Saturday, December 29, 2007

Arrows flying New Year's Day

The Sundance Channel is ringing in 2008 with an all-day marathon of the delightful Canadian series Slings and Arrows, a favorite at our house. All three series will be aired beginning at 6am EST (alas, no more are slated). They're also on DVD but I can't think of a better way to welcome the new year than to enjoy the misadventures of the New Burbage Theater Festival all in one go.

Friday, December 28, 2007

Grace is already gone

I'm within five films of being able to put together a proper Top 10 list for 2007. One of those five was the Iraq War tearjerker Grace is Gone--not that I, or anyone else, really needs another Iraq/Afghani/9-11 melodrama, but I'll always give its star, John Cusack, the benefit of the doubt. Grace really is gone, however; after just two or three weeks of release, the film has disappeared from Manhattan cinemas, and unless The Weinstein Company is planning some sort of early 08 push it may be AWOL for moviegoers till DVD.

That simplifies things for me by a factor of one film. Still, it deserved due consideration, and despite my resistance I would have bitten the bullet and seen it, once the holiday rush subsided. TWC should have kept it in theaters, but may have enough on its plate trying to keep the gonzo I'm Not There* in play through awards season. I was further surprised to see that the studio isn't giving Woody Allen's Cassandra's Dream an Oscar-qualifying run; it had been scheduled to open today. This, however, is a concession to reality; the film is a big step back for Allen after the modest steps forward of Match Point and the lightly enjoyable Scoop, and its January dumping-ground release is apt.

Look for top, flop, and in-betweener lists of various kinds as my next few posts. Grace, we hardly knew ye.

(*That I did manage to see, and I must report that I wasn't really there, either. My Dylan phase pretty much ended with college graduation, and reviewers who wrote you don't need to know anything about him to appreciate the film are nuts. Forearmed, it's a slog through the soap operatic Heath Ledger segments particularly, and Christian Bale's bits aren't much better. The uninitiated will be ticked off or fast asleep within 15 minutes. There's an amusing short film with Cate Blanchett to be had from the remnants. Otherwise, to show that I'm not a complete philistine, I liked what Todd Haynes was trying to convey with the seriously miscast Richard Gere, never quite at ease outside big city parts, and his faux Western fable storyline. Plus the soundtrack has some decent covers. It's a puzzler, and like so many Bob Dylan or Dylan-related films a wipeout with audiences. He's as much a flop indicator as Nicole Kidman or airships.)

Drippin' Honey

Honeydripper, which Emerging Pictures opens today, confirms that John Sayles would make a better playwright than filmmaker. When a friend told me that his latest film as writer and director was "a John Sayles movie, like every other John Sayles movie," it wasn't really a dig; it's just that Sayles, at the vanguard of American independent cinema, has been tilling this soil for 30 years now, and hasn't much changed. Set in 1950's Alabama, Honeydripper has the two hallmarks of a Sayles movie: Meaty, dialogue-rich roles for underappreciated or underused performers like Danny Glover and Charles S. Dutton, and a fundamental humanism, which is always welcome. But, though veteran cinematographer Dick Pope applies a soft and frequently delicious glow to the Deep South locations, Sayles' basic filmmaking style is stagebound. I know he wanted to get the gifted Lisa Gay Hamilton and Mary Steenburgen together for a scene, and they are expectedly lovely together. Onstage, their segment might captivate you.

As the camera sits there, though, away from the main focus of Danny Glover trying to keep the failing juke joint of the title running till a much-anticipated concert can reverse its fortunes, you can't help but get impatient. Sayles doesn't much edit like a filmmaker; he's not ruthless enough to pare away and save a gem or two for the DVD. His movies can be tough-minded, and they can be lyrical, too; City of Hope and Passion Fish, from the early 90s, are the filmmaker's yin and yang. But they can also wander, and fall into a turgid heavy-handedness, and there is a forced mystical element here involving a blind man figure from Glover's checkered past that is alien to his down-to-earth sensibility. (The movie plays with stereotypes, though, being emotionally contained like all his films, never raucously.)

