Friday, February 29, 2008

THE 2007 MURIELS WRAP-UP: BEST PICTURE, HIGHLIGHTS IN INDIVIDUAL ACHIEVEMENTS




The Palme D’Guinea Pig, otherwise known as the Muriel Award for Best Film of 2007 has been announced! It was a close vote, but despite a last-minute surge in voting on behalf of Because I Said So (Kidding! The Muriels have far more credibility than that!), the winner is... Well, why don't you go check for yourself. Paul Clark, curator of the Muriels, asked me to write briefly about the movie, and he has gathered seven other writers to wax ecstatic about the big winner, as well as the four runners-up. Here's Paul himself on one of the five favorites among Muriel voters:

“Much has been made of the obsessive attention to detail David Fincher brought to Zodiac, but his brilliance is in how he uses this meticulousness to subvert the expectations we have from a murder mystery. Fincher uses the minutiae of the Zodiac case to illustrate the roadblocks in the way of the case being solved… After nearly a quarter of a century, the case is more or less back where it started- literally, as the first character we meet is also the last we see- and all the hard work and sacrifice and obsession over the Zodiac case has amounted to little or less to nearly everyone involved.”

And that's not all...

Steven Carlson on Ratatouille: “What impresses most, though, is the way that Bird uses the American perception of animation as kid stuff to his thematic advantage. With food as his metaphor and Anton Ego as his vessel, Bird puts forth a consideration of the simple loves that start many of us on the road to cinephilia.”


James Frazier on Gone Baby Gone: “When was the last time a mystery was so thematically rich and deeply moving, utilizing an impeccable balance of cerebral, emotional, and visceral pleasures? Ben Affleck's directorial debut seems like the work of a seasoned filmmaker; its intimate familiarity with the lower-class Boston setting, the gripping but methodically paced narrative, the seemingly casual elicitation of great performances from an excellent ensemble cast. This suggests not the work of a rookie, but a real pro, or at least someone who paid damn close attention to the way his better directors ran the show.”

Alex Ross: No Country for Old Men is the most quietly ferocious movie you'll ever see. I can't stop thinking about the brilliant sound design choices by Joel and Ethan Coen that lift the movie from a simple genre exercise into another level of terror and excitement. In the same way Ennio Morricone fashioned a theme out of creaks, drips and cracks for the opening of Once Upon a Time in the West, here we have an entire "score" made out of footsteps, desert wind, breezes through an open window, distant passing trains and simply the sound a man makes when he's contemplating what his next action will be that won't result in his death. All these sounds are heightened because no note (whether dialog or effects) goes wasted, wrapping the viewer in silence and putting us in the same mindset as the characters, where fate seems to be waiting behind the corner.”

Andrew Bemis:There Will Be Blood shouldn't work. With its collision of stark images of a landscape about to be violated, abrasive music and unapologetically large-scale performances, Paul Thomas Anderson's fifth film could have easily been a well-intentioned mess and an interesting curiosity on a developing filmography. Instead, There Will Be Blood achieves a demented harmony and proves its much-debated director as one of our strongest and most original auteurs. For all the filmic influences woven into the film, it's no pastiche - no film in 2007 was so singularly strange, beautiful and disturbing.”


There’s also an entire section devoted to short pieces by writers in which they hail films that were less popular with Muriel voters, the Muriel Best Picture Also-Rans:

Craig Kennedy on Syndromes and a Century: "It sounds like a mess, but I loved every minute of it. What does it all mean? I don't know. You tell me. Unattached to logic, but somehow managing to beguile and captivate, it's a fascinating cinematic puzzle that defies easy explanation."

James Frazier on 3:10 to Yuma: “Out of all of the great films this year, I wouldn't have guessed that my favorite would be the remake of a Western, but here it is…”

Paul Clark: Lake of Fire illuminates what may be the only reasonable method of trying to resolve the abortion debate- not shouting, but listening. To take time to hear the beliefs of others with an open mind rather than simply propping ourselves up with our prejudices. To learn to see the complexity of the debate, rather than operating simply in shades of black and white, like children or, yes, zealots. And to try to understand the women- the conscious centers of the abortion debate- rather than simply demonizing them.”

Hedwig van Driel on The Darjeelign Limited: “Anderson knows just how to use Owen Wilson's head and Adrian Brody's long limbs, and while there are some too-precious moments, this movie has been far too easily dismissed."

Jason Alley on Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead: “The fractured time structure has taken some flak, but I found it extremely effective at slowly peeling back the layers of this family’s still-open wounds like an onion. Even the fact that Hoffman and Hawke look nothing alike becomes a vital part of the story."


And speaking of Also-Rans, Paul doesn’t let the ball drop with films. There’s an entire section of the Muriels devoted to Individual Achievements that tended to get lost in the year-end shuffle toward award season, and the Oscars in particular.

My thanks to Paul for inviting me to join in the fun as one of the Muriels voters and contributors, and for giving me a forum to write not only about the 2007 Muriel Best Picture winner, but Carice van Houten and John Carroll Lynch as well. I’m already looking forward to the 2008 awards; I just hope we have as much good stuff to write about this time next year as we do this year.

Thursday, February 28, 2008

O DEATH, O DEATH: Two Perspectives, One End


"Death? Why this fuss about death. Use your imagination. Try to visualize a world without death! Death is the essential condition of life, not an evil."

- Charlotte Perkins Gilman

"If my doctor told me I had only six minutes to live, I wouldn't brood. I'd type a little faster." - Isaac Asimov

“One of the great pleasures of No Country for Old Men has been the huge amount of introspective analysis it has inspired in critics and bloggers and blog commenters and the movie-going community in general. It's been going on to a degree since the movie played Cannes, it really picked up when the movie was finally released, it has continued these months before the Oscars and it continues even today. I don't know how else you could describe a great movie.”

Craig Kennedy, from a comment posted under the article “No Country Under the Skin” found at Jim Emerson’s Scanners

*************************************************************************************

The few words Craig left under the latest consideration of the workings of No Country for Old Men at Jim’s site really hit home with me. It did so because it made me realize just how valuable the amount of intelligent discourse on this movie, which some, as is their right, dismiss simply as a well-crafted genre thriller, has been to my appreciation and understanding of it. There have been miles and miles of great back-and-forths at Jim’s sites, and here as well, as to the relative merits, weaknesses, meanings and intentions of No Country for Old Men, and as with any great film the discussion is unlikely to stop now that it has received the official coronation of awards season.
It so happens that the centerpiece of the article under which Craig’s comment appeared was a letter written to RogerEbert.com by a man named Nicholas Rizzo who was in the midst of considering his own mortality “on several fronts” when he wrote it. Rizzo’s point of view reframed the discussion of the film yet again, away from thoughts of the historical consistency of dark forces crushing men’s souls, or of Chigurh as Evil Incarnate, toward one in which the movie speaks about the inevitability of aging and death. Rizzo wrote:

“I don't think this movie was so much about an ultimate evil so much as our ultimate ending. Rather, about our ultimate aging, decline in usefulness whether true or not or simply relative to the youth of any generation. The ultimate finality of time. Its categorical nature is represented by Anton's "code of ethics" that can't be broken. People always saying, ‘You don't have to do this,’ is their bargaining with the finality of their own death... not with Anton.”

I read Jim’s article again today, and Craig’s comment for the first time, on the same day that my best friend’s mother sent along an e-mail linked to a video that she insisted would change the perspectives of those on her e-mail list who would just take the time to watch it. Oh, great, more time-consuming Internet platitudes, thought I, having been rendered just a little bit cynical about all the feel-good pieties and other such stuff I’m routinely subjected to by well-meaning family members of my own. One other hurdle for me: it was an excerpt from the Oprah Winfrey Show. I usually like to get all my literary advice, as well as thoughts on matters emotional, psychological, sociological and financial from friends, family and/or professionals—for years it’s been good, solid policy for me to leave Oprah the hell out of as much as I possibly can.

