Thursday, September 30, 2010

September. It's a Wrap

We've arrived at the last quarter of the year. How odd. Just yesterday, I was traipsing through the snow at Sundance. In case you missed the goodies as summer changed to fall, here's a sampling of my personal favorite moments from the month that was.

Pandora's Box I love to get lost in the images of my second favorite silent
Love... (The Poster) reactions to Gyllenhaal and Hathaway and their fig leaves pillows
"nicole is angry at you" an actual e-mail received during TIFF
Take Three: Amanda Plummer Craig took on one of the cinema's liveliest fringe dwellers
Cast This: Gravity loved your reader suggestions to replace Angelina Jolie in Alfonso Cuarón's sci-fi epic. Natalie Portman is in final negotiations now but we had better ideas.

Unsung Heroes Michael's new series already brought us thought provoking episodes on Eternal Sunshine, Rob Roy, 25th Hour and Election. Can't wait to see what's next
Emma Stone gets an Easy A makes the high school honor roll
The Social Network my fav film from NYFF summed up in 7 words
Poetry my fav film from NYFF summed up in many more (I have two favs. I'm allowed two!)
Black Swan
the mental loops when I can't see a movie I'm desperate for

Coming in October: Requiem for a Dream, Spartacus, Julie Andrews, Conviction, Hereafter, Things That Go Bump in the Night, Kristin Scott Thomas, How to Train Your Dragon, fun with zombies and much more.

Streep and Roberts for "August: Osage County"

The news, which isn't actual news yet so much as 'in talks' talking-points (the bulk of online movie articles), is this: Meryl Streep and Julia Roberts will take the plum Oscar bait roles of the pill-popping abusive matriarch Violet and eldest control-freak daughter Barbara in August: Osage County. The new (to feature directing) John Wells will sit in the director's chair instead of Mike Nichols as previously rumored.  It seems quite risky to give a project this complex and fraught with ways in which it could go wrong to a newbie but maybe his debut film (The Company Men) is unexpectedly rich?

 One of the most popular posts in the history of The Film Experience was our discussion of the casting of this genius actress-heavy play. It's THE stage-to-screen project to watch for any actressexual out there since the cast that matters is all female and the roles, to a one, are juicy with extra pulp. (The supporting female roles could put Oscars on shelves, too.)This news, if it does become actual news, is a weird sort of exciting/disappointing.

As many of you have gleaned I am something of an über Streep fan but I think she's wrong for this part. Streep has a glorious earthy warmth as a performer and Violet needs the opposite. Streep's most successful "cold" performances were in A Cry in the Dark (which came during the amazing chameleon years) and The Devil Wears Prada (see previous post) which came during her comedic ascendance. To do justice to Violet, she'd need to be as good as she was in both pictures... simultaneously. And sometimes when Streep goes cold (Doubt, The Manchurian Candidate) she pushes too much. Violet is more complicated than either the Prada or Cry roles and requires both jagged comic steel and dormant volcanic drama ... and both need to be channelled through a druggy fog for the entire film. In short: it's an A+ dream role, better than many whole Best Actress rosters combined.

I like Julia Roberts.

If Julia works as hard for August as she did for Erin Brockovich or Closer than she might absolutely nail the role of exhausted controlling Barbara. But how often does Julia work as hard as she does in those two movies? When you're a massive star with more innate charisma than most performers can muster over the entirety of a career, coasting is an ever present danger. If she coasts at all, you'll lose the electricity of the play. The play just crackles with the stuff. Any loss of that and you could have a disaster on your hands.

Streep is such a consummate performer that, whether miscast or not, many people will demand she win a third Oscar because she will be so spectacularly watchable in the end. Even if it's not quite what the movie needs. (We'll see. I can't say how badly I hope to be wrong.)

I watched the 3 hour play from the edge of my seat and loved-loved-loved. I will anxiously await the movie. But both casting decisions feel like the kind anyone could and would make without actually knowing anything about the play, the roles, the tone or what kind of movie it would need to be to be a great one. It reeks of corporate laziness. They are rather inarguably the most famous senior citizen actress and the most famous middle age actress; "STREEP | ROBERTS" will look great on a marquee. But it's sad to cast source material this magnificent with no regard for the actual source material, and all eyes towards some imaginary marquee.

Movies should come first, not their ad campaigns.

Modern Maestros: David Fincher

Robert here, continuing my series on important contemporary directors.  As Nathaniel has mentioned, the series is coming to an end.  This will be the third-to-last entry.  Enjoy!

Maestro: David Fincher
Known For: dark, suspenseful, psychological thrillers.
Influences: Hitchcock, all kinds of noir, Welles, Kubrick, Ridley Scott

Masterpieces: Seven
Disasters: Alien³
Better than you remember: some of his films like Fight Club or Benjamin Button get considerable hype blowback.  But looking at them as works of direction they're very very impressive.
Box Office: 127 million for The Curious Case of Benjamin Button

"Tales of the strange and unusual" might be a fitting title to David Fincher's filmography.  But don't be mislead.  His "strange and unusual" isn't the same as other such directors'.  It's not the surrealism of Lynch or the benign fantastical of Burton or the sterile other-worldliness of Kubrick.  David Fincher's films are set right here in our reality, featuring characters who reflect you and I.  Only through the slow process of plot development do we (and they) realize that they're inhabiting a darker, stranger, often more sinister version of what they considered to be their world.  And it's how they face that, that primarily interests Fincher.  Not all of Fincher's films may have as obvious a revelation as, say, Fight Club.  But each character is forced to confront and understand the mysteries that have uprooted their lives.  It's a matter of psychology, a butting of the heads of the normal and abnormal, and Fincher wants to know which wins out.  To his credit, Fincher provides us with stories that lack such clear answers.  Killers are never found (or they are with mixed results), evil is vanquished too late, or the promise of answers (by, for example, a life lived backwards) is not fulfilled.  All dark endings necessary to enlighten the complexities of characters.

