Saturday, December 31, 2005

>>>>>>>GENERAL THOUGHTS<<<<<<<

Additional thoughts on the film "Munich":

After the fact, there are no legitimate moral quandries; after the fact, there is only judgment. And, if one is lucky, mercy.

The time for moral quandries is before the fact. People who consider questions of morality only after the fact are generally only seeking a way to lessen their deserved guilt for a recently concluded immoral act.

In drama, the time for questioning morality is in Act One and Act Two. In Act Three, after the climactic deed is decided upon and perpetrated, there is only time for consequences...and the often tragic lessons to be drawn.

Friday, December 30, 2005

****MOVIE RECOMMENDATIONS****"Elizabethtown"

Huh? Other than giving us a chance to watch Kirsten Dunst, Cameron Crowe should confine these super-personal 70's-look-back stories to his family or his shrink. The theme of the film is non-understanable, except in the most superficial, silly way, which I'm sure he doesn't mean. A pass. I wouldn't know how to start reviewing it.


In order to view 2005 films in preparation for Academy Award voting this year, the Academy provided us members with a high-end new DVD players, SV300 Cinea DVD Player. The printing on the shipping box assured us that it "will also play all of your standard DVDs." The intent of requiring a special DVD player was to thwart pirates...or at least track those of us Academy members who might be inclined to advertently or inadvertently aid them. (In the final analysis, only Disney required we use Cinea to view films...The other film distriutors back down on the requirement...for the time being. Perhaps they are relying on other ways to monitor us.)

My Cinea machine started to act up right from the beginning. It froze at various points in several non-Disney DVDs...esapecially at minute 118 into Match Point, just as the detective was about to unravel the plot!! You can imagine, I was not happy. I called the manufacturer. The young lady (she sounded young, anyway) who answered their phone admitted that I was "not the first" to encounter difficulty. (My wife swears, in a subsequent conversation with her, the young lady said "hundreds" of like situations, but I'll accept the less incriminating slip of "not the first".) The young lady apologetically said, as representing Cinea, she "would of course send me another SV300 player" but...the catch: I had to wait at home all day for Fed-X to stop by and pick up the defaulted one. The rule was: you have to have the old one picked up in person before they will send you another. Pirates, again.

So I dutifully waited all day for Fed-X. They didn't show. Finally...a few days later, after a flury of calls with tracking numbers--during which I switched back to my own old Radio Shack DVD player to watch some other films--we got the transfer worked out.

When the new Cinea arrived, I called the powers that be, Cinea-central as it was, once again to prove I was who I was suppose to be...again...before my Cinea would become operative.. "What is your Academy number? etc. etc." the other person at the other end of the phone grilled me. A few moments later...apparently assured...the voice at the other end of the phone started the techincal steps to make the Cinea operative...guess what?...the new one didn't work either. So....the Cinea helper sheepishly said there would be another Fed-X appointment and machine tranferral.

I've got a few weeks to vote on the nominations yet. I refused to be frustrated. I'm a fair man. I will watch Disney films when my third Cinea arrives (that is, if the third Cinea DVD player works).

I wonder.... are the Vegas Academy Award's oddsmakers, and Disney marketing executives--and their stockholders--taking into account Cinea's problems in assessing their Academy Award chances ?

****MOVIE RECOMMENDATION****"The White Countess"; "Ladies in Lavender"

"THE WHITE COUNTESS": Once again: a lovely, delicate, refined-sensibility, beautifully-mounted film by Merchant-Ivory (long time successful producer-director team). This one is set in pre-WWII Shanghai, China (late 1930's). Ralph Fiennes is a blind ex-diplomat who dreams of opening a elegant, refined Cole-Porter-like, geisha-house-like bar, with beautiful men and beautiful women being beautiful together. He need an icon, a frontespiece, a beautiful woman to be hostess; and settles on Natasha Richardson...a White Russian down-on-her-luck countess-emigre from now Red Russian Communist Soviet Union; who before Fiennes settles on her, is a dime-and-dance hall girl--(and more?)--supporting a family (and daughter) of poverty stricken and 'I am too-proud to work' family of other Russian ex-nobility (aunts Vanessa Redgrave and Lynn Redgrave among them).

She and Fiennes meet in the dance hall and soon move to his uptown bar. An hour of lovely but overly slow developing, physically unfulfilled love story commences between Richardson and Fiennes (who both give exquisite performances: she is breathtakingly beautiful and talented; and he is better than I've ever seen him before-or-since Schindler's List).

Finally, the Japanese attack...and the plot thickens, and the pace picks up. What is left is an engrossing, engaging story, with pace, complications and character-revealing machinations. Will the lovers escape? Will they be killed? Will the emigre family succeed in their boat-flight from Shanghai to Hong Kong (after they refused to take Natasha along because she has lost respectability by her occupational efforts keeping them fed and housed!!!)? Will mother and daughter be separated? Will Ralph succeed in finding Natasha amidst all the chaos and fire engulfing Shanghai during the Japanese invasion--remember he is blind--and get her on a boat to Macao?

Watching all this, you care...which is more than you can say for most characters in most movies in this mostly forgettable film year of 2005.

