Wednesday, April 30, 2014

The 2014 Tony Nominations

Yesterday morning, the Tony Award nominations were announced, recognizing the best on Broadway during the past season. For me, the Tony Awards are the only time of the year that I get a good glimpse of these shows, since I don't live in New York (and even if I did, I hardly have the money to regularly go to shows). This year, the American Theatre Wing went with more fall-premiering shows that spring debuts, and favored critical favorites and noted stage actors over popular hits and Hollywood stars. As Broadway musicals have increasingly been based on movies, or based on movies based on musicals (I know), this year saw them favor more "original" fare, with only one Best Musical nominee being based on a movie.

There were some surprises. Remarkably, Patrick Stewart's and Ian McKellan's two repertory plays, No Man's Land and Waiting For Godot, scored precisely zero nominations, a genuine surprise given how critically and popularly beloved the shows are. Similarly, the revival of Harold Pinter's classic play Betrayal, starring Daniel Craig and Rachel Weisz, came-up empty handed despite being the highest-grossing show of last fall. And the Michelle Williams-starring revival of Cabaret only managed two nominations, neither of which were for Williams nor the show itself.

Among musicals, A Gentleman's Guide to Love & Murder - a riff on Victorian comedies of manners - led in overall nominations, with 10, while Hedwig and the Angry Inch had 8 and After Midnight and Beautiful - The Carole King Musical followed 7. Among plays, revivals of Shakespeare's Twelfth Night and Tennessee Williams' The Glass Menagerie led with 7 nominations, followed by The Cripple of Inishmaan with 6 and Act One and the revival of A Raisin in the Sun with 5 apiece.

Below is the full list of the nominees. The Tony Awards will be given out on June 8. Links in the show categories go to the website for that show.


Act One, author: James Lapine
All the Way, author: Robert Schenkkan
Casa Valentina, author: Harvey Fierstein
Mothers and Sons, author: Terrence McNally
Outside Mullingar, author: John Patrick Shanley

Thanks to a new rule in voting for the show categories, if there are ten or more eligible works in a category, there can be a fifth nominee added to the category so long as the number of votes between the fourth and fifth nominee is three votes or less (traditionally there are four nominees in each show category). This category is the first to utilize that change, though it's unusual that Outside Mullingar was close enough to merit an nomination here despite not being nominated anywhere else. Overall, this category is made up of well-known playwrights who have all been nominated before, which leaves out new plays by newer voices.


After Midnight
Beautiful - The Carole King Musical
A Gentleman's Guide to Love & Murder

As I mentioned in the introduction, Aladdin is the only nominee based on a movie this year, with the others being an original comedy (A Gentleman's Guide to Love & Murder), a jazz revue (After Midnight), and a jukebox musical (Beautiful - The Carole King Musical). Should one of the latter three win the prize - and as of today, A Gentleman's Guide… is considered the frontrunner - it would be the first musical not based on a movie to win since The Book of Mormon in 2011. Some of the season's buzzier shows, such as If/Then and Bullets Over Broadway, surprisingly failed to make the cut.


Aladdin, Chad Beguelin
Beautiful - The Carole King Musical, Douglas McGrath
Bullets Over Broadway, Woody Allen
A Gentleman's Guide to Love & Murder, Robert L. Freedman

It's interesting to see both Allen and McGrath nominated in this category, considering that they co-wrote the script for Allen's film Bullets Over Broadway.


Aladdin; music by Alan Menken, lyrics by Howard Ashman, Tim Rice, and Chad Beguelin
The Bridges of Madison County; music & lyrics by Jason Robert Brown
A Gentleman's Guide to Love & Murder; music by Steven Lutvak, lyrics by Robert L. Freedman and Steven Lutvak
If/Then; music by Tom Kitt, lyrics by Brian Yorkey

Kitt and Yorkey are the Tony- and Pulitzer Prize-winning team behind next to normal, one of my all-time favorite musical scores, so I'm excited to check out their work on If/Then. Brown is best-known for his inventive musical The Last Five Years (currently being made into a movie), and his score for The Bridges of Madison County has received high praise as well. And of course, the Aladdin score incorporates the old favorites with new tunes.


