Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Another one bites the dust....

I can't tell you how sad it makes me to hear that New Yorker Films (no connection to the magazine) is closing up shop.

New Yorker releases were a big part of my education, and I guess I should be grateful that I grew up a time when a distributor whose product line was entirely composed of documentaries and art movies (mostly foreign-language) could not only stay in business, but actually did well enough that they had their own theater — The New Yorker — on Manhattan's Upper West Side, where I grew up.

It was just a block or two away from my favorite Chinese restaurant, the gloriously old fashioned Chun Cha Fu (complete with its own tiny cocktail lounge); their orange beef totally ruined me for anyone else's. I vividly remember having it there after seeing Jerzy Skolimowski's The Shout at the New Yorker. Both are long gone, but not forgotten.

(Apparently I'm not the only person with swooningly fond memories of Chun Cha Fu)

This trailer is a blast — I love its effort to sell an arty, philosophical horror film (a la The Last Wave or Fragment of Fear) as a shocker in the tradition of the The Omen and The Exorcist.

And can you believe John Hurt was ever that young?

Sunday, February 22, 2009

Best Picture... the prize everyone wants

...so of course you get Steven Spielberg to present it.

And God damn if it didn't go to Slumdog Millionaire! Yeas, it was the odds-on favorite after it began winning every pre-Oscar award in sight, but think back to two months ago: It would have seemed impossible that this little picture about Mumbai slum kids would sweep this year's Academy Awards.

And now it's on to best actor, to the theme from The Magnificent Seven...

God, how did I forget that Michael Douglas had a best actor Oscar for Wall Street? Oh right... I tried really, really hard.

Adrian Brody's incredibly gracious, respectful speech about Richard Jenkins and The Vistor is going to go down as one of my favorite moments of this broadcast. He's not going to win, but my God, Jenkins was great and it's a real pleasure to see a veteran character actor get his moment in the sun..

Can you say "bleached blond battered bruiser" five times fast? I can't.

The evening's first unpset: Sean Penn gets best actor for Milk! Not that he doesn't richly deserve it, but comeback-kid Mickey Rourke was the sentimental favorite for The Wrestler and I really believe Penn's surprise that the Academy's "commie, homo-loving sons of guns" went with him. And good for him for coming out (as it were) in support of gay marriage and for taking the time to praise Rourke.

He's a pain in the ass and he knows it, but Penn has the courage of his convictions whether or not they're in line with popular opinion.

It's best actress time!

...and Anne Hathaway looked every bit as thrilled as she should have when the legendary Shirley MacLaine told her she had a great voice and should keep on singing. Yes, there is hope for the youth of today.

And who do you get to sing the praises of Meryl Streep without sounding like a grovelling sycophant? For my money, Sophia Loren is a hell of a good call. And she looks marvelous.

The Oscar goes to Kate Winslet for The Reader, which is no huge surprise... but I can't help but think that it must be a little awkwward for her, since early favorite Revolutionary Road, which she made with her husband, Sam Mendes, was so totally shunned.

Are her foundation garments too tight? She is seriously hyper-ventilating. Nice whistle from her dad, though, even if he did look a little dodgy in that hat.

AQnd now, during the commercial break....

May I take a moment top observe that this show is moving like a freight train? It isn't even 11:30 and there are only three awards left.

Way back in 1990, I did a long interview with Bill Condon for my book Filmmaking on the Fringe. Back then he was directing made-for-TV thrillers and low-budget genre films; today he has an Oscar for Gods and Monsters and is one of this Oscar telecast's two producers (the other is Lawrence Mark).

Bill was a hell of a smart, nice, movie-loving guy then and I'm willing to bet that he's exactly the same now. So Bill, congratulations!

Finally: The really big guns! Best Director...

... presented by by Reese Witherspoon.

And it's Danny Boyle for Slumdog Millionaire!

Don't get the Tigger stuff (I never really like Winnie the Pooh), but his delight is pretty charming, and his apology to Longinous (not sure about the spelling there), who choreographed the closing musical number and somehow got left out of the credits, was first class.

Queen Latifah sees dead people...

...while singing "I'll be Seeing You (In All the Old Familiar Places)."

Hard to go wrong with the in memorium montage. If you love movies (and if you don't, you're probably not watching the Academy Awards), this is waterworks time. Get out your hankies.