Since Fincher is primarily interested in his characters his often-noted stylish direction takes on expressionist flourishes meant to place us, the viewer, into the swirling minds of our heroes.  His low angles, dark lighting, wide shots and flashy editing are occasionally dismissed as needlessly excessive.  But they add to his reality, but taking the setting of our world and creating the unreality felt by his characters.  Fincher makes mood pieces that mimic the moods of his subjects.

Fincher has noted what he considers two distinct types of filmaking.  The cold technical Kubrick style and the personal sentimental Spielberg style.  While he may not have the resume to compete with those men quite yet, Fincher's own style is an interesting marriage of the two.  Like Kubrick his interest in his characters more of the clinical variety.  He cares not for developing warm and fuzzy sympathies.  Yet it is essential to his work that the audience becomes the character.  In this way he is very Spielbergian.  We must empathize, and inhabit the character.  We must know them emotionally or the cold clinical reality will be utterly pointless.

It's been much written that The Social Network is a serious departure for Fincher.  I've not had the fortune of seeing that film quite yet, but I think that assessment is most likely true and false.  The film still presents a unique psychological case study and a character faced with a redefined reality.  It still features dueling psyches and ambiguous resolutions I'm guessing [Editor's note: Your guess is right on the money].  Yet it is tied so distinctly to our modern world, it's hard to see how the encompassing darkness of Fincher will present itself.  Fincher has said that he was attracted to the project because it was a departure and it seems to be winning him the best notices of his career.  It's a career that's going strong and will hit next with a film that shouldn't be too much of a departure for Fincher (although remakes are new territory): The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo.  Fincher fans will be anticipating how this exciting filmmaker stretches himself into new strange and unusual realities for years to come.

Unsung Heroes - The Students of "Election"

This is Michael C. from Serious Film  back again to shine a light on a cinematic achievement that has been hidden for too long in the shadows. This week it is a film I've been an evangelist for since it's release over a decade ago: Alexander Payne's Election (1999). Pick Flick!

Is there any setting more misrepresented in movies than high school? Courtrooms, maybe, or hospitals with their staffs four times bigger than anywhere you could actually find. But at least these places use reality as a jumping off point. The majority of movie high schools, with their student bodies straight from central casting and their campuses the size of Ivy League universities, appear to have been fabricated completely to fit the needs of Hollywood producers.

When a movie like Alexander Payne's Election (1999) finally comes along, which rings true in detail after detail, one wonders what they did differently. The success of Payne's film is undoubtedly in large part due to his decision to shoot in a real high school while classes were in session, and to use the actual students of Papillion La Vista High School generously throughout the film. It may seem like a minor decision, but it adds a crucial air of credibility to the movie.

For one thing, they look real high students. It may seem like an obvious point, but it actually makes Election quite a rare specimen. Most movie students look like they're pushing thirty, and dress as if they are on their way to a commercial shoot for Axe body spray. Acting ability aside, the mere act of going through wardrobe and make-up adds a layer of polish that audiences register. In Election, even the more dramatic moments of the story -- Tammy's speech, Mr. McAllister's sabotage --feel less like scripted plot points because the unaffected presence of real students subliminally signals to the viewer that nothing phony is happening.

That realism must also have rubbed off on Broderick and Witherspoon who both deliver performances that stand as career high points. According to the DVD commentary, Payne frequently sent in real students to improvise with his stars. Knowing that their performances were going to be so readily judged against the genuine article must have worked as a safeguard against putting in too many actorly touches. It is especially impressive that Election manages the feat of meshing Witherspoon believably into the mass of ordinary teens, considering she is as glamorous a star as we've got, and Tracy Flick as a role is full of invitations to go over-the-top.

On top of all these benefits, some of the kids are just plain good. Lots of moments that stand out in my memory from Election are the little bits of documentary realism from the students. The kids who ramble through their explanations of morals vs. ethics set the stage perfectly for Tracy and her "Ooh, ooh, call on me!" routine. I also love the boy who delivers that strange cackling heckle when Tammy takes the microphone and the girl who lets loose with a few dance moves when the crowd is chanting Tammy's name. And the kid who ad-libs reasons to Broderick why he needs to retake a test has a naturalism that a lot of pros could learn from.

It's telling that for all its arch filmmaking touches, Election feels more authentic than just about any other high school movies one could name.

First and Last, Gymnasium

first and last image from motion pictures, excluding the credit sequences.

Can you guess the movie?

That's right, it's [highlight for the answer] BUFFY THE VAMPIRE SLAYER. The film not the TV series.


Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Donna Murphy is "Mother Gothel"

If you don't just skip the occasional theater post on The Film Experience you may know of my love of Tony winner Donna Murphy. She has what might be her most significant screen role ever this very year. 'But what they want from her is....her voice.' She is playing Mother Gothel, the villainess of Disney's Tangled. She's the one who grounded Rapunzel, like, forever. [Okay, stop gagging. I know the juvenilia of the Tangled marketing has been entirely off-putting but let's stay positive for two minutes.]

Here's the first image release of Mother Gothel, just released.

