Thursday, January 31, 2008

Is Jared Hess still a funny guy?

Although I haven't much at all liked anything Jon Heder has done since "Napoleon Dynamite" (except for maybe his voice work in "Monster House"), I think I'll always have time for creator Jared Hess.

I know he lost more than a few people with the super-silly "Nacho Libre," which is really a litmus test of just how much Jack Black you can stand, but I laughed my way through just about all of that one (even at those hairy little midget wrestlers, as wrong as that was.)

And now Mr. Hess is back with a story that, if not a little autobiographical, at least seems to be perfectly tailored to his natural geek sensibility. Sam Rockwell, Michael Angarano and Jemaine Clement (I can't say I've ever heard of the last two dudes) are set to star in "Gentlemen Broncos," which is about a high school outcast (natch!) who attends a fantasy writers' convention and gets his story ripped off by a legendary novelist (I'm kinda laughing at that already.)

Angarano plays the teen, while Clement is the author named Ronald Chevalier. Rockwell will play the fictional story's title character who appears in book-come-to-life sequences under two guises: one in the teen's story and one in the author's story.

Though he's doing it rather quietly, it's hard not to be impressed with what Hess and co-conspirator (and very funnyman) Mike White are doing here. Their comedies will never be as racy (or probably as funny) as the stuff coming from Camp Apatow, but I'm glad there's room in the world for directors who can make clean (Hess is a Mormon, in case anyone didn't know) but still solidly entertaining flicks without preaching to us about the filth that too often makes up the rest of our entertainment slate. 'Nuff said.

Can't the body get cold first?

I read the New York Times for many reasons, but it's never better than in its obituaries of complicated people, and the recent one for chessman extraordinaire Bobby Fischer was one of the best in many years.

As most everyone already knows, and as wrong as it is to speak ill of the dead, Fischer was both a genius and too often a right proper prick. Turning his back on the United States after his big victory over Boris Spassky in the World Championship in 1972, Fischer went into hiding and emerged from time to time to unleash increasingly virulent tirades about Jews (none of which I'd ever bother to reprint here.)

Sounds like a natural choice for the hero of a biopic right? Even so, Universal and Working Title have signed Kevin MacDonald of "Last King of Scotland" fame to direct "Bobby Fischer Goes to War," which will focus on Fischer's showdown with Spassky and hopefully a lot more. The flick is scripted by Shawn Slovo, son of the ANC activist and writer of the extremely underrated "Catch a Fire" (please watch this South African flick on DVD if it's somehow passed you by thus far.)

All this will have to come after MacDonald completes filming "State of Play" with Russell Crowe, Ben Affleck and Helen Mirren (hearty huzzah!), but once they finally get started, I certainly don't think you could do much better for a Fischer than Mark Ruffalo. Any other suggestions?

Sci-Fi seeks "Sanctuary"

Mostly because I'm a techno-phobe who clings to fading gadgets with ferocity (I still, for example, don't have a cell phone, and don't see any particular need for one), I have yet to watch one single TV program on the Web (unless you count the very funny stuff being made by Michael Cera and Clark Duke here.)

Which surely means I've missed out on some cool stuff. "Sanctuary," which is about to be ripped from the Web and brought to us old-fashioned folks via our TV boxes by the Sci Fi Channel, certainly fits that bill.

The show, which will be the first television series to use live-action actors against virtual sets in the style of "300" and "Sin City," hails from the creators of "Stargate SG-1" and is about an enigmatic doctor on a quest to track down, aid and protect strange creatures that walk the Earth (I often think I'm one of those, but I'll have to assume they mean something a bit more, well, extraterrestrial.)

Sci Fi has ordered a full 13-story arc, and it sounds like a lot of fun to me. And now, if you'll excuse me, I have to read through, spell-check and perhaps add photos to this before Blogger goes down in about T-12 minutes. Peace out.

Wednesday, January 30, 2008

When bad movies happen to good people

This may seem like an odd choice for a list, but it came to me as I surveyed the rather depressing slate of new releases this weekend in wide-release world.

Though I can finally, and will, go see "There Will Be Blood" again, the other choices just do nothing but make me cringe, which in two cases is a real shame because the flicks star two people who I really like.

Paul Rudd almost managed to walk away with "Knocked Up" even though he was surrounded by a slew of very funny people, but I just don't think there's any way I'll be able to watch him sleepwalk through "Over My Dead Body" this weekend. Likewise, Steve Zahn's performance as Glenn Michaels in "Out of Sight" stands up as one of my favorites, but is there really anything that can be good about "Strange Wilderness," which, as far as I can tell, appears to be a stoner comedy about Bigfoot?

This dose of the January movie blues got me to thinking about actors and actresses I usually like and their most regrettable (in my eyes, at least) movie roles. Here goes:

Billy Bob Thornton
Just how bad was Billy Bob in "School for Scoundrels"? I think the answer can be summed up thusly: Even worse than Jon Heder, who has been basically playing an increasingly lame version of "Napoleon Dynamite" since that extremely likable flick thrust him upon the world. There's just not one good thing I can say about this thoroughly unnecessary Todd Phillips remake, so please don't rent it for any reason whatsoever.

Kirsten Dunst
It feels a little rotten to pick on Ms. Dunst so severely, but a look through her movie resume turned up three movie I just can't stand, even though I still do like her most of the times she turns up in movies. The big three: "Spider-Man 3," in which she looked just as miserable as everyone else in Sam Raimi's disaster; "Marie Antoinette," which was just one of the most empty movies I've seen in many, many years, and "Elizabethtown." In regards to the latter, I have just one question: How in the world could you (the formerly great Cameron Crowe) manage to make a movie in which Kirsten Dunst flirts on the phone whilst taking a bath, and still manage to have it just suck from start to finish?

Tim Roth and Naomi Watts
OK, I haven't seen "Funny Games," Michael Haneke's English-language remake of his own movie, yet, but I've seen the rather wretched trailer so many times now that it feels like I've seen the flick at least twice. I'll never bother to see the real thing, so if you do and there's some redeeming value here that I'm just missing please let me know.

Vince Vaughn and Jennifer Aniston
Did anyone enjoy "The Break-Up"? When it comes to romantic "comedies" I usually have little time for flicks that delight the masses, but here's one case where just about everyone I know just hated watching Vince and Jen yell at each other for 90 minutes. Just an amazingly bad movie.

Paul Giamatti
OK, we're getting into a stretch here of people who it really pains me to include on this list, but when you appear in a movie as bad as "Lady in the Water" I really can't give you a pass. Granted, Mr. Giamatti did work very hard to try and save this, but M. Night's "fairy tale" just had very little wonder to it at all and was, frankly, just a tremendous bore.

Samuel L. Jackson
I decided to give both Sam the man and Christina Ricci a pass for "Black Snake Moan" because, as much as I just detested that Craig Brewer movie, I'm willing to concede that maybe I just didn't get it. With "Freedomland," however, I can state unequivocally that Mr. Jackson just made a horrendous choice. Richard Price has written some fairly great books, but this flick which also starred Julianne Moore just had no business ever getting made.

Catherine Keener
I love Catherine Keener more than just about any actress (except for maybe Laura Linney) in the entire world, but Nicole Holofcener's "Friends With Money" just made me want to claw my own eyes out to make it stop. The duo have made two much better movies in "Lovely & Amazing" and "Walking and Talking," and they're set to collaborate again soon on something that's still just called an "untitled Nicole Holofcener project," so there's plenty of great stuff coming and already here to help wipe this blight from my memory.

Audrey Tautou
I made a pledge to myself to never watch "The Da Vinci Code" which I unfortunately broke once the movie came out on DVD. I really have to learn to trust my instincts a lot more, because although the movie as a whole was one big stinker, watching Amelie just mope her way through it made it all the more painful to watch.

And there you have it. Two that didn't make the cut simply because I still have to end this at some point and go to my paying job were Penelope Cruz in "Vanilla Sky" and Owen Wilson in "The Darjeeling Limited." Please feel free to add any movies that have just made stars you like look really bad, and let me know if there's any reason at all to go see either "Over Her Dead Body" or "Strange Wilderness" this weekend. Peace out.

Monday, January 28, 2008

Del Toro set to do "Hobbit" double-take

Before I get to what can only be called rather insanely good news, I have a question: Is there any way a baby being thrown to its death in a pit can be funny? Judging from the poster for "Meet the Spartans," at least, I have to assume someone thinks so, since the central image does indeed appear to be a woman with a shaved head (making her Britney, of course) being thrown into a pit with her newborn child. And this beat "Rambo" at the box office? Sheesh.

But I didn't bother seeing either of them, so enough of that. There's much better news in the world, starting with the fact that just about everyone's top choice (I would have taken Alfonso Cuaron too) has stepped forward and is about to sign on to direct two "Hobbit" movies for producer Peter Jackson.