Best Foreign Language film, presented by foreigners

That would be Slumdog's Frieda Pinto and Liam Neeson. Now, I suppose you could argue that the Irish don't speak English, except that they do. The fact is, Irish is spoken by a tiny fraction of the country's current residents. Anyway, this subject is a hornet's nest, so I'm going to leave it alone.

The award goes to the Japanese Departures and the stammeringly happy fillmakers are chased off the stage to the tune of "Never on Sunday." Very "we are the world" stuff.

Zak Efron and Alicia Keys and the best original score

Hell yeah! Bollywood legend A.R. Rahman (which both presenters seem to think has a "k" in the middle) for Slumdog Millionaire! And Rahman thanked his mom first... what a guy.

And it's getting better: the man himself is now singing "O Saya," one of Slumdog's two nominees in the best song category, and it's frakkind fabulous.

"Down to Earth" form Wall-E, not so much, and I say that as someone who's loved Peter Gabrial for longer than I want to remember.

Thank god for "Jai Ho!"

And "Jai Ho" just won best song. The presenters, meanwhile, still think Rahman's name has a "k" in the middle. Is there no one among the no-doubt massive production team capable of letting them know that the guy's name is said exactly as it's spelled? They're like those motor-vehicle department clerks who pronounce my "McDonagle." Repeat after me: No "l" in my name, no "k" in A.R. Rahman's.

Eddie Murphy plus Jerry Lewis equals...

...maybe I'll go clean the cat box.

Oops... I didn't leave fast enough to miss Eddie Murphy saying, "from one Nutty Professor to another..." as Jerry Lewis made his way to the stage to accept the Gene Hersholt Humanitarian Award.

I do, however, feel for Lewis, who's lived through some really serious health problems in the last several years and looks it; he seems exhausted and barely able to get through his brief thank-you speech.

So you know what? I'm big enough to take back the snark. His annual charity telethon has raised a lot of money for a good cause (muscular dystrophy research and treatment) and he's been doing it for four decades.

Mea culpa, mea culpa, mea maxima culpa. But I still secretly want to see The Day the Clown Cried

In praise of action movies (hell, yeah!) and post-production credits... oh, and wait — it's Mr. Will Smith!

Kick-ass action movie montage, but I bet half the viewing audience just headed for the toilet when they realized the category was best visual effects.

Okay, for all you guys who just got back, another ho-hum accolade for Benjamin Button... you can stop applauding now, because you won't want to miss best sound editing.

Let me clarify: I respect the tremendous craft and dedication brought to bear on these aspects of film production. Film is the ultimate collaborative medium, and the work these guys do is seriously important. I've worked with world-class sound engineers and I'm in total awe of what they do. But think the average film goer gives a flying fig that The Dark Night was just honored for sound editing, let alone that Slumdog Millionaire got the nod for sound mixing.

And we're still not done... now it's time for film editing. Okay, I now totally see the wisdom of hauling megastar Smith up there for these awards. And it's Slumdog Millionaire... the awards are staring to add up.

And the tribute to Jerry Lewis is next... I think I'll go make a pit stop and freshen my drink.

Best documentary.... presented by Bill Maher

My God, I'm turning into a cheerleader. More kudos for letting the directors of the five best documentary-feature nominees have some pretty decent screen time to talk about why they make the kind of films they do, despite the fact that they don't make a lot of money and don't get the kind of recognition that goes to the directors of fifth-rate fiction features. And for getting documentary legend Albert Maysles to direct them — class act all the way.

The winner: Man on Wire, the popular doc about Philippe Petit's historic (and so totally illegal) 1974 tightrope walk between the twin towers. Did I really just see an Oscar-winning filmmaker do a magic 101 trick with a coin given to him by Werner Herzog? It's a wacky, wonderful world

Megan Mylan wins for documentary short Smile Pinki, about doctors who donate their time and expertise to help poor children around the world born with cleft palates. Worthy, worthy, worthy, but not about the Holocaust... that qualifies as a surprise.

See more Phillip Hoffman, and more about the best supporting actor award....

Was that a joke, or did Alan Arkin just forget which name went first? And hey, Academy, kudos for getting the black guy (Cuba Gooding, Jr.) to do a Chris Rock rant about Robert Downey Jr.'s nomination for Tropic Thunder. You're so fly, guys. Or maybe it was because they're both juniors.

