Wednesday, April 30, 2008

April Movie Watching

I saw four films theatrically this month, although the best movie of the month, Forgetting Sarah Marshall, I saw in an advance screening in March.

Shine A Light was really worthwhile, whether you’re a Stones fan or not. Scorsese did a bang-up job and even at their advanced age (referenced many times in the film) the Stones put on a great show. The interview bits past and present aren’t as good as the filming of the concert itself.

Leatherheads was decent. As the reviews it received suggest— it was just all right. Oddly, it had a ‘30s/40s film style, but is set in the 1920s. In my opinion, John Krasinski outshone his Oscar-winning co-stars.

Son of Rambow was ambitious but didn’t do much for me: I guess the filmmakers had the best intentions, however, so it’s hard to fault.

Smart People was very funny. My friends and I joked though that it was so “white” people. Then watching the movie I was embarrassed that the only time you saw anyone of color is when Thomas Hayden Church shouts to Dennis Quaid “Don’t forget, I love you…” (he was reminding him what to say to Sarah Jessica Parker) and there is a cut to three tough guys—oh brother!— the nadir of the film.

By the way, last month, I suggested that Horton Hears a Who! was destined to break into the top 100 domestic grosses— it hasn’t come close, currently at #164, with the summer movies ready to push it off the screens.

This month on TCM I watched Up the River (1930), Spencer Tracy’s first movie and Humphrey Bogart’s second. It wasn’t great and is only recommended if you’re curious to see these actors in this early part of their career—but trust me you could skip it. More interestingly to me is the terrible condition the print is in. There were, no exaggeration, over 100 jump cuts where short pieces of the film and/or sound are lost as well as scratches throughout— it seems amazing it even exists when you see what poor condition it’s in. Even though he plays a con, Bogart shows his real life Broadway actor/blueblood background, before he developed his tough guy persona.

TCM presented the two restored Abel Gance films: J’Accuse and La Roue. Both at epic length, I watched J’Accuse, which was the one I was most interested in seeing of the two. It was very good, but mostly “very good for its day.” Although it was admirable in content and technique, it didn’t really bowl me over truth be told. The restoration, however, was stunning— just perfect. I’m glad I saw it but, easily, Napoleon is far and away Gance’s lasting masterpiece. I also watched Kevin Brownlow’s hour-long 1968 BBC documentary Abel Gance: The Charm of Dynamite, covering his silent period. The documentary featured revealing behind-the-scenes footage of the making of Napoleon— illustrating its many innovative filming techniques (hand held, etc.). It speaks so highly of La Roue, I might need to catch up on that film (four hours is a big chunk of time to schedule though!).

Flipping the channels, I caught the “Easy To Love” number from the Jimmy Stewart-Eleanor Powell musical Born to Dance— odd number but nice song (I knew the song from an old album of movie songs I had once borrowed from the library as a kid: it was funny to happen to catch this exact moment of the film after all these years).

Tuesday, April 29, 2008

This Month on TCM: David Lean's "Brief Encounter" (1945)

Tomorrow, April 30th, on TCM, is one of director David Lean's classic "pre-epic" films, Brief Encounter. This British film earned Oscar nominations for Actress, Director, and Screenplay.

Brief Encounter is about a married woman who has a chance meeting with a man at the train station and eventually falls in love with him. The story is very simple and compared to its American "weepie" counterparts, comes off so much more true-to-life.

Celia Johnson (as Laura Jesson) anchors the story and it's through her eyes (and her narration) that the film unfolds. It's most striking device is that of the flashback opening that's repeated as the final scene. Laura's frustration at her chatterbox friend Dolly makes this scene (in both versions)— it calls out how other people can be so self-involved that they spoil what could be the most significant moments of your life.

The film is set in pre-World War II London, where Laura meets Alec, a doctor, who helps get a piece of grit out of her eye. Laura is on her weekly shopping trip and she doesn't think much about the incident until the following week when she bumps into Alec again and a romance is kindled. The play on which the film is based is Noel Coward's "Still Life." The Coward material is adapted well— rarely does a stage play escape it's origins— Brief Encounter is freed from the stage by Lean's narrative devices.

Despite its infidelity plotline, the movie is among the most sweepingly romantic in film history. The film is set against the striking Rachmaninov Piano Concerto No. 2. The music adds to the romantic nature of the film, helped also by the high key lighting photography.

The Oscars got it right in naming its three nominations. Although co-star Trevor Howard works well as the doctor, Celia Johnson carries the film: had the casting been off by the slightest there would be no movie here. Were Lean and his co-writers slightly off tone, slightly off structure, it would have fallen apart.

Brief Encounter is one of those classics, like Casablanca, in which everything just seems right.

Brief Encounter (1945): "Despite its modest scope and potentially immoral plot, this is a sweeping romance that serves as a vehicle for one of the great female performances in film.

Monday, April 28, 2008

"2001: A Space Odyssey": The Ultimate Trip Celebrates Its 40th Anniversary

Put the 2001 movie soundtrack into itunes and activate the visualizer: it’s trippy. Just like the film, that this month, shockingly, celebrates its 40th anniversary.

2001: A Space Odyssey with Bonnie & Clyde, The Graduate, Midnight Cowboy, and The Wild Bunch (among a few others) is one of a group of films that changed the art of filmmaking in the late 1960s. Just like all of these films, 2001 split critical taste. It was additionally bested by, of all movies, the musical adaptation of Dickens’s Oliver TwistOliver!— at the Academy Awards.

2001 is about knowledge. The main story follows a mission to Jupiter that goes awry when the supercomputer onboard, the HAL 9000, takes its goals at achieving the assignment far too calculatedly. HAL abuses knowledge; and he is a reflection of man.