Tangled's song score -- eight new songs the soundtrack is out in November the week before the movie -- is by Alan Menken so we hope against hope that the songs will be good and some of his past work is very good indeed. Lately it hasn't been quite so magical but at the very least a Menken score would have to be preferrable to the pop-song laden trailer music which led us to believe that this would be another Shrek, musically speaking. [Shudder.]

<--- Donna (left) with fellow Broadway headliner Sutton Foster, who has weirdly never appeared in a film, despite being a rather big deal on stage. (Usually the big theater stars get at least some film work.)

You've probably seen Donna in a few things already since she does bit parts on film (like in Door in the Floor or Spider-Man 2) and major parts on TV... but her voice is INCREDIBLE so I'm hoping she gets a song that's worthy of her.

So, let's think about the "villain songs" in Menken's oeuvre. How would you rank them? Here's what I'd say.
  1. "Poor Unfortunate Souls" from The Little Mermaid. Undeniable classic!
  2. "Gaston" from Beauty & The Beast. Not exactly an 'I'm evil' song but so great nonetheless.
  3. "Suppertime" from Little Shop of Horrors. Creepy.
  4. "Heaven's Light/Hellfire" from The Hunchback of Notre Dame. Hunchback's music is SO underrated and this scene sandwiched next to Children of God is maybe my favorite musical act in any Disney picture. Marvelous. Can I get an "amen"?
  5. "Mean Green Mother From Outer Space" from Little Shop of Horrors. Fun.
  6. "Mine, Mine, Mine" from Pocahontas. Errrr. not so much.

Now, admittedly the lyrics are a crucial part of the best villain songs. So hopefully Menken will have great assist from Glenn Slater in that department though obviously there will never be another Howard Ashman. Not every villain gets a song. If I recall correctly Hades from Hercules and Jafar from Aladdin don't have songs but that better not be the case when you've got pipes as golden as Murphy's to work with. That'd be like casting Mandy Patinkin in a musical and not letting him sing. Hey, now wait a mi...

Here's some Murphy performances I just love. "Hit Me With a Hot Note" from What About Joan? "Swing" from Wonderful Town, "Loving You" from Passion and "Shall We Dance?" from The King and I.

The Links Are Alive...

In Contention Tapley's review of Conviction.
New York Magazine Mark Harris great piece on The Social Network in case you haven't read it yet. "I poked Aaron Sorkin..."
Cinema Styles "Coming Home to Tango" a look back at two seminal 70s films and how they age when you age. Interesting stuff. For the record I love Coming Home and don't care for Last Tango in Paris but saw them both in my early 30s.
MUBI remembers Arthur Penn (RIP) We've lost another film great. Time to watch Bonnie & Clyde again.

 Flames... on the Side of My Face pays tribute to the late Madeline Kahn, for whom the blog is titled, on her birthday. "Taffeta, darling"
Ruchome Obrazki late addition to the 'Best Shot' party featuring David Fincher's Se7en (1995). Check it out.
Some Came Running has a wonderfut bit on Sally Menke's eye for shots juxtaposed.
Movie | Line offers up my favorite title about the Star Wars in 3D news.
Serious Film 8 voice performances that were worthy of acting nominations.
IGN offers up some mainstream "summer movie awards" as we head into fall.

And finally, Playbill delivers Holy Playclothes-Made-of-Curtains shocking news. The cast of The Sound of Music is reuniting next month on Oprah !!! This will be epic even if we have to hear Ms. Winfrey screaming...
"Julieeeeeeeee AaahNDROOOOOOoosss"
...over and over again. Are you dying out there?  Now I'm going to have "The Lonely Goatherd" stuck in my head for the rest of the day because this is always what happens to me when someone mentions The Sound of Music.

"Hit Me" Schedule and Other Programming Notes

Just a heads up that tonight's episode of  Hit Me With Your Best Shot starring Federico Fellini's La Dolce Vita (1960) must be delayed. It's a long film, I've been totally ill for two days and I want to give it its proper due. Plus this will give as many of you peeps out there a chance to see it as possible. All you need to do to take part in this 'more the merrier' movie-loving series is choose your favorite screen shot, post it somewhere public, and tell us why you love it so!

'Hit Me With Your Best Shot' Schedule
  • Wed 10/06 Requiem for a Dream (exact 10th ann.!)
  • Wed 10/13 La Dolce Vita (1960)
  • Wed 10/20 Mean Girls (2004) 
  • Wed 10/27 The Night of the Hunter (1955) Best Shot Season 1 finale! It's one of the best films of the 50s and if you haven't seen it, you simply must. Lillian Gish, Robert Mitchum, annoying kids, jawdropping noir lighting. A perfectly creepy classic to send us into Halloween week.
Other Programming Notes: Robert's Thursday Modern Maestros column will be ending in October so enjoy the last few columns before Robert is a married man and off on his honeymoon (Congratulations!). Meanwhile response to "Familiar Faces: Woody Allen's Hierarchy" was so good that that's getting its own series. Not a Woody Allen series mind you but a director/actor series. More excitement of all sorts to come as we head into awards season.

Which Oscar races and/or contending films are you most eager to see more coverage on? Don't be shy. Obviously The Film Experience won't leave you hanging on the Actress categories or foreign film. But where else should we dig deep this year?

