalous, tabloid-ready relationship, but I didn't know that this obsession formed the blueprint for every other media-saturating celebrity affair, marriage, and breakup that has become a self-perpetuating industry.

Liz Smith, gossip columnist at the Post until 2009, was writing about celebrities through the entire Burton-Taylor era, and has some wonderful stuff to say about why the world's appetite for Elizabeth Taylor and the couple was so insatiable:

"On the face of it, Elizabeth Taylor was just totally arrogant. She'd walk out in Capri pants and her Cleopatra makeup and her kerchief and go off to whatever local restaurant and drink up a storm with Burton. That's part of what excited the public: her vulgarity and her arrogance and the money. Oh God, their love story had everything."

The details of their consumption are spectacularly lavish. Despite owning six homes, they mostly stayed in hotels, and sometimes ordered room service to be flown in from other countries. Liz Smith points out that only one celebrity couple has ever been condemned by the Vatican (for "erotic vagrancy".) At the height of their married fame, nearly half of the US film industry's income came from movies starring one or both of them.

One fact I learned about Elizabeth Taylor today: she converted to Judaism when she was 27, and used to fight with Richard Burton about who was more Jewish. And here's a really cute photo of her:

Elizabeth Taylor, white bikini top

March 21, 2011

Who's Older?™: Meteoric rises

Russell Brand has had a big couple of years. Hardly anyone in the US knew who he was before Forgetting Sarah Marshall, and now he's starring in movies and saturating late night talk shows (like this Conan clip from a few months ago, which is hilariously manic and infectious.) He's the only reason I want to see Arthur when it comes out in a couple of weeks, and that one also stars Helen Mirren.

Here's who's having a big year now: Michael Fassbender. The first time I saw him was in Inglourious Basterds, then last year's ickily disturbing but good Fish Tank, and this year he's starring in pretty much every exciting director's new movie: Haywire by Steven Soderbergh, A Dangerous Method by David Cronenberg, the new X-Men movie (by the guy who did Kick-Ass), Shame by new-ish British director Steve McQueen, and the directorial debut by Brendan Gleeson. Coming up later he's got Guy Ritchie's Excalibur (!) and Ridley Scott's Prometheus.

It's like every director out there watched Inglourious Basterds and said "that craggy-faced 1940's guy's got something." Entertainment Weekly did a piece about him titled "Meet Your Next Obsession" because of how hugely famous he's going to get this year. Right now, he's playing Rochester in Jane Eyre, and he's really great: blustery, tortured, but still funny. And manly. As IFC News' Matt Singer points out, "Fassbender, with chiseled features and simple, unfussy handsomeness, represents our modern ideal of what masculinity used to be, before it was screwed up by dorks like me."

He definitely looks like a man. The question is: how old a man?

It's time to play Who's Older?™!

Michael Fassbender and Russell Brand

To play, pick which one you think is older, then click on their names to see if you are right.

Who's Older?™

Michael Fassbender or Russell Brand?


March 3, 2011

Who's Older?™: Scarlett's Older Men

Today we've been hearing more reports about Scarlett Johansson and Sean Penn spending time together beyond mere awards show afterparty canoodling: they were seen in Cabo San Lucas, Mexico this week while Scarlett was on a day off from shooting Cameron Crowe's new movie We Bought a Zoo (which hopefully will be better than her last three movies.) Guess Sean's taking time off from running tent cities in Haiti.

Her choice of an older fella, especially so soon after splitting from her husband Ryan Reynolds, brought to mind another example of her taste in gentlemen of a certain age: Benecio Del Toro, who allegedly made out (and more?) with a then-teenaged Scarlett in an elevator, semi-confirmed via sort of gross insinuation from both of them. That happened right after the Oscars, too!

Time for another round of Who's Older?™!

Sean Penn and Benicio Del Toro

Both are great actors. Both are equal parts sexy and sleazy. Both dig Scarlett. But which one's older?

To play, pick which one you think is older, then click on their names to see if you are right.

Who's Older?™

Sean Penn or Benicio Del Toro?

As a funny little aside, there's a scene in Sofia Coppola's movie Somewhere when Stephen Dorff runs into Benicio in the elevator at the Chateau Marmont, which is where the "making out or having sex or something" with Scarlett occurred. Good one, Sofia.

March 2, 2011

The Adjustment Bureau

The Adjustment Bureau

I caught a screening of The Adjustment Bureau, which is not one of the greatest movies of 2011, but still a fun time. This is the one with Matt Damon and Emily Blunt as love-struck New Yorkers on the run from a group of stern-looking men in really nice suits who want to keep the two of them apart in order to maintain some mysterious plan.

The most interesting thing about the movie to me is all the other movies it reminds me of. It's got the shadowy figures freezing time and manipulating people without their knowledge, like in Dark City, the pseudo-spiritual sci-fi paranoia of The Matrix, and the sentimental neurologically-fated romance of Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. It's warmer than Inception, but not as smart.

Being original isn't everything, and even with all its similarities to other movies, this one still has its own style. I especially like the old-timey technology that the members of the Bureau use in their work: notebooks (the kind with paper in them), fedoras, doors. A lot depends on which way you turn a doorknob in the world of the Bureau. I also like the name change from the original Philip K. Dick story that the movie is based on: changing "Adjustment Team" to "Adjustment Bureau" adds a sensibility of 1950's institutions and oak-paneled rooms in ancient office buildings, which is where a lot of the action takes place.

It's the first movie from screenwriter George Nolfi, who wrote Ocean's 12 and The Bourne Ultimatum. This guy is comfortable working with stories by other people. The writing here is not wonderful, with some real clunkers that ruin a few scenes, but his direction is nice and brisk. And he got a great cast: Matt Damon and Emily Blunt are so easy with each other and funny, a huge step up from your typical romantic leads. John Slattery is good as a long-suffering, sort of inept middle manager, and from the moment Terence Stamp steps on the screen with his Darren Aronofsky scarf, he owns the movie. I love Anthony Mackie, but his character has a little bit of the stereotypical sage black man who exists only to dispense homespun wisdom to the white hero.

One other weird thing: the members of the Bureau are all walking around using old-fashioned notebooks and doorknobs to bend time and space, but then there are these other guys who work for them who use some kind of brainwave-disrupting laser wands and Tyvek suits.

The Adjustment Bureau's mind control

I wish they'd stuck with the mid-20th century aesthetic and used Theremins and leather aprons to do the dirty work of mind control.

February 28, 2011

Oscars: bad jokes, zero surprises

Oscar winners on stage

It was a slow night at the Oscars. One joke after another fell flat, and the funniest and most exciting moments were when former Oscars host Billy Crystal showed up and introduced a montage of Bob Hope from his many successful years of hosting. He got a standing ovation from a crowd desperately grateful for a minute or two of well-delivered jokes. Please, Billy, just step in and take over!, everybody wished.

There also wasn't a single upset in the major awards. That was good for me--I got 17 out of 24 predictions--but it made for one snooze of a night. Maybe if I'd had some skin in the game it would have been exhilarating instead of utterly predictable. Note to self: gamble more.

Here's the interesting stuff I learned last night, all of which was reported during E!'s red carpet broadcast, which is the first year that the red carpet might actually have been more exciting than the show:

First, Mila Kunis reported that she was on a 1,200 calorie/day diet in preparation for Black Swan. That means two meals per day (based on a typical 1,800 calorie/day diet for women) plus she was doing tons of rigorous training for the ballet scenes.

Then in one of the news ticker headlines that ran along the bottom of the screen, I read that Hugh Jackman is on a 6,000 calorie/day diet in preparation for The Wolverine, which is going to be Darren Aronofsky's next movie. That's like taking everything Mila Kunis ate in a single day, and eating all of it FIVE TIMES, EVERY DAY. Jackman's wife told Ryan Seacrest that every day he basically eats an entire cow. (Or an entire Mila Kunis.)

So if you get cast in a Darren Aronofsky movie, you should know that you're going to find out what it's like to have an eating disorder.

Another bit of news: There's going to be a movie version of the 80's hair metal Broadway musical "Rock of Ages", starring Tom Cruise as Stacee Jaxx, lead singer of fictitious band Arsenal. Adam Shankman, who was last year's Oscars director, is directing the adaptation, and confirms that, in spite what you might think based on the "You've Lost That Lovin' Feelin'" scene from Top Gun, Cruise can sing.

Sure, OK, he can sing, but Tom Cruise is 49 years old. It makes sense to cast Tom Cruise in this role--if it was being made in 1985. As it is, we're going to watch him sing "I Want To Know What Love Is" and "Renegade" in a C.C. DeVille wig, and it's going to be compelling in a delusional, psycho-nostalgic way, and very creepy.

February 17, 2011

American "Prime Suspect"

Helen Mirren and Maria Bello, once and future Jane Tennison

I didn't even know that NBC was remaking "Prime Suspect", the British cop-drama show that ran sporadically over 7 seasons from 1991 to 2006. This was the show that starred Helen Mirren as Detective Chief Inspector Jane Tennison, one of my favorite TV characters of all time, and was the first time I saw Helen Mirren in anything.

In the first season, Tennison faces hostility from her all-male department when she's brought in to lead a tricky murder investigation. She's also got a lot of personal problems that develop over the seasons as she rises through the ranks, like alcoholism. Plus it's Helen Mirren. She absolutely owns this role, and even though now she's a big movie star who probably won't be doing television anymore, it's still some of the best stuff she's ever done.

So now NBC has cast Maria Bello to play Tennison in the remake. I like her, and she's one hard working actress: she'll regularly do 3 or 4 movies a year, including both indie movies like The Cooler and A History of Violence (which both feature somewhat controversial sex scenes,) and mainstream aging manchild romps like Grown Ups. She's good at playing smart and tough and damaged, and she's beautiful. And she's the right age--mid-40's, though she really doesn't look it. But imagining her as Jane Tennison means comparing her to Helen Mirren, and that's always going to be an unfair fight.

Not that I can think of anyone better. If I had to cast an American Jane Tennison, all I could come up with is Jodie Foster, or maybe if it were being made 10 years from now, Hilary Swank. Neither of whom seem to be doing a lot of TV these days.

A lot has changed since the early '90's in the world of female TV cops: now we have "CSI", "The Closer", "Criminal Minds", and a few of the "Law & Order"s which all have women investigators. As the AV Club says, the new version of "Prime Suspect" will be set in "a New York precinct dominated by men, which exists in an alternate universe not currently flooded with television shows about tough female detectives who tend to routinely make fools of the men who believe they dominate their precincts."

Maria Bello's got an uphill battle, but if she brings some of that boozy, funny, cynical, hard-driving attitude that she had in Thank You For Smoking, when she played the alcohol industry lobbyist and spokesperson for the Moderation Council, she'll be great.

February 16, 2011

Actresses and food

Mila Kunis eats a hotdog

There's an article in today's Times about actresses who gush in interviews about how much they love eating high-calorie, fatty, cellulite-generating foods. It isn't all that original an observation, but I love it anyway. Skinny celebrities--women--whose bodies bear little resemblance to those of basically everyone else on the planet, often make a point that they love to eat bacon. Or spaghetti bolognese with cheese. Fries with ranch sauce. Macaroni and cheese. Or if they're being interviewed by Lynn Hirschberg, truffle fries.

Like the author, I think this is part of a calculated effort to make actresses seem more approachable and easy to relate to, and less like manufactured entertainment products with starved bodies and gigantic heads. As ex-publicist Bumble Ward says, "Don't you feel awfully sorry for actresses? They're so sure that people assume they have an eating disorder that they're forced to wolf down caveman-like portions of 'comfort food' in order to appear normal."

Then the article speculates on male fascination with beautiful women eating greasy food as being a combination of two primal drives. Remember George Costanza shoving a pastrami sandwich into his face and also watching a portable TV while in bed with his girlfriend? Pretty reasonable, I guess.

I think actresses say they love food that makes you fat, which they so obviously do not eat when not doing magazine interviews, in order to allow us non-famous folk (especially women?) to cling to our fantasy that we can eat whatever we want and still look good. If Cameron Diaz can eat ribs and mac and cheese and look the way she does, why can't we? A quick glance at the butts of America tells you why not, but we still want to believe. It's comforting to see that the lithe, willowy Taylor Swift loves hotdogs.

The vegan feminist cultural theorist perspective, provided by Carol Adams in the Times article, is that seeing beautiful women eating crappy food (especially meat) encourages men to consume both women and meat. "These images of women, whether they're ads or they're in magazines, they're all saying the same thing: traditional consumption of women's bodies and animals' bodies is O.K." I see her point, but maybe another idea is that men want to believe that hot girls can eat burgers all the time and still look great. Who wants to think about a sexy girl starving herself and sadly eating a dish of steamed broccoli for dinner?

Remember when Sarah Palin revolted against Michelle Obama's suggestion that we cut back on desserts, defiantly gathering her s'mores ingredients? We want to keep eating our fries and brownies, and we want Keira Knightley to keep eating them, too. But unless bulimia is waaay more prevalent than I realize, I think if actresses really ate the way the rest of us do, they'd look like the rest of us, too.

February 8, 2011

Status update on The Social Network

Armie Hammer as the Winklevoss Twins

I went to see The Social Network for a second time last night. I saw it on opening weekend at the beginning of October, and loved it, but I tend to forget an awful lot of stuff about movies if I only see them once.

A few observations from the second time around:

  • As an origin story about Facebook, it's not especially compelling or, apparently, even very accurate. But that doesn't matter. It's not really a movie about Facebook any more than Citizen Kane is about newspapers. I've seen some comments on Facebook from people saying they're not interested in seeing it because they don't care about Facebook--those people have nothing to worry about. Aaron Sorkin doesn't care about Facebook, either.
  • Jesse Eisenberg is 100% on the money. He manages to convey feeling totally superior to everyone in the room while needing their acceptance and also hating his own guts, all at the same time. He's incredibly good.
  • Also great is Armie Hammer as the Winklevoss twins. He's hilarious. Every time he comes on the screen I'm glad to see him. Or them. I don't think it's necessary to be rich, handsome, and privileged in real life in order to play rich, handsome and privileged, but in this case, it doesn't hurt.
  • Justin Timberlake is pretty good at balancing the magnetic rockstar charisma with a streak of calculating slimeball. You see the selfish jerk side come out here and there before the end when he really emerges as the bad guy. Watch this movie and Black Snake Moan and you can see he's got some chops.
  • One part that's less good: Eduardo. The script was largely drawn from the book The Accidental Billionaires that used Eduardo as its main source. The basic story is sympathetic to Eduardo and presents him as the loyal friend that Zuckerberg betrayed. But it's hard to feel that way, even though I guess we're supposed to, because of the long stretch we spend with Mark, et al in Palo Alto when things start heating up for the company, while Eduardo is off in New York riding the subway for 14 hours a day or whatever. When he shows up and eventually gets the shaft, we're meant to sympathize with him, but by then the story has moved in another direction and isn't really about him anymore. It's a structural/emotional flaw. Also, Andrew Garfield seems like he's faking--his acting is opaque and awkward compared with everyone else.
  • About women in the movie: a lot of people have complained that women are presented as peripheral objects for the male characters to play with or insult as they wish. I understand this is probably an accurate representation of how these characters, 20 year-old guys with something to prove, might behave. Sorkin says this is what these guys are really like. Sometimes the movie itself seems to support this viewpoint, though, and women are made to look trivial through camera work and editing, not because of anything a character says. A movie can make female characters human even as male characters dehumanize them (like in "Mad Men") but that doesn't happen very often here. Rooney Mara standing up for herself and telling Zuckerberg off, twice, helps.
  • The Trent Reznor soundtrack is awesome. Especially the music during the Facemash creation, it really makes what could have been a tedious scene about anti-social drunk programmers into an exciting action sequence.
  • My least favorite moment is the song in the final scene: "Baby You're a Rich Man" by the Beatles. It's gaggingly on the nose, and after such great soundtrack choices that are so time-and-place specific, we get The Beatles? David Fincher usually screws something up at the end of his otherwise great movies, so I guess in the scheme of things this isn't that bad.

Best movie of the year? It's up there.

February 3, 2011

Message to the Academy: Save Natalie!

Natalie Portman at the SAG awards

Over the last few Oscars seasons, we've seen anecdotal documentation of the Best Actress Curse: the phenomenon in which a talented actress wins accolades for her work, which triggers the collapse of her personal life. Examples include, incredibly, almost every single Best Actress winner of the past 10 years: Halle Berry, Charlize Theron, Kate Winslet, Julia Roberts, Reese Witherspoon, Sandra Bullock most recently, and the special case of Hilary Swank, whose marriage survived her first win in 2000, but not her second in 2005. Only Helen Mirren and Marion Cotillard still have their manfolk around.

Some analysis goes back to the 90's and finds even more examples: Helen Hunt, Emma Thompson, and Susan Sarandon (though in that last case, her relationship with Tim Robbins didn't break up until 13 years later.)

There's speculation that male insecurity is the root cause of the Curse. Some assume that, when an actress gets the highest award for her work, her husband, often also in the entertainment industry, can't handle his feelings of inadequacy when comparing his success to hers. In the Halle Berry example, one site asks, "When was the last time you listened to Eric Benet?" It could also be related to Best Actress winners becoming dissatisfied with the losers they married and deciding to make a play for George Clooney.

But now that everyone knows about the Best Actress Curse, and it's been validated by academic research (with a graph!), I think we have to lay the blame elsewhere. If members of the Academy are aware of the fate that will almost surely befall the woman they name Best Actress, shouldn't we be holding them accountable?

Which is why I'm asking members of the Academy, who just received their ballots and are now considering five innocent actresses, to remember that they hold the future happiness of poor little Natalie Portman, and the fate of her unborn child, in their hands.

Natalie is now engaged to her on-screen dancing partner Benjamin Millepied, who seems like a nice enough French ballet dancer, and is neither a scruffy beardy singer-songwriter, nor Moby. We should encourage their young love, even if Millepied ditched his longtime girlfriend a couple of months after meeting Natalie on the set of Black Swan, and even if Natalie's Golden Globes acceptance speech chronicling Benjamin's desire to impregnate her was the creepiest awards speech I've ever heard.

If Natalie loses, I give them two years. But if she wins, I hope the members of the Academy can live with themselves.

The other big contender this year is Annette Bening. How weird is it that her marriage probably stands a good chance of surviving a Best Actress win, when her husband is Warren Beatty?

Just think of the agonizing future Natalie Portman interviews on "Ellen". Aggghh. It would be enough to make me vote for Jennifer Lawrence, who's dating the guy from the British "Skins", so if that breaks up in two months, big whoop.

January 25, 2011

Oscar Nominations

Mark Ruffalo and John Hawkes, Best Supporting Actor nominees

A lot of the Oscar nominations that were announced today were expected, but we've got a few nice surprises as well.

My favorite category this year is Best Supporting Actor. There's Mark Ruffalo for The Kids Are All Right (a role he made look effortless but was probably really hard to pull off) and John Hawkes for Winter's Bone (above); Jeremy Renner, who was the best/only good thing about The Town; Geoffrey Rush who kept the scene-stealing in check in The King's Speech; and Christian Bale, who turned the volume up pretty freaking high in The Fighter, but was irresistibly fun to watch. I'd be happy for any of these guys to win.

Some interesting selections:

Coen Brothers > Chris Nolan
Christopher Nolan didn't get a Best Director nomination for Inception, a big surprise. I would argue that directing Inception was much harder and more complicated than directing either The Social Network or The King's Speech, but I wasn't so thrilled with the end result. The Coens were a long shot for True Grit, but that movie's huge box office success seems to be paying off in other ways for them.

Winter's Bone > The Town, and 127 Hours > The Town
Both got nominated for Best Picture, and The Town didn't. Nice.

Michelle Williams > Ryan Gosling
The only nomination for Blue Valentine is for Michelle Williams as Best Actress. She's phenomenal in this movie, while Ryan Gosling, who I usually like, is a little clumsy and awkward.

Hailee Steinfeld < Best Actress
She's in every single scene, but it probably made sense for the True Grit people to offer Hailee Steinfeld as a contender for Best Supporting Actress instead of Best Actress, because she has half a chance of winning. Best Actress is going to be a death match between Natalie Portman and Annette Bening, and the Academy would give it to Bening partially to make up for past losses to Hilary Swank. Melissa Leo will probably win Supporting for The Fighter, which she doesn't quite deserve in my opinion, but at least Hailee's in good company.

Banksy > Eliot Spitzer
Exit Through the Gift Shop, one of my favorite movies last year, got a Best Documentary nomination, and Client 9, the Eliot Spitzer doc that the man himself participated in, didn't. Neither did Davis Guggenheim's education reform doc Waiting For Superman, which looked sort of one-sided and emotionally manipulative. Man, I hope Banksy stencils the Kodak Theatre.

January 24, 2011

The Son of No One

Channing Tatum in Son of No One

Dito Montiel has made two mediocre movies about tough kids in New York--A Guide to Recognizing Your Saints, about growing up in Astoria, and Fighting, about underground bare-knuckle boxing. He gets big stars for his small-budget movies (Robert Downey, Jr., Shia LaBeouf, Terrence Howard) and writes interesting stories about people living on the margins, but somehow his movies don't quite come together. I can't tell if they're supposed to be character-driven indie movies or formulaic studio star vehicles, because they're both of those things simultaneously.

Now he's got a new one at Sundance that stars Al Pacino, Channing Tatum (above, who Montiel thinks is "a great actor" and has cast in all 3 of his movies. Mm-hm.), Juliette Binoche, Katie Holmes, and Tracy Morgan. Look at that cast. Indie or mainstream? I don't know. Adding to the confusion, the title, The Son of No One, is a reference to The Replacements' "Bastards of Young".

Here's the trailer:

It's got crooked cops, family secrets, a non-flamboyant Al Pacino, a non-funny Tracy Morgan, and it's shot in Astoria. It has the aura of gritty indieness. But the feel of the trailer makes the movie look like any of the dozens of studio movies with big stars about corruption, spies, high-level cover-ups, and cops out for justice that typically feature Ray Liotta and/or Al Pacino (both of whom are in The Son of No One). Like Righteous Kill, Body of Lies, We Own the Night, Spy Game, Narc, the list goes on and on.

So I can't tell what to make of Dito Montiel and his style. Maybe his career goal is to be the Tony Scott of Sundance. Or a mainstream Martin Scorsese, with Channing Tatum as his De Niro. I predict Juliette Binoche's performance will be good in a way that makes it seems like she's in a different, better movie than everyone else, and 5.6 stars on IMDb.

January 20, 2011

Why Vanity Fair is the best magazine, even with covers like this

Justin Bieber cover of Vanity Fair, Feb 2011

Of all the magazines I subscribe to, Vanity Fair is consistently the best, the one I'm most likely to read cover to cover. Sometimes carrying my copy around with me and reading it in public or on the subway can be a little embarrassing, due to covers like the one on the current issue (February).

I don't know if the general public understands that, yes, I'm reading a magazine with Justin Bieber on the cover, but the article that I'm reading at this moment is about how J.D. Salinger's experiences on the beaches of Normandy influenced the development of the Holden Caulfield character, or about the history and culture of The Guardian newspaper and how that determined its rocky partnership with Julian Assange and WikiLeaks.

Or maybe I am, at this moment, reading the Justin Bieber article. But this is what really makes Vanity Fair great: I would guess that it's the best Justin Bieber article yet written, anywhere. I'm not completely kidding, here. In this article, we learn that Justin understands that more guys might start coming to his concerts after he turns 18; that he can solve a Rubik's Cube in 2 minutes; that Kanye's remix of one of his songs features Raekwon; and that his mom is younger than I am. (I know!)

Most of the reason this Justin Bieber article is so good and relevant to a non-tween audience is the author, Lisa Robinson. She's interviewed Lady Gaga, Michael Jackson (many times) and Kanye, and written articles about pop stars that reach beyond the existing fans. Which brings us to her Justin Bieber article, which I have to say is a really good read.

Just about all the celebrity stuff in Vanity Fair is good, even after losing the beloved Dominick Dunne (especially the features on dead movie stars and the making of classic movies by Sam Kashner.) The political stuff is good, the analysis of the financial crisis was probably the best anywhere, and the random pieces on the world's greatest surfers or a Florida private investigator that caught a serial killer are unexpected and consistently great.

My only complaints: too much stuff about the Kennedys, and the occasional piece that is so exclusively targeted to the extremely rich or people who wish they were extremely rich that I can't get myself to read it. I'll read an article about what kind of psychology/pathology inspires a person to spend $80 million on a yacht, but I don't much care about the yachts themselves.

December 23, 2010

Directing Jeff Bridges in True Grit

The Dude in True Grit

[photo from Filmdrunk]

I don't know about you, but the thing I'm looking forward to the most this Christmas is heading out to the mall cineplex to see True Grit on Christmas night. In case you need any more reason to be excited about this movie, here are Ethan Coen's thoughts about what it was like to direct Jeff Bridges in The Big Lebowski and in True Grit.

The Coens say there isn't a lot of overlap between how Bridges played The Dude and Rooster Cogburn, except for one element:

The one parallel was, on Big Lebowski, pretty much the only directing we were called upon to do with Jeff is, Jeff would walk up to us before a scene and ask, "Did the Dude burn one on the way over here for this scene?" And similarly, on this, the question was, "How drunk am I in this scene?"

Merry Retribution, everyone.

December 15, 2010

This Christmas. Retribution. From a 13 year-old.

True Grit

Like everyone, except maybe the people who voted for the Golden Globe nominations, I'm really excited for the Coens' remake of True Grit. I've never seen the original, but the Coens say they "only dimly recalled" seeing it when they were kids, so I'm not too worried about not grasping the context. As my friend T-Rock said, the remake with The Dude and Jason Bourne is good enough for me.

There's starting to be some press about the movie's young star, Hailee Steinfeld, who plays the narrator and central character of the movie, Mattie Ross. A recent piece in the Times stresses how much time they put into casting that role. Joel Coen says, "We only cast her three or four weeks before we started shooting the movie, and we had been looking for a long time. But that was a crucial, maybe the crucial aspect of making the film."

I happened to meet the person responsible for casting Mattie Ross at my local old-timey bar, the kind of place that opens at 8 AM and offers its patrons free unlimited hot dogs. This woman had been in charge of extras casting for a couple of Coen Brothers movies, and if you think about the actors in memorable small roles that are such a great part of movies like No Country For Old Men (the "where does he work?" lady) or A Serious Man (all those swearing boys on the school bus), you know this is maybe one of the world's best jobs.

Anyway, she was charged with casting Mattie because of her experience in finding unknowns that have that certain Coen-esque combination of everyday familiarity and weirdo strangeness. Specifically, they wanted a girl who could ride a horse, act convincingly tough, and hold her own with really famous actors who tend to dominate every scene, like Jeff Bridges. And most important, the casting director said, she had to be completely devoid of sexuality or flirtatiousness. If there was any suggestion of creepy sexual tension between this actress and Jeff Bridges, it would be a disaster.