What I think Sayles was trying to paint was a picture of how the blues went electric and became rock and roll in the humblest African-American communities, and he picked the right person, charismatic Austin guitar and blues performer Gary Clark, Jr., as the bridge between the two worlds. (He is also Glover's meal ticket, once he's sprung from cotton-picking duty overseen by Stacy Keach, who with so many law enforcement parts under his belt could probably run for sheriff at this point.) But as Sayles honey-drips in subplots here and there what might have been a rich portrait is obscured.

Monday, December 24, 2007

A visit to Persepolis

In his review of Persepolis in the current issue of Cineaste, my colleague Rahul Hamid nails what bugged me about the film, a wholly worthwhile endeavor that I enjoyed watching despite a creeping dissatisfaction. Co-director Marjane Satrapi took incidents from her childhood in Iran, as the mullahs took power, and transposed them into two well-received graphic novels. From her exile in France, she and Vincent Parannoud have turned them into an animated film, whose stylized black-and-white images are in old-school 2D, no digital gimmickry here.

Their screenplay is as unadorned as the animation; not artless, but it gets down to business without much fuss or moralizing. Young Marjane, who loves Bruce Lee and ABBA, finds herself in conflict with her classmates and the government at large as the comforts of Tehran, provided under the dubious stewardship of the shah, vanish. Off she goes to France, for a first round of culture shock, followed by another as she returns to her remaining family in Iran, proving, wistfully but defiantly, that you can't go home again. Vocally, the movie is a family affair: Marjane is voiced by Chiara Mastroianni, whose mother, Catherine Deneuve, provides the voice of Marjane's mom. (Marjane's tart grandmother is played by 91-year-old Danielle Darrieux, who in the press kit notes that she has lost count of how many times Deneuve has played her daughter.)

Not that I didn't like hearing these distinguished ladies grouse about hard times in Iran, but I think their Gallic charm works against the effectiveness of the piece. The movie seems to be taking place in the next arrondissement over, rather than in the mystery-shrouded capital whose history over the last 30 years has been veiled from us. Rahul says the books are much more time- and place-specific; the film is more of a gloss, humorous and poignant, but too simple, more of a primer. The Western, "just-like-us" side of the film dominates. I still recommend a viewing: Persepolis, which Sony Pictures Classics opens tomorrow, is an educational entertainment that neither bores nor patronizes, a rare-enough hat trick for movies here and abroad to pull off. And I will treasure a cinema-set scene that unites Madame de... and Godzilla, two of my all-time favorite film characters. But I felt the reduction from page to screen.

Kick the Bucket

When I sit down to write a list of all the things I'd like to do before I die, high atop the sheet will be to avoid movies like The Bucket List, a soggy heartwarmer Warner Bros. opens Christmas Day. I could, and should, have planned this sooner, but Jack Nicholson pulled me in, as he usually does, so the 97 misspent minutes are on my head.

The director, Ron Reiner, has been off his game since his last picture with the actor, A Few Good Men, in 1992, and he hasn't regained his footing. Despite the brief running time, the well-meant film meanders listlessly (no pun intended) as cancerous codgers Nicholson (the rich, sybaritic one) and Morgan Freeman (boringly salt-of-the-earth as usual, right down to the sonorous narration) bolt their hospital beds for a worldwide spree: racing cars, skydiving, and visiting world capitals. This might be more meaningful if a) the characters showed more than passing signs of illness during their jaunt (Nicholson, a tub of guts, is the beefiest cancer patient ever, so much so I thought a mistaken diagnosis subplot was in the offing) and b) they were CGI-ed more fluently into their various misadventures. Like Hope and Crosby in their Road pictures heyday, I doubt they even left Burbank; the illusion that they did, which would have made the wish fulfillment fantasy concrete, is poorly realized.

