Tuesday, November 22, 2011

LET US GIVE THANKS


2011 has not been a stellar year for movies. Any season that showcases Adam Sandler playing his twin sister is more than a little suspect. However, there is plenty to be thankful for during this Thanksgiving season. Thus, here is what I’m thankful for at the movies this year. (And luckily there’s still a month filled with promise left!)
Jessica Chastain
THE NEW INGENUES
Jessica Chastain, Jennifer Lawrence, Shailene Woodley, Elizabeth Olson, Felicity Jones, Amber Heard. Actresses as talented as they are beautiful. And these young women really made a mark in movies this year.

THE HELP
And speaking of Jessica Chastain, she was one of the many superb actresses, along with Viola Davis, Emma Stone, Octavia Spencer, Bryce Dallas Howard, Allison Janney and the legendary Cicely Tyson, who were showcased in this moving drama sure to find room for a number of them in the Oscars this year.

GEORGE CLOONEY
Look at the amazing body of work he's done in just the last 13 years: OUT OF SIGHT, O BROTHER WHERE ART THOU, OCEAN’S ELEVEN, GOOD NIGHT AND GOOD LUCK, SYRIANA, MICHAEL CLAYTON, UP IN THE AIR, THE FANTASTIC MR. FOX, THE IDES OF MARCH and the gentle character study THE DESCENDANTS, currently in theaters. Clooney knows exactly how to pick 'em. And what he's good at. And indeed he is very, very good.

HARRY POTTER’S FANTASTIC FINALE
Eight films. Eight successes. Bravo on a stirring, epic finale.

PUSS ‘N BOOTS
Nice to see a cat as a hero on screen instead of an easy kill in a horror movie.

SKINNY COW TREATS AT THE AMC THEATER CHAIN
Ice cream - always good. Low fat ice cream - always less guilt.
AWESOME MOVIE POSTERS
They are too few and far in between but those like the ones for TINKER TAILOR SOLDIER SPY prove that you can capture the essence of the story, show off your star, and create something resembling art while advertising a movie.

WOODY ALLEN
He’s almost 76 and still making almost a movie every year. And MIDNIGHT IN PARIS was a sublime comedy about art, love and finding one’s self. I predict another screenplay Oscar for the Woodman.

MICHAEL FASSBENDER
Maybe the leading man of the moment. And perhaps the next James Bond. If he wants it.

RYAN GOSLING
Maybe the leading man of the moment. And perhaps the next McQueen. If he wants it. 

MICHELLE WILLIAMS
I haven’t seen her do Marilyn yet but everything she does is a zillion years from DAWSON’S CREEK, isn’t it?

GOOD COMIC BOOK MOVIES
THOR. X-MEN: FIRST CLASS. CAPTAIN AMERICA. Almost made me forget COWBOYS & ALIENS and THE GREEN LANTERN. Almost.

SMALL MOVIES WITH BIG IMPACT
So nice to see the likes of indie pictures like MARGIN CALL and MARTHA MARCY MAY MARLENE finding audiences and making money. I wish every studio would make ten of these a year. 

OSCAR SHOW SANITY
Brian Grazer. Billy Crystal. Thank you.
Antonio Banderas and Elena Anaya in Pedro Almodovar's THE SKIN I LIVE IN

VETERANS STILL DOING GREAT WORK
Pedro Almodovar challenged audiences and himself by making a horror movie with THE SKIN I LIVE IN. John Williams is still writing stirring scores as is evidenced from the released WAR HORSE tracks. And Christopher Plummer may finally win an Oscar for his touching and witty turn as a septuagenarian man coming out of the closet and finding love in BEGINNERS. Bravo, one and all!

