Doodad Kind of Town

Hey Torquemada, Whaddya Say?
June 20, 2010, 11:42 pm
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Yeah, I know all about Mel Brooks. His shtick is relentless, over-the-top and tasteless in the extreme.

But, damnit, the man makes me laugh.

I spent some time with my Dad today watching a significant chunk of AMC’s Mel Brooks Marathon, mostly “History of the World, Part 1.” It’s loaded with cheap gags and cameo appearances by old-school comics, and it’s not the Best of Brooks by any stretch of the imagination. But I yukked it up at the French Revolution section anyway, especially Harvey Korman endlessly hissing at underlings who addressed him as Count Da Money (“Count De Monet! Mo-nay!”) I know it was a retread of the running Headley Lamarr/Hedy Lamarr joke in “Blazing Saddles,” but it still worked for me.

And this Spanish Inquisition sequence shows us what Brooks does best. Whatever else you might say about him, Mel Brooks knows how to turn out a hummable Tin Pan Alley-esue tune, and how to stage a musical number with a dizzying blend of shameless vulgarity and old-fashioned razzle-dazzle. This number is the best and funniest thing in “History of the World Part 1” and it foreshadows the the kind of dead on, delirious, everything-but-the-kitchen sink musical euphoria that Brooks and director/choreographer Susan Stroman would later bring to the stage musical version of “The Producers”. Enjoy.


In Praise of "Stealth Performers"
June 13, 2010, 8:32 pm
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With “Please Give” and her previous effort, “Friends with Money,” Nicole Holofcener has become to affluent Americans what Mike Leigh is to working-class Brits. Like Leigh, Holofcenter is a generous director – more an observer than a storyteller – who gives her actors considerable room to live and explore their characters’ lives, and unfailingly elicits stunning performances in return.

Catherine Keener, Holfocener’s favorite leading lady, is back for “Please Give,” this time as a Manhattan furniture dealer who, along with her husband, (Oliver Platt) buys up the furniture of the recently deceased from their grieving relatives and sells it at a considerable markup in her chic downtown store. Keener and Platt have also recently purchased the apartment of their nonagenarian neighbor (Ann Morgan Guilbert) with an eye to expand their own digs, a plan which doesn’t sit well with the neighbor’s granddaughters (Amanda Peet and Rebecca Hall).

Racked with guilt about both her livelihood and her remodeling plans, Keener compulsively hands out cash to homeless people, rails at her teenage daughter (Sarah Steele) for coveting $200 jeans, and trolls the internet late at night in search of worthy causes and unfortunate people to whom she might volunteer her time. (In one painful scene, she offers her doggie bag to an African-American man standing outside a restaurant; he coolly informs her that he is waiting for a table.) Peet – surly, sassy and perpetually fake-tanned – succumbs to an affair with Platt, while Hall, the meeker and nicer sister, struggles to appease their foul-tempered grandmother.

There are no grand epiphanies for these characters, only subtle shifts in perspective, and the film feels lighter and wiser for that. Keener and Platt are, as always, wonderful, but I come today to praise the work of two other actors.

Rebecca Hall is the kind of actress I’ve come to think of as a ‘stealth performer.’ In largely thankless, low-key roles, she has a groundedness and an unstudied grace that slowly sneak up on you. Penelope Cruz may have been the most celebrated cast member in “Vicky Cristina Barcelona,” but Hall’s Vicky – unforced and unexpectedly luminous – was every bit the equal of Cruz’ mad, disheveled Maria Elena. Here again, Peet has the showier role between the two sisters; she’s the sexy, angry smart-ass to Hall’s subdued, slightly dowdy caretaker. But Hall transforms her role into something more complex than your standard sad martyr. In her first scenes, she’s not especially sympathetic. Shut down and intolerant of small talk, she has an angry aloofness that isn’t immediately explained. But in subsequent scenes as we watch her interact with her patients (she’s a mammogram technician) and suffer through awkward blind dates, her innate goodness and decency begin to quietly shine through, until you finally realize that hers is the true and steadfast heart of the story. It’s a performance that evolves in sweet, subtle baby-steps and is all the more remarkable for that.