With Jackson passing on the director's chair to focus on "The Lovely Bones" and then "Tintin," the honor is indeed about to go to Guillermo del Toro. The final piece of the puzzle will be to name a writer if and when the strike ends, after which both del Toro and Jackson will also be heavily involved in the writing.

And, of course, that means New Line and friends are set to shell out some mad cash to make this happen. The films, which will be shot simultaneously in 2009 for releases in 2010 and 2011, will have a combined budget of about $300 million.

The only question this doesn't resolve is why in the world do we need two movies? If I have this right (and, for once, I'm pretty sure I do), the first movie will tell the entire tale of Bilbo, Gandalf, the dwarves and Smaug. The second movie, which sounds much more iffy, will apparently attempt to fill the gap between the end of "The Hobbit" and the beginning of "The Lord of the Rings," which Tolkein would write 17 years later.

This just sounds like an extreme act of hubris, but I guess if they were really to pull it off and make something entertaining the accomplishment would be all the more remarkable. And, assuming this deal gets signed, I couldn't think of any more capable hands for it to be in.

More Miyazaki on the way (slowly)

It seems like the great Hayao Miyazaki has been working on his latest movie, "Ponyo" (or maybe "Ponyo on a Cliff"), for many years now, but an end is finally in sight.

According to Variety Japan, the release date in Japan has been set for the middle of July, most likely the 19th. It doesn't say when the usual English voice-over version will be ready, but hopefully fairly soon after that.

So, what in the world is "Ponyo" about? As far as I can tell, the plot centers on a goldfish princess named Ponyo who desperately wants to be a human. In pursuing her goal, she befriends a 5-year-old human boy, Sōsuke (based on Miyazaki's son, Goro, when he was 5.)

All I know beyond that so far is that the animation will be done in watercolor style, as the photo at left shows. More details are expected to spill out after the Tokyo Animation Fair at the end of March, so definitely stay tuned.

"Mad Men" back in business!

According to TV Guide, thanks to an interim deal between the WGA and Lionsgate, writers for AMC's "Mad Men" are now set to get started on scripts for season 2.

"This is excellent news for us," Rich Sommer (Harry) told TV Guide. "It means that on Monday the writers' room opens. It was supposed to open Nov. 7, and now it’s opening Jan. 28. It means we’re going to be back before anyone else."

Well, maybe not anyone else. At least 12 studios (including the Weinsteins and Marvel) have struck their own deals with the writers, which can only raise hopes that an overall deal will soon be in the works. Even if not, the fact that AMC's extremely smart and entertaining show is headed back to the airwaves can only be good news.

Who's the coolest chick in the world?

Although there's probably a much more polite way to put that, the answer at this point certainly has to be Marion Cotillard.

Not only is she, of course, nominated for an Oscar (for "La Vie en Rose," which I haven't had the pleasure of seeing yet), but now she gets to be John Dillinger's moll, Billie Frechette, in Michael Mann's "Public Enemies." Which of course means she'll be draped on the arm of Johnny Depp.

Mann has now pretty much assembled all the members of Dillinger's team. Channing Tatum will play Pretty Boy Floyd, Giovanni Ribisi will be Alvin Karpis, Stephen Dorff will play Homer Van Meter and Jason Clarke will be John "Red" Hamilton. Already announced as their chief pursuer will be Christian Bale as FBI man Melvin Purvis.

Finally, a superhero I can believe in

After this summer's "Wall-E," which is shaping up to be pretty cool itself, Pixar will release "Up" and unleash on the world the first (as far as I know) septuagenarian superhero. Since I almost always eat dinner before 5 p.m., I can certainly get inspired by this tentative tag line: "Our hero travels the globe, fights beasts and villains, and eats dinner at 3:30 in the afternoon." Here's a pic that's on display at Disney's Hollywood Studios in Orlando, Fla. Enjoy, and have an entirely bearable Monday. Peace out.

Friday, January 25, 2008

All hail the Drive-By Truckers: A video tribute

As I too rapidly get older, I've found it's much easier to keep up with movies than it is music, though I love them both. I couldn't tell you what's hip on the radio now if you put a gun to my head, and I'm really not sure I would want to.

But one thing I've managed to stay sure of for the past five years or so is that the Drive-By Truckers just kick royal ass every single time they manage to release an album, as they did again this week with the seriously satisfying "Brighter than Creation's Dark."

When I first found them (or more correctly, my brother did and demanded that I catch up), they had put together a 2-CD "Southern Rock Opera" that sort of works as a tribute to Lynyrd Skynyrd (and really, why not?). Since then my favorite Truckers' album (and I'm sure many other people's too) has been "Decoration Day," and I've managed to see them live 5-10 times now, the best times being at their home at the fabulous 40 Watt Club, surrounded by adoring kids and standing in about an inch of standing liquid that I hope was mostly beer.

So, rather than talk about any of the craptastic movies opening wide this week (I love Diane Lane to death, but I'm not gonna watch yet another movie about a guy who tries to kill people on the Internet), here's a video tribute to what I seriously think you can call the greatest rock band in the world (Rolling Stones be damned, at this point.)

Keep your drawers on, girl, it ain't worth the fight
The Cooley track "Zip City" is easily my favorite Drive-By Truckers song, and, in spite of its rather negative portrayal of the plight of teen girls in the South, I've been surprised by just how many women really like it too.

"Bon Scott singing Let There Be Rock"
If you ever have the pleasure of seeing "Let There Be Rock" performed live, be careful not to look too closely at the people all around you, because I can assure that that many white kids in one place, almost all giving the hook' em horns sign and bobbing their heads in unison, can indeed be more than a little frightening. That said, this would have to be the Truckers' signature song, and I still love it every time I hear it.

"Some people stop living long before they die"
The audio's a little shoddy on this performance of "The Living Bubba," which purports to be from Jason Isbell's last show with the band before he chose the wrong solo path and is now fading into oblivion. A tribute to Gregory Dean Smalley, an Atlanta musician who died of AIDS, it's a sweet song that just happens to rock balls too.

"American boys hate to lose"
The Truckers' new CD, "Brighter than Creation's Dark," has several good songs about the Iraq war, including Patterson Hood's searing "The Man I Shot," but their greatest war song, and frankly one of the best I've ever heard, is "Dress Blues." This clip has been viewed more than 34,000 times at Youtube, so hopefully Jason Isbell's song about a fallen friend has touched more than a few people.

And there you have it. Hopefully everyone's Friday goes just a little bit better with a solid dose of rock. Peace out.

Thursday, January 24, 2008

What will become of Heath's other movie?

You won't hear anything from me, even when any definite word comes down, about what exactly killed Heath Ledger because, frankly, it's just really none of my damn business.

But what is my business (as much as volunteer work can be labeled such) is talking about movies, and Mr. Ledger left behind two potentially great ones in the works, and a third that was yet to really begin.

First and foremost, of course, is "The Dark Knight." Warner Bros. had been putting together the next phase of a marketing campaign that would have focused on Mr. Ledger's work as The Joker (and if you've seen that trailer, I'm sure you know why; it's pretty friggin' amazing.) I can only assume this approach will be either scrapped or at least modified, but we'll have to wait and see.

Of more interest to me is "The Imaginarium of Dr. Parnassus," which could either turn into another epic failure for snakebit director Terry Gilliam or maybe be salvaged to make a pretty compelling flick.

As many might know, this isn't the first time that Gilliam has run into trouble on a fairly big-budget flick ("Parnassus" had (has?) a surprisingly large $30 million behind it.) Gilliam's quixotic attempts to film "The Man Who Killed Don Quixote" with stars Johnny Depp and the great Jean Rochefort (who, I found through a quick IMDB check, is indeed alive and still working at age 77) never got too far off the ground, but it did result in a fairly amusing Keith Fulton and Luis Pepe documentary about the process titled "Lost in La Mancha" (definitely recommended if you haven't seen it.)

And now, at least according to an anonymous source in Us magazine (via, the worst may happen to Gilliam yet again.

"I just got the call [Tuesday] saying everyone was being let go," the on-set source said. "We were supposed to start this weekend, but obviously they fired everyone today. They don't know yet what they are doing with the footage that was already shot," the source added.

Who knows if that's true, but I'd have to imagine at least 90 percent of the people who put up that $30 million did so for a movie starring Heath Ledger, who was the film's only extremely bankable star.

The pic wrapped the London leg of its shoot last Saturday. The production team has moved to Vancouver, Canada, where blue-screen work was due to start next week and continue until early March.

So, what in the world would this flick be about? Well, it certainly sounds like pure, perfect Gilliam, so here's hoping they're somehow able to salvage this project.

Here's what I know of the plot: 1,000-year-old Doctor Parnassus (Christoper Plummer) leads a traveling theater troupe and offers audience members a chance to go beyond reality through a magical mirror in his possession, a talent he has acquired through a deal with the devil (Tom Waits, natch.) Beelzebub, as is his wont, eventually comes to collect on his debt, targeting the doctor's daughter (model Lily Cole). The troupe, who is joined by a mysterious outsider (Ledger), embarks through parallel worlds to rescue the girl.

