Monday, November 27, 2006

10 points, 10 Items or Less

ThinkFilm opens the comedy drama this Friday, Dec. 1. In one of those experiments the indie film market is testing it's also supposed to be available for download and on pay per view. I'd explore the cheapest option, not that the film doesn't have a certain modest appeal on the bigscreen. In 10 points (or less):

1) It has nothing to do with the TV show premiering tonight; if it did, that would the best and most inexpensive way to catch it.

2) Freed from the yoke of voiceover narration and nobility, star and executive producer Morgan Freeman gives a relaxed performance as "Him," an unemployed action film actor going the indie route who stops by a faded Spanish grocery store worlds apart from his Los Angeles for research.

3) His biggest find is sharp-tongued Scarlet (Paz Vega), a clerk. Vega, the bright spot in Spanglish, shines here and sparks her co-star, who helps her improve her lot in life.

4) The writer and director, Brad Silberling, is a studio creature (Lemony Snicket, Casper, etc.) clearly enjoying a few days off from the backlot. The film has a loose rhythm.

5) The cinematography, by Phedon Papamichael, handsomely illuminates little pockets of the city and environs where cameras rarely seem to tread.

6) The musical carwash sequence and the scene where the two actors teach each other children's songs (it's that kind of getting-to-know-you movie) are charming.

7) The precise, unflashy editing, by Spielberg ace Michael Kahn, helps Silberling pull scenes like this off.

8) Freeman's encounters with VHS tapes of (fake) films co-starring him and Ashley Judd are an effective running meta-gag.

9) Danny DeVito and Rhea Perlman cameo as the movie moves into Brentwood for its bittersweet climax.

10) As fast and as painless as a trip to a well-organized grocery store with no waiting, 10 Items or Less is over in 82 minutes.

(11) And, in a season where movies routinely tip the scales at over two hours, that is no small asset. )

Tuesday, November 21, 2006

R.I.P. Robert Altman

Whatever the late director felt about "the industry" (The Player gives us a strong hint) Altman was a giant whose missteps and failures were as interesting as his unqualified successes. MASH, McCabe and Mrs. Miller, The Long Goodbye, California Split, Nashville, 3 Women, Streamers, Secret Honor, Tanner, Vincent and Theo, Gosford Park--and those are just the Altman pictures I love; I like several others, and find those I consider flops (like Quintet) to be at least interesting to puzzle over.

A Prairie Home Companion left me cold but I liked that he stares down death in that film with good humor--it is a kick in the teeth to the grim reaper as it prepares its embrace, and L.Q. Jones' character is surely a surrogate figure--and that here and with 2003's The Company he was experimenting with high-definition filmmaking. Altman changed with the times and I think changed them, too. Film, TV, theater, theatrical adaptation, opera; his maverick talent roamed everywhere. We are unlikely to see his kind again.

Celebrate his legacy with a commemorative screening. My pick: McCabe, a dirty, ornery, beautiful, wonderful film. Farewell Robert Altman.

Saturday, November 18, 2006

Mary had a Little Dog

On Broadway, a little dog laughs, with Johnny Galecki and Tom Everett Scott. Plus a bit of BAM from Ellen Lampert-Greaux at Live Design.

I took in Mary Poppins, Disney's latest super-show, at the New Amsterdam last night, The Lion King having found a new habitat. [It's a lovely, woodcut space with the tiniest seats on Broadway; my knees spent the near-three hours having unpleasant sense memories of the last time I was there, in 1998.] The outsized, immaculately crafted Cameron Mackintosh production ensures that the musical, based more on the songs of the 1964 film than its plot or tone, never collapses into the vulgarity of recent disasters like Chitty Chitty Bang Bang or Lestat. Gavin Lee steps smartly into the shoes of Dick Van Dyke as Bert, the chimney sweep; the British music hall tradition lives. And you get your money's worth from the costumes, lighting, and effects; Bob Crowley's multi-tiered set for the Banks home, including a study to rival the Morgan library, can be retired to the Victorian seaside town of Cape May, NJ, once the run ends.

What's missing, frankly, is Mary Poppins. Playing the vain and vinegary nanny of the stories and not the film, Ashley Brown gives a remote, hard to relate to performance. It's intriguing that Broadway pro Rebecca Luker has been cast as the worn-down Mrs. Banks; Luker, who played Maria in a so-so Sound of Music revival, seems to be there to remind audiences of Andrews' warmth and accessibility in her Oscar-winning part. Why the kids need a helpmate at all with Luker in the house is a puzzle.

