Friday, November 30, 2007

Pity for Tom Cruise? I think not

To anyone who bothered to see the simply wretched "Lions for Lambs," please accept my most sincere apology, even if i didn't have anything to do with the making of it. Luckily, it seems almost no one made that mistake.

It seems that the flick, the first for Mr. Cruise and producing partner Paula Wagner, will not even hit $20 million at the domestic box office, and less than $60 million worldwide. Here are the hard numbers from through last weekend, according to the great Box Office Mojo site: Still playing on 1,527 screens, the flick had managed to take in just a meager $13,795,571 domestically. For a bit of perspective, the Coen brothers' "No Country for Old Men" has already taken in $16,313,580 playing on only 860 screens (though that is expanding further this weekend, with it even playing at one theater in Macon, the Regal Rivergate 14, so go see it if you're here!)

Cruise's rather embarrassing debut as company runner might not have looked so bad if "Lions for Lambs" weren't such an extreme act of hubris. Playing the senator supposedly selling a new front in the war on terror, Cruise was unable to for even one second hide the smugness he felt in knowing it was all hogwash. And I'm certain that if Robert Redford, who wrote and directed this mess, takes a second to more properly channel his still righteous anger he will be able to come up with a much better movie than one in which he spends the whole affair yelling at a slacker student who just doesn't "get it."

One thing you shouldn't take away from this epic failure is that there isn't a hunger out there for bold movies that take on the war in Iraq and its many consequences, but is it too much to ask that at the same time these flicks be entertaining? In Cruise's case, clearly yes, but I had a slightly better time watching Tommy Lee Jones mope his way through Paul Haggis' "In the Valley of Elah" (But Mr. Jones, like me, definitely had a lot more fun with the Coen brothers.)

Will Cruise recover? Judging from what's up next at United Artists, the answer is yes. There's a lot of cool stuff in the pipeline for next summer, but I think Bryan Singer's "Valkyrie," starring Cruise (natch) as the German colonel who launched a plot to assassinate Adolf Hitler may be among the best. It's being co-written by Christopher McQuarrie, who penned Singer's sublime "The Usual Suspects," and has a tremendous supporting cast that includes Bill Nighy, Carice Van Houten, Kenneth Branagh, Stephen Fry, Terrence Stamp and Tom Wilkinson.

After that he's clearly landed a titan in convincing Guillermo del Toro to direct "Champions," based on an old British TV show I've never heard of. The original series apparently starred Stuart Damon, Alexandra Bastedo and William Gaunt as members of a United Nations-affiliated organization called Nemesis. After a plane crash in the Himalayas, all three are saved and given supernatural powers including ESP and precognition.

In more bad news, however, UA was forced to postpone Oliver Stone's next Vietnam flick, "Pinkville," because of the writers' strike, and then star Bruce Willis pulled out.

And in case you were wondering when a Tom Cruise movie last managed to take in less than $20 million domestic, it was a heck of a long time ago. Released in 1986, the fantasy/adventure "Legend" (which does have some charms) grossed $15.5 million domestically, but of course expectations were much lower way back then.

Please, if you take nothing else from this admitted screed, at least promise me this: When "Lions for Lambs" comes out on DVD, please, please, please do not even bother to give it a rental. It's just that bad.

Actors on actors

Faced with little actual news to report thanks to the ongoing strike, Variety this morning published a series of predictably self-congratulatory pieces in which some of Hollywood biggest stars talked about their co-workers. If you can cut through the cheese, it's actually not a bad way to waste a few minutes at work. Here are two snippets that didn't make me just hurl, Julia Roberts talking about the great Paul Rudd and Matt Damon talking about rising star Amy Ryan, and you can read the rest here.

"Paul is the most unexpected movie star. For his facial hair in 'Anchorman' he probably walked around like that for months. The people at the grocery store don't know why he looks like that. They think he's nuts. He's not scared to do those things. ... At a dinner party, if you're seated next to Paul, you'll leave thinking, I'm so funny. I always want to be seated next to Paul."

"I sat dumbfounded watching this performance in 'Gone Baby Gone.' Every moment, every detail in Amy Ryan's performance is spot-on. In fact, I've never seen an actor from outside Boston come to our city and be this convincing - and a lot of great actors have come here and given award-worthy performances. This is at another level, though. It's that place actors hope to get to at least once in their career, where they completely disappear into someone else -- that place that made me ask, 'Who the hell is she and why hasn't she worked more on film before this?'

New pictures of Iron Man

The more I see from Jon Favreau's first foray into superhero flicks, the more I'm convinced he's gonna deliver a real winner next summer with "Iron Man." After all, I don't think you can go wrong with Robert Downey Jr. as our hero Tony Stark, and the supporting cast of Terrence Howard (who seems to work a heck of a lot), Jeff Bridges (huzzah!), Gwyneth Paltrow, Samuel L. Jackson and even Ghostface Killah ain't shabby either. Anyways, has managed to get its hands on several new pics, of which I swiped just one. You can see the rest here, and have an entirely enjoyable weekend. Peace out.

Wednesday, November 28, 2007

Awards season already? Get in the Spirit

It does seem awfully early for this, but two groups have just launched the opening salvos in kudos season, with the Spirit Awards announcing its nominations and the Gothams simply skipping right to the winners.

My first thought in looking at the Spirit Best Feature nominees was a bit of depression that I haven't actually seen any of them, but that will change soon with a trip to NYC set for the end of the year. My next two thoughts were "how in the world did 'A Mighty Heart' end up here?" and then "Juno," a movie which I've plugged rather shamelessly here for what seems like three years, will probably be the winner, if Todd Haynes isn't crowned the king.

Of the movies I have seen, I'm really happy to see the love for "Rocket Science," easily one of my favorite movies of 2007. Jeffrey Blitz certainly deserves the directing recognition, and Anna Kendrick is a worthy nominee for best supporting actress (though I'd imagine Jennifer Jason Leigh, who more than holds her own against Nicole Kidman in "Margot at the Wedding," will take this one home.) And, of course, huzzah to the nomination of the late Adrienne Shelly for her screenplay for the simply enchanting "Waitress."

And finally, though I passed up the opportunity to do so when I first saw it, let me be a very much minority voice of dissent in opposition to Michael Moore's "Sicko" (which doesn't appear until the Gothams segment, but bear with me.) I've been a Moore supporter from the beginning, but this was, to me, probably his worst movie. If he had spent a lot less time gallivanting around Europe to brag about their free health care and instead focused on the very real problem of Americans who do have some form of insurance and yet routinely get denied care, he would have made a much more powerful film.

But enough venting from me. Here are the Spirit nomination highlights, and you can read the whole list here:

"The Diving Bell and the Butterfly" - Producers: Kathleen Kennedy, Jon Kilik
"I’m Not There" - Producers: Christine Vachon, John Sloss, John Goldwyn, James D. Stern
"Juno" - Producers: Lianne Halfon, John Malkovich, Mason Novick, Russell Smith
"A Mighty Heart" - Producers: Dede Gardner, Andrew Eaton, Brad Pitt
"Paranoid Park" - Producers: Neil Kopp, David Cress

"2 Days in Paris" - Director: Julie Delpy; Producers: Julie Delpy, Christophe Mazodier, Thierry Potok
"Great World of Sound" - Director: Craig Zobel; Producers: Melissa Palmer, David Gordon Green, Richard Wright, Craig Zobel
"The Lookout" - Director: Scott Frank; Producers: Roger Birnbaum, Gary Barber, Laurence Mark, Walter Parkes
"Rocket Science" - Director: Jeffrey Blitz; Producers: Effie T. Brown, Sean Welch
"Vanaja" - Director: Rajnesh Domalpalli; Producer: Latha R. Domalapalli

Todd Haynes - "I’m Not There"
Tamara Jenkins - "The Savages"
Jason Reitman - "Juno"
Julian Schnabel - "The Diving Bell and the Butterfly"
Gus Van Sant - "Paranoid Park"

Pedro Castaneda - "August Evening"
Don Cheadle - "Talk To Me"
Philip Seymour Hoffman - "The Savages"
Frank Langella - "Starting Out in the Evening"
Tony Leung - "Lust, Caution"

Angelina Jolie - "A Mighty Heart"
Sienna Miller - "Interview"
Ellen Page - "Juno"
Parker Posey - "Broken English"
Tang Wei - "Lust, Caution"

