December 2009 - Posts

What year did they invent politics again?

Yesterday I was mugged. After spending the day waiting at police stations and banks, I finally ended up back at home, dispirited and having been away from you, gentle reader, for far too long. I fired up all the blogs I would've normally gone through hours ago, and instantly, there was balm for my weary soul. Big Hollywood gifted me with one last inane faux-controversy to end the year, about one of my least favorite people. "Will Ben Mankiewicz Be Allowed to Destroy Turner Classic Movies?" the headline screamed. This would be the same Mankiewicz who, til of late, co-hosted the failed post-Ebert "At the Movies" alongside the feckless Ben Lyons. Of the two Bens, it was the obviously overwhelmed Lyons who got most of the hatred; next to his co-host's proudly know-nothing enthusiasm, Mankiewicz came off as just about okay. But now that he's out on his own, there's...

Marvin Hamlisch's "The Informant!", the film score of the year.

Because few people pay close attention to film composers, they can pretty much say whatever the hell they think on the rare occasions someone thinks to interview them. As a result, "Where The Wild Things Are" composer Carter Burwell provides as much concrete information on the film's studio-meeting turmoil as anyone on record yet in an interview in Moving Image Source. In 4,000+ dense, fascinating words, the plainspoken Burwell opens up. A man I always thought of as a provider of ready-made, generically plaintive music (is there anything more basic than the "Being John Malkovich" theme?), but the man himself is perfectly aware of his role as studio hand-holder. When Warner Bros. wasn't comfortable having Karen O score everything, Burwell got brought in: "It was just a comfort thing for Warner Bros. to know that there was going to be some composer who would handle that job on that scene,"...

"Sherlock Holmes" by Dan Brown.

Long story, but over the weekend I found myself simultaneously within arm's length of Dan Brown's latest novel -- "The Lost Symbol," the fastest selling adult-market novel in history (whatever that means) -- and in a movie theater watching "Sherlock Holmes," the Guy Ritchie abortion I had no plans of seeing. It was awfully clever of Ritchie to excuse his normally ADD-via-cubism editing scheme by having Holmes explain in slo-mo how he fights people, then speeding it up. I take it this proves that Ritchie isn't editing too fast, just that you're too slow to catch up to the future. Nonetheless, there was an awful lot of dim CGI, sound and fury and the perpetually annoying Rachel McAdams (though that might just be me), and it all ground on for a long time before it was over. One of the things that didn't particularly bother me, at least going on,...

The seven most influential filmmaking countries of the '00s.

At the Telegraph, critic (and former professor of mine) Sukhdev Sandhu writes about "the sorry decline of American cinema" and comes up with a handful of cultural flashpoints for the future: "The new energy hubs are likely to be found in Mexico; in Romania; in Thailand... in Lagos... in Korea." While I don't agree with his blanket bashing of our domestic film product, It's true, at least, that world cinema has trend-hopped as exhaustively as the music world in terms of what's hot in the past ten years. Here's a tenuous list of seven countries that I saw as most having left their mark this decade in different ways.Iran (1997-2002) From the late '60s on, Iran been on the cinema map: Dariush Mehrjui's 1969 "Cow" was smuggled out to the Venice Film Festival in 1971, and (current opposition spokesman) Mohsen Makhmalbaf had some prominence in the '80s. But 1997 is...

The ten worst movie moments in 2009.

When I'm not blogging, I'm often out seeing the very worst contemporary film has to offer in the name of film criticism. As the year comes to a close, here's my gift to you, dear reader: ten of the worst moments in ten of the worst films I saw this year. Because life can't always be positive. 1. Smiley face, "Obsessed" Steve Shill's deliriously trashy stalker-white-***-fights-Beyoncé-over-Stringer Bell opus earned every penny of its domestic $68 billion haul, if only for confirming that Beyoncé isn't just capable of dancing in five-inch heels but can win a catfight in them too. For sheer howling stupidity, though, nothing in this formidable avalanche tops the moment where Ali Larter's obsessed stalker sends Idris Elba an e-mail of a gigantic smiley face. The camera zooms in ominously as evil music plays, and then, in a moment that I presume is supposed to be the equivalent...