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Actors on Actors: "The Susan Hayward of it All"

Actors on Actors looks at screen moments when stars are name-checked... by other stars! It's very meta. Since we're multi-tasking today trying to catch up, it's also a Tuesday Top Ten! In this episode, a scene from My Best Friend's Wedding (1997)

Julia Roberts: I have big plans for dancing. Just give me 30-35 years."
Rupert Everett [the voice on that ginormous cel phone]: The misery. The exquisite tragedy. The Susan Hayward of it all!"
The umimpeachably witty Mr. Everett (aided by that film's wonderful screenplay from Ronald Bass) is, of course, referring to the grand high priestess of exclamatory drama, Miss "I Want to Live!" Herself. It's not just those curtain-chewing performances, the desperate women she played or the trashy films but the gleefully histrionic taglines, too.

For no reason other than that I plan to live my life with exclamation points this week...

10 Best Taglines from Susan Hayward Films
 (We really should do like a Hayward tribute week at some point.)

10 "She made good - with a plunging neckline, and the morale of a tigress"
from I Can Get it For You Wholesale (1951)

from Smash-Up: The Story of a Woman! (1963)

"They branded her "Adulteress"!
from The President's Lady (1953)

from The Fighting Seabees (1944)

"Do you know what they say about Laura Pember? They say she uses men like pep-up pills!"  from Stolen Hours which is also known as Summer Flight (1963)

05 "Love can make a killer out of a woman... and a fool out of any man!"
from I Thank a Fool (1962)

04 "She fell from fame to shame!" from I'll Cry Tomorrow (1955)

"The way SHE loved a Man could lead in only one direction - DOWN!"
from They Won't Believe Me (1947)

from The Lusty Men (1952)

01 "This story was filmed on location...  inside a woman's soul!"
also from I'll Cry Tomorrow (1955)
It's not just the greatest tagline from a Susan Hayward picture, it's the greatest movie tagline of the 20th century! And probably the 21st century too!! It deserves so many exclamation points !!!

At the annual convention of TLCOM (Tag Line Copywriters of America) their lifetime achievement prize is called "The Hayward".*

*I made that last part up but it should be the truth.

"Angels in America" Celebrates 20 Years

I mentioned very briefly this summer that I was working on a piece about Angels in America for a magazine. (That's why we covered HBO's Angels in the 'Best Shot' series -- multi-tasking!)  The magazine is WINQ which covers global queer culture and the issue is out on newstands now. My piece was timed to coincide with the New York City revival. I'm seeing both halves during the Thanksgiving break.

<-- Here's the magazine cover, in case you see it and wanna pick one up to read the piece. There's also some sample pages from their digital edition you can peruse and it's available to download and whatnot. My piece is referenced on this cover near the bottom right hand corner "ANGELS ARE BACK IN FLIGHT: The Great Work Begins, Again."

I'm so used to staring at a computer screen that seeing a piece I've written in print is a different and much rarer feeling.

I also got a chance to speak to Mark Harris while writing the piece -- he's the author of the Pictures at a Revolution that we were all devouring last year -- since the article has a sidebar on him and husband Tony Kushner. Kushner is the playwright behind Angels and an Oscar nominee, too (for the screenplay of Munich). Here's a video from Signature Theater company on Angels 20th anniversary. Tickets are still available for shows in early 2011 as the play has been extended.

Angels In America at 20 Years: Tony Kushner from Signature Theatre Company on Vimeo.

Tell me you'll see Angels on stage first chance you get, wherever the opportunity happens to present itself. It's even amazing in tiny regional theaters (which is where I first saw it in the mid 90s) so seek it out.

Top Ten: NC-17 Box Office Champs

Robert here. Did you know that yesterday was the twenty year anniversary of the NC-17 rating?  That tag, applied to the most controversial of films, has developed the most controversial reputation itself, with artists and advocates complaining that it's implemented unevenly and scares away theaters an rental providers.  We're going to leave all that be for now and instead celebrate the ten films that, despite or because of their NC-17 reputations, lead the pack.  Here are the top ten money-making NC-17 films.

10. Wide Sargasso Sea (1993) $1,614,784
Rated NC-17 for strong, explicit sexuality
Does this one not sound familiar to you?  Released early on in the rating's lifetime, speculation is that while there's plenty of sex, it was the full-frontal male nudity that pushed the MPAA rating's board over the edge, probably the sort of thing that would easily get an R today (but you never know).  NC-17 films were relatively rare early on (not that they're plentiful today) and the rating's promise of scandalous titillation added interest to this film that history has forgotten.

9. Bad Lieutenant (1992) $2,000,022
Rated NC-17 for sexual violence, strong sexual situations & dialogue, graphic drug use.
While most of the films on this list can attribute their rating almost entirely to violence or sexual content, Bad Lieutenant serves up a healthy helping of other material as well, specifically it's prolonged scenes of drug use.

Not that the rape of a nun and Harvey Keitel's almost legendary full nude scene are things to scoff at (and we may wonder if the drug use alone would have earned an NC-17).  The film's sacrilegiously controversial reputation undoubtedly has helped boost it's earnings (the quality product behind the hype doesn't hurt either) and continues to buoy the film's position as a cult classic.

8. Crash (1996) $2,038,450
Rated NC-17 for numerous explicit sex scenes.
Sex and car crashes.  Crash is a film which, fifteen years later, still divides audiences and still provokes shock.  It's a testament to Cronenberg's skill and bravery as a director that he can delve head-first into such unspoken fetishes and ending up with a film that many still consider a masterpiece.  As is always the case, the NC-17 film was both a boost and a hindrance, allowing producers to slap the tagline "The Most Controversial Film in Years" on the film while simultaneously cutting an R-rated version for more sensible tastes.

