Monday, March 29, 2010

The Altman Tournament - Elite Eight

Cinderella sadly kicked off her slipper in the Altman Tournament's electrifying "Elite Eight" action. Nashville gave A Prairie Home Companion the Axe(man). McCabe & Mrs. Miller sent Cookie's Fortune home fishing early. Chris Penn's forearms outslugged Robin Williams's as Short Cuts defeated Popeye. And Lyle Lovett and Whoopi Goldberg managed to flummox Elliott Gould long enough for The Player to edge The Long Goodbye.

Final Four matchups:

#1 Nashville vs. #5 McCabe & Mrs. Miller. An intriguing contest of 70s-peak Altman pictures, one a sprawling ensemble, the other a more focused character piece.

#2 The Player vs. #6 Short Cuts. Another fascinating rivalry, this one involving a pair of films from Altman's early-90s renaissance. It's the "Battle of L.A., Part II."

Let the games begin!

Friday, March 26, 2010

The Altman Tournament - Round 2

Scintillating Round 2 results: a late-game injury to Neve Campbell helped Nashville overcome The Company, while A Prairie Home Companion caught Tanner '88 looking past the primary and pulled off a minor upset. McCabe & Mrs. Miller ignored Dick Nixon's epithets and handily defeated Secret Honor; on the other hand, the wacky surgeons of M*A*S*H paid a steep price for their hangovers and were stunned by Cookie's Fortune.

Another major upset: a few punches to the gut were all Popeye needed to knock off Gosford Park. Short Cuts survived a tight contest with California Split. And the heavily favored The Player rewrote the script to the underdog hopes of A Wedding.

Elite Eight, Key Matchups: Will Barbara Jean meet the Angel of Death when Nashville takes on A Prairie Home Companion? And how will team captains Philip Marlowe and Griffin Mill try to outsmart each other when The Long Goodbye squares off against The Player in what Variety is already hyping as "The Battle of L.A."? Stay tuned!

Monday, March 22, 2010

The Altman Tournament - Round 1

The Robert Altman Tournament of Champions kicked off with exciting Round 1 action! (Click image to enlarge.) Nashville, the top seed in the tourney, rolled over lowest-seed Quintet while singing "It Don't Worry Me." Garrison Keillor in A Prairie Home Companion had little trouble gently taking the air out of Richard Gere's smarmy charm in Dr. T and the Women. Pamela Reed in Tanner '88 blew smoke rings around Sam Shepard in Fool for Love, while favorites McCabe & Mrs. Miller, Secret Honor, and M*A*S*H defeated their opponents (Ready to Wear, Come Back to the Five and Dime, Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean, and HealtH) with ease. Cookie's Fortune bested The Gingerbread Man with an unexpected assist from the latter's studio heads and John Grisham.

In the other bracket, the Brits in Gosford Park cut down O.C. & Stiggs with witty insults, whereas Popeye K.O.'d Vincent & Theo after downing a can of spinach and punching Van Gogh's ear off. California Split laid down a full house against Kansas City, Short Cuts "medfly quarantine" defense worked like gangbusters vs. A Perfect Couple, and The Long Goodbye wielded a Coke bottle against the young soldiers in Streamers to deadly effect. 3 Women out-weirded Images, and The Player had little trouble turning Beyond Therapy into a habeas corpus.

Minor upsets: The Company outdanced Brewster McCloud in a squeaker; the 48 character-ensemble in A Wedding dogpiled on Keith Carradine and Shelly Duvall in Thieves Like Us.

Round #2, Key Matchups: Will McCabe have his confidence rattled by Tricky Dick Nixon's offer to buy out his land? Who will win the a key Southwest region battle between Short Cuts and California Split? Finally, how will 3 Women fare against The Long Goodbye? Said Mark Rydell to Spacek and Duvall: "Streamers I loved. You I don't even like."

Sunday, March 21, 2010

Spooked (The Ghost Writer)

(Spoilers within.)

In a movie year that promises more 3-D, more CGI, more kick-you-in-the-gonads action, the most thrilling scene may end up being an unbroken tracking shot of a note passed from hand to hand across a banquet hall. That moment comes in the closing minutes of The Ghost Writer, Roman Polanski's latest (and possibly last) film, as confident and pleasing a foray into genre as he's ever done.