The Cripple of Inishmaan
The Glass Menagerie
A Raisin in the Sun
Twelfth Night

Surprising but true fact: this year marks the first time ever that any production of The Glass Menagerie has received Tony nominations. While the original production premiered on Broadway in 1945 (before the inception of the Tony Awards), the play has since been considered an American classic and has been revived multiple times, yet never managed to earn a nomination until now. The revival of Twelfth Night has been a surprisingly robust one, outshining the other production in the Shakespearean repertory (Richard III) and featuring an all-male cast. A Raisin in the Sun had the benefit of starring Denzel Washington, helping set this production of the oft-revived play apart. And The Cripple of Inishmaan, from Irish playwright Martin McDonagh, made its Broadway debut this season, but officially premiered in London in 1996, which is why it's been (correctly) labeled a revival.


Hedwig and the Angry Inch
Les Miserables

Another rule change in the show categories is that if there are five or fewer eligible shows for a category, then there will only be three nominees, with the possibility of a fourth if the difference between the third and fourth nominee is three or less votes. With only four eligible shows (it was a rough year for musical revivals), Cabaret was the only one to miss the cut. Les Miserables is a former Best Musical winner and, obviously, was recently made into a hit movie. This revival - its second - comes only 11 years after the closing of the original production. Interestingly, both Hedwig and the Angry Inch - about an East German rock star suffering from a botched sex-change surgery - and Violet - about a disfigured woman in the 1960s who believes a televangelist can heal her - are making their Broadway debuts, but are considered revivals for having previous productions Off-Broadway.

The complete list of nominees, after the jump.

Tuesday, April 29, 2014

Hit Me With Your Best Shot: Mean Girls (2004)

*This post is part of the "Hit Me With Your Best Shot" blogathon at The Film Experience. Originally, this film was covered in 2010, but since I hadn't participated back then - and Nathaniel is opening it for new additions - I couldn't help but chime in.*

It's remarkable that we're actually coming up on the tenth anniversary of Mean Girls, which debuted in theaters on April 30, 2004. For one thing, I was in eighth grade at the time, and the film seemed like a portentous omen of what the next four years would be like for me (don't worry, I turned out fine; I found my "clique" with the band geeks and chorus kids, and we were awesome). But what's really astonishing is how successful the movie continues to be. Upon its release, Mean Girls did fine at the box office, but it was hardly a smash. But thanks to a fan base that is passionate and constantly growing, the film is as enormous as ever, thanks to cable re-runs, DVDs, endlessly quotable lines (even the White House does it), and Tumblr-ready .gif-able moments. It was a film made for our Internet age, before these social media sites even really existed.

More after the jump.

But it's also interesting to think about how it was a perfect confluence of talent at the exact right moment in their careers. Just take a look at where everyone was in 2004:

Lizzy Caplan, playing gothy Janis Ian, was an unknown entity. She would earn even more cult cred for the short-lived Starz comedy Party Down, becoming an Internet-favored actress, and ultimately landing a lead role in Showtime's drama series Masters of Sex.

Similarly, Amanda Seyfried, playing dim-bulb "Plastic" Karen, was a relative unknown. Her career would take off as a result, with parts in films as diverse as Mamma Mia, In Time, Les Miserables, and the upcoming Seth MacFarlane comedy A Million Ways to Die in the West.

Tim Meadows (Principal Duvall), Amy Poehler (Regina's mom), and Tina Fey (Ms. Norbury; she also wrote the screenplay) were primarily known as cast members of Saturday Night Live, and only Meadows had really broken out before this film (with the noted flop The Ladies Man).

Rachel McAdams, of course, had a banner year in 2004. The combination of playing Queen Bee Regina George in this film and her role opposite Ryan Gosling in The Notebook made her an instant star, which she would follow-up with another smash the following year in Wedding Crashers before slowly fading out of the spotlight. She's attempted a comeback, most recently with About Time last year.

And then there's Lindsay Lohan. There's already been so much written about Lohan post-Mean Girls, so I won't reiterate the gritty details of her spiral from promising actress to self-made tabloid fodder. But the former of those is abundantly apparent in this film. As new-kid-in-school Cady Herron, Lohan is a comic wonder, perfectly nailing Cady's transition from shy sweetheart to treacherous manipulator. She had an undeniably bright future ahead of her, and even if the subsequent decade squandered most of it on breakdowns and awful movies, at least Mean Girls continues to stand as an artifact of what could have been.