7. The Dreamers (2004) $2,532,228
Rated NC-17 for explicit sexual content
It's fitting that Bertolucci grabs a spot on this list, as his work has always advanced the cause of intelligent erotica.  The trick here, as it always has been, is giving you passionate sex and nubile bodies (in this case Louis Garrell, Eva Green and Michael Pitt) to gaze at packaged in a manner that makes you wish you hadn't been turned on.  In the case of The Dreamers, we're presented with an incestuous love triangle with enough full frontal that the eventual rating couldn't have shocked anyone.  Cinema lovers can enjoy the classic cinema homages.  Francophiles can drool over the setting of 1968 Paris.

6. Tie Me Up! Tie Me Down! (1990) $4,087,361
Rated NC-17 for scene of strong adult sensuality with nudity.
With a title that promised Sado-masochistic treats and s director coming off his biggest hit to date Tie Me Up! Tie Me Down! boosted Pedro Almodovar's reputation as a chronicler of obsession and sexuality to the point where now we expect content for Almodovar that borders on the NC-17 line.  The film itself is the most delightful dark romp present on this list.

5. Lust, Caution (2007) $4,604,982
Rated NC-17 for some explicit sexuality.
Ang Lee's follow up to his Oscar win is a great example of how a distinct confluence of events can temper the NC-17 boogey man.  Combine a high profile director, and independent release and a sex scene so essential to the film, that to cut it would be disrespectful to said high profile director, and you've got uncensored success.

A brief aside about the bizzare marketing that accompanies NC-17 films.  The censored Lust, Caution DVD made for rental chain shelves, promises "the R rated film, not seen in theaters" and if you didn't know that was a downgrade, you'd assume, as I imagine is the point, that you're getting added kinkiness.

4. Bad Education (2004) $5,211,842
Rated NC-17 for a scene of explicit sexual content.
Pedro Almodovar's second entry on this list is a film where the sexual content is most definitely not meant to  arouse.  The film is a neo-noir based around the victim of an abusive priest.  As with his last NC-17 film, Almodovar uses the springboard of his greatest success to release a film that can only work with the content that most distributors would quickly flinch at.

3. The Cook, the Thief, his Wife and Her Lover (1990) $7,724,701
Rated NC-17 for adult situations/language, nudity, sex
My great old film professor's story goes, he showed this film to a class and got into a bit of trouble.  Truth told, the violence, death by forced feeding, sex in meat lockers and cannibalism can overwhelm some of the films other creative visual constructs (for example, the colors of characters' outfits change as they walk from one room to another).  But director Peter Greenaway knew what he was doing and knew what he wanted.  This film is still that for which he's most known.  And it's hard not to ignore the bizarre courageousness of any film where Helen Mirren utters the phrase, "Try the cock... it's a delicacy."

2. Henry & June (1990)
Rated NC-17 for adult situations/language, nudity, sex
The first film ever slapped with the NC-17 distinction and it shows.  The story of Anais Nin's unconventional relationship with Henry Miller and his wife June and how it inspired Tropic of Cancer these days seems, if not tame, certainly unworthy of the rating.  But as the ratings board was still figuring out what would qualify (apparently three-way sex and brothel scenes made that list) they handed Henry & June a PR victory and the movie practically marketed itself.

1. Showgirls (1995) $20,350,754
Rated NC-17 for nudity and erotic sexuality throughout, and for some graphic language and sexual violence.
I give you, the grand champion.  Look at the difference between the moneys made by this monster and our number two film.  Showgirls is the only movie on this list that still has a place as a pop culture phenom.  That place may not come with the most respect in the world (although I'd argue it never was meant to) but the combination of good marketing, quality camp and copious nudity (hiring a previously "good girl" actress didn't hurt) propelled Showgirls easily to the top of this list.  Considering the small-release, art house atmosphere that most NC-17 films niche into today, I wouldn't expect a challenger to Showgirls' crown any time soon.

How many of these films have you seen?

Sally Menke (RIP). Tarantino Films Will Never Be The Same Again.

Terrible news to report. This morning Sally Menke's body was discovered in Beachwood Canyon. She was 56 years old. It may have been California's extreme heat on Monday when she went missing but details are still emerging. She had been hiking with her dog, a black lab (the dog is okay). The amazing film editor was best known for her work with Quentin Tarantino. She edited all of his feature films.

Christoph Waltz poses with Tarantino's editing queen Sally Menke, during
the awards run for Inglourious Basterds.

So you can thank her in part for the wondrous control of Tarantino's very distinctive pacing, intricate performance shaping (and so many great performances had to have been carefully shaved, trimmed and aided by Sally's deft hands), freeze framing (just mentioned!) and not least of all those incredibly precise long-form action sequences in Kill Bill Vol 1 and Kill Bill Vol 2.

And here's a lovely compilation from Inglourious Basterds of the actors saying "hi Sally" before and after takes to amuse her in the editing room. My favorite is Til Schweiger's. He's so serious in the film but such a goof here.

Heartbreaking in retrospect but so sweet to think about. She must have so enjoyed these moments.

Fine farewells:
  • Edgar Wright (Scott Pilgrim vs. the World) shares his last conversation with her. 
  • Aint it Cool News Tarantino: "I don't write with anybody. I write by myself. But when it comes to the editing, I write with Sally."
  • ArtsBeat She was also hiking when she first heard she got the Reservoir Dogs job.
  • Joblo Menke's own words having worked through both of her pregnancies "my babies had Tarantino movies played to them in the womb, but they seem to have turned out OK."
Our hearts go out to Menke's family and to QT.