Chiwetel Ejiofor - "Talk To Me"
Marcus Carl Franklin - "I’m Not There"
Kene Holliday - "Great World of Sound"
Irrfan Khan - "The Namesake"
Steve Zahn - "Rescue Dawn"

Cate Blanchett - "I’m Not There"
Anna Kendrick - "Rocket Science"
Jennifer Jason Leigh - "Margot at the Wedding"
Tamara Podemski - "Four Sheets to the Wind"
Marisa Tomei - "Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead"

Ronald Harwood - "The Diving Bell and the Butterfly"
Tamara Jenkins - "The Savages"
Fred Parnes & Andrew Wagner - "Starting Out in the Evening"
Adrienne Shelly - "Waitress"
Mike White - "Year of the Dog"

Jeffrey Blitz - "Rocket Science"
Zoe Cassavetes - "Broken English"
Diablo Cody - "Juno"
Kelly Masterson - "Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead"
John Orloff - "A Mighty Heart"

"Crazy Love" - Director: Dan Klores
"Lake of Fire" - Director: Tony Kaye
"Manufactured Landscapes" - Director: Jennifer Baichwal
"The Monastery" - Director: Pernille Rose Grønkjær
"The Prisoner or: How I Planned to Kill Tony Blair" - Directors: Petra Epperlein & Michael Tucker

'Into the Wild' tops Gotham Awards

Though I stand by my difficulties with the character of Christopher McCandless (in a fit of pique, I believe I called him a spoiled brat), I'm still very happy to see Sean Penn's ambitious and very challenging movie getting awards season love.

"Into the Wild" won best feature honors Tuesday at the 17th Gotham Awards.
The Gothams, given by the Independent Feature Project, go to winners in six categories. "Sicko," which I lashed into a bit earlier, took home the doco prize.

The ensemble cast award was shared by "Talk to Me" and "Before the Devil Knows You're Dead." The latter, by the way, was a flick I just really couldn't get into, though it is indeed packed with top-shelf actors at the top of their game (and a very welcome return by Marisa Tomei too.)

Ellen Page, in what will hopefully be her launching pad to a best actress Oscar nomination, won for breakthrough actor in "Juno." Breakthrough director honors went to Craig Zobel for "Great World of Sound." "Frownland" won the cheekily named award, Best Film Not Playing at a Theater Near You.

Six already-announced tributes were handed out to Roger Ebert, Javier Bardem, Mira Nair (huzzah!!!), production designer Mark Friedberg, IFC Entertainment president Jonathan Sehring and New York mayor Michael Bloomberg.

Has Scorsese finally picked his next movie?

After spending a little down time (and why not?) chumming around with the Rolling Stones, it seems Martin Scorsese's finally ready to commit to his next feature film.

I was hoping he would turn to the children's novel "The Invention of Hugo Cabret," which is rapidly moving up my to-read list (Jonathan Safran Foer's "Everything Is Illuminated" is my current read), but I suppose you can't go too wrong in tapping the work of Dennis Lehane. Leonardo DiCaprio (shocker!) and now Mark Ruffalo are set to star in Scorsese's "Shutter Island," based on Lehane's 2004 novel.

Ruffalo will play U.S. Marshal Chuck Aule, who travels with his new partner (DiCaprio) to the Massachusetts island in 1954. As they investigate the disappearance of a patient from a hospital for the criminally insane, they encounter a web of lies, a hurricane and a deadly inmate riot that leaves them trapped on the island.

Sounds like uber-cool stuff to me, and it's certainly nice to see Mr. Scorsese finally working again.

A banner week on DVD:

The Namesake: I was hoping the Macon Film Guild would make this Mira Nair movie its December selection (but "Once," showing Dec. 9 at the Douglass Theatre, is certainly a worthy choice too) so I would get to see it on the big screen, but at least I can finally see it at all on DVD. It seems like this came out in theaters years ago, and I simply adore Mira Nair, so the first thing I'm doing after finishing this is moving her to the top of my Netflix queue.

Waitress: As I start to think about which 10 movies might make it into my Best of 2007 list, I've thought a lot about this sweet little movie from Adrienne Shelly. Sure, it's lighter than air, but you get Felicity, Sheriff Andy and Captain Mal in this bittersweet romance, so how much more can you really ask for?

Bender's Big Score This is the first of what will be a fairly remarkable four movies based on the late but much-loved (especially by me) TV show "Futurama." Planet Express is threatened with a hostile takeover and Bender falls into the hands of criminals who use him to fulfill their schemes.

Paprika: I'm a sucker for intelligent animated movies made for adults, so this one is a natural. As far as I can tell, the wild plot centers on a machine that allows therapists to read people's dreams, and what happens after it gets stolen.

Indy's not really all that old

Well, maybe he is, but judging from this photo of Harrison Ford and Shia LaBoeuf on the set of "Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull" he's at least not yet approaching embarrassing himself like Stallone soon will in yet another "Rambo" movie. You can count "Indy" as the blockbuster I'm most excited for next summer, even more so than "The Dark Knight." Enjoy, and have an entirely bearable Wednesday.

Tuesday, November 27, 2007

Neuroses surround "Margot at the Wedding"

At the outset of the 2007 New York Film Festival, Rex Reed, now toiling for the New York Observer, panned the three biggest flicks, "Darjeeling Limited", "Margot at the Wedding" and "I'm Not There", under the headline "Wes is More: Pretension Pollutes the New York Film Festival." It was a very entertaining screed which you can still read here, but I'm pleased to report that with "Margot at the Wedding," at least, he was dead wrong in my book.

Be warned going in: This is, by design, one of the most claustrophobic movies you'll ever see, and it contains some of the most emotionally disturbed characters I've seen on the big screen in many years. So, how in the world could this be enjoyable? For me, it boiled down to not whether or not you like any of them, which I actually did, but whether or not you can believe in or identify with them, which I perhaps disturbingly could to.

Like his friend Wes Anderson but with much more depth, Noah Baumbach continues to explore the lives of academics who have had more success professionally than in their private (or not-so-much-so) lives. Here his main character is the titular Margot, a novelist played by a much-frumpier-than-usual Nicole Kidman. As her marriage to fellow writer Jon Turturro (who makes a much-too-brief appearance) is falling apart, she travels to her childhood home to celebrate and, more accurately, try to tear down her sister Pauline's impending marriage to Malcolm, a miscreant who specializes in writing letters to the editor.

The beauty in this dysfunction comes in seeing how Pauline, played by the much-missed Jennifer Jason Leigh (wife of Mr. Baumbach), and Margot riff off each other. They clearly have deep-rooted problems that stem from childhood and have been so embedded that they can only be addressed by laughing them off, which may make you squirm in your seat but just seemed like a perfectly natural defense mechanism to me. Neel Mehta, a frequent and always-welcome visitor here, said he would appreciate knowing going into a movie what kind of issues are dealt with, so I'll let out the tiny spoiler that it has something to do with physical and possibly sexual abuse (I'm not really spoiling too much here because, since they're unable to really talk about it, it's only hinted at here.)

Somewhat lost in the shadows is Jack Black's Malcolm, a thoroughly annoying hanger-on until he had what was, for me, at least, his only genuine moment when he finally confesses to a rather heinous mistake. It will definitely divide viewers, but watching him quickly unravel when caught in a lie just worked for me. Ciaran Hinds, easily one of my favorite actors, also makes a much-too-brief appearance in what is, by design, a movie that's dominated by sisters Kidman and Leigh.

My only real quibble, and it is only a quibble with a movie that I otherwise loved (and will definitely put in my top 10 for 2007 to come soon), is in the lighting. In his attempt to make it seem like we are intruding on a genuine family affair, Baumbach films the scenes inside the house with only natural - and often very muddy - light. I know what he was going for there, but it just made the movie hard to look at in stretches.

So, on Mr. Reed's troika of supposed pretension, I'm now one for two. I'm sad to report that he was way too harsh but basically right about "Darjeeling Limited," but just as happy to hopefully debunk his thrashing of "Margot at the Wedding." I look forward to seeing "I'm Not There" soon to finish out the cycle. Peace out.

P.S.: A quick trip to the IMDB has revealed that Jennifer Jason Leigh has two acting credits listed for 2008, including a role in Charlie Kaufman's next flick, "Synecdoche, New York." A hearty huzzah to that!