On the other hand, Christopher Walken (scary hair, crooked tie, gravel-scraped voice and all) and Michael Shannon: Inspired.

Heath Leger's mom, dad and sister (good lookign family, for civilians) accept his inevitable award for The Dark Knight, but the standing ovation is a nice touch. I give all the credit in the world to his father, Kim, for holding it all together during his acceptance speech. Ditto his mother and sister... I totally see why the house is full of moist eyes.

And major points to the show's directors for letting them go over the normally allotted time...

Hugh Jackman pays tribute to classic musicals

He and Beyonce can both sing: Good. He's a better dancer and Jesus, he's working hard — he's out of breath.

Vanessa Hudgins and Zak Efron... okay, they're cute kids and I give them points for helping get tweens to watch musicals. But Efron was so much better in Hairspray. And much though I love Jackman's enthusiam, I'm still not convinced the musical is back.

Except in India, of course, which is why I love Bollywood.

Seth Rogan and James Franco star in a profoundly unfunny short film....

....so this is what Judd Apatow turns out when he hasn't been working on the screenplay for 20 years.

Um, dramas are like, funny. Where are Beavis and Butthead to say "Dude, she said Ballsack" when you need them?

Janusz Kaminski is actually funnier than Rogan or Franco... could you have predicted that?

East German-raised producer-director Jochen Alexander Freydank wins for his live-action short Spielzeugland and gives a lovely acceptance speech.

I think about giving an acceptance speech in German and am deeply ashamed. Note to self — only ever apply for foreign-language grants, awards or whatever in French-speaking countries where I might be able to fake it, given enough lead time.

Best Cinematography, Natalie Portman and Ben Stiller presiding with maximum awkwardness

Natalie Portman and Ben Stiller pretending to be Joachin Phoenix... wow, that's edgy.

Slumdog again: Anthony Dod Mantle gets his due. Great movie that looks great, but that pocket hankie really has to go.

Forgettable cuties Amanda Seyfried and Robert Pattinson...

Amanda Seyfried (Veronica Mars, Mamma Mia and Robert Pattinson (Twilight) pay tribute to romance in the movies. Why do I think that between them they haven't seen five of the movies in the montage? Wings? I don't think so. And that their presence indicates sheer, sweaty despeation to get people under the age of 50 to watch the Academy Awards broadcast?

Good luck with that.

Best art direction and costume design...

Sarah Jessica Parker wears a ridiculous princess dress with admirable conviction. Daniel Craig looks great in a tux and flubs his second line (and his third one, too). Got it: They look great and they're giving out the design awards. Next.

Benjamin Button wins art direction and make-up, and it's my suspicion that these are the first of many not-so-high profile awards the film is going to take. Nice for Greg Cannom, though, who's been doing great make-up effects work in the horror genre since I first started writing lo these many years ago.

Costume goes to The Duchess, proof of Hollywood's all-but-obligatory reverence for period design. Like we'd know if it's authentic? Show me a film set in the 1970s that actually looks like the '70s rather than a magazine spread form a '70s magazine and then I'm impressed.

Best animated film

I hate this category, because the options are so narrowly Hollywood-centric. I mean I'm sorry, but did no-one on the nominating comittee see Azur and Asmar, which qualified in every way? And Jack Black and Jennifer Aniston trading lame quips isn't making me feel any less dyspeptic.

Oh, and the winner is Wall-E. Big surprise.

Best animated short goes to La Maison en Petits Cubes, one of five films no-one outside the business has ever seen or is likely to.

And did filmmaker Kunio Kato really just make a domo oragato, Mr. Roboto gag? Okey dokey.

Fey and Martin, Part 2...

....and it's not getting any better.

But the Slumdog Millionaire sweep begins, with Simon Beaufoy taking the adapted screenplay award.

Steve Martin and Tina Fey flounder...

Funny people, leaden routine: But hey, they're presenting best original screenplay and the tragedy of being a screenwriter is that you never get the credit you deserve because every schmuch on the street thinks he can write.

Winner Dustin Lance Black (Milk) must still be a pretty happy guy though. And he's not an actor, so I totally buy his choked up moment.

Oscars montage....

Great montage of best actress winners stammering their gratitude but you know what? It might have been a good idea to chyron ID them. I mean, I'm a lifelong obsessive movie buff, and I didn't recognize all of them. Just saying.