Oh, and c), if there had been one surprise, in the casting, acting (fine but familiar) and direction, some twist in the tale that might have validated all the death-without-disease cliches the film parcels out. (I guess there is one, but it's more celestial than logical, and something of a cheat.) Hereby resolved: No more movies like The Bucket List. I'm already aglow with the potential of what I might accomplish in the hours I've rewarded myself with.

Sunday, December 23, 2007

"Oh, my God, they're singing!"

Reports are pouring in from online sources that audiences are fleeing Sweeney Todd in horror. It's not the hard-R level of violence that has them running from the auditoriums; no, it's the singing. "Shit! This ain't a goddamned musical!" one patron was heard to exclaim in Orlando, as he or she presumably departed to the safety of Disneyland. While a tone-deafness to the form that has brought us the $100 mllion-plus grossing hits Chicago, Dreamgirls, and Hairspray since 2002 is a likely contributing factor (along with a certain cultural illiteracy regarding the stage) I place the blame squarely on the shoulders of the distributor, which did its best to disguise the film's musicality in its trailers and advertising. In a crowded marketplace the well-reviewed film has gotten off to a pretty good start. But while I am no expert in the field of marketing, I strongly suspect that "Shit! This ain't a goddamned musical!" isn't quite the word of mouth to keep the turnstiles in motion. As if there were any shame in touting the film of a classic musical production, but that's the nervousness of Hollywood beancounters for you.

Saturday, December 22, 2007

What's so Great?

I haven't seen The Great Debaters. But I have seen The Great Debaters. We've all seen The Great Debaters. Earlier this year, it was called Freedom Writers. Last year, it was called Akeelah and the Bee. In 1967, it was called To Sir With Love; in 1987, Stand and Deliver; in 1995, Dangerous Minds. Debaters star and director Denzel Washington was featured in the 2001 model, Remember the Titans; in 2002, he directed and co-starred in the 2002 version, Antwone Fisher.

Knocking these inspirational teacher stories, especially around Christmas, is like stealing wheelchairs from a nursing home. (It's why one always opens at this time of the year, to disarm usually Scrooge-like reviewers who would otherwise twitch at the prospect of another two-hour plus Xerox to consider.) But the genre is so predictable, and there are so many of these films per annum it's hard to see how audiences can respond with any sort of spontaneous, deeply felt uplift. I guess I'd rather have another one under the tree than, say, a National Treasure sequel, but given the glut they seem so unnecessary. I already know how it's going with me: It's at the bottom of my too-see list, which means it will likely drop into my Netflix queue (buried under 400 other titles), then onto a look-see when it turns up on cable next fall. Only significant awards action is going to get my butt onto a seat. "Here endeth the lesson," to quote an "instructor" film I can get behind, The Untouchables.

Thursday, December 20, 2007

A slashing Sweeney Todd

Theatergoers attending the tale of Sweeney Todd at the movies will have two films in mind: The one Tim Burton has wrought from Stephen Sondheim’s 1979 masterpiece, and the one you may have hoped for. That one would have stronger singer-actors in the leads. More of the score intact. And much less blood, after the first two or three slashings have made their point.

But this is very much Burton's show. Indeed, the material has been so strongly reconceived by the reigning director of movies macabre it's as if Burton approached Sondheim about writing a Sweeney Todd musical and the work commenced a few years and not three decades ago. Wary of the stodgy, museum piece treatment that Rent and The Producers received onscreen, Sondheim encouraged the cuts, but admirers of the score will be surprised at how deeply Burton dug in. For example, we no longer "attend the tale of Sweeney Todd"; shorn of stagy ensemble numbers, like the opening ballad, the film simply begins, with crimson rivers overrunning the titles and the swift set-up of the storyline. Adapting Hugh Wheeler's book, John Logan has condensed the storyline to a tightly compressed running time of under two hours. (Suiting the task at hand, Logan has a prior “killer” title, the recently revived off Broadway Leopold and Loeb dramatization Never the Sinner, to go along with The Aviator and Gladiator for Martin Scorsese and Ridley Scott.) The outstanding difference is one of tone: Burton, whose films since 1994's Ed Wood have largely been disappointing, clearly relished returning Sweeney Todd to its Grand Guignol roots, and audiences accustomed to the comparatively more restrained musical will be covering their eyes and ears and not noticing the absence of "Ah, Miss" and "Parlor Songs."

