Tuesday, September 30, 2008

R.I.P. Paul Newman

I know I'm coming to this a little late, as I've been, and in fact still am, on vacation. Nonetheless, I feel compelled to add my voice to the chorus, because it can't be said enough: Paul Newman was a true class act. He was that rarest of beings, a beautiful man on both the outside and the inside. A fine actor who wore his fame lightly yet used it for noble ends, he was a star in the greatest sense of the word. They sure don't make 'em like him anymore. Then again, he was a tough act to follow.

Monday, September 22, 2008

Freezer "Burn"


directed and written by Joel & Ethan Coen
starring John Malkovich, Frances McDormand, George Clooney, Tilda Swinton, Brad Pitt, Richard Jenkins, J.K. Simmons

How does one categorize the Coen brothers’ brand of comedy? It’s satirical, but it isn’t satire. It isn’t slapstick, though it gets major mileage out of physical gags. It often takes pitch-dark turns, yet to call it black comedy is to downplay the basic, almost screwball goofiness that makes up its driving energy. There’s a kind of cold cheerfulness about the Coen comedic universe that draws in the viewer just enough to be amused, but generally not enough to empathize with any of its subjects. Watching a Coen brothers comedy is like looking out on a sunny, subzero winter’s day from the window of one’s comfortably heated home. And their latest entry in the genre is no exception to the pattern.

“Burn After Reading” is, more than anything else, a carefully orchestrated clusterfuck. The trigger is a foul-mouthed, fouler-tempered ex-CIA agent, Osborne Cox (Malkovich) who misplaces a CD containing drafts of his memoirs of his less-than-storied career. The CD is picked up and its contents inspected by some dimwitted gym employees, two of whom (McDormand and Pitt) decide it must be “highly classified shit” and, ergo, their ticket to big money. First they try to blackmail Cox; then they try to sell it to “the Russians." Hijinks and complications ensue, especially when McDormand’s character, Linda Litzke, gets involved with a (married) U.S. marshal and serial philanderer Harry Pfarrer (Clooney), who’s also schtupping Osborne Cox’s wife (Tilda Swinton, in full glacial mode). Even the CIA weighs in at intervals, its growing bewilderment represented chiefly by the excellent J.K. Simmons.

What results is a perfect roundelay of human bumbling, and per usual, the Coens pull no punches highlighting the absurdity of these poor schmucks and the welter of self-deception in which each of them subsists. That’s not to say the film doesn’t show occasional flickers of humanity, as when it tracks middle-aged Linda on one of her unsuccessful blind dates, which isn’t awkward so much as utterly forlorn, or underscores her total obliviousness to the fact that her boss (a sweetly ineffectual Richard Jenkins) has an unrequited crush on her. And Pitt, who’s hilarious as Linda’s numbskull second, Chad Feldheimer, is also surprisingly endearing, despite—or perhaps because of—Chad’s impenetrable, almost self-satisfied, air of fatuousness.

But there’s no getting around it: the Coens are hard on their characters, and it’s not a good idea to get too attached to any of them. Justice, to put it mildly, is not equally served on all parties. And yet it’s not altogether fair to call the creators mean-spirited. For one thing, the characters, while sharply sketched, are closer to being archetypes of human folly than three-dimensional persons anyone's likely to identify with to any significant degree. They are more interesting for how their fates intertwine and affect each other—not unlike the workings of some elaborate Rube Goldberg device—than they are in their individual capacities. At its core “Burn After Reading” is pure situational comedy, and I don’t mean in the sense of “Friends” or “How I Met Your Mother,” though its rhythms are oddly reminiscent, of all things, of “Frasier.” It has the feeling of, at best, a virtuosic chamber piece, and at worst, a virtuosic puppet show. However one chooses to regard it, there’s no denying it’s neatly executed entertainment.


Monday, September 08, 2008

Fall Movie Preview: Top Ten Most Anticipated Films

At long last, the summer doldrums are drawing to a close, and Hollywood, true to form, is gussying itself up for the critics and Oscar prognosticators. And also per usual, it’s reserving its heaviest ammunition for the winter holidays, which bodes ill for those of us movie buffs who would rather avoid the frantic cinematic binging that marks the end of every calendar year. But, starved as we are for quality fare by the end of August, I’ll venture a guess that most of us are happy to see the return of the annual ritual of courting Academy love, even if we have to prepare for a December cramfest and the de facto four-month hibernation period that follows.

