Doodad Kind of Town

Simple Pleasures: "Once" and "Be Kind, Rewind"
February 29, 2008, 1:06 am
Filed under: Musicals

What toppped everyone’s list of favorite Oscar moments this year? The hearfelt and humble thank-yous of Glen Hansard and Marketa Irglova accepting the Best Song award for their ballad “Falling Slowly” from “Once.” (Igrlova’s speech was all the sweeter since she almost didn’t get to make it. Jon Stewart was gallant enough to bring her back out after the orchestra cut her off on her first attempt to speak.)

I have to admit, I didn’t fully appreciate how wonderful these moments were, because… (sheepish admission coming up)…. I, um, hadn’t actually seen “Once.”

A few good movies fall through the cracks for me every year. In 2007, “Once” got away from me.

But I rectified that situation two nights later. I ordered “Once” through OnDemand. And now I know what I was missing.

A film this sweet and slight ought to be modestly charming at best. But “Once” felt near-miraculous to me. Obviously made on a slender budget, without a single cinematic trick up its sleeve, “Once” is nonetheless one of the most moving and engaging films I’ve seen in quite a while.

I’m assuming you know by now that the film centers around the brief, chaste romance of a Dublin street singer/guitarist (Hansard) and a young Czech pianist (Irglova). Actually, it’s barely even a romance – Irglova keeps Hansard at arm’s length throughout the film, and only allows him a brief kiss on her cheek late in the film. But there is a definite romance in the way these two play and sing music together, in their mutual love of musical expression.

Actually, “Once” is not so much about the love between a man and a woman as it is about the love between musicians and their music – and how that shared love binds them to other musicians. I can’t think of another movie that captures so well the dizzying communal joy of people getting together to sing and play. “August Rush” tried and almost got there a few times; “Once” nails it – and does so without much apparent effort.

The film even goes one step further and perfectly depicts what it feels like to fall in love with a song the first time you hear it. That’s what happens in one of my favorite scenes: Irglova runs out of the house in PJs and slippers to get fresh batteries for her Discman so she can listen to Hansard’s new tune. She listens, enraptured, to the song on her walk back home, improvising and singing lyrics to it as she walks. The song itself is beautiful, and Irglova’s joy in singing it and giving it words is infectious.

The simple joys of communal creativity are also at the heart of Michel Gondry’s “Be Kind, Rewind,” the single new release I saw this week.

Like other Gondry films, this one’s a quirk-fest and a little forced at times, but ultimately, it’s all rather sweet and heartwarming. (And hey, it’s got Jack Black at his manic, unhinged best – always a good thing as far as I’m concerned. So long as you realize I’m not counting “Nacho Libre” in that “Best” category.)

Danny Glover owns a struggling, crumbling little video rental store – still renting VHS tapes to a small but loyal customer base that somehow hasn’t succumbed to DVDs. Its’ a daily hangout for Mos Def and Black. Through a chain of events too weird to explain, Black’s body becomes magnetized and as he runs through the store, he erases all the tapes. He and Def then record their own hastily created versions of “Ghostbusters,” “Driving Miss Daisy” and so forth over the blank tapes. Eventually their ragtag little videos make them stars in the neighborhood and renters are lining up at the door to watch them.

To be honest, “Be Kind, Rewind” doesn’t really get up to speed until this point, when the neighborhood clientele start joining in to help create their own versions of everything from “Carrie” to “Men in Black.” And (spoiler ahead) when the government gets wind of their illegal creations and destroys the tapes, the whole neighborhood gets together to make their own original movie, a bio of Fats Waller.

It’s not all as precious as it sounds. There’s a genuine populist spirit behind “Be Kind, Rewind” – a celebration of people getting together and using their imaginations to create entertainment, for nothing more than the fun of doing it. It has a relaxed, uncritical attitude towards creativity that is sorely lacking, not only in other movies, but just about everywhere these days. In these post-awards-season days, when grander films with loftier ambitions are slowly moving out of the theaters, “Be Kind, Rewind” is a welcome little piece of tomfoolery.

Is it Just Me?
February 25, 2008, 4:56 pm
Filed under: Oscars

… or were the Oscars really boring this year?

I’m sitting here the morning after, thinking “Not much to dish about today. No ‘water cooler’ moments, nothing particularly memorable.”

