Jefferson Smith is the polar opposite of Jack Abramoff...and Frank Capra's message (from 1939) is much different from Alex Gibney's (in 2010) with his scalpel-sharp creation, "Casino Jack and the United States of Money." And the director, who also gave us "Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room," uses clips from, "Mr. Smith Goes to Washington " to make that stark contrast between the pure decency of James Stewart's character and the lack of same in the subject of his latest documentary.
The tentacles of scam-man Abramoff have such an incredible reach that Mr.Gibney should have made a trilogy of film documentaries to give better focus to the dishonesty of this man and his entourage of bunko buddies and influence peddlers. The movie is glutted with information (judiciously presented) using effective editing, graphics and music to make clear what kinds of things some people can fool themselves into doing that they think are...well...really all right.
My take on the film is that it might be a bit late coming to a theater near me, because Jack and all the Little Abramoffs have been around longer than just quite a while.
To borrow the title of another film, the usual suspects are given almost as much ink or celluloid, in this case, as Casino Jack, himself. There's Tom DeLay, Karl Rove, Robert Ney, Ralph Reid, Mike Scanlon, Grover Norquist, Dana Rohrabacher, John Doolittle, Neil Voltz and others probably really more than you'd care to read right now.
What's missing is face time with Abramoff talking in jail. Gibney did interview Jack for the film, but wasn't allowed to roll anything but audio tape and, probably, his eyes.
Stanley Tucci acts the voice of Abramoff. Tucci was seen recently doing another heavy on camera: George Harvey in "The Lovely Bones."
"Casino Jack and the USM" neatly lays out the laundry list of Abramoff's capers, but I felt, on leaving the theater, I had just eaten an eight-course meal way too fast.
The film is sure to sing familiar hymns to the anti-Abramoff choir while crystallizing the whole damn K Street mess for anyone else caring to know more about these guys who, after all is said and done, may be the smartest guys in the room, since all pretty much just got their hands spanked after swindling boatloads of cash and egregiously affecting the lives of ordinary people.
Mr. Abramoff will be released from prison this December. It will have been four years in the joint for Jack.
But before he goes back on the street, another film will be released about him. Just called "Casino Jack," it will star Kevin Spacey in the title role. You can always count on Spacey as one of the usual suspects to play, well, a person you hope you'll never have to deal with or meet.
Above, I used USM to abbreviate the "United States of Money." Maybe CSA would be a a better way to condense it. But Rebs, don't get your hopes up: it's not the Confederate States of America I'm talking about here...but the Captured States of America .
Over the past several years, that line has been coming more and more into vogue.
VIEWER ADVISORY: Coarse language and terpsichore by Tom DeLay. Rated "R"
Now playing at the Circle Cinema in Tulsa through 6/3/2010.
Harry VI rolls out for summer '09 with its endearing characters, creepy bad folk and wizardry all intact for chuckling, gasping Potter heads everywhere. Except for the apparent advance into the final stages of puberty, the cast is pretty much the same with the addition of the able actor Jim Broadbent now on the Hogwarts campus as a new faculty member listed as Professor Horace Slughorn.
Devotees of J. K. Rowling's series of mightily successful novels have more to revel in with another chilly, Anglo-Noir piece of visually moving/aurally swooshing cinema: David Yates again at the helm. I think I duck more watching a Potter film than I would if I were hunting quail south of Corpus Christi. And that's saying a lot.
I'm not quite as wild about Harry as my younger daughter is, or more currently, was. That means, despite her "advanced" age (about the same as the leading trio of players in "Half Blood Prince"), she's the expert. I'm but a mere amateur. Next year, when Part One of "Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows" presses the franchise yet further on, lobbying my daughter to write the film comment will be brought into play. Wish me luck.
Michael Gambon continues adroitly as Dumbledore after replacing, a few Potters back, one of his Irish brethren, the late Richard Harris of "MacArthur Park" fame (written by Oklahoman, Jimmy Webb; see Webb's Sacramento concert review).
The new Potter piece provides a fully-loaded dose of hormones for the bloodstreams of Harry, Hermione and Ron especially, with other teenagers at hand suffering the same amusing malady. If put into the American vernacular, the new Harry Potter would have taken on the sheen of "Gidget Goes Hogwarts," but still with a plentitude of swooshing lights, camera, action and that old Black Magic woven so well---all on a Dickensian set.
Holy Sandra Dee, no call backs for Tiny Tim yet?
There are many things in "The Hangover" to offend just about anyone. Let's not try to count them all, but at least, list a few to really savor should you happen to stumble into this new film by Todd Phillips, the guy who bailed on directing "Borat" to completion.
That should be enough to give you the flavor of "The Hangover."
But it doesn't tell the whole story of this robust and ribald film about that tired admonition, "What happens in Vegas (on a bachelor weekend) stays in Vegas."
