Doodad Kind of Town

Check out "LAMB Devours the Oscars"
January 30, 2008, 11:11 pm
Filed under: Oscars

Starting this week over at the Large Association of Movie Blogs (LAMB), there’s a blogathon goin’ on: “LAMB Devours the Oscars.”

Each day, a different member of the LAMB community writes about a different category for the 2008 Academy Awards. This will last until just up to awards time.

This Monday saw a very entertaining post from Nick at Boomstick Reviews on the Best Art Direction nominees. As Nick so aptly observes, the award is all about “everything that makes a movie look pretty or gritty” – and he tells us which pretty and/or gritty flick he believes will take this Oscar.

Yesterday’s post on the Best Visual Effects award, from Jason of Invasion of the B Movies, includes an hilarious recap of nominee “Transformers” (a movie I have no intention of ever seeing, since I have the feeling Jason’s recap is way more fun than the real thing!)

And today, you can catch my thoughts on the Best Sound Editing and Best Sound Mixing categories – two awards I knew nothing about till I did some ‘net research for the post. What I learned was actually pretty interesting, and gave me a whole new appreciation for the craft of creating film sound. I hope I’ve been able to communicate some of my newfound enthusiasm in my post.

I encourage you all to keep returning to LAMB over the next 3 weeks for more fun commentary and insight on the upcoming Oscars.

And let’s all keep a positive thought that the ceremony will actually take place, in spite of the writer’s strike. I’m taking it as a good omen that the Grammys got a waiver from the Writer’s Guild – here’s hoping the Oscars will get the same consideration.

4 Months 3 Weeks and 2 Days
January 28, 2008, 1:50 am
Filed under: Uncategorized

Count me among those who believe the Oscars’ snub of “4 Months 3 Weeks and 2 Days” borders on criminal.

There’s probably nothing meaningful I can add to the heaps of praise already bestowed on this quietly devastating Romanian film. It won the Palme D’or at Cannes last year and a boatload of prizes since. What the Oscar voters were thinking when they omitted it from their list of Best Foreign Language Film nominees, I have no idea.

“4 Months,” set in the Communist-controlled Romania of 1987, chronicles a day in the life of a student (Anamaria Marinca) who is helping her roommate to obtain an illegal abortion. It’s told in a simple, straightforward manner which makes it all the more compelling. I almost wished I hadn’t known the whole story of the film going in, since it isn’t spelled out that an abortion is in the makings until a good 40 minutes into the film; I wish I had been able to puzzle it out myself or be surprised when the day’s objective became clear.

Even so, I found Marinca’s performance phenomenal, and I wonder why she hasn’t been on any major “Best Actress” nominee lists so far. Hers is not a “showy” performance, it doesn’t draw attention to itself. But just as her character, Otilia, is the steadfast anchor in her frazzled friend’s life, so Marinca’s is the grounding performance in the film.

Just watch her persistently bargaining with a hotel clerk to book the room in which the abortion will take place, negotiating with the unsavory abortionist or struggling to maintain her composure at her boyfriend’s family birthday party. Marinca’s Otilia is steely and purposeful, but ultimately vulnerable. Particularly harrowing are the penultimate scenes, in which Otilia must remove and dispose of all evidence of the abortion; shot in partial darkness and with only the gasps of Otilia’s frightened, labored breathing on the soundtrack, these scenes spell out for us the emotional toll that the day has taken on her.

The film isn’t so much about abortion – it doesn’t spell out what’s right and wrong here – as it is about friendship and sacrifice. It’s a stunning achievement.

And you don’t have to find an art house theatre in order to see it. If you have OnDemand through your cable service, “4 Months 3 Weeks and 2 Days” is available to view right in your own home this month. I can’t recommend enough that you order it.

Come back to Manhattan, Woody Allen, Woody Allen!
January 28, 2008, 12:05 am
Filed under: Woody Allen

“Cassandra’s Dream” is the worst Woody Allen movie in years – and that’s really saying something considering he’s already foisted upon us “Hollywood Ending,” “Curse of the Jade Scorpion,” “Anything Else” and “Melinda and Melinda” just since the turn of the century. It’s illogical, poorly written, and sleep-inducing at the very moments when it ought to be putting you on the edge of your seat.