I remember laughing a lot at Jon Stewart’s monologue, but would be hard pressed to repeat one of his jokes today.

There wasn’t even a good fashion faux pas to hoot at. The crowd at our Oscar party could muster only mild irritation at the parade of hair dos like this one on Jennifer Garner:

Sort of the “glammed up from the neck down – hair as afterthought” look. It’s the Oscars, ladies! Please – do something with your hair! (I can hear my own mother scolding “Get that hair out of your eyes!”)

I’m really over Katherine Heigl (as my friend, Mary Anne, said, “Her 15 minutes are up”) – but at least she had a real hairdo:

I’m thrilled that Diablo Cody took home the award for Best Original Screenplay, but would love to have seen her in something other than this, accurately described by another partygoer as “Wilma Flintstone goes to to the Oscars.” But even this doesn’t approach the classic Oscar faux pas level of, say, Bjork’s swan dress:

One of the highlights of the evening for me was Tilda Swinton’s Best Supporting Actress win for “Michael Clayton.” I hadn’t thought she would win, but she certainly deserved to. But, would someone PLEASE put some makeup on this woman! I think you can be iconoclastic and artsy and serious – and still put on a little lip gloss and mascara once in awhile.

But enough about the red carpet looks.

I was thrilled that Marion Cotillard won Best Actress in an upset over Julie Christie. Not that Christie wasn’t wonderful, but Cotillard’s performance is the one that won my heart this year. I loved Ellen Page’s performance in “Juno” very nearly as much, but there will be other years for her to claim the prize. Javier Bardem and Daniel Day-Lewis were foregone conclusions, but still very deserving – and both gave nice, classy acceptance speeches.

“No Country for Old Men” – not my choice for Best Picture, but I like the Coen Brothers enough that I don’t begrudge them their awards. (My choice for Best Picture – “4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days” – wasn’t nominated for ANYTHING as we know. And yes, I know it’s a foreign language film, but foreign films can get Best Picture nominations. If “Life is Beautiful” could get one, this film certainly could.)

I’m happy that every one of the Best Picture nominees took home at least one Oscar, but disappointed that “The Diving Bell and the Butterfly” got through the evening without garnering a single award. And I wish I had done a better job of picking the technical and short film categories (I missed on both Sound awards and all the short and documentary films awards) -but baffled that I still managed to come in tied for first with my friend Bill in our party’s contest. (We each guessed 14 categories correctly

And that’s about it.

LAMB Devours the Ocars: Best Costume Design
February 22, 2008, 12:56 am
Filed under: Oscars

If you haven’t yet checked out the Oscar Blog-a-thon on LAMB, this is the weekend to catch up. The bloggers of LAMB have written overviews of every Oscar category, complete with the history and criteria for each award, plus a look at this year’s nominees. What follows is my article on the Best Costume Design award, which appears today on LAMB.

Ah, the Best Costume Design category! Wherever you find an award for achievement in Costume Design, you’ll find a list of period pictures: films full of ball gowns, royal robes, and the haute couture of the decades gone by. If it’s visually sumptuous and it’s set in a bygone era, it’s likely to get a nomination in this category. At least that’s been my impression over the years.

I was discussing this category recently with my friend, Bill, who’s been a costumer for many local theatre productions. Bill reminded me that good costume design isn’t just about making beautiful, elaborate clothes for period pictures. It’s about creating costumes that tell you something about the characters while being appropriate to the time period of the film.

It was Bill who informed me that an Oscar for Best Costume Design had gone to “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” – a film that (I dimly recall) featured Richard Burton in a ratty old cardigan and Liz Taylor alternating between a shapeless old sweater and a slutty top with a plunging neckline.
Of course, that was in 1966, when the Academy still presented two Costume Design Oscars each year, one for a color film and one for black-and-white. The Costume Design award for color films that year went to “A Man for All Seasons,” an historical drama. The following year, the awards were combined into a single category – and, with a few notable exceptions (“Star Wars”, “All That Jazz”, “Priscilla, Queen of the Desert”) – the winners have been period films ever since.

This year’s nominees are all set in bygone eras, but I believe the costume design in all the nominated films meets the criteria my friend outlined: enhancing our experience of the film and its characters, not just giving us nice clothes to look at.