Trivia: She was nominated for an Oscar twice for Pulp Fiction and Inglourious Basterds. Here at the Film Experience she won two medals, the bronze for Basterds and a gold medal for Kill Bill Vol. 1 (2003) --  I'm still horrified that the editor's branch didn't honor her genius there.

Uruguay Must Choose: "Leo's Room" or "The Useful Life"?

Keeping up with the foreign film Oscar submission announcements is a sisyphean task. Uruguay hasn't announced yet but I'm hearing from an inside source that three different groups of voters weigh in and the field has been narrowed to two films: Leo's Room, a gay drama about coming out, and The Useful Life which is about a film programmer and a dying theater. MUBI calls it "distinctly ungeeky in its cinephilia." Sounds intriguing.

Can you feel the excitement? Soon we'll have our complete list of 60+ subtitled Oscar hopefuls which most of us will never have the opportunity to see... at least not unless we hunt them down over the next couple of years but by then there's two whole new batches of foreign films to track down and you forget all about the ones from two years back*. Wheeeeeeee. (see what I mean about sisyphean? I think the only solution is to look up new film titles on Netflix and click "save" and be surprised 1 to 11 years later when they arrive at your doorstep having made it to DVD and worked their way up your queue)

I'm guessing this is why most cinephiles have one or two particularly countries or regions they specialize in / obsess over. How else to stay on top of world cinema? It's the land of the specialist and I am, alas, but a very scattered generalist.

*at least that's my problem. Distribution moves slowly and my brain moves quickly darting away from one movie to the next, and is long gone by the time a movie opens in one or two theaters two years after its festival premiere. (sigh)

Curio: Steve Dressler's Film Poster Prints

Alexa from Pop Elegantiarum here, bringing you more from the intersection of print design and film. Steve Dressler is a favorite artist of mine, maybe because you can tell from his art that he is a sometime comedian in addition to being an illustrator. His designs comment on all things pop culture, from Donald Glover's Spiderman campaign to the douche of the decade Joe Francis, but he dabbles in film posters, too. Here's all his posters to date. I'm hoping we'll see more soon.

Raging Bull's glove and mic.

Travis Bickle's Taxi mohawk.

A remembered kiss in Broken Flowers.

The Japanese title for "Honey, I Shrunk The Kids."

The Extra-Terrestrial.

Monday, September 27, 2010

Disastrous Javier and Disaster Epic Compete For Foreign-Language Oscar

Fifty countries have now announced their Oscar submissions. We usually end with sixty-plus competitors so there's a dozen movies (approximately) left unannounced. The big question marks are Spain (we're guessing Celda 211 nope, Spain chose Even the Rain starring Gael García Bernal) and Italy (we're guessing The Man Who Will Come) since both countries are favorites of Academy voters. We'll know the "official" official list in early October. I've updated all the pages.
Two biggies recently announced are Mexico's choice Biutiful which won admirers and haters at Cannes --for the same reasons as director Alejandro González Iñárritu's past efforts have divided -- and China's Aftershock (2010), the country's first homegrown IMAX epic that was a huge hit this summer.

Biutiful is a drama about a man who is dying and his life is falling apart on his way to the grave. Javier Bardem won Best Actor at Cannes so it's definitely One to Watch as it were. Plus, we know AMPAS voters respond well to Iñárritu's specific brand of miserabilism since they've handed nominations to all three of his previous feature films: Amores Perros (Best Foreign Language Film) 21 Grams (acting nominations) and Babel (several nods including Best Picture).

China's submission is inspired by a 1976 earthquake that killed nearly a quarter of a million people. I assumed it's fictionally dramatized (like Titanic for example) as the main plot apparently revolves around a woman who must face her own Sophie's Choice when her twins are buried alive and the rescue team can only save one of them.

The unusual trailer takes us backwards in time. I'm personally not much of a fan of disaster epics -- if I see New York City or Paris destroyed one more time in a movie. Grrrrr -- but will Oscar be? I mean, this won't have the science fiction silliness of something like 2012 and they do like a good historical epic.

At any rate, it's important to remember that no film is ever a safe bet in this particular derby since there are so many options and the voters actually have to watch the films (unlike other races where you can theoretically be nominated on goodwill and campaigning alone, no screenings necessary)

Have any of our international readers seen either of these films? Speak up if you have. Or prognosticate blindly in the comments. You know how we do.

Nathaniel's Oscar-Submission Reviews Thus Far
Peru's Undertow
Thailand's Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives
More soon...

Yes, No, Maybe So: "True Grit"

The teaser for our Christmas present from The Coen Bros has arrived. It's our first good look at the second film version of the novel True Grit. Now why can't trailers for musicals admit their genre as readily as all westerns do -- despite westerns being a similarly troubled genre with notoriously fickle public interest. 

As a teaser there's not much to go on yet. But I am happy to say...

yes Joel and Ethan Coen reuniting with "The Dude" is cause for rejoicing all by its lonesome self and the cinematography by Coen regular Roger Deakins looks unsurprisingly purty. I also reckon Carter Burwell stuck with his "protestant hymn" scoring idea that I scooped for y'all from Nashville this spring if the music in the teaser is representative of what we'll hear in the full movie.

no Matt Damon shooting things is less thrilling than it once was.

maybe so Apart from those strong directorial hands, all four of them, this entire thing will rest on Hailee Steinfeld and she's unknown to us. Good luck Hailee!

I'm actually just doing the Yes, No, Maybe So™ from habit. I am 100% YES. And you?
* Jeff Bridges Joel Coen

Gloria Stuart (1910-2010)

She was born on the 4th of July, 1910 in Santa Monica and a little over a century later she left this mortal coil right next door in West Los Angeles. But oh how this American blonde travelled in between.