THIS YEAR'S BEST SUPPORTING ACTOR CATEGORY
As I just said this year might finally be Plummer’s to take this category, but look at some of these other potential nominees: Albert Brooks (DRIVE), Paul Giamatti, Philip Seymour Hoffman or George Clooney (THE IDES OF MARCH), Alan Rickman (HARRY POTTER & THE DEATHLY HALLOWS), Robert Forster (THE DESCENDANTS), Nick Nolte (WARRIOR), Patton Oswalt (YOUNG ADULT), Kevin Spacey (MARGIN CALL), John Hawkes (MARTHA MARCY MAY MARLENE), Kenneth Branagh (MY WEEK WITH MARILYN), Brad Pitt (THE TREE OF LIFE), Jonah Hill (MONEYBALL). And all the gentlemen from TINKER TAILOR SOLDIER SPY – Benedict Cumberbatch, Mark Strong, John Hurt, Ciaran Hinds, and Colin Firth. Whew! What a banner year.

See. A lot to be thankful for already. So, what are you thankful for at the cinema this year? Share your thoughts and let’s keep the conversation going.

Monday, November 14, 2011

THE PROBLEM WITH BIOPICS

John Huston once famously said that 90% of a film’s success comes down to the casting. No matter how good the script is or how expert the talent is behind the scenes, if an audience doesn’t believe the people saying the lines, the picture is doomed. In the case of the movie J. EDGAR that just opened, bad casting does it in. While the film is a noble effort, polished and well-produced in many regards, Leonardo DiCaprio simply is too young and earnest and frankly, too handsome, to play the role of the small, ugly prick that J.Edgar Hoover was. His casting doomed the film before a frame of film was run through the camera.
Leonardo DiCaprio buried under heavy makeup to play J. EDGAR (2011)
But it isn’t all DiCaprio’s fault. There are many other problems with the movie as well. Clint Eastwood’s natural laconic inclinations don’t really fit the story of a man who is so shamelessly driven and obsessive. Dustin Lance Black’s screenplay misses huge chapters of Hoover’s sins, particularly his denial of the existence of the Mafia for the better part of 40 years. And the old age makeup used on the players is distracting and does no favors to any of them. In fact, J. EDGAR may serve as a poster child for all the problems of biopics. It is one of the trickiest genres to do well and almost all of those that fail do so for the same obvious reasons. Here then are the five biggest issues that every biopic flails and fails because of.
Leonardo DiCaprio as Howard Hughes in THE AVIATOR (2004)
CASTING THE WRONG ACTORS
Someone like Philip Seymour Hoffman or Paul Giamatti would not only have been better for the role of J.Edgar, but they even evoke him more physically. Again, DiCaprio is too young, too tall and attractive to pull off the role of the bulldog of a man. Neither Hoffman and Giamatti are typically handsome leading men and I’ll bet that insight would have enabled them to understand how Hoover felt standing on the outside looking in, while the handsome Kennedy’s ruled. DiCaprio is a very good actor but he has been cast a number of times in movies that require age or perspective that he clearly doesn’t have yet. Or isn't able to translate. His has been a charmed life since his youth and it's hard to conjure villainy or desperation when you're that successful so young. His role as renegade Howard Hughes in THE AVIATOR (2004) was only a partial success as he couldn't quite capture all of Hughes' take-no-prisoners style in his younger days or the outsized craziness of his waning years.
DiCaprio with Armie Hammer in J. EDGAR (2011)
SUFFOCATING ACTORS UNDER HEAVY MAKEUP
You know how when you watch a really good Pixar movie, you can’t help but forget it’s animated after 10 minutes because its story is so involving? Well, it’s exactly the opposite when movies trap young actors under ridiculously heavy makeup. One can’t help but dwell on it the whole time as it makes actors look so different as to appear alien. Or worse! In the case of Armie Hammer, his old age makeup in J. EDGAR made him look like a burn victim. He was buried under so much rubber he could barely register any facial movement. And DiCaprio didn’t fare much better. The huge baldhead piece he wears pinches his features into the center so that he looks like a dyspeptic Halloween pumpkin. It created laughs in all the wrong places. 
Max von Sydow, before and after THE EXORCIST (1973)