A true testament to the film's staying power is the biting, quippy script that Fey wrote for this film. The film is a tour de force of razor-sharp satire, which is all the more impressive considering that the book the film is based on, Rosalind Wiseman's Queen Bees and Wannabees, is essentially a self-help book for mothers with teenage daughters. Fey turns it into a post-Y2K version of Heathers, the 1988 film that serves as the most obvious forbearer to this film (another being 1995's Clueless). Fey and director Mark Andrews get a lot of mileage out of Cady's background of being raised in the African bush by sociologists, wasting no opportunity to present North Shore High as an unruly jungle, where the popular girls - the "Plastics" - are the top of the food chain. The flights-of-fancy cutaways that populate the movie are essential to this aesthetic: through Cady's point-of-view, we see her fellow students devolve into beasts at the watering hole, behaving on primal instinct rather than wit and cunning.

Cleverly, these fantasy sequences set up the epic melee in the film's third act, when the Plastics' "Burn Book" is turned in and published by Regina in a scheme to bring Cady down. The junior girls see all of the mean things written about them, realize that their friends have been saying awful things behind their backs, and a full-scale fight breaks out. Even though this sequence is based in the "reality" of the film, it feels like a payoff of Cady's mental comparisons.

*Best Shot*

And, in the midst of it all, there stands Regina George. The queen of the jungle, she surveys the scene with a sense of pride in her accomplishments. Even after Cady tricked her into eating an "all-carb diet" to loose weight, knocking her down several rungs in the social order, Regina is confident in her ability to still hold power over everyone in the school. You can knock a good queen bee down, but what happens when you make a bee mad? Everyone gets stung.

Looking back on the film for this post, I realized I had forgotten that there's a very sad idea at its core: Regina and other "mean girls" make people's lives miserable. In between the war of sabotage between Cady and Regina, Cady's attempts to "crack" Regina's right-hand Gretchen (Lacey Chabert) reveals the fallout of their friendship. Gretchen has given up a lot, even pretending to dislike her parents' gifts, because Regina so thoroughly controls her life. Both Gretchen and Karen - and, inevitably, Cady at her worst - define themselves by Regina's terms. They've convinced themselves, to paraphrase Cady, that being miserable but popular is better than being happy and unpopular. In hindsight, with maturity, this sounds insane, but I can vividly remember that being the prevailing mindset at my high school. So it's surprisingly heartbreaking when Gretchen cracks and tells Cady about how horrible Regina makes her life.

But of course, what people always (and rightfully remember) about this film is how incredibly funny it is. Every time I see this movie, I'm always amazed by how it deftly handles a number of disparate tones, switching from ditzy goofiness to dark sightgags to scathing sarcasm with remarkable ease. It's a testament to how in-tune everyone involved was with Fey's sense of humor, and if you squint hard enough, you can make out elements of this film that would carry over into her NBC comedy series 30 Rock. So I'll close this out with a few images that I always find funny:

Just how bad is Regina George? Obviously, she once punched a girl in the face, and "it was awesome." But I love when, in the assembly after the Burn Book reveal, Ms. Norbury asks anyone who's personally felt victimized by Regina to raise their hands:

Nobody is safe.

Speaking of Duvall, I'm also really fond of the fact that when he's alerted to the riot happening in the hallway, the first thing he does is grab a baseball bat:

Sorry for the blurriness.

I also really like that this action is subtly referenced when he later proclaims, "oh hell no, I did not leave the Southside for this." He's clearly been in this sort of situation before.

Finally, probably my favorite little beat in the entire movie is the smile that comes across Karen's face during the trust fall. Gretchen apologizes to the school, claiming she "can't help it that she's popular," and as she prepares to fall backward into the crowd. But everyone else has backed away, leaving only Karen:

As we say in the South, bless her heart.

Monday, April 28, 2014

Jane Campion's Cannes Jury is Wonderful

Seriously, she's working with a ton of amazing artists this year for the Main Competition at Cannes. It's hard to believe that the festival is just a little over two weeks away! (In case you missed it, here are ten films to look forward to from the festival).

Here's the lineup:

Jane Campion, writer/director/producer, President of the Jury (New Zealand).

She's best known for The Piano (1993), for which she became the first (and so far only) woman to win the Palme d'Or at Cannes. Her most recent project was the miniseries Top of the Lake, which aired in the United States on Sundance Channel last year.

Carole Bouquet, actress (France).

Bouquet's first feature film was Luis Bunuel's 1977 surrealist classic That Obscure Object of Desire, and later appeared as a Bond girl in For Your Eyes Only (1981). She continues to act in her native France.

Sofia Coppola, writer/director/producer (United States).

Now here's a woman who needs no introduction. The daughter of Francis Ford Coppola, she's made her name as a director who mostly examines the lives of the rich and famous. Lost in Translation (2003) and Marie Antoinette (2006) remain her best-known (and best) films, and The Bling Ring (2013) is her most recent.