She told me they went through well over 10,000 actresses (the article says it was 15,000) over the course of 8 months of constant searching. The casting team basically moved to Texas and went to hundreds of rodeos and riding demos all over Texas and Oklahoma, introducing themselves to young riders and cowgirls and screen testing anyone who possessed the appropriate combination of badass and unsexy. They got videotapes of thousands of midwestern girls and local actresses. The Coens didn't like anybody. She said that finding a 13 or 14-year old who could appear to be unaware of her own sexuality was almost impossible.

Eventually they got a taped audition from Hailee Steinfeld, who's from LA and has an agent and has done some TV and commercials. So much for the real-life cowgirl. If you've seen the trailer, you can see how awesome this girl is. Apparently, regular 13 year-olds from America's heartland can act sexy on film, no problem, but finding a no-nonsense kid who doesn't look like she wants to hump Jeff Bridges while the cameras are rolling is basically out of the question.

Things might be changing for Hailee Steinfeld already. She's got a profile in Vanity Fair and the platform heels are coming out full-force for awards season.

December 13, 2010

Black Swan, ballet horror

Natalie finds a black feather in Black Swan

I saw Black Swan and liked it very much, though it took me about 24 hours afterwards to calm down enough to figure out why it freaked me out so much. It shouldn't have been surprising: Aronofsky's earlier movies Pi and Requiem for a Dream weren't exactly light entertainment, and though I liked both of those a lot, I never want to see them again.

But other than a shared fixation on icky bodily wounds, which seems to make an appearance in all Aronofsky movies, the one that Black Swan has the most in common with is The Wrestler from last year. The story and themes are really similar (performing artist gives up everything for the pursuit of their art, with catastrophic and glorious results) and there are a few shots and scenes that are almost identical. There's the same total dedication to performance in spite of everything, the same willingness to endure physical and psychic pain, and practically the same tights.

But Black Swan is a horror movie as far as I'm concerned: Natalie Portman goes off the deep end amidst terrifying hallucinations, self-mutilation, and all kinds of scary face-stabbing shit. The whole movie is a "delirious, phantasmagoric freakout", as Manohla Dargis says in her review. And it really made me want to go clubbing with Mila Kunis.

It's got some flaws, though: the dialogue is sometimes weak and occasionally ridiculous, and I really wish the writers had thought of more than one thing for Vincent Cassel, the ballet company's artistic director, to repeat over and over again about the whole white swan/black swan dynamic. Also, when every single time Natalie backs out of a room away from something scary, then turns around and runs smack into something that's also scary, it stops being scary.

But it still got under my skin. I came out of this movie in some kind of unspecified indignant, freaked-out agitation about what happened to poor Natalie. More than anything else, this movie reminded me of Rosemary's Baby, which I group together with The Stepford Wives (also based on a novel by Ira Levin) as nightmare fantasies about What The World Does To Women. I don't know why Ira Levin was so pissed off about our culture's repressive and cruel expectations of women, especially in terms of how women relate to men as wives and mothers, but he sure loved to write really disturbing books about it.

You can take Black Swan as a story about striving for artistic perfection at all costs. But if you take it at face value, it's also about a woman who tries to embody the ideal that women should be good, nice, modest girls, and the ideal that women should be horny sluts, and as a result, goes crazy. Our culture demands both opposing ideals, and tends to punish women who fail to achieve either one. What happens to Natalie when she tries to be both white and black swans is like a bloody, hallucinatory horror vision of how mental all this is.

I'm not the hugest Aronofsky fan, but his movies sure do get me in the guts. Speaking of which, it's probably not a good idea to see this movie if you have an eating disorder.

December 10, 2010

Steven Soderbergh and Spalding Gray

Spalding Gray

Somehow I had never seen any of Spalding Gray's stuff, never seen him interviewed, or seen him in a single movie (except, I guess, for How High.) Until today, when I saw Steven Soderbergh's new movie And Everything Is Going Fine, which is a good introduction to Spalding Gray, because there's nothing in it at all except for Spalding Gray.

It's such a fantastic introduction, in fact, that now I feel like I fell in love with someone and then lost them forever in the space of an hour and a half.

I suppose the movie is technically a Soderbergh documentary, but there's nothing in it that identifies Soderbergh at all. Considering Gray made a career out of talking about himself and his own experiences, it's fitting that a documentary about him is constructed solely of clips of Gray, talking about himself, and a few people he interviewed on stage during his shows. There's great stuff that goes beyond his funny and intimate monologues, like TV interviews that range from what you'd expect from a serious New York art scene kind of celebrity (Charlie Rose) to those that made me realize how mainstream-famous he actually was (MTV).

Nathan Rabin at The A.V. Club starts his review by saying, "What can anyone possibly say about Spalding Gray that he didn't articulate more eloquently himself?" Soderbergh takes the same approach. He constructed the movie like a posthumous autobiography, and it's only through an interview in the Times from earlier this year that I would have known anything about his own relationship to Gray. Talking about how he avoided Gray for the last three years of his life, Soderbergh says, "I was totally absent in a way that is inexcusable to me. And this entire movie is in part an act of contrition. The irony is that I spent the better part of three years immersed in something I tried to avoid."

If there's any sense of Soderbergh's presence in the movie, it's that feeling of regret. I hardly knew anything about him and his work when he was alive, and now I can't believe it's over already.

December 7, 2010

Christian Bale and Dicky Eklund

Melissa Leo and Christian Bale in The Fighter

An early review of The Fighter from an AP critic David Germain (he's pretty good) is positive about the movie overall, but says that Christian Bale is especially great. He plays Dicky Eklund, Mark Wahlberg's half-brother, and a flamboyant and confident successful boxer himself, until he had some losses, then eventually became a crack addict and a wreck. Compared to Wahlberg's unsmiling, hard-working, blue-collar guy with a dream, Dicky Eklund sounds like a wonderfully colorful, exuberant wastrel: a complete disaster, but a lot of fun to watch.

Germain thinks that Christian Bale might have taken some inspiration from Heath Ledger's scene-stealing performance in The Dark Knight. While he had to stand there with his jaw clenched, reciting dull moralisms in that suit of armor, Ledger got to swagger around in his fright wig, gleefully smacking his lips through all the good lines. "Two years after Ledger's posthumous supporting-actor win at the Oscars, Bale might take home the same honor, for inhabiting a role with a different but equally ferocious sort of abandon," he writes.

You can see the real Dick Eklund, who's still alive, in HBO's 1995 documentary about Dicky and some other Lowell, MA crack addicts, High on Crack Street. It's available for instant viewing on Netflix, and you can watch the whole thing on YouTube.

The Best Supporting Actor Oscar race might come down to Geoffrey Rush for the hyper-British The King's Speech, Christian Bale, and John Hawkes in Winter's Bone. Hawkes is the kind of character actor I totally love, appearing in loads of big-budget and tiny movies and TV, and being entirely different in every role and completely memorable.

Bale's performances have been so uneven lately that I can't tell if he's good or not anymore. For every great, smart, subtle role he's done (I'm Not There, The Prestige, Rescue Dawn) he's done another one where he's a bland drip who gets upstaged by everybody (Public Enemies, 3:10 to Yuma, The Dark Knight).

The Fighter comes out Friday. Can't wait to see Bale chew some Lowell crackhead scenery.

November 30, 2010

Mark Ruffalo, our fracking hero

Mark Ruffalo, anti-fracker

Big thanks to Mark Ruffalo, swarthily irresistible actor and political agitator, for New York State's last-minute decision to ban the gas drilling practice known as hydraulic fracture drilling, or fracking. He's a resident of Sullivan County, a rural area in the Catskills, and been fighting loudly against gas companies fracking up our state.

Last night at 1:00 AM, the state Assembly voted to ban fracking at least until May; the law had already passed in the Senate over the summer.

To celebrate our environmental victory and the handsomely rumpled political activism of Mark Ruffalo, let's have a brief, Ruffalicious photo retrospective. He's playing a cop in each of these, which might explain where his sense of justice comes from, or it could just mean that he looks great with guns and facial hair: Shutter Island, Zodiac, and In the Cut.

Mark Ruffalo in Shutter Island

Mark Ruffalo in Zodiac

Mark Ruffalo in In the Cut

Here's a video of Ruffalo with Pete Seeger at a protest in Albany this past summer. Seeger sings a new song about God and fracking.

Also, Ruffalo has been added to Pennsylvania's terror alert watch list for his anti-fracking activities. Probably because he causes a sex riot every time he shows up at rallies.

There's a great HBO documentary about why fracking is bad called "Gasland", and another one about fracking in the Rockies called "Split Estate".

November 29, 2010

Surely Leslie Nielsen was one of the great ones

Leslie Nielsen in Airplane!

Leslie Nielsen is the inventor of contemporary deadpan. Without Leslie Nielsen and his straight man shtick, we would have no Bill Murray or any of Jason Bateman's or Michael Cera's good lines in "Arrested Development". I might be over-stepping here, but without Leslie Nielsen, I'm not sure we would have William Shatner as we know him today.

Both Shatner and Nielsen are Canadians who transitioned from the sci-fi and disaster genre into the kind of parody/self-parody that is so perfectly transparent, it's hard to tell if they're actually doing anything at all. Nielsen is more of a minimalist, but so good at his particular style of straight-faced slapstick that he's basically done exactly the same thing in every movie post-Airplane! and it is always hilarious.

Like everyone, I saw Airplane! at age 10 or so, and it's still the funniest movie I've ever seen (apart from a brief period around 1990 when I decided The Naked Gun was funnier.) Only recently did I happen to catch the 1957 movie that Airplane! is based on, Zero Hour!, which is so close to Airplane! than a lot of the dialogue was lifted directly from the original, including the "Looks like I picked the wrong week to quit smoking" line.

There's also this one from Zero Hour!:

"The life of everyone on board depends upon just one thing: finding someone back there who can not only fly this plane, but who didn't have fish for dinner."

I have no idea how you make a line like that as funny as Leslie Nielsen did in Airplane!. It's not funny in the original. It's not even a joke. He's a genius.

Here's the Times obituary, and a collection of his movie clips.

November 23, 2010

Mark Wahlberg is still cool

Mark Wahlberg in The Happening

Yeah, Mark Wahlberg has been in some cruddy movies. His 90's heyday (Boogie Nights, Three Kings) is long gone, and it's been a hard decline from Rock Star to We Own the Night.

In fact, I'm not sure he's been in a good movie since The Departed in 2006 (though I still haven't seen The Other Guys, which was probably pretty funny.)

Then there was M. Night Shyamalan's The Happening from 2008, which was about killer trees. Manohla Dargis says Wahlberg has an "earnest, committed presence" in it, but it's been frequently cited as the worst movie of the year, or maybe ever, an opinion that has its own Facebook page.

As part of the publicity for his new movie, The Fighter, Mark Wahlberg did a press conference where he brought up The Happening seemingly without provocation. Here's what he said, in reference to his first meeting with co-star Amy Adams:

We had actually had the luxury of having lunch before to talk about another movie and it was a bad movie that I did. She dodged the bullet. And then I was still able to ... I don't want to tell you what movie ... alright, The Happening. Fuck it. It is what it is. Fucking trees, man. The plants. Fuck it.

Which is I think pretty much what everyone who watched that movie said as the credits rolled.

This new movie, The Fighter, looks a little overwrought and very, very Oscars-y, but most of the actors should be good (Wahlberg, Christian Bale, Melissa Leo.) It's by David O. Russell, who's built a reputation as being an unstable, abusive horror of a director. One of Mark Wahlberg's first comedic roles was in Russell's last movie, I Heart Huckabees, and he was by far the best thing about it. Based on that video of Russell and Lily Tomlin screaming at each other, and his fist fight with George Clooney on the Three Kings set, I'm surprised any actor would agree to work with him three times, but I guess Wahlberg wants to take whatever good parts he can get these days.

Fucking trees, man.

November 16, 2010

Silent movies, Woody Allen

Sunrise

Crimes and Misdemeanors

Turner Classic Movies is doing a fantastic 7-part series on the early days of Hollywood and the American movie business called "Moguls and Movie Stars". It's on every Monday at 8:00, and Part 3 was on last night; it was all about the 1920's, and included the rise of huge movie stars like Clara Bow, Douglas Fairbanks, Mary Pickford, and Greta Garbo, and the incredibly huge wealth created by the studio heads.

In this week's installation, we see east coast investors and government agencies slowly becoming aware of that crazy bunch of hedonist reprobates out in LA, drinking illegal booze, having orgies, and making money hand over fist. Hollywood attracted the attention of investors like Joseph Kennedy, who poured money into the movie industry and created RKO, and also had an affair with Gloria Swanson (the Kennedy men loved their movie stars.) Before the federal government could regulate the increasingly salacious output, the industry stepped in and created the self-censoring Hays Office, so that was the end of on-screen nudity and unpunished adultery for the next few decades.

We also learned about the created of the Academy and the first Oscar awards. The first Best Picture awards were given to two movies, Wings and Sunrise, both silent films. TCM aired Sunrise right after the series--a really incredibly good movie. It's the first Hollywood movie by F.W. Murnau, maybe better known for doing Nosferatu with alleged pretend vampire Max Schreck.

The storyline of 1927's Sunrise has been used over and over again in more recent movies -- I can think of at least 6 Woody Allen movies that use its ideas. Crimes and Misdemeanors (above), Husbands and Wives, Hannah and Her Sisters and a bunch of others all involve a bored married man who goes crazy for a sexy single woman, then things go wrong and he eventually comes to his senses and goes back to his wife. He might even try to kill someone along the way. If Sunrise were remade today, the husband would maybe be Adam Sandler or Paul Schneider (big-budget/low-budget), the wife would be Emily Mortimer or Drew Barrymore (the actress in the original looks just like her), the hot young temptress would be Kirsten Dunst or Mila Kunis.

I never realized it before, but this story we've seen a hundred times is taken straight from our silent classics. Just like in Sunrise, Woody allows his guys to run around with their young girlfriends, then come back home to their comely wives with basically no consequences--with the notable exception of Anthony Hopkins in his latest movie, You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger, maybe the only time it doesn't work out for him.

The Hays Code put a temporary end to scenes in Sunrise like the young single girl lounging in her filmy underwear and rolling around in a swamp with the married dude -- it's always a little bit of a surprise to see the stuff audiences were watching in pre-Code 1920's movie theaters. There's a reason we went from zero theaters to 21,000 theaters by 1916. To put that in context, there are 5,800 theaters and 39,000 screens today, and 3 times more people in the country.

November 6, 2010

127 Hours

James Franco in 127 Hours

127 Hours -- it's a wilderness-action-thriller that's about as tense and exciting as a movie can be, considering you already know everything that's going to happen. As Danny Boyle described it, it's "an action movie with a guy who can't move."

Its success is mostly due to James Franco, who's incredibly compelling to watch even when all he's doing is brooding in a canyon. There are about 1,000 ways this movie could have gone wrong and been alternately tedious, ridiculous, and repellently maudlin, but it wasn't any of those. The emotional progression of the movie is so sincere and credible that by the time we get to the gruesome crescendo, it's a totally personal and believable moment. I wasn't even that grossed out. It felt sort of like watching Ralph Macchio deliver the winning Crane Kick. I felt like cheering. It's self-dismemberment as personal growth.

The themes of the movie--exaggerated self-confidence and alienation of everyone around you, leading to slowly dawning loneliness--reminded me of another really good movie that's out now. If you strip away all the circumstantial details, this movie has a lot in common with The Social Network. Both characters rush as fast as they can down their chosen path to success, leaving a lot of neglected relationships along the way, only to find themselves regretfully alone at the end. The difference is that at the end of The Social Network, Zuckerberg's still stuck down there in the canyon.

Danny Boyle is one of the very few directors out there that I've seen every one of his movies. His main characters are often filled with hubris, whether they're trying to take a lot money, explode a bomb inside the sun, find the perfect beach, or conquer a remote canyon without telling anyone where they're going. It almost always turns out OK for them in the end--he's big on happy endings. But he earned this happy ending a lot more than the endings of, say, Slumdog Millionaire or The Beach or even Trainspotting.

Boyle has said he wants his movies to be life-affirming, as dark as they usually are. It's an unabashedly feel-good movie, everyone already knows how it's going to end, and it's still great. I'm impressed.

November 2, 2010

Vote with Matt Damon

Matt Damon Working Families Party video

You can tell this year's Election Day is going to be weird. Voter enthusiasm is a lot lower than it was two years ago. With the notable exception of old white guys, that is, who could end up dancing in the streets tonight while the rest of us sit there wistfully remembering where we were that magical far-away night in 2008, then suddenly feeling very tired.

But most important: hardly any celebrities have urged me to vote this election. Without Christina Aguilera and Jonah Hill telling me to make my voice heard, why should I give a shit about politics?

At least we've still got good old Matt Damon, who is such a incredibly politically engaged celebrity that not only will he do a Get Out the Vote video in a midterm year, but he made a video on behalf of one of New York State's third parties, the Working Families Party. You could almost forgive him for the turgid-looking Hereafter and his psychic glowing right eye in the trailer.

Actually, he made two videos: one where he explains how voting for candidates on the Working Families line shows that you support the kinds of things that Democrats have historically stood for, like living-wage jobs and education and health care, and not so much the things that a lot of Democrats stand for now, like starting wars and selling out.

And another video about how to actually fill out the paper ballot, telling us to only fill in the dots in Row E, the Working Families party line, and not to fill in both the Democrat dots and the WFP dots. Would someone actually do that? I guess we need to assume that voters are complete morons.

Clearly these videos were produced by a tiny underfunded third-party that only exists in one state, and not Rock the Vote or Funny or Die, because Matt Damon is really poorly lit and looks all puffy-faced and tired and possibly stoned (see above).

Is that a fleece vest he's wearing? Yeah! We're not about slick Washington lobbyists and marketing firms! We're the REAL America!

Keep hope alive, everyone.

October 19, 2010

Bumping rails and stealing TVs with Dottie from Gone Baby Gone

Dottie from Gone Baby Gone

I've been on the road for most of the past month, so it's been pretty quiet around here. Now I'm back, so let's peer into the murky world of marginal fame, moral turpitude, and racist Boston lowlifes!

I've said before how, despite his shortcomings as an actor, Ben Affleck really knows how to cast a movie. His latest, The Town, centers on an unconvincing love story and has a few too many pointless scenes, but the supporting cast is so outstanding that Affleck seemed to actually run out of meaningful roles for all those fantastic actors.

He did a good job with his first movie, Gone Baby Gone, too, giving the wonderful Amy Ryan one of her first big roles, and dredging up some really impenetrable accents from the South Boston neighborhoods where the movie was shot.

The most memorable parts of that movie for me were the scenes with Amy Ryan as an irresponsible mother, Helene, and her hahhd-pahhtyin' best friend Dottie. Those ladies were phenomenal. Watching them sleaze around Boston in their jean skirts and sweatsuits, looking for a good time and free drugs, was my favorite part of the movie. I remember Emily saying she couldn't wait to see the sequel, Helene and Dottie Bump Rails.

Maybe Ben Affleck's casting skills are even better than we realized: today we hear (tx Em!) that Jill Quigg, the woman he hand-picked to play Dottie, got busted for breaking into a neighbor's apartment, stealing a TV and a printer, then telling cops she had seen "a black man" break into the apartment.

Cops said they became suspicious of what Jill Quigg, 35, and her alleged accomplice Georgios Keskinidis, 28, told them about an unidentified black man breaking into the South Street apartment ... Quigg and Keskinidis told cops they saw an unidentified black male run from the crime scene with a 32-inch television and a computer printer. Quigg also told cops the break-in was "drug-related," but could not explain how she knew that.

They also told police they took the stolen goods to Quigg’s apartment located across the street from the crime scene for safe keeping.

Oh, Dottie!

Maybe she took her inspiration from Charles Stuart, the Boston guy who shot his pregnant wife in the head, then told cops that "a black man" had done it. Everyone believed him and a random black guy was actually arrested for the crime, until Stuart's brother confessed to the cops what had really happened. Then Stuart jumped from the Tobin Bridge into Mystic River and killed himself.

It's a Boston Gothic story William Faulkner could have written if he was from Quincy.

Even if she made up the part about the black man, Jill Quigg probably had one part of her story right. In her IMDb bio, one of her quotes is: "I'd love to do more acting, absolutely, but right now I'm working on staying sober."

October 3, 2010

At least it's not based on a Dennis Lehane novel

The Town

I watched the latest in the decade's glut of Boston crime movies, The Town. It wasn't too bad, and given how easy it would have been for it to get lost in the Shutter River Gone Baby Departed chowdah pot, it does OK for itself.

The biggest benefit of directing when you're already a movie star seems to be that you can assemble a phenomenally good cast. Ben Affleck was so good at casting this movie that he got a few more top-notch actors than he even needed. Pete Postlethwaite and Chris Cooper are two of my very favorite actors, and while it was nice to see them again, they're given basically nothing to do but get through their brief scenes without completely overshadowing everyone else in the room. Cooper was especially wasted as Ben's imprisoned dad--if his one scene had been cut, it wouldn't have made any difference to the story at all.

The movie goes for quantity over quality in some other ways too. After Ben and Rebecca Hall meet, their relationship has to progress to a certain intensity and seriousness pretty fast. But instead of showing any real passion or chemistry or reasons why they're so into each other, we just see them go on about 85 different dates. Then they kiss. Then they're in love. Because the screenplay says they are.

One downside of casting lots of exceptional actors, besides having to create needless scenes for them all to act in, is that they make the less talented actors stick out uncomfortably. Especially when those actors are also the director. There are a couple of fantastic scenes between Ben Affleck and his best friend and partner in crime, Jeremy Renner, but Renner is so far ahead of Affleck in focus and believability that he makes Ben look like he's just sitting there waiting his turn to say his lines. Almost everybody in the movie is more memorable than Ben Affleck, and he's in just about every scene. He's not terrible, he's just out of his league.

Here's another actor that did a better job than Ben Affleck: Blake Lively. I know! She plays a broken-down local girl whose hometown has chewed up and spit out. It's not at all a glamorous role, and she doesn't try to make it into one. I was impressed. Especially considering she was probably the weak link of Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants.

Plus: excellent action sequences! Sometimes I tune these out in heist movies, but these were fantastic. The car chase through those narrow, winding streets of the North End was my favorite scene. Nice camera work throughout.

OK, let's say something else nice about Ben Affleck. My favorite Ben Affleck acting jobs: Extract and Dazed and Confused.

September 13, 2010

Watching Gaga on the VMAs

Lady Gaga in her meat dress at the VMAs

Gaga's total domination of all media continued last night with a record number of VMA wins, a predictably bonkers line-up of ever-changing outfits for her acceptance speeches, and then an unpredictably crazy/gross/brilliant final appearance in a meat dress. And for anyone who might have doubted her formidable vocal chops, a spontaneous performance of the chorus of her next record [video].

I sat there watching her, wishing I could be 15 years old. So that while watching Gaga in her meat dress, belting out a few bars with tears streaming down her face, my mind could just be happily blown, instead of trying to figure out how I fit into the Nostalgic High School Misfit demographic that a record company marketing team has surely mapped out.

In one example of today's onslaught of gossip site reactions to the dress, Hollywood Gossip did a little piece with a "Tasty or Tasteless?" poll for readers. But since this is a celebrity outfit at an awards ceremony, they also did their standard "Get This Look!" feature, where you can hover over the photo and see where you can buy affordable versions of the clothes and accessories the star is wearing.

I really, really wish the link to the dress went to a wholesale butcher, but in a spectacular missing of the point, it actually goes to a conventional burgundy-colored little floral dress that's made of silk, not slabs of beef.

September 9, 2010

Terriers, the return of Donal Logue

Donal Logue on Terriers

Donal Logue has a new TV show called "Terriers" on FX. I'm a big Donal Logue fan. He continues to do loads of TV and movies, but somehow his career has never really taken off the way it should have. I know he was the star of "Grounded For Life" a few years ago, a show I watched zero times, but in a lot of the press I've seen for "Terriers", he's still referred to as "Donal Logue, from The Tao of Steve", a movie that came out 10 years ago.

Anyway, everything that's good about this new show is basically because of Donal Logue. The show follows Logue and his friend, a guy from "True Blood", who work as unlicensed private eyes in San Diego. They're both well-meaning schlubby guys trying, without much success, to get their lives together: Logue is an ex-drunk who got kicked off the police force and dumped by his wife, whom he still loves, and his friend is an ex-burglar. They investigate crimes and domestic disputes while the whole world calls them deadbeats. But, of course, they're actually really good in a back-door kind of way, and use their connections to the seamy underbelly to expose the bad guys.

Donal Logue is as haggardly charming as ever, even if he does have more grey in his bead and deep crinkles on his face. The writing is pretty flat: Logue has lines like "You killed my friend. And I'm going to destroy you" that not even he can save. But there's funny stuff, too, like when the two guys are watching at a pretty graphic sex tape recorded on someone's iPhone. "iPorn!," the friend says. "You what?," says Donal Logue.

The pilot episode was directed by Craig Brewer, who also did Hustle & Flow and Black Snake Moan and is good at capturing the grim reality of being poor, desperate, driving a cruddy car, hanging out with criminals and drug addicts, and getting chained to radiators. There's a big streak of class consciousness running through this show (NY Times says it "hangs rich people out to dry") with the wealthy pillars of society raping the underclass until our heroes take them down.

I'm guessing this show won't be around for more than a few months, but for now it's a good scruffy diversion until Logue's next movie Vengeance. Which stars Danny Trejo, Jason Mewes, and 50 Cent and looks pulpy and great.

One little reminder about the past career of Donal Logue: he starred in and produced another short-lived comedy series called "The Knights of Prosperity" about a bunch of losers and weirdos who decide to rob Mick Jagger. No one watched it, but it was hilarious, and featured the character with the greatest TV name of all time: Rockefeller Butts. You can watch all the episodes on Hulu.

September 1, 2010

Heart! (on Fox News)

Nancy Wilson of Heart on Fox News

All summer, midtown has had two competing live music series on the morning shows: NBC's Today Show series, which has featured Lady Gaga, Carole King and James Taylor, and Maxwell, and Fox News' All American Summer series, which has included American Idol losers, Uncle Kracker, and Toby Keith. Rockefeller Center has been attracting massive crowds with fans often camping out on the street the night before, while the shows in front of the Fox building on 6th Ave have largely been made up of people who happened to be getting off the F train on their way to work.

But this morning, Fox scored a huge victory with Heart! Performing live! I turned onto 6th Ave and heard Nancy Wilson pounding out the riff from "Magic Man" and ran to the corner of 48th St. By far the best start to my day of the summer.