Another welcome presence in “Please Give” is Sarah Steele, who hasn’t been onscreen much since playing Adam Sandler’s daughter in 2004’s “Spanglish” and I was thrilled to see her return. Out of a cast of experienced performers, Steele sort of leapt off the screen in that film, playing a bright, vulnerable 12 -year-old with a confidence and honesty that were wholly original and beyond her years, yet blessedly free of precociousness. In an age of manufactured and carefully managed teen performers (yeah, I’m looking at you, Miley Cyrus), Steele is astonishingly genuine and vulnerable. And here, neither her smart mouth or her aching heart are played for easy laughs or tears respectively. Although she’s pushing 22 in real life, Steele comes off authentically as 15 years old.

On the other end of the spectrum –

Peter Medak’s biting 1972 satire “The Ruling Class” has been languishing in my DVR queue for some time now. When I finally got around to it on this gray, rainy Sunday afternoon, it turned out to be a lot less than I expected.

Parodies can ruin you for appreciating good films and actors. Thanks to Woody Allen’s “Love and Death,” for example, I’ve never been able to take “Persona” entirely seriously. Forbidden Broadway’s classic “Chita Rivera is not Rita/Rita Moreno is not Chita” number, has forever impeded my enjoyment of “America” from West Side Story, the tune to which it is set.

And, long ago, a two-minute SCTV sketch made me laugh till I cried – and effectively made it impossible for me to ever see Richard Burton, Richard Harris – or Peter O’Toole – in the same flattering light again.

In the mock trailer for “The Pope Who Would be King,” we’re told that these three stars are “better than any American actors could possibly be, because they know how to use their voices!” Joe Flaherty then skewered O’Toole’s mercurial declamatory style in about three seconds, screaming to the rafters, “I want to be pope, Pope, POPE!!!” then collapsing suddenly into forlorn tears and whimpering quietly “I want to be pope.”

O’Toole’s performance in “The Ruling Class” felt, to me, very much like an extended riff on Flaherty’s impersonation. (Very extended, I might add – the film runs a stultifying 2 hours and 45 minutes). As the batshit-crazy Earl of Gurney, an aristocrat who believes himself to be Jesus Christ, O’Toole is in constant motion – alternately preaching, cajoling, raging, exulting, agonizing, singing and dancing, while his relatives look on aghast. It’s an exhausting, histrionic performance, and it’s no surprise to me that O’Toole got an Oscar nomination.

The first half of “The Ruling Class” plays like some weird bastard child of Monty Python’s “Upper Class Twit of the Year” sketch and Dreyer’s “Ordet,” with a constantly labored wackiness that started to wear me out after about 20 minutes. This is the kind of movie where O’Toole segues inexplicably from quoting scripture to quoting lyrics from “Mairzy Doats,” arrives in the bedroom on his wedding night riding a tricycle, and drapes himself on a huge cross when he’s feeling stressed. Characters break into choruses of “The Varsity Drag” or “My Blue Heaven” for no reason at all. Emphasis on “no reason at all.” Yes, we all know that the British upper class is loaded with inbread nutters who are running the country to ruin. We figured that out by the time the opening credits were over. Why go on and on for another two and half hours?

Unlike my esteemed fellow blogger Greg at Cinema Styles, who loves the first half of “The Ruling Class” and hates the second, I found myself emitting a deep sigh of relief once O’Toole was “cured,” and his performance toned down into something cooler and more malevolent. For most of the film, however, I found myself longing to see more of Coral Browne. Nealry the only performer in the film who isn’t relentlessly twinkling at the audience or indulging in histrionic highs and lows, Browne commands her scenes with an cool, unflappable bemusement that is a welcome respite from the cranked-up hijinks around her. She’s the “stealth perfomer” in “The Ruling Class.”