I'm not sure you could make this sad story any worse, but along with starring in the Gilliam flick, Mr. Ledger was apparently, as every actor seems destined to do, also about to start working on directing his first feature film, "The Queen's Gambit," based on a novel by Walter Tevis. Oscar nominee Ellen Page had been offered the lead role of a young female chess prodigy, but any work on this has obviously ground to a halt.

And, except for any further talk about "The Dark Knight" or the possible salvaging of "The Imaginarium of Dr. Parnassus," this is hopefully the last you'll ever from me about the late Mr. Ledger. It's just not a subject I enjoy writing about, so I'm gonna move on now to much better news ...

There's a new Drive-By Truckers' album!

The world's greatest rock band, Athens, Georgia's own Drive-By Truckers, has this week released a rather epic, 19 track album called "Brighter than Creation's Dark," and though it's clearly going to take me a lot more than the two listens I've given it so far to digest it all, I can thankfully report that it's pretty damn good.

Though with that many songs it's of course all over the map, the songs this time, still primarily from Patterson Hood and the Stroke Ace Mike Cooley, are a lot more intimate than most of what appeared on "Dirty South." Bassist Shonna Tucker even steps up to pen three tracks and sing the lead on a fourth.

If you use Itunes, which I just recently started doing so I'll never in my life have to give another damn dollar to Best Buy for CDs, you can download the whole mess for like $11.

My favorite track so far is Cooley's "Self-Destructive Zones," with Hood's closer "Monument Valley" a close second. As best as I can tell, "Zones" might be an autobiographical tale about the duo's attempts to start a band in the era of grunge, and it features nuggets like this: "Caught between a generation dying from its habits, and another thinking rock and roll was new." Definitely check this one out for yourself.

The trailer for Tyler Perry's "Meet the Browns"

In what's surely much more than a coincidence, there are two black family reunion movies coming out at just about the same time fairly soon.

Martin Lawrence will surely be hamming it up as a successful talk show host who leaves Los Angeles to reunite with his family in the Deep South in Malcolm Lee's "Welcome Home Roscoe Jenkins." Lawrence, a very funny guy, is sorely due for a solidly funny and entertaining movie, so I'm hoping against hope that this is it.

A much better bet, however, is the rather similarly plotted offering from Tyler Perry, "Meet the Browns," set to come out in March. In it, Angela Bassett (a hearty, hearty huzzah!) plays the single mother of two who returns to Georgia from Chicago when she gets a letter informing her that the father she never knew has died. In the ensemble you'll also get Perry stage regulars David and Tamela Mann, and even former L.A. Laker Rick Fox. This being a Tyler Perry movie (which is always fine by me), expect a lot of laughing, crying and, of course, drama. Enjoy the trailer, and have a perfectly bearable Thursday. Peace out.

Wednesday, January 23, 2008

Oscar-winner Norbit? I couldn't make this up

Now I didn't bother to see "Norbit," a k a Eddie Murphy's ultra-classy career move directly after getting his first acting Oscar nomination, but believe it or not - if you look deep enough - you'll indeed find it buried in Tuesday's Oscar nominations.

Facing off with the folks behind the maquillage in "La Vie en Rose" and "Pirates of the Caribbean: At World's End" in the Achievement in Makeup category, Rick Baker and Kazuhiro Tsuji have a solid chance of walking away with one of those little statues primarily for, well, putting Eddie Murphy in a fat suit. Sheesh.

In much better news about a much more worthy nominee, cinematographer Roger Deakins has pulled off an impressive double dip that we haven't seen since 1971.

The cinematographer's nominations for "No Country for Old Men" and "The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford" are the first double in the category since Robert Surtees was nominated for "The Last Picture Show" and "Summer of '42."

Nominated five times previous to this year, Deakins is best known as the primary cinematographer for the Coens, having filmed nine of their movies thus far (and how in the world did he not win an Oscar for the wild look of "O Brother Where Art Thou?"), but among his other various credits you'll also find great flicks like John Sayles' "Passion Fish," Frank Darabont's "Shawshank Redemption" and Martin Scorsese's "Kundun."

This year, his competition comes from (besides himself): Seamus McGarvey for "Atonement," Janusz Kaminski for "The Diving Bell and the Butterfly" and Robert Elswit for "There Will Be Blood."

Of those, I haven't seen "The Diving Bell and the Butterfly" or "The Assassination of Jesse James By the Coward Robert Ford," and "There Will Be Blood" certainly had a singular look to it, but no movie left a stronger or longer-lasting visual impression on me in 2007 than "No Country for Old Men," so here's hoping this artist finally gets the recognition he clearly deserves.

New hope for an end to the strike?

"Ironic" is a term I've tried to stop using too often because I'm fairly certain I use it incorrectly, but it would certainly seem to fit the latest development in the WGA strike.

As the scribes have stood strong in the picket line, the leeches who produce reality TV have jumped into the void with zeal, filling my TV set with simply unwatchable crap. Now, in what can only be called fair play in my book, it seems that in informal talks Tuesday that will hopefully lead to solid negotiations, the writers have dropped a demand to unionize the folks who create reality fare (the fine folks in the animated division apparently got cut loose too, unfortunately.)

And in another hopefully promising development, both sides have agreed to a "news blackout" until some deal can be reached. Now, people, can't we all just get along?

Why is this advertised at my multiplex?

For at least three months now there has been a poster at one of my local multiplexes, the AmStar 16 (or The Grand, or whatever it's called now), for "The Hunting Party," a flick which I've wanted to see for a long time.

So, imagine my surprise when, surveying this week's DVD releases, I found the Richard Shepard flick starring Terrence Howard, Richard Gere and Jesse Eisenberg (of "The Squid and the Whale.") In the serio-comedy, the trio embarks on an unauthorized mission to find the No. 1 war criminal in Bosnia and gets mistaken for a CIA hit squad.

Now, I'm very happy I'll finally get to see this flick, which has just been moved to the top of my (fully stocked, thanks to the readers of this site) Netflix queue, but is it too much to ask that the poster promising its mythic big-screen appearance in Macon be taken down? Peace out.

Tuesday, January 22, 2008

Heath Ledger is dead

I have nothing remotely clever or all that interesting to say about this because it's just so damn depressing, but it's certainly worth sharing with anyone who happens by here today.
According to the AP, he was found dead Tuesday at a downtown Manhattan residence in a possible drug-related death. NYPD spokesman Paul Browne said Ledger had an appointment for a massage at the Manhattan apartment believed to be his home. The housekeeper who went to let Ledger know the masseuse was there found him dead at 3:26 p.m.
Even if there will still be a "Dark Knight" movie, I'm not sure I'll ever be able to look at him with that sinister Joker's grin.

Oscar nominations: Surprises and snubs

Before I do any complaining, and yes, there is some to do, let me start with two things that definitely made me smile during this morning's Oscar nominations announcement.

First and foremost, the word "Ratatouille" came up twice, once in the expected animated film category but also with Brad Bird, Jan Pinkava and Jim Capobianco nominated for best original screenplay. A hearty huzzah to that!

The second thing wasn't so much of a surprise, since I predicted it (see the previous post to see just how right or wrong I was overall), but probably the most worthy nominee of all was Hal Holbrook in the category of Best Supporting Actor. I've confessed it here before, but I cried exactly once at a movie theater in 2007, and that moment came when Holbrook's character tried in vain to rescue Emile Hirsch's Christopher McCandless from his ultimate fate.

So much for the good stuff, because, me being me, I have plenty to complain about too.

First of all, I love Cate Blanchett as much or more than the average moviegoer, but "Elizabeth" is just one big flaming turd of a movie. Granted, any charms it has come from the presence of Blanchett and Clive Owen pitching woo, but that's not by a long shot enough to deserve a Best Actress nomination in my book. I was very happy to see Laura Linney make the cut for "The Savages" (and would love to see her win), but Helena Bonham Carter in "Sweeney Todd" was just loads better than Ms. Blanchett in "Elizabeth."

And Cate comes in for double fire from me today, for though I haven't seen "I'm Not There," I have to think her turn as Bob Dylan robbed the very deserving Kelly Macdonald of a slot for her superb work in "No Country for Old Men." I'll be very happy to see see Ruby Dee win this (partly because she's a very worthy winner and partly due to to my continuing atonement tour for assuming that she had died shortly after hubby Ossie Davis), but the snub of Ms. Macdonald was just egregious in my book.

But enough ranting for now. I did manage to predict four of the five Best Picture nominees (did anyone really see "Michael Clayton" coming?), and I'm fairly optimistic the writers will reach a deal and make the Oscars the truly joyous occasion they should be. Peace out.

Oscar predictions: Just how wrong can I be?