The film begins with a “Dawn of Man” sequence. Ape-like “humans” discover that animal bones can be used as tools/weapons. This sequence is rough going to old and new viewers alike. The apes are played by actors in ape suits— and its painfully obvious; the backdrops frequently show themselves for what they are. The sequence was cut down considerably by Kubrick after the preview. The importance of the sequence is in showing that a “monolith” appears to man— a mysterious black slab-—of some powerful but unknown origin, at the “birth” of his knowledge: which will appear throughout the film at various junctures. If this set-up wasn’t crucial, I bet Kubrick would have considered dropping the entire sequence. I have no doubt that the preview cards recommended this.

However, the sequence ends with one of the most frequently clipped and most well-known cuts in film history: the bone into the “floating” spaceship, with the strains of “The Blue Danube.” Thus begins the “slow” part of the film where we follow the spaceship to the space station, then another ship to the moon. In between is some very well-mounted suspense about the top secret happenings on the moon. And there is a look at future technology as guessed by Clarke and Kubrick to marvel at on board the spacecrafts.

The centerpiece of the film, in which actors Keir Dullea and Gary Lockwood as astronauts Dave and Frank, respectively, do battle with the HAL 9000 is riveting, in part because what has preceded (and what will follow) are so obscure. For me this is what makes 2001 a great film. It’s as if Kubrick (and Arthur C. Clarke) said, well this movie is difficult, it deals in “big” ideas. And so, we’ll make most of the movie a thriller. And not just that, but a thriller that supports our thesis— that man is so hopelessly inept at attaining divine knowledge that even his most sophisticated and astonishing advances in technology will be his undoing.

Now, of course, that is one interpretation. The ending is nebulous. This is part of the reason why the film was so lambasted on its release. The critics wondered, did even the filmmakers know what they wanted to say.

The entertainment value of the middle piece and the opening up for discussion of the idea of divine understanding is what we’re left with. A book called The Making of Kubrick’s 2001 edited by Jerome Agel came out shortly after the film’s release. Within this book is a letter from a High School student named Margaret Stackhouse that Kubrick said had “speculations on the film [that were] the most intelligent [he’d] read anywhere.” She wrote a four-and-a-half page synopsis of the film’s themes. In the end, she offers a pessimistic view of the film (that man may never become more “divine”— all chances for rebirth may be a mere mockery) or an optimistic view (that man will never be able to understand more, but that he will use his understanding better).

I find that 2001 is not a movie for your every mood but it does warrant repeat viewings as the mood strikes you. The film may have been overly ambitious, certainly highfalutin, and too ambiguous to fully appreciate but it’s an experience that draws you in and strikes untapped emotional cords, and thereby offers its own form of knowledge, in a sense, through a unique cinema outing.

2001: A Space Odyssey (1968): A meshing of a science-fiction thriller with ideas of divine knowledge offers an original movie experience open to both individual taste and interpretation.

Sunday, April 27, 2008

TCM Premieres Abel Gance Films

As I noted in a blog entry in November, two Abel Gance silents have been restored. The two epic films are being shown on TCM tonight, plus a one-hour documentary. I plan on watching at least the 2.5-hour-plus J'Accuse (1919) [still photo, left] which has been on my must-see list (I could never find it— now I'm glad since any version previous to this would have been a greatly mutilated cut): I'll offer my thoughts in my April end-of-the-month wrap-up.

The films come out on DVD May 5th (La Roue) and September 2 (J'Accuse).

La Roue Amazon link.

Flicker Alley website.

Saturday, April 26, 2008

61st Festival de Cannes

The line up for this year's Cannes Film Festival features some interesting U.S. and International films. When I looked up last year's winner and found that it had been 4 Months, 3 Weeks, 2 Days, I was reminded at how shabbily that brilliant film was received in the U.S.— not even garnering an Oscar nomination for Best Foreign language film. Now the Cannes winners have all been a little odd, but other than the Foreign Film Oscar, they shine the strongest spotlight on international cinema.

What I'm mostly interested in this year is the reception of screenwriter Charlie Kaufman's directorial debut: Synecdoche, New York. Will this be a Pulp Fiction-like debut? On the other side of the spectrum, could Clint Eastwood's Changeling give him a late career competitive win at the Festival (he won the Golden Coach award for Mystic River), with this, his fifth film in competition? And then there's Steven Soderbergh's epic Che Guevara film.

U.S.A. out of competition films include: Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, Kung Fu Panda, and Woody Allen's Vicky Cristina Barcelona.

Official site.

Variety article.

Friday, April 25, 2008

Budd Schulberg Gets WGA Laurel Honors

The top award for screenwriting life achievement was given to Budd Schulberg, now 94. Schulberg, according to the Hollywood Reporter (link) received two standing ovations, and noted that there was a time when you had to join the Guild secretly because Irving Thalberg and the other movie moguls were so oppressive.

Just a brief gripe about the WGA's Laurel award choices. The award generally goes to someone who made their most significant mark in film two or three decades previous and in Schulberg's case, what, fifty years ago? I really wish they'd get a little more contemporary. I think the closest they've come in recent years was giving the award to Ruth Prawer Jhabvala in 1994 after her one-two punch of Howard's End (1992) and The Remains of the Day (1993). Link to past winners.

The Schulberg choice is definitely a result of his living so long: he didn't get it sooner because there were too many people around who'd remember or been affected by his controversial appearance before HUAC in 1951 as a friendly witness. Abraham Polonsky would have been picketing had he been alive. Had the award been given ten years ago it probably would have received similar reception as that of Kazan's 1999 honorary Oscar (link).

Schulberg's work with Elia Kazan is his lasting contribution to film, as screenwriter of On the Waterfront (1954) and A Face in the Crowd (1957), although he's really known for his 1941 novel What Makes Sammy Run? Waterfront does seem to continue to resonate with the critics and public. Despite its connection to the blacklist it has made both versions of AFI's top 100 list.