LADIES IN LAVENDER: One of the sweetest , most poiniant films of the year. Older women fanticizing about a mysterious young man who drops into their lives. Any film with Maggie Smith and Judi Dench in it is bound to be wonderful, but it is a particular delight watching them sharing screen time and screen focus. They know it takes two to tango; two to create great creative acting chemistry. Ego-driven lesser your hearts out watching consummate professionalism. And sit in the theater and learn.

Thursday, December 29, 2005


I just came home from watching it.
If you get a chance, miss it.
Juvenile. Overwrought. Obvious. Indulgent. Miscast.

The story: Failing Hollywood director (Jack Black, doing his Orson Welles impersonation) wants to do a picture on a remote island. Barely escaping the police (he's your typical 'got-to-make-a-picture-any-way-I-can' thief), he finds the lovely-young-thing (Naomi Watts doing her Marilyn Monroe impersonation), who is a down on her luck actress; it is, after all, a Depression-era movie. She joins fellow filmmakers, Jack and her plastic leading man (I forget his name), and author Jack Driscoll (Adrien Brody)--who just happens to be her secret never-before-met playwright heartthrob but soon to be real present-tense on-shipboard heartthrob--and they join Black's crew of stalwart cartoon-shipmates to ship out to Singapore.

Jack really wants to head for Skull Island, a never seen before mysterious island which he believes its movie location will enhance box office appeal on the eventual picture. They steam there--and get to the island in a fog and run into everything---I mean EVERYTHING special effects can dream up--beginning with a shipwreck and barbarous natives who follow the cult-of-Kong Kong (dinausaurs--and the bats--and the giant insets--will come later.) The natives give the captured Naomi to Kong as a sacrifice. He falls for her instead; because she's tough--"...take 'no' for an answer," she feministically finally orders him when he gets a little to aggressive; and he falls for it, and her. So they play some silly children games (another best way to quell the male beast, I assume), and they finally watch a Sunset together. Its an orange-hued beauty, and it enables them to fall in love (Platonic; he's very big and she's very small. And this is, after all, a children's movie. We do get a gentle Kong finger to the face, however. And at the end we do get a discrete arm pressed against her breast...which is by the way the only subtle touch in the movie.) Her movie-mates, led by love-interest Brody, and ship-mates (by now the audience is laughing at the Perils-of-Pauline silliness of it all) attempt to rescue her, facing one prolonged crisis after another. She has some leave-taking ambivalence about her exit from Kong--Kong did save her from the dinausaurs and the giant lizards; and it was a very beatutiful sunset. By Brody is handsome and sincere...and she follows him to safety. Meanwhile, dastardly Jack the director, his film footage ruined in an escape misadventure, hatches another scheme: capture and bring Kong back to New York where a million $$$ can be made exhibiting him. Bottles of convenient chloroform do the trick...and Kong is shipped to New York and becomes a theatrical event. On stage, tortured by humiliation and longing for Naomi, he breaks free from his bonds, kills more than a few people, tossing away some unwanted blondes in the process...ascends the Empire State building with Naomi (she is a willing companion by now...trying to save NY and him) where he is killed by police airplanes...and she mourns. Until Brody shows up and she hugs him. Love conquers all. Kong is soon forgotten. Just another Platonic affair, I guess.

If you think this summary is long, you should see the film: three hours. To be fair, I suppose obviousness and hammer-over-the-head emotion like King Kong (see the original, by the's much better) takes time to film and present; especially in Peter Jackson's world (oh, did I forget to mention: Peter Jackson directed...and directed...and directed...and directed...and directed), and especially when you have a budget of $200 million. EXCESS is the name of the game. Like trying to stop a kid from having too much fun when it's time for bed. You either spank him or go to bed yourself. The audience went to bed.

King Kong is a film made only for special effects students (and video game players). If you want to see a brilliant SUBTLE film about the anthropomorhic nature of animals, see March of the Penquins. In that film feeling, beauty and meaning are left implicit. For Peter Jackson, everything is explicit. He, and his actors, and his special effects team, never met an emotion or effect they didn't like; and when they get hold of it, can't stop auto-stimulating and self-caressing it.

The makers of King Kong deserve every dollar they don't make on this film.

(NOTE: Adrien Brody's acting is overwrought; even more than usual. Naomi Watts--who is a very excellent actress--one of my favorites--is underfed...and miscast. Jack Black...who I find normally miscast...and overfed. The rest of the cast is simply mis-directed. The script...what script?)

ON ACTING: "Pursuing Character Objectives: 'Selfish vs. Unselfish' "

Actors often find defining and pursuing objectives in a scene a very difficult task to accomplish. More than a few say "I don't like the concept of and ever-present 'objective'; it makes the characters I play seem so selfish."

I advise them: Self-servingness is the essence of all human life. There is no organ, cell or other part of the human anatomy (including emotion) which is not tied to an objective: at the most fundamental level, human survival. A character or actring performance that is not tied to self-serving-ness is unnatural, unreal, false to the material logic of life.

To encourage actors to develop a more cogent insight into purposes, needs, goals and objectives in a scene, allow me to draw a distinction between self-serving-ness and selfishness. Self-serving-ness can be considered selfish when it benefits us exclusively. However, when it benefits others as well as us--when the cost of an action is primarily to us and not to the others--we can call the action unselfish. The key point in either case, whether an action is selfish or unselfish, self-servinhg-ness is at the core of both selfish and unselfish actions.