On the odd chance that I somehow do get these mostly right, be assured that I did indeed type this in early Tuesday morning, well before the actual nominations were announced on the TV. And though I have no idea which celebrity will help with the announcing, here's hoping it's someone with even a tenth the charm of last year's Salma Hayek (and please, God forbid, not John Travolta in a fat suit and drag.)

So, without further ado, here are my predictions for seven of the top categories, along with, in some cases, which names you would be hearing if I ruled the world.

Best Picture
"There Will Be Blood"
"No Country for Old Men"
"Sweeney Todd"

If I ruled the world: My picks for the top five movies of 2007, whittled down from the top 10, are: "Into the Wild," "No Country for Old Men," "Once," "Ratatouille" and "The Savages," and as I've stated in this space many times, my imaginary vote would be loudly for "Ratatouille" as the big winner.

Note: Unlike the academy, I always think the directors of all the Best Picture nominees should be automatically nominated for Best Director, so I would predict the nominees will be Paul Thomas Anderson, Joel & Ethan Coen, Joe Wright, Tim Burton and Jason Reitman.

Best Actress:
Keira Knightley, "Atonement"
Helena Bonham Carter, "Sweeney Todd"
Ellen Page, "Juno"
Julie Christie, "Away from Her"
Laura Linney, "The Savages"

If I ruled the world: Marketa Irglova's sublime performance as "The Girl" in "Once" would definitely be on the above list.

Best Actor:
Daniel Day Lewis, "There Will Be Blood"
Johnny Depp, "Sweeney Todd"
James McAvoy, "Atonement"
Denzel Washington, "American Gangster"
George Clooney, "Michael Clayton"

If I ruled the world: It's hard to argue with Lewis, who I'd have to call the prohibitive favorite in this category, but I'd also love to see Emile Hirsch in "Into the Wild," Javier Bardem in "No Country for Old Men"(supporting actor my ass!), Chris Cooper for "Breach" and, yes, why not Micheal Cera for "Superbad" on this list too. Comedies need love too, after all.

Supporting Actress:
Saoirse Ronan, "Atonement"
Kelly Macdonald, "No Country for Old Men"
Ruby Dee, "American Gangster"
Amy Ryan, "Gone Baby Gone"
Allison Janney, "Juno"

If I ruled the world: I think this is easily the strongest category this year, and can't quibble with any of these if they are indeed the nominees. My money would be on Ruby Dee to win, but if there could be more than five nominees I'd love to see Catherine Keener for "Into the Wild" and Jennifer Jason Leigh for "Margot at the Wedding" each get some props.

Supporting Actor:
Hal Holbrook, "Into the Wild"
Phillip Seymour Hoffman, "Charlie Wilson's War"
Javier Bardem, "No Country for Old Men"
Tom Wilkinson, "Michael Clayton"
Paul Dano, "There Will Be Blood"

If I ruled the world: I'd have to predict Bardem will win this one fairly easily, but I'd still say no one defined the role of supporting actor better in 2007 than Holbrook, who just took over "Into the Wild" for the short time he was on screen. I would also nominate Robert Downey Jr. for "Zodiac" and, heartily, Peter O'Toole for the voice of Anton Ego in "Ratatouille."

Adapted Screenplay:
"There Will Be Blood," Paul Thomas Anderson (novel by Upton Sinclair)
"No Country for Old Men," Joel & Ethan Coen (novel by Cormac McCarthy)
"Atonement," Christopher Hampton (novel by Ian McEwan)
"Into the Wild," Sean Penn (novel by Jon Krakauer)
"Kite Runner," David Benoiff (novel by Khaled Hosseini)

If I ruled the world: Though it won't happen, I'd love to see some love for Marjane Satrapi and Vincent Paronnaud for adapting Satrapi's graphic novels into the fine flick "Persepolis."

Original Screenplay:
"Juno," Diablo Cody
"The Savages," Tamara Jenkins
"Michael Clayton," Tony Gilroy
"American Gangster," Steven Zaillian*
"Waitress," Adrienne Shelly
* This was actually adapted from a newspaper article by Mark Jacobson, so may not qualify in this category.

If I ruled the world: A final plea, sure to fall on deaf ears, for some recognition for "Ratatouille," here for the often-magical script by Brad Bird.

And there you have it. I'll update this today if I have time, but if not, please feel free to add your two cents in the comments, and believe me, no amount of venom for the Academy is forbidden today. Peace out.

Monday, January 21, 2008

Stone V. Bush? Absolutely

It pains me to be too hard on a movie as well-intentioned as "Honeydripper" on MLK Day or, for that matter, any other, so I'll try to get that portion of this report out of the way quickly.

"Honeydripper" was, in short, just a tremendous disappointment to me. It's truly lethargic film making, filled with corny, often unbelievable stories and dialogue that's even worse (yes, within the first 10 minutes or so you will get to see a bar patron actually utter the words "grits ain't groceries.")

Much like OutKast's "Idlewild," this was a movie supposedly about music that really only featured any at its very beginning and end, the only times the movie really surged with any life. The ending, when young Gary Clark Jr. finally plugs in his axe at the Honeydripper, really is electric, but still not enough of a payoff to justify all the emptiness that came before it.

Which is a real shame, because this is a flick just packed with people I like who we don't get to see nearly often enough on the big screen, most notably Charles S. "Roc" Dutton, Lisa Gay Hamilton and Vondie Curtis Hall.

But enough of that ... on to some good news.

Stone and Brolin to take on Bush

How fitting that, on the day that President Clinton himself will be in Macon (and I'll be there, though my time and support are solidly behind Barack Obama), the news comes that Oliver Stone is about to jump at least indirectly into the fray.

Even if he's not returning to Vietnam, Stone is definitely about to get back in "the shit," this time with his sights directly on George Bush.

Stone has announced his next directing project will indeed be "Bush," focusing on the life of W. and, even better, set to star Josh Brolin. With his work in "No Country for Old Men," "In the Valley of Elah" "American Gangster" and "Planet Terror," 2007 was a banner year for the younger Mr. Brolin, and things don't seem to be slowing down anytime soon. Either before or after "Bush," which with a pre-WGA strike script already done by "Wall Street" co-writer Stanley Weiser could begin shooting as early as April for a Fall release, he'll play Dan White, the man who assassinated Harvey Milk, in Gus Van Sant's "Milk."

And though Stone has been extremely critical of Bush in the past, he's promising to take a broad look at the man's life, with his own view sheathed as much as possible.

"It's a behind-the-scenes approach, similar to 'Nixon,' to give a sense of what it's like to be in his skin," Stone told Daily Variety. "I'm a dramatist who is interested in people, and I have empathy for Bush as a human being, much the same as I did for Castro, Nixon, Jim Morrison, Jim Garrison and Alexander the Great."

Perhaps, but what he had to say next shows he's indeed taking some preformed ideas about W. into this project.

"How did Bush go from an alcoholic bum to the most powerful figure in the world? It's like Frank Capra territory on one hand, but I'll also cover the demons in his private life, his bouts with his dad and his conversion to Christianity, which explains a lot of where he is coming from. It includes his belief that God personally chose him to be president of the United States, and his coming into his own with the stunning, preemptive attack on Iraq. It will contain surprises for Bush supporters and his detractors."

He also took a parting shot at Tom Cruise's United Artists, who used the pretense of the writers' strike to kill Stone's return to Vietnam, "Pinkville." As Stone revealed to Variety, he definitely thinks there were other factors (chiefly the tanking of UA's "Lions for Lambs") that diminished hunger for the project:

"On 'Pinkville,' I had a great script and one of the best casts on any of my films, with 40 young actors and Bruce Willis," Stone said. "It's a shame they lost faith in the film, and that they unemployed 500 people right before Christmas. We were three weeks from shooting."

A shame indeed, but with this news one can only hope the real muckraking Oliver Stone will now be back in a big way.

What's next on "The Wire"?

I know from talking to fellow fans of "The Wire" that the admittedly bizarre downward trajectory of McNulty from beat cop to renegade vigilante has been a bit much for many fans to take, but I've loved every minute of it so far.

Along with that, the newsroom scenes through last night's episode 3 have rung true for me as an employee of a newspaper which has undergone its own share of belt-tightening and in fact had its own serial plagiarist to deal with. And, as this rapidly boiling story comes to a close, we should get to see more of Amy Ryan as McNulty's latest enabler-in-chief, which is always good news to me.

Here's a look at what's to come in the next five episodes, which will include scripts from semi-regular "Wire" contributors Richard Price and Dennis Lehane, plus the return of Agnieszka Holland as director.

Episode #54: "Transitions"
Campbell (Marlyne Afflack) tries to smooth out the transitions in the police department. The newspaper scrambles to confirm surprising news from City Hall, but lose out to the TV media in scooping a high-profile grand jury appearance. As Marlo tries to win favor with the Greeks, Proposition Joe pays his last respects to a fallen colleague and prepares to make himself scarce in anticipation of a showdown. Freamon enlists the help of a past partner to help with the investigation. Teleplay by Ed Burns; story by David Simon & Ed Burns; directed by Dan Attias.