Take “Atonement,” for example – a ravishingly beautiful romantic drama set in England during the 1930s and 40s. The most ballyhooed costume achievement in this film is probably the emerald green evening gown Keira Knightley wears in the infamous library scene. Yet, if you look closer, some of the costuming choices provide us with important insights into the emotional states of the characters.

I’m thinking of the early scene where young Briony rehearses her visiting cousins in her play, “The Trials of Arabella.” I was surprised to learn that Briony’s cousin, Lola, is meant to be two years older than she (15 to Briony’s 13), since the actresses look to be about the same age. But then look how differently they’re dressed.

Lola, played by Juno Temple, has the soft, unformed features of a girl who is about to become a woman, but isn’t quite there. And the way’s she dressed signals us that she’s growing up a little too fast. Not that she’s dressed provocatively; her soft, bowed blouse and elegant wide-leg trousers are perfectly modest. But they’re also a bit too sophisticated for a young girl, and, in them, Lola gives us the impression that she’s dressed in her mother’s clothes, striving to project a worldliness that she doesn’t yet possess. It gives a subtle sense of unease about her character, which is borne out by the events of the evening.

Briony, by contrast, may be bossy and self-assured, but her clothing lets us know she is still very much a child. She wears a little-girlish dress with a Peter Pan collar, a delicate beaded necklace and barrettes in her bobbed hair. It’s particularly interesting that in the film’s epilogue, the elderly Briony will still be dressed in much the same way – the same necklace, barrettes and a modest, girlish dress. The costuming tells us right away that Briony is emotionally frozen at 13; she’s never moved on from the events of that fateful night.

So, “well done” to Jacqueline Durran, the costume designer for “Atonement” (who has a previous nomination for Joe Wright’s “Pride and Prejudice.”)

“Sweeney Todd” has some similarly subtle, character-inspired costume work, although I think I would have missed it had I not watched an IFC “Making Of” special about “Sweeney” prior to seeing the film.

Designer Colleen Atwood spoke about the costuming choices she made for each character. For the Beadle (Timothy Spall) she made stylish, quality pieces, but in “disreputable” fabrics (a waistcoat made of snakeskin, for example) to underscore both his preening vanity and his moral sliminess. Nice idea, but it didn’t quite ‘read’ on screen. I was actually looking for those details, but couldn’t really see them.

Mrs. Lovett (Helena Bonham Carter), in Atwood’s design, wears tattered clothing in her early scenes, when she’s fallen on hard times. Later, when her pie shop business picks up, she’s more nicely dressed. That’s not an innovative idea – it’s the scheme used by every stage costumer who’s ever worked on “Sweeney Todd.” But, again, the difference between Lovett’s rags and her finery is a bit more subtle than I would have expected.

I will admit, however, to loving Atwood’s witty costumes for both Sweeney and Lovett in the “By the Sea” fantasy sequence. And I laughed at the obscenely tight blue satin trousers worn by Pirelli (Sascha Baron Cohen), though I’m still not sure what the point was.

On the other hand, there’s nothing subtle about the costumes in “Elizabeth: the Golden Age.” The sweeping Elizabethan designs are all of a piece with the film’s overcooked visuals and bombastic acting styles. It’s the queen’s dresses with their huge, stiff skirts, and intricately ruffled, stand-up lace collars, that I’m sure caught the Academy’s attention. That kind of Elizabethan finery will always get a nomination. But, for me, the two greatest moments of costume achievement in this film – both of which still burn bright in my memory months after first seeing them, are:

1) That blood-red, off-the-shoulder number worn by Mary, Queen of Scots (Samantha Morton) to her execution. The build-up to the beheading is so tortuously drawn out as to be melodramatic – and a lot of the drama is in that red dress, the shock of its bold color in a roomful of men wearing brown and black.

2) Elizabeth’s white nightdress, billowing in the breeze like a huge, unfurled flag, as she stands atop a cliff, watching her navy defeat the Spanish Armada. It’s the most over-the-top scene in a very over-the-top film – and all the visual impact is in the proportions of that nightdress.

Alexandra Byrne was previously nominated for “The Golden Age’s” precursor, “Elizabeth” in 1999. I hope she brings home the statuette this time. Her costumes for “Elizabeth: The Golden Age” have every bit as much star power as Cate Blanchett herself.

Which is not meant to give short shrift to the remaining nominees.