I don't know how they got an "R" rating for this baby, but they did. And what's really funny is that "The Hangover" is really funny because it's well written in all its lewditity. (sp!) Moreover, the ensemble cast works well together and looks to be having a hoot if not tasteful time doing it: Especially Ed Helms ("The Office") as a loony dentist with one of his teeth gone missing and Zach Galifianakis in what has come to be known in this genre of film as the obligatory John Belushi role. Zach plays the guy with just the tee-shirt on. You'll be glad to know, though, not in every one of his scenes.
I took some offense from the hurling, the guy and the baby bit as well as the black actor being cast as the dumb drug dealer in the movie. But I took considerably more umbrage with the scene in which the lead characters are jokingly tasered by young children during a field trip class being held for the kids at a Vegas police station. (I left this item to last for, with any luck, a strong ending.)
No doubt, shades of Mark Rydell's 1972 movie, "The Cowboys," wherein John Wayne gets day light put in him by bad men who are slaughtered in turn, later, by some nice and avenging 12 year-old boys.
Vengeance is mine, sayeth the Duke.
It's been not a so-very-good-year in terms of cinema. You can tell by the way film folks are running pictures up the pole at odd times (even more than usual at this time of year) to see if anyone will salute. Several films being mentioned have neither played nor even been screened in my neck o' the California Woods. But, most of the cinema screens keep running and re-running the same drivel that allows them to sell $15 popcorn to eager fans of Adam Sandler's.
You know, if the routine, tired movies weren't shown over and over so much, it would almost be like turning on your TV one day and being able to find only one channel that's running the 24/7 "Law & Order" or "CSI-Las Vegas" loop (talk about residuals for the people in those shows).
Over the past three months or so, it's been heavy-time for movies that are considered substantive; some screening early, then never opening---yet; and others with matinee idols in them sure to move the popcorn and---just maybe---some of the people who vote for what's supposed to be best.
I can't believe how all-over-the-map everyone is coming on about what's good and not good this season. So with a guarantee to p.o. someone somewhere, and based on what I've seen, so far, check out my two cents worth.
Lead Male Sean Penn, "Milk"
Honorable mention should go to Kristin Scott Thomas as the lead female in "I've Loved You So Long." (She was nosed out by Anne Hathaway, whom some will likely hate in "Rachel Getting Married," but what a performance!)
Footnote after reading the F. Scott Fitzgerald short story:
"The Curious Case of Benjamin Button," within a large volume of other FSF stories, I wondered why they would make IT into a picture, considering all of the other great stories on the accompanying pages by the Bard of St. Paul. Then, after learning that the film, "The Curious Case of Benjamin Button" runs three hours, and I could read the short story four or five times over during the time it takes to run the film once, my back and I haven't yet gotten up enough courage to go see it.
I just want to remember Brad as he was in "Babel." I don't think Mr. Pitt can get better than that. But, I may still get up enough gumption to feed my feeble curiosity about this embellished tale---and find out just how wrong I might be. Besides, I've never gone wrong seeing a movie with Cate Blanchett in it. One of the best of any year.
If as many people had seen the recent war films of the Middle East as these movies are good and relevant, there would be a bunch of much better-informed moviegoers about what's been going on over there. Now add HBO's new 7-part miniseries, "Generation Kill" to the list. It premiered last night and will be running often on the pay cable net.
During WWII, there were numerous war films, but they gave great support to our troops over there as well as us folks back stateside wishing the war was finished although just about everyone knew it was a war that must be fought.
Now, things aren't so plain and simple. Instead of pulling for Greer Garson and Walter Pidgeon in "Mrs. Miniver" as Nazi bombs fall on 1942 England in the first months of WWII, "Generation Kill" keeps us up to date on just how terribly NOT SUPPORTED our troops are during the first few weeks of the Invasion of Iraq in 2003. At least, that's the way the first episode has it.
Through the reporting of an early embedded Rolling Stone reporter, Evan Wright, we get what really looks like a first-hand look at existential moments of the Marines of the First Reconnaissance Battalion as they advance farther north into Iraq as the U.S. begins the invasion. Wright is played in the film by Lee Tergesen, the only recognizable actorin the cast. Tergesen was seen as Toby Beecher in HBO's long-running prison series, "Oz."
When I watch a new film or series, I usually jot down stuff that strikes me as the story plays out. This time, I found myself making a list. Yes, a list of things I found difficult to take---and ponder for long.
Looking at my notes now, I see scribbles that read: fixing up their own humvees using their own money; inappropriate combat supplies; no armor support for them as they first move into hostile territory. Then there's my other little list: racism among military personnel and for Iraqi refugees; military pettiness regarding uniforms and personal appearance in the face of imminent combat, and then getting a load of Pizza Hut pizzas delivered for the whole battalion just before the guys find out it's time to move out and, on a beautiful day, 'get a war on.'
Two other striking factors for me were the clear immaturity of most of the grunts, and in order to get the war news, they had to listen to the BBC.
"Generation Kill" appears to have the same feel as "The Wire," another successful, long-running, critically acclaimed HBO series. "The Wire" dealt with lower-level drug cops hassling with police bureaucracy in Baltimore . It's more of the same in "Kill," except enlisted leathernecks, ordered to fight a war against Saddam's 'Iraqi terrorists,' are hassling with an upper-level military bureaucracy.