Episode #55: "React Quotes"
Marlo (Jamie Hector) forges an alliance with a drug connect, who shows him a new communications trick. McNulty's (Dominic West) case gets increased attention from the newspaper, in large part thanks to the addition of Templeton (Tom McCarthy) to the reporting team. Dukie (Jermaine Crawford) turns to Cutty (Chad L. Coleman) and Michael (Tristan Wilds) to hone his self-defense skills; Clay Davis (Isiah Whitlock, Jr.) finds a new ally; Bond (Dion Graham) raises his public profile; Levy (Michael Kostroff) and Herc (Domenick Lombardozzi) prepare for litigation; Elena (Callie Thorne) confronts McNulty about his behavior; Bubbles (Andre Royo) fears new opportunities; Greggs (Sonja Sohn) gets some overtime work. Omar (Michael Kenneth Williams) shows patience as Marlo throws out his bait. Teleplay by David Mills; story by David Simon & David Mills; directed by Agnieszka Holland.

Episode #56: "The Dickensian Aspect"
Mystified by Omar's disappearance, Marlo and Chris (Gbenga Akinnagbe) ramp up their efforts to locate their nemesis. After attending a sparsely attended waterfront ceremony, Carcetti (Aidan Gillen) fires away at a larger press event - and recasts himself as a champion for the homeless. Bunk (Wendell Pierce) revisits some old leads in the rowhouse cases, but is frustrated in his attempts to get bloodwork from the crime lab. Templeton looks for a perfect follow-up to his latest, nationally covered story, which has replaced the city's educational crisis on the paper's priority list. After the detail gets more manpower, Freamon (Clarke Peters) presses McNulty to get new surveillance equipment, but the resources aren't as deep as both hoped. Pearlman (Deirdre Lovejoy) discovers new clues pointing to corruption in City Hall; Marlo makes new appointments at the latest co-op meeting; McNulty takes a peculiar interest in a homeless man.Teleplay by Ed Burns; story by David Simon & Ed Burns; directed by Seith Mann.

Episode #57: "Took"
An unexpected call puts Templeton back in the spotlight - and gets McNulty more attention than he expected. Bunk bucks at Landsman (Delaney Williams) when ordered to help with the force's most recent red ball. Omar sends Marlo a message; Carcetti proves he's still an adept fund-raiser; Carver (Seth Gilliam) gift-wraps a witness for Bunk; Bubbles shows a reporter the ropes; Freamon tries to crack a clock code; Greggs prepares for a visit from her son; Michael has a close call; Haynes (Clark Johnson) can't shake his suspicions about Templeton; assisted by the top-drawer lawyer Billy Murphy (Billy Murphy), "cash and carry" Davis makes his day in court a memorable one. Teleplay by Richard Price; story by David Simon & Richard Price; directed by Dominic West.

Episode #58: "Clarifications"
Baltimore's renewed police commitment brings fresh recruits to Daniels (Lance Reddick) and McNulty, starting with Carver. Facing a new political challenge, Carcetti is forced to make dangerous political deals. As the Pulitzer season winds down, Haynes approaches Templeton about his sources. Bunk returns a McNulty favor; little Kenard (Thuliso Dingwall) makes a big score; Dukie finds work; Fletcher (Brandon Young) continues his interview with Bubbles; Freamon presents his latest plan to a prosecutor; Sydnor (Corey Parker Robinson) uncovers the missing piece to a puzzle; McNulty comes clean. Teleplay by Dennis Lehane; story by David Simon & Dennis Lehane; directed by Joe Chappelle.

So, if you're keeping track, that makes eight episodes of the final season of "The Wire," a k a the greatest show in the history of television. That means either only four or five left after this latest batch, and it will be truly sad to see it go, even if it will be exiting on top of its game. Peace out.

Saturday, January 19, 2008

Atonement: The power of secrets and lies

Before diving any further into Joe Wright's often very challenging movie about the novel by Ian McEwan, let me predict that you will hear the word "Atonement" more than any other when the Oscar nominations are announced Tuesday morning. That's not really an assessment of how much I liked the movie (which I mostly did), just an observation about what we can expect very soon (and why, of course, it was given a not-at-all-coincidental wide release this week.)

If I was unable to fall in love with the movie, that fact comes from the built-in structure of both the novel and the flick. I won't spoil the major twist, which feels perfectly natural in McEwan's book but a little forced at the end of a two-hour movie, but I will say that by design it gives a remoteness to the love story at the tale's core (the love story which, of course, gives them a double dose of movie-poster eye candy with Keira Knightley and James McAvoy, even if this movie in so many ways belongs to young Saoirse Ronan as Briony Tallis.)

The movie is at its strongest in the first 45 minutes or so, when Wright almost perfectly captures the atmosphere that nurtures all the best and worst aspects of Briony's budding creativity. Though the almost constant clacking of typewriter keys turns into a gimmick far too quickly, it's easy to see how she could be led to (willfully?) misinterpret what she saw one evening at the manor house where she was raised, an act of betrayal which will permanently alter the lives of her sister Cecilia (Knightley) and Robbie (McAvoy), the son of a family servant who lusts for Cecilia (and, in particular and understandably, a certain part of her anatomy.)

I don't want to give away any more than that, because much of the magic of this opening portion comes in discovering through whose eyes you're watching it all unfold. At its best, in particular with the closing shot of Robbie returning home with the defiant twins in tow, it's as good as and strongly invokes Jean Renoir's "Rules of the Game."

It's at this point, when the flick shifts to the wartime lives of Cecilia, Robbie and Briony, that it develops a rather severe distance (again, much of that can be credited to what we learn at the end, but I stlll found it to be a drag on the viewing experience.) There's just, as hard as Knightley and McAvoy tried, a lack of passion to the tale that prevents you from growing more attached to either of them, or to Briony (who will be played by two more actresses as the story continues.)

Which isn't to say there aren't some stunning visual sequences in the second half, particularly the five-minute-or-so scene on the beach at Dunkirk, where Robbie and two of his fellow soldiers arrive in pretty rough shape. It's probably the most impressive set piece of 2007 (though I still prefer the arrival of Remy in the kitchen at Gusteau's in "Ratatouille"), and rivals what Alfonso Cuaron put together at that burned-out building in "Children of Men.") Just as an aside, I was waiting to see if Wright would let the black soldier in their ragtag group have any lines at all, which made me laugh way louder than I should have when he finally gets to utter his two-word, dead-on assessment of their rather dire straits.

In all, I would urge that you don't let any of my qualms let me stop you from seeing this fine flick, the kind of satisfying fare for adults (an impressive 50 or so of whom turned out for my 11 a.m. showing Friday morning) that we just don't get often enough for me. And as far as the Oscars go, it hopefully sets up a great battle royale in the category of Best Supporting Actress between Amy Ryan for "Gone Baby Gone," Kelly Macdonald for "No Country for Old Men" and young Ms. Ronan for her superb work here (and hopefully an appearance from Allison Janney for "Juno" too.) My heart's with Macdonald and my money's on Ryan, but I wouldn't count out Ronan either if "Atonement" goes on the awards roll I'm expecting.

And now, if you'll excuse me, I have some bills to pay, some grocery shopping to do and then a John Sayles (huzzah!) movie to watch at my local multiplex. Peace out.

Friday, January 18, 2008

Tyler Perry's ready to cross the color line

The big news out there today, of course, is the Directors Guild of America has reached a contract deal with the studios that averts any possibly labor action that could have come in June. In it, the helmers got much of what their writing brethren have been on the picket lines for for about six months: A new way of being reimbursed for digital downloads of their work.

I don't fully know the details of this, which is really above my pay grade (which is zero), but it can't be anything but good news. I have to assume the writers will come into the fold soon if they're given a similar deal, and maybe TV will be saved after all (and David Milch, as you'll find out below, will have a lot to do with that.)

The only question I had yesterday was this: Were the studios so quick to deal with directors but not writers because of a serious lack of respect for the written word? Given the unscripted excrement that the TV networks quickly scooped up to fill the void I have to believe this is the case, and if so the wounds may well fester long after the strike has ended.

But enough of that. There are three potentially good movies, "Atonement," "Cloverfield" and "Honeydripper," opening in Macon this weekend, and lots of other news to talk about, starting out with, thankfully, Tyler Perry.

His next flick, "Meet the Browns," sounds like standard Tyler Perry fare, not an insult just an observation. In it, Angela Bassett (huzzah!) plays a single mother who takes her clan back to her Southern hometown for the funeral of the father she never knew, where she will surely meet a lot of colorful characters (including Madea.) Tyler Perry movies were just made for reunions like this.

It's with his next project, however, that things could really get interesting. Jennifer Hudson is about to sign on to star in "Tyler Perry's the Family that Preys," which will make his sixth flick for the Lionsgate studio. Sanaa Lathan, Kathy Bates, Alfre Woodard and Rockmond Dunbar have already signed on.