Saturday, November 24, 2007

A trip into Frank Darabont's often-magical "Mist"

For one of Stephen King's shortest works, it's amazing just how much "The Mist" manages to capture all of his strengths and faults in one glass, and what Frank Darabont does in mixing them up makes for one of the best horror movies I've seen in many years (which, given the state of horror flicks now, really isn't setting the bar all that high.)

Like with all of King's best works, "The Mist" starts with an extremely clever premise. I don't know about you, but few things scare me more than what happens to human beings when a few (or a lot of) snow flakes fall to the Earth. Setting "The Mist" in a grocery store with a crowd trapped inside by the mysterious cloud surrounding it perfectly sets up the neuroses that will quickly unfold.

And as is almost always the case with King, he then loads this up with very broadly drawn characters and a plot that stretches things almost too far but not quite, which is for me why he's been much more palatable in short bursts like the novella or the two-hour-or-so movie rather than a full novel.

Darabont's movie adaptation is at its strongest when the monsters that emerge from "The Mist" are off-screen, when Marcia Gay Harden slowly takes over the movie as the Bible-beater Mrs. Carmody. It's a stereotype that would have offended in lesser hands, but it's a delight to watch the trapped folks divide into factions behind her or the protagonist played by Thomas Jane, a commercial artist who's trapped in the store with his young son and is just begging for us to get behind him (which makes Darabont's tacked-on ending all the more sensational.)

And there's one moment before the mayhem is unleashed that is just good, old-fashioned horror flick fun. It comes as some of the creatures, which look like big mechanical bugs, start to land, one by one, on the store's window. I won't spoil it for you any further, but I guarantee you'll be smiling as Darabont uses sights and sounds to build up the suspense. Yes, that's right, suspense, the most noticeable omission from the gorefests that have posed as horror for years now.

Where the movie started to fall apart a bit for me was with the creatures themselves. I liked that their origin, though perhaps related to the military, was left appropriately murky. But they just looked way too robotic and phony to invoke any real terror, though I do confess I jumped a few inches out of my seat more than once.

Now, before I go, I'd like to discuss two things about "The Mist" - one I loved and one I hated - that will thoroughly spoil the movie for anyone who hasn't seen it, so please, please, please don't read any further if you haven't seen it yet (and if you're wavering, definitely do.) First is the aforementioned ending, which Darabont cooked up himself (which takes some huevos when you're working with such strong source material, I must say.) The moment when Jayne's David Drayton emerges from the car, even if Jayne overplays it more than a bit, is just the perfect twist that King or, back when he was in top form, M. Night Shyamalan, might have concocted. For a movie that is, at its best, all about the consequences of human decisions, seeing what happens to a character you thought all along was right is pretty darn devastating.

But Andre Braugher, once again, is desperately in need of a new agent. As I warned you, this is 100-percent spoiler material, so I'll just warn again, don't read this paragraph unless you've seen the movie already. What happens to Braugher's very poorly drawn character (basically, to put it as crudely as possible, "the dick"), goes way beyond the notion that the black guy is always the first (or one of the very first) to die in a horror movie. As Braugher led, and I'm not making this up, almost all the black people out of the store (with a "you people" thrown in just for good measure, I guess) and into the mist, I was still hoping they would somehow be redeemed rather than being the opening courses of monster chow. What in the world did Andre Braugher, easily one of my favorite actors, ever do to deserve this?

Even with this rather big beef, however, I can heartily endorse Frank Darabont's "The Mist" as a good, old-fashioned terror yarn, and recommend that everyone go see it along with Amy Adams' arrival to the big time (which I'll be taking in tomorrow.) Peace out.

Thursday, November 22, 2007

A great movie resource for parents ... and everyone else too

Nell Minow, who has been Yahoo's "Movie Mom" for years now, has now taken the title with her for her own blog/review site, a welcome addition to the wide Web of film criticism.

Now, don't let the title Movie Mom scare you, or the fact that her blog is part of the Beliefnet Christian Web site. Though Nell takes into consideration all the factors that might concern parents with a movie, she also reviews flicks for their genuine entertainment value, and does so with style.

For instance, I happen to know that Nell is a big fan of both "Grindhouse" and "Shoot 'Em Up," hardly two movies you would think of as family fare. And though I'm not sure I can fully agree with her here, she gives "Live Free or Die Hard" a B+ in this week's DVD reviews.

Frankly, whether you agree with the Christian angle or not, Nell's reviews are a good sight better than almost anything else you'll find that takes families into consideration. To read her latest reviews, visit the new Movie Mom site here.

RIP Fernando Fernán Gómez

I have to admit that the name Fernando Fernán Gómez didn't mean anything to me until my co-worker Karen, who despite having the surname Ludwig is rather proud to have Spanish blood flowing through her veins, pointed out to me that he had died.

It turns out, as a quick visit to the IMDB confirmed, that the Peruvian actor appeared in 212 films in his long career, including starring in one of my all-time favorites, "El Espíritu de la Colmena," a k a "Spirit of the Beehive." If you haven't seen this flick about two Spanish girls and their quest to find the Frankenstein monster, do so as soon as possible (I think you can still find it on DVD.) He also starred as the pater familias in "Belle Epoque" and had a big role in Pedro Almodóvar's "Todo sobre mi madre" ("All About My Mother"). Rest in peace, Mr. Gómez.

Can Johnny Depp actually sing?

If I remember correctly he may have already done so in John Waters' "Cry Baby," but that's still a key question surrounding Tim Burton's "Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street."

Well, the answer, judging from this clip of him in the studio singing is only kind of, but probably good enough to serve the purposes of this flick. Judge for yourself, and have a perfectly pleasant turkey day.

Wednesday, November 21, 2007

Movie menu:Thanksgiving feast or a heap of turkeys?

Carla Jean Moss: And what are you going to do?
Llewelyn Moss: I'm fixin' to do something dumber than hell, but I'm going anyways.

If you only go to one movie during this holiday week, please make sure it is the Coens' "No Country for Old Men." That is, of course, if you live in a big enough city to get it in its second rollout wave, which I don't.

Luckily, I managed to squeeze it in during a busy D.C. weekend at the MLS Cup. Actually I had to watch much of it twice, but only pay for it once, because the first time we had to leave because a friend of mine who shall remain nameless had a bad reaction to the movie's considerable violence.

And it is indeed a rather violent film, so certainly don't go see it with a bellyful of turkey. But if you can get past that, what you'll get is a manhunt movie with all the intensity the Coens can muster (a hell of a lot) which turns in the last chapter to a morality tale about the choices we make and their inevitable consequences. It's also the best Western I've seen in many years.

There were two things, among many great ones, that stuck out to me. First of all is the cinematography, long a Coens' trademark but never better than it has been here as Roger Deakins gets more than you could imagine from the bleak Texas landscape where most of the movie takes place (and kudos to star Tommy Lee Jones, who apparently lobbied the Coens to shoot in Texas rather than take the tax credit to move to New Mexico.)

Second is that, though they were of course working from the novel by Cormac McCarthy, the dialogue throughout could only come from a Coen brothers movie. It's sharp and quick and will have you laughing in places that might make you feel very uncomfortable. Tommy Lee Jones. Josh Brolin (who is having one hell of a good year, by the way) and Javier Bardem get all the best lines, but special mention should go to Kelly Macdonald, who more than manages to hold her own in this macho world. It was driving me crazy to remember where I had seen her before, but have to admit I had to cheat with a peek at the IMDB to find out this Scottish actress played young Diane way back in "Trainspotting."

But of course there are a slew of other flicks opening this weekend, and depending on how early they start screening I may see two on turkey day itself (even though I later have to work.) Here's what's on the movie menu in wide-release world this week, in order of my preference. If you've seen any of these already and want to comment on them, please do.

1. "Stephen King's The Mist"
Please, please, please don't let this suck. Frank Darabont hasn't made a bad movie yet from a Stephen King work, so this one is first on my viewing list.

2. "Enchanted"
I'd watch Amy Adams do just about anything, but this had better be pretty darn charming if it's gonna be able to sustain my interest. Dr. McDreamy was on ESPN radio yesterday trying to plug it, but even he couldn't really seem to get too jazzed about it. If it indeed manages to spoof the Disney empire with wit, that will be good enough for me.

3. August Rush
Just about the only downside of having a DVR (besides the fact that I got it shortly before the writers walked out) is that I fast-forward through all the commercials. I therefore had never heard of this one when my co-worker Renee Martinez, a rather devoted fan of Jonathan Rhys Meyers, started asking about it a few weeks ago. Looks awfully sappy for my tastes, but I like Keri Russell and Freddie Highmore enough that I just might give this one a chance.