One of the best make-up jobs at aging someone was done for THE EXORCIST (1973). The legendary Dick Smith aged the fortysomething Max von Sydow into the seventysomething Father Merrin. Smith didn’t add layers and layers of rubber but rather merely added a thin layer of dry wrinkles contoured to the natural planes of von Sydow’s face. It’s still one of the best aging jobs ever. And a lesson lost on the immobile faces in J.EDGAR. They are almost as fake and frightening as the mask Ryan Gosling wore in DRIVE this year.
Julie Andrews as Maria von Trapp in THE SOUND OF MUSIC (1965)
TELLING THE STORY CRADLE TO GRAVE
Any time a biopic starts with an old geezer recounting his story and then flashes back to childhood, the movie is usually already in trouble. The simple fact is that most movies only have a couple of hours to tell their story and to try and cover a span of 70-80 years is a foolish undertaking. Rather than cram that much story into a movie the filmmakers would be better doing a TV miniseries where a narrative of 4-8 hours can cover that many decades efficiently.
Peter O'Toole in LAWRENCE OF ARABIA (1962)
The best biopics are those that use only a portion of a subject’s life to inform us of the person’s history. Movies like LAWRENCE OF ARABIA (1962), CAPOTE (2005), heck, even THE SOUND OF MUSIC (1965), were better film biographies because they highlighted a small section of their subject’s life. 
George C. Scott as the title character in PATTON (1970)
TOO MUCH SYMPATHY FOR THE DEVIL
Another great shortcoming of J.EDGAR is that it tries to create too much sympathy for an utter scoundrel. He was on the wrong side of so much of history: he bugged the bedrooms of civil rights leaders JFK and MLK; he railroaded too many suspected of being anarchists or Communists; he turned his back on organized crime for decades. It’s hard to feel a great deal of pity for such a man. Even if he was closeted and torn up inside by his own secrets. Yet Black’s script and Clint’s tinkling maudlin piano score treat Hoover as a rather tragic figure. Well, he’s no Nixon, a villain who you can’t help but pity. Hoover’s closer to Patton - a prick and a half who took righteousness and turned it into something dark and awful. Despite all the patriotic trappings of the movie PATTON (1970), the film made no mistake about painting its out-of-control general as an egotist run dangerously amuck. Movies about bad-asses can make just as fascinating biopics as telling the story of saints. But filmmakers feel the urge to round out their characters and sometimes that renders them either false or wishy-washy. Hoover was monstrous but that conceit doesn’t come through nearly enough in the movie.
Reese Witherspoon and Joaquin Phoenix in WALK THE LINE (2005)
FAKE VOICES REEK OF HIGH SCHOOL PLAYS
One of the things I loved about WALK THE LINE (2005) is that director James Mangold didn’t force stars Joaquin Phoenix and Reese Witherspoon to lip-synch the songs of Johnny Cash and June Carter. Instead, he let them use their own voices to sing and that got at the essence of the music without becoming an outright imitation. When J.EDGAR starts out with DiCaprio doing a crotchety old man voice, it rings false. If Eastwood had simply directed DiCaprio to use his own voice but soften it some and slow it down in the more mature scenes of Hoover, I think DiCaprio would have given a much more effective performance.
Philip Seymour Hoffman as Truman Capote in CAPOTE (2005)
Sometimes an actor should imitate the subject's voice, particularly if the voice is so well-known. But even in the case of an impressionist’s favorite like Truman Capote, Philip Seymour Hoffman opted for a subtler rendering of the famous man’s lisp. He modified his own voice to make it more feminine but he never caricatured Capote into a mincing queen or a Vegas parody the way comics David Frye and Rich Little did in the 70’s.
Sean Penn as Harvey Milk in MILK (2008)
Allegedly, period pictures are more difficult to get greenlit in Hollywood because of their expense and the inability of the teen movie audience to relate to anything older than 10 years ago. That may be true, but I think that too often period pictures ask the filmmakers and actors to put themselves into the shoes of people they don’t know very well, and to do so they rely on all sorts of crutches or tricks like affected speech, silly costuming and distracting makeup. I hope that the failures of J. EDGAR don’t discourage other film biographies from being made. Dustin Lance Black's Oscar winner MILK is proof that if you cast ‘em right, you’re 90% there.