And now, for our SAT style question of the day: Which of those names doesn't fit? I you guessed Kathy Bates, take your gold star. The flick is described as being about "two families from different sides of the tracks that become intimately involved in love and business."

That would be one black family and one white family, along with being one rich and one poor. I sincerely wish that weren't such a revolutionary concept, but how many white directors can say they've directed a drama in which up to half of the characters are black? Tyler Perry certainly didn't have to cross the color line, but he's shown himself to be nothing but savvy about business so far, and this just makes sense, but why it doesn't for a lot more people will always be just a bit beyond me.

"Deadwood" fans rejoice: Milch is officially back on HBO

In spite of the one-season-only run of "John from Cincinnati," David Milch, the creator of "Deadwood," is definitely now ready to move on with HBO (which I now pay for to watch "The Wire," so huzzah!)

Milch, one of the main masterminds behind "NYPD Blue," will return to familiar territory for "Last of the Ninth," a gritty drama set in the New York Police Department in 1972.

"It is about an older detective's mentoring of a young detective returned from Vietnam in a department fiscally crippled, under attack by revolutionaries, and which has been brought by allegations of systemic corruption into public disrepute," Milch told the Hollywood Reporter.

So, when will we ever get to see this goodness? Production will begin when the writers' strike ends, so please folks, settle this thing soon.

I know the kids rule the world, but ...

I was ready to skip over this one entirely because, of course, I'm far too old to concern myself with what Zac Efron may or may not be doing. I had to read to just about the bottom of this story, however, to get to the actual good part: The return of Richard Linklater.

Efron will indeed star in and Linklater will direct "Me and Orson Welles," what actually sounds like a pretty cool story from the novel by Robert Kaplow. Set in 1937, it's about a high school student (Efron, natch) who happens upon the yet-to-open Mercury Theatre and lands a bit part in "Julius Caesar," the production that would bring international acclaim to Mr. Welles, who will be played by newcomer Christian McKay.

Making this a Linklater family affair, the script was penned by Holly Gent Palmo, a production coordinator on "Dazed and Confused," and Vince Palmo, first assistant director for many of Linklater's flicks.

There's some other cool stuff out there today, but I have to wrap this up now if I'm gonna make it to the movie theater in time to watch "Atonement" before I have to go to work. Peace out.

Thursday, January 17, 2008

A John Sayles movie in Macon? Bring it on!

It seems like forever since I've bothered to review a movie in this space, and there are valid reasons (beyond the most obvious one - sloth.)

Mainly, still not being paid to do any of this, I don't bother to see movies that I know, even before the credits start to roll, I'm going to hate. That usually makes January a very bleak month for me, but this weekend there are actually three that at least slightly peak my interest in Macon, and I'm gonna review them all in this space, starting Saturday (with a day off Monday, probably, for Oscar predictions.)

First up is "Atonement," based on the simply fantastic novel by Ian McEwan. If you haven't read this, I can't recommend it highly enough. Even if, as the always reliable DC Movie Girl says, there is a bit of remoteness to the love story at the movie's core, I'm still confident I'm just gonna fall in love with this one.

Second, but the one I'm least looking forward to, is "Cloverfield." This feels like more of an obligation than anything else, and here's why: With apologies to my friend Chris Stanford, who rather excitedly dragged me to see "The Blair Witch Project" way back when in D.C., I simply hated that movie to its core (and didn't really make that clear immediately, so as to not ruin Mr. Stanford's day.) I could be wrong here, but from everything I've read so far, "Cloverfield" sounds like the same kind of animal: A gimmicky "monster" movie with tons of hype and very little payoff. Here's hoping I'm somehow wrong.

And third, in a real surprise, we're getting a John Sayles movie here in Macon this weekend, at the Regal Rivergate 14. How is this possible? Well, I have a strong feeling that some enterprising students at Clark Atlanta, Florida A&M and other traditionally black colleges are to thank for this. In a "Business of Film" seminar last fall, these lucky students had as their main project to come up with a marketing scheme for Sayles' movie "Honeydripper," which thankfully involves getting it into Southern markets like my little corner of the world. A hearty huzzah to them!

As for the movie itself, well, I passed on seeing it in New York because it looks more than a bit like a Disneyfied view of the South, and specifically the advent of electric blues. Even with those fears in mind, a great, mostly all black cast and the Sayles brand are enough to guarantee I'll turn out for this one now in Macon, most likely Sunday afternoon.

I've always had more than a little soft spot for Sayles because he always seems to do exactly whatever he wants to and because his movies, even when flawed, just have an earnestness to them that is sorely lacking in most of our big-screen fare. Also, his funky and fun "Brother From Another Planet" came along at just the right time in my life to show me there were all kinds of movies out there, if you bother to look hard enough, and for that I'm eternally grateful.

So, in honor of "Honeydripper" and the man himself, here are my seven favorite John Sayles-directed movies (he's actually helmed, written or starred in a lot more than these, including directing at least three music videos for Bruce Springsteen: "Born in the U.S.A.", "I'm on Fire" and "Glory Days".) And, for once, this list is indeed in order of how much I like the movies, but they're all well worth a rental, if you can find them. Here goes:

1. Passion Fish
On the surface, the plot for this one makes it sound like the worst kind of Hallmark tripe, but it's actually one of my all-time favorite Southern movies and a moving look at an odd relationship (everything, in short, that "Driving Miss Daisy" wanted to be but clearly wasn't.) In it, Mary McDonnell plays a former soap opera star who finds herself confined to a wheelchair after an accident, and Alfre Woodard is the only nurse she can stand to have around her back home in the Bayou. David Strathairn even turns up in this 1992 flick to pitch a little woo (if you haven't seen this one, you'll just have to believe me that it's much better than I'm making it sound here.)

2. The Secret of Roan Inish
This odd little "children's" movie actually showed for about a month ago for two weeks at the Cox Capitol Theatre in downtown Macon, and it was just as good as I remembered it being. The Irish fairy tale, based on the Rosalie K. Fry book "The Secret of Ron Mor Skerry," about the magical seal island is just one of my favorite tributes to the power of imagination.

3. Lone Star
Directors just seem to love the task of juggling multiple story lines. Many (Robert Altman, Quentin Tarantino and Alejandro González Iñárritu among them) have succeeded but at least as many (Stephen Gaghan ["Syriana"] comes to mind, at least in my estimation) have failed. Sayles pulls it off with style in "Lone Star," which weaves the stories of many people, played by Kris Kristofferson, Matthew McConnaughey, Elizabeth Pena, Chris Cooper, Joe Morton and many others, into one intriguing piece that sets you right square in the heart of Texas.

4. Sunshine State
This is one of Sayles' angriest and yet also funniest movies, and while its probably more than a little too preachy for its own good, it hit me at just the right time. I had just been to visit my brother in south Florida, where he was toiling for an alternative weekly in Fort Lauderdale, so I could attest that everything Sayles has to say here about real estate developers none-too-slowly killing the state of Florida is dead-on.

5. Brother from Another Planet
Like I said earlier, this one came along at just the right time to show me there were many movies beyond my local multiplex, and despite its clearly low-budget look, a recent reviewing showed that, for me at least, it's sly commentary on immigration stands up well over time. I still smile every time I see Joe Morton's name appear in movie credits, and when I was 15 years old or so I thought that scene where he pulls out his eyeball to spy on the bad guys was just about the coolest thing I had ever seen.

6. Matewan
Chris Cooper may not have gotten mainstream acclaim until his turn as Marine Col. Frank Fitts in "American Beauty," but he's yet to ever put in a better performance than he did as the union organizer Joe Kenehan in this flick about a coal mine-workers' strike and attempt to unionize in 1920 in West Virginia (just Cooper's second big-screen acting credit.) The labor movie is now just about a dead concept in America, but if you ever want to see just how powerful they once could be, you could do a whole lot worse than this Sayles flick.

7. Eight Men Out
Without taking a hard look at the figures I'd have to assume this 1988 flick about the 1919 Black Sox scandal is probably the Sayles movie that's made the most money. It works so well because it's not only a solid historical document, but also shows that Sayles, like me, has an undying love for baseball, even with its many clear problems.

And there you have it. Feel free to check back starting Saturday for reviews of, probably in this order, "Atonement," "Cloverfield" and "Honeydripper." Peace out.

Wednesday, January 16, 2008

Among the many things I'd enjoy watching Ellen Page do ...

... taking to the rink for a little roller derby action is definitely one of them, even if it is in a movie directed by Drew Barrymore (a cheap shot, I concede, since as far as I know this would be Ms. Barrymore's first directing gig. Perhaps she's the next Akira Kurosawa, but ... well, I'll just drop that and move on.)

Young Ms. Page, sure to be an Oscar nominee for "Juno" when the nominations are announced next Tuesday, will lace up her skates to play yet another spunky teen in Barrymore's "Whip It," the story of a girl named "Bliss" who turns her back on a life of beauty pageants in Texas to join a female roller derby team.