I suggest leaving them open, simply to enjoy the lush orchestrations (by Jonathan Tunick, wisely retained from the Broadway original) and the ripely decayed and decadent Victorian atmosphere conjured by production designer Dante Ferretti, in Hammer horror mode. Using the "bleach-bypass" technique that gave 1995’s Se7en its sickly serial killer sheen, cinematographer Dariusz Wolski has all but drained the imposing imagery of its color, the better for the red to stand out. Once Todd begins to apply his razor to his vengeance against an uncaring and hypocritical society, look out; the title of another current release, There Will Be Blood, could easily apply here (and there are also the sickening skull-crunching thuds of the victims hitting Mrs. Lovett's basement abattoir to contend with). You may wish that what Tobias finds there toward the climax, which the show leaves to our darkest imagination, had been left to our imagination. Burton, typically cock-eyed and whimsical toward violence, has never abandoned himself in this way before, and Todd's dehumanization is annihilating.

Less definitive is his choice of leads. To confirm what undemanding critics have written, yes, Johnny Depp can sing. But he cannot sing well. The committed intensity of his performance, in his sixth collaboration with the director--no cutesy pirate stuff here--is unmatched by his vocals, and his songs trail off. In this regard he fares better than Helena Bonham Carter, whose numbers as Mrs. Lovett never really begin. Giving Carter her due, it's by no means a clearcut case of nepotism that Burton has awarded his five-time co-star (and mother of two children) this plum role—downplaying the character’s slatternly side, she finds a note, a compelling one, of bedraggled sympathy. It is, alas, the only one she holds. In their pallid makeup, peculiar hairstyles, and Colleen Atwood's modish ragtag costumes the two look like Edward and Edwina Scissorhands (recalling Burton's benign barbering fable), and harmonize in Burton's off-kilter realization of "By the Sea" as a bright CGI fantasia. But no one will purchase the soundtrack album on their account.

The supporting parts more evenly mesh acting and singing, and no one, fortunately, is asked to play an instrument, as in the revival Broadway Todd. Cast as the rancid Judge Turpin and the loathsome Beadle, Alan Rickman and Timothy Spall are spot-on, and their guttural vocals are acceptable. Better than that is Sacha Baron Cohen, in a delightful "who knew he had it in him?" performance as Pirelli, a sparklingly mischievous turn reminiscent of Peter Sellers. Vocally, the heavy lifting is reserved for Jayne Wisener (as the innocent songbird Johanna), Jamie Campbell Bower (a strong Anthony), Laura Michelle Kelly (the West End's Mary Poppins, near-unrecognizable except in talent as The Beggar Woman), and especially Edward Sanders, as Tobias. Casting a boy as Tobias adds a discomfiting edge to the story when you're used to the character being played by a young man, and he is terrific, on his own or carrying Carter through "Not While I’m Around." Oliver! should be revived just for him.

Sweeney Todd is a film musical informed by a strong central vision, and not its composer's. It may be the first of its kind to appeal to the crowd that lapped up Saw and 300, but its nihilism may not go down easy with them, either. DVDs of George Hearn and Angela Lansbury in the original production, and a concert staging with Patti LuPone, exist for purists, and will co-exist, however uneasily, with the extra-rare meat pie Tim Burton has carved up for the movies.

(This review was written for the New York Theater News site. Look for an appropriately short review of the off Broadway production of Beckett Shorts at the same URL.)

Lead balloons

I think I know why The Golden Compass is rudderless at the boxoffice. It's not that it's any worse than the Harry Potter films or The Chronicles of Narnia, if not nearly up to the level of the Rings pictures. It's not that it's more about girls than boys. It's not that it's blasphemous or irreligious; nothing to get the racks out over here, at least on film. (There's more talk of souls than there is in a Sunday school lesson. Mitt Romney and Mike Huckabee could bond over it.)