But I weathered the embarrassment of watching a 10-minute segment of Oprah at work today, and I must say I’m glad I did. The segment is a reprise of Professor Randy Pausch’s “Last Lecture,” a talk he gave to students and faculty at Carnegie Mellon University which became a viral hit on the Internet, which was taped and has been viewed over a million times since its original posting. Pausch is a virtual reality pioneer who originally gave the lecture as a way of dealing with the fact that he was recently diagnosed with terminal cancer and had, at the time of the Oprah taping, but months to live. Pausch’s decision to deal with his situation in a head-on manner is intended to inspire others in similar dire circumstances, to be sure, but it’s also a legacy to communicate his philosophy of life to his three young sons, who are likely too young to understand exactly what their father is going through, let alone his perspective on it.

And it is a particularly illuminating video to consider in light of the most recent discussion about No Country for Old Men. Sheriff Ed Tom Bell makes certain decisions about how he will live out his life with the knowledge that he has faced death and will continue to face it, even as he recedes from a life that forces him to confront it on a daily basis. The discussions on Jim’s site and elsewhere surrounding these points of view on the film tend to make it an even richer experience. I’ve been shaking and stirring Pausch’s remarkable fortitude and strength around in my head all day, mixing it up with the brutal realizations afforded by the Coen Brothers’ film, and I must say the resulting cocktail has been inspirational indeed. A clear-eyed perspective on death may be a difficult thing to come to grips with, and no two of us, I dare say, is likely to come away thinking about the subject in the same way. But no matter how we approach it, death does indeed come to us all. And it seems to me that experiencing No Country for Old Men and Randy Pausch’s “Last Lecture” are two not-mutually-exclusive ways that we can face it up to it ourselves and decide what we can do until it comes knocking.



Randy Pausch presents a reprise of his “Last Lecture” on The Oprah Winfrey Show

Wednesday, February 27, 2008

THE 2007 MURIELS: BEST LEAD PERFORMANCE (FEMALE), CARICE VAN HOUTEN



The 2007 Muriel Awards march on! Paul Clark’s alternate Oscars have logged, since we last checked in, entries on Best Cinematography, Best DVD Release, Best Screenplay, Best Supporting Performance (Female), Best Supporting Performance (Male), Best Cinematic Moment of 2007 and Best Director.

This morning Paul has posted my thoughts on the Muriel Award Winner for Best Lead Performance (Female) of 2007, Carice van Houten for Paul Verhoeven’s wild and harrowing Black Book.

I’ll have a couple of other pieces for the Muriel Awards before the celebration is finished, and will, of course, keep you up to date on when you can see those exclusively on Paul’s site Silly Hats Only.

Tuesday, February 26, 2008

IT'S THE COENS' COUNTRY AND WELCOME TO IT: Last-Minute Thoughts on Oscar 2007



There’s an otherworldliness to watching the red carpet parade and the Oscar ceremony itself, even when you live in Los Angeles and watch the madness as it begins with the cordoning off of streets one week before the big show. But when you see the Oscar telecast in a setting largely untouched by everyday Oscar fever and hype—say, Eugene, Oregon, where I saw Sunday night’s trophy give-away—it seems even more remote than ever. Saturday night my best friend, his wife and I took in a packed showing of No Country for Old Men at the local mall septillion-plex as a way of setting in motion the Oscar steam engine that would pull into the station round about that same time tomorrow. It was, however, a bit of a surprise to me when several members of the audience for the film were vocally derisive when the screen went to black after Tommy Lee Jones’ dream monologue, not a great harbinger for general audience acceptance of No Country despite it being the Coen Brothers’ biggest hit to date. And the reaction was certainly a big difference from the movie-hip reverence with which the movie is more typically greeted down here in Tinseltown. There was laughter, some hissing, and the woman behind me was complaining loudly: "That's up for an Academy Award? Jesus Christ, we wasted the opportunity to see a good movie tonight!" I'd like to think she took me completely seriously when I turned around and suggested she run straight to the 9:45 showing of 27 Dresses in order to get the taste of the awful piece of shit she just endured out of her mouth. (Update: My friend Blaaagh is the one who accompanied me, and as he reminds me in the comments column below, the majority of the audience seemed to be with the movie. If I made it sound somehow as though there were a riot about to break out, I apologize.)

I still believed going in that No Country would reign supreme on the night; but I also had pretty good reason to believe, given the fact that neither Transformers nor Pirates of the Caribbean 3 were nominated for major awards, that the show itself would be a ratings dud. (In fact, reports Tuesday confirm that it may be the lowest-rated Oscar show ever.) But since I’m not an ABC executive, I can’t see any good reason to agonize over that. Oscar will honor whoever Oscar will honor, hit or no hit, ratings or no ratings.

And that was proven out immediately when the costume design Oscar went to Elizabeth: The Golden Age, a movie I thought the Academy would work strenuously to ignore this night. It was also an instant severe blow to my chances in the office Oscar pool. But in a strange way, knowing I’d screwed up so early kind of took the pressure off of following my own pool ballot and wondering if anyone else was doing as well as I was. Well, Elizabeth: TGA turned out to be a nasty surprise to just about everyone, which meant that all was not lost just yet re my movie-centric gambling. And aneurysm-inducing Diablo Cody prize notwithstanding, the rest of the night had many nice surprises, a couple of wince-inducing ones, and only a few bumps of any note along the way.


One of my favorite moments of the night was the encore appearance of Best Song co-winner Marketa Irglova, whose mike went dead after partner Glen Hansard’s effusive and sincere thank-you (“Make art! Make art!”). First, Stewart’s brilliant off-the-cuff remark: “God, that guy is soooo arrogant!” Then, whether Stewart prodded for it (I’d like to think he did) or it was a producer’s idea, Irglova coming back out to finish what she never got started was a perfect people’s Oscar moment, and well-deserved. I just hope it makes Sid Ganis, Gilbert Cates and the other showmen behind the Oscars realize that playing off the winners before they’ve had a chance to express themselves—in essence bowdlerizing before the fact the very reason the Oscars are held in the first place, to honor specific achievement in film and give the winners their moment in the spotlight— is an unpleasant manifestation of Hollywood arrogance. Hopefully, if the Irglova Experiment proves anything to these folks, it’s that the acceptance speeches should be the last things cut or otherwise mercilessly truncated.

If they're looking for Ocar flab to trim, well, I for one almost always get squirmiest during the Best Song performances. Only rarely does the category offer anything close to the caliber of Hansard and Irgolva’s moment. The song from August Rush was probably better than the movie, though the three Enchanted numbers were deadly dull. I thought it was fairly brave of Amy Adams to go out there, basically in the character of Enchanted’s Princess Giselle, and chirp out a number that skirts satire, but ultimately backs away from it, like “Happy Working Song.” But I have to admit alliance with Kim Morgan when she said that Adams’ charmed innocence act is getting a touch thin. How about her and Patrick Dempsey in a remake of Panic in Needle Park for a change of pace, eh?

Kim reminds us of some truly wonderful moments, though. Javier Bardem’s win, and then his heartfelt acceptance speech, half of which he dedicated to his mother in Spanish, had my tears flowing early on. And in addition to Tilda Swinton making me look like a much better prognosticator than I really am, her gobsmacked speech, which began with a very sincere-sounding “Oh, no,” quickly spun into a riot of sideways Clooney worship, a big noogie from a freshly Oscar-winning co-star to her leading man that was utterly disarming.

And I would agree with Kim also that I did not need to be reminded of Jerry Seinfeld and Bee Movie again—how much did DreamWorks/Paramount have to spring for that little appearance, which amounted to little more than an ad for the upcoming DVD, I wonder. But, that said, any bit that gets a clip from Irwin Allen’s The Swarm into play on Hollywood’s night of nights is a-okay in my book. The writers made excellent hay of a clip from the ersatz disaster pic, as the climax to a bit in which Seinfeld’s bee points himself out in famous movies bee scenes (including the attack on Bill Murray from Rushmore).