4. This Christmas
I want this one to do well, if only so they will keep making movies with all- or mostly black casts, but there's just no way I can pay to see it. Even with Delroy Lindo on board, any flick which gets its humor from women referring to their cleavage as "cookies" just clearly wasn't made for me.

5. Hitman
Titus Welliver, Silas Adams on "Deadwood," made a successful leap to the big screen this year with a pivotal role in "Gone Baby Gone," but it seems Sheriff Seth Bullock won't have the same luck. Timothy Oliphant gets the honor of starring in this flick, yet another based upon a video game I've never played.

And, if you happen to live in a more urban corner of the world than me, go see these three flicks, which I believe all open this week: Todd Haynes' trippy Dylan biopic "I'm Not There," Noah Baumbach's "Margot at the Wedding," which looks like just my kind of disfunction, and "Joe Strummer: The Future is Unwritten," Julien Temple's ode to the punk-rock warlord. If you do see these, please let me know if they're as good as I'm expecting them to be.

I'll leave you with two fairly cool posters that pretty much speak for themselves. Wall-E is Pixar's next big creation, and just in case you don't recognize the bottomless torso on the right, that is indeed Summer Glau from "Firefly" and "Serenity." Peace out.

Thursday, November 15, 2007

This just in: Tyler Perry likes to work

Even if you don't like all the movies they put out, it's hard to dispute that Lionsgate is just about the smartest studio in the game. I could certainly do without some of their slasher fare, but after sinking their claws into Tyler Perry early it seems they're never gonna let go, which should result in many entertaining movies to come.

As he's well proven already, Mr. Perry is just a movie-making machine, and until his flicks start to suck you won't hear me telling him to slow down. His next Lionsgate movie, "Meet the Browns," is set to come out March 21, and now Lionsgate has commissioned two more of his works for the big screen, "The Family that Preys Together" and "Madea Goes to Jail."

"Meet the Browns" centers on a single Chicago mother of three (Angela Bassett, huzzah!) who has been struggling for years to keep her kids off of the streets. When she receives a death notice claiming that the father she has never met has passed away, she quickly gathers up the kids and sets out for Georgia to attend the funeral, where she discovers a whole side of the family she never knew existed. Drama? Family reunion? And, surely, plenty of comedy? Sounds like familiar but fun Tyler Perry to me, so I'll definitely be there.

This flick also stars husband-and-wife team David and Tamela Mann, who were in Macon recently to perform another Perry stage show, "What's Done in the Dark," which will surely be made into a movie some time down the road (I, unfortunately, had to work and couldn't attend, but I'm sure it must have been a fun affair.) And, for those of you who like him/her, I can confirm that Madea will be making a return to the big screen in "Meet the Browns" (personally, I find Madea funny enough, but I'm just scared of all black men who don fat suits and dresses after being trapped on a plane and making the very unfortunate decision to watch "Big Momma's House 2." Yes, I realize I could have turned it off, but I was so brain dead that it just rendered me powerless to do so.)

I couldn't find out too much about "The Family That Preys Together," but I've seen the version of "Madea Goes to Jail" that's already out on video, and it's extremely funny stuff, so I'll have to get over my Madea-phobia and just enjoy what he does with it with a much bigger budget.

David Letterman, the good guy

Hidden under the caustic exterior of David Letterman beats the heart of an old softy which has managed to jump out on TV from time to time. And now, with his latest gesture toward employees of "The Late Show With David Letterman" and "Late Late Show With Craig Ferguson," both owned by Letterman's Worldwide Pants company, the secret that he's really just a good guy is definitely out.

Worldwide Pants Inc. notified its employees in New York and Los Angeles on Tuesday that they would be paid regardless of whether the show returned or not. This makes it the first known company to guarantee its staff a paycheck during the writers' strike. To give credit where it's due, this was first reported by Nikki Finke at
Deadline Hollywood Daily.

And, if you want to get a running and very funny commentary on life during the strike, "Late Show" scribes Eric Stangel, Justin Stangel, Bill Scheft, Steve Young, Matt Roberts, Tom Ruprecht, Jeremy Weiner, Lee Ellenberg, Joe Grossman and Bob Borden are sharing their thoughts in a blog of sorts here. Highly recommended reading.

Very enticing "Forgotten Kingdom" footage

My first thought when I heard about this movie was "if you're really gonna team up Jet Li and Jackie Chan for a fun kung-fu epic, why would you get the guy who made 'Stuart Little' to direct it?" Well, I'm still a little skeptical that "The Forbidden Kingdom" will be good when it comes out next Spring, but this mostly dialogue-free and action-packed teaser shows that director Rob Minkoff must have at least hired a good kung-fu choreographer. Enjoy, and have an entirely pleasant Thursday.

Wednesday, November 14, 2007

10 truly magical movies

This list was compiled in (dis?)honor of "Mr. Magorium's (sp?) Wonder Emporium," and more specifically out of depression at the lack of good movies opening this week in wide-release world.

After all, this is the fall, and all you can give us is "Beowulf," which should at least be cool to look at, and the aforementioned flick which tries so hard to be magical (putting "Wonder" in the title is always a subtle touch) that I just have a gnawing feeling it's gonna be remarkably bad.

I'm not sure, actually, that I'll be taking in any multiplex movies this weekend anyway, because I'm bound for DC to enjoy the MLS Cup with my brother and his band of Minnesota soccer geeks (said, of course, with the utmost affection.) Here, however, is a list of 10 movies, and the 15 or so more that almost made the cut, that are just the definition of magical for me, even without having a witch or wizard anywhere in sight (though there is some minor "Harry Potter" news at the end, so keep reading if you're interested.) Here goes, and as always, please feel free to sound off with any of the many I may have snubbed.

Watership Down
I think I've had this movie on my brain lately because I just watched "Ratatouille" (a movie which easily could have made this list too) again, and the beginning of that Pixar flick makes me think of this one that just thoroughly freaked me out as a kid (though I was also scared of that silly animated "Lord of the Rings" movie, so it didn't take much.) It's rare today to see animals, or people for that matter, in genuine peril in movies aimed at children, and that's what made this tale of rabbits looking for a new home so perfect.

Pan's Labyrinth
A recent and fairly obvious choice, perhaps, but I bring it up to maybe make people think about what's missing from this year's best movies. Not, God forbid, that everything should copy the thrilling template of Ophelia's journey, but I just think my favorite movies of 2006, this and "Children of Men," were just superior to the best flicks I've seen this year.

If you've never seen this little flick from Wayne Wang and Paul Auster, do so as soon as you can. The stories that unfold around the Brooklyn smoke shop owned by Harvey Keitel's Augie are almost as good as the amazing one that springs from his own mind at the movie's end.

Though he certainly tried to find it again with the "fairy tale" "Lady in the Water," I think M. Night Shyamalan lost what "magic" he had after this great flick.

Wild at Heart
You could probably pick any number of David Lynch's movies, but the tale of Sailor and Lulu is still the one that I like the best, even if it does crib so directly from "The Wizard of Oz."

Wings of Desire
What in the world ever happened to Bruno Ganz? I don't think I've seen him in a movie for 10 years, but after you see him for the first time in this Wim Wenders flick (one of the very few about angels that I have any time for), his face sticks with you for a long time. A quick check at the IMDB revealed that not only is Mr. Ganz still alive and well, but he also has a role in Francis Ford Coppola's new flick, "Youth Without Youth." Huzzah!

Triplets of Belleville
Though they all humored me, I'm not sure anyone in my family liked watching this weird little animated flick as much as I did when we all saw it in New York. With almost no (or maybe even none at all) decipherable dialogue, this Sylvain Chomet movie still manages to tell a thoroughly charming tale.

Sweet Hereafter
Magic can cast a spell of melancholy as much as wonder, as Atom Egoyan proved in this flick that left me with more questions than answers that I still haven't answered to this day.

Woody Allen has certainly made better movies than this, one of the last movies he made with Mia Farrow. But even if the title gives away its obvious parallels to "Alice in Wonderland," this tale about a harried housewife who finds escape from a Chinese herb doctor just works for me.