Thursday, April 24, 2008

And Then There Was One: Madeleine LeBeau Is Last Living "Casablanca" Cast Member

Joy Page has passed at the age of 83. She has long been one of the last living cast members of Casablanca. She played the young Bulgarian newlywed who Rick helps get the money she needs to escape the city without having to resort to Captain Renault's usual "price."

With her passing, just Madeleine LeBeau remains— she played Yvonne in the film (most memorably she sings "La Marseillaise" with the crowd at Rick's Cafe: shouting "Vive La France" at the end).

Wednesday, April 23, 2008

Oscar Nomination for Harrison Ford?

So whether or not Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull lands in the top spot for the year or not, it will certainly be Harrison Ford's biggest movie in years. And in late August just at the start of Oscar buzz, he'll star in a high profile drama called Crossing Over.

Harrison Ford has received a grand total of one career Oscar nomination, for 1985's Witness. And how many articles and interviews about Indiana Jones have focused of Ford's age? I wonder, if he's any good in Crossing Over, if the Academy will think it's time to at least award him a second nomination? This is total speculation as the trailer for Crossing Over isn't out and who knows if Ford will be worthy. But he'll certainly be on the Oscar radar more than in any year in recent memory.

Tuesday, April 22, 2008

EW's Summer Movie Preview: The Fine Print

As always, within Entertainment Weekly's summer movies issue is that little box at the end of each month's listing from May to August in which the "smaller" movies get a half-sentence to sentence mention. Usually, they deserve the little mention that they get. But I've slogged through and below is a list of what looks like the most interesting contenders of the group.

The Fall (imdb link) (trailer) (wikipedia link)

Bigger, Stronger, Faster (imdb link) (wikipedia link)

The Unknown Woman (imdb link) (trailer) (wikipedia link)

Trumbo (imdb link)

Religulous (imdb link) (Bill Maher on Larry King You Tube link)

Boy A (imdb link) (wikipedia link)

Choke (imdb link) (wikipedia link)

Monday, April 21, 2008

Summer Movie 2008 Box Office Predix

In Entertainment Weekly's "summer movie preview" issue are their predictions for the top ten grossing films of the summer. Although last year they skipped it for some reason, they're back at it again and I'm ready to take on the predix challenge!

EW says: (1.) Indiana Jones $355.9 million (2.) Prince Caspian $310.8 million (3.) Hancock $280.4 million (4.) Wall-E $280.3 million (5.) Iron Man $262.7 million (6.) Dark Knight $255.0 million (7.) Kung Fu Panda $224.6 million (8.) The Mummy: Dragon Emperor $176.5 million (9.) Incredible Hulk $147.2 million (10.) Tropic Thunder $142.6

My thoughts: First off, my thinking is NEVER underestimate Star Wars fans. It's tough to know exactly where it'll place but I think Clone Wars will do very well. Indiana Jones, I agree with EW, will do unbelievable business— I think it'll do a slightly bigger number than even EW predicts. There has been some rumbling that Iron Man will not be that huge a hit, so I think the gross might miss the $200 mark. Speed Racer is killing me: EW nor anyone else thinks it'll do well— even breaking $100 million seems a reach to most— but I'm gonna give it the benefit of the doubt. Harry Potter 2 did not best Harry Potter 1 so why does EW think that Narnia 2 will best Narnia 1?— I don't, particularly since it's not based on a current bestseller. However, I think it'll be close to Narnia 1's $291.7 million. This might just be my personal preference but I don't think anyone cares about Hulk at this point. Now EW's $147.2 prediction isn't a very big number these days, but I swear I wouldn't be shocked if it totally tanked and didn't even reach $100 million. Get Smart, also not on EW's list, is another possible wild-card. Kung Fu Panda— tough call: I'd normally lean toward EW's prediction that it'd be big. But— the big BUT— is that Panda is sandwiched in between Indiana Jones and Wall-E and it could get lost in the shuffle. Panda has had a ton of publicity, however. I think Wall-E is money in the bank: I really see this movie as a $300+. I just can't make up my mind on Hancock. I always underestimate Will Smith. The Will Smith flop must be coming. And you know the damn thing is called Hancock! Then again EW is right about the tried and true formula: Will Smith + July 4th weekend= hit. The real question is how Dark Knight will fare. There's a definite possibility of been there, done that. Many posters on the internet are predicting it will be the summer's #1 movie. And everyone wants to see Heath Ledger as Joker. A lot of buzz. Somehow though, I like EW's more conservative number: I'd go even a little less. This might be my big screw-up though. Tropic Thunder I just can't see being on the top ten, especially since it's so late in the season and they'll be a TON of choices for moviegoers by that time. The Mummy: Dragon Emperor— another tough call. I want to see it. But is there enough interest, particularly in that long shadow of Indy?

My predictions for Domestic Box Office Gross Summer 2008:

(1.) Indiana Jones: $365 million
(2.) Wall-E: $315 million
(3.) Prince Caspian: $275 million
(4.) Dark Knight: $245 million
(5.) Hancock: $215 million
(6.) Iron Man: $190 million
(7.) Star Wars: Clone Wars: $175 million
(8.) Get Smart: $155 million
(9.) Speed Racer: $140 million
(10.) Kung Fu Panda: $130 million

The big questions:

1. Will Indiana Jones be the #1 movie of the summer?
2. Will The Dark Knight give Indy a run for the money?
3. Will Iron Man crack $200 million?
4. Will Speed Racer tank?
5. Will any summer movie earn as much as last year's biggest: Spider-Man 3 ($336.5)?

Sunday, April 20, 2008

Summer Movie Preview 2008

Entertainment Weekly gives us their annual Summer Movie Preview: my favorite issue of the year (even besting the Oscar issues).