Here's the video, which includes an interview with the Wilson sisters about growing up in a Marines household (this is Fox News, after all) and the sexism they faced in the 70's and still see in music today. And they do "Magic Man" starting at 3:30. It rocks.

This performance reminds me that this is not really a family-friendly song. Those lyrics are hot! I'm a little surprised they got away with the magic man and his magic hands on "Fox & Friends", but I guess rock transcends the Culture Wars.

Also: the Wilsons like Lady Gaga and Taio Cruz's "Dynamite".

August 25, 2010

Movie trailer by anti-Muslim cab stabbing guy

Last night a "very drunk" 21 year-old guy was arrested for stabbing the driver of his cab after asking him if he was Muslim.

From the Times article:

After falling silent for a few minutes, the passenger began cursing and screaming, and then yelled, "Assalamu alaikum -- consider this a checkpoint!" and slashed Mr. Sharif across the neck, and then on the face from his nose to his upper lip, the alliance said. ("Assalamu alaikum" -- "peace be with you" -- is a traditional Muslim greeting.)

The assailant, Michael Enright, was an SVA film student who had recently been in Afghanistan shooting his documentary, Home of the Brave, about US soldiers.

The trailer is on YouTube:

It features young soldiers talking about what inspired them to enlist (9/11) and what it's like to be part of a tight-knight group of soldiers (they've got your back) and, actually, makes being a soldier in Afghanistan look pretty fun. There's basic training and motivational speeches in an auditorium, and also Christmas and birthday parties and playing with a friendly dog. Doesn't look like the film includes combat, probably because as a film student he wasn't allowed to see any action.

But clearly Hollywood has defined what we think war is supposed to look like, because there's a trailer for another movie called Home of the Brave that looks far grittier and more violent. This one is about Iraq, not Afghanistan, and it stars Samuel L. Jackson, Jessica Biel, and 50 Cent, but when you watch the trailer, the on-the-ground scenes look a lot more war-like than the documentary. It was directed by the guy who produced all the Rocky movies.

More bombs, fewer birthday cakes.

Anyway, it seems like Michael Enright was deeply attached to the US soldiers he met and other friends who were deployed, and somewhere along the way he went nuts. Interestingly, he was also a volunteer for Intersections International, a nonprofit that works to overcome racial and religious boundaries, in their veteran's dialogue program.

The cab driver is going to be OK.

August 23, 2010

Cee-Lo's surprise TUSH

Cee-Lo Green

Just when I was about to give up and admit that 2010 would be a year without a suitable Totally Ubiquitous Summer Hit, along comes our old friend Cee-Lo Green, who blows away everything you've heard all summer in the first 15 seconds of his new single, "Fuck You".

This is the most sunshiny, ebullient song I've heard all summer, and since the world first heard it at the end of last week and over the weekend, it has become absolutely unavoidably everywhere. It's been remixed by 50 Cent. It's been written up by the Wall Street Journal ("vulgar but catchy").

It's also been reviewed on Pitchfork: "It's beyond happy. Cathartic. It could be the new Sesame Street theme. It could play at a wedding, and your grandmother would hobble to it. It's post-censorship." It really is.

That's it! Katy Perry, you're outta here! Eminem, go beat girls up someplace else! At least for today, Cee-Lo's got this year's TUSH. And you can't even buy it until October 4.

Gnarls Barkley (Cee-Lo + Danger Mouse) had the TUSH in 2006 with "Crazy", which grew to ubiquity over several months. While the world took many listens to get into the wistful musings of that song, as of your first listen, "Fuck You" is burned into your brain forever. It's so catchy it feels like you already know it.

By the way, radio is playing a clean version of the song ("Forget You"), which as Pitchfork says, "may as well not exist."

Here's Cee-Lo's Twitter, and here's his website where you can hear a few of the songs that will be on his new album, Lady Killer.

August 15, 2010

Scott Pilgrim and the new Michael Cera

Michael Cera as Scott Pilgrim

I had exerted monumental effort to keep my expectations in check for Scott Pilgrim vs. the World. The cast, the music, the style, Michael Cera, Edgar Wright--I was getting really excited about this movie, and it would have been easy to walk in expecting (Shaun of the Dead x "Arrested Development"), only to be confronted with (Run Fatboy Run - Year One).

But there was nothing to worry about--this movie is completely wonderful and is the best time I've had in the theater this year (even if the fight scenes get a little samey.) Edgar Wright understands his genres so completely, and is unapologetically of, by, and for his own generation and its pop culture. Even though this movie is about people in their early 20's, the references, music (both the soundtrack and original songs by Beck), clothes, and video game style are a lot more early 90's than 2010. If you're approximately Edgar Wright's age (36) you will totally get this movie, even if you've never read a comic book and haven't played a video game since Zelda.

I have no idea if actual 22 year-olds will like or get it or not. I would guess they would be a little puzzled by love interest Ramona Flowers and her personal style, which is sort of late-80's goth with a touch of early-90's riot grrrl and really has no point of reference to how cool young women in movies dress now. But she made me want to dig out my old boots and A-line miniskirts from college.

All the stuff about relationships, evil exes, and trying against all odds to get that one person who is far cooler than you are to go out with you is universal. As is the realization that, no matter how wronged and heartbroken you may feel, there are also times that you're the heartbreaker asshole.

Which brings me to something else that's great about this movie: Michael Cera gets to play a dick. For the last 6 years or so, Michael Cera has pretty much played variations of George-Michael Bluth: an earnest, sweet kid, socially awkward, a romantic, sort of a loser with sincere intentions. He's so good at it that he's had to play this same role over and over again. Sometime around Juno, this started to get a little tedious.

But in Scott Pilgrim, he's not necessarily the nicest guy in the world. He knows how to play the sweet, sincere puppy-dog type, but sometimes it's an act. Some of the time, Pilgrim is manipulative, selfish, and petulant. He's got a long, unflattering history with the ladies, and he's a little bit of a jerk.

It turns out Michael Cera is great at playing a little bit of a jerk! It was such a relief. It reminds me of that period in the 90's when Hugh Grant played one stammering, awkward, floppy-haired, increasingly annoying romantic after another (Four Weddings and a Funeral, Notting Hill, etc.) Then he did Bridget Jones and About a Boy and played unrepentant pricks in each movie. He was phenomenal. Such a relief to see him break out of his type, and such a surprise to see how good he was at playing selfish assholes, even if they come around by the end.

So hopefully Michael Cera will get more opportunities to embrace his inner jerk.

Note: despite my own love for this movie and the monumental marketing behind it (I think I've seen an interview with Edgar Wright or Michal Cera in every single publication and website I read [good one in The AV Club]) it didn't do that well this weekend at the box office. Everybody's been watching Eat Pray Love and The Expendables. Too bad: I'm willing to bet Scott Pilgrim is a lot more fun and will make you feel much cooler than either of those.

August 6, 2010

Who's not supporting Wyclef for President

Wyclef Jean performing at Haiti benefit

Wyclef Jean says he didn't so much decide to run for president of Haiti, but that a groundswell of his fellow Haitians are demanding that he become their new leader. "People say, 'Are you running for president?' I say no, I am naturally being drafted by my country to serve my country," he told the Daily News.

Let's look at the response to his presidential draft:

Pras, ex-Fugee and Wyclef's estranged cousin, says he's supporting Michel Martelly instead of Wyclef because "he is the most competent candidate for the job." Martelly is also a Haitian musician who performs under the name "Sweet Micky". From Sweet Micky's Wikipedia page: "Outlandish and outspoken, Martelly has been known to drink publicly while performing in wigs, costumes, diapers, and Scottish kilts, and occasionally remove his own attire while performing." He's also friends with current president Rene Preval. Here's his MySpace page.

If Sweet Micky is the most competent candidate, it's going to be an entertaining few years for people who don't have to live in Haiti.

Also not a Wyclef supporter: Sean Penn. Last night on CNN he called Wyclef a "non-presence" in Haiti since the earthquake and says that for the next president, "I want to see someone who is really willing to sacrifice for their country and not just someone who I personally saw with a vulgar entourage of vehicles that demonstrated a wealth in Haiti that -- in context, I felt a very obscene demonstration."

Sean Penn's views on Haitian politics are actually more relevant that you might think: he's spent most of his time since the earthquake managing relief services for 50,000 people at a camp he co-founded, the J/P Haitian Relief Organization.

The Daily News interviewed some Haitians living in Brooklyn for their thoughts on Clef. A shipping company manager in Flatbush says, "Wyclef is a musician. He's not fit for the job."

But the Times found at least one Haitian who's enthusiastic about his candidacy:

Sitting on a cracked stoop in a battered neighborhood called Bas Peu des Choses, Linda Joseph, 36, clapped her hands in delight and said she probably would not have bothered to vote if Mr. Jean had not decided to run.

"Other people make promises and don't deliver, but Wyclef has heart," she said. "If he says he'll do something, we'll trust him. And besides, he already has all the money he needs. So he won't steal from us like the others.”

Oh, really, Linda? Clef's financial track record has more in common with other recent Haitian leaders than you might like.

He owes over $2 million to the IRS, which he talks about like it's a good thing: "owing $2.1 million to the IRS shows you how much money Wyclef Jean makes a year," he says, demurely referring to himself in the third person. And as we all heard about in January, he used his foundation, Yele Haiti Foundation, to pay himself and his other businesses, which is illegal. It also turns out that he's 40, not 37 as he used to claim.

At least now that Wyclef's in the race, everyone will pay attention to Haiti again for a few minutes. I hope his debates with Sweet Micky are televised.

August 2, 2010

Trust

Clive Owen in Trust

The Toronto Film Festival is starting to announce its movie lineup, and one of the premieres is going to be a revenge thriller called Trust. The trailer just came out, and it reveals a few interesting things:

  • It stars Clive Owen and Catherine Keener as a married couple, so it's automatically cool
  • It's about this cool married couple trying to deal with a terrible thing that happens to one of their kids (the trailer gives away lots of details about this, so don't watch it if you don't want to know. What is it with these trailers? Better question: why do I keep watching them when they bug the hell out of me?)
  • The movie seems to focus in particular on Clive Owen's descent into obsessive and possibly homicidal thirst for revenge, featuring lots of wild-eyed rage that doesn't even begin to diminish his rumpled, doughy-faced handsomeness
  • Supporting cast includes Viola Davis and Noah Emmerich, who I just now figured out is one of my favorite character actors
  • It's directed by David Schwimmer! Huh? Run, Fatboy, Run, the US version of "Little Britain", and now this. Who does he think he is, Edgar Wright? Now that he's anchored himself firmly behind the camera, that guy has done pretty well for himself.

Here's the trailer (it keeps getting taken down from YouTube: hopefully new versions will keep getting posted):

One other thing: there are a LOT of movies out there called Trust. IMDb has three of them coming out in 2010 alone. So far my favorite is Hal Hartley's, which also premiered at Toronto back in 1990. But really, it's time to retire this title.

July 26, 2010

Hamm/Hall mag spread

There's at least one other person out there besides me who wishes that Jon Hamm and Rebecca Hall had formed the gorgeous on-screen couple of the year in The Town, instead of her and not-gorgeous Ben Affleck. Because W Magazine has a big sexy photo spread of the two of them lounging around draped over each other looking really stylish and hot!

Jon Hamm and Rebecca Hall

Clearly this set of photos is far more satisfying than a few pained movie scenes of awkward, hesitant desire thwarted by the unsentimental realities of modern life, FBI regulations, and anti-erotic Boston accents.

But in a less gritty, New Englandy movie, they would make one handsome couple. Check out that profile:

Jon Hamm and Rebecca Hall

Wow. More here.

July 20, 2010

Ben Affleck, Jon Hamm, and The Town

The Town, Jon Hamm

Ben Affleck might not be the world's greatest actor, but I will give him this: he knows how to hire a great cast. He's now directed his second movie, The Town, which comes out in September. Here's the new trailer. [Warning: it seems to me like the trailer gives away a lot of plot twists, so if you're not into that kind of thing, maybe don't watch it.]

Even if you have no idea what this movie is about, I bet you can predict all its main features: 1) crime, 2) Boston, 3) uneducated white people who live on the fringes of society and swear like feckin' crazy.

But that's not the interesting part. The cast looks phenomenal for this movie. He's got Jon Hamm as a tenacious FBI agent determined to bring down some bank robbers (who, in a Boston heist movie cliché so obvious it almost transcends itself, dress in nun costumes) and Rebecca Hall as some kind of bank employee/love interest. Unfortunately for me, she's not Jon Hamm's love interest, because then they would have been the most beautiful screen couple of the year.

Instead, she's Ben Affleck's love interest, who decided to just give in and cast himself in this movie, a temptation he resisted for his first movie Gone Baby Gone. Judging from the trailer, it looks like he's one of the movie's weaker links, but he did make the creative choice of including a scene of himself doing pull-ups that's dramatically lit to highlight the chiseled topography of every ab and pec of his body. Nice one, Ben.

Anyway, there's also Jeremy Renner, who post-The Hurt Locker should finally be a real superstar. He's about a hundred times tougher and more scary than Ben Affleck in the trailer, and he's only on screen for about 4 seconds. There's Pete Postlethwaite, one of my favorite actors ever (even if half of the movies he does are of the Clash of the Titans variety,) and Blake Lively as a stripper who let's just assume is a real sweet girl deep down. And is that Chris Cooper as Ben Affleck's dad? Awesome.

Here's the trailer.

July 14, 2010

Mark Ronson and the French

Mark Ronson, Bang Bang Bang

Happy Bastille Day!

In celebration, here's the video from a new single from the dependably wonderful Mark Ronson, "Bang Bang Bang". (thanks, King Pigeon!) It features a Japanese talk show, breakdancing preteens, and a chorus with lyrics taken from the French children's song you probably sang in 2nd grade music class, "Alouette". And MNDR and Q-Tip on vocals.

The video walks a fine line between funky kitsch and tired '80's video parody, but somehow everything comes together just right to make a phenomenally cool video. Does Mark Ronson ever make stylistic missteps? I don't think he does.

His new album "Record Collection" is coming out in October under the name Mark Ronson & The Business Intl, and it will include guests vocalists Ghostface Killah, D'Angelo, Simon LeBon, and BOY GEORGE. How does he do it?

His last album, "Version", was all covers of pop songs, with lots of really inspired selections on there, including the last (ever?) great recording by Amy Winehouse, "Valerie".

In watching the video for "Bang Bang Bang", I started wondering about those lyrics to "Alouette", which I've half-known since childhood. "Alouette, gentille alouette, je te plumerai." Then you go through all the different parts of the bird--the head, the beak, the wings, the tail. It's pretty much the only French I know, besides "Voulez-vous coucher avec moi (ce soir)", which every American girl is required to know so she can scream it at house parties when that Christina Aguilera song comes on and imagine she's very cosmopolitan.

But although I assumed the song was a sweet tribute to a bird, I had no idea what a lot of the words meant. So I looked them up.

Turns out that "plumerai" means "pluck". It's a song about plucking a DEAD BIRD. Gentille alouette! I'm going to pluck your head!

What I had always thought was a mild song celebrating a beloved bird as it happily fluttered around in the French countryside turns out to be a gruesome tune about ripping the feathers off a bird's dead little body.

Those sick French bastards.

July 10, 2010

The Kids Are All Right vs. I Am Love

The Kids Are All Right

I Am Love

I happened to see two movies yesterday that had so many things in common they were like companion pieces for each other. I Am Love is a gorgeously stylized melodrama about a wealthy northern Italian family. It's by Luca Guadagnino and stars Tilda Swinton, who solidifies her status as one of greatest actresses of all time by showing once again that she can do absolutely anything, including speak Italian with a Russian accent. The Kids Are All Right is the third movie written and directed by Lisa Cholodenko, and it's my favorite. The movie's about a family headed by two moms whose lives are turned upside-down by the introduction of their kids to their sperm donor, the gaspingly sexy Mark Ruffalo.

They were both great. I won't give anything big away here, but let me list some of the things both of these movies prominently feature:

  • Infidelity
  • Lots of naked not-exactly-young flesh
  • The irresistible seductiveness of hot organic farmer-chefs
  • Lesbians
  • Mia Wasikowska and Alba Rohrwacher, who each play the protagonists' daughters and look uncannily alike:
  • Mia WakisowskaAlba

  • And one scene in each movie that is seriously identical. I won't reveal it, but the lesson of the scene in both movies is that certain people should really be more careful about where they leave snippets of their hair.

One movie will probably provoke a strong desire to be rich and Italian, the other to be rich and Californian, and both could inspire you to have crazy illicit sex in a beautiful, lush botanical setting.

And both have awesome soundtracks. The Kids Are All Right is all old Bowie and contemporary cool stuff like Fever Ray and Deerhoof, and I Am Love has swooningly romantic and gorgeous music by composer John Adams (apparently this is the first time he's allowed his music to be used in a movie.)

The two movies finally diverge in their endings and overall attitudes about family life and domesticity vs. passion. But both are some of the best things I've seen yet this year.

June 30, 2010

"Freaks and Geeks" is on!

Freaks and Geeks

One of the most talked-about TV shows of all time that nobody watched while it was on the air is "Freaks and Geeks". It's one of my favorite shows ever, and today's big news is that IFC is going to air the entire series, starting this Friday!

The show gets so much attention now because it represents the earliest stage of what has become the Judd Apatow Juggernaut: that group of writers, directors, and actors who have dominated the R-rated comedy scene since 2005's The 40 Year Old Virgin. The show was the brainchild of Apatow, Paul Feig (who went on to do "Arrested Development" and "The Office") and Mike White (Orange County, School of Rock).

The stars have almost all gone on to bigger things: James Franco, Seth Rogen (at a tender 17!), Jason Segel, Linda Cardelleni, and Busy Philipps all got their start on the show. My very favorite actor on the show is Martin Starr, who's now an awesome character actor and has become handsome and sort of beefy--surprising, considering how good he was as super-nerd Bill Haverchuck on the show.

(In other news, Martin Starr's latest show "Party Down" just got canceled by Starz.)

Anyway, "Freaks and Geeks" was an hour-long comedy-drama about being in high school in Michigan in the mid-80's. It's hilarious and nostalgic in a non-manipulative way and heartbreaking and great. If you missed it when it ran for all of 18 episodes in 1999-2000, now's your chance.

It airs on IFC on Friday, Monday, and Sunday nights. In a few months, IFC is also going to run the entire series of "Undeclared", which was the next show produced by most of the same people. That one's about freshman year of college. It was pretty uneven and never reached the greatness of "Freaks and Geeks", but it does feature a great performance by Jason Segel as the obsessive hometown boyfriend of the main girl who during one episode comes to visit her on campus--he's completely unnerving and manic, and it's the best thing he's ever done.

When IFC was airing "Arrested Development" a few months ago, if I ever happened to come across it while flipping around the channels I would always sit and watch the episode, even though I've got the DVDs sitting right there under the TV. I'm sure it will be exactly the same with "Freaks and Geeks"--it's just more exciting to be lucky enough to catch a favorite episode on TV, plus no commercials.

IFC has gotten really good at picking my favorite shows. What's next? "Spaced"?

June 25, 2010

World Cup in America

Diana Ross at the World Cup opening ceremony, 1994

Now that the US team has done well enough to advance to the next round, it's time for World Cup fever to sweep America! We like sports that we're good at. The game against Ghana tomorrow afternoon (2:30 on ABC!) is probably going to be the most watched soccer game yet this year.

The first time I remember being aware of the World Cup was in 1994, when it was hosted here in the US. In doing some research about that year's tournament, my friend T-Rock happened upon the description of the opening ceremony, which was held in Chicago. Here's the Wikipedia entry. It keeps getting better:

The opening ceremony of the World Cup was held on 17 June at Chicago's Soldier Field. Numerous dignitaries attended, including US President Bill Clinton, Chancellor of Germany Helmut Kohl and President of Bolivia Gonzalo Sánchez de Lozada. The ceremony was emceed by Oprah Winfrey.

In addition, Daryl Hall, Jon Secada and Diana Ross gave musical performances. Ross was also supposed to kick a football into the goal from the penalty spot at the end of her performance, with the goal then splitting in two as part of a pre-orchestrated stunt. She kicked the ball wide to the left, missing the goal, but the goalposts were collapsed anyway in accordance with the stunt plans.

From the American perspective, the most important aspect of the 1994 World Cup is definitely the video for Daryl Hall's horrific theme song, "Gloryland", which plays sort of like a 9/11 tribute video combined with a Disney World ad. It also features segments from the opening ceremony, which demonstrate that even a serious sports country like the United States is powerless to resist creating a big ridiculous Eurotrashtastic explosion of kitsch when planning a soccer-related gala event:

You can watch just Diana Ross's failed penalty kick and exploding goalposts here. For future reference, don't stage the crescendo of your globally televised soccer event around a 50 year-old diva scoring a goal.

June 18, 2010

Maybe this Al Pacino is a decent actor

Al Pacino as Shylock

I went to see The Merchant of Venice at Shakespeare in the Park last night, with Al Pacino as Shylock. I've heard it's been brutal trying to get tickets, and the show is still in previews (opens June 30), but I highly recommend it if you can go, it's one great production. It's like the best psychological thriller about contract law you've ever seen.

This is a tricky play--it often gets branded as anti-Semitic, what with every Christian character hurling non-stop abuse and hatred at Shylock and spitting the word "Jew" like it's a derogatory term. But it's really a play about anti-Semitism (and racism, and sexism) and this production shows all of that while staying true to the language and structure.

Characters are dressed in Victorian-era morning coats, and the set looks like a 19th century London trading company with a cool old ticker-tape machine and guys wearing visors. Shylock looks pretty much exactly like the old men who lumber along West 47th Street in the diamond district today, so I was glad they didn't go for anything too cartoonish. Pacino plays Shylock as a pragmatic, successful businessman who's sitting on an ocean of bitterness at being socially rejected from mainstream Christian society. He's not ashamed of who he is, he's just sick of living in an unfair, racist world.

It's not too hard to make Shylock a sympathetic character, but Pacino doesn't hold back on the anger and frustration that make him so bloodthirsty. The amazing thing is that he doesn't do any of the scenery chewing or hooah'ing that's made him into a caricature of himself in movies lately. Venice is basically an apartheid society, using its legal structure to keep people like Shylock down, so when he gets the chance to use the law to his advantage, he grabs on and won't let go. He wants that pound of flesh, not because he's a sadist killer, but because it's legally his.

But, of course, things don't go so well for old Shylock--the moral of the story seems to be Live by the contract, Die by the contract. Shakespeare structures the story as a rejection of rigid adherence to law and other pronouncements from on high that have little to do with people's actual lives, a theme that comes up in other plays like Measure For Measure.

The height of the action in the trial scene is really great and tense, with loads of moral ambiguity and really uncomfortable stuff about religious self-righteousness that makes Christians and Jews and pretty much everybody look like monsters. For a supposed romantic comedy, this is not at all a date play.

The play doesn't stress this too heavily, but the other big theme is how men unfairly control women's lives. Portia is the smartest person on the stage, but it's only when she's disguised as a man that anyone listens to her. She's played by Lily Rabe (daughter of Jill Clayburgh and David Rabe) and was clever and sassy without being self-righteous.

Al Pacino is the only huge star in the show, but there's also Law & Order's Jesse Martin and Mitch from "Modern Family" as the hilarious and campy comic relief.

May 20, 2010

Who's Fatter?™

The Hooters waitress who was put on probation at work for being too fat has been getting a lot of attention today. The women's rights crusaders at Fox News did an indignant piece in which they use national height/weight tables to show that poor 20 year-old Cassie Smith, at 5' 8" and 132 pounds, is well within healthy guidelines. Cassie claims that two women from company headquarters told her that unless she used a free gym membership to lose some weight, she's out.

But we'd like to use this opportunity to ensure that American women maintain an appropriately pathological mindset about their weight with another fun round of Who's Fatter?™

To play Who's Fatter?™, consider the two women below, and decide which one you think is fattest.

Who's Fatter?

Hooters girl vs. Beyonce

The Hooters Girl or Beyoncé?

This is a tricky one, because public reports of Beyoncé's weight vary depending on which movie she was most recently in: Dreamgirls (when she lost some weight) or Cadillac Records (when she gained weight to play Etta James.) She's the same height as Hooters girl. But all evidence point to this.

Answer: Beyoncé is fatter!

Beyoncé allegedly weighs 143 on an average day. She got down to the high 120's for Dreamgirls, and back when she was in Destiny's Child, she self-reported 135. Cha Cha has provided answers ranging from 135-150, and puts her height at either 5' 7" or 5' 8".

So forget about that gym membership, Cassie! All that's going to get you is more crappy tips for slinging wings and Bud Light in sneakers and orange shorts. Hire a stylist and start wearing leotards and heels.

Previously: Who's Fatter™?: Nicole Richie or Dakota Fanning?

May 17, 2010

RIP Ronnie James Dio. \m/

Ronnie James Dio, devil horns

Over the weekend, master metal screamer Ronnie James Dio died of stomach cancer. Dio was unbelievably great. Sure, he was diminutive, cartoonish, and outrageous, but if aliens landed on earth and you had to show them one video clip to explain what metal was all about, all you'd have to do is pull up some Dio, such as "Die Young" by Black Sabbath or "Holy Diver" by Dio.

Here's a brief obituary on Pitchfork, which says Dio "represented heavy metal at its most over-the-top, ridiculous, and fun." The respectful and thorough Times obit credits Dio with popularizing the international symbol for metal, the devil horns gesture, and provides a brief how-to for Times readers who are just getting into hard rock. It also mentions a Dio fact I never knew: he was born in Portsmouth, NH!

I found out about Ronnie James Dio through a spoken word piece by Henry Rollins called "Breaking Up is Hard To Do", which offers advice how to cope with getting dumped. It's the funniest thing I've ever heard from Henry Rollins by far. His advice involves fashioning a cape out of a towel, putting on a record featuring Ronnie James Dio on vocals (who Rollins describes as "this little evil gnome") and selecting any one of his many songs with an "Evil Woman, Look Out!" theme to sing along to.

You can hear the whole bit on YouTube. Actually, it not only offers some good advice for dealing with getting dumped or any other personal tragedy, but it's also a serviceable primer on fronting your new charismatic and defiantly non-ironic hard rock band.

May 3, 2010

Music videos are back

Lady Gage Poison TV

Back in the early days of shows like "Friday Night Videos", music videos were a fun, goofy diversion. They usually looked like they cost about $25 to make and served as a novel way to experience the songs you heard on the radio, and as a new resource for looking at girls and guys in sexy outfits. Examples: Olivia Newton-John's "Physical", Steve Miller Band's "Abracadabra".