She was engaged to The Invisible Man (1933) in a tiny village in Sussex. She made it out of The Old Dark House (1935) in Wales as a young ingenue, when the gothic mansion was set on fire. Her husband was jailed in the West Indies as The Prisoner of Shark Island (1936). She was cousin to rising radio star Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm (1938). She spun around the dance floor with Peter O'Toole in My Favorite Year (1982). And quite famously, she survived the Titanic (1997) which departed from England but never made it to its New York City destination.

And that's just a few of Gloria Stuart's best known screen journeys.

Off screen her life was also rich, though much of it was spent away from the public eye. She travelled extensively, was a founding member of the Screen Actors Guild, a printmaker and artist and was even skilled in the Japanese art of Bonsai.

Stuart was honored this past July by AMPAS for her centennial. Here's a couple of photos from the event.

 Left: Gloria drinks to... Gloria! Right: Gloria with actresses Anne Jeffries (Dick Tracy's original "Tess Trueheart" in the 40s films) and Ann Rutherford (Gone With the Wind)

Rest in peace Old Rose.

How I Feel / How I Wish I Felt

As articulated by Cate Blanchett in The Curious Case of Benjamin Button.  (Ugh, I'm seriously sick today. Someone read to me from happier-days diaries before I croak.)

here we go again...

Sunday, September 26, 2010

NYFF: "Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives"

*slight spoilers ahead but this is not a "plot" film.*

Uncle Boonmee can recall his past lives. My memory is hardly as uncanny. Recalling or describing Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives, the Cannes Palme D'Or winner and Thailand's Oscar submission, even a few days after the screening is mysteriously challenging. Even your notes won't help you.

This is not to say that the movie isn't memorable, rather that its most memorable images and stories refuse direct interpretation or cloud the edges of your vision, making it as hazy as the lovely cinematography. You can recall the skeletal story these images drift towards like moths and you can try to get to know the opaque characters that see them with you but these efforts have a low return on investment. What's important is the seeing.
What's wrong with my eyes? They are open but I can't see a thing.
Most synopses of the movie will only embellish on the film's title. And while Uncle Boonmee does reflect on past lives, he only does so directly in the pre-title sequence as we follow him in ox form through an attempted escape from his farmer master, who will eventually rope him back in. The bulk of the film is not a recollection -- at least not from Boonmee himself, but a slow march towards his death while he meditates on life and the film meditates on animal and human relations. His nephew and sister in law, who objects to his immigrant nurse, visit him. So too does his dead wife and another ghostly visitor on the same night, in a bravura early sequence that as incongruously relaxed as it is eery and startling.

The film peaks well before its wrap with the story of a scarred princess and a lustful talking catfish and then we begin the march towards Boonmee's death, perhaps the most literal moment in the movie. And then curiously, the movie continues on once he's gone. If it loses much of its potency after Boonmee has departed, there are still a few fascinating images to scratch your head over when he's gone.

The bifurcated structure that Weerathesakul has employed in the past is less prevalent this time.  Uncle Boonmee plays out not so much like two mysteriously reflective halves (see the haunting Tropical Malady which I find less accessible but actually stronger), but rather like a series of short films that all belong to the same continuous chronological movie, give or take that gifted horny catfish.

Surely a google search, press notes, academic analysis or listening to the celebrated director Apichatpong "Joe" Weerathesakul speak (as I did after the screening) would and can provide direct meaning to indirect cinema. But what's important is the seeing.

Vision is frequently mentioned and referenced in Uncle Boonmee, whether it's mechanical -- as in a preoccupation with photography which peaks in a late film sequence composed of still images -- or organic. But like the ghost monkey with glowing red eyes (the film's signature image) says to Uncle Boonmee early in the film, "I can't see well in the bright light." It's the one exchange in the film that I wholly related to and understood. I'm not sure I need or want to understand, to attach specific meaning to these confounding stories and images. I only want to see them. Weerasethakul's movie is best experienced in the dark, with the images as spiritual guides. They fall around you like mosquito netting as you walk slowly through the Thai jungle. B+/B

Flashback: Olivia & Travolta

Happy 62nd birthday to Olivia Newton-John. Rather than celebrate with the usual Xanadu (1980) fixation or the more universally beloved Grease (1978) how about a duet with John Travolta from their flop reunion Two of a Kind (1983)? The third of her movie soundtracks is largely forgotten. I can't remember anything about the film other than that there was some divine romantic comedy intervention involving heaven and resurrection. Heaven Can Wait was a big hit the year that Grease was the biggest hit of all, so maybe it was still in the atmosphere to influence Two of a Kind's dumb story.

The only scene I remember is one in which Olivia was in acting class and her acting teacher thought she was a terrible actress (uhhh....) but then all of sudden while playing a scene she saw a criminal in the theater -- context? -- and started screaming and the teacher marvelled at how genuine her emotions felt! My point is that it was a terrible movie.

Here's the love theme / duet for the movie. Why isn't it one of the schmaltz classics of the 1980s? Even if you don't know the song, marvel at the sheer volume of PINK everywhere you look. There's only one color in this rainbow. Travolta is so very breathy... was it all those fumes from Olivia's hairspray? They look so contagiously happy together.

Though Two of a Kind justly flopped, the movie did give ONJ her one last big hit after a whole slew of them in the 70s and early 80s. It was "Twist of Fate." Madonna was about to change the whole pop landscape and Olivia would suddenly be of the past.