Breakfast on Pluto
Neil Jordan's movie may indeed be lighter than air, but his take on Patrick McCabe's novel still has enough to say about "The Troubles" to make it thoroughly enjoyable. And besides, I'm sure Cillian Murphy must have had more fun getting all dolled up as Patrick "Kitten" Braden than he had making Danny Boyle's simply dreadful "Sunshine."

Honorable mention: Pee Wee's Big Adventure, The Muppet Movie, Donnie Darko, Secret of Roan Inish, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, City of Lost Children, Amelie, Big Fish, Heavenly Creatures, The Wizard of Oz, The Secret Garden, Like Water for Chocolate and, of course, Babe


RIP Ira Levin: The man whose novel led to still my favorite horror movie, Roman Polanski's "Rosemary's Baby," died Monday of a heart attack at age 78. Along with "Rosemary's Baby," other of his works that were turned into movies include "The Boys from Brazil," "The Stepford Wives," "Deathtrap," "Sliver" and "A Kiss Before Dying." Not all winners, perhaps, but he was a great writer of popcorn for the masses. Rest in peace, Mr. Levin.

Lavender Brown cast in "Half-Blood Prince": Just in case you were wondering which starlet-in-the-making will spend much of the next "Harry Potter" flick snogging with Rupert Grint's Ron Weasley, her name is Jessie Cave and her picture is posted here. She will soon appear on "Summerhill" on CBBC (children's BBC, I assume?) in the UK. "Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince" is set to come out Nov 21, 2008.

A scab "Family Guy"? To see how the WGA strike might get even uglier fast, simply tune into what's happening with Fox's "Family Guy". Even with creator Seth McFarlane walking the picket line out front, the network plans to continue airing original episodes. They have one that was completed before the walkout, which will air this Sunday, and then it seems they will use whoever's still available to complete some almost-finished shows. Even if, as "South Park" proved, "Family Guy" is written by manatees, there's still something about this that's just rank.

"City of Men" trailer

When you put out a sequel to what I most often list as my single favorite movie, it had darned well better be good, but from this trailer things don't look too promising. Following both Fernando Meirelles' simply brilliant "City of God" and the "City of Men" TV series that sprang from it comes this movie which stars two of the "City of God" players, Darlan Cunha and Douglas Silva. But you don't get Mr. Meirelles, whose "Blindness" I'm definitely looking forward to, or, I must note as a fan of beautiful women, Alice Braga (who has graduated to the big leagues with a role in "I am Legend.") Here's the trailer anyway, and here's hoping this somehow turns out to be tons better than I'm fearing it will. Peace out.

Tuesday, November 13, 2007

Where are they now: Gilmore Girls

Sure, there's movie news out there today. The best I could find is that after "Juno" finally comes out around the world, Jason Reitman will team up with Diablo Cody again for her next script, which just sounds perfectly insane.

Reitman will produce (and I assume direct) "Jennifer's Body," Cody's horror-comedy about a killer cheerleader, to be played, naturally, by the rather appropriately named Megan Fox of "Transformers" fame.

Specifically, "Body" tells the story of a cheerleader who is possessed by a demon and starts feeding off the boys in a Minnesota farming town. Her "plain Jane" best friend must kill her, then escape from a correctional facility to go after the Satan-worshiping rock band responsible for the transformation. Sounds similar to what often goes on my dreams, actually.

Reitman's company, Hard C, is also behind Rainn Wilson's (Dwight Schrute, of course) flick "Bonzai Shadowhands," which will answer the burning question: What does a ninja do during his downtime?

And in the meantime, "Juno" is still listed as opening at least a few places Dec. 5, so maybe that means we'll get it before the end of the year out here in the hinterlands.

But what I really wanted to talk about, in honor of the rather ignominious end of "Gilmore Girls" hitting DVD this week with the seventh season coming out, was a "where are they now" about the main cast members of a show that I just loved. Besides, there's actual news out today about adorable Alexis Bledel, so why not? Here goes ...

Lorelia Gilmore
I was talking with a co-worker the other day about Christmas movies, and I of course pitched "Bad Santa," which was dismissed as too dark for her tastes. That, however, quickly digressed into talk about whether Lauren Graham's ever gonna get to star in a good movie, or at least one where she gets to do more than f*** Santa. A quick IMDB check, unfortunately, points to no. Her only upcoming credit, for 2008, is something called "Flash of Genius," starring Greg Kinnear as a guy who takes on the Detroit automakers who claim he stole their idea of the intermittent windshield wiper. What this makes Lorelai, I suppose, is once again the wife. Can't anyone write anything better for this great actress? Sheesh.

Rory Gilmore
The news is at least a little better for fans of Alexis Bledel, since she at least gets to topline movies, even if they do sound awfully familiar. She's just signed to play the lead in a Fox Atomic comedy called "Ticket to Ride," in which she will play a college grad who is forced to move back into her childhood home with her eccentric family. Any similarities to Greg Mottola's upcoming "Adventureland," in which Jesse Eisenberg will do essentially the same thing, are supposed to be overlooked, I suppose. Before that, she'll also be reprising her role as Lena in the sequel to Warner Bros.' "The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants," along with America Ferrera, Blake Lively and Amber Tamblyn.

Luke Danes
Scott Patterson landed quickly back on TV as one of the main stars of the CW's "Aliens in America," the only new sitcom funny enough to keep me watching this fall (and it seems to get better with each week.) Though I didn't see it to find out, he apparently also had some kind of role in "Saw IV." I guess a man's gotta eat.

Emily Gilmore
Did anyone know that Kelly Bishop actually won a Tony award in 1976, for Featured Actress in a Musical for her work as Sheila in "A Chorus Line"? I didn't until I was alerted to it by always-welcome reader Jeremy. Sadly, this truly classy broad has no work listed at the IMDB. How can that be?

Richard Gilmore
Long before he classed up "Gilmore Girls," Edward Herrmann could actually list "Lost Boys" among his many credits, playing, for those who can remember, the key role of Max. Post-"GG" he's had a stint on the sudsy "Grey's Anatomy" (which I don't watch) and then is listed for what must be a straight-to-DVD flick. Starring (I'm not making this up) Tom Arnold and Timothy Daly, "The Skeptic" is described thusly at the IMDB: "A man separates from his wife and young child and moves into a large Victorian house where strange, frightening occurrences take place. The question which teases the alert audience throughout this psychological thriller: Is this a haunting or a descent into madness!" (believe me, the exclamation point wasn't my addition.) Coincidentally, Richard Herrmann won a Tony Award in the same year as Kelly Bishop, for Featured Actor in a Play for his work in George Bernard Shaw's "Mrs. Warren's Profession."

Sookie St. James
Melissa McCarthy also landed right back on TV in a show I don't watch, "Samantha Who?" Judging from the commercials I've seen, the running joke on the show seems to be whether or not Kelly Bundy can call herself a virgin again now that she suffers from amnesia, but maybe the show has more subtle charms I'm just missing. McCarthy is also listed as one of the main stars of a movie called "Pretty Ugly People," which didn't even warrant a plot synopsis at the IMDB.

Michel St. Gerard
Yanic Truesdale, who played a snobby French Canadian so well because he is, well, a French Canadian, unfortunately has no acting credits listed after "Gilmore Girls."

Lane Kim
Keiko Agena and Emily Kuroda played my favorite "Gilmore Girls" characters, Lane Kim and her constantly watchful mother, known only as Mrs. Kim. Since "GG" wrapped, Keiko has voiced the character of Yori on Disney's "Kim Possible," but from there I'm afraid the news is not good. I've managed to make it until now without making any mention of "Major Movie Star," but since she has a small part in it I guess I have to. In a plot summary that, believe me, I couldn't possibly make up, Jessica Simpson will reach to play a ditsy movie star who, after getting in a car accident, somehow manages to enlist in the Army. Remember folks, I'm just the messenger.

Kirk Gleason
The only time I can remember seeing Sean Gunn's name in the news recently was when his brother and sister-in-law, James "Troma" Gunn and Jenna "America's sweetheart" Fischer announced they were getting a divorce. His only acting credit listed is for something called "Pants on Fire," which I can only hope is some kind of comedy.

Paris Geller
Though one of the many charms of "Gilmore Girls" was its outstanding ensemble cast, I've decided to wrap it up here at an even 10 with a look at Liza Weil. Long before "Gilmore Girls," she starred in what is still one of my favorite movies that no one has ever seen, Susan Skoog's great coming-of-age movie "Whatever," and now she's surprisingly busy. She has three upcoming credits listed at the IMDB: "Mars," an animated comedy about the discovery of life on the Red Planet and our race to land there; "Little Fish, Big Pond," which I know nothing about except for that it stars Matthew Modine; and "The Missing Person," which I can only assume is about, well, a missing person.