“La Vie En Rose” drew on the real Edith Piaf’s wardrobe for inspiration, and Marit Allen’s designs recreate those styles beautifully. I also liked the wardrobe transitions for Piaf as she went from singing in the streets (in slouch sweaters and skirts) to singing on the world’s concert stages (in considerably swankier dresses).

One thing I wondered, though: Marion Cotillard, who is about 5’ 7” in real life, was able to physically transform herself into the tiny (under 5 feet) Piaf onscreen. I’m sure she had to modify her posture; maybe there was some scaling of set pieces to make her look smaller. But what I want to know is: were her costumes in any way designed to make her appear smaller or more delicate? Were the costumes part of the illusion?

The inclusion of “Across the Universe” in this category was the biggest surprise to me. It was a visually stunning film (as you’d expect of director Julie Taymor), but I wasn’t impressed by the costumes and had trouble remembering any of them. So I had to go back to take a look at some clips.

The film’s costumes cover a range of 60s styles: from preppy sports jackets, cords and cable-knit sweaters to trippy-psychadelic tie-dyes and macramé to the outlandish costumes in “For the Benefit of Mr. Kite.” (I’m not sure if the blue puppet-people in this number were the work of costume designer Albert Wolsky or puppet designer James Edmund Goodwin or both; they’re creepy, but definitely original. Eddie Izzard’s “ringmaster” ensemble – tattered top hat and tails over a striped t-shirt – is less inspired.)

Overall, I’d say the costumes effectively underscore the film’s portrayal of a once-innocent world morphing into something darker and more complicated. (Although, throughout the entire film, Evan Rachel Wood’s character remains fresh-and-innocent looking.)

Another Weekend and "Factory Girl"
February 18, 2008, 10:03 pm
Filed under: Uncategorized

It was partly due to a busy schedule and partly due to the head cold I caught from my nephew, but I didn’t make it to any new movies this weekend.

Not that I’m worried that I missed anything. I was intrigued by the premise of “Jumper” – but then it’s got Hayden Christenson. Has he been worth watching in anything other than “Shattered Glass”? (We’ll get back to him later.) I also thought about “Definitely, Maybe” which got decent reviews, most notably from the New York Times. But isn’t Ryan Reynolds a little young to play Abigail Breslin’s dad? And is it just me, or is Breslin already getting annoying? I loved her in “Little Miss Sunshine” where her unapologetic prepubescent awkwardness was a refreshing antidote to the generic cuteness of most child actors. But now it seems she’s become the go-to wise child for romantic comedies, the precocious moppet with all the great, insightful lines who gets the grown-ups around her to pull their lives together and find love. (At least that’s my impression from trailers.) And that’s the kind of character I can do without.

At times like these, it’s great to have a Netflix disc on hand. Here’s what I watched:

“Factory Girl,” George Hickenlooper’s film bio of Andy Warhol muse Edie Sedgwick, surprised me; it was better and more affecting than I had expected.

Sedgwick came from a distinguished, old money family, albeit one in which incest and mental illness were recurring problems. Two of her beloved brothers committed suicide in their ‘20s, and it’s more than hinted that Edie herself was repeatedly molested by her father. Bright, beautiful, possessed of both a strong subversive streak and a need to escape her family, Edie attended art school in the East then moved to New York to be a part of the modern art scene. She made fast friends with Warhol, starring in many of his experimental films, while modeling for Vogue on the side. He found her glamorous (“New York is whole lot more fun since you got here,” he tells her in the deadpan tones that are as close as he gets to gushing), while she found in him a sort of father figure and substitute brother all in one. She ran through her trust fund helping to support Warhol and his crew of hangers-on, and eventually spiraled downward into serious drug addiction, dying of an overdose at 28.

Sedgwick’s story is a classic tragedy of one whose flame burned too brightly and was extinguished too soon. It was tossed around for years as a potential film property (at one point, Warren Beatty was set to direct with Molly Ringwald in the lead), before Hickenlooper, known primarily for documentaries, made it with Sienna Miller in the coveted lead.

Miller wouldn’t have been an obvious choice to me, despite her beauty and her own experience as a celebrated fashion icon. As an actress, she’s usually left me cold, and her audition tape for “Factory Girl” (which is included in the DVD extras) did little to change my mind. But Miller plays Sedgwick with a Holly Golightly-esque combination of breathless charm, flightiness and fragility that’s ultimately very touching. She evokes both Segdwick’s iconic look and her overwhelming personal tragedy.