Below I've ranked the ten films of the summer I'm most excited to see. This year seems to have a tent pole film EVERY weekend (sometimes two) [this I realize stretches the definition of a tent pole movie a bit (i.e. the single film of the season for a studio)]. I've arranged my list around the weekends of release. Who would have thought that summer 2008 would bring us not only a new Indiana Jones movie but a new Star Wars film too!

Films on my list for summer 2008:

May 2: Iron Man (#5) and Son of Rambow
May 9: Speed Racer (#7) and What Happens in Vegas
May 16: The Chronicles of Narnia: Prince Caspian (#6)
May 22/23: Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull (#1)
May 30: n/a (the tent pole film this weekend is Sex and the City: no interest)
June 6: You Don't Mess With the Zohan and Kung Fu Panda [I saw a special screening of Mother of Tears last year]
June 13: The Foot Fist Way [not a tent pole film, but lotsa buzz] (the tent pole films this weekend are The Incredible Hulk— for some reason I can't get excited about this movie— and The Happening [after being burned by M. Night Shyamalan's The Village I held off on Lady in the Water until the reviews came out: when it was panned I skipped it; if the reviews for The Happening are great I'll go: but we'll see.]
June 20: Get Smart
June 27: Wall-E (#4) and Wanted (#8)
July 2-4: Hancock
July 11: Journey to the Center of the Earth 3-D and Hellboy II: The Golden Army
July 18: The Dark Knight (#3)
July 25: The X-Files: I Want To Believe
August 1: The Mummy: Tomb of the Dragon Emperor and Choke
August 8: Pineapple Express (#10)
August 15: Star Wars: The Clone Wars (#2) (the other tent pole film this weekend is Tropic Thunder— I dunno about this one.)
August 22: The House Bunny (tent pole status questionable)
August 29: Vicky Cristina Barcelona (#9) (OK, hardly a tent pole film!)

Other maybes on the list include: The Fall (5/9), The Love Guru (6/20), Step Brothers (7/25), Meet Dave (7/11), and Crossing Over (8/22).

Saturday, April 19, 2008

Chapter Closes for Classic Disney Animation/ Review of Classic "Bambi" (1942)

Ollie Johnston, the last of Disney's Nine Old Men, died on Monday. Link to Wikipedia.

The Nine Old Men worked on the Disney features from Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs to The Rescuers. If I had to pick one of these classic films as the best, I'd struggle not to say Snow White or Fantasia or the delightful Lady and the Tramp, or the ever-enduring 101 Dalmatians; or acknowledged frontrunners: Dumbo and Pinocchio.

However, I think the single best of the classic Disney films is Bambi.

Ollie Johnston was a supervising animator on Bambi (he and Frank Thomas were the main animators for the Thumper character).

Bambi is the supreme achievement of Walt Disney’s classic feature-length animated films. The fabric of Bambi is woven into a seamless whole by Disney’s top talent and you could argue the film is also the first to take the technique of animation seriously as a melding (that is beyond Snow White and Fantasia) of stylistic animation technique and traditional narrative.

The movie tells the simple story of the experiences from birth to adulthood of a male fawn in the forest. When Bambi is born there is a flutter among the animals that the new “prince” is born. It turns out that Bambi is the offspring of the most respected buck in the forest, the oldest and most revered of all the deer.

Bambi goes through his first moments as a human child would. In a very curious sequence he even learns how to talk! In fact, Disney animators based Bambi’s facial expressions on a human baby’s expressions. If you parallel Bambi’s experience with the human experience, the viewer might wonder, whom does “man” represent in the movie? It’s not that much of a stretch to consider the outside threat a reference to the then Nazi menace: that “man" in the film is also, in some way, a 1942 reflection of the threat to democracy of the Axis powers on the democratic ideal.

Putting 1942 aside, the movie exists in any time and the old-fashioned animation style, although it became inevitably dated, retains a mystical quality. This is greatly enhanced by the choral songs that accompany many scenes, such as the early “April Showers” sequence. The score has a definite orchestral quality, and there are some mini-Fantasia-like moments throughout. The impressionistic backgrounds, credited to Disney artist Tyrus Wong, are breathtaking at times (Wong left Disney studios following an animator’s strike and Bambi represents his only major work for the studio).

Disney’s established sense of character is also strong in Bambi. As Bambi grows up he gets to know some of the creatures in the forest and bonds particularly with Flower (a skunk) and Thumper (a bunny). The characterization of Thumper is particularly memorable. Unknown beginner Peter Behn voiced the young Thumper and the childlike innocence (with a dash of elder knowledge) that he imparts, captures truth.

As the animals grow to adults, we see that although the filmmakers have painted the Bambi story as an “ideal,” particularly the characterization of his parents, the rest of the animals fill-in the more realistic relationships of everyday life. And if the courtships of the main trio with their female counterparts are a bit simplistic, the choice of song and the approach to the animation for Bambi and Faline sequence shows a much more mature romance. Plus, Friend Owl’s explanation of love (“twitterpatted”) is an animated comedy tour-de-force.

The daring use of lighting, particularly the use of silhouette also marks Bambi. The forest is very rarely just a bright, happy place. It is indeed the deep forest: it’s dense, and there is danger, and it turns out not just from hunters but by other man-made threats, which result in the film’s climax.

The drama of the film is expressed in the animation technique, but also by cinematic means. The fluid camera movement, the multi-plane depth of focus (pioneered in Disney’s 1937 short The Old Mill), and one very notable silence in the musical score are examples of these devices.

I doubt very many people who see Bambi as an adult, whether they saw the movie as a child or not, are unaware of the fate of a certain character, but I’d still rather not give it away. I will say that the various foreshadowing from the “You must never rush out on the meadow” warning to Bambi, onward are timed perfectly. In fact, the movie is timed perfectly. Bambi makes his last childhood discovery— he sees snow for the first time— and we’re halfway through… it’s a lean 69-and-a-half-minutes, and there isn’t a frame of waste.