I recommend an actor acquire and perfect this ability to define self-serving scene objectives by spending the rest of her/his life looking honestly and courageously at self-serving-ness in her/his own everyday life. (After all, all knowledge proceeds from self-knowledge; and life's/art's cheapest and most ever-ready textbook is one's own everyday behavior, isn't it?) Every day, three times a day, the actor should ponder a recent completed event or human interaction, and say: What did I want from that person. For what purpose did I do what I did? Why did I say what I said? Why did I feel what I felt? What was the purpose, or fundamental objective, behind all my activities?

Difficulty with objectives most often arises with from an actor's unconscious desire to deny and onfuscate the inevitable self-serving-ness in their own everyday behavior.

Wednesday, December 28, 2005


The story: Two dysfunctional sisters (Cameron Diaz and Toni Collette) can't live with each other, can't live without each other. Collette is the less attractive of the two, a successful, hard-working lawyer who can't find a man, and Diaz is the sex kitten, who can't seem to say 'no' to a man--or 'yes' to a job. Finally, Collette finds a man, another lawyer in the firm, and Diaz, who is staying with her, seduces him. Diaz is thrown out of the house by Collette, goes to stay with a long lost Grandmother, Shirley MacLaine, who is living in a complex in Florida for active seniors. Meanwhile, back in the city (Philadelphia), Collette drops off the fast track, finds peace in menial jobs and discovers a long simmering relationship with another lawyer, one who is at the old firm and always had the hots for her. The rest of the film deals with each sister 'finding' herself, including a more functional relationship with each other--based on a discovery of the truth of their past which includes a suicidal, mentally ill, mother.

Shirley MacLaine (the Grandmother) is a great actress, still one of the best America has produced in the last fifty years (has it been that long already?!); Collette is one of the best around today; Diaz has deep blue eyes and a body--and breasts--overly sculpted in a gym and other places. The men are Ken Howard as the Daddy, Mark Feuerstein as the Collette beau, and Norman Lloyd as a dying old man who mentors Diaz; they are solid.

The film (directed by Curtis Hanson of LA Confidential fame) is sweet, lovely, predictable; and slow. The actual two hour length of the film goes by like three. The filmmakers never solve the problem of turning the novel, on which the movie was based, into a film. It is the classic conversion dilemma of Hollywood: the difficulty of taking a novel, which conveniently gives you a story already developed, but in a form ideally suited to the novel structure, and trying to turn it into a medium for which it was never conceived.

In classic storytelling theory, each story dictates its own best form, the ideal way of conveying the essence of the tale. Ironically, often the skimpiest, less fully developed novels turn into the greatest films: two of the greatest examples are The Bridge Over the River Kwai and The Treasure of Sierra Madre. But that is rare. And is probably why Faulkner never translated into a great film. What God giveth in adapting a novel to film (fully developed story and complex characters), God taketh away (the usual inflexibility of a novel's storytelling structure).

Tuesday, December 27, 2005

ON ACTING: An actor wrote to me: "I was accused by my director of 'commenting on the material'. What did she mean by that?"

My response: The actor in peformance has a fiduciary trust to both author and audience to enact the character's point of view of the material only. He/She must not play 'on top of the material' (another variant of 'commenting' on the material). Such overview acting is a betrayal of that fiduciary trust; the actor-as-actor must not proselytize his/her point of view of the social, political, religious or philosphical issues inherent in the material. If the actor doesn't like the point of view of the character or the author, he/she should turn down the job. A good actor accepts and defends the point of view of his character-as-character. A good actor leaves it up to the audience/jury to later, after the performance, castigate, condemn or agree with his/her character's point of view. For the good actor, during the performance, the murderer has a legitimate reason to kill, the thief to steal, and the whore to make a living. The actors' performance job is merely to kill, steal and whore excitingly, with full human three-dimentionality. That, in itself, is a full time, demanding job. Any final discover of meaning and judgment...the author's left for the audience (and sometimes the characters themselves...Aristotle called it the character's final moment of self-recognition, or self-discovery) to be determined at the end of the play. It should arise independent of, and without, any actor-as-actor-judgments imposed during the evolving performance.

Monday, December 26, 2005

ON ACTING: On "Character Revealed in Action"

The most, true, apt and cogent definition of drama I know is: "Character revealed in action." Character is what character does. Character feelings, who and what a character is, are best revealed in character-doing, what a dramatic character does (and says) in the pursuit of objectives; acting is created and organized human behaviour in the quest for victory.

Legitimate acting performance energy derives from goal-oriented emotion; energy arising out of legitimate character conflict. Such legitimate performance emotion/energy, being truthfully obtained and revealed, is lifelike, real, specific and audience-engaging. On the other hand, performance energy--and emotion--derived from nothing more than an actor's desire "to affect and please an audience" is falsely-obtained, and therefore unnatural and off-putting. Mothers and Fathers watching such erroneosly obtained actor-energy may be happy their kids are trying hard, but the wider audience, sensing the un-life-like falseness inherent in such auto-generated emotional energy, soons tires and becomes bored.