I could go on a lot longer with this, of course, but everybody knows that two of Rory's main beaus, Milo Ventamiglia and Jared Padalecki, can be seen each week on "Heroes" and "Supernatural," respectively. So, I'll leave you instead with this rather freakin' cool pic of Benicio del Toro all decked out as Che Guevara for Steven Soderbergh's "The Argentine," taken directly from his own fairly odd Web site, which you can find here. Peace out.

Monday, November 12, 2007

Coen brothers: Box office champs?

Like all things in life, that really depends on how you look at it. Jerry Seinfeld's "Bee Movie," of course, was the only slightly surprising overall box office champ, but the Coens won a key category in a big way (which will hopefully propel them into my little corner of the world this week.)

When a movie opens in limited release, per-screen average is often the only box-office component it can brag about. And in this key category, "No Country for Old Men" not only won the weekend but also amounted to the best Coens limited-release opening ever. Huzzah to that!

Here, and I certainly hope the multiplex owners take note of this wherever they see it, is the per-screen breakdown:

1. "No Country for Old Men": 28 screens, $42,928 average
2. "Holly": 1 screen, $35,000 average
3. "Om Shanti Om": 114 screens, $13,157 average
4. "American Gangster": 3,059 screens, $7,949 average
5. "Saawariya": 85 screens, $7,058 average
6. "Bee Movie": 3,944 screens, $6,952 average
7. "Fred Claus": 3,603 screens, $5,335 average
8. "War/Dance": 3 screens, $5,700 average
9. "Bella": 276 screens, $3,644 average
10. "Lions for Lambs": 2.215 screens, $3,029 average

Now, a couple more statistics might put this triumph into perspective. Although three other limited releases this fall had higher averages, they were for far fewer screens. Wes Anderson's rather disappointing "Darjeeling Limited" did a whopping $67,469 average when it opened in only two theaters, "Lust, Caution" (which they've advertised regularly at my multiplex but have yet to show, dammit) had a $63,910 average from one screen (so I guess that's a total rather than an average), and Sean Penn's "Into the Wild" averaged $53,110 on four screens. So, the Coens are in the same ballpark figure-wise while playing in a much bigger arena.

It's also worth looking at how well "No Country" did vs. previous Coens' films opening in limited release. "Fargo" averaged $20,285 in 36 theaters in 1996, and "O Brother, Where Art Thou?" (still my Coens' favorite) averaged $28,428 in five theaters in 2000.

I offer all that in hopes that, as promised, "No Country for Old Men" will indeed play NATIONWIDE, which means even in my little corner of the world, as promised this Friday.

And one final question that's just nagging at me: What in the world is "Holly"? It apparently stars Ron "Office Space" Livingston as a stolen artifacts dealer who works to rescue a 12-year-old Vietnamese girl (named, conveniently enough, Holly) from being sold into slavery in Cambodia. It's apparently part of something called the "K-11" project to make movies highlighting the epidemic of child-trafficking, but no matter what it is it's really just nice to see Mr. Livingston getting steady work.

Sunday, November 11, 2007

Lions for Lambs: Hardly a blunt instrument

Coincidentally enough, I had to go to work directly after seeing Robert Redford's far-too-ponderous "Lions for Lambs" and was confronted with an AP story pointing out that, with six soldiers dying Saturday in Afghanistan, this is now the deadliest year there for American troops since the invasion began. And in the minute or so it took me to read that story I learned much more than I did from Redford's flick.

Which, in many ways, is a tremendous shame. Though I read a lot of newspapers, with the New York Times and Washington Post (call me pinko if you want to) being my usual first choices, I usually skip right over the headlines about war and go right to the stories about the 2008 campaign. They just interest me more, as wrongheaded as that might be.

So, in a way I suppose I should be among the target audience for Redford's salvo in the war of (many, many) words, and I certainly get his point. How in the world could you miss it when it's made even less subtly than Laurence Fishburne running around campus at the end of "School Daze" (which for the record, I enjoyed a lot more than this flick) screaming "wake up!"

To beat us over the head with this mantra, Redford uses a quasi-real-time triptych of stories, which if he weren't so consumed with righteous anger would have made for a much more clever conceit. In the first, and best, storyline we get Tom Cruise (whose United Artists studio put this out) as a GOP senator and rising star who is pitching a new front in the war on terror to a reporter who has helped him out in the past, played with her usual finesse by Meryl Streep.

Just in case you somehow missed the point that he was supposed to represent our current president, Cruise's senator uses "enemy" constantly, just as Mr. Bush does to pitch his war on TV. What made this segment the most interesting was that, with Streep effectively playing the Judith Miller character in this game, it presented a plausible enough scenario about how the Media can get seduced into becoming a watchdog with no fangs.

From there, however, it just goes downhill fast. The second scenario? We essentially get Robert Redford as, well, Robert Redford, berating a student (played by Tom Garfield) who doesn't care enough about the future as he should. OK, fair enough, but if the student is supposed to represent us, that's exactly what we get: Robert Redford yelling at us to pay attention, and it's often even less entertaining than it sounds like it would be on paper.

And the third story goes from simply wordy to weird. As Cruise is pitching his new front in the war, it is seemingly simultaneously being put into action, with director Peter Berg leading the troops. Berg, of course, directed a much more entertaining flick about this subject, "The Kingdom," this year, which like "Lambs" was written by Matthew Michael Carnahan (which I assume is why Berg is in this to begin with.) In case you couldn't guess from the title "Lions for Lambs," the mission doesn't go too well, but I won't tell you any more than that in case you still want to see the movie.

As he did with "The Kingdom," Carnahan wraps up "Lions for Lambs" with a very clever punch, this one about the state of our Media. But the verbal torture you had to sit through to get there just wasn't worth suffering through for that little payoff.

Now, I can respect that Robert Redford is angry, and I can understand why. If he wanted, however, to win over any "hearts and minds" (as Cruise's character so mockingly puts it here), this certainly wasn't the way to do it.

Thursday, November 08, 2007

"Heroes:" An apology that doesn't help much at all

Those of you subscribe to Entertainment Weekly, which I probably should but don't, will find a bittersweet surprise inside the next issue from "Heroes" creator Tim Kring. It is, in fact, not only an acknowledgement that this season has pretty much sucked so far, but also - to his credit, I guess - an apology for making it so bad.

First, a brief look at what has made me mad about "Heroes" this year. First, Maya and Alejandro, considering their rather impressive slaying capability, are just two of the most boring characters on TV right now. How many times can we watch Maya's eyes go black without not wanting to claw out our own?

I've liked the other new "Hero," Monica (Dana Davis), a lot more, but - especially with the Kring bomb shell that comes near the end of this segment - I really fear they're selling us another empty storyline by putting her in New Orleans and then not having her use any or her rather remarkable powers to help the city that so badly needs her.

And what about everyone's favorite "Hero," Hiro? His "adventure" in feudal Japan has been a dud from the start, delivering almost no action and a "romance" with just no spark at all. Watching Ando read the scrolls describing it has been a lot more fun than Hiro's story itself, and that's just sad.

Well, it seems that Tim Kring knows all these things, which, frankly doesn't make me feel like much more than a sucker, but here's what he had to say.

''We assumed the audience wanted season 1 — a buildup of intrigue about these characters and the discovery of their powers. We taught [them] to expect a certain kind of storytelling. They wanted adrenaline. We made a mistake.'' Well, sort of. I'll take even a little bit of wonder just as much as I will more adrenaline, but some of both certainly couldn't hurt.

''We took too long to get to the big-picture story.'' I am with you there, but even worse was that Peter's discovery of the virus and what it did to the world seemed more than a bit tired, and the sets were clearly just left over from the nuked New York that was averted last season.

The new heroes ''shouldn't have been introduced in separate story lines that felt unattached to the show. The way we introduced Elle (Kristen Bell) — by weaving her in via Peter's story line — is a more logical way to bring new characters into the show.'' Excuse me, but Kristen Bell's character, after making one too-brief appearance, hasn't been weaved into the story at all in subsequent episodes, and the show would be better off, as I said, if Maya and Alejandro had just been omitted altogether.