In addition to the film as entertainment, Bambi is an acknowledged inspiration to latter 20th Century animators. It was a direct influence on Disney Studio’s own The Lion King. And animators point out the strides made by Disney in just five years when you compare the animation of the deer in Snow White to the deer in Bambi (less than five— since production began on Bambi simultaneous with Snow White’s release).

There isn’t one fault in the film; it’s one of the true masterpieces, not just of animation, but of cinema.

Bambi (1942): A moving and memorable story expressed by the top talent of Walt Disney’s classic animation team that is simply told, but dramatically rich and visually stunning.

Friday, April 18, 2008

National Film Registry's "The Sex Life of A Polyp" Posted on Internet Archive

I first thought The Sex Life of A Polyp was a legitimate documentary film, as did I'm sure everyone to whom I showed the 2007 National FIlm Registry's list, who wanted to find a movie on it to snicker about (just about everyone said "At last The Sex Life of A Polyp made the list!" or some such comment).

Well it turns out that this 1928 film is an eleven-minute Robert Benchley comedy short subject, of the very dry humor variety. It's now been posted on the Internet Archive and although the picture and sound quality leave much to be desired, you get the idea.

Link to short.

The film is also on a Kino DVD collection, but according to user comments on Amazon, the picture/sound quality is also under par for these rare shorts. Looks like a fun collection though.

Thursday, April 17, 2008

Tati Time?

The Criterion Collection has announced it's new slate of upcoming DVDs, which includes Jacques Tati's Trafic. This will mean that Tati's entire "M. Hulot" oeurve will have gotten the Criterion treatment— M. Hulot's Holiday, Mon Oncle, Playtime (plus the short Cours du soir), and Trafic.

I've seen but two of these films and with completely divergent opinions of them. I've only seen it once but I found Mon Oncle to be torturous. Through the years I've discovered that I'm not alone in this assessment. Then for some reason I gave Tati and Hulot another chance by watching M. Hulot's Holiday— which I loved. Its a nice "getaway" and has so many funny moments. So now what? Well, with the newest Criterion release and having never seen Playtime, frequently considered Tati's masterpiece, I must say I'm tempted to take a look and see if my reaction to Mon Oncle is a fluke, or if, indeed, I only have the tolerance for Holiday.

Wednesday, April 16, 2008

Frank Capra's "Our Mr. Sun" (1956) and Other TV Docs

From 1956-58, Frank Capra wrote, directed, and produced a series of four television documentaries that aired several months apart for the Bell Telephone System. They were: Our Mr. Sun (1956), on the composition of the sun, its effects on the Earth, and the use of solar energy; Hemo the Magnificent (1957), about the circulatory system in the human body; The Strange Case of Cosmic Rays (1957), about the effect of cosmic rays on the Earth; and The Unchained Goddess (1958), about weather study.

The first of the series, Our Mr. Sun, is available on the Internet Archive. The third, The Strange Case of Cosmic Rays, is on You Tube. I watched Our Mr. Sun and although was bored through the first twenty minutes or so, I then got into it, particularly the talk of solar energy (coming back around these days). I ultimately found it charming and interesting. It was also nice that Lionel Barrymore was one of the voices, a reuniting with Capra since It's A Wonderful Life, and surely one of his last performances (he died in 1954). The Strange Case of Cosmic Rays, despite the presence of the Bil and Cora Baird puppets, is dull. An eye-opening one-minute excerpt of The Unchained Goddess is on You Tube which addresses global warming a la An Inconvenient Truth. (All four are available on DVD.)

Link to Our Mr. Sun from the Internet Archive NOTE: It will run smoothly after it loads all the way.

Embed of The Strange Case of Cosmic Rays: Part 1 (full three parts total available) from You Tube:

Embed of global warming excerpt from The Unchained Goddess from You Tube:

Tuesday, April 15, 2008

2008-09 TV Season Pilots

The pilots line-up has been announced in the trades. Here's what looks good to me:

Cleveland (FOX): "Family Guy spinoff centered on Cleveland Brown (Mike Henry)."— C'mon, it's gotta be good!

Boldly Going Nowhere (FOX): "High-concept comedy about what happens day-to-day on an intergalactic spaceship."— From the It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia crew!

Courtroom K (FOX): "Darly comedic courtroom drama in the vein of House, which is set in a Milwaukee Superior Court; jonathan Sadowski and Michael Landes co-star."— Sounds intriguing and with a good pedigree: Oscar-nominated writer Paul Attanasio (Donnie Brasco) and directors Anthony and Joe Russo (Arrested Development).

Life on Mars (ABC): "21st century detective Jason O'Mara finds himself working as a cop in the 1970s; based on the BBC series."— This is from David E. Kelley and Thomas Schlamme, and seems just odd enough to pan out.

The Office spinoff (NBC): No details on this, and I think it's too soon for a spinoff, but then again...

Sit Down, Shut Up (FOX): "Seven staff members at a high school are preoccupied with their own needs and agendas; this animated series is based on the live-action Australian series; with Jason Bateman, Cheri Oteri, Will Forte."— From Arrested Development's Mitch Hurwitz and Two and a Half Men's Eric and Kim Tannenbaum.

Austin Golden Hour (CW): "A real-time medical drama that follows a close-knit team of young emergency room surgeons and emergency medical technicians in Austin during the critical, adrenaline-filled 60 minutes immediately following a truma, known as 'the golden hour'; Justin Hartley and Michael Trevino co-star."— From ER medical consultant (and Emmy-winning writer) Lance Gentile and UK TV veteran Mal Young.

Cedric (ABC): "Guy (Cedric the Entertainer) copes with his wife's (Regina Hall) hobby becoming a big enterprise."— Hate the lame title, but I like Cedric the Entertainer, and the Honeymooners-like premise could be fun for a while.