Acting is a verb; it means "to do". It is striving for a goal. For bad actors, on the other hand, the word is a noun; a static a pool of 'emotional meaning', generated and revealed for it's own sake. Bad actors, heed the admonisment: "Don't feel; toward a goal; and let subsequent feelings and doings arise and be revealed from that."

Saturday, December 24, 2005

ON ACTING: Good Teachers are Good Doctors

Acting is the human body.

When a person visits the doctor's office for a check-up, the doctor, by intuition or by instument, incisively evaluates the patient's health; recognizes any symptoms of illness, and, if there are symptoms, diagnoses the underlying disease and proscribes curative medication (pills, nutrition, exercise, etc.). A patient would be rightfully aghast if the doctor just looked at the symptoms and said, "You're sick," and let it go at that.

Unfortunately I've seen more than a few teachers (and directors and casting directors) operate in just that fashion. They stand there and tell you what's wrong--i.e., what performance symptoms they don't like, and send you back into the fray. Period. A wise actor/patient should demand and expect state-of-the-art diagnosis and cure. When the actor's performance is ill, the patient should (1) expect the acting teacher or director to help the actor recognize specifically the actor's unhealthy symptoms, (2) describe the underlying acting disease that is causing those undesirable symptoms, and (3) guide him and her to positive and specific corrective action to efficiently attain good acting health.

If 1, 2 and 3 are not forthcoming, the actor/patient should seek a new doctor (or director, or teacher) as soon as possible..

Friday, December 23, 2005

****MOVIE RECOMMENDATION****"Brokeback Mountain"


A love story. Fine. But why a slow love story. Boy meets boy on a sheepherder gig in the mountains. On a cold night, they soon turn their backs on the sheep, their salaried objects of attention, and carnally find each other. Being 1963, and in the rural West, the relationjship is illicit, and thus doomed to pain, failutre and tragedy. (Thank God the cowboys are gay, otherwise these characters have very little interesting going on for them. They mumble alot. I know: Cowboys are taciturn. And have jaws glued together with chewing tobacco. Still...)

Given the bigoted times (the story is set in 1963) they are forced (or so we are led dramatically to believe) to split up. Then, over the years, they get together again, split up again, get married and have kids, vacation together (alone), split up...It's Same Time, Next Year only among gay cowboys.

I personally love impossible love-stories; I always cry the last fifteen minutes of The King and I. I love Romeo and Juliet. And the The Defiant there's an impossible male love story...two men, escaping prisoners, not only handcuffed (sexual inuendo?) but also black/white!!! (No overt sex there, however. Modern viewers who may want to see it all will have to be content with Brokeback Mountain where the sex is plentiful.)

Finally, my (and legions of other peoples') favorite film of all time, Casablanca...What is the essence of that film but an impossible love story; an illicit but impossible affair de coeur set in the midst of the obstacles of war, ideals, marriage and honor? In that great film, Rick's and Ilsa's love (certainly the carnal side) ultimately remains unrequited. But "they always have Paris".

Brokeback Mountain is about two guys who can't resign themselves to "always having Brokeback Mountain." They refuse to accept their epoch's obstacles (anti-gay bias), which is their story's dramatic equivalent of Nazi-war-time constraints or Capulets' versus Montagues' bigotry. Like most people (today), they want it all. I can appreciate that, but unfortunately, they don't seem to try very hard to get it; they just pout and suffer. They are miserable to their wives and kids. (True, their wives are unhappy and the the kids cry alot! But... still, given that set of unhappy fathers/husbands, wouldn't you?.)

So when our cowboys ultimately fail, I feel less sorry for them. I am unmoved by their destiny. I guess I'm old fashioned: but, to get my dramatic sympatico, you must either fight your demons (internal and external), or indulge them with grace, forebearance and dignity. Which means: either stay with your wife and kids and be nicer to them, or have the courage to leave--gracefully-- and, bearing the cost, follow your gay destiny. I know mid-twentieth century bigotry made gay love difficult, but love is difficult in any epoch: Shakespearean, nineteenth century Siam, or 1940's war-time Paris and Morocco. In the above cited film stories that elicit my sympathy, Romeo, Rick and the King of Siam handled their situations much more appealingly than 'Brokeback Mountain''s cowboys. Love is never having to say your yourself...bacause you lack the dignity to make the best of your unfair world--maturity being the ability to live contentedly within limitations, or summoning the courage to rebel. And prosper or be traqgically destroyed.

Ang Lee is a great visual director. There is scenic splendor galore in the film. Great pictorial composition. The music in the film is good. Heath Ledger is very good. Jake Gyllenhaal is...Jake Gyllehhaal. But the picture is:

And (this is from my wife): "sappy". The film's rating: PC 101. "For immature audiences only. Adults should be admitted only with their kids."