She’s well matched by Guy Pearce as Warhol. Pearce’s performance sneaks up on you as the film progresses. He captures Warhol’s weird, affectless reserve in a way that initially seems strange but harmless; only in the later portions of the film do we realize (as Edie finally does) how cold-hearted and dysfunctional Warhol really is.

The early sections of the film capture a crazy, heady excitement around Sedgwick and Warhol, while slipping in a few ominous warnings of things to come. In one scene, Sedgwick blithely announces she’s buying dinner for the entire crowd of friends at her restaurant table, while she pages through a stack of unpaid bills. Warhol marvels at how much she owes and she teases him “You might have to start paying me. Otherwise I might have to move to a one-bedroom or studio, and where would I keep all my clothes?” Warhol responds with awe: “I just think what you’re doing right now is so glamorous.” The scene is played ever so lightly, but the undercurrent of Warhol’s utter disinterest in the desperation and instability behind his friend’s “glamour” is palpable.

“Factory Girl” seriously falters by introducing an unnamed ‘folk singer’ character. As played by Hayden Christenson, he’s obviously meant to be Bob Dylan, although he is, coyly, never named. Christenson’s Dylan impersonation is grating (and especially hard to take if you’ve seen the fine work of Cate Blanchett and Christian Bale in “I’m Not There”). But the character’s failure to work is not entirely his fault. Why introduce a character with Dylan’s voice and mannerisms and then refuse to acknowledge that he’s Bob Dylan? It’s such an obvious, half-assed sidestep around potential legal problems. (And it didn’t work anyway. Dylan ended up suing the filmmakers.) Besides, he’s not so much a character here as a plot device: the clear-seeing Concerned Friend and Lover who warns Edie that Warhol and his Factory friends are using her and will eventually abandon her when her money runs out. He makes a stab at saving her (and, in real life but not in the film, uses her as an inspiration for several songs) , but eventually abandons her and marries another woman, proving himself to be nearly as cruel and callous as Warhol.

If you’re interested in learning more of Edie Sedgwick’s true story, you can check out “The Real Edie” among the DVD extras, but you may be in for a disappointment. It features a half-hour of interviews with Edie’s friends and family members that seem to be shaped and edited for the sole purpose of underscoring the film’s main plot points, and there’s not one photo or film clip of the real Edie to be found, just scenes from “Factory Girl” itself. A better choice might be the book “Edie: An American Biography” edited by Jean Stein and George Plimpton. This compilation of interviews with Edie’s friends and family is a great, absorbing read, and as complete a portrait of Edie Sedgwick as you’re likely to get. I suspect it is out of print now (it was published in the early ‘80s), but it’s worth looking for if you’re interested in the subject.

Weekend Roundup: "Persepolis," "Network," The BAFTAs and Roy Scheider
February 11, 2008, 9:57 pm
Filed under: 70s Films Revisited

I finally saw “Persepolis” this weekend. I’m not sure what to add to the many fine and favorable reviews already written for this adaptation of Marjane Satrapi’s graphic novels about growing up in Iran. Like nearly all the other reviewers, I found the film moving and heartbreaking.

I liked that the animation was not terribly sophisticated – two-dimensional rather than three dimensional and almost entirely in black and white. It gave the story a feeling of being told from a child’s view, even in the later scenes set in Marjane’s adolescence and early adulthood. The simplicity of the animation links the older Marjane to the formative ideals and influences of her childhood, and gives the film a cohesive through-line as Marjane leaves home and attempts to assimilate into European culture.

“Persepolis” is political and particular to Iran, and yet also primal in its depiction of the losses of personal freedoms and family members. The pictures may be simple in execution, but the emotions they evoke are complex and powerful. And the voice work behind the characters (by Danielle Derrieux, Catherine Deneuve and Chiara Mastroianni, among others) is exceptional.

Sunday afternoon brought bone-chilling cold, so it was a good day to stay inside and watch a classic film. I chose the 1976 Sidney Lumet film, “Network,” which I hadn’t seen in close to 30 years. Anytime you look at a film after that much time has passed, there are bound to be revelations.

What impressed me most were Paddy Chayefsky’s script and Faye Dunaway’s performance.