But it also reminded me that, back in the spring of 1979, Oscar actually invited The Swarm to the real party. Allen’s go-to costume designer Paul Zastupnevich, whose career with the disastermeister stretches back at least as far as Lost In Space, got the second of three Oscar nominations he would get for his arguably undistinguished work on Allen’s movies for The Swarm-- the first being The Poseidon Adventure, the last being, appropriately enough, When Time Ran Out…

As far as the host goes, I thought Jon Stewart was pretty much right on the button most of the night; only going flat a few times over four hours is a pretty good track record. In addition to the great cracks about Clinton and Obama (“Normally when you see a black man or woman president, an asteroid is about to hit the Statue of Liberty. How else are we supposed to know it’s the future?!”) and Norbit (“Even Norbit got a nomination, which I think is great. Too often the Academy ignores movies that aren't good."), he even took time to play a match of Wii tennis with the 11-year-old vocalist from the August Rush song. And then there’s that whole bring-back-Marketa business, the goodwill off of which I think he’ll be riding for a good long time.

Of course the Coen Brothers were at once benignly cracked and expectedly short-winded (“Thank you,” murmured Ethan upon conquering his mile-wide grin after their first win of the night) and sincerely eloquent (“Thank you for letting us play in our little corner of the sandbox.”) These two were only slightly uncomfortable and seemed to really enjoy this strange moment that they so clearly deserved, punctuated as it was by cuts to Joel’s wife Frances McDormand, who was beside herself with delight, and the unexpected sight of Cormac McCarthy himself in the audience, surely seated near the No Country, giving his tacit blessing to the coronation of this blistering and brilliant adaptation of his work. (One only hopes that director John Hillcoat, of last year’s The Proposition, matches the standard set by the Coens with his own McCarthy adaptation, that of The Road, the filming of which is what accounts for the robust beard attached to Viggo Mortensen’s face on Oscar night.)


And if I might get a little E! channel for a moment, I was most delighted to see Diane Lane, Helen Mirren, Marion Cotillard, Katherine Heigl and Jennifer Garner amongst the females looking especially lovely Sunday night. The boys were best represented by Javier Bardem, George Clooney, Daniel Day-Lewis, Viggo Mortensen and Josh Brolin, who I wish I could be on Oscar night just so I could sit next to Diane Lane. And a special shout-out to Gary Busey: Hope you enjoyed the festivities, friendo, as it’s probably the last one you’ll ever be invited to!

Finally, since she made writing this piece ever so much more difficult by trumping all my own reactions and doing so in such an entertaining way, I will leave my last word on Oscars 2007 in the capable hands of Kim Morgan, who counts herself with me in the anti-Juno brigade. I had my aneurysm, to be sure, and I knew it was coming, so now that the threat of major Oscar damage is past I wish Juno Godspeed on its way toward an enormously successful DVD which I can completely ignore. But before I do, here’s Kim on Diablo Cody:

“Diablo Cody, beloved hipster-ex-stripper-screenwriter-goddess, wins Best Original Screenplay for the indie hit Juno, a movie soaked with forced, overly quippy one-liners that either delighted or seriously exasperated audiences (I was one of those exasperated)-- and all she can come up with is, ‘I especially want to thank my fellow nominees.’ Or, ‘This is for the writers!’ Diablo! Honest to blog! Where was your arsenal of smarty-pants wisecracks and pop-culture Soupy Sales-isms? This is the Oscars, Home Skillet. This is your time on stage. As you wrote, this is ‘one doodle that can't be un-did.’ But hey, you pulled off the leopard dress, tats and your Louise Brooks bob. So at least you looked great. But... another thing. What was with your glum exit offstage? Was Harrison Ford taking you to Oscar detention?”

Ah, Diablo in Oscar detention. What an image. That’ll definitely last me until next year!

Sunday, February 24, 2008

AND THE OSCAR GOES TO...


My friend Nathaniel R of The Film Experience has posted his Oscar predictions and now must sweat it out like the rest of us to see what happens tonight. In addition, he has created the hilarious image below suggesting what he thinks might take place, and what I hope takes place, once all the pre-game festivities are dispensed with and the statues start flying. I hope your Oscar ballots are all ready to go. If not, visit Nathaniel and crib from him instead of me-- you're likely to do a lot better in the long run! I will be sitting high atop Springfield, Oregon, just under the water tower, overlooking the fogged-in, rained-in cityscape of Eugene, and doing my best to cheer the Coen Brothers on to a historic four-for-four as the show gets underway. Enjoy it, everyone, for tomorrow is just another work day. And be sure to have a list at hand, as I surely will, to remind you of all the great movies and artists that never won Oscars which you can use to console yourself if and when your favorite takes a dive.


There's more to this swell picture, and Nathaniel will ensure it meets your eye...

UPDATE FEB. 25 10:30 p.m.: Just off the plane from Eugene, and I'm heading to bed. It is nice to know that, the inevitable Diablo Cody statue notwithstanding, the Juno bug has effectively been slain. Now it's on to a hugely profitable DVD that I don't have to pay any attention to! How nice it was to go to bed last night knowing the best picture of 2007 actually won the award. I will try to cobble together some more thoughts tomorrow, before all memory of Oscar fades. But until I do, please check out Kim Morgan's Oscar piece at MSN.com. Kim says just about everything I would say and more, and she's a lot more fun to read. I'm not sure there's anything left to say after her keen article, but if I think of something I'll do so tomorrow.

Tuesday, February 19, 2008

THE 2007 OSCAR WRAP-UP: NO LOCAL PARTY, NO COUNTRY FOR OLD-SCHOOL OSCAR BAIT



Why, Mr. Day-Lewis, did you just win an Oscar for Best Actor, or are you just glad to see me?

Thank God, AMPAS and the WGA—we will not be denied our Oscar party this year! I’ve had Oscar gatherings at my house every year since I moved to Los Angeles 20 years ago, and, oh, what a crushing blow it would have been to have had to swallow the news that this year there would be no memorable moments from the Kodak Theater. As Conan O’Brien speculated last January in his writer’s strike diary (published in Entertainment Weekly), “Blasphemy! Horror! The Golden Globes are canceled and the Oscars may be next. I want no part of a world that refuses to congratulate itself.” Fortunately, we have been spared the waves of dementia and disorientation that plagued O’Brien in the final, desperate passages of his tome. All is well in Hollywood. The Oscars will be on your TV this coming Sunday, February 24—pregame shows beginning as early as 3:00 p.m. Well, they are in Los Angeles anyway, where our priorities are, to quote Conrad Veidt in The Thief of Bagdad, as straight as the letter alif. The streets surrounding Hollywood and Highland— the heart of Hollywood, in other words— have been blocked off since last Sunday. God help the poor family intent on spending $60 just to get into the El Capitan to see Hannah Montana and Miley Cyrus—Best of Both Worlds that has to run that security gauntlet.

The difference for me this year is that I will not be watching the Oscars from home, but instead from high atop a neighborhood hill in Springfield, Oregon, overlooking Autzen Stadium, where I will be taking in the glitter in the luxurious manse of my best friend Bruce (Blaaagh to many of y’all). My wife and daughters pretend that this is sad news, that they will miss me. I suspect, however, that the opposite is true. This year, no grown men will be screaming at the TV over the announcement of the winner of the Best Sound Mixing award. No stale Cheetos will be ground into the carpet. There will be no post-show moping about how one day Laura Linney will get her due, goddamn it.

(I kid about the volatility and general level of raucous fun of my Oscar party, but I swear to you that on any given year it looks nothing like this:



No offense, but anyone showing up to my house in a tux, or even a tux T-shirt, on Oscar Night, would be shown the back door.)

The girls will get to bed on this Oscar school night on time, perhaps even early, with no swearing and drunken laughter to keep them awake. My wife will shut off the lights five minutes after the girls are tucked in and proceed to tuck herself in with a good book, most likely one that would be far too literary and difficult for Hollywood to ever consider adapting. She will fall asleep without the sound of Billy Bush, Joan Rivers, Richard Roeper and the local ABC news crew, all decked out in tuxes and gowns, squawking and echoing inside her skull. She will, this one year, strive to forget that Hollywood even exists on this night of nights. And she will go to sleep not knowing, yet suspecting, that once again, even given such a quality crop, the goddamned worthless Oscars will screw up and give the big prize to the wrong movie. There may be blood, but there will not be Oscar bling-bling. The 2007 twist, however, is that front-running movies this year, from No Country for Old Men to There Will Be Blood, Michael Clayton, Away from Her and Ratatouille actually deserve the pole position, and traditional Oscar bait like Atonement isn't likely to be a serious contender for any major awards. (The less said about potential spoiler Juno the better, particularly since I've already grouched about it at length.)