Tuesday, December 20, 2005

More:****MOVIE RECOMMENDATIONS****"Mrs. Henderson Presents"; "The Producers"; "The Constant Gardener"

MRS. HENDERSON PRESENTS: Forget all that I said in any other reviews on these pages about the need for plot. I take it back. While there is very little plot machinations iin this film, it still engaged my interest throughout. Boy meets lonely girl; boy and girl work together (developing a vaudeville theatre which transforms itself into uptown "Lido de Paris"/Vegas-showgirl extravaganzas); boy and girl clash because their personalities are very different (she is super-WASP; he is a Jewish salesmen); girl gets a crush; girl discovers boy is already married; she gets reconciled to it; they take on WW II: Nazi planes over London and the British prudish Establishment; they succeed; the war ends; he dies; she mourns--and we realize that friendship and shared goals, perhaps more than carnal love, is the most passionate, involving and fulfilling relationship of all. Character is all in this film. Character can be 'all' when you have Judi Dench and Bob Hoskins playing the boy and the girl. Not since Love Among the Ruins, with Katherine Hepburn and Lawrence Olivier, or Shadowlands with Anthony Hopkins and Debra Winger has a geriatric love story been so deliciously moving to me. Maybe it's the anglophile in me; maybe it's these particular actors and their sturdy, understated brilliance of English stiff-upper-lip. Maybe it's my own aging. Whatever it is, there's something wonderful about seeing time's passage redirect the flow of blood and energy up from the groin to the head and heart.

THE CONSTANT GARDENER: I saw this film awhile ago but revisited it due to the Academy Award buzz. The story is from a John le Carre novel; which gives it a head start. It is not from a great John le Carre novel, which is a detriment. The gardener aspect to the stoty is more symbolic than integral, more illustrative than dramatic (in my eyes, always a flaw). (See The Spy Who Came From the Cold if you want to see a great--and symbolically integrated--John le Carre based film).

The director of The Constant Gardener, Fernando Meirelles is hot off directing City of God, which was a peripatetic spice of Latin American life film, precocious and talented, but a bit too hyperactive even for that subject matter. Meirelles tried to apply those energetic talents to this film, but it doesn't work, not even as well as in City of God. The fast cutting filmic style seems imposed, as if the filmmaker was trying to get something going when, in truth, intrinsically, there is little going in the film. Perhaps his need to speed things up is dictated by Ralph Fiennes, who agonizingly depresses his way through (and, unfortunately whenever I see him, my way through) another film. (Sorry...He is not a favorite of mine...Except in his wonderful performance in Schindler's List, where his natural oversensitive lugubrious self/acting provided a dramatic inner tension to his Nazi character).

Most importantly: Rachel Weisz, the female lead, is wonderful, captivating, weighty, appealing, etc. etc. etc. If she isn't nominated for this role I will be disappointed. She is worth the price of the ticket.

THE PRODUCERS: During the first ten minutes of the film, I thought: 'Overdone.' 'Cheap gags.' 'Hyperactive.' Pure Mel Brooks! Then I thought: 'How wonderful...overdone, cheap-gag-gy and hyperactive!! Pure Mel Brooks! A Mack truck without brakes rolling down the PC highway smashing everyone in its path. He never stopped writing Sid Ceasar's Show of Shows!!' Incorrigible, unapologetically, unrelenting...I had the longest stretch of belly-laughs I've had in a long time.

Critics (including the NY Times) have not been overly kind. To those critics, I say: Yes, I agree: Nathan Lane is no Zero Mostel (although close). Matthew Broderick is further removed from the brilliant Gene Wilder (Mostel and Wilder were the original Lane and Broderick characters in the original non-musical 1968 film, The Producers). But the criticim is akin to criticizing merry-go-rounds and cotton candy for being too frivolous. Perhaps the criticism is arising because gays (in theatre, especially), and Germans (all kinds in the film) are mercilessly lampooned. True; the film is gay-bashing and German bashing of the highest order. (Will Ferrell is briliant as the unrepentent modern Nazi.) But the film is also horny little old lady bashing, horny young and old men bashing, blonde-bimbo bashing (Uma Thurman is sexy and comedically wonderful in the film by the way; a delightful surprise...the comedy flair, that is). The film engages in equal opportunity 'bashing'. (It used to be called satire!).

Critics: lighten up. You gay German horny old ladies critics are too thin-skinned. Put aside your PC-ness (in this...and perhaps all cases...Political Constipation-ness) for a couple of hours and have fun laughing at yourself. I did. And I won't tell you what category I belong in. (Although any of you who have followed my reviews and blogs could probably guess. 'Oh, Uma Thurman is sooo sexy!') Suspend critical judgment. See the movie. Then buy some cotton candy and go for a circular but delightful ride on the Mel Brook's merry-go-round. He is a perpetual kid...and kids are mean...but they know how to have a ggod time!

Sunday, December 18, 2005

MORE:****MOVIE RECOMMENDATIONS***"The Family Stone; A History of Violence; Match Point; Munich.

THE FAMILY STONE: It is a good TV script...with stars attached, which makes it 'finance-able' as a feature. Warm and cuddly. Merry Christmas. I'm a sentimentalist, so I sort of enjoyed it...although the writing was a bit tortured in the beginning working too hard setting up plot and characters. The acting is almost uniformly solid. Claire Danes is lovely, much more appealing the in The Shopgirl (with Steve Martin). Craig T. Nelson is solid. As is Rachel McAdams is a flashier but easier to perform role. And Sarah Jessica Parker...whom I was prepared not to like...I liked a lot. She had the toughest role in the piece...but she makes it work, especially as the piece wears on. The only performance slightly out of kilter: Diane Keaton...ironically too soft and 'straight' (imagine; Diane Keaton, too straight?) as the mother. The character needed more toughness and weight, especially in the beginning, like the performance of Shirley MacLaine in Terms of Endearment. Keaton's wonderful aura of neuroses in all her films works better in comedy than serious drama. Drama takes passion. Her character in this film, albeit comedic, demands dramatic depth to make the ending work. Overall: A little too PC a film to leave a lasting impression.