Dreaming of an Armond White Christmas

On the merriest, maddest day of the year, families gather around the TV-hearth to trudge through the same festive films over and over, provoking grumbling, deja vu and boredom. It's also around this time that notorious film critic Armond White gifts us with his annual Better Than list, pitting his real top ten against movies he thinks are similar but vastly inferior. In the spirit of the season, then, and in honor of Armond, here's my own Christmas better-than list: slightly less curmudgeonly, but just as argumentative -- and more fun for you, snowbound viewer. In "A Christmas Story," little Ralphie wants his BB gun and won't shut up about it, no matter how many times he's told "you'll shoot your eye out" -- a line made infinitely more familiar by TNT's perverse annual tradition of running the Bob Clark movie on a 24-hour loop. But I think "A Christmas...

Eat local, film local.

Dieter Kosslick, head of the Berlin Film Festival, tells Screen Daily that despite all the complaining being done, he thinks things are fine in the independent film realm. Never better, in fact: it's in "the best of health": In the past two or three years, there were films with big issues like globalisation or capitalist exploitation of the environment, but now we are going back to local subjects and what is happening on a more personal level. The filmmakers are more concerned with social changes in their immediate surroundings. That's a welcome relief if it spares us more of the likes of "Babel" and its ilk. It's also intriguing on a film-locavore level. Kosslick is speaking from the top of the ivory tower, film-festival-wise -- things like distribution and financial viability aren't his concerns. He's just looking for the best mix of movies. As a couple of angry commenters at...

There's no such thing as a "critic-proof" movie.

With millions of parents around the country staring down the barrel of the gun that is "Alvin and the Chipmunks: The Squeakquel," it sometimes seems as if we live in a godless universe where the combined powers of children and marketers turn movies into irresistible forces. Over at Slate's "Browbeat" blog, Eric Hynes takes a quick look at 2009's apparently critic-proof films -- those that crunched out an average score of 40 or less (out of 100) on review aggregator Metacritic but scared up more than $100 million at the box office. Four qualify so far: "Paul Blart: Mall Cop," "Couples Retreat," "G.I. Joe: Rise of the Cobra" and "Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen." (Barely above them on the score average, and making even more, are movies like "Twilight: New Moon" and "Angels and Demons.") "Transformers" has wormed its way into the public's heart for whatever foregone reason, and the...

The late Roy Scheider guns for an Oscar.

Like many notable actors fallen on tougher times, the last decades of the late Roy Scheider's career -- pretty much everything after 1991's "Naked Lunch" -- went from the respectable paycheck (time on "SeaQuest DSV") to the rock-bottom video remainder pile ("Dark Honeymoon," starring Tia Carrere). Which is entirely too bad. Presumably, though, neither the director of, say, "Dracula II: Ascension" nor Scheider, who appeared in that film (and its sequel!) as Cardinal Siqueros, had delusions about the quality of their end product. Joshua Newton -- writer/director/editor of Scheider's swan song "Iron Cross" -- definitely does. Until yesterday, I'd never heard of his film. If I was a Variety subscriber, however, it would've been unavoidable. Newton got his private British investors to agree to about $400,000 worth of daily "For Your Consideration" advertising in the trade paper from mid-November to the end of January (when ballots are due), including four...

Seven movies that pushed the boundaries of storytelling.

Something struck me when reading Cameron's typical hubristic declarations in his conversation with Peter Jackson over at Slate. He said "Filmmaking is not going to ever fundamentally change... It's about those actors somehow saying the words and playing the moment in a way that gets in contact with the audience's hearts. I don't think that changes. I don't think that's changed in the last century... [The studios have] also lost the courage to make, frankly, a movie like 'Avatar,' which is a blockbuster-scaled movie not based on prior arc." But just because a film's not part of a franchise doesn't mean it's a radical break with the hero-cycle past. And Cameron is way out there if he really thinks "Avatar" is all that different, when it comes to plot freshness, from the "Transformers" and "Harry Potter"s of the world. Leaving aside the avant-garde, there've been plenty of movies that re-orient...