Most Marines in the first episode are shown as pumped and ready for the invasion, some of them with a serious 'Bring it on!' attitude and frequent utterances laced full of all the coarse terms I ever heard while in the U.S. Army. To push that point home, the arrival of Evan Wright, the embedded Rolling Stone journalist, is given no enthusiasm whatsoever until he reveals to the platoon he once wrote for "Hustler."
Pretty cool for the desert.
Generation Kill trailer on YouTube
4/30/2008 - "Iron Man" - Remember watching the first episode of "Batman" on ABC (KTUL-8)? I was stoked: super hero series on week night TV with all the usual cosmetics. But Holy Guffaws, Caped Crusader, with copious comedy, too. Well, there's more of that to come here in early May of '08 in the wide-screen (with loud speakers) feature called, "Iron Man."
A hip and heavy cast is aboard for this early 60s Marvel Comics saga: Robert Downey, Jr. as billionaire, Tony Stark (he's Iron Guy); Jeff Bridges as Obadiah Stane, Tony's weapons biz partner; Gwyneth Paltrow as Tony's girl Friday, Pepper Potts; and Terrance Howard as Tony's go-to U.S. military good-guy.
The breezy Jon Favreau directs Mark Fergus' and Hawk Ostby's breezy, zippy script.
Serious combat of current war situations is woven into all the exciting action and speed-of-light technology about a genius weapons innovator and businessman who makes an awesome suit of modern-day armor with which to kick bad guy's butts.
Of course, you'll have to leave your sense of reality out by the snack bar for all the great, fantastic stuff occurring. Tony's shock at finding Stark Industries rockets (meant for the US military) being used to kill innocent civilians in arid, chilly Afghanistan doesn't pass a reality check as easily as how fast he flies across the night sky over his ultra-modern villa on Malibu.
It's like smart guy Tony is not able to figure out ahead of time that the weapons and ordinance his company makes might actually be sold to the highest bidder in a free, world wide market for war materiel. Say 'D'oh!' for us, Homer.
Other than that, "Iron Man" is a real hoot, especially the glib Mr. Downey doing his thing. And (one of my fave Hollywooders) Jeff Bridges, who gives us the best reading of Daddy Warbucks since "Annie."
"Iron Man," let the video games begin---some more.
"Atonement": This is the best of the five in my book for several different reasons. Best cinematography I've ever seen. Although it got the Globe, it has stiff competition.
"Juno": Great movie with great heart. Perky and replete with good vibes. Ellen Page is so totally good in the title role. I hope she wins Best Actress.
"Michael Clayton": Timely moral lessons to be learned here. Strong performances all 'round. Clooney has never been better.
"No Country for Old Men": Powerful, pointless movie, that you won't ever get out of your head. THIS ONE WILL WIN.
"There Will Be Blood": Heartless, cold film completely without women characters that shows mean-spiritedness too close for comfort, as if we needed to see any more. Since it's a director's film too, it could beat out the Coen's entry ("No Country for Old Men"). But for all-round cinema, "Atonement" is most deserving.
George Clooney for "Michael Clayton": He should win but won't. A fine American film actor who can do the important stuff along with the fluff that most actors must pause to do, now and then.
Daniel Day-Lewis for "There Will Be Blood": HE WILL WIN. Great performance of a less than great character who suffers from a common malady known as greed.
Johnny Depp for "Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street": I don't always see the market-proven releases. This is an example. No opinion.
Tommy Lee Jones for "In the Valley of Elah": Another powerfully moral and patriotic film for our times which was overlooked by most (too bad). Tommy's always great as he is in this one, but he's doing nothing new for us here. No one could've done this role better...period.
Viggo Mortensen for "Eastern Promises": Solid performance in a mediocre film. Viggo got his accent down really well even if he didn't have his clothes on for every scene. But think about the tickets that sells.
Cate Blanchett for "Elizabeth: The Golden Age": Superb actress in a market-safe film.
Julie Christie for "Away from Her": Good to see Julie again. She's good, but not great.
Marion Cotillard for "La Môme," aka "La Vie En Rose": Terrific performance in a not-so-terrific biopic.
Laura Linney for "The Savages": Could be a sleeper. The performance is certainly good enough for a statue. Laura is always spot-on.
Ellen Page for "Juno": Ms. Page shows the moxie to act and charm herself right into the Hollywood limelight with a win. This category is a tuffy. Page is my personal fave; it's a light film; but it's a GOOD light film. There is a difference. So I pick ELLEN TO WIN.
Best Supporting Actor:
Casey Affleck for "The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford": I missed Casey's act because the film is a half day long. (Ben Foster in the cast of "3:10 to Yuma" should have been on this list.)
Javier Bardem for "No Country for Old Men": Señor Bardem WILL WIN. I think he deserves it.