It's not that the production is cheap or cheesy. In fact, the CGI polar bears, monkeys, cats, etc., are outstanding, and Hollywood should make them the template on which all future beasts are based, economizing all around. They're the best of the current menagerie found in Enchanted and Alvin and the Chipmunks--whose characters, not part of the national conversation since about 1972, got a big boost from the audience-friendly response to Pip the squeaking chipmunk in the princess picture. But I digress.

It's not that the marketing failed to distinguish it from other, less ambitious pictures based on books half-remembered from childhood, like The Dark is Rising (terrific novels, by the way, worthy of classier treatment). It's certainly not the under two-hour running time, which I appreciated, though a few more minutes spent on the complicated exposition might have been of benefit.

It's not even that the presence of Nicole Kidman in a movie is a reliable flop indicator, one that put the zotz on Daniel Craig twice this year. Mitigating factor: The two actors are only in the film for about a half-hour apiece (Craig's Casino Royale co-star, Eva Green, is only in Compass for about 15, giving more face time to the kids and the bears.)

No, it's that the characters in its near-Earth zip around in airships. I've wracked my brain, but I cannot recall a single successful film involving a zeppelin. 1971's Zeppelin crashed and burned. Not the recent Southland Tales and its apparent model, 1930's Madam Satan, a fun but lesser Cecil B. DeMille picture. Not the true-life The Red Tent or The Hindenburg. A View to a Kill ended Roger Moore's tenure as Bond on a deflationary note. One of my favorite thrillers, the blimp-set Black Sunday, never got airborne with viewers.

I love the idea of airships and enjoy looking at them in movies. But indulging my interest comes at a steep cost. Note to filmmakers: If your script has a part for a zeppelin, get rewrite and seek alternate transportation.

Tuesday, December 18, 2007

Plays: Lots of plays...

The plays are clearly the thing as the year on Broadway comes to a close, with a spectacle-driven Cymbeline and dirty rotten scoundrel Norbert Leo Butz making a spectacle of himself in a Mark Twain premiere, from the Live Design website.

Saturday, December 15, 2007

World gone wild

Mobius Home Video Forum correspondent Wade Sowers reminds me that 1959's The World, The Flesh and The Devil, with Harry Belafonte, did the whole abandoned New York sci-fi premise sans effects almost 50 years ago. Here's a
picture. I'm surprised TCM isn't showing it (or the two other Legend versions) to tie in; it has a tense ending, with Belafonte and bigoted Mel Ferrer stalking each other through the empty streets with rifles. (2001's non-apocalyptic Vanilla Sky also managed the same trick in Times Square, without apparent enhancement but with plenty of people wrangling in the small hours of the morning. Filmmakers looking for that deserted sidewalks feeling in the city know they can get it without too much effort by shooting on barren Wall Street on weekends.)

New York has long been a filmmaker favorite for disaster scenarios, as far back as 1930's earthquake-and-flood epic Deluge. As the city cleaned up in the 90s the movies were hellbent on destroying us; 1998 alone brought the asteroid two-fer Deep Impact and Armageddon, plus the Godzilla remake. There was a post-9/11 moratorium but the trend came back with a vengeance with 2004's The Day After Tomorrow. At that time I proposed an article for Slate that I called "It's OK to Kill New Yorkers Again" but they didn't bite; I did, however, just see a similar piece somewhere hooked to I Am Legend. And this new book (pictured), by Alan Weisman, looks interesting; I asked Santa for it, and I trust it will arrive unless our newly installed tree is vaporized in some catastrophe.

