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.

"There Will be Blood"
January 13, 2008, 6:41 pm
Filed under: Paul Thomas Anderson

Fourteen hours after seeing “There Will Be Blood,” I’m still trying to figure out exactly what I thought of it. It’s certainly provided for hours of lively debate with the friends who accompanied to the multiplex last night.

Much like “No Country for Old Men,” it’s a wildly uneven, 2 1/2 hour ride. Some scenes are brilliant, and some are just about incomprehensible. There is a great performance by Daniel Day Lewis, but some key performances are completely off the mark. And, as was true of “No Country,” I came away from it with a nagging sense that something vital was missing. It clearly aspires to epic status, but to my mind it doesn’t quite succeed. And I’m not sure if that’s because the protagonists in its pivotal conflict aren’t evenly matched in terms of cleverness or power – or because the conflict isn’t presented so that the audience has a stake in its outcome.

Writer/director Paul Thomas Anderson based “There Will Be Blood” very loosely on a 1920s Upton Sinclair novel called “Oil.” Its central character, Daniel Plainview (Day Lewis), is obsessively single-minded about building wells and drilling for ever-larger stores of oil. Human relationships are not his forte; he’s all business. (As he admits, “There are times when I look at people and I see nothing worth liking… I can’t keep doing this on my own with these… people ” – and he spits the final “people” out like it was tainted food.) As portrayed by Day Lewis, you can see the complicated nuances beneath his driven work ethic. Whether he’s giving one of his “I believe in plain-speaking” speeches to the folks whose oil-rich land he’s looking to buy up, or interacting with his young son, there’s always a hint of some very deeply buried ability to be a good and decent person -although that ability fades as the film progresses and Plainview descends deeper into his own meglomania.

Plainview’s son appears out of nowhere in an early scene at a silver mine. No mother is ever shown, and we’re told later that she died in childbirth (although even later in the film, we learn that he may not be Plainview’s son at all). There’s an extraordinary scene early on where Plainview rides a train with his baby son beside him in a open, leather box. The baby tugs inquisitively at Plainview’s moustache, and Day Lewis regards him throughout this long, silent scene with an amazing display of bewilderment, affection and irritation. The child actor in this scene couldn’t have been more than two years old (if that), so you know the scene wasn’t scripted as it plays, and it’s all the more remarkable for that.

The struggle at the center of “There Will Be Blood” is between Plainview and a young preacher named Eli Sunday (Paul Dano) from whose family Plainview buys up a large parcel of land to drill on. Sunday wants oil money to fund his Church of the Third Revelation; Plainview promises the money, but doesn’t deliver it.

Sunday is as obsessive and single-minded about Jesus as Plainview is about oil – but Dano is an actor whose screen presence and power don’t begin to equal that of Day Lewis. And that’s where the whole film starts falling apart for me. If you’re going to have a showdown between a Man of God and a Man of Commerce, then they’ve got to be believable equals – otherwise who’s going to care about the outcome? It’s clear from the moment Sunday shows up that Plainview is going to eat him alive, no matter where God enters into the picture. Plainview is a force of nature whereas the preacher is just a skinny, whiny kid. (WARNING – SPOILERS AHEAD!!!) The cockamamie coda of the film (which Dana Stevens of Slate has memorably dubbed “the bowling alley beatdown” ) is a particularly unsatisfying denouement. There’s no fun in watching a bully easily take out a much weaker opponent. We already know Plainview has become a soulless monster, and watching Day Lewis rage and hurl bowling balls at Dano not only does nothing to deepen that knowledge, but adds a weird layer of cuckoo-bird dark comedy that is completely out of step with everything that’s come before.

Furthermore, it’s hard to care what happens to either Plainview or Sunday. Each man, in his own way is greedy and corrupt; there’s nothing noble at stake here. Watching two despicable people duke it out for money and power is a bit boring. You need someone to side with in this battle, someone whose welfare you can be concerned for. Apart from Plainview’s son – who’s a bit of cipher here, more a prop than a defined personality – “There Will Be Blood” offers you none.