Sound like it's cut directly from the "Juno" formula? Well, there are plenty of more connections. Mandate, the studio that bankrolled Jason Reitman's flick, is also putting up the money for this one. And, just as "Juno" had the somewhat unique (yes, I know something can't be "somewhat unique," but bear with me) cache of being written by former stripper Diablo Cody, this one has a script penned by an actual former roller derby star, Shauna Cross, a k a Maggie Mayhem.

Even if it does sound more than a bit familiar, and now-20-year-old Ms. Page will at some point have to stop playing teenagers, it's hard to argue with the enthusiasm she expressed for all this silliness: "I can't wait to kick ass on wheels!"

If you're gonna make a porno ...

Well, even if Joel Siegel might try to tell you otherwise, Kevin Smith doesn't actually make pornographic movies, but he now has at least one former porn star for his next flick, "Zack and Mirni Make a Porno," and one "The Office" star as well. (Wow is that a lot of times for some variety of the word "porn" to appear in one sentence. If anyone finds this site while looking for actual pornography, please accept my apologies and move on.)

Smith had already announced Seth Rogen and Elizabeth Banks (double huzzah!) would be playing the leads in his next flick, set to begin production today, and now Craig Robinson (Darryl on "The Office"), former porn star Traci Lords, Ricky Mabe, Jeff Anderson (a k a Anderson regular Randal Graves) and Katie Morgan (HBO's "Katie Morgan: A Porn Star Revealed") have been announced to round out the cast.

I realize a lot of people are just tired of Kevin Smith (my brother calls him a "tool"), but I still find him almost always very funny, and that's good enough for me.

R.I.P. Brad Renfro

No matter how this story eventually unfolds, it can really be nothing but sad.

Actor Brad Renfro, who starred in "The Client" when he was just 10 years old, was found dead in his Los Angeles home early Tuesday at the none-too-old age of 25. I'm not exactly Sherlock Holmes, but I suspect drugs had more than a little bit to do with this.

In his short and rather troubled life, Mr. Renfro did manage to star in at least two movies I really like, Bryan Singer's "Apt Pupil" (when he was still just a kid) and "Ghost World" (even if by then he already did have a rather dead look as the convenience store clerk and boy toy of Enid and Rebecca.) He also was the main star of my favorite Larry Clark movie, the rather criminally underappreciated "Bully."

He had recently completed shooting something called "The Informers" with Winona Ryder and Billy Bob Thornton. R.I.P. Mr. Renfro.

A serious Oscar dis for "Persepolis"

Any chances that "Ratatouille" would somehow sneak into the final five for Best Picture (which I would wholeheartedly endorse) when the Oscar nominations are announced Tuesday seem even bleaker now that the other truly great animated movie I saw this year, the French flick "Persepolis," has failed to make the cut down to nine in the Best Foreign Language Film category. (Maconites, however, take note: When I mentioned this as a possible selection for the Macon Film Guild later this year, Camp Bacon confirmed that it is indeed already on their radar, so stay tuned.)

Also surprisingly slighted was "The Orphanage," Spain's entry and the very stylish and mostly enjoyable horror flick directed by J.A. Bayona (I guess "Guillermo del Toro presents" just didn't have quite the pull that marketers had hoped for.) I'd recommend catching this one in theaters while you still can.

And here are the nine that did make the cut: "The Counterfeiters" (Austria); "The Year My Parents Went on Vacation" (Brazil); "Days of Darkness" (Canada); "Beaufort" (Israel); "The Unknown" (Italy); "Mongol" (Kazakhstan); "Katyn" (Poland); "12" (Russia); and "The Trap" (Serbia).

It pains me to admit that I have seen exactly none of these, so if you have, please let me know if they're worth adding to my DVD viewing list. Peace out.

Tuesday, January 15, 2008

The day that TV died

You know, I actually woke up in a pretty good mood today. Having moved to a four-day (but still 40-hour) work week back in September or so, Mondays have turned into a perfectly pleasant day of the week, and returning to work on Tuesday morning just doesn't seem like much of a drag at all.

And then I wake up and see this. I probably should have seen it coming, but I confess I didn't. The Writers' Guild of America strike, which has managed to linger a lot longer now than I'd ever imagined it would, has killed television.

And if you watch TV like I do, meaning avoiding reality TV the way a vegetarian does hamburgers, that's not an even slight overstatement. The studios, none too quietly, have stocked up on reality fare (on CBS alone that means at least these three new "winners": "The Secret Talents of Stars," "Game Show in My Head" and "America's Top Dog" (and, as much I love cute dogs, any chance that I'd tune in for even a minute of that one was killed by what happened Monday, which I will actually get to very quickly, I promise.)

To pave the way for this onslaught, all the big studios, almost simultaneously, started Friday and continued in a big way Monday to slash their overall deals with writers. All told (and still counting, for sure), ABC Studios, Warner Bros. TV, CBS Paramount Network TV, Universal Media Studios and 20th Century Fox TV have cut nearly 75 "overalls" (which apparently aren't just something you wear on a farm.)

It wouldn't be as much of a big deal if it didn't hit shows that I've grown to love hard. It virtually guarantees the death of two CW shows that had just made my Monday nights (especially with the rather slow-to-even-get-started second season of "Heroes.") Terminated Monday were both David Guarascio and Moses Port, co-creators of the very funny and getting even better "Aliens in America." And two of the major writers for "Everybody Hates Chris," Aron Abrams and Greg Thompson, also got the ax Monday (and in a move that spells the certain death of two frosh shows I didn't bother to tune in for, the creators of Fox's "K-Ville" and NBC's "Journeyman" are also now looking for employment.)

It's hard not to be extremely pessimistic about this, because the only logical next move (unless this drives the two sides to come to an agreement) is that showrunners will be the next to go. I've had enough trouble dealing, for example, with "The Office" being shut down since mid-fall, but the day is clearly coming when creator (of the American version, I realize) Greg Daniels and his crew could be shown the door, along with the creators of almost any show you can name. Sheesh.

Besides, it's not like the audience for non-reality (a k a actually entertaining) TV isn't out there. Fox's "Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles" drew about 18.3 million viewers Sunday night, for a 7.6 share and the biggest TV debut of the year so far (which, given the circumstances, is clearly a dubious honor at best.)

If Monday really was the day TV died, there is at least an extremely selfish silver lining in it for me in that my call for movies to replenish my Netflix queue garnered a total of 66 movies that I either had somehow not seen or longed to see again, and as a gesture of gratitude I do indeed intend to watch them all. That starts with two suggestions from always-welcome reader Ashok (who compiles a very readable list of his movie reviews here): "Man on the Train," a Patrice Leconte flick starring the singer Johnny Hallyday (who clearly, like almost every man on the planet, just wants to be Serge Gainsbourg), and then the documentary "51 Birch Street."

It turned out to be a far bigger outpouring than I had expected, so a hearty huzzah and thanks to all who participated (and please, as you find more movies you love, don't hesitate to share them with me.)

And, just to show that, despite all this bile, my mood isn't completely dark, here's a pic of Disney's next big princess, who will be played by "Dreamgirl" Anika Noni Rose. Even if they couldn't look any further than Randy Newman for most of the songs, a grand Disney animated musical, starring its first black princess and set in New Orleans, can only be a good thing (I hope.) Peace out.

Monday, January 14, 2008

What in the world ever happened to Daniel Clowes?

I may indeed be the only person in the world who wonders about such things, but I fairly often do.

Now, the last time Daniel Clowes stuck his head out was as the writer of one of the worst movies of the last five years or so. Taken back-to-back-to-back with "Poseidon" and "X-Men", "Art School Confidential" just completed a craptastic start to the summer of 2006. However, when you've also penned easily one of my favorite movies in "Ghost World," I'm willing to be a forgiving soul.

Hollywood, however, doesn't seem to be so understanding. Or maybe it's just that Mr. Clowes doesn't work quickly (or, of course, just likes to work on his graphic novels instead.) Either way, he hasn't seemed to have been able to finish anything for the movies since.

Which is a real shame, if you look at what's on his plate. First up, which the IMDB reports he was "still tinkering with" in December, is a movie about those cool kids who made the shot-for-shot remake of "Raiders of the Lost Ark" in their back yard (I saw the movie earlier this year in Athens, and it is a real accomplishment.) That, if he ever does indeed finish it, would be tons of fun, as would this project I just found him attached to today with Michel Gondry and his son, Paul.

The elder Gondry and Mr. Clowes had been, and probably still are, considering taking on Rudy Rucker's "Master of Space and Time," but I would have to assume this family project puts that on the back burner.

Here's what Michel Gondry had to say about the new flick to the great /film site:

“It’s based on [Gondry’s son Paul’s] universe. He’s a sixteen year old. He’s very unique, very funny and very violent in his drawing and his art, showing everything that you could think of that I should have stopped him from coming in contact with, but I failed. He grew up watching Tom & Jerry and Ren and Stimpy, Sponge Bob. If you take all that and mix it with Gangster movies with blood, you get his universe. We’re translating our relationship into a futuristic story with a dictator and a rebel. He’s the dictator in the story and it will be based on his art.”