Actor Ian Charleson enacts the aneurysm on schedule for me when when Juno wins for Best Screenplay

Yet up in Springfield, there will be bombast and blasphemy and pulverized snack foods settling into the deep shag. My best friend and I will see the Oscars together for the first time in nearly 15 years, and no matter what does or doesn’t happen on TV all will be right because of that. I’ll be hopping a plane to Eugene Thursday morning, which means that it’s time now, before I have no other time, to go on the record with my phony baloney Oscar predictions. Those of you looking for a quick fix for your office Oscar pool are warned right away that you’d be better off cribbing someone else’s notes. I’ve held about 20 years worth of office Oscar pools to go along with my legendary Oscar parties, and I’ve won the pool exactly once (the year Million Dollar Baby took home the gold). So if I were you, I would recommend heeding the soothsayings available from Variety, The Hollywood Reporter, the Los Angeles Times or Entertainment Weekly before giving the following picks more weight than one of Paulie Bleeker's orange TicTacs. Much like compulsively trotting out my Oscar nomination predictions, the posting of my predictions for the actual awards feeds little else beside some dark desire to be publicly humiliated, in addition, of course, to the hungry little squirrel that keeps the revolving treadmill of my fragile ego constantly rotating. So let’s gorge the little bastard, shall we? Here are my picks for this year’s Oscar winners:

PICTURE: No Country for Old Men (Worst nightmare: A Juno win anywhere, but particularly here.)

ACTRESS: Julie Christie (please, Lord…)

ACTOR: It’s madness, but I’m following my heart-- George Clooney. (But really, if Daniel Day-Lewis loses, look for the sun to not rise on Monday morning.)

SUPPORTING ACTOR: Javier Bardem (though Hal Holbrook could easily upset)

SUPPORTING ACTRESS: Cate Blanchett is not the force that Bardem is in the Supporting Actor category, so the Lifetime Achievement Award Syndrome has a much better chance of reigning supreme here. But Ruby Dee is gonna be this year’s Lauren Bacall. Shaky limb, here I come: Tilda Swinton.

DIRECTOR: Joel and Ethan Coen

ADAPTED SCREENPLAY: No Country for Old Men

ORIGINAL SCREENPLAY: Is typing this now worse than hearing it on Sunday? I think not: Juno. (What I wouldn’t give to see the rat or the awakening lawyer steal the cheese from Diablo Cody…)

ANIMATED FEATURE: With all due respect to Persepolis, it’s gonna be Ratatouille.

ART DIRECTION/SET DESIGN: Sweeney Todd…

CINEMATOGRAPHY: My gut tells me the deserving winner, Roger Deakins, gets hurt by being double-nominated, which paves the way for a win by Robert Elswit for There Will Be Blood.

COSTUME DESIGN: Atonement

FILM EDITING: No Country for Old Men. The Coen Brothers incredible (is it also unprecedented?) run of four Oscar wins begins here.

MAKEUP: You thought last year was bad? The ultimate Eddie Murphy snub comes this year when Oscar awards the movie that allegedly caused voters to turn away from Eddie’s Dreamgirls performance: Norbit! Norbit! Norbit! Norbit!

ORIGINAL MUSICAL SCORE: He should have won for The Incredibles, but I’ll be happy when Michael Giacchino wins for Ratatouille.

ORIGINAL SONG: Enchanted’s happy ever after crashes and burns here. The winner: ”Falling Slowly.”

SOUND EDITING: Voters will remember Jonny Greenwood’s score and think it was something the sound guys did. No Country is too quiet, therefore no real sound to speak of, right? Winner: There Will Be Blood.

SOUND MIXING: The left hand knows not what the right hand does in this category. Winner: Transformers.

VISUAL EFFECTS: Transformers

FOREIGN FILM: The Counterfeiters

DOCUMENTARY: No End in Sight

DOCUMENTARY SHORT: Sari’s Mother

ANIMATED SHORT: Madame Tutli Putli

LIVE ACTION SHORT: The Tonto Woman

Let the public dunking begin!


IT WAS 34 YEARS AGO: God bless Robert Opel and his shortcomings...

And if that’s not enough Oscar action for you, there’s plenty of other places to go that will make the time between now and Sunday evening pass like an outtake from Jumper.

First, just to prove to yourself that you don’t know everything there is to know about the Academy Awards, check out Film Site’s comprehensive guide to the Oscars-- all the nominees in every category in Academy history, plus a ton of other facts to clog up your brain pan that you hope will dislodge and come spilling out in front of the water cooler.

Paul Clark has the latest on the 2007 Muriels including up to the minute entries for Best Body of Work, the year’s Best Ensemble Performance, the Muriel for Best Music (Original, Adapted or Compiled) and, fresh as this morning's coffee, Best Cinematography.

And speaking of Paul, he has a tip on where you can see Oscar-nominated short Madame Tutli Putli.

If you liked Nathaniel R’s Oscar Symposium, there’s plenty more intelligent Oscar talk on which to eavesdrop. Glenn Kenny gets together with ex-L.A.Weekly film critic and current arts editor for the Washington Post Express Arion Berger to hash over some Oscar talk. Here’s Part One and her’s Part Two. And do stay tuned: I get the feeling Glenn and Arion aren’t done yet.

For those looking for more reliable Oscar analysis than what I just regurgitated, Carrie Rickey of the Philadephia Inquirer has some thoughts, and she also links to Justin Chang’s analysis in Variety.

The always-comment-worthy Jim Emerson has some notions on the curing of Hollywood Ham on his Scanners site. Directly related is Jim’s back-and-forth with Kathleen Murphy: the two debate the merits of Daniel Day-Lewis, specifically his Daniel Plainview, over at MSN, where also lurketh lots of other Oscar coverage. (Thanks for the tip, Kim!) And Stephanie Zacharek pipes in on the Daniel Plainview/Day-Lewis discussion as well: "The care Day-Lewis has taken in building this character borders on obsession: His locution, the precise but laconic way he unpacks his tattered leather suitcase full of sentences, is borrowed straight from John Huston; he even mimics perfectly the grayed, whiskery undertones of Huston's voice. At first the choice seems brilliant. What voice better represents gruff, manly American determination than Huston's? Then again, once we notice an actor's choice, that choice is no longer transparent. And past a certain point -- once we begin to notice, and even perhaps marvel at, the way an actor squints to signal mistrust or doubt, or screws up the side of his mouth just so -- his choices move to the fore and the character recedes. And that's how easily we can lose a great actor like Daniel Day-Lewis to greatness."

Craig Phillips of Green Cine Daily fame has his own Oscar predictions and hopes up for grabs at his blog Notes from Underdog. But where Craig really delivers is the news of Green Cine’s upcoming Live Oscar Blog. It’ll commence Sunday evening at 5:00 p.m. and continue as long as the show goes—the group of bloggers Craig will have lined up will shoot snark as long as Oscar holds out, and we know that can be a long while. Any subject related to Oscar will be on the table, and if, like me, you can’t participate in the live fun, either as a blogger or a follower, you can always print it out later and relive the night’s glories and garish disasters through the eyes of Green Cine’s finest. I may be looking forward to reading this more than I am seeing the actual show!

And last but by no means least, Larry Aydlette, the wise and funny proprietor of Welcome to L.A., where it’s now Day 21 of the Burt Reynolds-a-Thon, is also the entertainment editor of the Palm Beach Post, and he has unleashed an epic Oscar quiz that promises to be the perfect warm-up for the big night. I am off to take the test right now, but I won't be making my score common knowledge-- I'm not that much to public humiliation. You can-- No, you must take the test now!

Not a bad lineup for an Oscar week with two days off stitched in for me as well. May your favorites emerge victorious on Oscar Night, as long as they coincide with mine, of course. I’ve decided to not pretend I’m above it all this year. The stakes are too high. The Coens could get four Oscars for the best movie of the year, and one of their best as well. As Sheriff Ed Tom Bell once said, “Okay, I’ll be part of that world.” You can be too. Drop your predictions in the comments column, and let the Hollywood adulation begin.