Then videos became both big business and sometimes actual art. You've got every video from "Thriller", a-ha's "Take On Me", and Tom Petty's "Don't Come Around Here No More". People often cared more about the video than the song, and videos became the perfect marketing device: ads that people wanted to watch. Pretty soon David Fincher is directing Paula Abdul's best videos and Madonna's "Express Yourself", Michael Jackson makes "Scream" for $7 million, and Aerosmith does an Alicia Silverstone video trilogy ("Cryin'", "Crazy", and the one I always forget, "Amazing".)

I'd love to see a graph comparing the declining number of videos aired per day on MTV and shrinking record sales. Maybe downloading had already taken hold, so MTV decided to stop running video-ads for singles and albums that no one was buying anymore. Or maybe MTV's lack of interest in videos and growing devotion to reality shows actually contributed in some small way to the crash of the music industry. Either way, record companies don't have the marketing budgets that they used to, and the last five years or so have been terrible for the music video.

In New York magazine, there's a great article called "Internet Killed the MTV Star", which says that even if they're not on TV anymore, videos are back. There's nothing in this piece that comes as much of a surprise, but it nicely articulates a few things that you've probably been noticing over the past few years:

  • Videos are popular again because of YouTube
  • YouTube has slowly shifted focus from accidentally popular amateur videos to intentionally popular music videos
  • Lady Gaga is the biggest thing to happen to music videos since MTV, Madonna, and Tawny Kitaen.

Gaga's videos have over 1 billion views, and she's one of few current artists to have truly massive album sales ("The Fame" hit 10 million in February), so it seems that people do still actually want to buy a record when they like the videos.

Gaga's videos are also money makers in themselves, through a little bit of revenue from internet ads, and from far more lucrative product placement, which glaringly saturates the "Telephone" video. The CEO of video service Vevo (which is owned by Sony and Universal) says, "There was a time when music videos were purely promotional, and that was fine when people were buying music. Now they're no longer promotional. We sell advertising in and around them at a premium. Instead of being a marketing expense, videos can be a profit center."

One of the best things about the resurgence of music videos as something record companies will actually invest in again is that the most exciting directors that really know how to make great videos can get back into it. The director of Gaga's current trilogy, Jonas Akerlund, did a lot of Roxette videos and that notorious Prodigy one for "Smack My Bitch Up". Spike Jonze has just done a new one for LCD Soundsystem's "Drunk Girls". Michel Gondry, who did tons of great videos for Bjork and the White Stripes, but hasn't been doing much lately, says, "now I feel like it's coming back to early MTV, before the big-budget cranes, when it was creative and fun."

Videos might be creative and fun again because we're going to see a whole lot of Virgin Mobile ads in them, but on the whole, it's probably a better experience than watching MTV circa 1999 when you pretty much just saw the same Smash Mouth and Limp Bizkit videos every day.

[Thanks, That Fuzzy Bastarrd!]

April 22, 2010

Bob Saget frat party

Bob Saget at a college party

A few months ago, I saw an article about a new reality show coming up on A&E that will feature Bob Saget going around America, spending time with various sub-cultures and documenting all the weird things they do. Some of the show's sub-cultures would probably be biker gangs, mail-order brides, a survivalist cult, a fraternity, and the Amish.

Obviously this sounds like an excellent show, but I was especially excited because it sounded sort of like a TV version of some of David Foster Wallace's best essays about sub-cultures and regional cultural events around America that are full of people who are part of a very specific sub-culture, though often are not at all aware that their culture is different or notable in any way.

If you think about DFW's essays where he interacts with people who go on cruises ("A Supposedly Fun Thing I'll Never Do Again"), people at rural state ag fairs ("Getting Away from Already Being Pretty Much Away from It All"), or people at local food festivals ("Consider the Lobster"), they could have a lot in common with watching Bob Saget at a barn raising or at a frat formal. Saget will probably be a less brilliant and analytical (and, OK, neurotic) guide through American sub-cultures than DFW, but I bet he'll be just as eager to blend in and become an accepted temporary member of the group.

Anyway, production of the show is happening right now at Cornell, where Saget is spending time at Seal & Serpent, an independent society that was apparently more open than the mainstream Greek frats to letting TV crews in to record their secret rituals and underage drinking. Producers apparently went to initiation (a friend who was a member of S&S back in the day says Bob Saget would have made his own initiation "a lot cooler") and will also record a weekend party and that most bizarre of college events, where teens put on dressy clothes and behave like feral libertines at an orgy, the fraternity formal.

Cornell students are excitedly following Saget all over Ithaca, and I would bet Seal & Serpent's party this weekend will be really well attended.

April 1, 2010

Duff McKagan: a man I never wondered whatever happened to

G n' R back in the day

I love my Guns N' Roses albums as much as anyone who grew up in rural America in the '80s, but I haven't followed the post-GNR career of bassist Duff McKagan, aka the tallest guy in the band. Since GNR he's had some bands and solo projects, and played in Velvet Revolver along with Slash.

But the really interesting stuff is what he's doing now. Duff just announced that he's now a member of Jane's Addiction, he's a columnist for Seattle Weekly, where he writes twice a week about music, and for Playboy, where he writes my favorite column in the business press, a finance column called Duffonomics.

I had no idea he was writing those Seattle Weekly columns until reading the Pitchfork news piece today, but they're pretty fantastic. A couple of recent notable ones:

  • Duff used to be a big Bauhaus fan.
  • The first time Guns N' Roses played sold out shows in a decent-sized club was in London in 1987, a few weeks before Appetite For Destruction came out. "The real reason we were here, of course, was to fucking rock. I must say that back in that period of the band's career, nobody did it with more purpose, sneer, and reckless bad intent than us. When we walked to the Marquee on that first night, we were met by the crowd that was in line surrounding the block. We were absolutely fucking amazed that all these people came to see us." Those must have been some really, really fun shows.
  • As a recovering alcoholic, Duff still has a lot of problems controlling himself around Girl Scout Cookie season: "I just ordered 90 boxes of Thin Mints and chocolate macaroon cookies from my sweet little daughter, didn't I? They arrived two days ago. Fuuuuuuck! That first night, I ate two whole boxes. I felt like that guy with melted chocolate all over his face and hands, crying uncontrollably, watching a sappy soap while listening to Celine Dion."
  • And a really incredible and great piece about being on the same flight as Kurt Cobain a couple of days before he died.

As of today, I'm a bigger Duff McKagan fan than I've ever been in my life.

March 29, 2010

When famous people are gay

Ricky Martin's Hall of Fame star

It's getting increasingly difficult to remember which gay celebrities have officially come out and which ones are just biding their time until they have a new album/movie/show to promote.

Today's news that Ricky Martin is a fortunate homosexual man wasn't surprising in itself, though for a minute I thought, didn't this just happen the other day? When we found out someone was gay who we already knew was gay?

Oh, no, that was Sean Hayes (just in time for his new Broadway show!)

It's no one's duty to be a positive role model for their alleged community, but every time we get another Ricky Martin to admit it already, hopefully it gets a little easier for the rest of the closeted people we see on TV and in movies to come out, too.

So, how about it, Anderson?

Tom?

Hell, Peter O'Toole?

Wait a minute. Ladies first!

Latifah?

Jodie?

How much of the entertainment industry is gay? A lot more than we know about. Ultimately it's no one's business, and you can't get very far by guessing, but I know attitudes and assumptions would change mighty fast if every single gay celebrity (and elected Republican, apparently) came out tomorrow.

March 10, 2010

Lost surprises

Mario Van Peebles directing Lost

I don't know which was the bigger surprise on last night's "Lost": finding out who Ben is talking to on his doorstep, or seeing the "Directed by Mario Van Peebles" credit that flashed up on the screen at the same time (full episode here).

The last I'd heard of Mario, he was directing and starring in a homage to his father Melvin's seminal 1971 blaxploitation movie Sweet Sweetback's Baadasssss Song, called, naturally Baadasssss! It was, and I mean this with all sincerity, badass.

Since then, he's directed a few episodes of "Law & Order" and now has a small role on "Damages". I don't think he's really made a movie since Baadasssss! (that's 5 s's) in 2003, but he has somehow gotten to direct three feature-length movies that are in production right now, including:

Plus a BET documentary about black male role models called "Bring Your A Game" with Spike Lee and Ice Cube. And an episode of "Lost".

Mario Van Peebles, I don't know how you do it. Either he's got the world's best agent, he works really cheap, or the entertainment industry thinks back on New Jack City with overpowering fondness.

March 8, 2010

Oscars night, with special Who'dat?™: Oscars flashback edition

Kathryn Bigelow winning Best Director Oscar

What I can't figure out about the Oscars is how a show that moves along from award to award so briskly and cuts off speeches at 45 seconds still feels like an interminable bore, punctuated by some funny Baldwin/Martin banter. There were a mere 3 montages, no performances of Best Song nominees, and there wasn't even an Irving G. Thalberg award this year!

Still, when we got to the last two awards and the show was already a half-hour overtime, suddenly it went from slow-motion to high gear and it was all over in about 3 minutes. Hurt Locker's in, Avatar's out, and Kathryn Bigelow gave two sincere but sort of bland speeches, thanking the military twice (and also Hazmat teams! Weird.) I'd like to think that she won Best Director on the basis of her movie and not because of some feel-good self-congratulatory tokenism on the part of the Academy, but either way, she accepted it like a cool, collected pro (and thankfully avoided all "this award is so much bigger than me" claims, and crying.) Here's the clip.

Anyway, the other interesting moment was the teen star reunion in honor of John Hughes. Look at the round-spectacled guy who looks sort of like one third of John Goodman with a goatee. Even after the announcer read all their names as they came out on stage, I had no idea who this guy was.

Who'dat?

You can make your guess and click on the photo to see if you're right. Or you can just read Wonkette's first headline this morning.

Though I certainly didn't know it, Judd Nelson has kept working steadily since the 80's, mostly small roles in movies I've never heard of. And New Jack City. Later this year, he'll star in a movie called Mayor Cupcake, in which he plays the husband of a small-town baker played by fellow Hughes teen star Lea Thompson.

The weirdest part of the night was the dance montage of the Best Score nominees, with guys in cardigans breakdancing to The Hurt Locker.

My favorite moments: The Hurt Locker actors picking each other up and screaming when they won Best Picture, T Bone Burnett's sunglasses and suit, the horror montage, and the AmEx Members Project ad with Geoffrey Canada talking about Harlem Children's Zone, which was more inspiring than just about any of the award-winning movie clips.

You can watch all the acceptance speeches at the Oscars site.

March 1, 2010

Scorsese: Style, yes! Substance, who cares?

Scorsese and Leo on the set of Shuttler Island

Sometimes, Martin Scorsese makes cinematic masterpieces that will be watched and remembered forever. And sometimes he makes overly long meandering movies that have their good points and look great, but run out of steam by the end. In the first category you've got Goodfellas and Raging Bull and, probably, The Departed. In the second category you've got movies like Casino, where the best thing about the movie might be Robert DeNiro's suits.

I forget sometimes that not every Scorsese movie is a winner, but watching Shutter Island last night served as a great reminder. "Oh, right," I thought. "I'd almost forgotten about the 15 years I spent watching Gangs of New York."

If you think about Shutter Island as a pulpy, melodramatic B-movie, it actually comes out OK. The first third of the movie is tense and atmospheric, and the dark mysteries about the mental institution "foh the criminally in-SANE," as we've all heard Leo stress over and over in the trailer, are creepy and interesting. The movie loses steam in the last 45 minutes, and the payoff at the end is really unsatisfying, but there sure are some beautiful shots and gorgeous, color-drenched sets, and all kinds of lurid images of horror-movie carnage. When the blood flows it's a rich cherry red, and Ben Kingsley's sitting room is all velvet upholstery you could do the breaststroke in and sparkling crystal whisky decanters. And I'm gonna be honest: there are worse ways you could spend your time than watching Mark Ruffalo in a 50's suit and fedora, raising those eyebrows and looking gorgeously Ruffalicious.

Actually, considering his competition, you could argue that Shutter Island is the best of the movies adapted from Dennis Lehane novels. The other ones are Clint Eastwood's Mystic River, which was drab and flat except when it was shrill and hysterical, and Gone Baby Gone by Ben Affleck (I know!), which was pretty good but dragged in the third act. Actually, all of his adapted movies seem to start strong and then sputter to a ending that I stopped caring about half an hour ago.

At least Scorsese knows how to do style when the substance is lacking. For an excellent example of this that's a lot more fun than Shutter Island, there's the long-form commercial he did for Freixenet a couple of years ago. It's set up like a documentary about Scorsese filming some newly discovered pages from a Hitchcock script, and he's really hilarious in it.

Yeah, he sure does lots of ads, but at least they're funny. The AmEx ads (especially the one hour photo one) and the AT&T ad that runs in movie theaters about shutting off your cellphone ("You don't even call him daddy. To you, he's Frank. That's how detached you are") are my favorites. Scorsese sells out better than anyone.

February 22, 2010

Stuff My Shatner Says

William Shatner

A few months ago we heard that the popular Twitter account "Shit My Dad Says" was being turned into both a book and a CBS sitcom. This site makes me laugh 100% of the times I read it, so as happy as I was that it was doing so well, I was a little worried that the swears and the casually cantankerous, humanity-hating stuff that make it so funny wouldn't make it to TV, where the title would probably be softened to "Stuff My Dad Says".

But now, none of that matters. Because the star of the show is going to be WILLIAM SHATNER.

William Shatner on a horse

This is some deeply inspired casting. If anyone can make a TV-ready version of Samuel Halpern as funny as the original, it's the Shat.

The site's author, Justin Halpern says that his dad's first choice for a star to play him on the show was James Earl Jones. Justin says, "I was like, 'But you're white.' He was like, 'Well, we don't have to be! Who gives a [censored]? You asked me who I thought, and that's who I think.' "

James Earl Jones would add a certain gravity to lines like, "A mule kicked Uncle Bob once. Broke his ribs. He punched it in the face.. My point? You have an ingrown fucking toenail. Stop bitching." But in this case the producers know what they're talking about.

As a side note, I guess one of these days Justin Halpern will probably be able to move out of his parents' house in San Diego, but hopefully the time he'll have to commit to his book and TV show won't detract from time spent listening to his dad's blunt, vulgar wisdom. Also: his dad went to medical school and used to lecture at Harvard, so Halperin says the show's tone can't be quite as "All in the Family" as it sounds like it could be.

Here's Shatner singing "Bust a Move" in a Priceline commercial from a few years ago, around the time that his strange version of cool started moving into uncharted, mythical territory.

January 27, 2010

Banksy film trailer

Shot from Banksy movie trailer

I'm a few days late, here, but wanted to mention the Banksy movie that sort of appeared out of nowhere and premiered at Sundance the other day. It's called Exit Through the Gift Shop.

Here's the trailer:

There's some really thorough press coverage of the movie (Guardian review: "very funny") and about Banksy and his style of guerrilla public art as sly, darkly funny social commentary. The LA Times has a lot to say about it, so I'll briefly summarize: the movie originated with a Banksy fan, a French guy living in LA named Thierry Guetta who started filming everything in his life after his mother died. He met up with Banksy in LA, and they became friends and sort of accomplices as Thierry decided to make a documentary about Banksy, until Banksy started to think maybe this guy Thierry was just a crazy person with a camera. A crazy person who later became an art-world version of a superstar.

Anyway, Banksy ended up making this movie using the miles of footage they accumulated, so it's sort of a documentary about both of them. Judging from the trailer and its many shots of pratfalls, face plants, spilled paint, torn stencils, and other street-art disasters, it seems to promote the idea that art can be both a serious contribution to the world and a joke.

Of course, you can't see Bansky's face or hear his unmodified voice in the movie at all.

Banksy had this to say about his movie: "Trying to make a movie which truly conveys the raw thrill and expressive power of art is very difficult. So I haven’t bothered. Instead this is a simple everyday tale of life, longing and mindless vandalism."

It's supposed to come out this Spring. Here's the Flickr group pool of his art.

January 25, 2010

SAG awards

Eli Roth and the cast of Inglourious Basterds

The Screen Actors Guild gave out its awards over the weekend, and the only real surprise was Inglourious Basterds, which won the night's big award for best cast. Some of the movie's cast members were really great and deserve an award like this, like Christoph Waltz, Melanie Laurent, Michael Fassbender, and Diane Kruger. But it's nuts to see Eli Roth, with his blunderingly terrible overacted performance, standing there on stage holding up his statuette for outstanding acting. Congratulations, Eli! How about you quit while you're ahead.

Here's a shot from the red carpet, with Tina Fey captivated/overwhelmed by Christina Hendricks' red cantilevered feat of engineering:

Tina Fey and Chrstina Hendricks at SAG red carpet

January 21, 2010

Gaga tears New York's face off

Lady Gaga at Radio City Music Hall, NYC

(photo by dionisioyang)

I had been concerned that Lady Gaga was going to cancel her show at Radio City Music Hall last night, since she was sick and had canceled her last four shows. But when I checked her Twitter page yesterday, I found this entry: "Can't wait 4 Monster Ball, ready to tear the face off my hometown 2nite."

It was on. And she did. My face = off.

What's so amazing about Lady Gaga is her ability to create such an eye-popping performance with costumes and sets that are truly dazzling, and to be doing it now, when we've all seen everything already. The stage was set with four gigantic video panels that for the best songs (productions, really) had beautiful lights and image effects that were trippily transporting in the same way that the best moments of Avatar were. The show looked like no expense was spared to make sure everyone's minds were blown, and judging from her on-stage comment that her managers ask her why she spent all her money on her show (answer: "Because my fans are sexy") it was indeed really, really expensive.

The best numbers featured Gaga hovering above the ground in a glowing light box platform thing, wearing a bodysuit covered in little lights, or antlers, or a gladiator leotard, or a dress made of thick layers of black feathers. (Or in one shocking-for-Gaga scene, pants.) Some of the numbers were of a more standard variety that I imagine Madonna's or Gwen Stefani's shows would be like, i.e. prancing around the stage in a red patent leather bikini with a bunch of studs (see photo).

But the best productions were James Cameron-level beautiful, or completely weird, like for "Paparazzi" where she wore an elaborate up-do that was connected to two big metal rings that were linked to a horizontal metal rod that two dancers moved around the stage, essentially pulling her along the floor in an elaborate sort of hair-bondage scene. Then for a brief interval it was just Gaga alone on stage at a piano, singing a fantastic bluesy, smoky, torch-song version of "Poker Face", and some other ballads.

The crowd had a lot more women and people in their 30's or older than I would have expected. I thought it was going to be a bunch of teenage girls, a lot of gay guys, and me. In reality, the crowd seemed to be mostly people over 25, almost 100% of whom were wearing some combination of feathers, leopard bodysuits, glitter, mirrors, and in one case, a full-body spacesuit covered with Christmas lights.

Somewhat disturbingly, there were some moms who apparently are not familiar with Lady Gaga's style, who brought their 10 year-old daughters dressed in wigs, high-heeled boots, and aviator sunglasses to listen to Gaga talk about blowjobs and dry-hump guys in spandex with fur covering their faces.

Anyway, another thing Gaga is good at is this: she appears to be totally genuine in her stage banter. She says a lot of stuff about following your dreams and being whoever you want to be and not letting anything hold you back, but she actually seems like she means it. When someone has made a career out of putting herself out there the way she has, I guess she knows what she's talking about when she says it's sometimes hard to be yourself, but really, it's the only way to go. I'm still not the biggest fan of all her music (except for "Bad Romance", which rules) but this was one stunner of a show that I think made everyone there want to be Gaga.

Reviews and pictures at the Daily News and the Post, good review from the Times.

January 12, 2010

Chloe trailer

Chloe, Amanda Seyfried and Julianne Moore

Just the other day I was wondering what Julianne Moore had been up to these days, since it seemed like she hadn't starred in a big movie in a while. And now, here she is!

She's in a new sexy psychological evil prostitute thriller called Chloe. The trailer just came out, and it takes full advantage of its red band (a little bit NSFW):

The trailer probably gives too much away, which is something that bugs me about a lot of trailers, but at least while this one is revealing major plot points, it manages to reveal some naked people, too.

The movie would look pretty pulpy and bad if it weren't for the cast: Julianne, her husband Liam Neeson, and the wonderful Amanda Seyfried as the hot young thing she hires to figure out if her husband is a cheater or not. As is so often the case in these jealous-wife-hires-a-hooker storylines, things go terribly wrong, though in different and more salacious ways than you might think.

Also, the director is Atom Egoyan, who generally does a good job when his movies involve commercial sex, family strife, and homicidal insanity: see Exotica, The Sweet Hereafter, and Felicia's Journey, some of his best.

It comes out in March. Actually, Chloe is a remake of a French movie called Nathalie in which the hot young hooker is played by Emmanuelle Béart, who was 40 years old when it came out. To put it another way, Emmanuelle Béart is the same age as Jeanne Tripplehorn, who plays Amanda Seyfried's mother on "Big Love".

Ah, the French! So loose in their requirements for playing a movie temptress. Here in America, we know that if you're over 25, you're a matronly hag.

January 5, 2010

You can't help but love that Jeff Bridges

Jeff Bridges and Maggie Gyllenhaal in Crazy Heart

Crazy Heart is a small, simple movie about people you've seen before in lots of other movies--an alcoholic country singer past his prime, a woman who's been through hell but is willing to take a chance on him, and a straight-shooting Texan played by Robert Duvall. It's a formula you've seen a lot of times before, but you've heard lots of versions of "Your Cheatin' Heart", too.

It's easy to compare the story and its style to other movies, especially The Wrestler and Hedwig and the Angry Inch. The main character's very listenable songs were written by T-Bone Burnett, who also did the music for O Brother Where Art Thou?, and one of the musicians in the movie who co-wrote the theme song is named Ryan Bingham, the same name as George Clooney's character in Up in the Air.

I bet Clooney and Jeff Bridges are going to be the top contenders for an Oscar this year, but Bridges is probably going to get it. Last year, the race was basically between Sean Penn and Mickey Rourke, and because both performances were great, and because Mickey Rourke pissed off a lot of people in Hollywood for the past 20 years, it went to Sean Penn. This year, Jeff Bridges gives a similarly fantastic performance of a really similar character, but everyone loves Jeff Bridges, and he's been nominated four times already and never won. So I think he's got it.

Politics aside, he deserves an Oscar for this. This is a role and a movie that could spill over into sappy, self-pitying melodrama, like bad country music does, but it stays honest and wistful and a little bit reserved, like good country music. He does all his own singing (as does Colin Farrell) and guitar playing. He also spends the majority of the movie with his pants partially unbuttoned, which tells you pretty much everything you need to know about his character.

The Times did a good article about how Crazy Heart almost didn't get released this year. The story has a lot of similarities to Slumdog Millionaire, last year's surprise hit and big Oscar winner. It was only toward the end of 2009 that Fox Searchlight bought Crazy Heart from Viacom, which produced it through Country Music Television but was going to release it straight to cable or video. Fox originally planned to wait until 2010 to release it in theaters, and only decided to do it in 2009 a couple of months ago.

So far, Jeff Bridges has been nominated for a Golden Globe, and the theme song got a nomination as well. Both will probably get Oscar nominations, too, and the movie should get a much wider release. It's an accessible, not-too-cheesy movie about a rough but lovable country singer, so I could see it doing well. One of the movie's producers says he hopes it "has legs in a part of the country that is typically underserved by Hollywood," i.e. country fans in middle America who might not go nuts for a movie whose hero is an antisocial jerk who flies around the country blithely firing people from their jobs.

January 4, 2010

Hit-Girl wants a Benchmade Model 42 butterfly knife

Hit-Girl Chloe Moretz

I already mentioned the red-band trailer for Kick-Ass that features Hit-Girl, the purple-wigged crime-fighting little girl hellion. She also appears in the regular Kick Ass trailer that's playing before Avatar in the theater, but this newer trailer is the one where you get to see her shoot about a thousand guys in the head and swear good-naturedly at her dad Nicolas Cage. I love it.

Anyway, the actress who plays Hit-Girl is 12 year-old Chloe Moretz, who has been in a bunch of movies and TV shows, including simultaneous roles in Disney Channel's "My Friends Tigger & Pooh" and ABC's "Dirty Sexy Money". This year she's playing an unstoppable killing machine in Kick-Ass, and I just learned that she's playing the lonely (and hungry) little vampire girl in the American remake of last year's Scandinavian tween vampire movie Let the Right One In, which has the brisker, non-Morrissey-referencing title Let Me In. (Richard Jenkins is in it, too -- hopefully he's playing her slavishly devoted keeper.)

Quite a career for young Chloe! I'm guessing her life is rich with parental release forms. She's just a couple of years behind her fellow Georgia native Dakota Fanning, who's playing Cherie Currie in The Runaways at 15. Unlike Dakota Fanning, Chloe luckily avoided getting movie-raped in her transition from Disney roles to assassin/hellraiser.

December 22, 2009

Biggest movie surprise of the year

World's Greatest Dad

On a recent episode of the Filmspotting podcast, the hosts listed their favorite overlooked movies of the year--movies that didn't attract big audiences but were worth a look. I liked a lot of the ones they picked, including Moon, Food, Inc., and Humpday (they also listed Anvil! The Story of Anvil, which I still haven't freaking seen yet.) So I decided to check out one I hadn't seen, which they thought was one of the strangest comedies they'd seen in a while: World's Greatest Dad.

You may not have heard of this movie, which was released late this summer, and you almost definitely didn't see it: it only made about $200,000 in box office. Here are three interesting things about this movie:

1) It stars Robin Williams
2) It was written and directed by Bobcat Goldthwait
3) It's maybe the darkest, most cynical comedy I've ever seen.

These things are probably the reasons why so few people saw it: how do you market a really, really dark Robin Williams comedy? No Mrs. Doubtfire fan should see this movie (you can see some of their horrified comments on IMDb) and few fans of disturbing, sick comedy would be all that intrigued by a Robin Williams vehicle.

I'm not going to give away anything about the plot, which is weird enough that it should be experienced with no advance knowledge. The movie centers on some really detestable, self-centered characters, some overtly so and some who think they're good and decent people but are actually as bad as everyone else, sort of like Arrested Development's Michael Bluth. The main themes include suicide, masturbation, literary fraud, and poop porn. And it has a sort of sweet ending.

It's not for everyone, and it's probably not altogether bad that the movie didn't reach many people in theaters, because it just would have made the people who should have been watching Old Dogs feel kind of dirty. But for fans of Heathers who wish the main characters had been floundering, desperate adults instead of sneering teens, it's worth a look. Robin Williams is great, and his outrageously obnoxious son is played by Juni from Spy Kids (Daryl Sabara) which is a sort of shocking new direction for him. There were some funnier movies that came out this year, but none that were anything like this.