Philip Seymour Hoffman for "Charlie Wilson's War" :Personal fave of mine. He did two other roles even better than this one this year in "Before the Devil Knows You're Dead" and "The Savages."
Hal Holbrook for "Into the Wild": A sentimental favorite selection and include me in that decision. Mr. Holbrook is one of our finest. This film packs a wallop, too.
Tom Wilkinson for "Michael Clayton": Tom's performance is as good as anybody's on this list.
Best Supporting Actress:
Cate Blanchett for "I'm Not There": SHE WILL WIN FOR THIS. Novelty of the casting catches a lot of eyes. But Ms. Blanchett never fails to trod the boards mightily.
Ruby Dee for "American Gangster": Very small role for a venerable lady. One excellent scene with Denzil brings Ms. Dee to the fore in this one.
Saoirse Ronan for "Atonement": Hard to believe someone so young can act so well in what I say is the best film of the year in one chock full of 'em, thank God.
Amy Ryan for "Gone Baby Gone": This---I missed. Sorry
Tilda Swinton for "Michael Clayton": Solid actress, but she didn't bowl me over opposite Clooney.
Paul Thomas Anderson for "There Will Be Blood": HE WILL WIN if the directors have anything to say about it.
Ethan Coen, Joel Coen for "No Country for Old Men": They SHOULD win. This movie kicks ass.
Tony Gilroy for "Michael Clayton": If Tony doesn't win for Best Director, he should win for directing the best morality film of 2007, at least.
Jason Reitman for "Juno": Reitman should win (if not Best Director) for making the most hopefully- human-without-being-stupid film of the year.
Julian Schnabel for "Le Scaphandre et le papillon", aka "The Diving Bell and the Butterfly": I couldn't get near a theater near me to see this one.
Best Original Screenplay:
Diablo Cody for "Juno": WOW, MY WINNER. Should be the Academy's, too
Nancy Oliver for "Lars and the Real Girl": Nope.
Tony Gilroy for "Michael Clayton": Good choice.
Brad Bird, Jan Pinkava, Jim Capobianco for "Ratatouille": Another Nope.
Tamara Jenkins for "The Savages": Memorably heavy and relevant but so much so, not winning is likely.
In "The Brave One" (Directed by Neil Jordan), Jodie and her dark-skinned lover (Naveen Andrews) are accosted in Central Park. She's severely beaten by the bastards, her fiancée killed. So, fear-freighted, Jodie buys a handgun to keep her safe to and from the radio station where she hosts a talk show in NYC. Mary Steenburgen is her seldom-seen boss.
This run-of-the-mill 'revenge be mine' trip will have NRA folks orgasmic as Ms. Foster makes law with her own handgun by blowing away several bad guys who DO have it coming.
Terrance Howard ("Crash") is along for the ride as an NYPD dick who befriends Jodie while he just happens to be investigating the deaths of those who get out front of Ms. Foster's muzzle.
I'd guess the reason Jodie's role has her tight with two men of color in "The Brave One" is to mitigate her actions killing other black, but BAD men. It's one more movie that follows in the philosophical footsteps of the old John Wayne vengeflick "The Cowboys" (directed in 1972 by Mark Rydell). In ambush, nice, young fellows waste older bad guys who have already, in early scenes, put daylight in the undeserving Duke.
7/17/2007 - There are only two guys who can get away with not having hair on their heads. They are the late, great King Mongcut of Siam (Yul Brynner) and, of course, Sir Ben Kingsley whose new movie, "You Kill Me" is just out. Every other guy I've seen doing the bald pate thing is just so much shiny skin in the sun.
Sir Ben stays on track in his "Heavy" uniform for the role of a premiere hit man for the Polish mob in icy Buffalo. Director John Dahl (wrote "Red Rock West," 1992) asks us to ease back on our disbelief long enough to accept the idea that guys who whack people for money have their own personal problems, too. You know, like Tony trying to get Meadow to do her homework before he goes out to the Bada Bing to see one of his new nude pole dancers, then do a hit on some out-of-line punk numbers runner over in the Apple.
Frank Falendzyk is the name of Sir Ben's character. A half of bottle of vodka is usually what Frank has for breakfast. He's such an alcoholic that he mucks up an important hit on the rival Irish mob boss (Dennis Farina). Frank's own boss (Phillip Baker Hall) is a tad pissed about Frank's miss.
After some "gentle" persuasion, Frank is forced to go to San Francisco where he's babysat by a nerdy and unctuous real estate guy played well by Bill Pullman. Frank also has to attend AA meetings in the City by the Bay. (I didn't think you could buy booze in SF.)
Enter the heroine of the piece, as well as the producer of the movie: Téa Leoni. She's a tough-as-nails TV time sales gal called Laurel Pearson. Frank's drink problem is, for Laurel, no problem. In fact, she even likes older men. Luke Wilson is along for the ride, but that's about all, as Frank's AA bud who's also a bridge attendant on the Golden Gate.