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3rd Annual Now Film Festival -Week 18 Finalist - Gravida

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Monday, February 18, 2008

SURPRISE!: WELCOME HOME, ROSCOE JENKINS



Martin Lawrence and Mo'Nique throw hilarious punches in Welcome Home, Roscoe Jenkins

For all the heat they take from critics, and even from audiences when genre-busting and general disregard for the rules of storytelling are significant elements in the appeal of some of the past year’s best movies, there is something to be said for formulas. Because when they work, when the director is alive to the life in the material and when actors receive that material in a spirited, yet relaxed fashion and are allowed individual moments to shine, even the lumpiest gravy can taste like a full home-cooked meal. Welcome Home, Roscoe Jenkins is lumpy comfort food, to be sure, but it tastes a lot better than the average fare on the family comedy menu. Martin Lawrence is TV talk show host R. J. Stevens, on his way home down South to reunite with his family on the occasion of his parents’ 50th wedding anniversary. Stevens, whose real name is Roscoe Jenkins, was always the odd boy out of his boisterous family’s embrace—he could never live up to the standards of his father (James Earl Jones), for whom he was named. However, he returns to his roots a Hollywood star of sorts, with trophy fiancĂ©e Bianca, a ruthless winner on Survivor (Joy Bryant, fearlessly bitchy), dangling from his arm. He also bears a lot of resentment and discomfort, mostly directed at his orphan cousin Clyde (Cedric the Entertainer) who, as a boy, cheated him out of a golden opportunity to capture the love of the senior prom queen, and who brings that grown-up queen (Nicole Ari Parker) along with him to the reunion, one more twist of the knife in Roscoe’s back. Roscoe also has to contend with con artist cousin Reggie (the formidably funny Mike Epps), his older brother Otis (Michael Clarke Duncan), now the sheriff of the small town he never left, and his raucous, eavesdropping, randy sister Betty (Mo’Nique), who takes an instant dislike to his brother’s soon-to-be bride.

Will Roscoe see through his fiancĂ©e’s vicious selfishness and find true love in the arms of the caring, yet tough girl he still pines for 20 years later? Will Roscoe and Clyde find time for sideways insults and every other which way to rekindle the compulsive competition that earmarks their relationship? Will Roscoe ease up on his rivalry with Clyde long enough to see how he’s ignoring his own son, whom Bianca relentlessly badgers with her win-at-all-costs attitude? Will Roscoe get the shit kicked out of him by at least two family members and one woodland creature? Well, anyone who can’t see the answers to those questions puttering ten miles down the country road toward Mom and Pop’s gorgeous family home probably hasn’t been to the movies much in the past 50 or 60 years.

Welcome Home, Roscoe Jenkins is a family romp in which Roscoe’s oddly dysfunctional family delights in taking his big city pretensions to the mat, yet it also wrings plenty of juice from the family's largely cracked caricatures, which I suspect read much less funny than they end up on the screen. Lawrence thankfully sheds the flop sweat that has earmarked nearly every screen performance of his since perhaps Do the Right Thing and in doing so sets the game comic tone for his troupe of able and willing cast mates. Duncan, large and lively, has never seemed so at home in his skin on screen; he’s the good-natured, doting daddy of two mountain-sized kids who routinely calls into comic suspicion whether the undersized Roscoe really belongs to the XL Jenkins clan, but for once he’s not simply used as an awesome physical specimen. He delights in tweaking Roscoe, in tempting his recently vegan-ized brother with some home-cooked ribs; Lawrence’s slightly glazed eyes, not to mention the smear of pork grease on his lips, tell the story of his inability to resist his brother’s honey-glazed jabs. Epps is as nimble as ever as the always-conniving Reggie, who gives his lines gleeful twists of intonation that had me giggling from his first frame. (As Matt Zoller Seitz observed in his New York Times review, Epps gets big mileage out of simply pronouncing the word “Telemundo.”) And here I must confess to a perhaps unreasonable love for Mo’Nique, who has a juicy part to tear into here—the revelation of the dirty secret of her Bible-thumping visits to local prisoners gets this glorious tornado of a performer revolving at top speed. (“Is that Bible-thumpin’ or Bible-humpin’?”, taunts Roscoe, just before the hammer comes down.)

Tasty gravy though it may be, the movie does have its lumps. It goes slack in the laughs, and spikes in the obviousness department, when Roscoe is faced with the choice of helping his son complete a traditional family obstacle course or leaving him behind (at Bianca's loud urging) in order to beat Clyde in the event yet again. Matt also rightly observes that, for a movie centered around a dysfunctional family with a history of profound misunderstandings and feelings of neglect on its calling card, there's a bit too much enjoyment, finally, in the comeuppance Bianca receives at their, and the movie's, hands. But for all of its lessons about family loyalty and acceptance, however reasonably or roughly arrived at, Welcome Home, Roscoe Jenkins rises or falls on his ability to deliver big laughs. Fortunately, writer-director Malcolm D. Lee, whose films include The Best Man and the riotous blaxploitation spoof Undercover Brother, knows how to weave rich comedy into a canvas of comfortable familial behavior and rituals that feels, for a good part of the time, lived-in, not Hollywood constructed, comedy that supports the script’s sentimental streak but keeps it tamped down and manageable most of the time. There are no surprises to be had during the running time of Welcome Home, Roscoe Jenkins, unless your resistance is unexpectedly disarmed, like mine was, by the plentiful good humor it holds in store.

Sunday, February 17, 2008

SEE IT NOW IN IMAX: U2 3D



The last few months have been fertile times for those interested in seeing and hearing rock and roll on the big screen, and for those compelled to investigate and/or dismantle its mythologies, self-perpetuated or not. Todd Haynes dug into six sides of the publicly orchestrated persona of Bob Dylan, and exploded the conventions of the musical biopic at the same time, with I’m Not There; Julie Taymor dared comparisons with one of the all-time most-derided movies, Michael Schultz’s Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, by using the music of the Beatles to animate Across the Universe, a visual fantasia on the ‘60s that did not feature the Bee Gees; and photographer Anton Corbijn made his directorial debut with Control, a consideration of the life of Joy Division’s central artistic force, singer-songwriter Ian Curtis, seen through a bleak kitchen-sink glass worthy of Lindsay Anderson.

Control makes for a fascinating double feature with Michael Winterbottom’s 24-Hour Party People (2002), a hilarious mockumentary that swirls within the universe of Manchester music impresario Tony Wilson, who signed the unknown Joy Division to his nascent Factory Records label. And we’re just a week or so away from a serious documentary on the band called simply Joy Division, helmed by Grant Gee, the mastermind behind the brilliant audio-visual collage that documented the pressures of a Radiohead press tour, Meeting People Is Easy; Peter Bogdanovich has a four-hour (!) documentary on Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers ready at the starting gate; and the Rolling Stones add to the roster of illustrious filmmakers who have put them on a film (including David and Albert Maysles, Jean-Luc Godard, Robert Frank and Hal Ashby) with their upcoming concert film Shine a Light, directed by Martin Scorsese, which premiered recently at the 58th annual Berlin Film Festival to mixed response.

But the movie right now that best expresses the expansive, sometimes overwhelming emotions of a great rock concert, and uses the tools of digital and large-format filmmaking in unexpected, equally expansive ways, just opened in wider release, from an earlier exclusively IMAX-format engagement. In fact, excluding holdovers from 2007 jockeying for late position in the Oscar race, it's probably the best movie out there right now. It is U2 3D, and it will strip away your resistance to the carnival hucksterism surrounding 3D movies and the sometimes plodding earnestness of the average IMAX adventure as well. In its wide release, U2 3D continues in IMAX venues and has been added to the 35mm multiplex market in digital projection-- it opens even wider this coming Friday, February 22. But if you’re near an IMAX theater, it is definitely worth skipping the popcorn and putting that extra snack bar money toward the more expensive ticket.