The razzle-dazzle is also fatiguing over time. With no real throughline, just a string of incidents, the show could easily wrap up with Act One. Musically, the show peaks with the first act's inventively staged and hand-jivey "Supercali..." (you know the rest), and Lee's gently handled performance and reprises of the Oscar-winning "Chim Chim Cher-ee" are a balm to the ears. A new, second-act number, the chimney sweeps' tap-danced "Step in Time," dazzles, but seems to be there just to give star choreographer Matthew Bourne something to do. I was restless by the time it finally ended. Giving credit where credit is due, Mary Poppins is sincere; I giggled at the Solid Gold costumes the chimney sweeps obtain during "Step in Time," and the near-nude statues who come to life and flounce about the stage during "Jolly Holiday" have raised an eyebrow or two, but that's my preconditioning. I doubt the show means to wink at us. It doesn't, alas, really embrace us, either. Mary Poppins flies but never really takes off, emotionally.

Photo, The Little Dog Laughed. Credit: Carol Rosegg

Friday, November 17, 2006

Boys and girls

Three new films this go-round, all of which happen to deal with teens and twentysomethings messing around. I wrote about the film version of The History Boys, the Tony-iest winning play in a half-century, for the New York Theater News' aborning website, so I probably shouldn't repeat myself. Suffice it to say that if you missed the show, you missed the essence of what made it such a thought-provoking hit, not that the movie by any means a disgrace. [With the entire cast and as much of Alan Bennett's witty script retained as possible, it couldn't be.] But changes have been made to the film which I think weaken it, and the pallid cinematography, by Andrew Dunn, is a disaster.

The real problem, I think, is that director Nicholas Hytner is more comfortable onstage than onscreen. He and Bennett collaborated successfully in both mediums on The Madness of King George, which the cheeky and thoroughly enjoyable The Queen put me in mind of. On his own, though, Hytner made a drab hash of The Crucible , and The Object of My Affection proved a fizzless romantic comedy. Opening Nov. 21, The History Boys (Fox Searchlight Pictures) might have been better served with a new headmaster at the helm.

Candy (Thinkfilm, opened today) is likely to be overshadowed by co-star Abbie Cornish's alleged involvement with Ryan Phillippe in le affaire Witherspoon. This would be too bad. I haven't seen the Australian actress' said-to-be-noteworthy performance in Somersault, which is lodged somewhere in my Netflix queue. But she is faultless playing an American in A Good Year, so much so that I didn't recognize her, though I had already seen her in this movie. Chameleon talent like this deserves to be spotted elsewhere besides the checkout tabloids.

She and Heath Ledger, continuing the career upswing begun with Brokeback Mountain, are shatteringly good as heroin addicts whose love for each other is as toxic as their mutual habit. Addiction movies are a perennial, and a bore when they go the therapeutic route, but the writer-director, Neil Armfield (adapting a book by Luke Davies), digs deeply into their self-deceptions and delusions. That their relationship continues beyond a horrific stillbirth early on shows how crazily committed they are to each other, as they descend into prostitution, and worse. I realized how sharp the movie was when, after Candy, an art student, turns a trick, she obliges Dan, her poet boyfriend, to do the same, an entirely reasonable request that I hadn't expected to see enacted. [Ledger is nervously funny in the scene.] As a bonus, Geoffrey Rush turns up, as a self-styled professor of pharmacology who is always good for a quick fix.

I realize it's not easy to sell arthouse releases, particularly those with (gasp!) subtitles, but Strand Releasing (or maybe Film Forum, which provided me with the press notes) is giving a false impression about Emmanuelle Bercot's Backstage, which the rep house launches on Nov. 22. "The Pop Star Diva Meets the Fan from Hell," the notes read, which is misleading; Lucie (Isild Lo Besco), who enters the orbit of singer Lauren Waks (Emmanuelle Seigner), is as much sinned against as sinner, and the whole film is very French, subtler and more reticent about the craziness of pop life than, say, The Rose.

Inspired, perhaps, by Jennifer Jason Leigh in Georgia, Seigner throws herself into the part of a part-Madonna, part-Debbie Harry object of adoration, singing a half-dozen ethereal songs between all the strum and drang she and Lo Besco, as an off-balance fan she basically adopts, kick up. Very incisively shot by Agnes Godard, Backstage lacks the clawed wit of All About Eve, which the notes reference, hopefully. And nothing in it is quite as successful as its bizarre opening sequence, where Lauren, an angel in white satin, shows up unannounced for Lucie's birthday party, trailing a reality TV camera crew behind; Lucie hides in her room, as her beloved siren tries to tempt her before the cameras. Given the envy and psychological abuse and heartache that erupt when they do meet in Backstage, Lucie probably should have stayed put.

Fall MovieMaker online and on sale

The fall issue of MovieMaker, "the best-selling independent film magazine in the world," is online. My first contribution, a Q&A with Ridley Scott about A Good Year and assorted career highlights, is in the publication, which is available at better bookstores and magazine stands now. Check it out.