Friday, December 14, 2007

Tarnished Legend

Lost City readers will appreciate the opening sequences of I Am Legend, which Warner Bros. opens today. The film details life in a New York City shorn of its citizens, leaving only the buildings standing in a Manhattan rendered as a concrete grassland, where uncaged zoo lions stalk herds of deer that bound around Midtown. The last man standing in 2012 (thanks to a cancer cure virus inadvertently unleashed by cameoing experimenter Emma Thompson) is military scientist Robert Neville (Will Smith) who, faithful dog in tow, zips around the streets in search of venison of his own--and, sometimes, vampiric members of "the infected," whose rabidly dangerous bodies he injects with his own immune blood, in hopes of curing the disease that claimed most human life three years earlier.

Two prior versions of Richard Matheson's novel have made it to the screen. I've seen 1971's The Omega Man once or twice--its screenplay was the basis of this new one--but outside of star Charlton Heston pining for the past while watching Woodstock, a black-cowled Anthony Zerbe as the cult-like leader of the dead-ish, and an albino Rosalind Cash an in-betweener not much stands out (I recall it taking place in L.A., which typically betrays little sign of human life outside of the people driving cars). A much greater impression was seared into my moviegoing memory by the first one, 1964's The Last Man on Earth, with Vincent Price barricaded in his house at night as hordes of the shuffling dead feebly seek access (Calling his name: "Morgan!" "Come out, Morgan!")--it scared my sister half to death, and the creepy, black-and-white ambiance, reinforced by its taking place in a not-quite-America forged from the backlots of Italy where it was shot, burrows under the skin and stays there.

Last Man has an unforgettable flashback to Price searching a ghastly funeral pyre for his little girl as the contagion spreads. This new one being an impersonal, crowd-pleasing, A-list/PG-13 studio project, it ties our stomach up in knots over the fate of the dog while barely raising the hackles over the fate of mankind. A certain scale and perspective is missing, not that director Francis Lawrence, of the bum supernatural shocker Constantine, or writer-co-producer Akiva Goldsman, of Smith's hackwork version of I, Robot, could have been expected to provide it. The goal is to pile on the wow factor moments that move the merchandise through multiplexes, and they have done with reasonable sobriety, outside of a few too many jump-out-the-seat sound effects accompanying the nightly ravages of the near-dead. (The uber-personable Smith goes easy on the strutting this time, though those inoculated against his charm still may cringe at the fortunately fleeting "showbiz" moments he has here.)

About those infected: Like similar ghouls in the Dawn of the Dead remake and the quirkier, superior 28 Days Later pictures, they gallop after their prey, and don't have much to say. These also roar like jungle cats, which doesn't make a lot of sense given clearly failing lung power. The big difference, though, is that are almost entirely CGI creations, and as such come across as insubstantial. Once characterized, and personalized, by Andy Serkis, Gollum and King Kong could be run through the computer to assume their corporeal form onscreen. These creatures, with their bad attitudes and super strength, come straight from the workstation and ten other movies and not from someone's dark and imaginative heart. After their first "boo" moments they lack palpable menace, like aggressors in a videogame played once too often.

(The digitalization of the cityscape is more apt, but inexact. The TKTS booth scheduled for next year is open on Duffy Square in the film, but surrounded by billboards of the long-closed Broadway shows The Producers and Lestat, indicating that the data was dumped into the computer a year or so ago. How Lestat and Legally Blonde, whose billboard is also glimpsed, could play the Palace at the same time is a mystery greater than the virus. And if Neville is watching episodes of the Today show from 2009, before life got tougher, why is Katie Couric still on the program--or are the scripters somehow clairvoyant about her future prospects? Don't get me wrong, I dug the trompe l'oeil, but someone in research should have been swifter on the draw.)

In Last Man, the infected, who as in The Omega Man are sentient (but not as verbose) know exactly where the Price character lives, and give him grief every night. A plot point here is that they don't know Smith's well-fortified Washington Square address, which he leaves every day to see if his radio broadcasts, urging fellow humans to meet him at the Fulton pier, have attracted company. Late in the story he is joined by a pious, "Christian" without being too religious woman (Alice Braga) and the little boy she is taking to presumed refuge, in a commune in Vermont (natch). Why does Neville never leave the city in the daytime to more proactively find others if the infected (whom pious woman calls, with fake profundity, the "dark-seekers") don't know where he is in the first place? And why does Neville's final...well, you may know how the story ends from the prior films, but his gesture toward the rebooting of humanity seems poorly motivated and ill-considered here.