Letters to Juliet
June 7, 2010, 10:40 pm
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(Warning – some spoilers)

Who the hell writes romantic comedies these days?

I mean, sure, they usually have standard writing credits, two names at most in the opening titles. But, really, I suspect they’re all cranked out by a committee squirreled away somewhere in a windowless conference room in spirited “brainstorming” sessions that play out like an off night at an improv club.

“Give me a prestigious-but-unfulfilling profession for the leading lady!” someone might say. “Give me a reason that her fiancee is too busy to pay attention to her! Give me a romantic foreign locale!”

On the particular day when the answers to those questions were, respectively: “Fact checker for the New Yorker!”, “He’s opening a restaurant!” and “Verona, Italy!” the film “Letters to Juliet” was apparently thus born. Oh, sure, there’s a little more to it than that – there’s also more than a nod to “Romeo and Juliet.” But you could see that coming too, couldn’t you?

Amanda Seyfried – once so delightful in “Mamma Mia” but anemic and bland here – plays the unfulfilled fact-checker, Sophie, who’s dying to get an article in print if only she could get a moment of her distracted boss’ attention to pitch her ideas. She’s nearly as invisible to Victor, her fiance (Gael Garcia Bernal), who’s inexplicably chosen to open his new Italian restaurant mere weeks after their upcoming wedding. So as not to disrupt the restaurant plans, they agree to take a “pre-honeymoon” to Verona, the “city of love.”

Except it turns out to be not so romantic. Victor prefers to spend the days visiting vineyards, savoring local food, and hunting for rare, delectable truffles (as any passionate chef would), activities in which Sophie takes no interest. Turns out, she’d rather wander aimlessly though the streets of Verona in search of local color and scenery that makes her want to open her notebook and write. We’re meant to understand that Victor is too focused on business to appreciate Sophie’s delicate, questing soul , but please… What truly artistic soul doesn’t find joy and romance in great food and wine? (I know I’d rather read an article about a truffle hunt than some dopey, self-absorbed account of her absent-minded wanderings.) Eventually, she discovers the wall of Juliet, a site where the lovelorn pen notes to Shakespeare’s heroine and tuck them into the bricks, hoping for some sage advice in reply.

Through a series of fortunate connections (meant to show us what an enterprising little reporter-in-the makings she really is), Sophie winds up writing a reply to one of these long-lost letters, penned 50 years before by an young Englishwoman who was heartsick at leaving behind her Italian lover, Lorenzo. Sophie’s reply improbably reaches the actual letter-writer in England – and induces her to return to Italy with her grandson in tow to find long-lost Lorenzo – all within the space of about two days. Sophie winds up accompanying them on the hunt, even though she and the grandson (Christopher Egan) despise each other on sight. But we all know where their verbal jousting is going to lead them, now don’t we? You can practically count off the minutes till they’re giggling together over gelato cones in the piazza.

There’s a potentially charming little rom com here that unfortunately sinks under the weight of leaden dialogue, phoned-in performances and uninspired visuals. (Shots of the Italian landscape are merely serviceable when they should be ravishing.) Seyfried and Egan are like the Disney Channel’s idea of what a Brown graduate and an Oxford-educated attorney would be, and the chemistry between them has all the snap and sass of warm cottage cheese. When Egan gets ahold of Sophie’s notebook, he proclaims “Your writing is really, really, really good!” (Hard for us to judge, since we’ve not seen a word of it, but I’m thinking it’s unlikely that a real Oxford grad would be so airheadedly effusive.) And the in the film’s final scene, when Egan proclaims “I am madly, passionately, and deeply in love with you, Sophie!” my bewildered response was “When the hell did that happen?”

Only Redgrave, her performance soaring above the proceedings like an exquisite grace note springing unexpectedly from a tinny, plodding melody line, brings anything like genuine romantic feeling to this dreary little film. There’s more joy and wonder in a single one of her fleeting facial expressions than is contained anywhere else in the proceedings. Normally that’d be one reason to see “Letters from Juliet,” but in this case, Redgrave so far outclasses her co-stars that it’s positively embarassing to watch.