Ewan McGregor and Colin Farrell play brothers from a hardscrabble Cockney family who dream of obtaining the good life. Farrell, a lovable grease monkey with a gambling addiction, dreams of just being able to provide a nice home and the occasional lovely trinket for his sweet, adoring girlfriend (nicely played by Sally Hawkins). McGregor, on the other hand, has bigger fish to fry; he’s eager to invest in luxury hotels and impress his actress girlfriend (Hayley Atwell). Farrell runs up huge, unpayable gambling debts, while McGregor is desperate to lure the beautiful Atwell away from all the other potential suitors lining up at the stage door. These guys need a lot of cash and they need it now.

Enter their uncle Howard, who just happens to be a top Hollywood plastic surgeon with plenty of income to spare. Good old Uncle Howard is played by Tom Wilkinson with just enough thunder and madness to suggest he hasn’t quite shaken off his raging bi-polar nutjob character from “Michael Clayton.” When he shows up, “Cassandra’s Dream” – which was pretty ridiculous to begin with – goes completely off the rails.

(Warning: there are potential spoilers ahead, so if I can’t dissuade you from seeing this steaming turd of a movie, don’t read the next few paragraphs.)

The pivotal scene in which the brothers ask their uncle for money – and he asks for a favor in return – is laughably underscored with rumbling thunder at climactic moments. Seems Uncle Howard’s business affairs are being investigated and he is potentially looking at years in jail. Farrell asks incredulously what his uncle has done, and Wilkinson roars in return,”You don’t get to where I have in life playing by the book!!!”

Exactly what book is he throwing out the window? (Hopefully not the one titled “How to Perform Safe, Effective Cosmetic Surgery”) I mean, he’s a plastic surgeon for God’s sakes! He’s not Charles Foster Kane or the head of Enron; what’s the worst he could have done? Overcharged for nose jobs? Given Restylane treatments to aging actresses in exchange for kinky sexual favors? Are there really jail terms for that kind of stuff?

Of course, there’s someone who knows what Uncle Howard’s been up to – someone who’s “had dealings” with him (whatever that means), and if the boys would just quietly knock him off, they can get their money and live happily ever after. What choice do they have? Uncle gets his favor, the brothers get their money, but the happy ending is not to be. Farrell is tormented by their dirty deed, while McGregor just wants to get off to California with his girlfriend in tow. Ultimately, McGregor is forced to make a painful decision in order to save his and his uncle’s hides.

The real tragedy is that Farrell actually gives quite a good performance in this film. He’s sweet in his scenes with Hawkins, and heartbreaking in his latter scenes when the weight of what he’s done proves too much to bear. Alone among an otherwise distinguished case of actors, Farrell actually transcends the horridness of the lines he’s been given to speak. (There isn’t one line of dialogue in this film that sounds like anything a real person would have ever said, at any time.) Farrell is the only thing that kept me awake, frankly. (Although he didn’t have the same effect on the gentleman sitting behind me, who snored loudly through most of the movie.)

I miss the old days when Woody made movies in New York – when his characters cracked wise about sex and psychoanalysis, strolled through Central Park, waited online at the art house to see Ingmar Bergman flicks, and listened to Louis Armstrong records. It was a insular world, but one Allen understood well, and mined effectively for both drama and laughs. Setting his films in London does nothing to enhance them; they don’t really take advantage of their setting to any degree. I’m not excessively knowledgeable about London, but I’m pretty sure that there many interesting things happening there besides lower-class lads struggling to get rich and resorting to murder in order to do so. It’s time for the Woodman to come home. Unfortunately, his next film is set in Barcelona, rather than Manhattan. It remains to be seen what that will do for him, but one thing is sure: he’d be hard pressed to make anything as bad as “Cassandra’s Dream” next time around.

Can’t Write Tonight
January 22, 2008, 11:28 pm
Filed under: Uncategorized

I had planned to post some random thoughts about the Oscar nominations, but I decided to check my email first.

I wasn’t even going to open the CNN Breaking News Alert – I figured it was either about the stock market or the presidential race- but my curiosity got the best of me.

And now, I’m rather dumbstruck by the news that Heath Ledger has been found dead in a New York apartment – with sleeping pills nearby, apparently.

That’s the kind of news that kicks you in the stomach, even if you don’t give a lot of thought to Heath Ledger on a regular basis. It’s unspeakably tragic – all the more so in that it came completely out of the blue. He was so young, so promising, so vital. (It was just two years ago at this time that he got a well-deserved Oscar nomination for “Brokeback Mountain.”) And he leaves behind a very young daughter, which only compounds the tragedy.

I’m just not up to cracking wise about the Oscars tonight. Perhaps I’ll get to it tomorrow.