(And for what it’s worth: during a confused period of my life, I spent some time in a charismatic prayer group, so I’ve seen a few wild-eyed religious fanactics perform the act of “laying hands” on the afflicted, casting out demons, speaking in tongues and so forth. I found Dano completely unbelievable when doing those things in his church scenes. He’s more like an overcharged high school kid playing a crazy evangelist in the school talent show. If you want to see a charismatic preacher done right, rent “The Apostle” with Robert Duvall.)

To be fair, there is ample evidence here that Anderson is maturing and growing as as filmmaker. This is certainly a well-crafted, well-shaped film, and it’s considerably more accomplished in its execution than, say, “Magnolia.” (I have to admit, though, that I love the sprawling mess of “Magnolia” far more than I love the polish and assurance of “There Will Be Blood.”) I also liked Jonny Greenwood’s original music, which underscored and heightened the tensions in the story. But ultimately “There Will Be Blood” seemed to me just one more of the overhyped sensations of 2007, yet another film that is dazzling in its execution, but dismally empty at its core.

My Dinner With… Richard Curtis
January 12, 2008, 3:35 am
Filed under: Richard Curtis, Romantic Comedies

I’ve been invited by Marilyn of Ferdy on Films to participate in a meme called “My Dinner With… “(details here) in which I get to talk about a person in the film industry – past or present – with whom I’d like to dine. And I get to plan the dinner down to the last detail.

I tend to over-analyze my response to questions like this. The natural tendency is to pick a dinner companion from the list of geniuses you’ve always been most in awe of – for me, the list would include Billy Wilder, Frederico Fellini, Elia Kazan, Robert Altman, Martin Scorcese, Milos Forman, Mike Nichols (with or without Elaine May)- but I know I’d be too intimidated by them to even eat in their presence, let alone ask any meaningful questions. Because that’s just the kind of shy girl I am: even in a total fantasy scenario – where I control everything from the china pattern on the table to last bon mot in the conversation – I can’t picture myself anything but red-faced and tongue-tied in the presence of the greats. My celebrity interviews would be not so much “Inside the Actor’s Studio” as “The Chris Farley Show.”

So I’ve decided I would have dinner with Richard Curtis.

Curtis, of course, is the screenwriter responsible for “Four Weddings and a Funeral,” “Notting Hill,” and the HBO film, “The Girl in the Cafe.” He also co-wrote the “Bridget Jones” movies, and both wrote and directed “Love, Actually.” (Less known to American audiences, but equally delightful is his first film “The Tall Guy” with Jeff Goldblum and Emma Thompson). His television work includes co-writing “Black Adder” and “Mr. Bean” with Rowan Atikinson, and creating “The Vicar of Dibley.”

Why Richard Curtis? The films he’s made (so far) certainly aren’t destined for the pantheon; they’re charming, but modest in their ambitions. But Curtis – an incurable optimist and a hopeless romantic – makes romantic comedies with genuine heart and wit. In an era when Hollywood cranks out formulaic, lackluster rom-coms every other weekend, Curtis’ work is a cut above. He’s successful and funny enough to be a fascinating dinner companion, but he doesn’t seem intimidating to me. Maybe that’s because so many of his films pivot on that rapturous moment when the stammering, awkward guy scores a date with the really cute girl. Somehow, I just assume that Curtis himself is that shy, yearning guy with a killer wisecrack at the ready behind that bumbling facade. Or sees himself as such, anyway.