The Mentalist (CBS): "A mentalist (Simon Baker) uses his skills of observation to solve crimes as an independent detective working with the police."— A much-needed mystery-like show; from Bruno Heller (Rome) and David Nutter (The X-Files).

Merlin (NBC): "BBC fantasy series set in Camelot, which chronicles the early lives of Merlin (Colin Morgan) and Arthur (Bradley James). Anthony Head, Richard Wilson, Angel Coulby and Katie McGrath also star."— Could be fun.

Virtuality (FOX): "The human condition is tested during a long range NASA mission."— Sounds cool; Martin Campbell (Casino Royale) directs two-hour pilot.

Castle (ABC): "Comedic procedural about a famous mystery novelist helping the NYPD solve crimes."— Again, haven't had a true mystery series in a while (outside of Monk); admittedly the production team of Andrew Marlowe (Hollow Man) and Armyan Bernstein (The Hurricane) don't exactly add up to "funny mystery TV show."

Then there's a new Mike Judge animated series, a couple of series from the producers of How I Met Your Mother, an X-Men-like series called Section 8 from X-Men screenwriter Zak Penn, a Glenn Gordon Caron romantic drama with Amy Smart (lame premise about a dead woman who has to help others in order to "pass over"; but Caron did do Moonlighting so I'll give it the benefit of the doubt), a Joss Whedon series, a J. J. Abrams series, a remake of Knight Rider, and (lucky us!) a Beverly Hills 90210 spinoff.

Monday, April 14, 2008

81st Annual Oscar Dates Announced

The 81st Annual Academy Awards will take place on February 22, 2009. The big switch date-wise for 2009 is that the nominations will be announced on a Thursday rather than a Tuesday due to the Presidential Inauguration.

Here are the dates:

Monday, December 1, 2008: Official Screen Credits forms due
Friday, December 26, 2008: Nominations ballots mailed
Monday, January 12, 2009: Nominations polls close 5 p.m. PT
Thursday, January 22, 2009: Nominations announced 5:30 a.m. PT
Wednesday, January 28, 2009: Final ballots mailed
Monday, February 2, 2009: Nominees Luncheon
Saturday, February 7, 2009: Scientific and Technical Achievement Awards
Tuesday, February 17, 2009: Final polls close 5 p.m. PT
Sunday, February 22, 2009: 81st Annual Academy Awards presentation

Link to press release.

300-odd days until the Oscars!

Sunday, April 13, 2008

Clone Wars Trailer

Fall TV (Cartoon Network/TNT) series looks good. Interesting that there's an August 15 feature length film preview. I've caught up on the entire run of the previous Star Wars: Clone Wars series (2003-05) which runs 133 minutes total on DVD and I thought it was well done. I like the fact that it wasn't trying to mimick the tone of the films but stayed true to a more "cartoon" universe (if the humor got a little out-of-hand in season two). I particularly enjoyed new character Asajj Ventress, "a disciple of the dark side and sworn enemy of the Jedi" (photo, left).

Here's the (lengthy) trailer:

Saturday, April 12, 2008

Meryl Streep Feted by Lincoln Center

Meryl Streep is the 2008 Film Society of Lincoln Center Gala Tribute honoree. The Lincoln Center has been honoring a living movie legend each year since 1972 (link to list). Their timing seems to have been off a little lately but this year they chose well with Meryl Streep.

Meryl Streep won her Oscars so early in her career (1979/80 and 1982/83) that she has spent the last 25 years Oscarless. For my money she should have won the Oscar for The Devil Wears Prada. And although I liked Helen Mirren and I thought The Queen was a better movie than Prada, Streep gave the performance of the year.

The first Meryl Streep film I saw theatrically, I'm happy to report, was Postcards From the Edge. Happy to report, because it was one of her benchmark performances, and a change of pace for her. I've seen many Streep films since, but not all. There are two films that vie for my favorite Streep perrformances since 1990 (outside of Prada)— The Bridges of Madison County (1995) and Adaptation (2002).

Like so many others, I thought little of the bestselling book, but what a great movie Eastwood turned out in Bridges. It was one of the few of his later day performances in which he wasn't too old to play the part. And Streep, in another of her "accent" roles, was perfection.

I can see why she picked up the Oscar for Sophie's Choice but I thought Jane Alexander should have won for Kramer Vs. Kramer (they were both up for the award). Her best performance pre-1990 is probably (the frequently parodied) A Cry in the Dark (1988).

Another good choice, Lincoln Center.

Friday, April 11, 2008

Billy Wilder on DVD

With the release this month of The Major and the Minor on DVD, Billy Wilder's oeuvre gets that much closer to completion on disc. In the VHS days, the only holdout was Ace in the Hole (which got the Criterion treatment on DVD). Maybe poor VHS sales are why there are still a few Wilders unreleased on DVD.

To date, 22 of Wilder's 26 films (as director) are available on (Region 1) DVD, as follows:

Mauvaise Graine (co-dir., 1933) DVD
The Major and the Minor (1942) DVD
Five Graves to Cairo (1943) VHS
Double Indemnity (1944) DVD
The Lost Weekend (1945) DVD
The Emperor Waltz (1948) DVD [with Connecticut Yankee]
A Foreign Affair (1948) VHS
Sunset Boulevard (1950) DVD
Ace in the Hole (1951) DVD
Stalag 17 (1953) DVD
Sabrina (1954) DVD
The Seven Year Itch (1955) DVD
The Spirit of St. Louis (1957) DVD
Love in the Afternoon (1957) DVD
Witness for the Prosecution (1958) DVD
Some Like It Hot (1959) DVD
The Apartment (1960) DVD
One Two Three (1961) DVD
Irma La Douce (1963) DVD
Kiss Me Stupid (1964) DVD
The Fortune Cookie (1966) DVD
The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes (1970) DVD
Avanti! (1972) DVD
The Front Page (1974) DVD
Fedora (1978) VHS
Buddy Buddy (1981) VHS

Thursday, April 10, 2008

"30 Rock" and "The Office" Return

So after quite some time, the two best network sitcoms returned with new episodes. Could they come out of forced hibernation unscathed? 30 Rock seemed a bit rough around the edges. It had a number of laughs though. And of course several of them came from the mouth of Alec Baldwin's Jack Donaghy. Every time Jack reminisces about childhood I should make sure I'm not about to drink something. The premise was silly and moments were forced-- there seemed to be a let's have each character speak rule-- but I think it did OK.