Some aspects of Chayefsky’s story have, sadly, lost their bite. I say sadly because it’s depressing to realize that what seemed shocking and unthinkable in 1976 is pretty commonplace today. News shows forced to become entertainment in order to gain ratings? That’s been going on for years. Exploiting someone’s madness in order to mesmerize television audiences and rile them up? Just turn on a daytime talk show – or CNN, for that matter.

I was blown away by Chayefsky’s intricate, literate dialogue – sometimes even rewinding just to hear a speech again. No one writes like this today. (When’s the last time you heard a character use a word like “jeremiad” in casual conversation?) I’m not sure if writing that calls attention to itself like this is always a good thing; ideally I want to be so completely engaged in a film that I’m not constantly detaching to marvel at the wordsmanship. But Chayefsky’s characters are sharp and sophisticated creatures, and none of their dialogue ever rings false or contrived.

Everyone remembers Peter Finch in his final performance as the newsman who encourages his viewers to ‘get up right now, go to your window, open it, stick your head out and yell, “I’m as mad as hell and I’m not going to take it anymore!” That line, of course, has entered film history, and Finch rightly deserved the Oscar, which sadly came to him posthumously.

But it was Dunaway who most amazed me. It takes a pretty skilled actress to play a career-obsessed bitch on wheels, and not make her a caricature. Dunaway surpasses that, projecting equal parts luminous sexual allure, damaged vulnerability and cold-hearted ruthlessness – often all in the same moment. She’s scary, sure, but never so much that she stops drawing you in, and it’s clear why William Holden’s weary veteran newscaster is attracted to her. The sequence where Dunaway and Holden steal away for a seaside weekend – and Dunaway talks business non-stop, even as she snuggles next to Holden in his car, strolls arm-in-arm with him on the beach, nuzzles his palm seductively at dinner and finally mounts him and climaxes in their hotel bed – is an acting tour de force for the ages. That’s one well-deserved Best Actress Oscar, right there.

Sunday night was the British Academy Awards (the BAFTAs) on BBC America. The BAFTAs are one of my favorite award shows. Despite the avid participation of Hollywood stars, they don’t pander to American expectations in any way. Rather, they’re a great celebration of all things both cinematic and British, and a refreshing reminder that Hollywood isn’t necessarily the center of the filmmaking universe. Even with plenty of American stars in attendance, the audience reaction cutaway shots go almost exclusively to Brits (and not just the A-listers like Keira and Orlando; there were plenty of close-ups last night of Emily Blunt, Eddie Izzard, Samantha Morton, Natasha McElhone, Ricky Gervais, and Rosamund Pike.)

BBC talk show host Jonathan Ross was the evening’s host. (I didn’t recognize him, and he didn’t introduce himself, so I had to hightail it to to find out who the hell he was.) I was initially disappointed to see that Stephen Fry was not hosting as in years past, but ultimately, it was a relief. Ross, much breezier and less full of himself than the overbearingly loquacious Fry, kept the evening moving along cheerily. (His best joke: introducing presenter Daniel Radcliffe as the “star of the upcoming film, ‘Harry Potter and the Jacuzzi Full of Models’.”)

I like that the BAFTA version of the obligatory segment which I cynically refer to as “The Dead People Montage” includes not only the stars who have passed away in the previous year, but also the technicians: sound recorders, production coordinators, editors and designers get the same honor as the big-name actors. (That the montage ended this year with footage of Heath Ledger was particularly sobering, as was the immediate audience cutaway to his “Casanova” co-star, Sienna Miller, brushing away tears.)

I was particularly happy to see “The Lives of Others” up for so many awards, including Best Picture, Best Director and Best Actor for the late Ulrich Muhe. (It ultimately walked away with only Best Foreign Language Film.) The Best Actor and Best Supporting Actor awards, predictably, went to Daniel Day-Lewis and Javier Bardem. But the awards for the Actresses made for some nice surprises. Marion Cottilard won Best Actress for “La Vie En Rose” and Tilda Swinton won Best Supporting Actress for “Michael Clayton.” Great choices, both, and I’m very happy for both ladies – although I’m thinking they could also be co-winners for the evening’s Worst Dressed award. (check out the scary pics below).