Nice though, to hear previous supporting actress winners praise this year's nominees with such apparent sibcerity. I mean, they're actresses, so they should be able to make you believe they mean it. But they sold it, one and all. And I'm thrilled that Penelope Cruz won for Vicky Cristina Barcelona: Mediocre film, but she was lacerating. And good for her for thanking Bigas Luna for casting her as the whore's daughter in Jamon, Jamon: Lesser actresses would have passed that one right over, even if it did star Javier Bardem.

Oh, and not to gloat, but I called this category months ago.

Oscars — Off the top of my head...

Okay, the opening number pretty much always blows.

But the sight of Hugh Jackman doing a mecha-disco number mocking The Reader is pretty damned bold. And Anne Hathaway really can sing... good for her.

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Candyland: The Movie...Huh?!?!?!?

Okay, I have never, ever gotten the appeal of movies based on video games, though a serious gamer I ran into at a shoot once made a pretty solid argument that watching a good videogame-based movie was like watching a world-class player in action.

But no one will ever convince me that anything good comes of making movies based on board games. Especially a wuss-o-rama game like Candyland. And yet according to Variety, Kevin Lima — who directed the pitch-perfect Enchanted (2007) — is supposed to direct a live-action Candyland from a screenplay by Etan Cohen, who wrote Madagascar 2 and co-wrote Tropic Thunder (both 2008). I mean, seriously: Candyland is the race-around-the-board reduced to its lowest common denominator: You draw colored cards and advance to the next square of that color. No reading. No numbers. No strategy… oh, and no story. So how exactly is this going to make a movie?

I can only think of three previous board-game movies:

Mystery Date (1991): Actually, not based on the game at all — this movie just swiped the title of the 1960s game in which you got ready for a date, but didn't know who your date would turn out to be until you opened a plastic door with a picture behind it. The object of the game was not to be dressed for the prom and draw the guy with the skis. The movie's plot: Shy boy goes on date that spirals woildly out of control.

Dungeons & Dragons (2000): This hardly counts either, since the essence of D&D is role-playing, but there is a board version that was designed a s a kind of beginner's introduction. That said, the movie is just a faux-medieval fantasy adventure; its only real distinction is that gamers hated it as much as non-gamers. Which brings us to…

Clue (1985): The venerable mystery game — you know, who killed Colonel Miustard in the drawing room with the candlestickl? — was transformed into a camp comedy, but the movie did at least maintain a solid connection to the source. Much reviled despite a stellar comic cast that included Christopher Lloyd, Michael McKean, Tim Curry and Madeline Kahn.

So there you have it, and I can't say it bodes well for Candyland.

What's your take, and did I miss any other board-game movies?

Friday, February 6, 2009

Reviews of Coraline, Push and more...

My reviews of the enchanting Coraline, the sci-fi disaster Push, starring Dakota Fanning, and documentary Our City Dreams are live.

Tell me what you think...

Wednesday, February 4, 2009

Sherlock Holmes Speaks!

I first read Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's Sherlock Holmes stories as a young teenager, and I was immediately hooked. Next thing you know, I'd bought a copy of Sir William S. Baring Gould's Annotated Sherlock Holmes, my first brush with extreme fandom.

I'm writing an essay about The Hound of the Baskervilles (the novel and the 1939 film, which introduced Basil Rathbone as Holmes), and while trolling the web came across this interview with Doyle. I had no idea there was film of him talking about the origin of Sherlock Holmes"

So I felt compelled to share. Be warned, thoough, that about halfway through he starts talking about spiritualism, another of his great passions. If you're not interested, stop watching: There's no more about the great detective once he gets on to the psychic stuff.

Tuesday, February 3, 2009

Drive, he said: Jason Statham's Super Bowl Commercial

Oh, right.... I guess strictly speaking it's Audi's Super Bowl ad, and I'm sure many — if not most — viewers didn't recognize the Bank Job star. But I'm a fan, and for my money this commercial, a pitch-perfect series of car chases in the style of different eras, is a winner.

As to everyone who called this snowglobe ad the best of the batch, I just don't know what to say. It's stupid and juvenile... uh, never mind.

Sunday, February 1, 2009

You've Come a Long Way, Baby...

I first saw this video a couple of years ago and ran across it again this morning.

It amazed me then and it amazes me now:, both because it's quite a technical achievement and because it really is eye opening to see how ideals of female beauty have changed.