The Office also tried to find ways of reminding the audience who each character was in the ensemble. This new episode, based around a disastrous dinner party thrown by Michael, was a total derailment of a near-flawless show. The conceit of the "interviews" seemed hopelessly unreal as the characters were interviewed in Michael's bathroom. And every situation was totally over-the-top. This starts people whispering the phrase "jump the shark" around the water cooler. I think when the show gets back into "the office" it might get back on it's feet. As for this single episode: a major disappointment, but probably still better than half the stuff out there.

Wednesday, April 9, 2008

Orson Welles' "Filming Othello"

Someone has recently posted Filming Othello on You Tube in ten parts. Filming Othello, is, for better or worse, Orson Welles' last film. I saw the film at a revival house on the big screen and found it unwatchable. People fell asleep in the audience. So it was with trepidation that I clicked on part one of it on You Tube.

Othello (1952) was the beginning of the movie-making-as-adventure part of Welles' career, representing the better part of that career. Welles called it "hustle" filmaking but I think he enjoyed it to some extent: not that he enjoyed having to sing-for-his-supper and finance his own films, but that he could provide the fodder for tales he could spin about their making. The film has been dismissed critically by many: in Joseph McBride's critical survey of Welles he calls the movie "severely flawed," "self-absorbed and rhetorically diffuse." When the film was restored, it gained some new respect, however. I like it a lot.

Watching the opening minutes of Filming Othello, you see the elder Welles in full nostalgia mode. He notes the importance of the editing process. He says that a movie could be destroyed in the editing room ("savaged out of existence") and you wince a bit knowing that he is referring to so many of his own mangled works, particularly The Magnificent Ambersons. By the mid-70s when Welles' career as a director was in crisis, I think he enjoyed the moviola because he could spend countless hours creating movies comfortably on a shoestring and be entirely alone for much of their "making" as well. He began to make "Filming The Trial" about his 1962 film (but it was never finished).

Although he sets up a modesty about the merit of his Othello, you get the feeling that he did think highly of it, or at the very least was pleased he made (and completed) it, as he clearly believes that the source material is among the greatest dramas of all time.

Welles seems to have read much of the criticism of the film and has incorporated some of what has been written about it as his intent. To me, the best way to watch this doc. is as a college seminar on Welles' film, only that the professor giving the lecture is Welles himself.

I enjoyed watching Filming Othello much more this second time around, in parts. It's better to think of it as the television special it really was and to consider F for Fake his true swan song.

Here is the embed from You Tube to Part One (I think it will be removed one of these days so watch it soon; but then again I'm also sure the Criterion Collection Othello will come one of these days too, with Filming Othello on it)

Tuesday, April 8, 2008

Scorsese and the Stones

The Miami Herald has an article that notes the use of The Rolling Stones music in Scorsese's films (and not just Gimme Shelter). Scorsese has had a Stones song in at least four (crime) films. Not as much usage as is legend but enough to support his comments that: "What they say in their songs has really affected the attitude that turns up in characters in my movies over the years. So they've been something that's fundamental to the films I make."

Here's another really great article that quotes Scorsese at length about the use of the Stones (and his sense of humor about it) from The Orlando Sentinel.

Monday, April 7, 2008

"The Pillars of the Earth" Miniseries

Happy to report that my favorite book, Ken Follett's 1989 The Pillars of the Earth is finally going to be adapted. Not as the big screen epic I'd always hoped for, but as a miniseries. At this point, I'll take what I can get. And that's not to say a feature film couldn't still be made.

The company that's making the film is Scott Free, Inc., founded by directors Ridley Scott and Tony Scott. The company has done many notable feature films (such as American Gangster) as well as TV (they produce Numb3rs). Scott Free is producing the film with TANDEM COMMUNICATIONS.

The novel will be adapted by screenwriter John Pielmeier of Agnes to God fame.

Even though I don't get pay cable stations, I hope it is produced for one of them so it won't be censored in any way: who wants a TV14 or TVMA version.

It begins filming this month. Can't wait...

Sunday, April 6, 2008

Heston Passes, Leaving One Best Actor from the '50s

With the death of 1959 Best Actor Charlton Heston, only one Best (lead) Actor remains from the 1950s: Ernest Borgnine. Borgnine, who won his Oscar for the title role in 1955's Marty received a surprise Golden Globe nomination this year for the television movie A Grandpa For Christmas (photo left).

When the WGA went on strike, Borgnine was quoted as saying that he was still going to go to the awards show. The show was canceled opting for a televised "press conference"/pseudo-show, and Borgnine lost anyway. Now, Borgnine says that with his total movie tally at 198 feature films and television movies [although imdb lists far less], he hopes, despite being 91-years-old, to make at least 2 more movies and reach the 200-films mark.

Good luck, Ernie!

Saturday, April 5, 2008

Bette Davis Centenary

Bette Davis would have been 100 today. And she'd probably still have been working. And she certainly would have had a zinger about turning 100 to say to the press. Her famous quote "old age ain't for sissies," will have to do.

When Bette Davis died on October 6, 1989, the subsequent announcement of her death had the justified weight of a "big star" passing. It was almost surprising since, despite her old age and health problems, she seemed unstoppable. I had only just gotten into classic films when she died but I remember the press coverage well.