Even with all the belief that must be suspended about killer Frank's comeback and having a lady who is "old enough to be his daughter" fall for him, "You Kill Me" is a pretty entertaining movie. And that's because of the acting, the dialogue and the tone given it by director Dahl.
This sort of dark, slightly comedic, off-beat film has a high cholesterol count in terms of Heavies up on the screen. With Kingsley, Hall and Farina, the only other really good bad guy missing in "You Kill Me" is Ian McShane.
If you haven't seen "Sexy Beast," also with the great Kingsley---bad guy with no hair---do so. Hairy Ian McShane is in it, and just might be badder than Ben.
4/3/2007 - IMPROVISATIONAL PREVARICATION - It's hard to find a hero or someone to care about in Lasse Hallström's latest film, "The Hoax." Watching a movie about a clever guy---real life writer, Clifford Irving---who lies better on the fly duping some greedy media guys gets a bit stale. But, despite excellent performances from Richard Gere as Irving and Alfred Molina as Irving 's assistant, Dick Susskind, be my guest. That is, if you can still zone-out on the cult-like existence of Howard Hughes as Mr. Irving was (actually) shucking and jiving moguls in 1970 with invented interviews of the reclusive Texas billionaire.
There's a super supporting cast (get this): Hope Davis, Marcia Gay Harden, Stanley Tucci and Julie Delpy. Carter Burwell has written a really good score and Hallström ("The Cider House Rules") has sprinkled great pop music of that day on the soundtrack; some of it reminiscent of "The Big Chill." Most obvious are the dulcet tones of Mick Jagger ("Jitterbug of My Mind") belting out "You Don't Always Get What You Want." (Yes, Mary Kay, I thought about you.)
Even with first-rate cinematography and editing, Hallström allows the film to drift in and out of tedium. Still, for serious film actors, it's a great vehicle for some exacting talent-challenging. (Gere may be better in this than anything he's done.) In many ways, "The Hoax" vibrates with this early 21st Century as the 70s were when high-placed recklessness, incompetence and deceit were soon to be revealed.
Listen up, Mick: we don't always get what we need either.
3/31/2007 - GENDER BENDING AS WOODY WOULD HAVE IT: The actual title of this film is better than what I've headlined here. It's "Puccini for Beginners." Too bad the title is also better than the movie which has little to do with Puccini, specifically, or opera, in general.
Elizabeth Reaser ("Sweet Land"), Gretchen Moll ("The Notorious Bettie Page") and Justin Kirk ("Angels in America") get tangled in a zany, non-erotic triad of sex and romance. If Woody Allen had passed on by now (which we're all so glad hasn't happened), his ghost would be hovering above this elongated sitcom (83 minutes), written and directed by Maria Maggenti ("The Incredibly True Adventure of Two Girls in Love"). Eighty-three minutes on the Logo Cable Channel with commercials make for a nearly perfect hour-and-a-half of programming, according to my sense of electronic mass communication scheduling.
The cast delivers well, and there ARE some funny moments that precede a cute ending that's apparent as soon as the story sets up. Earlier, Ms. Maggenti made an independent short titled, "La Donna è Mobile." Obviously, she's not a beginner when it comes to Italian Opera. Woman is, as Verdi claims, fickle, especially for Elizabeth Reaser's Allegra in "Puccini for Beginners." Oh yes, Allegra is feminine for "fast," but you already knew that.
There is only one really nasty word uttered in "Puccini," and no one gets bare above or below the waist without benefit of a sheet. Even the two trysts, I remember there being, are shot as if they would air on a local ABC affiliate Sunday evening with "Desperate Housewives" as the lead-in.
Speaking for the male heterosexual crowd, which might be entertained by this picture, I can only say that "Puccini for Beginners" may cause one to fantasize how the lovely women in this film might seem at the Moment of Truth, of which, by implication, there are many being obtained with assistance from both sides of Allegra's "aisle."
Euphemistically yours, Giacomo.
Taken from a 1943 sci-fi story unconcerned with global warming and parts of the Packardesquely titled Patriot Act, "The Last Mimzy" relates the adventures of a brother and sister (Noah 10; Emma 5), played very well by Chris O'Neil and Rhiannon Leigh Wryn.
Special toys wash up on the lake shore near their summer home. The siblings immediately start to play with them, but hide from their parents (Timothy Hutton and Joely Richardson). Better roles are written here for Rainn Wilson ("The Office," "Six Feet Under") and Kathryn Hahn ("Crossing Jordan") as the nerdy science teacher and his 60s-ish fiancée.
Among the more-animated objects is a stuffed rabbit named Mimzy. What the kids don't know is these toys have been sent back to 2007 from the future by a scientist making his last attempt to capture DNA from a person in our time. His goal is to rid future Earth from the hate, disease and pollution that ensue the lifetimes of the children. Both are ultimately inculcated with abilities that would make Albert Einstein seem to have an IQ of 89.
Directed by controversial movie mogul, Robert Shaye, "Mimzy" is overstuffed with circumstances and stumbles into a glad-handing close that seems to have been written by a committee adhering to some sort of Hollywood Fairness Doctrine. BUT, I recommend this film, especially for youngsters in attendance with the indulgence of their daddies and mommies.