This time it's the political thriller that Polanski is inhabiting, reviving, subtly subverting. Based on the novel by Mark Harris (who co-wrote the screenplay with the director), The Ghost Writer stars Ewan McGregor as the unnamed title character, an anonymous author behind several quick-'n'-dirty hack-jobs hired to finish the memoirs of former British prime minister Adam Lang (Pierce Brosnan). Although out of office, Lang still faces pressures on both political and personal fronts: the ICC wants to prosecute him for war crimes in Iraq; and his previous covert biographer has just turned up dead along the coast of Martha's Vineyard. "The Ghost" -- as McGregor's character is called in the credits -- has more than a few qualms about his task, especially after getting mugged when leaving his publisher's office. But the money is too good to pass up, as is a subsequent romantic entanglement with Lang's estranged wife (Olivia Williams).

The Ghost Writer comes a few inches shy of ranking with Polanski's greatest films. Truth be told I haven't liked McGregor since Trainspotting, but he's effortlessly charming and focused here as a decent Everyman who stumbles on the truth and struggles to stay alive. As Ruth Lang, the power behind the ex-P.M., Williams has her best role since Rushmore, one that reveals more layers as the narrative goes along. McGregor and Williams are so game that I think the movie could have gone further in making their relationship more dark and twisted than it is. There's a misguided PG-13 restraint to the film that I suspect comes from the studio rather than the director (as evinced by a handful of distractingly dubbed F-bombs). I also could have lived without a phone number beginning with "555." That number is crucial to the plot, and repeated several times, so pay for a real one, for Pete's sake.

At times the classical elements of The Ghost Writer verge on being quaint: "I suggest, dear reader, that you gaze upon it," wrote David Denby, "because it's all but gone in today's moviemaking world." So too are Polanski's filmmaking gifts and perversities of casting, which keep the movie from looking like a relic. Good luck finding a better-looking movie this year -- the cinematography (by Pawell Edelman) is enveloping and richly textured, the production design (particularly of the postmodern beachhouse where the Langs and the Ghost live and work) wittily reveals the protagonist's emotional state. Alexandre Desplat's musical score marvelously entwines playfulness with suspense, as does Brosnan's performance. The man who was Bond may have been a no-brainer as Lang, and he's a strong, elusive presence. But surprise cameos from the likes of 94-year-old Eli Wallach (enjoyably hammy as always) and a bald James Belushi (bearing a bizarre resemblance to Rod Steiger) add some zip to the proceedings. 

In many ways The Ghost Writer is haunted by recurring obsessions and tossed-off motifs from Polanski's entire filmography: political pessimism (Chinatown); the essentiality of books and writing (The Ninth Gate); the cultivation of identity through art (The Pianist); the dangers of jet-lag (Frantic); the power and deceit of women (pick 'em). Following the flurry of excitement over the 17th best movie Martin Scorsese has ever madeThe Ghost Writer comes as a reminder of how pulp can be given theme and shape in the hands of a great filmmaker. While the movie treats current events seriously (and dares to take sides) Polanski doesn't belabor any points or betray any preachiness. His tone throughout is light and mischievous, with flashes of mordant wit. (One zinger, where one character assures McGregor of his safety, got a huge laugh.) This is the atmosphere in his finest genre pictures, whether horror flick or historical biopic or crime noir. In Shutter Island, Scorsese weighs down schlock with gravitas. In The Ghost Writer, Polanski finds the humor in heavy weather without diluting its power.

Saturday, March 20, 2010

American Nightmare (James Ellroy's Blood's a Rover)

James Ellroy's sensational new novel Blood's a Rover (2009) initially made me wince when I realized its subject: the aftermath of the assassinations of Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King. We're back in the late-60s and early-70s, man, in a country reeling from J. Edgar Hoover and Tricky Dick Nixon's reactionary shenanigans and set to implode with war protest and cultural strife. Been there, exhausted that. Yet Ellroy makes this familiar territory as fresh as he did 50s crime noir in L.A. Confidential. That's the only other book of the author's I've read, and while Blood's a Rover is the grand finale of his "Underworld U.S.A." trilogy (preceded by American Tabloid and The Cold Six Thousand), the similarities between it and the aforementioned "L.A. Quartet" thriller are apparent. The protagonists are a trio of antiheroes up to their eyeballs in a complicated plot involving the highest powers and the lowest scum, fictional fringe players interacting with real-life movers and shakers, attracted to ambiguous and dangerous women, affected by attitudes toward race.