Maybe it comes down to this: A future that looks centered around churches just isn't as exciting as riding shotgun in the canyons of New York.

Thursday, December 13, 2007

Wasted Youth

I always figured eternal life would get boring after a while, and Francis Ford Coppola confirms my suspicion with Youth Without Youth, an inert thumb-twiddler that Sony Pictures Classics opens tomorrow. "Cinema without audiences" read Variety's unfortunately on-the-mark pan, and any audience drawn to see the director's first film since John Grisham's The Rainmaker a decade ago will soon find themselves in an altered state--not like the one confounding Tim Roth's professor character, but one of grouchy sleepiness, struggling to stay awake as Coppola pushes metaphysical ideas around his plate.

No garden-variety auteur, pursuing variations on a theme, Coppola has always been a restless talent, and has put up with critical and commercial shrugs before. The many fine commentaries he has contributed for his past work on DVD, as he reflects candidly on ups and downs, can be enjoyed. But the new film is the worst kind of personal project, the type that stimulates and amuses its author and no one else. Richard Kelly's Southland Tales has numerous lapses; still, you sense that Kelly is trying to engage an audience as disenchanted with the American identity as he is, and his stumbling around with loopily explained concepts, zeppelins, and a cast stronger on personalities than actors is rather touching. It's never gratingly awful. Youth Without Youth, however, comes close; its basic torpor is an asset insofar as the film registers as a near-complete blank, which the memory banks erase once the lights have gone up.

Based on a novella by Mircea Eliade, the 1938-set Youth Without Youth casts a bedraggled Roth as the 70-year-old Dominic Matei. Gripped by an existential crisis, Matei plans suicide, but a lightning bolt not only shocks him to his senses, it hurls him back into his 35-year-old body. His doctor (Bruno Ganz, recalling, as he always does, better days with Wim Wenders and Wings of Desire) considers Matei a living miracle; the Nazis, in his native Romania, a potential weapon to be exploited. As an American agent (a cameoing Matt Damon) briefly enters the picture the notion that this might lead to a thriller comes into view, but this slender reed of hope that a film already going in different directions will center itself is quickly dashed. Matei resumes his lifetime study of languages, a pursuit complicated by a taunting double and what can be construed (warning: fog alert) as the reincarnation of his lost love, very blankly played in both incarnations by Control co-star Alexandra Maria Lara. The film then dissolves into a series of digressions, about the nature of love and language (Lara's troubled present-tense character is speaking ancient tongues, never a sign of functional mental health), good and evil (Matei uses telekinesis to kill a meddling Nazi scientist, a power brought up, then left dangling), past and present, Indian teachings, and more, all insufficiently dramatized by Coppola, as writer and director. (The official press kit synopsis goes on for pages, and is less help than this synopsis of it. His editor, the gifted Walter Murch, is unable to parse all the loose ends.)

On some level, Youth Without Youth is another take on his Dracula, warmed over for pedants. I think that Coppola (who recently played the part of a gnocchi-preparing paisan, his winemaking alter ego in full flower, on the Martha Stewart show) wants to say something about the frustrations of a creative life through this material, but it never cuts through through the philosophical haze and technical matters like the poor dubbing of the supporting cast. The in-camera special effects and antique titles have their charm, and a radical note is struck when the film climaxes right at the end card--an abrupt conclusion to a movie that never really began, just unspooled. With the passing of Youth and whatever anxieties and hesitations were gnawing at him Coppola's return to active moviemaking duty is awaited.