Hiro's Japanese adventure ''should have [lasted] three episodes. We didn't give the audience enough story to justify the time we allotted it.'' Now that's an understatement. Worse than the fact that there was so little story there was that what story there was just boring.

And about Claire and West: ''I've seen more convincing romances on TV. In retrospect, I don't think romance is a natural fit for us.'' Well, it actually seems that romance just isn't a fit for you, which sounds more like personal problem to me. If you flashback to around the middle of season one or so you might remember when romance fit just fine on "Heroes," in a simply charming trio of episodes with Hiro and the waitress Charlie Andrews (Jayma Mays.) Those magical episodes, two of which Kring wrote, are among the show's best. And I, at least, like very much the story of Peter Petrelli and Caitlin (Katie Carr), so I hope the rather fantastic ending of the Nov. 5 episode doesn't mean she's gone for good.

The real bad news in Kring's confession: The big event for this season, which wasn't even introduced until the seventh episode, might somehow be wrapped up in even less than that. Faced with the sluggish ratings (down 15 percent from last year already), Kring and crew have apparently retooled the Dec. 3 episode as a season finale of sorts, in part at least because of the writers' strike (which I support wholeheartedly), but also to give fans a "clean slate" when it returns for a third season.

What the hell? So, are we just kind of supposed to forget this second season ever happened, like The Man with Horn-Rimmed Glasses just had his Haitian friend reach into our heads and yank it out? Unbelievable. Though Kring wouldn't admit so in his trip to the confessional, what the show is clearly missing most this year is Bryan Fuller, the co-executive producer for season one who left to create "Pushing Daisies," which in its brief run so far on ABC has all the magic that "Heroes" has clearly lost.

I'm gonna keep watching at least until your season 2 "finale," but I can't help feeling more than a little cheated in this whole game.

And finally, in case the strike has you down, here's a little insight with a little more humor from the writers and actors of "The Office" on the picket line. They make a rather strong case about just how they're getting screwed in this deal. Peace out.

Wednesday, November 07, 2007

OK, now it's personal: The strike

I've tried to mostly not comment on the WGA strike in this space, not because I don't support their walkout but because I didn't want to do anything to cheapen it by sounding off on something I'm not quite sure I fully understand. When it hits my favorite TV shows, however, it does bear remarking on.

So, what is this strike mess all about? Well, as best as I can tell, at the heart of the walkout, which started Monday, is the murky issue of digital distribution.

Thanks go out to Variety for explaining this in a way even I could grasp. The revenues in the digital realm right now are fairly minuscule, with major studios each taking in about $20 million annually from the different way movies can be downloaded. On the TV side, insiders estimate that the major networks are bringing in well under $100 million each vs. $22 billion spent on network TV advertising in the U.S. in 2006, according to TNS Media Intelligence.

OK, fair enough, but the writers (and some of the actors who work with them) are on the picket lines, rather wisely, about what this still fairly new medium will mean down the road rather than right now. They want any three-year deal they sign to include compensation for growth in this arena, and frankly I can't blame them one bit.

But that's not really what this is all about here. I'm really only concerned with entertainment, and more specifically, the lack of it that will quickly be coming if this goes on for any length of time. It's still been easy to tune out as reports have trickled in about shows closing down, but now they've taken down my No. 1: "The Office" is shutting down.

According to the always extremely reliable James Hibberd at TV Week, "Office" showrunner Greg Daniels has joined the picket line at his production company.

“We’re trying to shut down ‘The Office,’” Mr. Daniels said. “We have the star of our show and the entire writing staff behind us.”

On "The Office," that means even more than it might for other shows, because many in the cast, including B.J.Novak (Ryan Howard, but not the Phillies slugger), Mindy Kaling (Kelly Kapoor) and Paul Lieberstein (Toby Flenderson), also write for the show. "Office" boss Steve Carell, a WGA member, has also apparently not been punching in either.

What else does this mean, in the bigger picture? Well, reality TV, among its many ignominious accomplishments, has managed to render writers obsolete, so production of that can go on ad infinitum. CBS has announced, not coincidentally in the least, this week that "Big Brother" No. whatever will go into production early and premiere as soon as February. Good grief.

Given the complexities of this, I really can't see it ending quickly, but one can always hope. After all, what could possibly be more important than offering me one half-hour a week of sublime entertainment (sarcasm yes, but I'm more than a little serious too.)

On the lighter side, Joss Whedon reports that any of you "Buffy" and "Angel" fans who happen to live in L.A. can do some starwatching, as Alyson Hannigan currently of "How I Met Your Mother" and David Boreanaz of "Bones" have joined the picket line outside of Fox. You see, there really is a silver lining in everything, I guess.

Year of the rat

I never really believed that Pixar would suffer from having a rat as the star of its last summer offering, even if little kids (including, of course, me) were just frightened out of our wits by the first 10 minutes or so. After that stretch, as we now all well know, "Ratatouille" turns into an utterly charming flick and easily one of my favorites for the year, and it arrives this week on DVD with an extra bonus in tow.

I had heard rumblings about Pixar assembling all the shorts that proceed its movies onto one DVD, but didn't realize it was gonna happen so soon. Available now, separately from the "Ratatouille" DVD, is "Pixar Short Films Collection - Volume 1." It assembles the 13 Pixar shorts released so far, including at least one spun off from "Cars," "Mater and the Ghostlight," that I haven't seen yet (but, since "Cars" is easily Pixar's worst flick, I'm not sure how excited I can get about a short inspired by it centered on Larry the Cable Guy.)

As for the "Ratatouille" DVD, I can't get my hands on it fast enough.

Into the "Mist": A Web-only trailer

The more I see of Frank Darabont's upcoming "The Mist," the more I start to worry that it just might suck. I mean, I'm not sure you can kill the great Andre Braugher any faster than they did in that simply unnecessary "Poseidon" remake, but it does indeed seem from this latest trailer that he might be fulfilling the black guy's traditional role in horror films by dying very early. I hope I'm wrong about that, and about the movie itself. Enjoy the trailer, and have an entirely bearable Wednesday.

Tuesday, November 06, 2007

Into the Wild: A hard way to go

I really wanted to love "Into the Wild," and I did like it, but there was one central obstacle at its core that kept me from fully embracing the movie: Christopher McCandless, for all the lionization he received from Sean Penn in this often visually stunning movie, was, in my view, a spoiled and extremely selfish brat.

Now, I concede that that has as much to do with me as the movie itself, but it is a major drawback when you can't get past the gnawing feeling that this kid who's smiling back at you during his cross-country journey is as much a smug bastard as he is simply a misguided youth. Now, I understand that young Mr. McCandless didn't do anything at all criminal, but I couldn't help but get a similarly creeped-out sensation as to the one I had while watching "Capturing the Friedmans." That movie, however, lingered with me for a long time, and I know that Sean Penn's challenging film will too.

In order to continue what is quickly developing into a tirade, but which I assure you will eventually get to the many charms of this flick, I'm just going to have to assume that you have either seen it or are at least a little familiar with the story of the West Virginia native who turned into an ill-fated modern-day Thoreau. If you haven't seen it and want to, and I do encourage everyone to do so, you only have until Thursday to do it in Macon.

So, why did I have so much trouble watching young Mr. McCandless disintegrate on-screen? After all, I like to think I have a little wanderlust left in my soul. I have every intention of returning to South Africa for the 2010 World Cup, for example.

I guess I turned on our hero so early in this movie when he dismissed so quickly the accomplishment of graduating from Emory University, something his parents must surely have contributed to at least financially in some form. In short order he gives away all his money, burns all his identification and sets out across the country, leaving behind all the people who loved him. Now, as Penn lays out and, since they cooperated with the movie, I have to assume is true, his parents were a bad match from the start who passed many of their issues on to their offspring. But he also left behind a sister who clearly loved him unconditionally, and her narration in the film gives it much of its emotional wallop.

OK, enough about our (for me, at least anti-) hero. What about the movie itself? Well, for someone who supposedly hates America, Penn has constructed, in McCandless' journey, a visual valentine to this country. And the many people who try and reach out to McCandless, played with determination by Emile Hirsch, are almost universally full of love and the will to stop him from completing his journey to oblivion.

In vision and tone, it is certainly a big step forward for Penn as a director. Like Terrence Malick with thankfully more appreciation for the story he is telling, he clearly has enough love of nature's beauty to give us a sense, no matter how misguided he was, of what would drive McCandless to do this.