And at the movie theater where I saw ever single new movie that came (they only had two screens!), a poster soon went up for Wicked Stepmother. This was Bette Davis' swan song. An unfortunate one, said the critics. Despite the appearance of the poster at the theater though, the movie never came. So I never saw a Bette Davis film theatrically in the time of its release.

Bette Davis had an interesting career. Her "comeback" (although she was only just past 40) in All About Eve remains her most enduring work. But there are so many other great performances and films: Of Human Bondage (1934), The Petrified Forest (1936), Jezebel (1938), The Letter (1940), The Little Foxes (1941), and maybe my favorite Bette Davis film Now, Voyager (1942).

There are a few stinker vehicles, including some of her most famous films, like Dark Victory (1939). Dark Victory is about a headstrong socialite who won’t accept that she’s ill and a laugh-out-loud sequence occurs early on when Davis' character, in denial, goes bounding off, telling everyone she doesn’t need a doctor and then tumbles down the stairs! And it goes from on from there...

Davis said that she should have been the first actress to have won three Oscars, with a win for What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? I agree with her. She should have won. It's particularly disappointing in retrospect since it was really the last notable performance of her career (Anne Bancroft, who did win, should've won later for The Graduate).

Bette Davis is buried at Forest Lawn, and as she'd wanted, her tombstone reads, "She did it the hard way."

Friday, April 4, 2008

Cast of Thousands

This is pretty interesting and speaks to the vast change in technology in just the last decade. A few guys got together and recreated the D-Day landing a la Saving Private Ryan with little budget/resources and in 4 days. The segment aired on BBC. Here's the youtube inbed:

Thursday, April 3, 2008

TV Series Not Yet on DVD

When the entire run of Moonlighting made it out on DVD, I was pretty much satisfied with the state of things. (The original Twilight Zone series run has been out twice: so that base has been covered for a while.) There are relatively few series that I'm truly still waiting for. So many came out that I would have sworn I wanted but then when they were released I found I really didn't care that much. So I'm a little more honest about what I really want to buy. Old TV is just too hard to watch/catch up on. Long-running series are just not watchable after-the-fact. It's much more palatable to catch an episode here and there of a favorite old show while channel-surfing, rather than attempting to slog through entire seasons or runs. But some stuff that I have on my rainy day list, like Twin Peaks, are now entirely available, and it's nice to know they're out for when I get around to them.

I have a really short list of shows that I would buy on DVD right now if they came out, as follows:

1. The Mary Tyler Moore Show: Seasons 5, 6, & 7. This is a terrific show. It stands up to its reputation. I've seen almost every episode through classic TV channels, but I was actually buying and watching each season the moment it came out on DVD for the complete experience. Then about two years ago, the DVDs stopped 4 seasons in, with 3 seasons left to go. I suspect if we ever see the rest of the series at all, it will be packaged as one full series box set with a whopping price tag. But I actually do hope that at least this happens, rather than endless limbo. I'd save up to buy it.

2. Batman. The original '60s series has yet to come out and I do think I'd buy the entire run 1966-68. Is there anyone who doesn't find this show a guilty pleasure?

3. Crazy Like A Fox. This detective show was something I watched as a kid and although in my childhood mind it was a long-running show, there are only 35 episodes and one TV movie (made to test the waters for continuing the series: it wasn't renewed). So, for nostalgia's sake, and since I could watch the entire run again, I'd get it.

4. Scarecrow and Mrs. King. Another childhood favorite. And just 88 episodes.

5. The Knights of Prosperity. This is my favorite recent short-lived series. It managed 10 episodes and there are three unaired ones. Just slap it out on DVD already powers-that-be!

Wednesday, April 2, 2008

Earliest Sound Recording Discovered: It Dates to 1860

This is off-topic but is pretty interesting and has some relationship to film. Thomas Edison's sound recordings date to the late 1870s, about a decade before the invention of film. But it turns out that Frenchman Edouard-Leon Scott de Martinville beat him to it: a new discovery puts recorded sound back about two more decades, to April 1860.

The New York Times article on the discovery states that the recording was found earlier this month— a 10-second piece of "Au Clair de la Lune." You can listen to the recording on the Times site or at Wikipedia's Edouard-Leon Scott de Martinville page. It's not earth-shattering but worth 10 seconds of your time.

A really cool side note on the Wikipedia's page: "Of further interest, indeed the Holy Grail of archaeophonography, is the recording of Abraham Lincoln's voice supposedly made in Washington D.C. in 1863 using Scott's Phonautograph. It is unclear at present whether this recording was actually made, but a phonautographic tracing of Lincoln's voice was supposedly included among the artifacts kept by Edison."

That would be a find!

Tuesday, April 1, 2008

Print Movie Critics Getting the Heave-Ho

So today's New York Times had an article about the recent trend of dropping "secondary" film critics in the print medium— some well-known— in light of "Web alternatives" and due to the media recession.

It's so easy to drop the "second" movie critic in a recession. Owen Gleiberman of Entertainment Weekly was quoted as saying: "That the Village Voice doesn't want to pay for two staff movie critics is a joke... There is so much to cover." Exactly. Will there be an outcry because every foreign and independent movie didn't get covered? No. So the powers that be figure they can get by covering the "big" movies to cut corners. And as they say in the article, they'll employ freelancers to cover some of the rest. How lame. So, yes, until the economy improves it'll be that much harder for great small films to get championed. Or to come across a great piece of film criticism.

The article then goes on to say: "Given that movie blogs are strewn about the Web like popcorn on a theater floor, there are those who say that movie criticism is not going away, it's just appearing on a different platform." This I don't quite believe. I don't think bloggers are taking over. I think the "secondary" critic will be back, after the economy improves. And maybe, yes, perhaps online only. But we'll see them again. And we'll see their professional reviews. And us bloggers are just a nice extra layer of thoughts and opinions.