I’m assuming I’d meet Mr. Curtis for dinner somewhere in my neck of the woods – that’d be the northwest suburbs of Chicago. I briefly considered taking him north to Wisconsin for dinner, just so he could experience the vast difference between what that state is really like and the fantasy bachelor’s paradise he depicts it to be in “Love, Actually.” But I reconsidered. Wisconsin might be a good after- dinner field trip, but for the main event, I’d take him to my favorite Chicago restaurant, the Atwood Cafe. Here the ambiance is comfortable and unpretentious, and the food is classic American comfort food with a contemporary twist. Curtis’ films have been a sort of cinematic equiavalent of comfort food to me over the years, so offering him the best of my country’s comfort food seems a good response. I’d recommend the house specialty – the chicken pot pie – or possibly the grilled chicken accompanied by wild mushroom bread pudding (the latter doesn’t appear on the menu anymore, but this is a fantasy, so I’m resurrecting my favorite Atwood dishes of the past). I’d have the waiter recommend a wine accompaniment, and if we were inclined to order dessert, I’d have us go for the brown sugar cheesecake with butterscotch sauce.

My questions to Mr. Curtis would be:

1. In American romantic comedies, the characters often find love as a result of transformation; the ugly duckling gets a makeover, the workaholic learns to relax, the doormat stands up for herself at last, and – boom! -their true love shows up and sweeps them away .

In your films, however, characters seem to find love in the midst of their imperfections and foibles. Their attempts at transformation are comically doomed to fail. (I’m thinking of William’s decision to stop looking for the “thunderbolt” and marry Henrietta in “Four Weddings in a Funeral,” or Bridget Jones’ aborted attempts at dieting and giving up smoking, for example).

Does this reflect a cultural difference between America and Britain? Or it is more reflective of your own personal take on love?

2. You’ve done a tremendous amount of charity work and fund-raising for poverty relief – you helped create Live Aid and Comic Relief, you’ve been to Africa on relief missions. What drew you to this charity work, and how has it enriched your own life and your writing?

3. You’ve said that your favorite film is Robert Altman’s “Nashville.” Was “Nashville” a conscious inspiration for you in writing and directing “Love Actually” (a similarly sprawling film with a very large, interconnected cast of characters.) And will we ever see a Director’s cut of “Love, Actually” with all the excised subplots and characters restored?

4. Ok, sorry, but I have to ask: why the dramatic changes between the original book “Bridget Jones: The Edge of Reason” and the film version? Specifically, why is the Rebecca character changed from being hell-bent on stealing Mark Darcy into a beautiful lesbian whose sights are set on Bridget herself?

5. Your upcoming films are “The Number One Ladies Detective Agency” and “The Boat that Rocked” – neither of which looks to be a romantic comedy. Are you heading in a new direction? What kinds of films are you interested in making now?

I’m now supposed to pass this meme on to six other people for their responses. You’ll have to forgive me, but I’m fairly new in the blogosphere, and don’t think I know six bloggers well enough yes to pass this on. Please give me an extra day come up with my list and append it to this post.

Oh God, No! : "The Women," a Remake We DON’T Need
January 10, 2008, 1:43 am
Filed under: Uncategorized

Normally the day my new issue of Vanity Fair arrives is a happy one. I pour myself a nice glass of wine and sink into the sofa to devour thoughtful, insightful entertaining articles, one by one.

Today, unfortunately, I opened the new issue in happy anticipation – and it fell open to reveal the most depressing news I’ve read in a long time:

They’re really going to make an updated version of “The Women.”

No, really! Look here’s the poster:

It’s been rumored for years – I remember hearing that Julia Roberts and Meg Ryan were attached to it at one time (horrors!)- but I never thought anyone would be stupid enough to really do it.

But the cast picture on page 136 of February’s Vanity Fair confirms it: Diane English (who created TV’s “Murphy Brown”) is directing, and while Julia Roberts is thankfully absent, Meg Ryan is right there in the center – surrounded by Jada Pinkett Smith, Annette Benning, Debra Messing, Candice Bergen, Cloris Leachman and Eva Mendes. Though she isn’t in the picture, apparently Bette Midler is along for the ride, too.

While I do like Benning and Leachman, this lineup does not inspire much confidence in me.