(There are a few good reviews of the movie that are worth reading after you've seen it, but they give away everything about the plot that's best left as a surprise. Here's the Times review and the Cinematical review; both are huge spoilers. Roger Ebert liked it too, but the movie wasn't quite dark enough for him.)

December 17, 2009

Runaways!

Runaways

I didn't realize how excited I was for The Runaways biopic until I watched this excellent short trailer that came out today and my mind exploded.

Yeah! They're gonna tear this world apart!

In addition to the cast that plays the band (Kristen Stewart, finally playing the big butch role I've always wanted her to do, little Dakota Fanning in full glam-punk regalia, and Alia Shawkut as a bassist that never actually existed, but was definitely worth inventing so that Alia Shawkut could be in this movie) there's Michael Shannon as the band's manager Kim Fowley.

Fowley was a legendary producer in his own right, producing "Alley Oop", Dr. Demento standby "They're Coming To Take Me Away, Ha-Ha", and some early Jonathan Richman albums, and co-writing songs for KISS and Slade among others. As is sometimes the case with legendary producers, particularly those who discover and promote successful girl groups, he was also a real jerk, and after The Runaways split up, he used the name to start a new group called The Runaways, then was sued by the original band for the name and money he owed them.

Anyway, Michael Shannon is the actor to play Kim Fowley. Dark, charismatic, sort of sinister, and not afraid to play deeply slimy guys.

I can't wait to see the transformation of the band from the group of girls who posed in a wood-paneled basement in their t-shirts above (look at that cool teenage Lita Ford on the right!) to the stylized, heavily-jumpsuited rock act they became:

Runaways, glam

Comes out in March!

December 14, 2009

Where the hell has Julianne Moore been?

Julianne Moore in 30 Rock

Over the weekend I watched last week's episode of 30 Rock, and there was guest star Julianne Moore, playing the cutest girl in East Sandchester High School's Class of '76, Nancy Donovan. She was so funny and gorgeous, and even if her Boston accent was a little uneven (her "I wanna sit on it and play a boh-uhd game!" was totally weird and great) I was delighted to see her again.

Because, really, when was the last time you saw Julianne Moore in anything? Here's her IMDb page. For me, it was when she played the Joan Baez-esque person in I'm Not There, and that was two years ago. Before that, she had a couple of scenes in Children of Men in 2006.

The heyday of Julianne Moore seems to be over. Between Boogie Nights in 1997 and The Hours in 2002, she was in tons of stuff: Magnolia, The End of the Affair, Hannibal, Far From Heaven--some great movies, some not so great, but all were important in their own way and did pretty well.

Since then, things haven't looked so hot for Julianne. She's gotten into some pretty terrible desperate mom movies with The Forgotten (spoiler!: aliens took her kid) and Freedomland (spoiler!: she accidentally killed her kid) and other questionable stuff like The Prizewinner of Defiance, Ohio and Nicolas Cage's schlocky psychic Next. Then there was Blindness, which I don't think anyone saw, and now she's in Tom Ford's adaptation of Christopher Isherwood's A Single Man, which looks OK, I guess.

It's high time for Julianne Moore to have a starring role in a big, great movie. Paul Thomas Anderson could use her again, but he doesn't seem to be working on anything. She's got something coming up with Lisa Cholodenko (who did Laurel Canyon) called The Kids Are All Right that could be OK, and some Barry Levinson adaptation of a Larry McMurtry novel about a gutsy pioneer woman called Boone's Lick, which despite the title is probably not a porny comedy.

At least one of these had better be at least as good as her re-enactment of "Hey, Beantown!" with Alec Baldwin.

December 3, 2009

David Cross, Will Arnett, and Spike Jonze do a TV show together

Bad Decisions of Todd Margaret

David Cross's new TV show, The Increasingly Poor Decisions of Todd Margaret, just started airing last week.

Unfortunately, it's on Channel 4. In the UK. I guess this is payback for Ricky Gervais coming to Hollywood and The Daily Show's poaching of John Oliver. Or some kind of karmic retribution for American TV canceling Arrested Development.

Anyway, here's a clip that features a ton of really spectacular swearing by Will Arnett, who hires the nebbishy David Cross away from his straight-man boss Spike Jonze (first thing Jonze has been in since Three Kings!) to go to London to market an energy drink called Thunder Muscle:

The show is co-written by David Cross and Shaun Pye, a British actor who writes for Never Mind the Buzzcocks and was on Extras.

Because the whole world sucks, you can't watch the full episodes that are up on the Channel 4 website if you're in the US. But it'll be over here eventually. Hey, it only took three years for IFC to start airing episodes of Arrested Development.

November 20, 2009

It had to happen eventually

Malibu, American Gladiators

The first item in weird movie news is the announcement of American Gladiators: The Movie. Of course! Ever since last year's revival of the original 80s show on NBC, it was only a matter of time before someone decided to come up with a one-word plot concept like "superheroes" and make a movie adaptation.

I'm going to guess that the superhero Gladiators will fight an evil foreign government that's making death robots, and the Gladiators will have to use their 100% all-natural brawn to defeat the robots in a trapeze jousting battle while scrambling over an exploding foam rubber pyramid.

(By the way, Wikipedia has an unbelievably extensive entry on all the events that were ever on the show, with sub-entries on each individual event, like Gauntlet. It's overwhelmingly thorough.)

The screenwriter for the Gladiators movie is Peter Iliff, which inspires a little bit of hope because he also wrote Point Break. Point Break is one of the most re-watchable movies ever made, so, naturally, a sequel is in the works, also to be written by Peter Iliff.

But now that I think about it, my love for Point Break might have more to do with Patrick Swayze and the director, Kathryn Bigelow, and neither of them are involved in the sequel (of course: RIP Swayze.) The sequel is called Point Break Indo, which presumably means it will be marketed to stoner pretend-surfers. It comes out next year, probably right around the time Kathryn Bigelow is getting nominated for The Hurt Locker.

Peter Iliff's other new screenplay with a drug-themed title, Chasing the Dragon, will star Wesley Snipes as an FBI agent going after an Asian drug lord to avenge his fellow agents' deaths.

To recap: Point Break Indo is probably going to be straight to video, Chasing the Dragon will come and go while Wesley Snipes keeps appealing his three-year jail sentence, and American Gladiators will make $300 million.

In other weird sequel news, did you know a Donnie Darko sequel came out this year? Richard Kelly has nothing to do with it. It's about Donnie's little sister, Samantha, and it's called S. Darko. The cast includes: the little dead girl in the well from the American remake of The Ring as Samantha Darko (she played her in the original Donnie Darko, too,) Chuck Bass from Gossip Girl, and Elizabeth Berkley. I think it went straight to video.

Considering how terrible S. Darko looks, I'm even more impressed that Donnie Darko was as good as it was. The IMDb plot summary for DD--"A troubled teenager is plagued by visions of a large bunny rabbit that manipulates him to commit a series of crimes, after narrowly escaping a bizarre accident"--sounds like a disaster, but even though I've only seen it once 7 years ago, I remember lots of great stuff about it.

Other sequels/remakes/not remakes coming out today: part 2 of the Twilight "saga" ("saga"?!), (Manohla calls it "bloodless") and Herzog's Bad Lieutenant (A.O. Scott says Nicolas Cage's performance "requires adjectives as yet uncoined, typed with both the caps-lock key and the italics button engaged". Haha.)

November 16, 2009

An excuse to watch The Equalizer intro

Edward Woodward in The Equalizer

Edward Woodward died today, and while his career included many highlights like playing the main detective guy in the disturbing and insane The Wicker Man and the Ghost of Christmas Present in the George C. Scott version of A Christmas Carol, I'll always remember him for playing McCall in The Equalizer, the mid-80s show about a rogue secret agent protecting people in danger in a gritty, crime-infested New York.

No disrespect to Edward Woodward, but the best part of the show was really that awesome driving synthy theme song by Stewart Copeland, accompanied by a great montage of helpless New Yorkers getting menaced by thugs and rapists in elevators and a beautifully graffiti-covered 59th Street station:

November 12, 2009

Roger Corman created Hollywood as we know it

Roger Corman movies

Roger Corman, one of the most prolific movie makers ever, got his honorary Oscar yesterday. He's an award winner that seems unconventional for the Academy, but Corman's connections to mainstream Hollywood go deeper than I realized.

You might already know Roger Corman, King of the B's, as the guy who produced or directed hundreds of the finest American movies involving man-eating snake girls (Night of the Cobra Woman), bloodthirsty motel proprietresses (Mountaintop Motel Massacre), Peruvian cave monsters being sold as a snack food (Munchies), brain eaters (The Brain Eaters), and the Ramones (Rock 'n' Roll High School).

But did you know he also helped launch the careers of tons of respected actors and directors? Here are some of the people who owe it all to Roger Corman:

Actually, Jonathan Demme and Roger Corman have stayed pals since Corman gave him his first writing job in 1971 with Angels Hard as They Come (starring a young Scott Glenn) and his first directing job in 1974 with Caged Heat. Roger Corman appeared in small roles in Demme's Silence of the Lambs, Philadelphia, The Manchurian Candidate, and Rachel Getting Married.

He also played Congressmen in both Godfather II and Apollo 13.

At the Oscars ceremony, Peter Bogdanovich, another Corman protégé, said: "Roger Corman is responsible for the New Hollywood. He has made a tremendous impact as a director himself and made very stylish horror films and made them fast and cheap and made them look good."

Fast and cheap, no joke. Supposedly he shot Little Shop of Horrors in 2 days, and for a while there was putting out 6-7 movies every year. Corman certainly had an eye for real talent in the people he chose for his movies, though I guess when you're churning out that kind of volume, at least a few of your protégés are going to end up being the greatest actors in the world.

November 11, 2009

The future of the Basterds

Eli Roth and Inglourious Basterds

There was some news yesterday about a potential prequel to Inglourious Basterds, a rumor spread by my least favorite part of the whole movie, Eli Roth. He says Tarantino has most of a prequel written (probably because it was originally going to be included in the movie) and that there's enthusiasm among the actors to do it:

"All the time, Brad says, "Prequel, prequel!" All the basterds would jump on it in a second.

We have three scenes that we shot in Boston that take place before the war, and Quentin says if he does the prequel, he's going to use them."

Though one of the Boston scenes allegedly involves Cloris Leachman, who is fantastic, I'm guessing/hoping this prequel idea is never going to happen. I don't know about you, but I thought the Basterds were the weakest part of the movie. Every time they came on screen, I was pulled out of the action, they were hammy thug caricatures, and if you'd taken them out of the movie entirely, it still would have held together fine. Though I guess you'd have to do something about the title.

The engine driving the movie was Shoshanna's story, I thought, and it seems like Tarantino steered the plot in such a way that she had the biggest, awesomest victory and definitely the most incredibly cool visual moments. The memorable parts of the movie are all hers. It almost seemed like Tarantino came up with the Basterds idea first, then the other characters all eclipsed them and became much more interesting, but he still felt like he had to stick with his original vision of these Nazi-killing soldiers.

So more Basterds would not be a good focal point for another movie, and more Eli Roth would be a flat-out disaster. Watching him on screen was painful; he had this "Look! I'm acting now!" weirdly intense self-consciousness that was completely distracting and out of place, no matter how handily he wielded that baseball bat. I know the Basterds were all meant to be broad cartoons, but he was on his own level of overacting that was too much even for Tarantino.

Just put the prequel scenes on the DVD and be done with it.

November 1, 2009

(Untitled) and Adam Goldberg

(Untitled)

The biggest reason that I went to see (Untitled) is Adam Goldberg. It's promoted as a satiric look at the avant-garde art world, it got mixed reviews, and it's only playing at the Angelika, one of my least favorite movie theaters, but that Adam Goldberg is so funny and compelling in everything I've seen him in, even when he's playing a hapless grump who hates the world. Hell, especially when he's playing a hapless grump who hates the world.

Experimental art galleries and atonal concert music are tricky subjects for a comedy, but this movie really knows its stuff. Some of the performance scenes of Adam Goldberg's trio are straight out of one of the better Christopher Guest parodies, but what sets them apart is that these characters are completely unaware they're in a comedy. There's hardly any caricatures or winking at the camera, just people who genuinely believe in their music with non-melodic piano, clarinet, yowling, bubble wrap, and bucket. Though it reflects some of the experimental art out there that's meaningless hogwash, the movie also includes some really cool, beautiful music, which redeems it from getting too mean. All the music was composed by David Lang, who obviously has a sense of humor about his genre.

In the movie, a beautiful gallery owner falls for Adam Goldberg, so we see a lot of crazy conceptual art and the people who like to talk about it. There are some jabs at real artists, including a wildman English superstar specializing in taxidermy who's clearly based on Damien Hirst, played by Guy Ritchie standby Vinnie Jones. And there are references to Jake and Dinos Chapman's disturbing child mannequins with genitals attached to their heads and Robert Gober's legs coming out of a wall, and probably a lot of other stuff I didn't recognize. It's an easy field to make fun of, but the jokes are smart and subtle, and even if the people who collect these kinds of pieces can be gullible phonies, they're sort of sweet, too. It's good to see a satire with real, believable characters.

The rest of the cast is good too: there's Marley Shelton who played the doctor in Robert Rodriguez's Planet Terror, and Zak Orth, a hilarious comic actor from all the David Wain/Michael Showalter movies who plays an art collector more into the investment than the aesthetics ("Art does not look as good when it goes down in value.")

Here are a few reviews, from the Times, Kurt Loder, and Arts Journal, and here's the trailer. Time Out hated it, but their movie reviews have been weird and unpredictable lately.

Now I've got to consummate my love for Adam Goldberg by finally seeing The Hebrew Hammer.

October 26, 2009

The Box, which is really "Button, Button"

The Box

You might have seen the ad for the new psychological thriller The Box, which is a retelling of the classic short story and Twilight Zone episode "Button, Button" [video] about a mysterious man who offers a desperate family a lot of money if they push a button that will kill someone they don't know*. The movie clearly goes way beyond the scope of the original story.

But did you know it's directed by Richard Kelly? Who did Donnie Darko and the craziest movie of 2007, Southland Tales?

It is! He's apparently decided to go somewhat mainstream again, which sounds like a good decision considering Southland Tales brought in a total of $275,000, which as far as his distributor is concerned might as well be $2.75. He sounds really energetic and a little loopy in the Times article, though actually not as nuts as you might think. Jake Gyllenhaal says he's like "the missing character in The Breakfast Club" and his producing partner friend tactfully comments that "Richard's greatest strength is his imagination, and sometimes it's his biggest hurdle," which sounds like code for "yeah, he's mental, but his movies are sick!"

The movie's website is surreal and anxiety-producing. Or you can skip through the Flash to the less interesting, non-crazy part. Here's the trailer.

Here's Richard Kelly Twitter page.


* I refrained from giving away the zinger at the end of "Button, Button", because yesterday I summarized the whole story, with the ending, to a friend who as it turned out did not happen to read that story in school. Whoops.

William "Willem" Dafoe

Willem Dafoe

The Times had lots of good stuff in the Movies section this weekend.

A profile of Willem Dafoe. You could argue he makes more inexplicable choices in the movies he does makes than just about anyone. He contacted Lars von Trier to ask if he could work with him, which resulted in the genital-obliterating high-concept emotional/physical/audience-torture movie Antichrist. He also says Spider-Man, in which he played the Green Goblin, was "a very personal film," and does a lot of theater including a new play at the Public called Idiot Savant by the Ontological-Hysteric Theater.

In a non-explanation of his process for choosing work, he says, "Nobody has to know what I think about what I do. In fact it’s very important, I think, for an actor to keep their mouth shut on some level."

October 23, 2009

Wait Wait, Don't Tell Me! at Carnegie Hall

Wait Wait's Peter Sagal and Carl Kassell

Public radio nerds descended on Carnegie Hall last night for this week's taping of Wait Wait, Don't Tell Me!, the NPR news quiz show. It's one of the most popular shows on NPR, which makes sense: it's weirder than The Daily Show, and sometimes I think it's funnier in a loose, improvy sort of way.

I was lucky enough to go, and thought I'd share a few highlights. The live show ran for two and a half hours, and will get cut down to 45 minutes for Saturday's broadcast, so some of the really funny stuff is going to have to get cut:

  • For those of you wondering what the outgoing message that Carl Kasell records for your voicemail if you win, they played a sample. The winners get to script the message, and this one ended with Carl singing "What's New, Pussycat?" like a sonorous baritone Tom Jones.
  • The special guest for the "Not My Job" segment was Brian Williams, who's been on the show a few times. That guy is a riot. There was some immediate adversarial jabbing between host Peter Sagal and Williams over the mainstream media's Balloon Boy coverage: Williams said he was (conveniently) on vacation for the whole thing, and made some lame excuse for all the media attention like "people were concerned and really cared about that kid in the homemade UFO" or something, but Sagal went for integrity points by ripping TV news outlets. Well, NPR covered it, too, but at least they covered the media reaction, not the actual balloon.
  • Peter Sagal brought up the fight between the Obama administration and Fox News, which Williams thought was a bad fight to pick. Everyone has to work together in politics and news, he said. Making distinctions between network news and cable news is meaningless: he said the evening news is "like The Munsters." Heh. It was the weirdest comment of the night.
  • Then Brian Williams shared an anecdote from the 90's when he was a White House correspondent, about an unflattering piece he did on Bill Clinton. One night while Brian Williams was making dinner at home with his wife, he was in the process of pouring the pasta into the colander when Clinton called him, mad as hell, and started berating him mid-pasta pour. His point was that Presidents have always gone after individual reporters; his pissed-off Clinton impersonation was perfect.
  • Music Brian Williams is into lately: Deer Tick and The Republic Tigers and other stuff listed on his embarrassingly titled BriTunes page on MSNBC.
  • Williams was so funny and quick, I think everyone had to remind themselves that he has a day job as a news anchor. After he left the stage Paula Poundstone said, "What a waste of talent!"
  • Peter Sagal wrote a screenplay that ended up becoming Dirty Dancing 2: Havana Nights.

    Mind-blowing trivia: both Roger Sterling and Betty Draper from Mad Men were in Dirty Dancing 2: Havana Nights!

Tune in Saturday for the show.

October 15, 2009

Crazy celebrity books

Richard Belzer and Tracy Morgan

Yesterday's Daily News reported on two new celebrity memoirs that are probably better-than-average reads: I Am Not a Psychic! by Richard Belzer, and I Am the New Black by Tracy Morgan.

Belzer's character Detective John Munch has appeared on Homicide: Life On the Streets, The X-Files, Law & Order, SVU, The Wire, and Sesame Street. Before he played Munch, Belzer was a stand-up comedian and a talk show host. The book is fiction, but stars Richard Belzer as Richard Belzer. He says, "For years I've been playing a cop, and when you are on television a lot, you get mixed up. Reality and celebrity kind of convert sometimes. I was going to write a novel, but then I decided to use my own name because my life is so interesting. So I figured I could just fold a fictional crime into my real life and take off from there." Pretty meta, Belzer--and sort of like Chuck Barris's Confessions of a Dangerous Mind.

Belzer has a colorful collection of books, including one called UFOs, JFK, and Elvis: Conspiracies You Don't Have to Be Crazy to Believe. He tells the Daily News that his latest conspiracy theory is that banks run our country and are responsible for every bad thing that's happened in the last 100 years, which sounds pretty reasonable, actually.

Tracy Morgan's I Am the New Black comes out next week, and sounds like a series of wacky anecdotes from the old unmediated Tracy, with some bragging/ranting about his notoriety: "I had my finger on the pulse of urban comedy, but when I brought my act to SNL, those motherfuckers just felt bad for me. None of the cast I came up with saw this future for me. No, sir. All I have to say about that is, where's Chris Kattan now? Where's Cheri Oteri now? That bitch can't even get arrested."

Shouldn't this book have come out a year or so ago when Tracy coined "Black is the new President, bitch" on SNL, and before he stopped drinking and started doing serious interviews?

Anyway, 30 Rock starts tonight.

September 28, 2009

Roman Polanski and how to screw up a case

Roman Polanski

Polanski extradition = total mess.

It's like everyone involved in the entire history of this case has massively screwed up. There were lapses in the prosecution process by the judge. Polanski got nervous after pleading guilty to unlawful sex with a minor, then skipped the country before sentencing. The US inexplicably decided last week that Justice Must Be Served on a warrant that's been outstanding since 1978 and arrested him on his way to accepting a lifetime achievement award. It's a sloppy disaster.

If Polanski had just seen the plea bargain process through back in 1978, he would have spent his 20 days in jail or something like that and gotten through probation, and now he'd be able to make movies wherever he wants and serve as a guest judge on American Idol.

Instead, he's in jail in Switzerland at age 76, where he could be for 60 days while the US gets its formal extradition request together, then when/if he ends up back in court in LA, he'll have to deal with the fallout of running out on his sentence for a 31 year-old crime.

Meanwhile, members of the European film industry are making some half-intelligent, half-boneheaded statements that more or less claim that, because Polanski is a famous movie maker, the criminal justice system should just let this one go. It's nice that the victim has long since moved on and forgiven him, but he still pleaded guilty to sex with a 13 year-old, and in the words of Walter Sobchak, this is not 'Nam, there are rules.

I'm only partially kidding, here. Yeah, his movies are good (except Bitter Moon, man, that's a stinker) but suck it up and just serve your sentence, already. In response to the arrest, the French Cultural Minister said, "In the same way that there is a generous America that we like, there is also a scary America that has just shown its face." Well said, but America is a lot like Polanski himself: there's the filmmaker who did Repulsion, Rosemary's Baby and Chinatown that I like, there is also a scary child rapist that's been hiding behind his celebrity for 30 years.

How about this for a solution: issue the warrant, fly him to LA, sentence him to time served (which was already done once), and everyone's done with it. Polanski can buy a place in Malibu and direct Charlie Kaufman's next screenplay and everyone can get on with their lives.

Maybe Polanski is lucky that he's went through his plea deal back in the 70's instead of today: AP has a piece on homeless sex offenders in Georgia who have been instructed to live in a makeshift camp out in the woods because there are no shelters or halfway houses that meet Georgia's strict living restrictions. These rules are supposedly made for public safety, and we end up with a bunch of sex offenders living together in the woods. Great.

September 17, 2009

Reviews of Herzog's Bad Lieutenant

Herzog's Bad Lieutenant

So I was wrong to make "don't call it a remake" jokes about Werner Herzog's non-remake of Bad Lieutenant, because the critics who are seeing it at the Toronto Film Festival say it really isn't any kind of remake at all. Karina from Spout says "Werner Herzog’s emphatic declarations that he’s never seen Abel Ferrara’s Bad Lieutenant finally seem credible", and the story has nothing in common with the very earnest original, except that it's about a lieutenant becoming unhinged, taking drugs, and doing a terrible job at being a cop.

Other than that, it's a totally new movie, and it sounds fantastic. Herzog doing crime-action! It's set in seamy post-Katrina New Orleans, and sounds like a deliriously chaotic freakout of crime/drugs/hookers and urban rot. It looks like one of those increasingly rare movies where Nicolas Cage is incredibly great, which seems to happen only ever 5-8 years, in less than 10% of the movies he stars in. Like Valley Girl, Raising Arizona, Leaving Las Vegas, Wild at Heart (sort of), and Adaptation (sort of.)

Manohla Dargis loved it. She goes so far as to say that Nicolas Cage is as well-suited to Herzog as his old muse Klaus Kinski: "Mr. Herzog has again found a performer as committed to representing unspeakable human will." Spout says he's the perfect Herzog star because he's "an actor for whom hysteria is autopilot," which makes me think of those great scenes from Bringing Out the Dead, a not so special movie with some good moments of Cage screeching like a wild dog driving an ambulance around Hell's Kitchen.

The movie also features Xzibit (above with the double-barrel) who I like and a very puffy Val Kilmer who's seems to be headed for his bloated Jim Morrison look from the end of The Doors.

September 16, 2009

Drag, subtitles

Eddie Izzard

  • Comedian, performer, and eye makeup stylist extraordinaire Eddie Izzard just finished running 1,100 miles across the UK, the equivalent of 43 marathons, in 51 days. I guess if you just keep running, you can pretty much run forever. From the BBC article: "Izzard himself admits people no longer believe how many races he has run. 'I might as well say I've just eaten a car.' "
  • The director of last year's great Let the Right One In, Tomas Alfredson, is going to direct Nicole Kidman in The Danish Girl, the movie where she plays artist Einar Wegener who in 1931 was the first person to become a woman through a sex-change. This one's been kicking around for a while.
  • Tarantino talks about the success of Inglourious Basterds, suggesting that his movies are pretty much the only thing keeping the Weinstein Co. afloat, which is probably true.

    With Inglourious Basterds and District 9 both doing well, maybe 2009 is the year of the popular subtitle.


September 13, 2009

Remakes and non-resurrections

St Etienne's Fox Base Beta

Some bits of news from the last few days:

August 26, 2009

RIP Dominick Dunne

Dominick Dunne

Dominick Dunne, the man who knew everybody, went everywhere, and did everything, all while looking like a million bucks, died today.

Most recently he was a columnist for Vanity Fair, focusing on celebrities and the crimes and scandals that bring them down. He also covered all the major celebrity murder trials, got sued by Gary Condit, and crusaded for victims' rights, and that was all after a long career in TV and movie producing.

Vanity Fair has an obituary, a letter from Graydon Carter about his amazing career and what it was like to know him, and a retrospective of his career in pictures. There are great ones of Dunne with a young Elizabeth Taylor, with his pal Princess Di, hanging around at parties attended by Claus von Bulow, and my favorite, sitting near a surprised O.J. at his recent criminal trial, wearing a huge smile:

Dominick Dunne and OJ

During a brief conversation they had during the trial, he said he started to like O.J., but no one was happier about that conviction than old Dominick Dunne.

Here's the last article he wrote for Vanity Fair, "What a Swell Party He Wrote", which is just incredibly great. Here's an archive of his other VF columns. ADM once declared on this site that Dominick Dunne is a national treasure. Sure was.

August 18, 2009

Video scratch

Mike Relm, scratcher

  • This is from a week or so ago: Wired has a short video interview with Mike Relm, one of my favorite mashup guys, talking about his live sets where he scratches music and video simultaneously. With stuff like Battle Royale, Pee Wee, Led Zeppelin concert footage, and amateur YouTube videos. It's cool.
  • I like Nicole Holofcener's movies, which center on women and their relationships but are better than most other movies about women and their relationships, and always star Catherine Keener. But here's her next movie: I'm With Cancer, starring James McAvoy and produced by Seth Rogen (who co-stars) and Evan Goldberg. It's about a young guy with cancer.

    I can't decide if I'm annoyed that one of the few successful women writer/directors who makes good movies about women has been absorbed by the Seth Rogen juggernaut, or if I'm hopeful that the next Rogen/Goldberg movie might be a lot better than Pineapple Express.