"The Last Mimzy" is a sort of scary but gentle reminder for kids to understand how important Earth's environment is as well as why it's not nice when a squad of big corporate/government soldiers in black uniforms break into a family's home without so much as a Knock, Knock, Who's There(?) let alone a search warrant. Habeus this one with the kids.
2/27/2007: NYMPHOMANIACAL NONSENSE - It's clear writing a headline for "Black Snake Moan" is problematic. So we'll just go with the one that's used here. The two together have the right coordinates to indicate from where this new film by Craig Brewer comes. Brewer's name will ring a bell when you say (three times to yourself) "Hustle & Flow."
Samuel L. Jackson (Lazarus) plays a down-on-his-luck former bluesman living in rural Tennessee . It's too bad that one morning out front of his modest little place he finds Christina Ricci (Rae) lying unconscious in the ditch. Clad only in a scant tee shirt above and some teeny panties beyond, she's been beaten and left to die. Lazarus ain't no saint, but he's a good man and wants to keep her alive. Alive she is; and so much so, when she comes-to, displays a yen the soundman had to create a noise for. Justin Timberlake plays the anxiety-ridden Ronnie: Her boyfriend, off to war. We get to guess which one.
Jackson is never bad in a film, even if the film is. And Ricci is at the...uh...top of her game here with so many less pounds on her now svelte frame. Brewer almost manages to keep most of it well-displayed in every frame.
Other than being gross and grossly exploitative, "Black Snake Moan" formulaically touches the required bases. Two deserve mention: homilies spoken by Lazarus' clergy bud who, for some reason, shows up to slosh brews at a pretty damned wild watering hole; and the other being African Americans and whites at that same one-star joint drinking and dancing together. These are Tennessee boondocks were talkin' here.
Dream on? Please do, and please know this reptilian song of noir will sell bushels of tickets in the 'burbs just as surely as the ghost of Erskine Caldwell will stalk selected cinemas when it plays near you.
2/25/2007: OSCARations - The moment that brought pause and quiet to the Kodak Theater audience in Los Angeles Sunday evening occurred when, suddenly, almost everyone found themselves straining to understand a thank-you speech in Italian. Ennio Morricone had just been given an Oscar for his work composing film scores. Clint Eastwood handed it to him. Mr. Morricone's communication was clear though as he showed his feelings for the recognition of his fine, effective music for cinema. The montage of some of his scores was a treat to hear.
My ears perked up especially as a bite of Morricone's work played from "Days of Heaven"---music with a hint of inspiration from Camille Saint-Saëns. Terrence Malick directed that memorable film and won Best Director for it at Cannes in 1979. (Malick's parents lived in Bartlesville in the early 80s. They listened to KCMA, 106.1 when I was getting my classical chops there.) I first saw "Days of Heaven" in a theater just next an ice rink in downtown Tulsa. I bet you can remember the name of that cinema.
"An Inconvenient Truth" winning an Oscar for best documentary was another moment to drink in; a good film with probably the most important message of the several having one this year. For a while now, I've given less thought to the Best Song category, but here again, the "Truth" documentary was bolstered by Melissa Etheridge's "I Need To Wake Up" win.
Helen Mirren nabbed a gold star (as she called it) for her role as the queen in, as they say, the movie of the same name; a terrific performance. It was also touching to see "Little Miss Sunshine" get the best original screenplay award. If you've not seen this film, SEE IT!
After "Pan's Labyrinth" doing so well early on in the program, I was surprised that it didn't win for Best Foreign Language film. However, "The Lives of Others," which did win, is now at the top of my to-see list. (It has not been screened in Sacramento as of this date.) "Others" deals with German Communists snooping on citizens of East Berlin before the fall of the wall. As "Pan's Labyrinth" recounts the pain of the Spanish under the Fascist government of Francisco Franco, this gives a nice political balance, in terms of the foreign language category, for Academy voting. Moreover, there isn't a bad time to create good cinema that stimulates thought about not having civil liberties whether it's due to infringement from the Left or the Right.
Delightfully clever Ellen DeGeneres, as host, showed she'd been brought back two or three clicks enough to satisfy the Academy's don't-offend-nobody police. But, fortunately, the entire show was sustained with an incredible lightness of being; that thanks to everyone's favorite, Jack Nicholson, who came to the party as Telly Savalas. You remember Kojak, don't you?
The year of 2006 was a good one for heavyweight films. I'm looking for more this year. But, I ask you, what Oscar telecast ever seemed short? Well, not any, including this one. But it is my hope these Oscarations-2007 are.
2/8/2007: THE ASTROPHYSICAL ARKIE - Agriculture and astrophysics make an unlikely convergence in "The Astronaut Farmer". But it works well for Billy Bob Thornton to display his arkie-ness as a retired astronaut back down on the farm. Billy Bob, as Charles Farmer, has left NASA to look after his family while doggedly dreaming: "If I can't lift off from Cape Canaveral, why not from my own barn?"