Back in Business!!!
June 5, 2010, 2:40 pm
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Last summer, a good friend told me, “You need to write more often. You’re happier when you’re writing.”

My friend knows me better than I do.

Not that I haven’t been happy – sometimes deliriously so – during the three-and-a-half months that this blog has lain dormant. I fell in love during this time, and now have a wonderful Significant Other who makes my life fuller and sweeter, if also a bit more hectic.

Love is grand, but there’s also a writer here who’s been unproductive for far too long and is starting to feel unfulfilled. I’m itching to get back into the blogosphere, re-connect with fellow bloggers, and rejoin the conversation in cyberspace.

So here I am – launching Doodad Kind of Town once more. Stay tuned!

LAMB Devours the Oscars: Best Costume Design
February 25, 2010, 9:55 pm
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This post is part of the annual “LAMB Devours the Oscars” blogathon at the Large Association of Movie Blogs. Scoot over to the main site for more in-depth coverage of this year’s Academy Award nominees.

I’m thrilled to be covering the category of Best Achievement in Costume Design for the third consecutive year. As I tell Fletch every time I volunteer for this assignment, “It’s my favorite award!” For as long as I can remember, I’ve loved looking at fashion almost as much as I’ve loved watching movies. In this Oscar category, my two passions are happily merged.

Of course, the true aim of the costume designer is not just to design beautiful clothing (although God knows the list of films honored in this category over the years have been loaded with gorgeous garb); it’s to create costumes that accurately reflect the times and lives of the characters who wear them. In a perfect world, the costumer manages both to dazzle us with his/her sartorial artistry and to give the film’s characters something to wear that tells us more about who they are than we’d glean from the plot and dialogue alone.

Every year when I write this post, I’m always amazed at how brilliantly the nominees fulfill these objectives. When you look closely at fine film costuming, you’ll always see the the ways in which the right dress, the right color or the most deceptively innocuous period detail can tell us volumes about the character who wears it.

2009 saw a wealth of fine film costuming efforts, and I was sad to see that two of the finest (“Julie and Julia” and “Cheri”) were overlooked entirely by the Academy. As for those that did score a nomination, well, let’s take a look….

The Best Costume nomination for “The Imaginarium of Dr. Parnassus” took me entirely by surprise. It’s not that the costumes weren’t witty, imaginative and complex – it’s just that they seem all of a piece with the phantasmagorical art direction and special effects that are the hallmark of any Terry Gilliam film fantasy. Just look at this still. Don’t those characters seem to blend in with the theatrical backdrop that surrounds them? I suppose that creating costumes which seamlessly blend into the overall set direction scheme represents some sort of achievement, but I predict that costumer Monique Prudhomme will not be taking home the statuette for “Parnassus” this year. (An Oscar win for art direction, however, is entirely within the realm of possibility.)

Colleen Atwood is a two-time winner of this category, both times for her work on films directed by Rob Marshall. (“Chicago” and “Memoirs of a Geisha.”) She’s been nominated frequently for her work with Tim Burton, too. But I’m not convinced that Atwood deserves the Oscar for her latest collaboration with Marshall on “Nine,” and I’m frankly a little disappointed to see it on the slate of nominees. (Actually, I have a lot of disappointments with “Nine,” but they’re mostly documented elsewhere.)

Atwood’s designs are serviceable enough in evoking the hip heyday of Fellini’s “8 1/2,” and, for the most part, they’re character-appropriate as well. This screaming scarlet ensemble on Penelope Cruz, for example, when contrasted with the throng of grey or black-clad extras in the scene does effectively show that Cruz’ character is unconcerned about keeping her affair with Guido a secret. I also liked the simple shirtwaists she chose for Marion Cotillard (although I’m thoroughly sick of hearing Cotillard’s character compared to Audrey Hepburn. She’s not – she’s a brunette version of Guilietta Masina, and that little ponytail she wears is a subtle nod to Masina’s “Nights of Cabiria” look.)