Golden glop

The Golden Globes are so inane I'm not sure they're worth the 20 seconds it takes to link to coverage. But here it is. I'm suspicious of any awards body that takes American Gangster seriously, and, having endured Aaron Sorkin's emotionally and factually fraudulent The Farnsworth Invention on Broadway, have less confidence in his adaptation of Charlie Wilson's War. And I'm disappointed that Once (and Hal Holbrook's resonant supporting turn in Into the Wild) faded from view. Credit to the voters, however, for making Viggo Mortensen (pictured) and Eastern Promises a blip on the awards season radar screen.

How many have you heard?

Variety has a "set list" of the 59 songs eligible for Best Song at next year's Oscars. My personal frontrunners, the two from Once ("Falling Slowly" and "If You Want Me") haven't been far from my CD player since I picked up the soundtrack last summer, and Eddie Vedder's music for Into the Wild also leaves a favorable impression. Somehow I don't think the tunes from The Water Horse, the marauding Mormon epic September Dawn, The Last Mimzy, and the obscure 56 Drops of Blood (described on CD Universe as the "musical that brings the story of Romeo and Juliet into the chaos of the Hungarian revolution in 1956") will be joining the Hollywood Hit Parade anytime soon.

Monday, December 10, 2007

45 years ago today...

Cineaste editor Gary Crowdus reminds us all of a seminal world premiere, as Peter O'Toole and David Lean present their timeless collaboration.

Everybody's Country

No Country For Old Men's surprisingly robust performance at the boxoffice (and encouraging development amidst so many indie, or independent-ish, films that have sank without trace) has been matched by a good showing among critics' groups, with New York giving it top honors as Amy Ryan (go baby go) continues to sweep--you read it here first.

The full list of winners from the New York Film Critics Circle:

Best Picture - No Country For Old Men
Best Director - Joel & Ethan Coen / No Country For Old Men
Best Actor - Daniel Day Lewis / There Will Be Blood
Best Actress - Julie Christie / Away From Her
Best Supporting Actor - Javier Bardem / No Country For Old Men (pictured)
Best Supporting Actress - Amy Ryan / Gone Baby Gone
Best Cinematography - Robert Elswit / There Will Be Blood
Best Screenplay - Joel & Ethan Coen / No Country For Old Men
Best Animated Film – Persepolis
Best Non-Fiction Film (Documentary) - No End in Sight
Best Foreign-Language Film – The Lives of Others
Best First Film – Away From Her

Lifetime Achievement Award – Sidney Lumet
Special Critics Award - Killer of Sheep by Charles Burnett

Gossip here. It was pointless for Reed to try to raise a fuss about Coppola's wonky Youth Without Youth, which wasn't going anywhere, but that's Reed. And that's White for you. Otherwise, good if unsensational calls: Wasn't The Lives of Others considered last year?

Wednesday, December 05, 2007

An honor for Atonement

I should really say more about Joe Wright's fine adaptation of Atonement (pictured, with James McAvoy and Keira Knightley). Knowing it was due encouraged me to pull Ian McEwan's novel off the high shelf where it had rested since 2002, and reading it was a distinct pleasure for us both. I didn't quite see a film in there but quite a good one (better than The New York Times or Village Voice would lead you to think) has been wrested from McEwan's remorseless text, and I imagine it will do well for Focus Features with critics, audiences, and awards groups once it goes into release beginning Dec. 7.

Which is to say that with various engagements and assignments pressing I will send you to the National Board of Review, which has named it one of its top ten films of the year. (The very top honor, as the board kicks off awards season, went to No Country for Old Men.) One thing I can say for sure: It's a helluva lot better than the lachrymose The Bucket List, which I defy anyone outside of the voting bloc to recall a day after seeing it. (Some good calls on the acting side balance out the dud winners, which for me would include The Assassination of...Zzzz.)

And while I'm at it, having piggybacked off the labor of others, I humbly offer one of my periodic star lists, when I find myself unable to stop the march of time for anything more substantive...

***1/2: Atonement, No Country for Old Men
*** : Beowulf (in 3D), The Mist
**1/2 : Margot at the Wedding
** : The Walker (opens 12/7, Thinkfilm)
*1/2 : American Gangster

There. Don't say I never gave you anything. But as always more to come.