This gentle, amusing fantasy is solid family fare, especially for fathers and their young children. It embraces the importance of family and holding fast to one's dreams.
Virginia Madsen ("Sideways") invigorates the character of Mrs. Farmer, even though there's little challenge for this gifted actor to confront. Kids in the cast who play Mr. and Mrs. Farmer's children are disarmingly natural and refreshing. But Bruce Dern doesn't have much to chew on as the old codger grandpa.
Billy Bob has just, maybe, too slick a haircut to be a farmer and wears threads that seemed to have been fashioned closer to Hollywood than Hot Springs. Oh, "Sling Blade," but a fading memory.
Tulsan Tim Blake Nelson plays Billy Bob's hometown lawyer with New York City yearnings. Nelson was seen last year in a couple of great scenes of George Clooney's "Syriana."
Astronauts are back. Now, down on the farm and on the road from Houston to Orlando.
1/26/07: HIT THE ROAD AGAIN, MARJOE - It was 1972, in Tulsa, when I saw "Marjoe." I think I did a review of it on the KOTV Evening News. It was a documentary about evangelicals in the U.S. "Marjoe" took three awards way back then for Best Documentary (one an Oscar).
Alexandra Pelosi, daughter of the new Speaker of the U.S. House now offers up another such film about Americans who literally take the Bible as absolute fact. It's running now on HBO and called "Friends of God: A Road Trip." It packs much the same punch as the 'tale' of the real Marjoe Gortner that I saw at the Southroads Cinema nearly four decades ago.
Ted Haggard, the evangelical pastor from Colorado, who is now in divinity rehab for having sex with a prostitute of the same gender, is interviewed at length in Pelosi's doc. The film indicates that Reverend Haggard declared the covert relationship shortly after Ms. Pelosi completed the film.
Another familiar face in "Friends of God" is Jerry Falwell. One take of him shows The Reverend Falwell, in the pulpit in Lynchburg, VA, advising, with nuanced rhetoric, his congregation to vote only for conservatives on the ballot, especially those who abhor homosexuals and abortion.
There are a couple of ministers in the film who make good arguments for their Christian causes that should be given consideration by more liberal and less literal-minded folks. Whichever way you 'lean,' you'll know the pastors when you hear what they have to say.
There's one really touching segment on a large family: husband, wife, 10 children with another on the way. The couple and the children seem genuinely happy and content without a hint of latent anger that one might notice in some fundamentalist believers. However, that family can't give balance to other parts of the film that show members of the Christian Wrestling Foundation pummeling each other in a ring surrounded by a cheering crowd of young children; or the 40,000 or so teenagers and twentysomethings being fit-to-be-tied at a San Francisco (no less) rock concert put on by Battle Cry. Wikipedia indicates Battle Cry is an initiative of the parachurch organization, Teen Mania Ministries, which has the support of Jerry Falwell, Pat Robertson and Chuck Colson.
This is another of those documentaries that will likely inform some while outraging others, depending on how full or empty the glass seems. If more examples of respect for others' beliefs and values were set for us, "Friends of God: A Road Trip," might seem less divisive: a signal our unfortunate culture war would be subsiding.
1/12/2007:: THE UNUSUAL SUSPECTS - George Clooney and Steven Soderbergh are at it again with a shaggy dog take on "Casablanca." But "Rick" (actually called Jake/Clooney) is a U.S. war correspondent in town to cover the Potsdam Peace Conference that will dibby up the WWII goodies. "Ilsa" (actually named Lena/Cate Blanchett) is a former German girl friend of Jake's who's turned to turning tricks in Berlin during the war. She's pivotal and gives great German accent. Tobey Maguire doesn't play the piano in "The Good German." He drives Jake around in his Army jeep. He could put one over on Sergeant Bilko and is called, Corporal Tully. Soderbergh starts us out retro-believable enough. But as the reels spool by, it's clear that what we have here is a shallow spoof of WWII b/w noir that really dumps on you big time in the closing scene. And Wha? Captain Renaud, aka Claude Rains is no where to be seen. Nicht gut!
11/20/2006: FROM ERR TO ETERNITY- For the life of me, I can't understand why Darren Aronofsky named his film, "The Fountain." Ponce de Leon isn't in it. What is eternally life-giving in the silly trio of threaded stories is The Tree of Life! You know, the one that Adam and Eve took a pass on, opting for The Tree of Knowledge instead?
I sort of felt sorry for Hugh Jackman, who plays the three Toms in this photoplay; one in the 16th century, another here in the 21st century, and (Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds!), the 26th century. Rachel Weisz's lovely visage got me through the film's longish 96 minutes.