27 Dresses: Romantic Comedy or Interior Design Tutorial?
January 21, 2008, 5:02 pm
Filed under: Romantic Comedies

First off, let me assure you I didn’t actually see it. Right off the top of my head, I can think of at least 50 ways to better spend $9.50, than to see “27 Dresses.”

But I was very disturbed by this article which greeted me in my Sunday Chicago Tribune.

For some time now, it’s bothered me that the primary pleasure to be derived from recent romantic comedy films is in gawking at the beautiful apartments of its lovelorn heroines.

Apparently this is intentional. Here’s production designer Shepherd Frankel on his goal for Jane’s (Katherine Heigl’s) apartment: “(For) every woman watching the movie to say ‘ I want to live there.’ “


Now, there may be some subtle nuances in Heigl’s character that aren’t communicated in the film’s advertising, but my distinct impression is that Jane is a dowdy doormat who puts her energies into planning other women’s weddings rather than finding a real love of her own. In my experience, caretaker-doormat people do not have beautiful, meticulously decorated apartments where any woman would want to live. They have bare, white walls and very little furniture; they use cardboard boxes for end tables and paper plates for dishes. And that’s because caretakers are too busy looking after other people’s needs to take care of their own needs for comfort and beauty!

It’s not the first time we’ve been down this road. In Nancy Meyer’s 2006 piece-of-crap rom-com, “The Holiday,” it’s Kate Winslet who gets the drab, doormat role – and the storybook English cottage that looks as if its been set up for a photo spread in Architectural Digest.

I suppose someone could come back with the idea that these homes reflect the hidden, inner beauty of their inhabitants – a beauty that isn’t expressed once they cross their thresholds and enter the greater world. I’m just trying to speculate. But that’d be a hard sell for me; I still contend that unhappy, unfulfilled people live in unspectacular homes. (Or at least boring, barren ones. I loathed “The Wedding Planner” with every ounce of my being, but at least we understood that the Jennifer Lopez character was emotionally shut down when we saw her cold, all-white-surroundings.)

The appeal of romantic comedy is in the way it taps into our yearnings for love, romance and connection. But, increasingly, it seems that filmmakers are also trying to tap into our yearning for beautiful, expensive stuff. Or at least the American comedies are. I believe that British rom-coms are far superior in this regard. Think of Bridget Jones’ crappy little apartment, with its bare pantry and beat-up sofa. It was Bridget we fell in love with, not her furniture.

Wouldn’t it be nice if filmmakers spent a little more time coming up with characters that we’d all like to be (or already feel that we are) instead of apartments that we’d love to live in? I watch HGTV, I get Pottery Barn catalogs, I have all the home decorating ideas I can use. When I step inside a movie theatre, I want to be transported in a different way.

I didn’t see “27 Dresses” this weekend, and I won’t be seeing it anytime soon, if at all.

Kicking Back with TCM: The Dick Cavett-Woody Allen Interview
January 19, 2008, 4:07 am
Filed under: Woody Allen

This was a brutal week for me – it started out with excruciating dental pain and an emergency root canal, followed by a whole week of unanticipated crises at work. And just in time for the weekend, arctic winds blew into town and brought with them a wind chill factor in the neighborhood of 15 below.

Friday night was therefore not a night to hit the multiplex; it was a night to stay home, stay warm, and unwind. Or rewind, as the case may be. I’ve been recording a lot of good stuff from Turner Classic Movies over the last couple of weeks, and having a quiet Friday night gave me a chance to catch up with it.

TCM has been re-broadcasting selected programs from Dick Cavett’s 1970s talk show from time to time. I finally caught his 1971 interview with Woody Allen. It was a fitting way to kick off a weekend in which I’m hoping to catch Allen’s newest film, “Cassandra’s Dream,” although it had the distinct feeling of having been pulled from a time capsule.

At the time of this interview, Allen was not long out of his stand-up comedy years, having directed only two films (“Take the Money and Run” and “Bananas.” Well, three if you count “What’s Up, Tiger Lily” which he apparently doesn’t, since he consistently refers to “Take the Money” as his first directing effort.) It’s fascinating to hear the young Allen talk about filmmaking. “I like my films to look sloppy,” he tells Cavett – and his early films do indeed have a slapped-together, loosey-goosey feeling. Obviously, he aspires to a more polished aesthetic these days.