But I’m less happy with Atwood’s other creation for Cruz. Below you see the late Anita Morris who originated the role of Carla in the 1983 stage production. She’s wearing a sublime, utterly iconic costume created by legendary theatrical costumer William Ivey Long (who won the Tony.) It’s witty, playful, scandalous (Morris was banned from performing “Phone Call from the Vatican” on the Tony telecast because of it) – and over the top. Few women would attempt to wear this in real life, but you know what Carla’s all about the minute you glimpse this get-up.

This, by contrast, looks very much like something you could pick up in the lingerie section at Target. Where’s the wit? Atwood generally thinks outside the box, but her designs for “Nine” show little imagination or originality. No Oscar for her, methinks.

Sandy Powell has a couple of Oscars to her credit as well, (“Shakespeare in Love” and “The Aviator”) and her work on “The Young Victoria” this year is the stuff of which Best Costume Design winners are frequently made. Those of who think of Queen Victoria as a lumpy old lady in widow’s weeds got a fetching eyeful of her youthful wardrobe (Powell had access to Victoria’s actual gowns as part of her research) and a heaping helping of the spectacular dresses and fancy frippery that Oscar voters salivate over each year.

Queen Victoria’s greatest contribution to fashion was wearing a frilly white dress at her wedding to Price Albert – a tradition that survives to this day. And the gown you see below is a pretty faithful recreation of the real Victoria’s dress (although from everything I can see, even in her princess days, Victoria was no Emily Blunt. I’m just sayin’.)

However the crowning costume achievement of “The Young Victoria” is this dress, the lavish ball gown which Victoria wears to the ball when she first goes public with her affections for Albert. It’s a gorgeous gold confection trimmed in roses, even if its impact is somewhat marred by the unfortunate special effect which has Blunt gliding into the ballroom as if on one of those people movers they have at the airport.

Brava to Ms. Powell anyway. This film will be a strong contender for the award.

Jane Campion’s “Bright Star” is about the doomed love between poet John Keats and Fanny Brawne, but it’s also about the patience and intense labor required to create truly beautiful things, whether they be poems or intricately constructed lace collars like the one on Abbie Cornish’s gown below. We actually see that collar being created in early scenes, and we get an accurate idea of just how much skill and talent it takes to design and construct it. That alone makes “Bright Star” a deserving nominee, but Janet Patterson’s overall design work is award-worthy as well. The characters in this film are not rich – Keats, in fact, is downright penniless – but they are all creative and imaginative. And you can tell all of that from the way they’re dressed.

Finally, there’s the “no brainer” nominee, “Coco Avant Chanel,” a biopic of the famed, innovative French designer’s early days. The film does its job, albeit in a workmanlike manner, of showing us how Chanel’s sense of style evolved and set her apart.

Those who remember Audrey Tatou primarily as the darling gamine of “Amelie” may be surprised to see how raw-boned and plain she looks in her early scenes as the young Chanel, and I give the credit to costumer Catherine Leterrier. Moving among a sea of swans – ladies in tightly corseted gowns and huge, elaborate hats covered in feathers and lace- Chanel is a wide-eyed ugly duckling in mannish trousers, stiff shirtwaists and plain straw hats. It’s clear she doesn’t see herself that way, and she’s ahead of her time in rejecting the constricting corsets and ridiculous frippery in which the beautiful women around her drape themselves. You can see her striving for her own personal style, making bold statements with her clothing, but somehow falling short of chic.

Then Chanel falls in love, and to go dancing with her lover, she has a low-cut black dress made to be worn sans corset. The appearance of that dress is the clear dividing point of the film, the moment at which Chanel’s personal style breaks through from stubbornly iconoclastic to elegant. And the film’s greatest weakness is that it never properly showcases the black dancing dress. See if you can even find Tatou in this shot below. In a whirling sea of white lace, that dress should have been given the opportunity to announce itself, but we’re barely given one good glimpse. For a film that’s all about fashion, this was a major gaffe.