In more than one of the 26th century scenes, Jackman appears with a shaved pate as he floats around in a lotus position. Having just seen "Fast Food Nation" a few days earlier, all I could think of as Jackman glided gently was Bruce Willis tripping on LSD. (Thumbnail below on Willis in "Fast Food Nation")
11/15/2006: HERE'S THE BEEF - It's that there's too much fecal material (euphemism for famous four-letter word) in the beef that gives movement to "Fast Food Nation,"a fictional film based on the fact-packed book of the same name by Eric Schlosser. Richard Linklater ("A Scanner Darkly") directs and co-writes (with Schlosser) this tale of modern caution that's sure to boost the sales of fruits and vegetables everywhere. There are lots of big-name folks who pull cameo face-time: Linklater fave Ethan Hawke, as well as Greg Kinnear, Patricia Arquette, Kris Kristofferson, Avril Lavigne, and (would you believe?) Bruce Willis as a really bad-ass middle-meat-man who sells the less than pristine ground beef to Mr. Mickey's burger chain for only 40 cents a pound.
A fine cast of players serves as the film's several immigrant characters, including Bogota-born, Catalina Sandino Moreno, who was so well received in the title role of HBO's, "Maria Full Of Grace." In much the same way, "Fast Food Nation," trods the social ground covered earlier by filmmaker John Sayles. In addition, Linklater's "Nation," makes, what I'd say is, a too ambitious stretch, touching on too many items: illegal immigration, ingesting red meat, exploiting the poor and the connection between cattle farming, slaughtering and hamburger franchises. Sex, sexism, drugs and youthful idealism are added for sauce. Grisly close-ups of the actual slaughtering of cattle may retard your in-theater hotdog consumption. Vegans, Arise!
11/10/2006: CROWE'S FEAT - Tire? "A Good Year?" I must avoid that groaner at all costs. But I did tire some from watching "A Good Year," despite the beauty of Provence (where much of it was shot) and the ladies who populate it, occasionally, displaying their beauty while Max Skinner (Russell Crowe) encounters the foibles of a hard-ass, London entrepreneur being slowly beaten down and into a state of enchanted bliss by what's been left to him by his late Uncle Henry (Albert Finney). What's been left to Skinner is a wine-growing estate to die for (Take Me Back To Napa)! It takes the entire film for Skinner to realize that this is where a man can really live. Don't expect too much suspense in "A Good Year." It is a good opportunity for Mr. Crowe and his director, Ridley Scott to flaunt their romantic comedy chops, but, although there are lots of vineyards to be seen in "A Good Year," it doesn't quite have the bouquet of that great American offering of an earlier vintage called, "Sideways."
11/3/2006: KILL WILL - "Stranger Than Fiction," the new Will Ferrell vehicle, doesn't know in what direction it should go. Ferrell plays another weird character, but here, he's a bit more of a yuppy and even more uptight. The other players are good. In fact, they're the only thing that gives "Fiction" some ring of truth: Maggie Gyllenhaal, Dustin Hoffman and Emma Thompson try, without results, to jump-start this semi-funny flick about a neurotic author who can't decide how to kill off the main character in the novel she's trying to finish. What's supposed to be humorous is that the character to be dispatched in the incomplete story actually exists. That would be Mr. Ferrell. In all fairness, though, I did hear some people laughing during the film, but I couldn't figure out why. Queen Latifah is also on board for a few scenes, but could've sat this one out as I wish I had. The legacy of Saturday Night Live just keeps on giving, I guess.
10/31/2006: ROYAL ROW - Straightaway, let me lobby for Helen Mirren's nomination for an Oscar in her role as HM Elizabeth II in Stephen Frears latest film, "The Queen." Mirren not only bears a distant likeness to Elizabeth, but is one of today's first-class actors on anybody's stage or screen. With those qualities, Ms. Mirren is as close to perfect as one can probably get in portraying this longstanding monarch of the United Kingdom.
"The Queen" is a well-written, very smart and delicately directed film that, through fact and fiction, depicts the turmoil in the British royal family when Diana, Princess of Wales died after a 1997 car crash in Paris. Director Frears has a marvelous touch relating the stodgy royals' coming to more modern social terms as an "entire nation weeps at their castle gate." The film is quite humorous at times, and, ultimately, doesn't deride any character, except for the Queen's husband, Prince Philip (American actor, James Cromwell). Both Prime Minister Tony Blair (Michael Sheen) and Prince Charles (Alex Jennings) acquit themselves nicely in Peter Morgan's excellent script.
There's a great scene when Elizabeth is accidentally caught alone in a pastoral part of her Balmoral estate. During these solitary moments, the Queen allows the sense of what's happened to rise to her royal surface. That and some actual clips of the brilliantly beautiful Diana are images you can take to the bank.
10/28/2006: BUSH KNELL - "Death of a President" isn't really very good and pretty much maintains a neutral tone. It has some moments, but overall, is more exploitative of the bad feelings, unfortunately, so many in the U.S. have for the president, as well as around the world. The only political position the film takes is at the end. A further strengthening of the Patriot Act ensues the "assassination." The commentary at the close of this mock doc gives a dim view of the legislation. The movie is somewhat tedious and slips into kind of an NBC "Law and Order" episode. We get those on almost every cable channel every afternoon and evening, it seems.