Not that all the movies I’m looking forward to are necessarily awards contenders. But in reviewing my list of top ten movies I’m most looking forward to this fall, I can hardly call it a coincidence that most of them are clustered in November and December, i.e., primetime Oscar baiting season. Anyway, here they are, in order of anticipated release date:


I tend to prefer the Coen Brothers when they're in their comedic mode, and George Clooney playing dumb has struck gold for them before this (“O Brother, Where Art Thou”). From the trailer, Clooney looks like he’s mugging a little too hard this time around. But Brad Pitt’s antics, and the bit of interaction we see between him and John Malkovich, made me laugh out loud. Besides, who can resist a chance to see Tilda Swinton and Frances McDormand, two of the finest actresses working today, opposite those clowns? Not me.

IL Y A LONGTEMPS QUE JE T’AIME (I’ve Loved You So Long) (Oct. 24)

Three words: Kristin. Scott. Thomas. Luminous and totally underappreciated. Well, at least the French appreciate her. Her performance in this movie, as a woman with a secret who reenters her younger sister’s life, garnered major buzz at the Berlin Film Festival and just may get her some Oscar love.


On paper, this tale of the friendship between an L.A. Times journalist (Robert Downey, Jr.) and a homeless schizophrenic (Jamie Foxx) who also happens to be a brilliant violinist sounds like one of those inspirational schmaltzfests that have imbued the words “based on a true story” with the opposite of cool. Except that the journalist in question is Steve Lopez, who rocks, and the director is Joe Wright (“Pride and Prejudice,” “Atonement”), one of the most promising up-and-comers working in cinema today.


It’s already being dubbed the Australian version of “Out of Africa” and the biggest movie to come from Down Under. This of course doesn’t necessarily bode well for its quality. But at the very least, director Baz Lurhmann looks to provide major visual panache, and Hugh Jackman and Nicole Kidman bring the pretty. Especially Jackman, who’s smokin’. Yes, I really am that shallow.

THE ROAD (Nov. 26)

Adapted from the much-lauded novel by Cormac McCarthy about a father and son journeying across a postapocalyptic landscape and simply trying to survive. Viggo Mortensen is well cast as the father; Charlize Theron appears in flashback as his wife. Directed by John Hillcoat, whose debut film, “The Proposition,” I have not seen...but from what I remember reading about it, Hillcoat’s sensibilities seem perfectly matched to McCarthy’s stylized bleakness.

MILK (Nov. 26)

Gus Van Sant takes on a subject that’s near and dear to his heart: the life and death of San Francisco supervisor Harvey Milk (Sean Penn), the first openly gay man to be elected to public office in California. Co-stars James Franco (yum) as Milk's lover, along with Emile Hirsch and Josh Brolin as the fellow supervisor who assassinated him in 1978. I am not the biggest Penn fan in the world, and Van Sant is hit-or-miss, but this film looks like it was crafted with care.


A great play does not necessarily make a great film, and Ron Howard probably wouldn’t be my first choice to try to make that transfer with Frost/Nixon. The good news is the powers behind the movie had the sense to retain the playwright, Peter Morgan (“The Queen”), as the screenwriter and the original leads from the stage versions: Frank Langella as Nixon and Michael Sheen as David Frost, the television host who in a series of interviews in 1977 got the disgraced ex-President to admit his role in Watergate. Either or both may get the Oscar nod that eluded them for past work—Langella’s sublime performance in last year’s “Starting Out in the Evening” and Sheen’s excellent turn as Tony Blair in “The Queen.”

DOUBT (Dec. 12)

I can’t not see this one, for the simple reason that Doubt was hands down the best play I’ve seen in the last ten years. (But see caveat for “Frost/Nixon,” above). John Patrick Shanley directs his own play, and heavyweight champs Meryl Streep and Philip Seymour Hoffman star as the ramrod-straight Sister Aloysius and the charismatic priest she suspects of wrongdoing. Interestingly, though, it’s Viola Davis who’s getting all the early Oscar buzz as the mother of the boy at the root of the clash between them. Amy Adams also appears as the younger nun who doesn’t know what or whom to believe.