In the film’s later scenes, we begin to see the Chanel of legend, the modern woman with cropped hair and elegantly tailored suits such as this one. (And we learn the hidden bonus of this simpler way of dressing – as Chanel’s lover proclaims “You’re so easy to undress!”) The final scene is the showstopper: a seeming endlessly parade of models in Chanel designs descending a chrystalline spiral staircase as the designer herself looks on joylessly, sitting on the stair in her trademark collarless white suite, cigarette in hand. Those costumes are spectacular, but I doubt we can give Leterrier the credit for that. Those have got to be the real Chanel deal.

In dramatic terms “Coco Avant Chanel” feels formulaic and predictable to me. In fashion terms, it doesn’t entirely succeed in showing us what made Coco Chanel an icon, and that’s largely because the film’s plodding screenplay and direction are all about making Chanel into a sad, lonely figure rather than glorying in what she created It’s not that the costumes are bad – they’re great – but director Anne Fontaine isn’t interested in showcasing them. “Coco Avant Chanel” should have been the shoo-in winner for this year’s Best Costume Design award, but I’m predicting that “The Young Victoria” will beat it handily.

J. D. Salinger (1919-2010)
January 28, 2010, 11:14 pm
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“You know what I’d like to be if I had my goddam choice?… You know that song ‘if a body catch a body coming through the rye;’? … I keep picturing all these little kids playing some game in a big field of rye and all. Thousands of kids, and nobody’s around – nobody big, I mean – except me. And I’m standing on the edge of some crazy cliff. What I have to do, I have to catch everybody if they start to go over the cliff – I mean if they’re running and they don’t look where they’re going. I have to come out from somewhere and catch them That’s all I’d do all day. I’d just be the catcher in the rye, and all.”

Like many, many other sensitive adolescents, before me and long afterwards, I was once passionately obsessed with the work of J. D. Salinger. And if that obsession now seems to me as quaint and distant as my days in the Girl Scouts, it is no less significant and no less an indication of how my tastes and interests were shaped by his creations.

I first read “Catcher in the Rye” as an eighth-grader; for many years afterwards (well into my college years) I made an annual ritual of re-reading it on New Year’s Day. Tonight, as I write this, my old $1.50 Bantam paperback edition is by my side. On page 172, next to one of Holden’s diatribes on the phoniness of lawyers, there is a note in my own teen-aged scrawl: “Amen! This is exactly why I’m never going to law school!” God, was I ever really that young and that callow?

In time, “Franny and Zooey” supplanted “Catcher” as my favorite Salinger work, and I found myself identifying even more strongly with the fragile Franny than I had with Holden Caulfield. Not for a minute did I believe Franny’s fainting spell was caused by pregnancy, as did her obtuse fiance, Lane. I recognized in her that same overwhelming soul-sickness that I, too, often (and too often, for that matter) succumbed to.

Only years later did I recognize the self-indulgent futility behind those moods, and by that time, the charms of Salinger’s prose had somewhat faded for me. My collection of paperback Salinger titles rarely come out of my bookcase now, their pages increasing yellowed as the years pass. But those four paperbacks, first purchased in 1975, have survived every move I’ve made and found a place on every bookshelf I’ve erected in my adult life. They represent for me an exciting and highly impressionable time in my life when a book could mean everything, and a fictional character could seem like a soulmate.

Revelations about Salinger in recent years have somewhat sullied his reputation. (Joyce Maynard’s memoir of her difficult relationship with Salinger – including unnecessary, TMI-level details of her physical inability to consummate the relationship – is one I wish I’d never read.) But J. D. Salinger – along with Holden Caulfield and the eccentric, preternaturally sensitive Glass siblings – will always occupy a fond space in my imagination and in my heart.

At Long Last – the 2009 Post!
January 16, 2010, 9:43 pm
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To anyone still reading at this point…

2009 was not exactly a big year for this blog. I spent more time offline than on, due to well-documented struggles and stress, and spent the last few weeks watching oodles of movies without bothering to write about any of them.