Blood's a Rover opens with a viscerally-staged bank robbery in Los Angeles, an event whose importance takes a goodly while in revealing itself. In the interim we meet Wayne Tedrow, Jr., privately tormented by his involvement in the murder of MLK; Dwight Holly, a shake-down federal agent paying off an unknown debt to the aging FBI director; and "Dipshit" Don Crutchfield, a private detective who may be less dense than he appears. All are vividly rendered characters, and their fates entwine via OPERATION BAAAAAAD BROTHER, a J. Edgar-initiated covert operation geared to bring down a pair of upstart radical black movements -- the Black Tribe Alliance (BTA) and the Mau-Mau Liberation Front (MMLF).

As always, Ellroy is an odd amalgam of huckster and real deal. Tedrow, Holly and Crutchfield each undergo profound character shifts -- in no small part due to their involvement with respective women in their lives and one woman in particular, a shadowy counterculture figure named the Red Goddess Joan -- and their sudden changes are like Jack Vincennes' in L.A. Confidential: deeply moving and a tad unconvincing. It was Kevin Spacey's remarkable performance that sold Jack's transformation in Curtis Hanson's screen adaptation, a stellar film with a "sell-out Hollywood ending" that was in fact lifted wholesale from the original novel. Ellroy is a canny self-promoter who is also a genuine romantic, and that romanticism comes through in even his most cynical and despairing tales.

This is nothing new in Blood's a Rover, nor is Ellroy's at-times troubling predilection for the word "nigger." (He probes so deeply into prejudicial mindsets it toes the line between critique and endorsement.) What's different this time is a sense of expansiveness, both geographically and emotionally. The narrative hops from L.A. to Las Vegas to D.C. to the Dominican Republic with ease, and the ingenious use of "document inserts" offer insights into the Hoover-Holly relationship as well as another crucial character: the closeted African-American cop Marshall Bowen who infiltrates the radical black movement.

As OPERATION BAAAAAAD BROTHER gathers steam, Hoover starts losing what's left of his marbles (as does Howard Hughes, nicknamed "Dracula" by his closest friends), Bowen forges a tenuous alliance with racist police officer in order to find some missing diamonds, and the three leads meet their fates, Blood's a Rover comes together as one of the clearest manifestations of a troubled time. With a title from a poem by A.E. Houseman ("Clay lies still, but blood's a rover; Breath's a ware that will not keep...."), Ellroy's novel conveys not only a nightmare that America is still inhabiting; it suggests the means by which we can all wake up.

Monday, March 15, 2010

The Altman Tournament of Champions

Welcome to March, where the madness just keeps getting maddener!

I'm pleased to announce, apropos of nothing, the first (and probably last) Robert Altman Tournament of Champions! Stay pinned to your seat as 32 -- count 'em -- 32 Altman films go head to head in single-elimination, overlapping dialoguey, dolly-and-zoom action. Cheer your favorites on until only the strongest, savviest, and most bitterly cynical survives.

Click on the above brackets for a close-up of the pairings, print them out and give your best guesses a whirl. (Seedings, alas, were not without controversy, especially from a small yet vocal Schickelian faction who wanted all of Altman's movies replaced with Eastwood's.)

Results in a few days, weeks, whenever....

Saturday, March 13, 2010

Frights (The House of the Devil and Funny People)


It surprises me to read descriptions of Ti West's The House of the Devil as a throwback to 1980s horror flicks. The movie takes place in that decade, before owning a cell phone would have made things easier for college undergrad Samantha (Jocelin Donahue) to escape the dark rural estate owned by the creepily friendly Ulmans (Tom Noonan and Mary Woronov), who have paid her handsomely to babysit under increasingly dubious circumstances that seem to revolve around a midnight eclipse. But the film has little to do with the gory slasher pics from that era and more in common with the deliberate pacing and psychological punishment of late-60s/early-70s Carpenter, De Palma and Polanski. The opening hour is filled with so many long silences you can feel the director reprogramming your response system: even in a pivotal scene when you expect to jump -- involving Samantha's gal-pal Megan (acidly funny Greta Gerwig, soon to be seen in the unaborted Noah Baumbach's Greenberg), the editing rhythms are fiddled with just enough to catch you with your guard down.

West's sense of period detail (a walkman with audiotapes) and character (Samantha's holes in her jeans underlining her financial desperation) are first-rate, and he's good with actors: that wonderful weirdo Noonan is introduced with chest-level framing, the camera eventually panning up as if he were a giant oak. He lacks humor though, which The House of the Devil could use as it enters its absurd and bloody final act. There's ultimately not much to the movie, but it may be worth seeing for bigger fans of the genre than me, or to witness what may be the start of a promising filmmaker's career.
I've been running out of excuses to admire Judd Apatow (yes, I still enjoy Walk Hard), and now with Funny People I'm left with no choice but to turn against him. A comedy is always in trouble whenever its characters keep telling each other how hilarious they are, which is the through-line of all conversations between famous comic actor George Simmons (Adam Sandler) and sycophantic wannabe Ira Wright (Seth Rogen). When George learns he's dying of leukemia (don't worry, he gets better), he returns to his roots as a standup comedian by enlisting Ira as jokewriter. Problem is, Ira's jokes aren't funny; nor do his or George's stage performances derive from the kind of hardbitten life experiences that are the soul of great standup.