A HISTORY OF VIOLENCE: Quirky, art-housey, basically slow. But Ed Harris is wonderful, wonderful, wonderful. (SIDE NOTE: William Hurt is in the film also. Fine, as usual. BUT: Remember the William Hurt of yesterday? the decade or so ago run he had? The Kiss of the Spider Woman, Body Heat, Broadcast News? He and Meryl Streep ruled the nighttime sky. Brilliant. I miss that Bill Hurt. I'm sure he does, too. 'Ah, well; time and tides waits for no man...')

MATCH POINT: Woody Allen, the writer/director for my money is the genius of America film in the last 40 years, in the sense that he has captured best, more than any other filmamker, the neurotic pro-occupations of the American post-1960's generation. The American culture has definitely made its mark on him; he has left his mark on it. If any director can be considered an auteur, fusing a personal stylistic stamp on form and content to a whole range of work, Woody Allen deserves the term. He is the legatee of Billy Wilder, a softer, kinder, sadder version of Wilder; a generational shift from Billy's culture of heroes, whores with hearts of gold and tongues of steel to Woody's world of victims and pathos, men without resolve and women entwined in sexual affairs without passion, physical engage but frightened of love. All that being said, Match Point, starring Emily Mortimer, Mattew Goode, Scarlett Johansson and Johnathan Rhys-Meyers (all giving fine, okay performances; well, Ms. Johansson a little less than fine but who cares with that body, that skin, those lips...Marylyn Monroe with a little better schooling?) is an above-average film by a great director. Note I left Woody Allen the writer out of the praise equation: I'm afraid Woody Allen's script is not up to the director's talent. It seems to be what Billy Wilder once expressed as the idea of a "trunk script": one of those scripts no one wants to do , so you put it in a trunk until someday the time or occassion is fortuitous. Perhaps I'm wrong; perhaps the script is hot off the press, but the central idea seems old; even pre-60's if you will: a man follows the urging of his lower head to the detriment of his upper head, and this leads to tragic circumstances. It reminds me of the 40's and 50's film noirs (think Body Heat, or, in fact, Wilder's Double Indemnity.) Match Point is a pedestrian story made B+/A- by the equisite directorial taents of Allen (with camera moves, editing, location, photography, and actor instruction all excellent) wedded to a post-modern ending (which I won't give away). The overall effect becomes cynicism without redeption...Wilder without Wilder, if you will. Speaking of cynicism, a final note: why do I get the feeling Allen did this whole film to spend location time with Scarlett Johansson, a more zoftic, bustier version of the above mentioned Monroe and more autobiographically Mia Farrow and Diane Keaton? And didn't I read somewhere they were thinking of doing another film together? Oh well. Genius deserves its perks.

MUNICH: The plot summary from imdb: "During the 1972 Olympic Games in Munich, eleven Israeli athletes are taken hostage and murdered by a Palestinian terrorist group known as Black September. In retaliation, the Israeli government recruits a group of Mossad agents to track down end execute those responsible for the attack."...a basically cold-blooded summary for a cold-blooded film. An action movie: 4 Israeli killers seek vengeance (that was the title of the book from which the screenply was written, by the way: Vengeance) on 11 Palestinians for killing 11 Israelis. Add in lots of violence, lots of money spent on shooting, great editing (once again by editor Michael Kahn, Spielberg's long-time loyal, trusted and brilliant editor), a great deal of pseudo-historical, psuedo-philosophical handwringing (why else hire Tony Kushner of Angels in America fame to co-write) and you have a Mafia war without the weird humane passion of Sicilians (although the lead Israeli revenger--played very nicely by the Australian actor, Eric Bana, by the way--does cook alot). Once again Spielberg proves while a great film maker (film as a technical medium) he has problems with ideas. Maybe it's something about being raised in the suburbs...

Oh...the acting...sometimes in a Spielberg movie you forget the actors because they are overwhelmed by the direction: The acting throughout the piece is uniformly fine. They do their job of moving convincingly from frame to frame (Spielberg 'storyboards' his scenes: that is, pre-shooting cartoon drawing of the action, for the uninitiated, before he shoots it). But two actors leap out anyways, in spite of the pre-design: Michael Lonsdale and Mathieu Amalric, as Papa and Son cynics cum information sellers. In their acting performances they encapsulate the whole film. More characters like them in the script could have saved a lot of shooting/viewing time. But it would not have been a Spielberg epic, then, would it?