Thursday, November 10, 2011

THE PROBLEM WITH THE ACADEMY & BRETT RATNER

Up until this last week, lame filmmaking was probably what most would consider Brett Ratner’s greatest sin. But then in the past week he went on the record making some truly atrocious comments about gays and actress Olivia Munn. In an interview during the press junket for his latest film TOWER HEIST, Ratner was asked if he rehearsed his actors and he responded, “Rehearsing’s for fags.” Previously that week he qualified rumors of a past relationship with Munn by bragging, “I banged her a few times, but I forgot her.” Shortly after, Ratner apologized for both statements. And he copped to not ever having had a sexual relationship with Munn.  
Both host Eddie Murphy and producer Brett Ratner departed the Oscars show this week.

The comments were especially egregious since Ratner had just been hired to produce next year’s Academy Awards show. Hollywood’s most prestigious event of the year didn’t need that kind of awful press. Thus, Ratner was fired immediately.

Only he wasn’t.

Academy President Tom Sherak decided to let Ratner’s apology be enough and thus let him keep his job. Well, not surprisingly, that didn’t sit well with a lot of people in Hollywood. The outcry in 24 hours was such that Ratner was forced to resign. My question is why wasn’t he fired outright? Why did Sherak not act decisively and make the easy and wholly justified choice?

It may seem na├»ve to expect people in Tinseltown to act righteously, but we should. Discouraging prejudice of any kind so abhorrent should be a no-brainer. And such talk must be deemed punishable. Ratner apologized, yes, but he still should have been fired. And Sherak should have done so before the public outcry forced everyone’s hand. If Ratner’s slurs had been of a racial or religious kind, would Sherak have waffled? I doubt it.

In some respects, Sherak’s handling of the whole affair was as ridiculous as Ratner’s running off at the mouth. Then, when Eddie Murphy quit as host of the show, to form a silly and ersatz sense of solidarity with his TOWER HEIST director, Sherak had a full-blown disaster on his hands. He quickly and wisely hired veteran producer  Brian Grazer, a beloved man in Hollywood, to helm the upcoming show. And now Billy Crystal is on board to host too. Good choices both. Let’s hope that the rest of the Academy's decisions this year continue to burnish the industry's reputation rather than tarnish it.

Sunday, November 6, 2011

LOVE FROM NEW YORK: IT’S MY PICKS FOR SNL’S BEST MOVIES!


They’re saying the old Eddie Murphy is back. Not quite. True, he’s back to playing a fast-talking con in the new movie TOWER HEIST but he doesn’t reach the heights he achieved in 48 HOURS or TRADING PLACES. He’s not helped by the comedy caper’s PG-13 rating that tames his tongue. Still, it’s great to see him energized and committed in a performance as opposed to the many where he merely showed up to collect a paycheck.
Eddie Murphy in TRADING PLACES (1983)

The success of former members from the SATURDAY NIGHT LIVE TV variety show in the movies remains a mixed bag. For every former cast member like Robert Downey, Jr. who’s done exemplary work on screen, you have a Chris Farley who squandered his talents in too many duds. Even more bewildering is someone like Adam Sandler, a performer capable of exceptional films (PUNCH-DRUNK LOVE, FUNNY PEOPLE) and unwatchable dreck (GROWN-UPS was my pick for worst film last year!)

The talented comedic talents who started on SNL have even appeared in some of the best dramas of the last 30 years like Dan Aykroyd who was Oscar-nominated for DRIVING MISS DAISY and Downey, Jr. who got a nod for playing CHAPLIN. But since most of the SNL alum's are comic actors, today’s list is going to dwell on the comedy genre. Here then are my picks for the 10 best comedies of all time starring SNL alumni, the ones I love, in descending order:
Kristen Wiig and Mya Rudolph in BRIDESMAIDS (2011)