The movie will apparently be called "Migel Munya," and here's a little more of the craziness that Mr. Clowes will get to work with, again courtesy of /film.

“[The movie is] about a dictator who runs a crazy world where hair is the source of energy. The people there are forced to create art, and if the art is too good they are executed. So the dictator there doesn’t want anyone to be better than him so he kills the inmates who make good art. They try to make rubbish art but sometimes the worse it is for them, the better it is for the dictator.”

This just sounds cool to me, and it will indeed be even better news if we just get to see anything from Daniel Clowes on the big screen in the near future. The younger Mr. Gondry, along with being a budding cartoonist, also directed a video for the California band The Willowz, but I couldn't find a terribly high quality version of that. Instead, I hope this Lego video for the White Stripes' "Fell In Love With a Girl," directed by Michel and featuring young Paul playing with Legos at the beginning, puts a proper jolt in your Monday morning. Peace out.

Friday, January 11, 2008

Salma Hayek, the bearded lady?

When I saw the name Weitz attached to a children's story, I first thought New Line had finally had the stones to announce that filming would begin on "The Subtle Knife," meaning a continuation of the "The Golden Compass" trilogy. No such luck, however.

Instead we get something at least as good. It seems like forever since I've seen Salma Hayek in a movie. In fact, I can tell you the last time, and it was a true oddity. As fun as it was to see her with Penelope Cruz as two bank-robbing "Banditas," that movie wore out its welcome fairly quickly even though I got it for free on DVD.

Now, however, she's teaming up with one half of the "Pie" brothers, Paul (not Chris, note) Weitz, for something that sounds like a lot of fun. "Cirque du Freak" is apparently the first work in a series of children's novels by Darren Shan titled, appropriately enough, "The Saga of Darren Shan."

In the flick, John C. Reilly (huzzah!) will play a vampire who drafts a 14-year-old to serve as his assistant. The youngun (Darren Shan, I would have to presume) turns into a half-vampire and becomes a catalyst in a battle between vampires and the rival Vampanese. And, perhaps most importantly, la bella Ms. Hayek, fresh off her maternity leave, will play Madame Truska, the bearded lady. If anyone knows more about the plot for this than what little I do, please fill me in.

A fairly obscure British children's novel being developed by a Weitz? Sounds like we've been down this road before, but without having any real knowledge of the source material I can only guess this one doesn't have any of the religious baggage that doomed "The Golden Compass" out of the gate. Besides, anyone who's been here before knows I'm a big fan of vampires, John C. Reilly and Salma Hayek, so if you can get all three, I can only say bring it on!

Bale on the hunt for Depp?

With this news I have to say Michael Mann's "Public Enemies" has just about shot to the top of the list for coolest movies coming in 2009 (which, admittedly, isn't all that long just yet.)

With Johnny Depp already announced as John Dillinger in Mann's pic about the FBI's battle with the notorious American gangsters of the 1930s, now comes word Christian Bale will most likely join the hunt as FBI agent Melvin Purvis. I'm already behind today because I agreed to let myself sleep in a few more hours than usual, so I'll just let you all digest how cool that could be without any further comment.

Friday fun with pictures

Before I wrap things up with another plea that everyone go see "The Orphanage," "Juno" (if you haven't somehow already) or anything else this weekend except "The Bucket List," here are a couple of fun pictures I came across this morning.

The first is from the site Egotastic, which is rather singularly obsessed with pictures of women in (and sometimes out of, don't say I didn't warn you) bikinis. This however, which came under the headline "Natalie Portman has big fake breasts," is a picture of her from Wong Kar Wai's "My Blueberry Nights," which I'll probably never get to see before it hits DVD. Staring at Ms. Portman's new additions (which Egotastic says aren't really breast implants) is Norah Jones, if I'm not mistaken. Enjoy, and to find more, click here.

Tom Hanks had already generated some needed good karma from me with his great performance in this year in "Charlie Wilson's War," but now he's definitely back on my good side thanks to his choice of attire for the London premiere of that flick Wednesday night. Revealing himself to be, as all good people should, a football fan, Hanks donned an Aston Villa scarf to show his support for the Birmingham squad. How much of a fan he really is, who knows, but it's hard to argue with his quote from the red carpet: "Anybody can root for Chelsea for god's sake!" Now, if you'd just show some love for the MLS too, then I'd really be happy. Peace out.

Thursday, January 10, 2008

Jane Austen's got the cure for your TV blues

I have to confess it's been years since I've tuned in regularly for PBS' Masterpiece Theater, but given the ongoing writers' strike and the show's revamped formula, I think I'll definitely be returning starting this Sunday.

What's new? Well, first of all, the programs will be hosted by "X-Files" and Masterpiece Theater ("Bleak House") alum Gillian Anderson, which I have to say is at least a slight improvement from previous host Russell Baker (and a definite improvement from the past few years, which, if I'm not mistaken, had no host at all.)

Secondly, for the first series of shows beginning Sunday, it will be all about Jane Austen, which is just fine by me. It's a bit hard to tell, but I believe the order goes like this: Emma, Mansfield Park, Northanger Abbey, Persuasion (still my favorite Austen work), Pride and Prejudice and finally Sense and Sensibility. These aren't the Hollywood versions, but instead four new adaptations and two previously aired works (the only one I've seen is Pride and Prejudice, and though I know the ladies are rather devoted to Mr. Firth's Mr. Darcy, I just prefer Joe Wright's movie version instead.)

Check your local listings, of course, but in Georgia at least it airs at 9 p.m. Sundays (finally, a workout for my DVR, since I'll be watching "The Wire" whilst taping both that and Masterpiece.) Tune in for a definite alternative to the reality TV onslaught that's already started and will soon turn into a deluge.

Download Fox Searchlight scripts

I usually spend my brief lunch half-hour-or-so reading Chris Cillizza's fantastic The Fix political blog, but today I just might have another option.

Fox Searchlight has put the scripts for six (which may be all) of its 2007 releases up for download here, and it shows just how strong a year the studio had. Available for your perusal are the scripts for three movies that made my top 10 ("The Savages," "Once" and "Waitress"), two that just missed the cut ("Juno" and Mira Nair's charming "The Namesake"), and one I'd have to unfortunately call a failure, Wes Anderson's "Darjeeling Limited."

Speaking of "Juno," a quick visit to Variety, which somehow tracks daily box-office numbers, shows that Jason Reitman's little flick was actually at No. 1 for Tuesday, taking in $1,445,349 to National Treasure's $1,314,178. It has netted more than $54 million so far, and should approach the magical $100M with a few more weeks of wide release. Congrats! I think I'll be devouring Diablo Cody's script along with my soup this midday.

And kudos to Amy Ryan too

It was great to see Amy Ryan return on "The Wire" Sunday, even if it looks like her man McNulty may implode any day now.

If you haven't seen her performance in "Gone Baby Gone," do so as soon as you can. You can believe all the hype: If there is indeed an Oscars ceremony this year, there's no way in the world she shouldn't be taking home a Best Supporting Actress Oscar (unless it's main instead of supporting - I have trouble telling how they judge these things.)

And now she's joining the cast of Paul Greengrass' Iraq war thriller, which begins shooting today in Spain and is inspired by Rajiv Chandrasekaran's book "Imperial Life in the Emerald City: Inside Iraq's Green Zone".

Greengrass and Brian Helgeland turned that nonfiction work into a fictional thriller set in the "Green Zone," a walled and fortified area where U.S. troops stay during the Iraq occupation. Matt Damon plays an officer who teams with a senior CIA officer to search for evidence of weapons of mass destruction, Ryan will play a New York Times foreign correspondent sent to Iraq to investigate the U.S. government's WMD claims, and Greg Kinnear plays another CIA officer.

It seems like stars of "The Wire" are popping up everywhere on the big screen, which I don't see how I'll ever consider to be anything but a great development.

"Sweet Land" in Macon this Sunday

Given the mostly pathetic wide-release lineup this week (with Juan Antonio Bayona's "The Orphanage" a clear exception - go see that one if you like stylish and smart horror), the Macon Film Guild has a definitely welcome other option on the slate this weekend.

Director Ali Selim's "Sweet Land," based on a Will Weaver short story, tells the tale of a German mail-order bride who travels to Minnesota to marry a Norwegian man during World War I. Her nationality, naturally, is an issue for the assembled locals, but I'm sure everyone eventually learns to get along. Sounds a little sappy for my tastes, but both of my parents soundly endorse this one, and that's good enough for me.

It's showing this Sunday at 2, 4:30 and 7:30 p.m. at the Douglass Theatre in downtown Macon, and if you turn out for the 2 p.m. show I'll definitely see you there. Peace out.