The frighteningly large dimensions of the screen soon become the first and most familiar way one becomes lost in the visual scheme of the movie, orchestrated from several concerts in Mexico and Argentina by directors Mark Pellington (Arlington Road and the video for U2’s “One”) and Catherine Owens, the woman responsible for the architecture and visual design of U2’s spectacular live shows. But the thing that makes U2 3D unique is the way Owens and Pellington work to integrate the band’s liberal, one-world politics and their familiar anthems of political oppression and personal transcendence within the very technological fabric of the film. There is a set midway through the movie, beginning with “Love and Peace (Or Else)” (from the How to Dismantle an Atomic Bomb album), proceeding through “Sunday, Bloody Sunday” and “Bullet the Blue Sky,” and climaxing with the indescribably beautiful “Miss Sarajevo” (with Bono substituting credibly and spine-tinglingly for the late Luciano Pavarotti), that Owens and Pellington infuse with so much passion and gorgeously rendered visual information that the U.N. Declaration of Human Rights that follows the set seems almost redundant, an afterthought.


It is the strategy of these directors to eschew the spatial dislocation of the average music video in favor of investigating a whole new use for 3D technology. At no time during U2 3D does Adam Clayton whip the neck of his bass toward the camera and threaten to poke you in the eye with it. Drummer Larry Mullen Jr. never flips his sticks into the theater. The Edge never pulls out a ping-pong paddle and dares the audience to dodge the rubber ball as it shoots out toward them in rhythmic time to "New Year's Day." Instead, Owens and Pellington use the existing stage effects (such as a giant pixilated figure of a man towering over the live audience) and layer that image over one, two, maybe even three different sets of imagery to create a multiple scrim-like depth to the frame. The rules of how to compose the frame and order shot sequences seem to be liquefied with each new set-up. Yet the visuals never seem cluttered or busy, and Owens and Pellington are thankfully uninterested in overheated smash-up editing—- seeing the movie is like reaching into a pool of artful yet never precious moving murals, each layer wondrous on its own yet contributing to a larger picture that is unlike any previous attempt to translate the concert experience, including (and here’s the kicker) its meaning, onto film.

U2 3D is so joyous that it dissolved my resistance to hearing yet again overexposed songs like “Where the Streets Have No Name” and “Pride (In The Name of Love)” because of how the performers, and the film itself, managed to find new ways to infuse them with life, and it does the same for new classics like “Vertigo” and “Beautiful Day.” At its best, and that’s pretty much for its entire running time, U2 3D turns the defensible but no-less-sour misanthropy of something like Pink Floyd’s The Wall, with its fantasies of fascistic, self-destructive rock gods and goose-stepping fans, inside out. Make no mistake, the rock stars here are gods, all right, but benign ones, and by the end of the show the stage, itself no less than Olympian, seems big enough for everyone in the audience.



(The blurry 2D trailer for U2: 3D doesn't hint at the movie's visual acheivement, but it may get you motivated to see it nonetheless...)

Friday, February 15, 2008

THE 2007 MURIEL AWARDS


They’re back!

The awards inspired by Paul Clark’s little guinea pig Muriel are ready to go with their 2007 incarnation. The 2007 Muriel Awards are Paul’s attempt, with the help of 20 or so far-flung Web-based critics/fanatics (myself included), to take one last look at the crowning achievements in cinema for the past year. Each category was voted on by all the participants by submitting five entries (ranking optional), and Paul is unveiling each category’s winner, as well as the top five vote-getters. But that's not all-- Paul provides a complete tally of everyone’s votes for each category and a short essay by one of the voters about the big winner. I’ll be checking in on the Muriel award-winning Best Picture of 2007 as well as a couple of other categories near the end of the awards ceremony, which extends through February 29. That oughta give everyone who is still jonesing for some end-of-the-year trophy action something to gum over in the fading light of the Oscars.

The fun has already started over at Paul’s site, Silly Hats Only, and he hasn’t even got to the 2007 portion of the Muriels yet! The awards for Best 10th Anniversary (1997) Film (involves roller skates and a penis ex machina), Best 25th Anniversary Film (1982) (involves origami and narration the star deliberately sabotaged—at least in one version), and Best 50th Anniversary Film (involves a sports fatality and the plague) are already posted for your enjoyment. And the first award for 2007 movies is coming next, so don’t miss out!

Friday, February 08, 2008

IN DEFENSE OF THE PERILS OF PAULINE



A few days ago, Jim Emerson offered a post that once again considered, depending on your point of view, either the estimable influence or the declining reputation of Pauline Kael. The Scanners post came in response to the near-44-year anniversary of the publication of her essay, “Are Movies Going to Pieces?”, and by posting it Jim was opening up discussion not only to the continued relevance, or lack thereof, of Kael’s criticism, but also to questions we, as thoughtful moviegoers, are still asking today.

Jim’s post came during one of the busiest weeks of my life (don’t worry, I’ll spare you), yet while I was reading it on the fly I couldn’t help but feel it was there, in a cosmic sense, just for me and that I somehow had to make time to offer up a humble nugget of comment to contribute to the typically thoughtful conversation about it there. So I sat down this past Wednesday night, in the afterglow of Nathaniel R’s Oscar Symposium, and started typing out a few thoughts. Four hours and 3,400 words later, I had a response that I could not possibly send in to Jim’s blog and expect him to publish. So I sent it to him as an e-mail instead because I wanted him to know how much I appreciated his generating the discussion, even as I knew I couldn’t ask him to allow me to trample the brevity and cogency of his comments column so far with my logorrhea, however passionate.

Yet here I was now with this long, rambling essay on What Pauline Kael Means to Me and nowhere to put it. But wait! Oh, yeah! I have my own blog! Why, I could publish it there and could suffer the inevitable slings and arrows without having to mess up Jim’s house! So I have decided to share it with you here. My advice, however, would be to go to Scanners and read Jim’s post, also entitled ”Are Movies Going to Pieces?,” particularly the comments that follow, before reading my own thoughts below. I have not made much of an effort to disguise the fact that my own post started out as a comment/letter to Jim, so therefore it may read as slightly odd or incomplete without that background. There are also references to at least one Scanners commenter by name, as well as several other comments made on Jim’s site, that I refer to assuming that if you’ve made it this far into my own meandering thoughts, then you will of course know to whom and what I am referring and keep on chooglin’. I apologize that I cannot seem to, as Jim’s other readers obviously can, keep my verbosity under control. I’m not sure how I thought I could, given the subject. Someday, perhaps, this will be a skill I will learn. But for now consider the following my own summation of some of the feelings that a 30-odd-year relationship with the writing of Pauline Kael has inspired in me. Then rip, shred, rinse and repeat as necessary.

Oh, and while we’re talking about Jim Emerson (and aren’t we always, at least around here?), go see the post below Pauline, “I’m F***ing Matt Damon’: A Critical Analysis.”. If you do, not only will you be treated (if you haven’t already) to one of the year’s funniest shorts, courtesy of Sarah Silverman, but you’ll also be privy to another of Jim’s sly and intelligent considerations of why comedy is worth taking seriously.

Okay, you’ve had time to read Jim’s piece. Now, without further ado, the perils of Pauline…

***********************************************************************

Jim:

Pauline Kael’s criticism most certainly served a different function in the Internet-less world where she once reigned as the most influential film critic in America. She lived and wrote in a world where terms like “roadshow engagement” and “word of mouth” and “platform release” had meaning, where the fate of a film didn’t rest on an opening weekend where it was booked into 3,400 theaters. She had a reason to suspect that she could reach an audience outside the New York intelligentsia by pulling a kind of bait-and-switch on the expectations of both readers inclined to go for mass audience movies and those who wouldn’t be caught dead lining up for anything that didn’t have the imprimatur of art, or at least high-minded intentions. She didn’t worry about whether or not she was consistent in the kinds of movies she praised or disparaged—the luxury of one who operates without a theory to be constantly monitored and more than occasionally violated.

This is both a source of joy in reading Kael, for me, in that I often felt I was getting an uncut reaction, one which often forced me to “re-view” my own reactions through the prism of her intimidating, invigorating point of view, and a source of frustration because I think on some level I wanted to be able to predict where on the spectrum her opinion of a certain movie or film talent would land. I became aware of Pauline Kael as early as 1972 or 1973 or so when I saw her on the old Mike Douglas Show, a syndicated afternoon panel talk show. I wish I could remember who it really was that sat on the panel with her—I’d like to think it could have been a group like Robert Goulet, Shirley Chisholm and Tootie Fields, and it very well could have been. I remained aware of her when big, important movies like Last Tango in Paris and Nashville and many others came out, because it was not unusual to see her name foremost in a splashy blurb in the movie’s advertisement. (I’ll never forget my surprise when her name was stretched out over a long quote trumpeting the virtues of The Way We Were.) And when she panned a movie like The Exorcist, I knew about it because I was reading everything I could get my hands on about the picture and her reaction was inevitably mentioned.