  • A New York judge ruled that Google has to reveal the identity of a blogger whose blogger.com site, Skanks in NYC (it's been taken down), exists only to diss model Liskula Cohen, who wants to sue the blogger for defamation. (She's also the one who a crazy guy hit in the face with a bottle at a club.) The blogger's lawyer said this case could lead to indiscriminate lawsuits against internet trash talkers, which means the floodgates might have just been opened.
  • The Times says that there are almost twice as many Dunkin Donuts as Duane Reades in the city, which I can't see how that is possible.

August 17, 2009

London Fog, then and now

London Fog ads

  • Last night's season premiere of "Mad Men" featured a storyline about a campaign for London Fog. Above are two real London Fog ads--the first appeared in an copy of Playboy from the early 60s, and features a tearful woman using her man's raincoat as a Kleenex. You can read the text of the ad in a blog post about using deep zoom with Playboy's online archives (for the articles, of course) which touts the coat's imperviousness to "emotional outbursts or sudden cloudbursts". The second ad is a not-so-pregnant-looking Gisele from a few weeks ago.

    Don Draper's new campaign, which he briefly described last night, involves a woman wearing a London Fog raincoat flashing a man on the subway--which sounds a lot more like the 2009 ad than the actual ad from back then.

    And of course, the whole storyline was a big product placement (so was the Stoli reference.) London Fog probably got to request that their ad on the show feature a naked lady to keep their branding consistent.

    (Also, pretty good episode, but Sal and Joan were both great. I bet this season will be good because of the supporting cast, and not so much the stars.)

  • "Reno 911!" got canceled. It ran for SIX SEASONS. If "30 Rock" gets canceled this year, I'm gonna riot.
  • Brad Pitt is allegedly going to be in the Guy Ritchie/Robert Downey, Jr/Jude Law Sherlock Holmes movie as Professor Moriarty. He wouldn't be my first choice for Holmes's menacing nemesis, but maybe Eddie Izzard isn't available (wouldn't he be good?)
  • Mike Nichols is going to direct an adaptation of Patricia Highsmith's novel Deep Water. The book is about an unhappy couple who agree that the wife can see other people. She does. Then her other people start dying off. Mike Nichols is better at quiet personal dramas than thrillers, but it still sounds cool.
  • And here's a great Times article about Al Bell, former owner of the late, great Stax Records in Memphis. He's trying to bring Memphis back as a musical capital, through the Memphis Music Foundation and one of the greatest museums I've ever been to, the Stax Museum of American Soul Music.

August 11, 2009

Crime, movies, Pee Wee

Pee Wee Herman

  • Paul Reubens is bringing back his live show that began in 1980, The Pee-Wee Herman Show, to an LA theater this fall. Most of the original cast and crew will be back, which I hope specifically means Laurence Fishburne.
  • A completed documentary about some guys trying to find the reclusive John Hughes is going to be released. It seems that late last week, they were suddenly able to find a distributor. It's called Don't You Forget About Me, but could also be titled You Forgot All About Me Until My Untimely Death Hit the News.
  • A Brazilian crime show host is being investigated for generating stories for his TV show by ordering killings. I wonder if that's how "Cheaters" works too.
  • A man was found guilty of groping Minnie Mouse at Disney World. The costumed victim said she "had to do everything possible to keep his hands off her breasts."
  • It's real: Bob Dylan Christmas album
  • Upcoming Hank Williams biopic. He died when he was only 29. Who could play Hank? I like Channing Tatum, who's from Alabama like Hank, if he can lose some of the beefiness. Or James Franco (too crinkly?) or Paul Dano (too baby-faced?).
  • A map of drug use across the US, by state. Vermont and Rhode Island like their drugs, North Dakota prefers binge drinking.
  • A report about the Waterfront Commission of New York, which was created to fight waterfront corruption, finds that (surprise!) it's corrupt.

August 4, 2009

More movie news, other news

Coffee and Cigarettes

A few links for today:

  • A new study shows that people have a lot less self-control than they think they do, and people who think they're good at resisting temptation are actually terrible at it. One of the tests involved college student smokers watching Jim Jarmusch's Coffee and Cigarettes (which features Iggy and Tom, above) while holding an unlit cigarette in their hand or, for the hardcore delusional people, in their mouths. Three times more students who thought they had unbreakable self-control smoked during the movie than the other students.

    The lesson: you are helpless to resist that donut/cigarette/drink/cute flirt, so who do you think you're kidding? As Wilde said, the only way to get rid of temptation is to yield to it.

  • Latest cast addition to Zack Snyder's Sucker Punch: Carla Gugino. If this movie isn't fantastic I'm going to cry.
  • Review copies of G.I. Joe aren't going to be released, which is usually a bad sign. But really, what have they got to lose? Transformers 2 showed that fans don't care what critics say anyway, so why put what's probably a pretty disappointing movie out there to get bad reviews? One reviewer who has seen it called it "a big, silly, pulpy, cartoony action film." Yeah, no kidding.
  • Some statisticians who think language used in song lyrics and on blogs indicate our national mood found that teen blogs use "an abundance of 'sick,' 'hate' and 'stupid.' "
  • Michiko Kakutani weighs in not so positively on Thomas Pynchon's Inherent Vice, which sounds like an intentionally breezy read: "it feels more like a Classic Comics version of a Pynchon novel than like the thing itself."

July 28, 2009

Julie & Julia & Who'dat?™

Today's Who'dat?™ pic was taken at the premiere of Julie & Julia, the Meryl Streep/Amy Adams movie adapted from a blog about obsessive cookbook completism. This celebrity is looking glamorous and fresh-faced, though not especially recognizable.

To play, look at the photo and try to guess who it is. Then click on it to see if you're right.

Who'dat?

July 22, 2009

The unleakable Jay-Z

Jay-Z is unleakable

Jay-Z says he's going to hand deliver The Blueprint 3 to the London office of his current label, Atlantic, as part of his efforts to stymie leaks in advance of the official release in September.

And this is going to prevent leaking how, exactly? Is he also going to hand-upload the album on iTunes, hand press the CDs, and hand deliver them to stores and distributors and reviewers and ad agencies and movie studios and the billion other people that will get promotional copies?

A guy like Jay-Z can't believe that physically shepherding his album to the label will have any impact on whether it gets leaked or not, so why would he tell everyone about this strategy? To throw down the gauntlet to would-be leakers--steal this, bitches! Or maybe this way, when and if tracks are leaked, he can lay all the blame on the label. Or most likely, announcing he's hand delivering the album makes it seem more desirable and precious and therefore worth the low low price of $14.99 at the record store Amazon.

As he said when explaining his change of labels, he's an entrepreneur. Which some might say is a word that better describes a band that self-releases their albums or makes their music more freely available online, rather than an artist who futilely attempts to keep the inevitable digital dissemination of his album from happening so that it can only be purchased from a gigantic media corporation. Incidentally, Atlantic now sells more than half of its music digitally, like through iTunes and ringtones which, along with Auto-Tune, get no love from J.

Even if Jay-Z is sleeping with the new album under his pillow every night, he's going to release a second track this Friday: "Run This Town", with a 100% Auto-Tune-free Kanye and Rihanna. Also, the album will be released on September 11, like the first Blueprint album was, even though that's a Friday. I guess 9/11 is his lucky day.

July 16, 2009

Elaine Stritch and the Emmys

Elaine Stritch on 30 Rock

The Emmy nominations came out today, and 30 Rock broke its own record for the number of nominations a comedy show got (they're up to 22 from last year's 17.) The show got nominated for everything, including acting nominations for Tracy, Kenneth, and Jenna in addition to Alec Baldwin and Tina Fey, and 3 out of the 6 nominations for Best Director for a comedy. The Directing nominations were for especially great episodes: "Reunion", "Apollo, Apollo", and "Generalissimo".

[here's the full list of nominations]

One great category is for Guest Actress on a comedy: there's Tina Fey as Sarah Palin on the SNL Presidential Bash special (a little weird--that was pretty much a clip show,) Elaine Stritch as Colleen Donaghy on 30 Rock, and Betty White for My Name is Earl playing something called "Crazy Witch Lady", which I have not seen but now sort of want to.

Anyway, in one of those articles with actors' breathless responses to the news that they got a nomination, most of the responses are not especially interesting. Even Tracy Morgan, who I thought we could depend on for something good-- his response was sweet about his manager calling him with the news, but not funny or anything: "He was crying, congratulating me, and then I started crying. It's been a long time, a long journey just to be recognized."

But Elaine Stritch came through. Her quote: "I was overjoyed with my nomination for, what was it, 30 Rock? Because if I get lucky, it will give me yet again another opportunity to express my deepest feelings about 'show business.' Feelings that have been bottled up for 365 days."

She's already won 3 Emmys (one for 30 Rock two years ago) and probably a million Tonys.

In the Guest Actor category, 30 Rock got 3 nominations, too: Alan Alda, Jon Hamm, and Steve Martin.

I don't love overuse of guest stars on TV anymore than I like it on the forthcoming Rihanna album, but last year 30 Rock did a pretty good job with it.

July 8, 2009

Public Enemies: maybe I expected too much?

Johnny Depp in Public Enemies

The movie I've been most looking forward to all summer is Michael Mann's Public Enemies. I love some of Mann's movies (especially The Insider, Manhunter and most of Collateral), I love Johnny Depp, and I'm a sucker for period gangster movies that involve slick suits, big guns, and smoky nightclubs.

Maybe my expectations were too high. I was completely prepared to love Public Enemies, but I didn't.

The good things about it:

  • If the movie had any overarching theme, it's how our society constructs crime. John Dillinger knew how to turn on the charm and use the media to make the public love him, even though he was a thief and a murderer. J. Edgar Hoover also uses pop culture to launch his War on Crime, showing "America's Most Wanted"-style reels at movie theaters about "public enemy number one" like a sort of 1930's reality show. Hoover's methods may have backfired, since spotlighting Dillinger made him even more of a celebrity and a folk hero, but it's interesting to see the moment when law enforcement turned real-life crime into entertainment.

  • The contrast between Dillinger the man and Dillinger the pop icon. I love the scene of John Dillinger in a movie theater, watching the reel about himself. He watches, sort of detached and bemused, with only a moment of anxiety as the audience is instructed to "look to your right; look to your left", but of course, nobody notices him. John Dillinger is just an unsophisticated farm boy who's good with a machine gun; Dillinger the public enemy is practically a movie star.

  • The overlap between Johnny Depp and John Dillinger. In one of the only moments of exposition in the whole movie, Dillinger declares that he likes "baseball, movies, good clothes, fast cars, whiskey, and you", speaking to a pretty girl he just met. He's a man of action who isn't interested in image, even though his image is what makes him who he is. You could say the same things about Johnny Depp, judging from the recent Vanity Fair feature where he carouses around with his buds, drinking and enjoying being Johnny Depp, yet has no interest in watching his own movies.

  • The scene where a mob middle-manager (played by John Ortiz, who was in "The Job") tells Dillinger that they will no longer associate with him, launder his money, give him guns, or let him use their safe houses, because he's "bad for business." The mob was pulling down a lot more cash through their gambling ring than Dillinger was stealing from banks, but the feds were only interested in Dillinger, because he made a better celebrity-criminal. This one scene says more about perceptions about what kind of crime matters in this country than anything else in the movie, and I wish they did more with it.

  • Marion Cotillard telling an abusive cop, "When my Johnny finds out how you slapped around his girl, you know what's going to happen to you, fat boy?"

But overall, the movie felt surfacy and meaningless. It's fine to drop in on the action with no exposition: we can figure out who these characters are as we go along. But it's like there was nothing to figure out. I never felt like I understood what John Dillinger was all about, except that he was good at robbing banks, and I have no clue what the members of his gang were like. Wouldn't it have been interesting to see some stuff about the relationships between Dillinger and his gang, the people at the safe houses, and the madam he was friends with? It would have been, but we hardly got any of it.

The gritty look of the HD video was fine and made sense, but using hammy dialogue straight out of a 40's gangster movie totally didn't fit with the look. The acting was cold and flat, which is fine for a movie that doesn't glamorize its characters, but then it's almost impossible to care when those characters get arrested or killed. There are no cheesy biopic cliches, but there also isn't any character development, emotion, or suspense. As Roger Ebert says in his (positive) review: "His name was John Dillinger, and he robbed banks. But there had to be more to it than that, right? No, apparently not."

I'm surprised that I these characters were so uninteresting, because Michael Mann knows how to get you to care about his characters. Think about The Insider: Russell Crowe is brave, but he's thorny and unfriendly, not especially likable. But we really care about what happens to him and want to see where the movie goes. We already know what happens to Dillinger, so we need something else besides the plot to feel invested in him, and I don't think we got it.

My favorite review is David Edelstein's in NY Magazine. He suggests that the best rejoinder for Public Enemies is the Michael Jackson video for "Smooth Criminal":

It's a tommy-gun gangster fantasia with a touch of Guys and Dolls, and it's everything Public Enemies isn't: madly inventive, genre-bending, a passionate tribute to the artist as outlaw-loner. The video reminds you why the gangster has become an existential hero in pop culture: It’s how he seizes the space. On some level Michael Mann knows that, but he's paralyzed by his pretentions and specious morality. And he can't dance.

Here's the long version and the short version of the MJ video. Not really a fair comparison, but the video is a lot more fun than the movie.

June 22, 2009

Alice in Wonderland = Tim Burton x 1,000

Johnny Depp as the Mad Hatter

Today we get to see some images from Tim Burton's Alice in Wonderland, which suggest that for this movie, he took the psychedelic Victorian Willy Wonka get-up he created for Johnny Depp a few years ago, soaked it in radioactive Kool-Aid, then gave it to a CGI Elijah Wood robot to put on.

Looks like Burton is relying more and more on facial distortion effects and wacky costumes, which makes me look back wistfully on his movies like Ed Wood that concentrated more on good actors and memorable characters, and the unadulterated gorgeousness of Johnny Depp. Even Sweeney Todd (which I liked) had a more understated look, and that's a Sondheim musical for crying out loud.

You can look at more images from Alice in Wonderland, including a hallucinatory videogame-like garden, a scary/funny Helena Bonham Carter as the Red Queen, and a surprisingly un-processed Anne Hathaway.

June 16, 2009

Francis Ford Coppola is still upset

Francis Ford Coppola at Cannes for Tetro

Francis Ford Coppola is, arguably, back. His new movie, Tetro, has gotten good reviews, and in recent interviews he's talked about what a relief it is to make a movie where he created the story, wrote the screenplay, and directed, something he hasn't done since 1974's The Conversation.

But he's had some rough times too (remember Dracula?) and says he's been in a creative slump for 25 years (that would be since around Rumble Fish.) He seems to have some specific, residual bad feelings about his career: I remember seeing a list of his favorites of his own movies a couple of years ago when Youth Without Youth was coming out, and he purposefully left off all the Godfather movies.

Today, he's still hating on The Godfather, a movie he made when he was younger than I am now. In a letter to viewers that was sent to the Landmark Film Club members this week, he says "Tetro is the kind of film I might have been making 35 years ago, had my career not taken an abrupt and sudden turn as it did with The Godfather." Then he goes on to say that his success with The Godfather made the studios want him to do more gangster movies, or "if not a gangster film, then take your choice between a thriller, a caper film, a romantic comedy (nothing wrong with that) or sci-fi epic (nor that)."

In another interview in The Examiner, he says he didn't even want to make The Godfather II, and that his success with those movies didn't mean a thing when it came time to make Apocalypse Now, which no one would fund.

You know, there aren't a lot of people out there who, after accomplishing something like The Godfather II, would dismiss it as something they didn't even want to do it in the first place.

I guess when you've had a wildly erratic career like his, you're going to end up talking about your older movies at least as much as you talk about your current one. How many more millions of people have watched and loved The Godfather than will ever see Tetro? A lot. It sounds like Coppola will always be dissatisfied with how his career turned out and which movies he'll always be remembered for. He still hasn't gotten over his early success.

Here's an interesting thing: when he did an interview about Youth Without Youth in 2007, he said that Tetro was going to star Matt Dillon and Javier Bardem, neither of whom are actually in it. Instead he got the aggressively insane Vince Gallo and an unknown Alden Ehrenreich, which he now says is better because non-stars are "100 percent in control of their careers," like he says Marlon Brando also was for The Godfather.

Of course, the reason these actors are so in control of their careers is that most other directors wouldn't touch them with a ten-foot pole, but clearly this strategy has worked well for Coppola before. I haven't seen Tetro yet, but I hope it's good enough for this poor guy to start feeling better about being Francis Ford Coppola.

June 4, 2009

Good, crazy, violent Bob Dylan video

Still from Bob Dylan Beyond Here Lies Nothin' video

Pitchfork has a regular feature called Director's Cut, where they interview the directors of interesting music videos. Today's installment is about a new video for Bob Dylan's "Beyond Here Lies Nothin'", which is more like a short movie that uses the Dylan song as its soundtrack than a traditional music video.

In addition to hearing the song, you can hear a lot of ambient sounds of the main action of the video/movie, which consists of a man and a woman beating the crap out of each other in a motel room. The storyline is minimal and inexplicable, but it's an engrossing, violent video.

The video is by an Australian director Nash Edgerton, who has mostly done stunt work in a million action movies, and directed a few of his own movies. Looks like he's a big fan of the Uma Thurman/Daryl Hannah scene in Michael Madsen's trailer in Kill Bill 2.

And there's your tie-in tribute to today's sad news about David Carradine.

May 18, 2009

Who's Older?™: Rock legends at Radio City

Leonard Cohen and Lou Reed at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame

Today's edition of Who's Older?™ takes you to the Leonard Cohen concert at Radio City last Saturday night. Cushie used her advanced-level detective skills to get on the pre-sale list and got to go to the show, and while there, saw and heard about all kinds of celebrities, including Kirsten Dunst, Pierce Brosnan, Bjork, Bette Midler and Martha Stewart waiting in an epic bathroom line.

Also attending the show was Leonard Cohen's old pal Lou Reed. But exactly how old are we talking here?

To play, guess which of these two grandfatherly singer/songwriters is older, then click on their names to find out if you're right.

Who's Older, Leonard Cohen or Lou Reed?

Even if it's tricky to tell which is older, it's pretty obvious which of the two dyes his hair.

Here's a great anecdote about the first time these two met, taken from a book of rock star reminiscences called Yakety Yak:

In 1966 I borrowed some money from a friend in Montreal and came down to the great empire, America, to try to make my way. I had written a few books and I couldn’t make a living.

In New York I found this huge explosion of things and I was interested in this enlightened community being promoted in the east side of New York and I would go down there but I couldn’t locate it. I walked into a club called the Dome and I saw someone singing there who looked like she inhabited a Nazi poster; it was Nico, the perfect Aryan ice queen. And there was a very handsome young man playing for her; he turned out to be Jackson Browne.

I just stood there and said forget the new society, this is the woman I’ve been looking for. I followed her all around New York. She led me to Max’s Kansas City.

I met Lou Reed there and he said something very kind to me which made me feel at home. I had no particular clout in that scene. Lou came over and introduced himself and said, "I love your book." I never knew anybody knew my books because they only sold a few thousand copies in America.

Nico eventually told me, "Look, I like young boys. You’re just too old for me."

Lou Reed recounted their meeting too, while he introdruced him at the 2008 Rock and Roll Hall of Fame induction:

"I first met Leonard Cohen at the Chelsea Hotel," Reed said. "We were talking and - I thought it was sweet of him - he said: "You wrote a song called I'll Be Your Mirror and it made me want to keep writing songs.'"

Sounds like they're still friends. Lou Reed may have a lot more albums than Leonard Cohen, but I bet Leonard Cohen has made more money, if only because of "Hallelujah", aka the most grossly overused song in movie/TV soundtracks. Lou Reed has "Satellite of Love" in Adventureland, but Leonard Cohen has "Hallelujah" in Watchmen and Shrek.

But at this point, Leonard Cohen probably needs the money more: a couple of years ago he won a lawsuit against his former manager for $9 million that she stole from him, but actually never got any of his money back.

So if you go to his show on this tour [schedule], I'm sure he'd appreciate it if you buy a t-shirt or some stickers at the merch table.

May 9, 2009

Who'dat?™: The ravages of age

Today's celebrity photo isn't quite tricky enough to be a Who'dat?™. But it does speak volumes about how strange people look as they get older and their faces get weirdly taut and sort of horizontally elongated.

Who'Dat?

Try to guess who this is, then click on the photo to see if you are right.

But OK, I'll just tell you.

Tori's features, which could be attributable to something other than bad plastic surgery, I guess, aren't even the weirdest part of this Reuters article. She has a new album out soon called Abnormally Attracted to Sin, and guess what it's about. Female sexuality? Faeries? Freaking out on peyote? Nope. The economy!

"The world has changed completely, it seems, in the past two years. The world that we all knew before, could wake up in feeling safe, now it seems that everything has been turned upside down," Amos told Reuters in an interview.

"The record is asking all kinds of questions about power -- how do we define it? Because if it's with money then we're all in trouble. And what is success? What are we attracted to? Because it kind of needs to change.

"I started thinking we can redefine what is a sexy, powerful male. To me that's the greatest challenge we have right now, because if we don't, a lot of relationships are just going to be ripped apart."

OK everyone, here's what you can do for our crumbling economy. Take Tori's advice, and make out with a sexy unemployed guy!

April 14, 2009

Scary mug shots

Phil Spector, Melissa Huckaby, and Nina Myers

These are the booking photos for Phil Spector, who was just convicted of shooting Lana Clarkson six years ago, and Melissa Huckaby, the Sunday school teacher who was charged with kidnapping, molesting, and killing an 8 year-old girl and stuffing her body in a suitcase. Both are pretty freaky. Their upturned faces and Spector's wild eyes and Huckaby's blank ones make them stand out from your typical celebrity mug shot.

They remind me of one of the greatest shots from the first season of 24, in which we see surveillance video of sexy villain Nina Myers murdering her colleague, then looking up at the camera with a delightfully evil glare.

Nina Myers on surveillance on 24

You can watch the scene from 24 here, starting at 1:00. (The video has a terrible soundtrack, best to watch with the sound off.)

Movieline is back

Movieline Kevin Spacey cover

The 90's movie magazine Movieline is back, online only. The print magazine ran from 1989 to 2003, and it was a fun read. Looking back at it now, it serves as an interesting document about how people thought about movies and celebrities in our no-so-distant ancient past (for example, the 2003 "sex symbol" Kevin Spacey cover above, that frankly makes my skin crawl.) To help take you back, here's a 1996 cover with a quote from Heather Locklear about whether she or Teri Hatcher had the most downloaded images.

The original magazine was a good general-interest movie mag, but also compiled some smart and interesting lists, like their 1995 100 Best Movies Ever Made list, a few years before AFI started doing their own. They also did a 100 Best Foreign Films list in 1996. The Best Movies list has some good choices (Being There, In a Lonely Place) and included only 3 movies from the 90's. But one of those was True Lies. So I guess the magazine attempted to balance thinky film criticism with whatever was popular at the moment.

The new site seems to have a similar philosophy. They've got interviews with Emily Blunt and the guy who directed the new Grey Gardens, and also gossip about Leo DiCaprio and Zac Efron talking about heroin and a bit about Seinfeld porn. And stuff about TV like Parks and Recreation.

It looks like they're going for accessibility, balanced with some stuff for people who are really into watching movies and some stuff for people who are really into celebrity gossip. A bunch of the editors were hired from Defamer, which Gawker shut down as an independent site a couple of months ago. Hard to say if the world needs another site like this, but it's good to see the Defamer group is largely intact in a new home. Hopefully they'll resist the original Movieline magazine trajectory--in 2003 it changed its name to Hollywood Life, which was like a less interesting US Weekly that nobody read.

The new Movieline is owned by Mail.com, which is weird. Mail.com says that in addition to the email service they have "a growing number of essential online content destinations."

The Vault, an archive of all the print magazines, is coming soon. You can see a lot of old covers up there now, featuring a young Johnny Depp, a young Christina Ricci, and a really young Robert Downey, Jr.

April 6, 2009

WWE indulges Mickey Rourke

Mickey Rourke punching out Jericho

This is a photo from WWE's Wrestlemania 25, taken last night in Houston. It's Mickey Rourke, a fake wrestler, punching out Chris Jericho, an actual wrestler. Or at least Jericho is an actual pro wrestler, which makes him a real fake wrestler, while Mickey Rourke is just a fake fake wrestler.

Since The Wrestler came out late last year, Mickey Rourke has been talking all kinds of smack about wanting to get in the ring and do some actual wrestling. As already has been very thoroughly reported everywhere, he got into professional boxing before he started acting, and again during his slow acting period in the 90's, and actually did OK.

Playing Randy "The Ram" Robinson in The Wrestler encompasses many overlapping levels of reality and make-believe for someone like Mickey Rourke, and the experience seems to have steered his second career away from boxing and toward scripted, choreographed bouts that you can watch on pay-per-view. On Sunday night, upstart whippersnapper Jericho challenged Hall of Famers "Rowdy" Roddy Piper, Jimmy "Superfly" Snuka and Ricky "The Dragon" Steamboat to a 3-on-1. He beat them all handily, then started taunting Mickey Rourke, who was in the audience.

Rourke then surprised everyone* by stepping into the ring and delivering some bare-knuckle boxing moves. From WWE's coverage: "The star of The Wrestler entered the squared circle, but soon decided he’d heard enough of Jericho’s relentless taunts. Rourke, a former boxer, swung a slew of heavy fists at his tormentor, finishing with a punch that dimmed the lights of the conceited Superstar and dropped both him, and his pride, to the mat." Then he walked off the stage in victory with Ric Flair, one of my childhood favorites.

Here's video, and some more photos.

It's probably psychologically dangerous to indulge the fantasies/delusions of a loose cannon like Mickey Rourke and let him out-perform guys who have been doing this since the 70's, but it makes for good pretend entertainment. Meanwhile, the Iron Man 2 insurers are wondering what they've gotten themselves into. Hopefully he won't get as submerged in his role in Stallone's South American mercenary movie The Expendables.

*not really

April 3, 2009

Anil Kapoor pretends to be Middle Eastern on 24

Anil Kapoor and Danny Boyle at the Oscars

A lot of us saw Anil Kapoor for the first time when he played the devious game show host in Slumdog Millionaire. He was one of my favorite characters in the movie while he was being subtle and mysteriously sneaky, but when he suddenly made that ham-handed outburst toward the end, like "I call the shots around here! That slumdog will never become a millionaire on MY SHOW!" or whatever, the whole movie sort of lost me.