I dig heist/con flicks, and this one seems to have a light and whimsical vibe to it that I find appealing. Adrien Brody and Mark Ruffalo don’t look much like brothers, but they make funny con men, and I’ll watch Ruffalo in just about anything. Rachel Weisz stretches her range with a comedic role as the target of their con, and Rinko Kikuchi (“Babel”) plays the Bloom brothers’ cohort and explosives expert. A striking change of pace and tone for director Rian Johnson, whose last film was the ingenious high school noir “Brick.”


I’ve never quite understood how this fantastical short story by F. Scott Fitzgerald could possibly be the basis for a feature-length film. That said, early glimpses of footage suggest that director David Fincher labored mightily to give “Benjamin Button” a lushly dreamlike feel that just might make it work. The pictures of an aged Brad Pitt’s face on a toddler’s body creep me out slightly, though. Cate Blanchett and Tilda Swinton co-star.

Other films I’m anticipating:

Interested but worried by bad early buzz:

Blindness, directed by Fernando Meirelles (“City of God,” “The Constant Gardener”) and based on the novel by José Saramago about an epidemic of blindness that strikes every living human except one woman (Julianne Moore). Costarring Mark Ruffalo, Danny Glover, and Gael García Bernal. Not well received at Cannes, though it's undergone some retooling since then.

Synecdoche, New York, directed and written by Charlie Kaufman. A theater director (Philip Seymour Hoffman) builds a life-sized recreation of New York City inside what must be a simply gargantuan warehouse. Yup, that’s Kaufmanesque all right. Co-starring Catherine Keener, Samantha Morton, Michelle Williams, Emily Watson, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Hope Davis, and Dianne Wiest. This film, too, received a mixed reception, at best, at Cannes, and Kaufman can sometimes be too quirky for my taste. Still, it's definitely got originality and a strong cast going for it.

Waiting for the reviews:

Righteous Kill: The Pacino-De Niro pairing is enough to pique my interest, but may not be enough, without more, to sustain it.

Appaloosa: Ed Harris directs himself and Viggo Mortensen in this old-school Western. Renee Zellweger plays the woman who comes between them. If she chooses Harris, that will be only because he’s the director.

Miracle at St. Anna: Spike Lee directs a WWII movie about an all-African-American regiment stationed in Italy. As best I can tell, something happens that haunts them years later. (Yeah, I know that’s helpful). To be double-billed with a “Celebrity Deathmatch” between Lee and Clint Eastwood.

Body of Lies: Ridley Scott directs this conspiracy-minded political thriller about a CIA operative (Leonardo DiCaprio) trying to fight the war on terror and the supervisor (Russell Crowe) who keeps messing with him. Sounds promising. Then again, so did last year’s Scott-Crowe combination, “American Gangster,” which I found to be a letdown.

Changeling: I don’t think Angelina Jolie fits in period films – she has far too modern a face. Nonetheless, she and director Clint Eastwood picked up great Cannes buzz for this eerie story about a young woman (Jolie) in the 1920’s whose son goes missing and who apparently isn’t sure, when he returns, that it’s really him.

Quantum of Solace: Never have been a James Bond fan, but “Casino Royale” was a step in the right direction.

Revolutionary Road: Sam Mendes (“American Beauty,” “Road to Perdition,” “Jarhead”) directs his wife, the lovely Kate Winslet, and Leo, reunited for the first time since the Movie That Shall Not Be Named. This time they play lovers in 1950’s New England who actually get married, only it all goes downhill from there. I think we’ve already seen plenty of books and movies about the stultifying effects of marriage and its attendant social responsibilities on love and self-fulfillment, but am willing to entertaining another if it’s really well executed.

Potential guilty pleasures:

Nick & Norah’s Infinite Playlist is being billed as a kind of “Before Sunrise” for teenagers, with Michael Cera and Alexis Dziena as the potential soulmates who share a love for hip music. The presence of director Peter Sollett (“Raising Victor Vargas”) tempers any residual skepticism.

The Day the Earth Stood Still: Why remake a sci-fi classic? But if you’re gonna do it, why not cast Keanu Reeves? Have to admit I have a soft spot for both sci-fi and Reeves.