I found particularly interesting Allen’s claim that he didn’t like to see other comedy films because he was afraid of being influenced by them. He went on to say that the great film directors like Fellini – whose work was very personal – didn’t need to be aware of anything outside themselves in order to make their art. That’s a telling comment, and one that I think still applies to (and limits) Allen’s work to this day. His entire oeuvre has a very insular feeling, as if he has no cultural references outside his own immediate experience. And I don’t think that relocating his films from Manhattan to London in the last few years has changed that at all.

When Cavett asked him to name three films he would consider among the very greatest, Allen came up with only two titles “L’Avventura” and “The Seventh Seal.” With a little prompting from Cavett, he eventually added “The Grand Illusion.” The boy has taste, I’ll give him that. (And, c’mon, we knew he’d throw at least one Bergman film in, right?)

It wasn’t all about movies, though. Cavett, a long-time, close friend of Allen’s, coaxed out a relaxed, happy-go-lucky side of the comic/filmmaker that we rarely see anymore. Allen – cracking wise about his love life and his years in analysis, playing clarinet with a jazz combo – was charming, silly and self-deprecating in a breezy, offhand sort of way. It was a refreshing contrast to the Old Mr. CrankyPants persona that comes through in the occasional interview these days, and a reminder of how laugh-out-loud funny Allen was in the days before he got so-o-o-o serious (and before the scandals in his private life started to somewhat overshadow his work as a director and performer.)

I also finally got around to watching “Sweet Smell of Success,” a classic I’d managed to miss for years. But I’ll save that for another post.

A Few Words on the Golden Globes
January 14, 2008, 5:22 pm
Filed under: Uncategorized

I’m old enough to remember when no one gave a damn about the Golden Globe Awards.

It was a time long, long ago – before there was InStyle magazine, before there was the E Channel, before there were two hours of pre-show red carpet coverage broadcast before every entertainment awards show.

The Globes were shown at 10:30 pm CST on a Sunday night, and as best I can recall, they weren’t even on network televsion (which, in the days before basic cable, meant they were shown in syndication. My recollection is that they were shown on WGN-Channel 9 in Chicago; I could be wrong about that.) And they were considered something of a joke, rather than a harbinger of award winnings to come. I remember well the year that Pia Zadora won the Best Newcomer award for a movie called “Butterfly;” I can’t say I remember the movie itself, though. Some of you reading this probably don’t even remember Pia Zadora, but she was a bit of a joke herself.

All this quaint history is by way of explaining why I didn’t really miss the Golden Globes ceremony last night. It’s never been the hallowed tradition for me that the Oscars have been. But I think the news conference format last night – hosted by the team from “Access Hollywood” – may have been a new low in awards show television.

Things got off to a bad start right away with the first award, Best Supporting Actress in a Film. Billy Bush announced Cate Blanchett as the winner for “I’m Not There” – and then, without so offering so much as a simple “Congratulations” to Blanchett, immediately went into a diatribe on behalf of Amy Ryan’s performance in “Gone, Baby Gone.” Ryan really deserved the award said Bush, “because, when you come right down to it, Cate Blanchett’s performance was just a woman imitating a man.” Yep, that’s pretty easy to do right.

Perhaps, now Billy Bush could work on his imitation of a gracious awards presenter.

Since when is it appropriate or even acceptable for the person announcing an award to express his disappointment in the choice of recipient? Especially on national television at the very time he’s announcing the winner? How unbelievably rude is that? Unfortunately, the trend continued, with Bush and co-presenter Nancy O’Dell offering us all their deep thoughts on every subsequent category.

This would explain why I tuned out about 15 minutes into the news conference. Much more enjoyable just to read the list of winners on the internet this morning, then suffer through that.

I can’t say either “Sweeney Todd” or “Atonement” would have been my first choices among the films nominated for the Best Musical/Comedy and Best Dramatic Films respectively. I’d have chosen “Juno” and either “Michael Clayton” or “Eastern Promises” myself. I was thrilled to see Marion Cottilard win for “La Vie en Rose.” Daniel Day Lewis, of course, was a shoo-in for “There Will Be Blood,” although I was secretly rooting for Viggo Mortensen. Otherwise, I was content – if not thrilled – with the film winners.

And I was very happy that HBO’s movie “Longford” picked up some Globes for Jim Broadbent and Samantha Morton, as well as the Best Movie or Mini-Series. It was an extraordinary film, quite deserving of some recognition.

I’m expecting a much slimmer volume of In Style to arrive next month – with no Best and Worst of the Golden Globes gown reviews to fill its pages. But I can live with that.