Trust me, those floaty white, scarf-like appendages on Cottillard’s dress looked like cascades of toilet paper coming out of her sleeves when she was at the podium last night.

While this…

…has “Tweety Bird Caught in a Tree” written all over it. (It looked much yellower on camera last night.) Swinton’s skirt was so narrow she could barely walk to the podium.

The Coen Brothers took the Directing Award for “No Country for Old Men;” only Joel was present to accept.

The biggest surprise was that “Atonement” – which did not win a single other award all night, although it had the most nominations – was named “Best Picture” of the year.

Finally, I just want to say “Rest in Peace” to Roy Scheider who passed away today at the age of 75.

Scheider, of course, is remembered as the police chief in “Jaws” and for his Oscar-nominated turn as Gene Hackman’s partner in “The French Connection.” For me, and many others, he will always be best remembered as Bob Fosse’s alter ego, Joe Gideon, in the brilliant 1979 film, “All That Jazz,” which earned him a second, well-deserved Oscar nomination. Take 10 minutes to revel in that film’s finale as Scheider says “Bye, Bye, Life.”

DVD Review: "Eulogy"
February 10, 2008, 1:39 am
Filed under: Uncategorized

I had never heard of the 2004 indie black comedy, “Eulogy” until last fall when I was visiting friends. After a lively Friday night dinner, my friends, Paige and Michelle, pressed a copy of the film on VHS into my hand, assured me it was great and hilarious, and encouraged me to watch it.

My VCR has been banished to storage since the DVR came to live with me, but when “Eulogy” popped up recently on the Independent Film Channel, I made sure I recorded it. After all, Paige and Michelle are both smart, sharp women with exceptional taste. They are very generous, too – and in their favorable assessment of “Eulogy,” I fear they are a tad more generous than I.

It’s not that the talent wasn’t there. I’m not familiar with the writer/director Michael Clancy; IMDB credits him with only one other film, a short subject called “Emily’s Last Date”. But his cast is packed with stellar actors (including Debra Winger, Hank Azaria, Rip Torn, Piper Laurie, Zooey Deschanel and Kelly Preston) who do their best to pump feeling and meaning into some very formulaic proceedings.

“Eulogy” is one of those movies where dysfunctional siblings (Winger, Preston, Azaria, and Ray Romano) are called home for a parent’s funeral (their father, played by Torn in brief flashbacks). Once home, they fight constantly, whine about who Daddy loved best, reopen old wounds, spill family secrets, and eventually cry, hug and forgive each other by the time Daddy is lowered into the ground. (Or, in this case, launched into a lake on a flaming rowboat.). It’s a movie you’ve already seen a million times, and it would take a very exceptional writer to make it fresh and interesting. Clancy’s script has occasional glimmers of promise, but ultimately adds nothing new to a worn-out plot template.

Laurie plays the ‘comically’ suicidal mother of this clan. Even before the funeral, she tries to take her own life twice – first with an overdose of pills, then by hurling herself from a moving car. Her suicide attempts are played for laughs and are seemingly motivated by nothing but a desire to escape the hell of being around her obnoxious offspring.

In fact, everybody in this movie does crazy, quirky things that generally feel more forced and contrived than organic to their characters. Winger and Preston, for example, launch into a full-blown fistfight early on, and you never know where it came from. Their mutual hatred is over-the-top and frankly, unbelievable. We’ll later learn why Winger’s loathing of Preston actually amounts to self-loathing, but even that revelation comes off as wacky and out-of-nowhere. Only Azaria’s sweet-spirited, failed actor – his father’s favorite – seems to be a fully realized, fully credible character.

Preston brings Famke Janssen home and introduces her as ‘my life partner,’ which leads to a slew of thoroughly tasteless lesbian jokes from Winger, Romano and Romano’s preternaturally lubricious twin sons. I understand the jokes are meant to demonstrate how loutish these characters are, but they’re still painful to sit through.

Amidst the amped-up craziness, Deschanel -the beloved granddaughter who’s been given the task of delivering Grandpa’s eulogy – is the sane, sensible observer/peacemaker (every family needs one). Deshcanel’s performance is actually the grounding force that keeps the movie from running off the rails. You can always see the vulnerability behind her deadpan delivery, and she plays very nicely off the other, loonier characters.