But I never read Kael until I picked up a copy of Reeling when I was 17 years old. I am one of those people to whom Jim referred who was encouraged to articulate their passion about movies and pass it along by my initial, and then repeated, exposure to Kael’s writing. The funny thing about my relationship with her (and I do feel comfortable referring to my reading of her in those terms) is that, as cowed as I could be by her insistence on the kind of false dichotomy that would seem to force a choice between “Art” over “entertainment,” as if there were no possibility for the two to coexist in the same work, the spirited quality of Kael’s writing (some would term it arrogance) encouraged me to more often than not argue with her as I was reading, thus developing my own critical muscles. In this way, she became and remains my favorite critic because I knew in encountering one of her pieces that I could just as easily be swayed as roll my eyes in disbelief, but her writing, which facilitated her very specific voice, the kind of voice (female) that was willing to stand by, accurate or misguided, her claims and her tastes, was fresh and, to use one of her favorite words, liberating. There was something about the way she wrote that was convincing, even if you could still go out and see something she panned and love it for your own reasons. But I never felt, even when she was at her most annoying, that she ever stooped to disparaging actors over their physical attributes, a la John Simon, or adopted anything close to the “my criticism, right or right” stance of someone like Armond White.

As for her famous one-viewing-only policy, Kael certainly never claimed that anyone who did watch a movie more than once was somehow misguided for doing so. It’s always struck me as a personal affectation rather than policy. And I certainly agree with Scanners reader John Porath in admitting that there have been several movies I’ve disliked on first viewing, felt compelled to see again (and again), eventually discovering a different film that I’ve come to love, undoubtedly accountable to the accumulation of my own experience as much or more than a wearing down of resistance to the tactics of the director. This is an experience that would have held little value for Kael, as she claimed to know how she felt about a movie immediately upon viewing it. This aspect of her methods is one I’ve always found troublesome—there’s an implication there of a movie’s having a kind of canned artistic life which could be wholly absorbed on one viewing, which seems in direct contrast to the expansive quality inherent in really seeing movies. A case could be made that each time you see a movie it has the potential to offer up something new, a phenomena based largely on the fact that, given the passage of time, no person is ever the same person when she encounters a movie a second or third or fourth time. If we are different people, then we will bring new perspectives to a film, or any piece of art/entertainment, through which we will experience that art/entertainment. If this is true, then no movie, not even The Pink Panther, is sealed in amber, or exposed and finished celluloid.

And certainly think John is also right in that there is value in a film being held up as a classic, an example of importance in film history that should be seen. In 1964, when this Atlantic piece was written, I suspect film academia was still trying to figure itself out. There were not even 30 years between the publishing of the Kael article and 1939, what many consider Hollywood’s greatest year, and certainly many of the movies that now do carry a kind of critical stamp of approval, films like L’ Avenntura or Last Year at Marienbad, were still relatively new on the scene. Yet given the passage of 44 years or so and all the critical knowledge that has amassed about film history and culture, I’m damned glad when someone I trust insists that I must see something, and I can rest in some assurance that the viewing of a film generally heralded as a classic or a milestone that I have not yet seen probably has a great deal of merit. Then if my experience is somewhat less than overwhelming, I don’t have a problem giving the film the benefit of the doubt and trying again later. I think that’s the essence of true cinematic scholarship, that kind of openness that can coexist with one’s own critical faculties. It’s possible that I’ll never “get” , but that won’t keep me from giving it another shot. Kael would have probably dismissed this idea out of hand. But it’s partially my engagement with her and her tendency to argue against this kind of approach to film that has given me the confidence in my own assertion that this approach is right for me. She probably wouldn’t see it as being open to new experiences from the same film but instead, since a film can only yield what it has to offer on the first try, as a kind of mummification of one’s own responses. In fact, on the occasion of the current re-release of Last Year at Marienbad, I am initiating a kind of campaign to revisit many of the films I disliked or felt indifferent to when I first saw them as a college punk. Those films would include, yes, , and also Last Year at Marienbad, Hiroshima Mon Amour, La Guerre est Finie, Herzog’s Nosferatu, Alice’s Restaurant, Antonio Das Mortes, Red Desert and many, many others. It’s going to be interesting to me to gauge the way I look at them now with the benefit of adult eyes.

And despite how Andrew Sarris may have couched his introduction to the auteur theory as being already on its way out, the fact is, it was a theory of major importance to the way a lot of critics and film enthusiasts gauged their own willingness to look at movies that were often below even the kitsch radar of Pauline Kael. And if the word “theory” implies some sort of rigorous application of a template of looking at art, then, mean-spirited or not (and what critic has not at one time or another been accused of being mean-spirited?), Kael’s infamous “Circles and Squares” decimation of Sarris’s writing served a serious function, certainly for me as a film student being instructed in a film school where the auteurist approach was not encouraged but insisted upon by the staff of professors who formed the curriculum. We were not allowed to seriously challenge the tenets of the auteur theory, as it existed in 1980 anyway, openly in class, and attempts to do so in papers were to be considered off-topic. So I fully delighted in Kael’s irreverence for Sarris’s pantheon and subsets of directors of varying artistic worth, even as I delighted also in discovering the great value and substance hiding in plain sight within classic Hollywood A- and B-movie fare in class and on my own moviegoing adventures in local revival houses. In other words, Kael’s tactics were never an end-all for me, any more than Sarris’ proclamations were.

And speaking of delight, it was with delight that it slowly dawned on me just how much of an auteurist Pauline Kael really was. Ever contrarian to Sarris, she just insisted on a different pantheon, and the directors she admired were almost always the ones that were shaking up what the ones in Sarris’s academic appreciation had established and excelled at. Kael would delight in De Palma, and while she didn’t indiscriminately love Hitchcock, she liked him enough to use him as a measuring stick to evaluate films like Carrie and The Fury. Of course she wasn’t afraid to use her influence to try to get people to go out and see something like Casualties of War, and yet somehow that particular review is often held up (as it has been in Jim’s comments section) as evidence of her speciousness as a critic. I don’t understand when I hear people get their hackles up about how she responded to this film in her review, as if the whole thing were calculated to bludgeon other critics into getting in line with her view of the movie. Well, we certainly know that if that was her intention it did not work, nor did it necessarily encourage anyone who wasn’t already predisposed to endure the nightmare De Palma had in store for them to do so. So if this is true, are we to call Kael’s review nothing but bluster? I remain confused as to how one can look at her words on Casualties of War and not see them as a highly passionate, at times personal response to a movie that clearly moved her in a way that, by the late ‘80s and early ‘90s, had become increasingly infrequent. No critic would shrink from the opportunity to try to express to others what such a movie would have meant to them. Yet, puzzlingly, Kael’s turn here is looked upon as a browbeating directed at other critics, a late attempt to wield her still considerable powers of influence. Personally, I look on that review as one of the major highlights of her career, and it certainly doesn’t hurt that I concur with her that it is perhaps De Palma’s greatest film. (Does saying that make me an insufferable Paulette? It is in the eye of the beholder…)

She also loved early Walter Hill; she highly valued John Boorman (Kael is the only major critic who ever admitted in print there were things to admire about Exorcist II: The Heretic); of course she was instrumental in the appreciation of Robert Altman, even as she recognized his inconsistencies, beginning with Brewster McCloud; and she constantly promoted Godard, until she began to become impatient with the process of what she envisioned as the director eating his own tail, stylistically speaking; and of course she loved Peckinpah. There were times, it seemed, that Kael’s appreciation for “Bloody Sam” was based more on her own tempestuous personal relationship with the director, which could be sussed out of pieces like her long, circuitous, anecdotal review of The Killer Elite. This essay, a recommendation of a late-mid-period Peckinpah sow’s ear, reads the movie as a personal tale of Peckinpah’s own self-disgust and refusal to knuckle under to the studio bosses and corporate bigwigs who wanted to cram him into an unwieldy mold and slice away at his talent and dignity. To read that review is to realize that no one else could have that particular perspective on The Killer Elite because none of us knew Peckinpah like that. (Note the ad copy on the one-sheet: "Long career doubtful.") Yet this kind of familiarity has been adopted through osmosis by a lot of reviewers who now look at Peckinpah’s work almost exclusively through this prism of presumed knowledge of the director’s demons. Kael’s personalized criticism, as well as powerful works of biography and criticism by the likes of David Weddle and Paul Seydor, have all contributed to this intimacy between the audience and a director who never courted such closeness.