Anyway: Kapoor is already a mega-star in India, and has been in about 100 movies over the last 25 years. He's alerady on the next step to fame in America by signing up to be a regular character on the next season of 24.

Luckily for him, he doesn't have to play a terrorist. Sort of unluckily for him, he does have to pretend to be from the Middle East, coming to the US as part of an anti-terrorism mission.

24 is good at recruiting Indian actors to play Middle Eastern terrorists. We've already had Kal Penn, who played a terrorist Ahmed Amar last season in one of the few storylines of that season that was good, and Anil Kumar, who played a villain named Kalil Hasan, the operative who stopped at the gas station that Kiefer then absurdly pretended to hold up in Season 4.

24 also casts Latino-Americans and Italians who all convincingly played Middle Eastern terrorists, so they don't get too hung up on ethnic specificity: if you have brown skin, you're in.

Anil Kapoor is a lot of fun to watch onscreen, so I think he'll be a good, scenery-chewing addition to the show.

March 25, 2009

Bobb'e J. Thompson, R-rated child star

Bobb'e J. Thompson

This is Bobb'e J. Thompson, and he is the next huge American preteen superstar. He was in last summer's very funny Role Models , then he was the star of the most memorable scene of last week's episode of "30 Rock" [video--his scene is in Chapter 3]. On "30 Rock" he played Tracy Morgan's son Tracy, Jr., and delivered my favorite line, illustrating what home life is like with an unemployed Tracy: "You want to see what he packed me for lunch today? A jar of mayonnaise and a pack of cigarettes."

Bobb'e is really good at outrageous over-acting. Everything he does is huge. He gets all kinds of filthy jokes about sex and child molestation and his comic book "The Adventures of The Booby Watcher" in his movies and shows, and he's only 13. He doesn't play by the rules. Cartoon Network just announced that they're giving him his own show later this year, and it's not even going to be a cartoon.

Before he played Tracy Morgan's son on "30 Rock", Bobb'e played Tracy Morgan's son on "The Tracy Morgan Show" back in 2003. It got canceled, but Bobb'e at age 8 was already doing stuff that was probably inappropriate for kids. An article from back then about the show called attention to Bobb'e because he "gets some of the sharpest, funniest lines", which the writer thought might be "too sophisticated" for a young kid, which I am guessing is code for "dirty".

Tracy countered that accusation with "Real kids nowadays say even crazier stuff," so he was nuts back then too. Actually, yeah, nowadays the kids are saying crazy stuff, but those kids are still Bobb'e Thompson.

March 23, 2009

She sings, she dances, she gobbles Seconal!

Judy Garland and Anne Hathaway

It seems like the last year of Anne Hathaway's life has been perfectly constructed to prepare her to play Judy Garland, which today we found out is actually happening. The Weinsteins optioned the 2001 Judy Garland biography, Get Happy, which includes a lot of Garland's own writings.

Not only does Anne Hathaway look a lot like Garland, but think about what we've learned about her lately:

Does she sing and dance? Check! She briefly joined Hugh Jackman onstage during the opening number of this year's Oscars [video]. She's no Judy, but she hit some pretty big notes, and looked like she could handle herself in a biopic recreation of, say, "The Trolley Song".

Can she play a drug addict? Check! Rachel Getting Married was all about being a self-destructive addict who just wants to deaden the pain of her miserable life. Garland was on pills since she was a teenager, and died of an accidental overdose of sleeping pills.

Is she unlucky in love? Check! Anne had Raffaello Follieri. Judy had five husbands.

Anne Hathaway might have to transform that big, thousand-watt smile into Judy's dreamy, little-girl-lost expression, but I think she'll be great.

March 4, 2009

Someone who isn't Gary Condit arrested for killing Chandra Levy

Chandra Levy

DC police are about to arrest a man for killing Chandra Levy back in 2001. The guy in question, Ingmar Guandique, is already in prison, after making a habit of assaulting women in Rock Creek Park. He apparently talked to some other guys in prison and wrote letters and made phone calls that included gruesome details about the attack, and the case was built on their testimony.

Gary Condit might have been telling the truth all this time! The beleaguered former Congressman may be a cheating slimeball, and really unlucky in his selection of interns to have an affair with, but maybe he didn't have her killed.

After the murder, Condit looked like the prime suspect. Women's killers are almost always their male partners, and a successful, powerful, married politician looked like just the kind of guy who would have his young secret girlfriend killed. There are still a lot of arguments floating around out there about Condit's probable guilt, detailing his suspicious absences on the day Chandra Levy disappeared. He also tried to paint Levy as a slut, which made him look desperate and guilty, and also like a huge jerk.

Mostly famously, my own favorite celebrity, crime, and celebrity crime reporter Dominick Dunne's theories and gossip about the case in his Vanity Fair column added to the speculation that Condit did it. The weirdest stuff Dunne talked about was a rumor he had heard that Condit was hanging out with the leaders of a prostitution ring at Middle Eastern embassies in DC and told some guys that he had a girlfriend he needed to get rid of. A Times article from 2003 describes it better, but it's basically hearsay based on a rumor based on the report of an unnamed, unreliable horse whisperer.

Anyway, Condit sued Dominick Dunne for defamation and they settled, then sued him again and lost. Remember, Dunne's own daughter was murdered by an ex-boyfriend, who got off with a light sentence, so his own emotions probably played a role in his assumption that Gary Condit was a murderer.

Gary Condit was ruled out as a suspect in the police investigation, but it seems like the public still thinks he's guilty. Reader comments to a CBS story about the case from last week include a lot of things like "CONDIT=MURDERER=GUILTY". And an episode of "South Park" refers to Condit as a killer that got away with it, OJ-style (the one where Butters' parents try to kill him after he follows his dad into a gay bath house.)

Even with new evidence that Condit had nothing to do with the murder, his political career is long dead, and his post-Congress career hasn't gone so great. He was sued by Baskin-Robbins in 2007 for not paying franchise fees for his two Arizona ice cream stores.

The Washington Post has an exhaustive series on the Chandra Levy case from last year with details about Ingmar Guandique, who was a suspect back in the fall of 2001, but the investigation was sloppy and he was eliminated as a suspect. One of the guys who Guandique told about the killing says that Guandique originally claimed Gary Condit had paid him to kill Chandra Levy, so it might not be over yet.

February 23, 2009

Pretending to be famous at the Oscars

Oscars tickets

Oscars wooo!

It was a better show than usual this year, largely because of Hugh Jackman's natural showmanship and unstoppable appeal and charm and talent and handsomeness. Plus Ben Kingsley! And Beyoncé and her red glittery hips! [video] Woo!

If you watched the red carpet interviews and saw the event on TV, you pretty much saw everything there was to see. So here are just a few notes about being there and the whole crazy experience:

  • My buddy Shemrock and I arrived at the Kodak Theater later than planned, on account of the unwavering persecution of pedestrians in LA (see below.) So we had limited mingling time at the pre-show cocktail party. But we did walk the red carpet along with Kate Winslet, Penélope Cruz, Alicia Keys, and Taraji Nelson. I said hi to a very sweetly giddy Dev Patel and told him I dug him in "Skins", like a BBC America nerd.
  • Even when your hotel is only a couple of blocks away, you cannot walk to the Oscars. It might be simpler for everyone involved if you could walk up to the security check point and show your ticket and ID, but instead you have to wait in a really long line of cars, show a special car pass to a series of cops, get your car checked for explosives, and have a valet take it and park it in a huge garage and then get it for you again afterwards. Shemrock figured out that LA must be at the mercy of an all-powerful valet union that calls all the shots in the city.
  • It's true that the academy is largely made up of very elderly people. They were everywhere. The ones sitting next to me momentarily got excited about Eva Marie Saint, and spent the rest of the evening complaining about how long the show was.
  • During commercial breaks, Hugh Jackman kept the crowd entertained. Part way through, he read a note that his wife had passed up to him from out in the audience, which said, "Show's going great, dear. I'm hungry." So he got a plate of cookies, ran out into the audience and gave cookies to his wife, Sam Mendes, and some guy who looked like DJ Qualls.
  • We also got to see a little montage video of various celebrities talking about the Best Picture nominees. You can watch it here. There's Robert Evans, Michael Stipe, Flea, Mike Bloomberg, Mike Nichols, Hugh Hefner, Sarah Silverman, Mickey Rooney, Graydon Carter, Joe Torre, Spike Jonze, and the French guy from Man on Wire.
  • Oddest moment: The guys in front of me at the valet pick-up had their car pulled around. It was a hearse.
  • Funniest moment: Shemrock and I were approaching the theater, driving down Hollywood Blvd through screaming crowds of people behind barricades on the sidewalks who were there to see all the famous people driving by. Shem rolls down the windows and shouts, "I was in The Dark Knight!"

Luckily, I was too busy getting ready to go to the Oscars this year to get into a betting pool, because I would have gotten destroyed. Departures? Did anyone get that one right? Here are all the winners.

February 19, 2009

No Tonya Hardings in competitive yoga

International Yoga Asana Championship

I bet you thought about Neal Pollack a lot more 5 years ago than you do these days. But he's still out there: he had an article on Slate a few days ago about the International Yoga Asana Championship that happened in LA earlier this month. (He's also writing a book about the "weird and circuslike" world of yoga culture.)

In the article, a lot of competitive yogis talk about how strange people think it is to practice yoga like a sport, and the charismatic leader of the competitive yoga circuit, Bikram Choudhury, says wonderful things like, "I have balls like atom bombs, two of them, 100 megatons each. Nobody fucks with me."

Anyway, to counter the impression that competitive yogis are a bunch of aggressive cutthroats who stomp each other's chakras on their way to the top, the U.S. women's champion says, "The competition gets a lot of flak from a lot of people, but it's not like anyone's trying to crack anyone else's kneecaps."

This Slate article came out the same day that Tonya Harding, the original kneecapper, appeared on HBO's monthly sports show "Real Sports", and said that she's paid her debts for her involvement with the 1994 attack on Nancy Kerrigan and thinks she's suffered enough. She mentions Barack Obama's derisive namecheck during his campaign [video]. Girl, if people as good-natured and benevolent as Barack Obama and the world's greatest yogi are still bad-mouthing you in public, it's probably not ever going to stop.

Tonya Harding does admit that as long as people like Barack Obama keep dropping her name, she'll keep getting more paid gigs, I guess in her new career as a pro boxer. Just give in already and do a season of "The Surreal Life", you'll be fine.

Here's a video of her catching a big catfish, and asking the HBO interviewer, "How much responsibility do you think I need to take?"

February 10, 2009

Eva Green's womb

Eva Green

Let me tell you something that Wired is really good at. When they put the first sentence or two from their blog posts up on the front page, they often end the excerpt at exactly the most tantalizing point in the post.

Case in point:

"After playing the only Bond Girl to break 007's heart, actress Eva Green now turns to the future with sci-fi drama Womb.

The sultry French actress will portray a widow who misses her late husband so much she decides to..."

Decides to WHAT? Let's see: dead husband, sci-fi, "Womb". Maybe she steals her husband's body and impregnates herself with his decaying genetic material, resulting in a screwed-up mutated zombie baby? Or coerces his aging parents into having another child using herself as a surrogate or something creepy like that?

When you click through to read the entire post, you learn that, of course, she has the dead husband cloned. Which sounds cool too, and will hopefully bring up all the disturbing, Frankenstein-like implications of cloning, since she will almost definitely treat the cloned guy like she owns him and force him to marry her and basically be her creature. Isn't that the point?

I have to admit that I'm a little in love with Eva Green and the sassy but inscrutable and sort of messed-up sensibility she brought to her characters in The Dreamers and Casino Royale. Hopefully Womb's director will also make good use of her outstanding rack.

The guy who's going to be the new Doctor Who next year, Matt Smith, plays the dead/undead husband.

January 28, 2009

Irving on Updike, DFW on Updike

John Irvin and John Updike

I'm not a big follower of the late John Updike, but I like this little anecdote that John Irving tells today on Slate about how they used to receive each other's fan mail:

For a period of time—no longer—fans used to confuse the two of us. How could this have happened? Because we were both "John"? It was baffling, but I got numerous fan letters that were meant for him, and he got fan letters that were meant for me, and this gave us the occasion to write to each other—and send the misdirected fan mail to each other. This has stopped; it hasn't happened in five or six years. Maybe this was mail from a single demented village or the same deranged family; maybe it was generational, and they've died out—those idiots who thought I was John Updike and John Updike was me.

The letters would begin "Dear John Irving," and I would read for a while before I realized that the letter-writer was talking about an Updike novel; it was the same for him. I admit that I miss this craziness; it will probably never happen again.

I wonder what it was about a misguided fan letter that tipped John Irving off that it was a letter intended for John Updike. Maybe something like:

Dear John Irving,

I'm a big fan, I've read all your novels and stories and essays. You write exceptionally beautiful and vivid prose about truly unlikeable men, who usually sound like they would be self-involved jerks who can't keep it in their pants if you knew them in real life. But your use of language sure is nice!

Truly yours,
Avid Reader Who Isn't So Hot With Names

Anyway, Irving includes a few other amusing stories. This little essay is probably the most uniformly positive thing I've ever seen written about John Updike.

A less positive reaction came from David Foster Wallace. Here's his essay titled "John Updike, Champion Literary Phallocrat, Drops One; Is This Finally the End for Magnificent Narcissists?", originally published in the New York Observer in 1997, also appearing in Consider the Lobster with the I'm assuming deliberately opaque title, "Certainly the End of Something or Other, One Would Sort of Have to Think."

January 26, 2009

Who'dat?™: Sundance edition

Sundance ended on Saturday, with many celebrities attending screenings and walking around Utah smoking Marlboros.

To play today's Who'dat?™, look at the photo below and try to guess who it is. Then click on the photo to see if you're right.

Who'dat?

A few of the notable movies at Sundance this year:

  • Spread, featuring Ashton Kutcher as a hot young Hollywood stud sleeping his way into the homes of older rich ladies, with tons of nudity and sex.
  • Ewan McGregor and Jim Carrey falling in love in prison in I Love You Phillip Morris.
  • We Live in Public, a documentary about early internet entrepreneur/celebrity/over-sharer Josh Harris, whose experiments with living his life online went great until he lost his money, mind, and finally "disappeared to an apple farm upstate." Here's a David Carr article about it.
  • Push, the big winner of the festival, featuring your new favorite indie actress Mo'Nique as the teenage girl character's mother, "one of the most tragic and despicable villains, maybe, in all of cinema," according to the Spout review.

  • January 16, 2009

    United States of Tara

    United States of Tara

    This Sunday is the premiere of the new dark comedy The United States of Tara on Showtime. You can watch the entire episode for free, courtesy of BUST magazine, right here:

    [Also available on IMDb and the Showtime site.]

    The show was produced and written by Diablo Cody, and as you might expect, the dialogue sometimes veers dangerously into the same self-conscious, hyper-stylized teen-speak dialect that was such a turn-off for the first 15 minutes of Juno. It's used with less intensity, but it still sounds like some bewildering white suburban tween version of Airplane's jive [video].

    Anyway, I like the show so far. Toni Collette is incredible to watch as a middle-aged mom who suffers from dissociative identity disorder (aka multiple personality disorder.) Her alter-egos can be caricaturish sometimes, but her shifts from one to another are believable and complete. Alessandra Stanley in the Times calls her alters "one-dimensional", but for the first episode of a show with a complicated premise, I think it makes sense to clearly distinguish the identities and let the audience understand each one immediately, even if that means they get overplayed a little. I think she's great, especially as alter Buck, a redneck man. The rest of the family is good too (especially the two kids) as they incorporate Tara's multiple identities into their daily lives with sweetness and understanding.

    My knowledge of the actual mental illness that Tara has is limited, but I do know that an alternate personality is often the result of a serious childhood trauma, and that multiple alters are often the result of systematic childhood abuse. An awful and debilitating sickness, not really a topic to be used as a sitcom joke. We don't learn from the first episode if Tara did suffer some kind of abuse, (though something along those lines is referenced in the Slate review) but hopefully, when the origin of her illness comes up, it won't be glossed over as a wacky quirk. The show seems good enough that they'll handle it OK.

    Rosemarie DeWitt, who was so good in Rachel Getting Married, plays Toni Collette's subtly bitchy sister.

    January 15, 2009

    What we know about Amy Poehler's new show

    Amy Poehler as Hillary Clinton on SNL

    Some news got out about the new NBC show starring Amy Poehler. Specifically, she will play Leslie Knope, a deputy chair of the Parks & Recreation Department of Pawnee, Indiana. Her character sounds like an ambitious local government drone who takes her small-town position too seriously: the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette has seen the pilot script, and says that Amy Poehler's character has the "goal of becoming the first female President of the United States."

    Hm! Sound like any other character she's played? I was never that impressed with Amy Poehler's Hillary impression--she was too smooth and smirky and didn't capture any of Hillary's deliberate, jerky, grating speech cadence that she uses when she wants to be emphatic. The one time I really liked it was in Tina Fey's first SNL appearance as Sarah Palin, when they're at the podium together and Hillary starts to really lose her shit.

    That's how I envision Poehler's new character Leslie Knope--a more delusional, poorly-dressed version of her power-hungry, losing-her-shit Hillary.

    The show will be a lot like The Office: pretend documentary, depressing, squirm-inducing qualities. But I'm going to predict right now: it will be funnier.

    Co-stars include Aziz Ansari, Rashida Jones, and now the lovely and talented Aubrey Plaza from UCB. The premiere is still unannounced--sometime this Spring. UPDATE: It starts April 9.

    January 12, 2009

    Mickey Rourke at the Golden Globes

    Mickey Rourke at the Golden Globes

    It was a big night for Mickey Rourke. He got up on stage to collect his Best Actor Golden Globe, dressed in a satiny suit, sequined sash, and a chain wallet, and while he was up there, he talked about his long road back, got Darren Aronofsky to give him the finger on live tv, and thanked his agent, his co-stars, and his dogs (it was not, as Spout blog notes, an acceptance speech scripted by any publicist.)

    He also restated his enduring love for Axl Rose, in what I'm guessing was Axl's first Golden Globes acknowledgment, for giving the movie the rights to use "Sweet Child o' Mine" at an affordable price. That single rights clearance sounds like it was one of the most important elements about the whole experience of making The Wrestler, as far as Mickey Rourke is concerned. In an interview about that song, Darren Aronofsky also talked about it like it was a defining event of the entire movie:

    With "Sweet Child o' Mine", what happened was we were doing the scene in the bar. Mickey was miserable because he hates hair music. He loves Guns n' Roses but he hates a lot of hair music. I was like, "Mickey, these are the only songs we can use." There were like three or four songs that we could afford because it costs more money if the actors sing along. He said, "Why can’t we get 'Sweet Child o' Mine'?" I was like, "Go ahead, get in touch with Axl and try; but, the last time Axl gave a song to which anyone could sing along, it cost a million and a half dollars."

    So as the day got closer and closer, it became a possibility because Mickey kept bothering Axl and begging Axl, "Please, let me have it." But you know you have to get the sign-off from everyone in Guns n' Roses. But Mickey’s friends with all of them, he knows all of them. The day for shooting comes and we don’t have the rights. Mickey said, "Just shoot it. I’ll get you the rights." I said, "I can’t, man. We’ll just have to do 'Round the Round.' " So I got him to do "Round the Round."

    We got halfway through the day and then Axl called and said, "You can have 'Sweet Child o' Mine'." I was like, "Oh gosh, should we go tell Mickey that we got the song? Or just keep going because we can’t reshoot?” Because we were on such a low budget that we couldn’t go back and reshoot... In the end, creatively, I liked it the best; but, now that we had the rights to "Sweet Child o' Mine", I was like, "Oh great, we’ll use it for the final entrance because it’s such an important song for us on the film." Mickey used to come out to that when he was a boxer. Whenever he’d do anything athletic in the film, he’d be like, "Put up 'Sweet Child o' Mine' " and we’d blast it so that he was all pumped up when he did his move. For the crew it became our anthem and having it in the film was just a great thing that Axl added.

    [video of his speech]

    Note: In addition to all the former members of Guns n' Roses, Mickey Rourke is also friends with Bruce Springsteen and his main awards season competitor Sean Penn.

    December 17, 2008

    Imagine college. Now imagine your roommate is Tracy Morgan.

    Tracy Morgan in goggles

    We all love to watch Tracy Morgan on 30 Rock every week, but how's his film career going? What has he done since Little Man, First Sunday from earlier this year, and Deep in the Valley, an almost definitely pornographic Kim Kardashian vehicle in which Tracy plays Busta Nut?

    Variety announced today that Tracy Morgan will star in Freshman Roommates, in which a hapless dude drunkenly responds to a Nigerian scam email. Then Tracy Morgan, an actual deposed Nigerian prince, shows up at his door looking for his inheritance. Crazy! So we're probably looking at a weirder Coming to America with more costume changes, more strippers, and more inappropriate jokes that make you wonder if Tracy Morgan is actually mentally ill or just really good at his shtick.

    The drunken emailer is played by the guy with the video camera from Cloverfield, and the screenplay is by John Mulaney, who wrote for SNL's Weekend Update Thursday series, and Nick Kroll, one of the Cavemen.

    December 15, 2008

    Which soul icon will Beyoncé play next?

    Beyonce as Etta James, Cadillac Records

    Beyoncé's latest movie, Cadillac Records, tells the story of Chicago's Chess Records, an early blues, soul, and rock label that introduced black artists to white audiences and global stardom. Beyoncé plays Etta James, and though her acting is a little uneven and the movie isn't doing especially well at the box office (it opened last week in 9th place, this week it's at 11th), she's got an Executive Producer credit and sings the hell out of a lot of soul classics on the soundtrack.

    Her last major role was in Dreamgirls, the quasi-historical story of Motown Records, Detroit's early pop and R&B label. She played the Diana Ross character, and even though she was flat as a flounder, she looked great in those early 60's outfits and more or less held her own in a mediocre movie.

    So what's next? I'd like to see the early rock label triumvirate completed with a movie about Stax Records, Memphis's early soul and funk label. Like Chess, most of the greats on Stax were men (Isaac Hayes, Booker T and the MG's, Otis Redding) but there were a few outsize female icons that would be great for Beyoncé to play. She could do a pretty good Mavis Staples [photo], beating out her older Staple Sisters to become the lasting solo star. I'm not Beyoncé's greatest fan, and she's better at pop than soul, but she's trying to stretch herself into a respected actress, which is good. Plus she's probably a major draw for audiences that might otherwise not care about movies about old record labels.

    Cadillac Records was OK. It has a few great scenes, and Jeffrey Wright as Muddy Waters and Mos Def as Chuck Berry are especially good. I wish there had been more scenes about the uneasy partnership between Leonard Chess, the label owner, and Muddy Waters, his first star, since their scenes together were the most memorable. And fewer contrived lines like "Just you wait! My wife's gonna drive a Cadillac!"

    The Post explains today why Bo Diddley, also a major star on Chess, isn't mentioned in the movie at all. His management company says:

    "It's no secret that Bo had real issues with the Chess brothers and their 'creative accounting practices.' It was Bo's recollection that every time he or another performer would go into the Chess offices to ask for their royalties, they were given the keys to a new Cadillac instead. So, in that regard, at least they got the title of the movie right. Regardless, we are completely shocked that the producers would omit such a seminal figure as Bo."

    That "creative accounting" is represented in the movie, with Leonard Chess diverting a bit of Chuck Berry's prodigious income stream to his less popular labelmates. The scene in Cadillac Records was almost exactly like the scene in 24 Hour Party People, the quasi-historical movie about Factory Records, when Tony Wilson uses New Order's royalties to pay for other less successful ventures, like the Hacienda and every other band on the label.

    December 10, 2008

    New crackpot investment opportunity!

    The Producers

    Now that investors have been scared off from stocks, real estate, and the financial institutions that used to be the foundation of our economy, we need new and innovative investment products to help us incinerate our money.

    Here's Cantor Fitzgerald, an investment firm whose primary credential seems to be that they haven't gone bankrupt yet, with a financial service I can actually sort of relate to: movie futures. Here's how this new scheme works. Six months before a new movie comes out, you place bets on how well you think it's going to do. If you think a movie will do better than the odds say (determined by the market) you buy a one-millionth share. Then if it does well, you get some cash! And if it doesn't do so well, you owe your bookie, Cantor Fitzgerald, more money.

    This is great news for producers of really terrible movies that people have unreasonably high expectations for, because it will get lots of casual investors and movie fans to give them advance money for their box office bomb. A year ago, I would have definitely bet that Run Fatboy Run would have done really well, like it did in the UK. But it only did $6 million in the US, so I would have lost big. One the other side you've got Mamma Mia!, which might not have had the greatest expectations, but has made $560 million globally so far.

    Apparently Cantor Fitzgerald first talked about creating a movie market 7 years ago, right before the company got almost completely wiped out on September 11. Better luck this time. They also own a virtual movie market, the Hollywood Stock Exchange, which for people like me is probably as good as the real thing.

    Of course the first thing this scheme brings to mind is good old Bialystock and Bloom and their realization that you could make more money with a flop than a hit. "If he were certain the show would fail, a man could make a fortune!" Some unscrupulous movie producer out there could announce a movie that attracts tons of futures investors, then make sure it bombs. And someone will create some sort of alternative fund so contrary investors can bet against the market. If I could get into one of those, I'd go all in against the next movie Nicole Kidman makes.

    Hopefully People and Variety will start running live odds.

    December 2, 2008

    William Shatner: One Man Hyperbole

    William Shatner and Jenna Jameson

    William Shatner has a new talk show.

    It's kind of unbelievable that he's gone all this time without having his own show to share his own intense, self-aware, detachedly-cool and possibly insane personality with the world, unfiltered through any fictional character. Maybe he had to go through all the 20 or 30 careers he's already had before getting to this level.

    The show, Shatner's Raw Nerve, is on the Biography Channel at 10:00 tonight, and is automatically the most interesting thing that channel has ever done. His guests will include Jimmy Kimmel, Judge Judy, Valerie Bertinelli, and Jenna Jameson. I don't understand it either, but I think it's going to be great.

    When people try to describe Shatner and the kind of celebrity he's made for himself, they often talk in expansive, hyperbolic terms, and end up some place that's almost mystical. In the Times review of the new talk show, Ginia Bellafante writes:

    The range of Mr. Shatner’s cultural contributions sometimes seems incalculable, and his tenure on Star Trek, is, of course, really just a fraction of his national gift. If YouTube offered nothing but his spoken-word renditions of classic rock songs ("Rocket Man", "Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds"), it would still get thousands of hits, no millions and zillions of them. Google might have bought YouTube with no other content.

    And later she really nails that ability Shatner has to operate on many different, progressively complex levels of comedy at once: he's serious; he's absurd; he knows he's absurd; he's in on the joke; he's become the joke and also somehow surpasses it.