There’s a surprise ending which seems a little over-the-top as well, and it involves a revelation about dear old Dad. Let’s just say, he was a bit of a rascal – and given that’s he played by Rip Torn, that should come as no surprise. (Wouldn’t it be interesting if, just once, Torn could play a character who was sane, decent and responsible?)

Despite the contrivances, “Eulogy” offers some scattered pleasures, not the least of which is seeing Debra Winger again. Winger was a virtual force of nature in early ‘80s films like “Urban Cowboy” and “Terms of Endearment,” and it’s nice to see she still has the same ferocious energy and total commitment to her character here. If only someone would give her a decent role again.

So Many Movies, So Little Time
February 8, 2008, 1:03 am
Filed under: Uncategorized

Pardon me while I climb up on my Old Fart soapbox for this post.

I can clearly remember a time in my life when there were only two places I could see a movie: at a theatre or on network television.

When I was growing up in the ’60s and ’70s in northwestern Indiana, cable television was available, but it was a luxury that my family couldn’t afford. Not that it was all that wonderful anyway; all it brought you was clear reception of the Chicago stations with weaker broadcast signals. There was no TBS, no TNT, no American Movie Classics, none of that. Certainly no HBO.

I can remember getting really excited each fall when the networks announced what movies they were going to premiere on television that season. I have specific memories of seeing “Bonnie and Clyde” and “The Graduate” for the first time on TV. Yes, they were edited. Yes they were punctuated with commercials every 20 minutes or so. But it was the only way I was going to see those films at the time.

I was out of college before VCRs became common in American households. I can still remember my excitement when I got my first VCR and signed up for a membership at a local video store.

All this grandmotherly reminiscing is to let you know how much I appreciate – and rarely take for granted – the technology that allows me to watch just about any movie I want, whenever I want. My DVD collection is growing all the time, my video IPod is charging up as we speak, and I have yet to get jaded about the magical convenience that is my DVR.

When I was a movie-loving kid, I never imagined I would grow up into a world where great movies would be so readily available. It’s a dream come true.

Why then do I feel so overwhelmed by it all?

After all, shouldn’t this be paradise? I mean, movies even come in the mail! (I had two red Netflix envelopes in my mailbox today – “Factory Girl” and “Kinky Boots.” )

And movies I’ve recorded are waiting for me on my DVR – eight to be exact! When will I find time to watch:

  • Ace in the Hole” – Billy Wilder’s uber-cynical classic. I taped it in December, watched half and never got back to it.
  • “Darling Lili” – taped off TCM. Depending on who you talk to, it’s either a total bomb, or an underappreciated classic. I’m thinking this is the director’s cut. And, hey, I loved Julie Andrews when I was a kid.
  • “Stardust Memories”- recorded just before I saw “Cassandra’s Dream.” Woody is on my shitlist now, but I would still like to get around to seeing this again.
  • “Network” – Oscar-winning performances by Peter Finch and Faye Dunaway, plus a great (also Oscar-winning) script by Paddy Chayefksky. This is where the phrase “I’m as mad as hell, and I’m not going to take it anymore!” originated. I haven’t seen it in close to 30 years, and I’m dying to see if the satire of an anything-for-ratings network holds up in the medi-saturated 21st century.
  • “Eulogy” – a dark indie comedy with Zooey Deschanel, Debra Winger, and Ray Romano. My former pastor recommended it, and it’s probably worth looking at just for that screwy cast.
  • “Killer of Sheep” – a movie from the 1960s that was out in theatres last year, and shown on TCM on Martin Luther King (part of a tribute night for African-American director Charles Burnett.) I don’t know much about it, but wanted to see it.
  • “The Fountainhead” with Gary Cooper and Patricia Neal. A forties classic, based on the Ayn Rand novel which I never got around to reading. Never got around to seeing the film version either, and the rate I’m going, I never will.
  • “The Dreamers” – Bertolucci’s 2003 film about three sexually precocious,movie-loving teenagers holed up in a Paris apartment during the student riots of 1968. It was in and out of theaters here before I got a chance to see it.

And if the snow ever subsides, I’m planning to get to an arthouse theater this weekend to see “Persepolis” at last.

Collectively, that adds up to at least 23 hours of movie-watching I’ve got to do in order to “catch up.” So many movies, so little time. (If only I didn’t have to go that danged job everyday…..)

Does anyone else every feel this way?

(Photo from