My take on the Palestine/Israeli mess, in case anyone wants to know: In the 1930's a madman named Hitler led his German nations into madness. Together they madly allowed six million Jews to be annihilated. The rest of the world world did basically nothing...(forget WW II: WW II was about the Allies fighting the Axis to protect their attacked asses, not about saving the Jews.) The Jews that remained after the war became in: insane (wouldn't you after all that slaughter?). They leveraged the guilt-inducing Holocaust into getting the state of Israel, thereby making Palestinians, who had been living on the same land with them for years, as crazy as them. That left two groups of madmen slaughtering each other (how many years has it been now...fifty-seven?)...while the rest of the world again did/does nothing. Historical lesson: Madmen never stop themselves. Madmen think they are perfectly justified in doing what they are doing! That's why they are madmen. They have to be stopped. Golda Meir, Prime Minister of Israel at the time of the Munich killings, is quoted as saying something to the effect: "Every civilization enery now and then has to compromise on its values"? Oh? A sure sign of madness.
Compromise is a fall from the ideal, not a standard to be striven for, or an excuse for getting your way. Also, for those people post-compromnise, torn between continuing hate and pity, still wanting to kill (killing for whatever reason) and remorse (in whatever form)...(do I sense Spielberg posited on just that divide?)...: hate cannot be assuaged just with self-loathing and guilt. Killing someone and then bemoaning ex-post-facto one's participation in the act (in order to justify the act) does not expiate guilt. Another example: I think of Hollywood multimillionaire liberal producers who pay actors 'scale' (minimum salary) then bewail the circumstances of the working class ('God, don't I feel better now', they seem to be saying). Chest-beating mea culpas, or rational analysis, moral questioing after the fact (unfortunately this film is too full of it) is no substitute for sane judgement before the fact. As my mother used to say: "Ther time to be sorry is before you do it. After the fact, it is bullshit!" And then she spanked me." Back to geo-political history: The world must spank Palestinians and Israel alike. It's the only way they'll ever grow up. Oh, I know: who wants to take on the chore? Responsible adults, that's who. Like a world for whom right and wrong is more important that any guilt it might have from past errors. Like my mother. Otherwise Holocaust II; the Sequel will be right around the corner.

Saturday, December 17, 2005

Even More End of the Year****MOVIE RECOMMENDATIONS*** *"Syriana"

Syriana: A half hour into the movie, I thought: "Huh?" Another half hour: "Huh?" again. A half-hour more: even more "Huh? Huh? Huh?" The story (oh...remember, writers, the concept of story in screenwriting class?) finally became clearer as the characters finally expostulated...sort of...the particulars of the plot: American oil men (Texans, of course) are the bad guys, along with greedy, corrupt oil shieks (sorry, emirs) from Saudi Arabia who are in cahoots with them...except for the second son of the dying emir who is against his older brother (the Cain and Abel of the desert) who wants to inherit the throne to 'help his people'. He will be killed of course, along with a head-screwed-up Canadian played by George Clooney (doing a government-CIA-le Carre-'out-in-the-cold' type). Corruption is everywhere; in fact one of the bad guys gives a speech RE ' corruption is good' (shades of Gordon Gecko's Wall Street cry: "greed is good"). Matt Damon plays an erstwhile innocent trying to get ahead, but basically a naive babe in the woods. Terrorists are everywhere in the film: young, peach-fuzz-faced suicide bombers portrayed as innocents-qua-killers, tortured by personal doubts, lack of jobs and influencing Imams. Chinese and Iranian populate the film as well: mostly as greedy bad guys. Very depressing. It all may even be true on some level...but I need good plays/films to dramatize the truth, not preach it. A soap box is too small a stage for drama. Paranoid Oliver Stone in the 70's, 80's and 90's, make room...Syriana of the 00/'s is here!!

Oh...the acting: uniformly excellent. Each day, the world produces more and more good actors. However, Syriana is the easiest of films to act in. There are few plot obligations. Just do professional reality show ('real' character performances---'throw away' most of the dialogue) and leave it up to the editors and the music to drive audience interest. Earlier in the day I was as usual losing patience with dealing with I want some answers. Instead I had to enetr some facts and figues and instructions into bureaucratic boxes---and go along for three days until some ubiquitous company e-mailer gets back to me and explain what is going on. My wife admonished: "Patience." She was instructing me to become like the audience in Syriana, patiently waiting for an hour and a half through admittedly rich visual and filmic texture until the problems of the plot were explained. Not my cup of tea; perhaps it is a generational thing, but I got better things to do than just wait around passively in the dark until someone neatly ties my life together...and only then when it is almost over!!!

Breakfast on Pluto: It's a nice film, but I grow a little weary of propaganda, whether its right of left, up or down, back to front, gay or hetero, liberal or conservative, Christian, Muslim, Hindu or Bhuddist. Neil Jordan the writer director lays on the point-of-view in this film a little strong. Jordan--who is a wonderfully dark and dense director--and who wrote and dircected The Crying Game--obviously has an artistic affection for transsexuals...or is it transgender...or transvestite...or cross-dresser? I get very confused. Makes one sort of yearn for plain old gay, doesn't it. I'm giviing up all contemplation of sex when they start parsing the definition of 'straight'. Cillian Murphey is wonderful actor in this role, beautiful and tender, doing an excellent star-turn as Patrick, fathered and abandoned by a priest (played solidly, as usual) by Liam Neeson, and who must face the cruelties of a non-understanding world. Another 'harsh treatment-victims story' in a line (dare I say a 'straight' line?) dating back to Job. This one has a happier ending.