This leads me back to Tarantino’s comment about subtextual film criticism not having much at all to do with the filmmaker’s intentions. Pauline Kael rarely wrote with subtext in mind. Her feelings and fears and enthusiasms were right there on the surface, and no less rich for their accessibility. But I think she did a lot to expose the truth of what Tarantino is asserting here, that directors, writers and actors who often work awfully close to the surface may still have subterranean levels of achievement or purpose or commentary that they themselves may be least qualified to articulate. It’s what’s behind her disdain for Antonioni’s pontificating at the Cannes film festival; it’s what behind the high percentage of uselessness of proliferating DVD commentaries in which we get to hear every dull anecdote, redundant explication of plot development and any other inanity that strikes the director of the latest Jennifer Aniston rom-com to blurt out breathlessly; and it is what’s behind a director like Eli Roth, who tailors his films’ subtexts as afterthoughts to be bleated out in defensive bursts on Larry King. (You said it best, Jim, when Hostel Part II was the talk of the blogosphere last summer: next time, Eli, let your movie do the talking for you.)

And it’s what’s behind Kael’s often autobiographical approach to film criticism—in many ways, she is the template for the kind of film criticism that has become more familiar on the Web, for better and for worse, which attempts to weave personal experience and taste into a cogent way of arguing for a position on a film. (Her review of Frederick Wiseman’s High School, reprinted from a KPFA radio program, I believe, in one of the early books, is one of the prime examples I think of when I think of Kael’s personalized slant, and of course there is her famous consideration of Vittorio De Sica’s Shoeshine, which she reviewed through the prism of having just broken up with a lover.)

Jim, I don’t know if I’ve managed to articulate anything here that gets at anything specific about the way Kael argues, or anything really specific about the points she makes in that Atlantic piece or any of her other writing. It is true that she would often bait the reader with a rather high-minded assessment of something she appreciated that she would still classify as a bauble or a trifle. Is she denigrating an entire class of American film by calling Charade the best American film of 1963? Or is she saying that the vitality of movies like Charade, trashy as they may be, are more valuable, at least to her, and perhaps to film culture, than the obsessive high-mindedness of some of the accepted artifacts of “Art” that she routinely dismissed as others piled on the praise? In reading Kael I always tended toward an interpretation that skewed toward an appreciation of the fact that she was open to the glories of Hollywood films like His Girl Friday or To Have and Have Not, and perhaps her reluctance to confer greatness upon them was that to do so might align her too closely with the auteurist film buffs she so regularly disparaged.

She was inconsistent, and maddening because of it. But I can’t find my way toward distrust of her writing or her thinking because of that. She was too provocative a contributor to my own experience and development as a critical thinker (one that is still well in progress, I might add), even though she would have hated to be thought of as a teacher. She reveled in her influence, of course, but if I am to believe someone like David Edelstein, as much as she enjoyed being admired she did not court, nor did she much tolerate sycophancy. (Am I being incongruous right now in that the image that just popped into my head is one of Graham Chapman’s ugly American film producer heading up a boardroom full of terrified yes-men who can never cough up the right answer, which is, of course, splunge ?) I have made peace with the fact that I could not possibly ever approve of every opinion she offered, or observation she made, insistence she insisted upon or deficit she assigned in her 30-some years of writing. Instead I’ve found in her, over the years, a critical voice I can argue with, be amazed by, dismiss or find completely convincing, as well as one who always kept her arguments for her own conception of anti-intellectualism sharp and open to challenge, sometimes from herself.

(I do tend to think, as one of your readers suggested, that anti-intellectualism is its own form of intellectualism, insofar as it is defined not by a resistance to independent thinking, which is how someone in this anti-intellectual political climate like A—C------ might employ the phrase, but by an examination of the ways in which thinking can become rigid and sap the possibilities of experience within art. This is more anti-academia than anti-intellectualism, I think, as Kael clearly valued the use of her brain.)

Inclusive of all her maddening traits, I value the insights I’ve gleaned from reading Pauline Kael over the past 31 years more than any other film critic I’ve ever encountered. Many others have adopted her voice as film critics, with diminishing results. Yet it is encouraging to have become familiar with so many writers on the Internet over the past four years, yourself most prominently, with whom I am becoming similarly comfortable, both in reading and in engaging in discussion—the advantage here is that when I argue with these new writers, they argue back! (It’s not just that insistent voice in my head imitating Kael’s frail chirpy delivery anymore!) Myself, I have tried to understand what she does and how it can not be imitated but instead used to feed the impulses of creative expression that I believe define film criticism as its own art form. Such a definition, of course, requires exposure to many other voices besides one as forceful as Kael’s, and I’ve enjoyed the process of getting to know and evaluate them too, even if I never held any of them quite so dear. For me Kael set the bar. I believe she is a great critic, not just a good one. Maybe she wouldn’t have survived as well in an online world where her every argument would be subject to round upon round of contrary opinion. But I believe she would have written what she felt just the same, and for those of us willing to search it out, in much the same way we can search out voices worth listening to amongst the competing din of a thousand Harry Knowleses, it would have resonated with similar fervor and excitement.

Dennis

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Sunday, February 03, 2008

UPDATED: THE FILM EXPERIENCE OSCAR SYMPOSIUM


Nathaniel R., proprietor of The Film Experience, is hosting his annual Oscar Symposium beginning tomorrow and running through Thursday, February 7. And guess what-- this year he has asked me to be part of this prestigious, yet unpretentious panel. (Was that pretentious of me to say?) Anyway, in addition to Nathaniel, the event's host, I will be trading thoughts with Boyd van Hoeij of European Films, Tim Robey of Mainly Movies, Sasha Stone of Awards Daily, Nick Davis of Nick' Flick Picks, and my favorite femme fatale, Kim Morgan of Sunset Gun. The conversation should be lively all week long, so I hope you'll join us over at Nathaniel's place. There will be no red carpet to walk down or sit on (perhaps reflecting this year's real-world Oscar dilemma), but Nathaniel has made for some very comfortable accomodations and has assured me that the carpet he does have has been thoroughly vacuumed!


Nick Davis







Kim Morgan







Tim Robey







Sasha Stone







Boyd van Hoeij

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UPDATE February 8 10:59 a.m.: Okay, Nathaniel’s Oscar Symposium 2007 is now history! Thanks to our gracious host for providing us all with the party and the platform! And a very special thanks to “Anonymous” (that cad!) who, after all my heartless Juno-bashing and inconceivable appreciation for George Clooney, offered up possibly my favorite comment ever in Nathaniel’s Day Two comments column:

“That discussion was VILE! I disagree with almost every comment made especially the ridiculous drubbing of Juno to the extent that the tedious and considerably inferior Ghost World is cited favourably in comparison? What planet are you guys on?
Also enough with the Clooney love in from the bald guy with the beard. I've never heard so much tosh as his embarrassing account of why
Michael Clayton is a good movie. It's a piece of shit.
Love Nat, love the film experience normally and loved last year's Oscar symposium. This year you all make the cliched comments I would expect from people who are desparately trying to be hip. (Seriously, Tilda Swinton is a good actress, but enough with the goddess bullshit. Just because she is pale and ugly doesn't make her an amazing actress.)


To which I couldn’t resist but reply:

“Who could possibly argue with that kind of logic. I stand corrected. I am, however, still bald.”

If you’ve a mind to, here are links for you to access DAY ONE, DAY TWO and DAY THREE.

Nathaniel also has a list of all of our Oscar predictions and picks (mine should be on there soon, if not already), so you can follow along and laugh like hyenas when I bomb out on my guesses just like I usually do.

Again, a wonderful time was had by all. Hope you all have as much fun reading it as we did blabbing.

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