For the uninitiated, “The Women,” started life as a stage play by Clare Boothe Luce. It was adapted into a legendary MGM film in 1939, directed by George Cukor and featuring a stellar, all-female cast, multi-star cast – including Norma Shearer, Joan Crawford, Rosalind Russell, Joan Fontaine, Paulette Goddard, Mary Boland, and Marjorie Main.

“The Women” is remembered – treasured even – for its razor-sharp satire of New York society women – their frivolousness, their deceit, their scheming and conniving amongst shopping trips and spa visits. (The play also included nice bits of commentary from maids, manicurists and shopgirls about the foolishness of their wealthy clients, although I don’t recall so many of those in the film.) To my mind, it really is very much of its own time, and not comfortably translatable to the 21st century. The machinations of the characters in “The Women” are largely borne out of the fact that these pampered society dames have no real power of their own, other that what they derive from gossip and backbiting. Their economic power, certainly, is entirely dependent upon their husbands’ earnings. And frankly, some of their celebrated pleasures – like manicures and massages – are easily accessible to middle-class women today.

(Plus – in one memorable catfight scene – there’s actual kicking, biting and hair-pulling. I’m thinking that kind of throwdown isn’t going to play too well to contemporary audiences. Or, more accurately, that English will be too politically correct to put anything like that onscreen.)

I can imagine that this lifestyle may still hold true for a few women in some rarefied bastion of high society, but it doesn’t appear that the remake of “The Women” is addressing them. According to Amy Fine Collins’ breathless copy, most of the characters in the remake have careers.

No major character in the original version of “The Women” worked – except the unmarried, wisecracking, best-friend-of-the-leading-lady, Nancy. I have a soft spot for that character, having played her in a 1991 Indianapolis production of the play; it’s always bugged me that the film version of Nancy is played by a squat, unattractive actress (Florence Nash) and all her best lines from the play are given to Paulette Goddard’s character.

No worries about the Nancy character this time – she’s been rechristened as Alex and turned into a glamorous lesbian played by Pinkett Smith. Rosalind Russell’s gossip monger, Sylvia, is now magazine editor, Slyvie (Benning.) Eva Mendes takes on the Joan Crawford role of Crystal, who as Collins excitedly reports has been “reimagined … as a Saks perfume spritzer.” Umm, excuse me, but wasn’t Crawford a perfume counter salesgirl in the original – what exactly got reimagined there?

Perpetually pregnant, cow-like Edith Potter (Phyllis Povah in the original) is now played by that redheaded practitioner of the Sledgehammer school of acting, Debra Messing. Ryan, of course, takes on the Norma Shearer role – only this time she’s also a clothing designer. Midler inherits the Mary Boland role of the Countess (“L’amour, l’maour!” – remember?), only this time she’s an ICM agent. That transition really had me scratching my head. Prediction: Midler will be chewing scenery throughout, leaving the other actresses looking wan and cowering in her wake.

The topper for me was this bit of casting news: “Cloris Leachman as Mary’s feisty housekeeper-with-a-heart-of-gold, Maggie.” Oh, no. That really spells disaster to me. NO ONE in “The Women” has a heart of gold except Mary Haines, the betrayed wife/Norma Shearer/Meg Ryan character. That’s the whole point of the story – that Mary has to learn to the play the games in order to survive and keep her husband. I’m imagining some kind of late-night heart-to-heart, tear-stained chat between Ryan and Leachman in the film’s eleventh hour – and frankly, the thought makes me want to scream.

In fact, I see a lot of words in that poster up above that have nothing whatsoever to do with “The Women” – words like “courage,” “compassion,” “girlfriends,” “joy” – blecch!!! There’s a place for all that, but it shouldn’t be in this movie. I’m already wondering what the merchandising tie-ins will be. I’m predicting the Dove Pro-Age product line will be doing a cross-promotion with “The Women” when it’s released. Remember, you read it here first.

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