I have a lot of issues with John Travolta as a celebrity but one thing I think is cool about him: even with the gazillions of dollars and the inexplicably enduring bankability, he doesn't shun his past. Here he is with Olivia just a couple of years ago singing "You're The One That I Want" for a Grease DVD party. So here's to longevity and loyalty to one's friends.

When was the last time you watched Grease? How many times have you seen it?


Take Three: Amanda Plummer

Craig back with a new Take Three.

Amanda Plummer photograph from Jeannick Gravelines Photographe

Take One: No film without her

There are certain characters who, when they appear on screen and begin adding their particular slant, I know I'll want to see more of. Sometimes the filmmakers oblige with this. Sometimes they don't. Personally, I'm thinking Radha Mitchell in Finding Neverland (who I looked at here), Anna Faris in Lost in Translation, Jayne Eastwood in Dawn of the Dead (2004) and the like. We all have certain types we want more from.

More often than not, they're played by great supporting/character actors, doing what they do best: stealing the film... if actually given the chance. That's how I felt about Plummer as boiler-suited cleaner Laurie in Isabel Coixet's My Life Without Me (2003). This isn't to dismiss Sarah Polley's fine central performance as Ann, but something made me gravitate toward Plummer's character, her friend and co-worker, with far more curiosity.

A clean break: Plummer takes lunch sitting down in My Life without Me

There was a story there. Her whole life and all the possible dramas and woes it contained was hidden within the tiny flickers of unrest and resignation that Plummer spiritised Laurie with. She made real, solid sense; she's someone we've all surely met. Plummer's such a seasoned, versatile actress that she raised a fringe character beyond someone who merely pushed a mop around and assisted Ann with her laundry list of terminal woes. Plummer's also a generous actress -- too generous, maybe. She settled for the supporting role of the supportive friend here with neither fuss nor fanfare. Yet what she does with this most peripheral of roles is consistently engrossing. I find my eyes drawn to her awkwardly wonderful face whenever she's on screen. And I couldn't imagine My Life without Me without Amanda P.

Take Two: The meek shall inherit... Robin Williams' undying devotion

The Fisher King (1991), Terry Gilliam's paean to the homeless, marginalised denizens of New York, by way of the titular Arthurian legend, has a wonderful cast quartet. There's Williams as Parry, Jeff Bridges as shock-jock DJ Jack, Mercedes Ruehl as saucy broad Anne, and, last but not least, Plummer as mousy, lonely publishing accountant Lydia. With a strawberry bell-end bob under a beige beret and a sloppy, fusspot disposition, Lydia is courted (well, more like stalked) by tender tramp Parry. He's adored her from afar and with Jack's chummy coercion, snags a date with her. It's more meet-clumsy, than meet-cute.

Dinner not for schmucks: Plummer & Co. dine in style in The Fisher King

Lydia's as much the awkward, nervy oddball as the troubled Parry ("They were made for each other... scary, but true," says Anne at one point), and Plummer expertly plays up the quirkiness without any unnecessarily forced embellishments. Over the film's charming, easy-going middle section she proceeds to peel the kooky layers away to show us the vulnerable woman behind it all. This is especially visible straight after the funny, largely silent double-date sequence. Plummer's mini speech, where she recounts the tired process of a life's worth of bad dating experiences with gradual tears and a weary demeanour ("...and ever-so-slowly I'll turn into a piece of dirt"), is one of The Fisher King's most emotionally wrenching moments. But Plummer does also get to glide through the waltzing crowds in Grand Central Station when Gilliam turns it into a giant fantasy ballroom. Gilliam likes to celebrate the often unassuming, interesting types in his films; Plummer's the perfect character actress fit for his otherworldly cinema.

Take Three: The crowd control

Tim Roth and Amanda Plummer. Pumpkin and Honey Bunny. (Ringo and Yolanda, to be precise.) Two enterprising, pre-title wired diners who demanded more from breakfast service than most and wanted it bloody side up. They had the hipness of Bonnie and Clyde, the daffy scorn of Leonard Kastle's Honeymoon Killers and the light weaponry of Thelma & Louise. They had snappier dialogue than all of them put together.

Garrulous to a fault (it's Quentin Tarantino, so of course) and teetering on the edge of idiosyncrasy, they had odd sweetly grinning faces -- interesting faces, character actor faces, watchable faces -- to match their nicknames. Especially Amanda Plummer: there was a reason QT focused more on Honey Bunny, foregrounding Plummer in his pulpy prologue. She's a bona fide live wire, revelling in the dark ebullience of her mayhem: only a freeze-frame could put a stop to her antics. "I'm ready. Let's do it: right now, right here!"

Plummer & Roth strongly object to the 10% tipping policy in Pulp Fiction

She's Pulp Fiction's (1994) crazy gem, the one who got to hysterically deliver the line most folk remember first. Plummer was maniacally good with her own brand of Tourette's etiquette, barking "Any of you fuckin' pricks move, and I'll execute every-mother-fuckin'-last-one-of-you!" It's not the first thing you want to hear over your eggs and morning coffee, true, but a wake-up nonetheless. When Tarantino gets famed for the sureness of his dialogue it's outbursts like this, delivered by fearless, competent performers, that spring to mind more than the flip pop references. Plummer devotees will see Honey Bunny as a defining, quintessential bit-part in one of the bigger movies of her career. Casual movie-goers will remember her as That Mental-Lookin'-Gun-Waving Woman. But we do all remember Honey Bunny.

Three more key films for the taking: So I Married an Axe Murderer (1993), Needful Things (1993), Butterfly Kiss (1995)