So as we pass into the second half of January 2010, I can safely say I’ve seen as many 2009 releases as I’m going to see anytime soon. And – at last! – I’m ready to do a respectable ‘end of the year’ round-up.

Here goes nothing:

I enjoyed it more than I was supposed to, part 1:

It’s Complicated: To quote Slate’s Dana Stevens: “I reject the logic by which middle-aged female wish fulfillment at the movies deserves only our scorn while adolescent boy-wish fulfillment is worthy of adulation.” Amen, sister! This middle-aged female will freely admit that some of her fantasies involve Alec Baldwin, dream kitchens and firing up a fatty with a few friends for old times sake (although not necessarily all in the same fantasy). As such, I very much enjoyed living vicariously through Meryl Streep’s character for a couple of laugh-packed hours .

I enjoyed it more than I was supposed to, part 2:

2012. It’s not so much the end of the world as we know it as a throwback to the cheesy Irwin Allen produced, all-star-cast disaster epics of the 1970s (“The Poseidon Adventure,” “Earthquake,” “The Towering Inferno’). The special effects are way cooler, but the dialogue is just as hokey. I laughed out loud more times during “2012” than I did in probably any comedy film released last year. If you approach it in the right frame of mind, it’s a rollicking good time at the movies.

Still Not Jumping on the Bandwagon. Sorry.

Inglourious Basterds. I know, I know, I KNOW… Just about everyone loves it. I meant to see it a second time, but have passed on numerous opportunities to do so and just trusted my initial, gut reaction. Tarantino made one hell of an entertaining movie, but his ‘new and improved’ version of World War II feels adolescent and irresponsible to me. (And please go right ahead and tell me I’ve got my head up my ass on this one, because plenty of anonymous commenters did.)

Prettiest Movie of the Year

Cheri Dramatically, Stephen Frears’ adaptation of the Collette novels was a bit weak. But visually, it was the most ravishing film of the year. I watched it a second time for no other reason than to drink in the luxurious details of the set dressing and savor the film’s astonishingly vibrant palette. And Michelle Pfeieffer’s costumes are absolutely to die for.

Three Men Who Disappointed Me:

1. Rob Marshall.
No, that’s not him in the picture, although that guy on the table is also a contributor to my crushing disappointment in Marshall’s “Nine.” My experience of the film was so painful that I could not bring myself to write a review. I’ve long been a fan of the stage musical “Nine,” and have pretty successfully compartmentalized that enthusiasm from my even greater love of its source material, Fellini’s masterpiece “8 1/2”. But Marshall didn’t adapt the stage musical; he remade “8 1/2″ – badly and with musical numbers thrown in occasionally for no apparent reason. (And allowed non-singers to desecrate them in some cases. Nicole Kidman, in particular, should be banished from musical films for eternity; her harsh, untrained mezzo – devoid of nuance and incapable of comfortably reaching high notes – sledgehammers all the beauty and delicacy out of the show’s loveliest number.)”Nine” looks like a wild party on its surface, but it’s glum and joyless, and Daniel Day-Lewis plays Guido like a clinically depressed guy who’s wandered into a Vegas revue by mistake.

2. Richard Curtis. I’ve long championed his feel-good romantic comedies. But with “Pirate Radio”, Curtis faced – and failed to surpass – his limitations as a director. This tribute to the early days of pop-rock radio required a buoyant visual style to complement its soundtrack, and Curtis did not deliver. As a result, “Pirate Radio” was a well-meaning but garbled mess.

3. Larry David.
Repeat viewings of “Whatever Works” have forced me to admit that he really can’t act. There’s a great big hole in Woody Allen’s otherwise sprightly comedy where a larger-than-life personality needed to be. But as David showed once again, both here and in this year’s much-ballyhooed season of “Curb Your Enthusiasm,” he is a man resolutely focused on the small stuff. And speaking of “Curb” -that “Seinfeld” reunion notwithstanding – it, too was a major disappointment. Painfully shrill (and way, WAY too heavy on the blow job jokes), this season demonstrated nothing so much as that Larry is pretty much unbearable without Cheryl around.