And the people he meets are all colorful characters played with style by actors I love. It makes it all that much harder watching the great Catherine Keener, as a hippie living in Slab City when she's not motoring around with hubby (at least, I think they were married) Rainey, played by Brian Dierker (apparently a ski shop owner making his first movie appearance.) To watch her unburden all her troubles to McCandless (who calls himself Alexander Supertramp for much of the movie) and to hear him then later talk about how meaningless human ties are was just painful to watch.

But the real gut shot comes near the end as Hal Holbrook, like you've never seen him before, makes a last-ditch effort to save McCandless. It's in this final, and yes, I'll say it, transcendent, chapter of McCandless' life that Penn's movie is at its strongest. Extreme spoiler alert: Don't read this sentence if you haven't seen the movie: Seeing McCandless slowly write out the lesson he should have learned well before his pretty pathetic end was the first thing that - yes, I'll admit it - made me cry a little during a movie this year. Hal Holbrook should start preparing his Supporting Actor Oscar speech now.

In summary of a review/rant that turned out much longer than I originally intended, Sean Penn's often-great movie lays out the journey of a truly troubled soul and lets you make your own decision (as I clearly did) about his choices. It's a challenging movie, and one I encourage everyone to experience in its big-screen beauty while you still can.

Monday, November 05, 2007

"American Gangster:" American classic

Anyone who visits here from time to time already knows that I often get way too excited about movies, way too long before they even approach the multiplex.

Why? Well, first because I just love reading and writing about movies, but second because, when I manage to believe all the hype I do my minuscule part to create, it makes it just that much more sweet when it turns out to be true.

It happened once this summer with "Ratatouille," which was even better than I could have imagined. And now it's happened with "American Gangster," a flick which it seems like I've been excited about for three years now and is so good that it's knocked Brad Bird's delightful movie right out of the top spot.

I tell you all that as a lead-in to this warning: This won't be a review as much as a rave, because I loved just about every minute of Ridley Scott's best movie yet (and I say that as someone who hasn't always liked his movies as much as the rest of the world; "Blade Runner" is just as good as everyone claims it is, but "Gladiator" was average at best in my book.)

So, what's so great about "American Gangster," for the few people out there who haven't seen it yet (it took in a rather whopping $46.3 million at the box office in week one.)

What I liked most was the pacing. As we're introduced to the slowly converging paths of heroin kingpin Frank Lucas (Denzel Washington) and do-gooder cop Richie Roberts (Russell Crowe), Scott wisely keeps the scenes to no more than a couple of minutes each, and moves fluidly between the two worlds. Until the inevitable bullet barrage that brings it all crashing down, Scott never resorts to the shaky jump-cuts that the kids who have followed him use to substitute for real urgency, instead just letting the story unfold at it own pace. The final effect, while not quite - as Washington Post critic Stephen Hunter said - making its 2:20 seem like 40 minutes, is still a rousing tale very well told.

And just as much credit for that goes to screenwriter Steven Zaillian, who has worked with Scott previously on "Hannibal" and also managed long ago to write and direct another of my favorite movies, "Searching for Bobby Fischer." He and Scott make it clear through their actions rather than any way-too-wordy speeches that what bonds Lucas and Roberts is their moral code, even if they use that to rather different ends. It's what makes the ending, which still manages to be a bit jarring, easier to swallow.

But no great American gangster flick (and yes, I will go so far to put this one in the same arena with the first two "Godfather" movies or any of the great '30s movies and believe it will be able to hold its own) would be complete without its own "Is this the end of Rico?" moment. Scott's is admittedly rather cheesy, but it just worked for me. Spoiler alert: If you haven't seen the movie, skip this sentence: For Lucas' character, being cuffed on the steps of his church, with his family being herded back inside so they won't have to watch, is just as ignominious an end as dying in the gutter.

Before I end this admittedly one-sided love letter to "American Gangster," a word or two about the casting is in order. At its center this is a very elaborately constructed movie about two men, and they will indeed square off again in February on Oscar night. By a nose, I'd have to give the edge to Denzel, who will certainly be taking home the first Best Actor statue he deserves, rather than awarded to make up for past omissions.

But the supporting cast as well was full of pleasant surprises. Idris Elba of "The Wire" makes an early appearance as one of Frank's rivals, and another HBO vet, John Hawkes, who played Sol Star on "Deadwood," is here as one Roberts' key recruits in his anti-drug crusade. Others who make the most of little screen time (and who I always like to see) include Jon Polito, Carla Gugino, Joe Morton (wearing the world's cheesiest wig) and, in one of his best appearances outside of the movies of Spike Lee, Roger Guenveur Smith as Lucas' cousin and connection to the heroin that would build his empire.

Actors who have for years now only annoyed me on the big screen, Cuba Gooding Jr. and T.I., also manage to turn in solid performances (perhaps a fork in the road and a return to the right direction for Mr. Gooding, who is sensational as rival gangster Nicky Barnes.) And finally, a word of apology to Ruby Dee, who plays Lucas' mother: I thought you had died shortly after your husband, the great Ossie Davis, as happens with so many devoted couples, but I was certainly happy to find out I was wrong this time.

If none of this convinces you to go see this one, there's probably nothing else I can say, so I'll just cut this off and head out to see "Into the Wild." Peace out.

Saturday, November 03, 2007

"Bee Movie": Much abuzz about nothing

I apologize for that not-terribly-clever headline, but I offer it to kind of prove a point: It's about as funny as most of what you'll encounter in Jerry Seinfeld's "Bee Movie."

Which is a real shame, 'cause for the first fifteen minutes or so it's thoroughly charming and, more importantly, funny. Life in the hive, dominated by the leviathan Honex corporation (producing, of course, honey), makes for a rapid succession of very funny jokes about the life span of bees, working for your whole life, etc. With a lot more focus this could have been a kind of bee "Office Space," but alas it was not to be.

Because this flick thinks it has to be a lot more than that, our hero, Barry B. Benson (voiced with less than his usual smugness by Mr. Seinfeld) has to leave the hive, and that's where things fall apart. As my mind often does when movies start to lose its attention, I drifted to other movies I've had a beef with, in this case Tim Burton's thoroughly unnecessary "Charlie and the Chocolate Factory," but in reverse. What they both lacked after brilliant openings, as "Bee Movie" left the factory and Burton's "Charlie" went into it, was almost any sense of wonder at all.

Now, I understand that (with big help from Larry David and others) Mr. Seinfeld created a sitcom that was "about nothing," and managed to make a very funny one at that. To make an entertaining 90-minute animated movie about nothing, which he tried to do here, would be no mean feat, but despite being intermittently funny throughout it really doesn't even come close.

What's the big drama once our hero Barry leaves the hive? A lawsuit, and believe it or not, it's even less compelling on screen than you could possibly imagine it would be, despite the best efforts of John Goodman as the opposing attorney. Barry, of course, also meets and becomes smitten with a florist voiced by Renee Zellweger, who I'll return to later with, I'm warning you now, some venom.

First, a word about the overall look of "Bee Movie" which, again outside of the hive, is just depressingly generic. If you've seen Miyazaki's "Kiki's Delivery Service" (and if you haven't, why not), try not to think too much about young Kiki soaring over Miyazaki's majestic landscapes of Europe as you watch Barry and the "pollen jockeys" flying over the CGI, paint-by-numbers version of what is somehow supposed to be New York City in "Bee Movie."

What this newfangled animation does to scenery, however, is far less destructive than what it does to people, specifically poor Ms. Zellweger as the florist Vanessa. As animators try to make their human characters more real, it just gets more and more perverse, in this case turning Vanessa's face into what Ms. Zellweger's looks like each time directly after she's sucked off the pounds put on for a "Bridget Jones" movie. Not pretty. It doesn't help that Vanessa's voice and mannerisms just make you want to choke her and end it all.

So, as you can tell, I really didn't care too much at all for "Bee Movie," but before I go I'd like to offer a special note of encouragement to the very young lady who, as her mother informed us before the movie started, was enjoying (or not) her first moviegoing experience with this one. Take heart, young one, because there are much better flicks than "Bee Movie" out there for you to behold. For a start, have your mom rent "Ratatouille" next Tuesday to see what a wonder great animation can really be, though you might want to have her fast-forward through the rather scary opening sequence.

As for me, there's a hopefully much better movie in my immediate future, with a screening of Ridley Scott's "American Gangster" at noon. Peace out.