10.) BRIDESMAIDS (2011)
Two of SNL’s better female talents – Kristen Wiig and Mya Rudolph - both excelled in this hilarious film about bridal party infighting. (Melissa McCarthy and Rose Byrne were superb as well.) This is more than your standard chick flick as Wiig's character plumbs great depths of despair, clinging to her maid of honor role like it’s all she has left because well, frankly it is. She's lost her business, is stuck in a disastrous relationship with a heel, and can't compete with the super rich and competent Byrne. It’s the pathos behind Wiig’s outrageous behavior that makes this so much more than just a raucous comedy. Her pain is our gain.
Harry Shearer, Christopher Guest and Michael McKean in THIS IS SPINAL TAP (1984)

9.) THIS IS SPINAL TAP (1984)
SNL alum's Christopher Guest, Michael McKean and Harry Shearer wrote and star in this brilliant comedy along with writer/producer/actor/director Rob Reiner. Together this foursome brought a new kind of satire to the movies: a fake documentary (it became known as a "mockumentary") that spoofed the navel-gazing world of celebrity. This behind-the-scenes examination of an aging metal band's grandiose concert tour contained large gags (a speaker dial that goes up to "11") and small (unexplained chancres clinging to the lips of the ribald band members).  The self-importance of celebrity was ridiculed with great relish. And never bettered.
McKean, Shearer and Guest again in A MIGHTY WIND (2003)
8.) A MIGHTY WIND (2003)
Christopher Guest again, this time a couple of decades later, and here ribbing the folk singing movement of the 1960's. The setting is a gala concert where the top acts gather to perform with Guest softening some of the satire with pathos surrounding these has-beens. The eccentrics here were played by an amazing collection of actors including Guest, McKean and Shearer again, as well as a pre-GLEE Jane Lynch, John Michael Higgins, Parker Posey, Fred Willard, Larry Miller and Ed Begley, Jr. There are terrific folk song parodies throughout that manage to be comical and eminently hummable. And as Mickey and Mitch, Catherine O’Hara and Eugene Levy played folk songbirds still pining for each other. Their shenanigans break you up. And their bittersweet longing for each other breaks your heart.
Tina Fey and Lindsay Lohan in MEAN GIRLS (2004)

7.) MEAN GIRLS (2004)
Ahh, Lindsay Lohan. Remember when she used to make terrific movies? Well, at least Playboy is helping her pay her bar tab this month. But back in 2004, she was the hottest young star in movies and in this clever comedy she played a smart girl turning into a mean one to score with the school's top clique. Written by and co-starring Tina Fey, one of SNL's best ever, she captured the contemporary snark of a modern teenage girl perfectly. And every performance here is sharp, from Rachel McAdams as the meanest of the mean to SNL’s Tim Meadows as the harried principal to Toronto stand-up Dwayne Hill as the buffoonish Coach Carr.
Billy Crystal and Meg Ryan in WHEN HARRY MET SALLY (1989)


6.) WHEN HARRY MET SALLY (1989)
People might forget but Billy Crystal spent a season on SNL back in 1984-1985. In fact, he was supposed to be among the very first season’s cast but did not make the cut. But in this witty and episodic romantic comedy, Crystal and Meg Ryan cut quite the iconic figure as the couple who are platonic friends struggling with life, age and other relationships until one day they realize they're in love with each other. This was a rom-com that took time to build up its relationship. (This should be at the top of Kim Kardashian's Netflix queue.) Writer Nora Ephron and director Rob Reiner made the best rom-com of the decade, perhaps of all time, with this one.
Dan Aykroyd and Eddie Murphy in TRADING PLACES (1983)

5.) TRADING PLACES (1983)
This is one of the two movies that made Eddie Murphy a superstar. The other was his 48 HOURS spent with Nick Nolte, and both films proved that Murphy is best when playing off of a worthy foil. Here he duets with Dan Aykroyd and they bring out the best in each other. This modern day 'Prince and the Pauper' also has a dream supporting cast with a sweet & sexy Jamie Lee Curtis, a droll Denholm Elliott, a pompous Paul Gleason, and the archly villainous Ralph Bellamy and Don Ameche. TRADING PLACES was not only a gem of a comedy but it was also a sharp indictment of the "greed is good" decade a full four years before Gordon Gekko came along.
Bill Murray with Jason Schwartzman in RUSHMORE (1998)