And Two Men Who Pleasantly Surprised Me:

Robin Williams and Bobcat Goldthwait: When I heard there was a film called “World’s Greatest Dad” starring Robin Williams, I frankly wanted to run screaming into the night. When I heard that it was a dark comedy written and directed by Bobcat Goldthwait, I was intrigued. It’s not a perfect film by any means, but – at least in its first half – it’s authentically sad and honest, and its features the best performance Williams has given in years, probably since the pre-“Patch Adams”era.


Antichrist. I’m still not quite sure what Lars Von Trier was up to here. A singular achievement, a genuine (and genuinely disturbing) work of art, and a film I’m pretty sure I never, ever want to see again.

The Honor Roll (it’s not a Ten Best list, because I didn’t see ten movies I wanted to honor):

Me and Orson Welles. Richard Linklater’s story of a high schooler who stumbles into a bit part in Orson Welles’ legendary, modern-dress staging of Julius Caesar gets it all absolutely right, from the 30s nostalgia to the anticipatory hopefulness of being young, idealistic and in love. Anyone who’s ever walked into a theatre and felt they’d found their home will identify with the Zac Efron character, and thrill to Linklater’s love letter to the frustration and exhilaration of bringing a play to life. Bonus goodie: Christian McKay’s portrayal of Welles is appropriately larger-than-life, but doesn’t overpower the other players He has all of the real man’s blustering ego and irascible charm and recreates the trademark, sonorous voice to perfection.

Bright Star. Jane Campion’s story of the romance between poet John Keats and his beloved Fanny Brawne was an atypically dry-eyed story of doomed young love. Where it succeeded, brilliantly, was in depicting the rhythms of a early 19th century life, one often consumed in waiting (for a lover to return, for the post to arrive) or in laborious creative effort (both writing poetry and sewing intricate lace collars are shown to be painstaking endeavors). No mean achievement for a period piece.

Tetro. Where, oh where, is the love for Francis Ford Coppola’s latest film? “Tetro” was uneven, sure, but it was more beautiful and daring than most of what passed for cinematic achievement this year. A drama of slowly unraveling family secrets, operatic in its scale, is wrapped within a glorious homage to Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger.

Hunger. Director Steve McQueen depicted the fatal hunger strike by IRA leader Bobby Sands – and the events leading up to it – using very little dialogue and very powerful visual imagery. Potentially politically charged subject matter is transmuted into clear-eyed but humanistic observation.

The Hurt Locker. I’m certainly no one to say whether a film about Iraq is authentic, but this one sure feels like reality Neither preachy nor conflated with its own serious self-importance, Kathryn Bigelow’s wartime drama is devastating in its exploration of the ways that “war is a drug.”

A Serious Man. Yep, here’s that same still again (this is the fourth time it’s appeared on this blog.) I love this movie unreservedly – it’s the best work the Coen’s have every done. And the fact that it hasn’t found a wider audience is puzzling to me.

Blind Spots

As of this writing, I have yet to see “Avatar,” “Up,” “The Fantastic Mr. Fox,” “A Single Man,” “Coco Avant Chanel,” “Public Enemies,” “Star Trek,” “Paranormal Activity” or “Drag Me to Hell” – to name but a few. So feel free to take all of the preceding with an enormous grain of salt.

Evidence of the Impending Apocalypse:

In 2010, John Cusack is starring in a movie called “Hot Tub Time Machine.” Here is the plot: after a night of drinking Red Bull and vodka, a group of guys travel back in time to 1986 via a “magic” hot tub and get a “do over” on their younger missteps. This sounds considerably dumber than anything Cusack was actually diong in 1986. (I mean, next to this, “One Crazy Summer” sounds like “Citizen Kane”!) How the mighty have fallen….