More End of the Year****MOVIE RECOMMENDATIONS***"Cinderella Man"; " Memoirs of a Geisha"

CINDERELLA MAN: A decent movie about a decent man with a decent family; the film is a decent boxing story of former Heavyweight Champion, James J. Braddock, and his decent personal fight toward glory: Rocky set in the Depresion. Directed by the decent Ron Howard. With two decent star perfromances by Russell Crowe and Renee Zellwenger...and a wonderfully decent (in this case, more than decent) performance by Paul Giamatti (far outstripping his performance in Sideways...). Giamatti is deservedly headed for an Academy Award nomination for Best Supporting Actor for this one, as he was deservedly denied a Best Actor Nomination for Sideways. Take the kids (especially the boys and girls who like to mix it up) for a decent afternoon at the cinema.

MEMOIRS OF A GEISHA: To begin with: many of the actors' accents are more-often-than-not very thick to these non-Asian's ears, and sub-titles would have been nice (even though they are speaking in English most of the time). The actors' performances are uniformly excellent, especially Ken Watanbe as the patient lover (shades of Cyrano) and Michelle Yeoh as the mother-figure. The film's lead actess, Yiyi Zhang is exquisitely beautiful. But there are so many beautiful women (it is a geisha house, after all), dressed and made-up much the same, it is hard sometimes to tell them apart.

It is a beautifully mounted production. But so are a lot of 30-second commercials with a lot of money to spend. (No wonder they have so many Executive Producers---$$$$--- on this film.) The film became a walk through the museum guided by an insecure therefore ostentatious display expert.

There is still the question of story. Not being a prior reader of the novel, I had a hard time following who hated who; and why. And Rob Marshall (who directed the fine musical Chicago) also must still have thought he was doing another musical: the music in Geisha is wall-to-wall. I hate to admit it but: you can have too much of a good thing. The good/bad thing in this film being the composer, the great John Williams, and the brilliant string playing of Yo-Yo Ma and Itzak Perleman! When a film has that much music, someone is generally trying to convince me that a lot is going on when in truth there is very little. I'm afraid that is the case in Geisha. However, go see it....preferably on a Sunday afternoon with a girl who thinks all men are rotten...and is favorably disposed to any man who is willing to share this movie concept with her...and Sunday night should perk up according.

Thursday, December 15, 2005

The End of the Year****MOVIE RECOMMENDATIONS*****Capote; Pride and Prejudice; Good Night and Good Luck

CAPOTE: Hard to get involved watching one bird of prey (the writer, Truman Capote) feeding on two other birds of prey (the Kansas killers from Capote's book: "In Cold Blood") Phillip Seymour Hoffman as Capote is brilliant, as usual (in fact, he is one of America's great actor's right now, isn't he?: when's the last time you've seen him be anything but wonderful?). But even he can't surmount the material. There is no character development in the story, and therefore in evident in Hoffman's performance. You are correct if you blame the script, and blame the real life personality of Truman Capote, but a great actor's job is to find the beginning-middle-end of character performance even when it is not given to him by the script. Even in the hands of a great musician, playing a single note without surcease can get boring.

(Oh...I amost forgot...Catherine Keener...she gives a wonderful, lovely performance in the film. I find her hauntingly beautiful.)

PRIDE AND PREJUDICE: Sappy. The great Jane Austin played for sub-teens. Beautifully mounted, of course...British films are always lovely, aren't they?...but the film is pedestrianly directed. The director's, Joe Wright's, strong suit obviously isn't dealing with actors; at least not in this film. He let's Keira Knightly as the lead Elisabeth Bennett get away with constant endless 'cuteness': watch me act the sub-text (for non-actors, that means "inner meanings)"...and aren't I clever and cute doing it?; and Matthew Macfadyen as Mr. Darcy pouts and furrows his brow with such unremitting and off-putting agony that I could care less if they ever fall in love...or kiss...which finally happens (gratefully: the film's finally over!). I know it's important commercially to reach for the teen audience...but...come on....the great Jane Austen deserves (and demands) more film respect than this.

GOOD NIGHT, AND GOOD LUCK: It is the best drama/film/picture I've seen so far this year (as opposed to the best theatrical experience I've had this year which was Mad Hot Ballroom and March of the Penquins...both documentaries. If only the Academy included them in Best Picture categories!!!) . Good Night, and Good Luck is George Clooney's achievement. It is written by (collaboratively with Grant Heslow), directed by, acted in, and I'm sure partially financed by (...his box office leverage if nothing else) George Clooney. The black and white picture is solid, engrossing and worthwhile. (It is in black and white by necessity: to enable the filmmaker's to use the actual footage of historic Senate proceedings. It is also a fortunate artistic choice: black and white often abstracts reality in such a way as to heighten thematic truth by dimisnishing pictorial.) It's history is a bit Hollywood-hype-ized (Sen. Joe McCarthy wasn't about to bring down the whole US with his demagogery!!! Trust me: I was there.). But other than that liberal dramatic license, all is excellent, including David Strathairn's top-notch performance as the protagonist and McCarthy exposer Edward R. Murrow, one of the finest journalists and TV commentators of his or any generation. The picture has Academy Award nominations written all over it.