4.) RUSHMORE (1998)
Of all the SNL players to achieve movie stardom, I think Bill Murray has the best track record of all. He’s starred in so many good movies, both dramas (LOST IN TRANSLATION, GET LOW) and comedies (STRIPES, GHOSTBUSTERS, WHAT ABOUT BOB?, LITTLE SHOP OF HORRORS, ED WOOD and KINGPIN, just to name a few highlights). His supporting turn in RUSHMORE manages to combine a bit of both, with his eccentrically funny rich man longing for connection. Murray's tycoon befriends a precocious 15-year-old prep school student (Jason Schwartzman) and then ends up competing with him for the affections of the teacher they both have a crush on. It’s one of the strangest yet honeyed love triangles in film history, beautifully written by Wes Anderson and Owen Wilson, and directed with a deft hand by Anderson.
Mike Myers as Dr. Evil in AUSTIN POWERS: INTERNATIONAL MAN OF MYSTERY (1997)


3.) AUSTIN POWERS: INTERNATIONAL MAN OF MYSTERY (1997)
Mike Myers created not one, but two of the funniest characters in the history of movies in this outing. His parody of 1960’s espionage films gave us a clueless lothario in super-spy Austin Powers and even better, a clueless megalomaniac in villain Dr. Evil. The sequels were a collection of diminishing returns but everything clicked here in the original. It had ultra-groovy 60’s production design, cheeky support from Elizabeth Hurley and Michael York, and instantly quotable dialogue throughout. When Dr. Evil wants to kill Powers elaborately, he can't get any cooperation from his inept crew. “You know, I have one simple request. And that is to have sharks with frickin' laser beams attached to their heads!” bemoans Dr. Evil. You can't go to a Halloween party without seeing someone dressed as one or the other iconic character and quoting those lines all night. It's a testament to the lasting power of Powers.
Bill Murray in GROUNDHOG DAY (1993)



2.) GROUNDHOG DAY (1993)
This is the best comedy of the 90’s and also Bill Murray’s best ever, which is saying quite a lot. The intricate screenplay by Harold Ramis and Danny Rubin creates a complex and fascinating tale about a cynical weatherman who travels to Pennsylvania to cover “Groundhog Day”with all the enthusiasm of going to the dentist for a root canal. Then when he wakes the next day, he discovers that he's living the same "Groundhog Day" all over again. Each day is the same day, only he changes. Is he in hell? Some version of limbo? The film never tries to answer where God is in all of this, but Murray's weatherman does go through a profound spiritual awakening. He learns to live each day like it's his last. Or only.
John Belushi in ANIMAL HOUSE (1978)


1.) ANIMAL HOUSE (1978)
SNL's move from the small screen to the big screen started with John Belushi's auspicious debut in this enduring classic. He played Bluto, a lazy, but lovable student in his 7th year of college, struggling to keep a grade point at O.O. But more than book smarts, he had street smarts and he recognized the corrupt powers ruining his beloved campus. That's why he is the agitator who leads his fellow misfit frat brothers to rebel against "the man" in an all-out siege at the climax of the film. They're mad as hell and not taking it anymore. And their ruin of the establishment homecoming parade played less like destruction and more like just desserts. (How fitting that their float they ram the grandstand with has the words "Eat Me" written on its sides.) ANIMAL HOUSE was a political allegory when released in 1978, commenting pointedly on the corruption of American ideals during the Sixties and Seventies by our involvement in Viet Nam and the Watergate scandal. It endures to this day because it has a lot to say about the modern world we live in as well. America's youth is still disenfranchised, only now they can't get a job after earning their ridiculously expensive college degrees. I say ram the grandstand again and show today's Wormer's, Marmalard's and Niedermeyer's that anarchy reigns still!

Well, those are my picks for the 10 best ever. What film starring an SNLer really rocked your world? Keep the conversation going and share your picks in the message board below this post. Oh, and my next post here concerns the 10 worst ever starring an SNL star. That list will be quite the undertaking as sadly, there are so many awful movies to choose from!