Whatever happened to Lasse Hallström?

type="text/javascript" src="http://tweetmeme.com/i/scripts/button.js">No one bats an eye when actors fall from toplining movies into the direct-to-video slough; with theatrical release down 14% from last year, it's becoming increasingly common. (Not even a Bruce Willis cameo can save you.) But what does it mean when an Oscar-nominated director ends a decade of decreasing returns by making a dog movie that goes straight to DVD. In the '70s, Lasse Hallström shot out of the Swedish film industry by being lucky enough to direct all but seven of ABBA's music videos. At the same time, he was making a name for himself with movies like 1975's "A Girl and a Guy," about a hypochondriac named Lasse who's a master with the ladies until he falls for one Lena. (Freakily, the real Hallström met Lena Olin in 1992 and married her in 1994.) But it was 1985's "My Life As A Dog" which made...

Sweden, the award-winningest country.

type="text/javascript" src="http://tweetmeme.com/i/scripts/button.js">If you're tired of reading about all the awards being bestowed on "Up In The Air," "The Hurt Locker" and all, well, there are alternatives. For example: we could celebrate the sheer multiplicity of awards for their own sake, like the Swedish Film Institute, who today invited "local producers and filmmakers" to show up and celebrate a new domestic record: 145 international awards for 56 shorts, documentaries and features. "Up by 62 wins from 2008," indeed. I admire the bowling-score approach taken here: at least it's honest about what's at stake. But I've never actually heard of the two score-leaders: "Patrick 1,5" (12 awards) and "The Girl" (ten awards, linked-to trailer NSFW), which were apparently bigger awards-getters than "Let The Right One In." "Patrick 1,5" is a wacky gay comedy of the "Heather has two daddies" variety. In Dennis Harvey's quietly unenthused Variety review, we learn that it...

"Up In The Air": pundits love it!

From time to time, political pundits feel the need to take on an Important Movie. (They never seem to go digging through genre releases for hidden messages, though I'd give a lot to read, say, Thomas Friedman explaining how "Ninja Assassin" validates "glocalization" or whatever with its leveraging of Korean stars, Japanese history and American money.) The film of choice this season is Jason Reitman's "Up In The Air," which recently became the target of competing op-eds a week apart from different sides of the political aisle. Liberal Frank Rich went first last weekend in the New York Times, followed this weekend by George F. Will in the Washington Post. Both love the movie, because both believe it confirms the way they see the world (which really speaks -- like "Juno" -- to how watery Jason Reitman's vision is). In his piece, Rich notes early on that it's "not a...

Brittany Murphy, 1977-2009.

One of the sadder things to witness while compiling the preview for this holiday season was coming across Brittany Murphy's name again and again in the direct-to-video section -- not because it wasn't good to see that she was working, but because she deserved better. Which makes today's news that she passed away of cardiac arrest, far too young at the age of 32, doubly tragic -- she never got the chance to turn things around. Murphy always came alive on screen with a vitality few can muster, from her first major role in "Clueless" as the goofy but knowing makeover project Tai. She remade herself over the course of several indies in the late '90s into one of the premier scene-stealing actresses, usually taking what should've been forgettable sidekick roles or underwritten female parts in films like "Drop Dead Gorgeous" and the noirish "Phoenix" and injecting them with her...

"Star Wars" may have its own beer, but is it art?

There really is no end to what true "Star Wars" fanatics are willing to shell out for. Which can be a problem if, say, said product isn't licensed by George Lucas, as Andrew Ainsworth recently found out the hard way. In 1976, Ainsworth -- then an industrial designer -- made 50 Stormtrooper helmets, for which he got £20 each, plus approximately another £30,000 for other character equipment. Ainsworth's total "Star Wars" earnings: about £31,000. Lucasfilm's merchandise earnings for "Star Wars": $10 billion plus and counting. In 2004, it finally dawned on Ainsworth that this stuff was worth money, and he began selling Stormtrooper helmets from the original mold he'd created. Lucasfilm's legal fury was swift: in the U.S., they soaked him for $20 million (for just 19 helmets sold, no less). Then they brought their case to the British courts; Wednesday, they lost. And why? Because the judge in the...
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