    His genius is a simulation of sincerity that makes it seem as though he is finding profundity wherever he looks. And yet he leaves enough wiggle room for his audience to wonder whether he really is faking it, or whether, in actuality, he isn’t: maybe he is just nuts.

    And of course the Fametracker Fame Audit of William Shatner from back in 2005. An excerpt:

    When the world zigs, he zags. When the world zags, he zigs. When the world zigs back, he records an album with Ben Folds. When the world chuckles, he pantses the world.

    Some celebrities think they've got this whole image thing figured out, they can have fun with it, and they can make it their bitch. Sure, we like John Malkovich, and, sure, we thought it was cool and funny when he starred in Being John Malkovich. But for William Shatner, every day is Being William Shatner. Some celebrities get it, but Shatner so thoroughly gets it that "it" no longer exists. He's consumed "it." He's crawled up inside celebrity and made it explode, the way that Neo finally crawls into Agent Smith and makes him explode.


    November 12, 2008

    Jerry Garcia, before the egg creams and heroin

    Young Jerry Garcia, age 25

    This is what Jerry Garcia looked like in 1967 at age 25. He had just recently started the Grateful Dead (a name the whole band hated) and he was a big fan of Chuck Berry, Bo Diddley, and bluegrass.

    It's this period of Garcia's life that a new biopic will focus on. Spout is suggesting some actors to play him, but their ideas all sound like the later-era Jerry Garcia, the heroin addict and egg cream fiend. They're talking about Philip Seymour Hoffman, Vincent D'Onofrio, or Paul Giamatti. I love all those actors, but we need someone young, hairy, and maybe a little doughy-faced to play Jerry when he looked like this:

    Jerry Garcia, young

    So here are a few ideas: Jeremy Sisto. He's got the hair, he'd have no trouble growing a big beard, and look at that smile:

    Jeremy Sisto

    Here's another one: Danny Masterson, from That 70s Show. Put a few pounds on him and he's just about perfect. Plus, everyone already associates him with being a stoner.

    Danny Masterson

    Then there's the obvious choice: Seth Rogen. The man is the real hirsute frizzed-out deal, and is clearly no stranger to Cheetos. But his range is pretty limited: I'm guessing the first half-hour or so of the movie might involve some scenes where Jerry Garcia is not high, and it's hard to imagine Seth Rogen pulling that off.

    Please add other ideas in the comments.

    November 10, 2008

    Who'dat?™: Crazy celebrity brothers

    Ralph Turturro

    This is a tough one, so I'll just tell you who it is. If you subtract the beard, hair, and about 65 pounds from this guy, but kept the expressive eyebrows and sort of wild expression, you might be able to guess that this is John Turturro's brother.

    According to the Post, Ralph Turturro has been causing all kinds of problems for his Hell's Kitchen neighbors on West 46th--they've called the cops on him 5 times since August:

    John Turturro's troubled older brother has them living in fear -- threatening to kill them and his caretakers, screaming at all hours of the night, and leering at female residents.

    "He's explosive," said Deborah Miller. She said she had to call the cops Aug. 30 because Ralph, who was locked out of his own place, was trying to get into her apartment around 1 a.m. "Get me a key, bitch!" he screamed.

    The more famous Turturro's Wikipedia entry says that his older brother Ralph is a middle school art teacher, but the Post says he's an unemployed artist who has "caretakers" with him all the time, which I'm guessing means he lost that teaching job. Neighbors say they hear him screaming and throwing furniture around the apartment.

    While the older Turturro [UPDATE: it turns out the artist is John Turturro's cousin, not his brother, and is not mentally ill] may have mental problems, his art isn't bad. I found a website that appears to be his featuring a lot of his abstract art. I'm no expert on this, but some of it looks really good (I like this one from 2002.) The "recent works" are from 2003 and earlier, so maybe his creativity has suffered lately. His artist's statement is an interesting take on abstraction, subjectivity, and discipline, so it seems like he had his shit together at one point.

    In an interview from 2 years ago, Ralph Turturro says he comes from a family of artists, though "the rest of my family that aren't actors never talk to each other because of one emotional thing or another." Maybe that means he's still in touch with John and Aida who can help get him away from his neighbors.

    UPDATE: It turns out the mentally ill Ralph Turturro, John's brother, is not the same person as Ralph Turturro the artist. The professional artist is John's cousin, and is not mentally ill. See the comments for more anecdotes from one of the neighbors dealing with the unwell Ralph's outbursts.

    November 7, 2008

    Who'dat?™

    I'm not sure what it is about the photo for this edition of Who'dat?™--the celebrity in question isn't aging beyond all recognition or going through a radical transformation for a movie role or anything. The reality of what this person looks like doesn't quite coincide with my mental image of her.

    To play, try to guess who this is, then click on the picture to see if you are right.

    who'dat?

    November 5, 2008

    Tracy called it

    CNN may have called the election at 11:00 PM last night, but Tracy said it back on March 15: Black is the new President, bitch!

    September 16, 2008

    The Coen Brothers' Ladies

    Ladies of the Coen Brothers' movies

    When I think of the most memorable actors and characters of the Coen Brothers' movies, I usually think of the men. There are guys they use again and again, like John Goodman, Steve Buscemi and John Turturro, and those genius one-offs like Jeff Bridges as Jeffrey Lebowski, Billy Bob Thornton in The Man Who Wasn't There, or Javier Bardem in No Country For Old Men. Spout made a really great list of 10 supporting Coen Brothers actors that often get overlooked, since it's often the supporting characters that give their movies their distinctive bizarre and unsettling style.

    But what about the ladies? Just about all of their movies feature a bunch of male leads with only one main female character. In 4 movies now they've gone with their best gal Frances McDormand (Joel Coen's wife) and twice they've used Holly Hunter (in O Brother Where Art Thou? and Raising Arizona.)

    Coen Brothers women mostly conform to a type: they're tough as nails (if they aren't at the beginning of the movie, they definitely are by the end), often inscrutable and distant, and their no-nonsense exterior either masks a soft and tender interior (like Jennifer Jason Leigh in The Hudsucker Proxy, Holly Hunter and Frances McDormand as sweet but gutsy cops in Raising Arizona and Fargo) or amplifies a genuinely manipulative and selfish nature (Tilda Swinton in Burn After Reading or Frances McDormand in The Man Who Wasn't There.)

    Others, like Julianne Moore in The Big Lebowski, Marcia Gay Harden in Miller's Crossing, and Judy Davis in Barton Fink are also mysteriously sexy and remote, sometimes with a whiff of treachery. I can only think of one real casting misstep: Catherine Zeta-Jones in Intolerable Cruelty, which just didn't work.

    One partial exception is Kelly Macdonald as the wife in No Country For Old Men--one of the few movies the Coen Brothers adapted from someone else's story. She has a small role, and lacks the grit of most Coen Brothers women, but in her final big showdown with soft-spoken psychopath Javier Bardem she shows an unshakable resolve and inner strength, and ends up kind of serving as the moral anchor of the whole movie [video].

    Anyway, in their current movie Burn After Reading, there are actually two female leads, both of which are pretty ridiculous and insensitive people. Frances McDormand is a selfish but harmless woman who can't see anything beyond her own needs, though her chronic loneliness and moments of real joy in finding connections with other people makes her a bit sympathetic. Tilda Swinton, on the other hand, is an icy, cruel bitch on wheels, which makes the reveal of what her profession is towards the end of the movie the single funniest moment in the whole thing.

    Burn After Reading has gotten a lot of lukewarm or negative reviews, largely from critics who compare it to the more serious variety of Coen Brothers movies like No Country. I loved No Country as much as anyone, but you've got to remember that at least half of their movies are goofy screwball comedies in which bumbling but lovable characters wildly chase after the things they desperately want, which they almost always fail to achieve. Three times in Burn After Reading different characters say "This isn't fun and games," by which I think the Coen Brothers are reassuring us that this IS all fun and games. In his review, one of the most positive ones I've seen, Roger Ebert notes that the plot doesn't matter at all--the strengths of the movie are the dialogue and the characters, both of which are as good as ever. It's inconsequential, but that doesn't mean it's not worth seeing.

    Anyway, their next movie is called A Serious Man (that oughta make the No Country For Old Men-loving sourpusses happy.) It doesn't use any of their regular actors, and some of the cast have only worked in Minnesota theater--including leading lady Sari Lennick. I'm going out on a limb here and predicting that she plays a ballsy lady who doesn't take any crap. The movie also stars character actor Richard Kind and Broadway star Michael Stuhlbarg.

    September 9, 2008

    Fairuza Balk returns

    Humboldt County, Fairuza Balk

    Humboldt County is coming out in a couple of weeks, and looks like it should be good. People who saw it at SXSW have said pretty much what you could say based on watching the trailer: it looks like a less Zach Braffy Garden State but with a weirder/better cast, and seems to has a good soundtrack. Here's the official site.

    About the cast: the main non-Zach Braff guy with an overbearing father who is successful on the surface but dead on the inside is played by a relative unknown--Jeremy Strong. He was in The Happening earlier this year, but hopefully no one saw him in it.

    The mysterious, free-spirited girl is played by Fairuza Balk, who you probably remember from movies that came out many years ago, like The Craft and American History X. Her character's name is Bogart-- oh, haha, like "don't Fairuza Balk me".

    Lately she hasn't been working much, but check this out--she appears to be turning into character actor Christine Baranski (who has been in a million movies including Cruel Intentions and Mamma Mia.) You can really see it in the Humboldt County trailer.

    Christine Baranski and Fairuza Balk

    Fairuza is also going to be in the Werner Herzog's inscrutable "don't call it a remake" version of Bad Lieutenant.

    Humboldt County also features good old Peter Bogdanovich, who still shows up in stuff every so often. He's now directing a movie that looks interesting: The Broken Code, about scientist Rosalind Franklin whose x-rays were instrumental in Watson and Crick discovering the double helix structure of DNA.

    September 4, 2008

    Lars Ulrich--A changed man

    Lars Ulrich, sad and happy

    2000: Lars Ulrich, Metallica's outspoken drummer, alerts Napster to 600,000 fans who had downloaded their music. Their accounts are canceled, and fans are outraged at the band for targeting them, as on the whole they are probably some of the most loyal music fans on the planet. Ulrich also testifies before the Senate Judiciary Committee on file-sharing, and asks them to stop services like Napster, "before this whole Internet thing runs amok." Newsweek calls him a "cyber narc".

    While this was going on, Ulrich did an interview with Slashdot in which he defends his primary argument (file-sharing is stealing), but also admits that record companies blew it by not understanding the Internet's impact on the music industry soon enough.

    This week: Copies of Metallica's not-yet-released album "Death Magnetic" are getting downloaded all over the place after a Paris record store started selling it.

    Not only does Lars not flip out and threaten to sick the government on his fans, he actually sounds totally OK with it:

    "If this thing leaks all over the world today or tomorrow, happy days. Happy days. Trust me. Ten days out and it hasn't quote-unquote fallen off the truck yet? Everybody's happy. It's 2008 and it's part of how it is these days, so it's fine. We're happy."

    Wow. Maybe all that band therapy got him to let go of his "fiercely independent and controlling" nature, or maybe he's just rechanneled his rage back into his music, which fans and the New York Times are saying is the best thing they've done in many years.

    September 2, 2008

    RIP Don LaFontaine, movie trailer superstar

    Don LaFontaine

    Yesterday we lost the unbelievably popular voiceover artist Don LaFontaine, who died of complications related to a collapsed lung, ending a 40 year career that produced many thousands of trailers and ads.

    Unfortunately, this means that your window of opportunity to get him to record your outgoing voicemail message has now closed. He says he got lots of requests from people to do their voicemail; in the short, funny interview below, he says if he had time, he would often do it.

    "In a world where Adam Slutsky is not available..."

    He sounded like a hardworking guy who was very proud of his gigantic body of work:

    A few other things about LaFontaine, from his bio: he got his start as an audio engineer in NY, then started producing movie ads years before he recorded any voiceovers himself. He was also a big "Arrested Development" fan.

    August 29, 2008

    Birthdays

    McCain's 2006 birthday cake

    Happy Birthday, John McCain! On your 72nd birthday, you can celebrate by announcing your VP pick, a gift to political commentators who are still light-headed and hoarse from Obama's acceptance speech last night, and are ready to start tearing into something fresh. Especially if you picked that Alaska governor no one's ever heard of. (oh crap, you actually did. Oh jeez. Way to pander, dude*. Let the savaging begin!)

    Happy Birthday, Michael Jackson! In an interview today with Chris Connelly on Good Morning America, he said, "I feel very wise and sage, but at the same time very young." Which is maybe even creepier than if McCain had said he feels young.

    Happy Birthday, Katrina! The storm hit three years ago, and another one might be coming. On a recent tour of New Orleans, McCain said he still hasn't figured out whether he thinks the Lower Ninth Ward should be rebuilt or not. "I really don't know," he said. "That's why I am going ... We need to go back to have a conversation about what to do: rebuild it, tear it down, you know, whatever it is."

    The photo above is from McCain's 69th birthday in 2005, when the storm hit. Newsweek on the birthday cake photo op:

    "As the deadly storm system moved ashore almost three years ago, sending fatal floods through New Orleans and the Gulf Coast, Bush was in Phoenix, on a tour aimed at boosting participation in what was then the administration's new Medicare prescription-drug plan. McCain had opposed the bill, but showed up to meet Bush at the airport anyway, along with other Arizona lawmakers.

    It was Aug. 29, McCain's 69th birthday, and on the tarmac, Bush presented his old political rival with a cake. The two posed, holding the cake up for cameras, and within seconds, went their separate ways. The cake, melting in the 110-degree Arizona heat, was left behind, uneaten."

    * OK, a lot is going to be said about this Sarah Palin thing, but I bet no one is going to be madder than die-hard Hillary supporters. McCain sees what went on during the primaries, says, "Oh, hey, people like women this year!" and picks some 2-year governor no one's ever heard of (maybe she's well known among conservative Christians?) sort of implying that she's the equivalent of someone like Hillary Clinton. He is going to get destroyed on this. Can you imagine the VP debates?

    Update:
    Please enjoy Palin's wikipedia entry. There's so much fun information there. Runner up for Miss Alaska! Tried marijuana but didn't like it! Fun ethics scandal (maybe)! Opposes gay marriage but has gay friends! Was known as Sarah Barracuda in high school! Kids are named Track, Bristol, Willow, Piper and Trig! And much, much more.

    --Cushie

    August 25, 2008

    Merge Records' celebrity series

    Amy Poehler and Bon Jovi on SNL

    We already knew that Amy Poehler loves Bon Jovi (see above, and SNL video), but it turns out she's an indie rock fan, too.

    For its 20th anniversary, Merge Records has asked a bunch of famous people--some musicians, some not--to curate a series of compilations of their favorite Merge tracks. So far, they've got Peter Buck and the guy who directed Junebug and some Superchunk videos to curate the first two, then later in 2009 will come volumes by Jonathan Lethem (who's a big music fan), David Byrne, Amy Poehler, and the chef at Momofuku, David Chang, who I guess is a celebrity now (here he is on Charlie Rose.)

    The only way to get these CDs is to subscribe to the whole series of 14 compilations, called SCORE!, which you can do starting September 8. Proceeds from sales will go to the charitable organizations picked by each curator. Neat!

    Pitchfork has some more details about the series.

    A few Merge bands I've liked from the pre-Arcade Fire years: The Magnetic Fields and The 6ths, Polvo, Neutral Milk Hotel, East River Pipe, and the re-released stuff by The Clean.

    August 22, 2008

    This week's so-so comedies

    Anna Faris in House Bunny

    Two movies come out today that I've been waiting to see: Hamlet 2 and The House Bunny. Both of them got pretty lukewarm reviews, but hey, so did Pineapple Express and Tropic Thunder, and those were still worth seeing. These two new ones have at least a few things going for them.

    Critics are saying that Hamlet 2 is badly structured, uneven, and a lot of the jokes fall flat. But OK, look: it's got Steve Coogan, Catherine Keener, David Arquette, and Amy Poehler as an ACLU lawyer named Cricket Feldstein. And my old favorite Elisabeth Shue. It can't be all bad, right?

    A.O. Scott would have been the best Times reviewer, but instead we got Stephen Holden, who as usual spends most of his review recounting the plot. David Edelstein doesn't love it, but says Steve Coogan is riveting, and the movie "gets points for weirdness." Kenneth Turan over at the LA Times says "the hits are so dead-on that the misses don't seem to matter." Good enough for me.

    It looks like there's only one reason to see The House Bunny: Anna Faris. The intensity of critical love she gets for this movie is almost at post-Lost in Translation Bill Murray levels. Sure, the movie is a rehashed Legally Blonde (same writers and everything) but she's got the knack for playing the goofy smart-dumb hot girl who will do anything for a laugh. "All hail, Anna Faris, fake bimbo par excellence", from the Times. And the folks at IFC wrote a gushing piece about how great she is. Thank God this role went to someone really funny and not Kirsten Dunst.

    Dana Stevens at Slate stresses that the movie is about as empowering to women as "My Super Sweet 16", but is glad to see enough funny material for Faris to "hint at a well of anarchic, defiantly ungirly humor that her career thus far has barely begun to tap." And, for what it's worth, Kurt Loder loves it, and swears it's hilarious even though it's formulaic. There have already been a few letdowns in this year's big summer comedies, so we need it.

    Anna Faris co-stars with Seth Rogen in a comedy called Observe and Report next year, so it looks like the big time is about to be hit.

    August 11, 2008

    Isaac Hayes, soul icon

    Isaac Hayes at Wattstax

    Isaac Hayes was unexpectedly killed by a treadmill yesterday, after having some recent health problems. The NY Times obituary says his music "defined the glories and excesses of soul" through his early years as a songwriter and musician at Stax Records in Memphis.

    Cushie and I happened to visit the Stax Museum of American Soul Music in Memphis a few months ago, and it was one of the best music history experiences of my life. Before he did "Theme from Shaft" and became a celebrity in his own right, Isaac Hayes wrote around 200 songs from the Stax catalog with his partner David Porter, including Sam and Dave's "Hold on, I'm Comin'" and "Soul Man", and played keyboards with Otis Redding , Booker T and the MG's, and pretty much everybody else on Stax as a session musician.

    Also in the Stax Museum is Isaac Hayes' car, a blue 1972 Cadillac Eldorado, which was lined with fur, had a bar that popped out of the dashboard, and because he was a man undaunted by the technological limitations of his time, he had a small black and white TV sort of wedged awkwardly into the area below the radio between the two front seats. The car was taken by the IRS in 1977 when Hayes had some financial problems.

    In a good VH1 interview from a few years ago he talked about his fearless and distinctive sense of style, which sounds more like a celebrity from this decade with an army of personal stylists on staff than a southern black man starting out in the early 60's:

    "I used to go to a place called Lansky Brothers on the corner of Beale and Second and have them make all my clothes. I wore everything, man. I wore orange suits, pink suits, purple suits, chartreuse suits, green suits - it didn't matter. After I saw The Pink Panther with those Nehru collars and stuff, I was the only one wearing those in Memphis.

    "A guy sold me a chain necklace and a chain belt to match. I started wearing that onstage, then I switched to wearing tights. I thought if a belly dancer can wear them, then I can wear them too. Eventually a guy named Charles Rubin said, "I'm going to make you a chain vest." I realized, Wait a minute, I'm wearing chains! Chains once represented slavery to a black man in this country. I said, I'm going to turn it around -- these chains are a symbol of strength and power. So I kept wearing them."

    Here's a video clip of Isaac Hayes making his dramatic entrance at the Wattstax concert in LA in 1972. Pink tights, black and white fur boots, and gold chains. He is so awesome:

    Isaac Hayes at Wattstax

    Hayes seemed to move effortlessly from one important moment in pop culture to another for his entire life. After helping to create soul music in the 60's and defining himself as a symbol of black pride during the 70's, he moved onto TV and movies in the 80's. He was in Escape From New York, I'm Gonna Git You Sucka, and showed up on "The A-Team" and "Miami Vice". In the 90's came "South Park" and, of course, Scientology. It would have been only a matter of time before he did a song with Kanye.

    Incredibly, Hayes had just finished making a movie called Soul Men with Samuel L. Jackson and good old Bernie Mac, who also died this weekend. Hang in there, Samuel L.

    LA Times
    also has a very lengthy and in-depth obituary. Reports of the number of kids he has varies from "several" in the LA Times to 6 on IMDb to 12 in the NY Times. There's a good, if not very well organized bio on his website.

    July 24, 2008

    Rocky Horror recast

    Tim Curry in Rocky Horror Picture Show

    MTV has joined with Fox Television to do a remake of every high school Drama Club geek's favorite midnight movie, Rocky Horror Picture Show. I guess it will be for TV?

    OK, it's not very cool to admit that I have been to a few of these screenings, complete with a shadow cast in front of the screen, props, and a theater full of assistant stage managers singing along to "Time Warp". A long time ago. But I agree with some of the very indignant Wired commenters that this will be a tough remake to pull off without enraging a lot of devoted fans.

    So let's think about recasting. The cast for a Rocky Horror remake needs to be energetic and funny and able to camp it up and dance in heels and fishnets. And ideally also sing.

    Here's what I've got:

    Dr. Frank-N-Furter. Tim Curry was in the original. I want to see Alan Cumming, who could generate the appropriate level of drag flamboyance (as he demonstrated in the Lincoln Center production of The Bacchae recently.) Or maybe, and I know I'm going out on a limb here, Robert Downey, Jr. He's gotten himself together now, but I think he's still just unhinged enough to make it work.

    Brad, the Eagle Scout do-gooder waiting to be corrupted. Barry Bostwick in the original, who later went onto "Spin City" and the forthcoming Hannah Montana movie. I think this would be perfect for Chris Klein, who needs a good comeback. Or how about this one: Justin Timberlake! He was great in Southland Tales and Black Snake Moan and has no problem with campy choreography. I'd love to see him in drag.

    Janet. A very young Susan Sarandon in the original, which is still hard to believe. I'd like to see Amy Adams in the remake. She's really funny, so she'll be good at the blushing, nice-girl part at the start of the movie, and I bet she can vamp it up for the slutty transformation.

    Riff Raff. Richard O'Brien in the original. We need someone who can play a sort of weirdly sexy creepy ghoul from outer space. I'm going for Rhys Ifans, or, even better, Seth Green.

    Magenta. Patricia Quinn in the original, who I definitely haven't seen in anything else she's done since RHPS. We need a scary/sexy alien for this one. How about either Asia Argento, who is terrifying and hot, or maybe Pink, who is mostly just terrifying.

    Eddie. It was good old Meat Loaf in the original. Kid Rock could do a good job as a crazy undead rockabilly lobotomy victim, but I think an aging, puffy, crinkly Sebastian Bach might be good too.

    Columbia. Nell Campbell in the original, whose career has not taken off since. Best choice is Scarlett Johansson. I've really lost faith in her movie choices lately, but I bet she's still good in comedies, and would look great in a gold-sequined tap dancing outfit.

    Then Brian Cox can play old Dr. Scott in the wheelchair.

    What about Rocky? The blonde sexbot hunk of chiseled beef? Either some nameless gay porn star could do it (the original Rocky didn't have much of a legitimate career, either) or a prettyboy heartthrob, like Chace Crawford from Gossip Girl. Is he hunky enough?

    July 17, 2008

    McConaughey™

    McConaughey does yoga on the beach

    If you think of Matthew McConaughey as a celebrity product, he's one of the most consistently branded and immediately recognizable products on the planet. In most photos, he is a) on a beach, b) in shorts, c) holding a surfboard, d) wearing a do-rag, e) drunk, or most often f) a combination of at least 3 of these.

    Matthew McConaughey is his own logo, and it looks like this:

    McConaughey skating and surfing

    or maybe like this:

    McConaughey with bongos

    Since Matthew McConaughey's branding is so consistent, it becomes easy to predict the details of new business ventures he's getting into. For example, if you hear that Matthew McConaughey has started a record label, what genre would you guess his first artist is in?

    That's right: Reggae! The first single is "Here Comes Da Train" by Mishka.

    Here's another one: What do you think his upcoming movie that he stars in and produced might be about?

    Yes: surfing! Surfer Dude comes out later this year. It's also features Woody Harrelson and Willie Nelson and is about a surfer on a mystical journey. So actually, if your guess had been "smoking weed" you also would have been right.

    From the IMDb message board for Surfer Dude:

    Got a chance to go to an early screening... It's essentially Dazed and Confused with old dudes "soul" surfing and LOTS of weed... The whole movie's pretty much just McConaughey and Woody Harrelson getting blazed with the occasional gratuitous tits shot. I think there was one scene where it was just boobies, lots and lots of boobies for like 8 minutes.

    See what I mean? The man is a rigorously disciplined marketing genius.

    UPDATE: I just noticed that the director of Surfer Dude is S.R. Bindler, whose only other movie is maybe the greatest documentary ever made, Hands on a Hard Body. So yes, it will be awesome. It looks like Bindler and Matthew McConaughey were in high school together in Texas.

    July 2, 2008

    James Brown's stuff, for sale at Christie's

    James Brown's SEX jumpsuit

    One result of the ongoing uncertainties and fighting over James Brown's estate is that many of his personal possessions are being auctioned off. Christie's has the full catalog online, and amidst the many jumpsuits, leather sofas, awards, original paintings, and "GFOS"-emblazoned accessories are many really personal letters and notes, and a few mementos from the darker years of his life.

    Here are a few notable items up for sale.

    Standard flamboyant celebrity clothing:

    Some items I would love to bid on:

    Really personal/cool/strange/sad stuff:

    The auction is on July 17. Starting on July 12 you can go to Christie's and look at all this stuff in person.

    June 9, 2008

    James Freys of the world not doing so well these days

    Wildly successful writer and loathed memoir-fabulist James Frey has been having a rough few years. One thing he can be thankful for: he's not a child molester.

    Another guy named James Frey got busted over the weekend for soliciting some kids in Washington Heights. First he offered a 9 year-old boy $5 to run away with his pants half way down. That same day he allegedly punched a girl in the face for refusing to give him her underpants. Ew.

    The story ends well, though. He got caught when a group of teens, led by the older brother of the kid Frey offered $5 to, circled around Frey and cornered him until the police got there. "That's my brother. I didn't want anyone to hurt him," said 14 year-old big brother Jamel Hadley.

    The Post has a good picture of the resourceful group of kids who captured the evil predatory James Frey:

    Kids who captured James Frey

    Sex offender James Frey was also arrested in 2005 for abuse. Here's his file in the state sex offender registry, which makes the other James Frey look like an eagle scout.

    Media punching-bag James Frey has a good interview in this month's Vanity Fair. He seems like he's more or less doing OK. Janet Maslin seems to have forgiven him