A repellent air of entitlement has seeped into Apatow's work. Self-congratulatory celebrity cameos really pile up in Funny People, and by the time George attempts to win back now-married love-of-his-life Laura (Leslie Mann), the director's former empathy for "regular people" devolves into clueless condescension. Amusing moments that pop up -- a superhumanly tolerant German physician (Torsten Voges), Jason Schwartzman's appearances in the cheesy sitcom Yo, Teach! -- are watered down by a 150-minute running-time that doesn't layer its themes or gather momentum. Rogen is miscast in the wide-eyed, fidgety Gene Wilder role; Sandler's persona was deconstructed much more intriguingly in Paul Thomas Anderson's Punch-Drunk Love. Neither actor, individually or together, makes a good alter-ego for Apatow, who's sincerely trying to explore his recurring concern -- the price of fame on family -- but lacks enough of a self-critical perspective to do it justice. (He also, yet again, shows a baffling lack of understanding or interest in women for the man who helped create the indomitable Lindsay Weir in Freaks and Geeks.) He's become like Woody Allen in Stardust Memories, gazing so far into his navel he can't get out.

Saturday, March 6, 2010

Oscar, Oscar, Oscar!

The older I get, the more indifferent to the Academy Awards I become. I don't mean that out of any underlying superiority. It's just that as the years go by, I'm finding it necessary to be selective about what to get worked up about in life, and getting riled at what has been since its inception a transparently political contest is like shaking a fist at inclement weather. No sense getting your knickers in a twist over what's out of your control. Best to hunker down, pop in a good movie instead and let the show blow over.

This is not to say I'm completely uncaring. I'd be thrilled if my favorite movie of the year took Best Picture, or even my second fave. That each was actually nominated indicates some taste out in La-La Land, though likely only one would have made it had the final cut remained at five. When it was announced last year that the category would expand the nominees to ten, I was one of a few who didn't scoff immediately. I initially speculated that more movies might make the race more unpredictable and interesting. Sorry, my bad. While I'm not completely certain which film will win (I'll go with The Hurt Locker...barely), it's fairly obvious that the top quintet of candidates would have still been the same handful regardless.

(If you're looking for an easy-pickings Oscar pool, incidentally, come to my northeast Ohio town where, according to the weekly paper, an overwhelming majority believe The Blind Side will take Best Picture.)

On the other hand, we have been spared the "I've never heard of that movie!" gripe that's been seeping into the public conversation in recent years. (The implication being if you haven't heard of a movie, it couldn't possibly be any good.) Most people have heard of -- and possibly even seen -- Avatar, Up, District 9, Inglourious Basterds, and/or The Blind Side, all box-office hits. And the tenuous frontrunner, Kathryn Bigelow's The Hurt Locker, has become a topic for political debate on the basis of its accuracy or lack thereof pertaining to the war in Iraq.

I have deeply conflicted feelings about Bigelow's film. I saw it for the second time a few weeks ago on DVD, and once again I marveled at the filmmaking and Jeremy Renner's performance yet was troubled as before by the lack of context for everything that happens. The you-are-there style is compelling to a point. Yet late in the movie, when James sees a kite floating overhead, and screenwriter Mark Boal explains on the commentary that Iraqi insurgents use kites as a signaling system, I thought, "Gee, it'd have been helpful had you put that explanation in the movie." As the scene stands, it's just another puzzling detail, and altogether they lend credence to accusations of inauthenticity.

Whether or not The Hurt Locker takes the big prize is irrelevant to how it holds up over time. I'm reasonably confident that Inglourious Basterds and A Serious Man -- neither of which escaped some harsh criticism -- shall look even stronger than they are now, whereas Avatar, with all its millions, will be a limp biscuit. I've also a hunch Wes Anderson's Fantastic Mr. Fox (nominated for Animated Film but destined to lose to Pixar's latest blah-fest) will get past its disappointing returns and become a discovered classic on DVD. (Nina Paley's copyright-entangled Sita Sings the Blues is already halfway there.) That's the fun of history, a quality that the Oscars increasingly lack: surprise.