Saturday, November 11, 2006

An Aura of dread

I didn't much care for Nine Queens (2000), which became one of the relatively few breakout foreign-film hits in recent times when it was exported from its native Argentina a couple of years later. It wasn't hard to see why--the first-time writer-director, Fabian Bielinsky, had fashioned a gimmicky con-man thriller in the tradition of The Sting and given it a mildly exotic local air, and audiences swooned. [With similarly labored plot mechanics I don't like The Sting that much, either.] A meal of empty calories, Nine Queens was not the sort of film to adhere to the ribs, and a rote US remake, Criminal, vanished quickly in 2004.

To his credit, Bielinsky has not repeated old tricks with The Aura (IFC First Take), which begins its run on Nov. 17. Instead, he's borrowed from Memento, which has spawned a cottage industry in thrillers where the time frame is jagged and split. But The Aura, which runs an extremely generous 138 minutes, is anything but cut-and-run in the telling. Bielinsky lets the scenes run long, and an ominous, Tangerine Dream-like score by Lucio Godoy laps at the images, like little waves in a pond. The effect is meant to be hypnotic, drawing you into the dream state where its main character functions best, and from time to time it works--that is, if you can stay fully alert. The screening room I saw it in was full of lolling heads, like a room full of bobblehead dolls made from NY film critics, as everyone fell in and out of cat-naps. The occasional humor, and the gunshots, helped resuscitate interest.

The Aura centers on taxidermist, called simply The Taxidermist, a shy, plodding man played to boringly obsessive perfection by Nine Queens star Ricardo Darin. The taxidermist is on a hunting trip in the Patagonian forest. His real quarry is, however, in his dreams--what he would like to do, if he were less timid, is to commit the perfect robbery, the blueprint for which exists in his head. Events--an accidental homicide, a chance roadside encounter--give him a chance to put his plan into action, as he makes himself part of an unfolding conspiracy to raid a local casino. There is, however, a catch. The taxidermist is an epileptic, whose attacks are preceded by an "aura," which the press notes helpfully describe as "both a warning and a moment of strange, almost sublime enlightenment, an experience of utter confusion and overwhelming disorientation." Bielinsky is not making this up; Googling uncovered some interesting reading on this phenomenon, and it makes for a good hook for a thriller, as the taxidermist tries to stay one step ahead in his involvement with some shady characters.

Bielinsky's attempt to create the fugue-state experience of an aura is admirable; to judge from my experience, it may have worked too well. The violent action, when it comes, is well-staged, not that the plight of the shut-off, mostly unlikable taxidermist is of overwhelming interest (I was more concerned for the fate of the dog who lopes in and out of the picture). Most compelling, if more from thinking about afterwards than during the languid film itself, is the atmosphere of stealthily mounting catastrophe The Aura creates. Having completed his second film, Bielinsky died of a heart attack earlier this year, at age 47.

Saturday, November 04, 2006

Iraq in closeup

The winter issue of Cineaste, coming soon, has two good articles in it. [Actually, as it should be said without saying, it has more than that, including, ahem, an outstanding "Communique" from the Montreal World Film Festival.] One is a provocative roundup of documentaries (and the upcoming feature, Home of the Brave) about the Iraq war, filmed before the insurgency closed that window of opportunity; the other is an interview with the director of the best of these portraits, James Longley, whose Iraq in Fragments (Typecast Releasing/HBO Documentary Films) opens at New York's Film Forum on Nov. 8.

Longley directed, photographed, co-produced, co-edited and did the sound and music for the film, his second following the harrowing Gaza Strip (2002). Iraq in Fragments, shot over a two-year period, deservedly won best director, cinematography, and editing prizes at the Sundance Film Festival. While it has the immediacy of a documentary, it has the hallmarks of good feature filmmaking--vivid imagery, tight, attention-holding editing, and a fine score, qualities unevenly distributed among its peers, which are more journalistic or propagandistic in tone. In 94 minutes it tells three stories, one from each of the country's three most prominent groups, the Sunnis, the Shiites, and the Kurds.

These were culled from footage obtained from right after the war began in 2003 to 2005 (a fourth story, Sari's Mother, became a short film on its own). We meet a fatherless 11-year-old boy, an auto mechanic who tries in vain to placate the owner of a Baghdad garage, to whom he has been apprenticed; gun-toting Moqtada Sadr followers in Shiite cities as elections loom; and Kurdish farmers who are pleased to see the arrival of the Americans following the downfall of Saddam Hussein. That the film is willing to showcase some display of good feeling among so much loss is proof of its open-mindedness, not that Longley is advocating the aims of the conflict itself.

A restless account, filmed with an eye toward the poetic, Iraq in Fragments is by turns discomfiting and moving--for as much as we have let these people down, inflaming distrust and disturbance, they go on. They are part of our story now. For their sake as much as our own, we need to send a clear signal on Tuesday. It's not the economy, stupid. It's Iraq.

Neat freaks

Jill Clayburgh and Blair Brown make a mess of a clean house off Broadway, in the latest from the Live Design website.

Photo: Joan Marcus