Leila Hatami, actress (Iran).

Hatami is a major star in Iran, but she is best known internationally for her stunning performance as a woman seeking a divorce in Asghar Farhadi's masterpiece, A Separation (2011).

Jeon Do-yeon, actress (South Korea).

A hugely popular actress in Korea, Jeon became the first Korean to win the Best Actress prize at Cannes in 2007, for Secret Sunshine. She earned international raves again in 2010 for a remake of The Housemaid, and has several other films in the works.

Willem Dafoe, actor (United States).

A two-time Oscar nominee, Dafoe is perhaps best known to American audiences as the Green Goblin in Spider-Man (2002). However, he is no stranger to, um, stranger films, having worked with filmmakers ranging from Wes Anderson to Lars von Trier to Martin Scorsese.

Gael Garcia Bernal, actor/director/producer (Mexico).

Bernal has quickly established himself as one of Mexico's finest actors, having appearing in a number of internationally acclaimed films. A sample of those: Amores Perros (2000), Y Tu Mama Tambien (2002), The Motorcycle Diaries (2004), and No (2012).

Jia Zhangke, writer/director/producer (China).

Just last year, Zhangke took home the Best Screenplay prize at Cannes for A Touch of Sin (2013), which was banned in his native China due to censorship issues. He's considered one of China's most important filmmakers today, as well as a leader of the nation's "Sixth Generation" filmmakers.

Nicolas Winding Refn, writer/director/producer (Denmark).

Refn is famous for the punishing, brutal violence of his films, which include the Pusher (1996-2005) trilogy and Valhalla Rising (2009). However, his most well-received film (and indeed, his best) is Drive (2011), the Ryan Gosling-starring deconstruction of Hollywood action movies, which also won him the Best Director prize at Cannes in 2011. His most recent film, Only God Forgives (2013), debuted at the festival last year.

There is no doubt in my mind that these hugely talented and amazing people have impeccable taste. I can't wait to see what their selections are.

Saturday, April 26, 2014

Short Takes: "The Broken Circle Breakdown," Spike Lee's "Oldboy," and More

The Broken Circle Breakdown (dir. Felix van Groeningen, 2013)

Belgium's 2013 Oscar nominee for Best Foreign Language Film is a familiar story dressed up with some intriguing elements. Atheist bluegrass singer Didier (Johan Heldenbergh) falls in love with devout tattoo artist Elise (Veerle Baetens) and they have a daughter, Maybelle (Nell Cattrysse). However, Maybelle is struck with a debilitating disease, which puts a considerable strain on Didier and Elise's relationship. It's interesting how the film essentially functions as a musical drama, with their performances of bluegrass standards underscoring the emotional moments (an impromptu rendition of "Didn't Leave Nobody but the Baby" at a funeral is especially heart-wrenching). Van Groeningen impressively shifts portions of the film through time, creating a patchwork of the couple's relationship that, for the most part, creates a strong emotional portrait of these two wounded lovers. Heldenbergh does a terrific job of portraying Didier's anger at the situation, but Baetens is the one who owns the movie: her quiet struggle with her love and her faith is sublimely stunning. She helps the film power through its more miserablist tendencies. B+

Pocahontas (dirs. Eric Goldberg & Mike Gabriel, 1995)

The "Disney Renaissance" of the 1990s marked a notable improvement in Disney's creative and financial reputations, owing to the animation wing's interest in revitalizing the animated musical and telling emotionally complex stories. Pocahontas, though, stands out in particular, being the only film during this time based on a true story. When English explorers, led by Captain John Smith (voice of Mel Gibson), come ashore in what would become Virginia, Pocahontas (voice of Irene Bedrad) and her tribe are (rightfully) afraid of them. But when Pocahontas and Smith fall in love, the relationship between the groups becomes more complicated. The film broaches upon some surprisingly heavy themes for a Disney film, and was considered by the company to be a "prestige" project. Though it is emotionally and thematically complex, the film doesn't quite succeed in everything it attempts, and often feels more like a sketch of what the film wanted to be rather than a fully-developed film. That being said, the animation is gorgeous, and it features some of the most complex music in the Disney canon. (Best ShotB+

More from the Dardenne Brothers, Spike Lee, Nicole Holofcener, and others after the jump.

Thursday, April 24, 2014

Laughing Matters: The State of the Network Sitcom

A few weeks ago - well, over a month ago, really - Vulture put up an article about why smaller-rated comedies like FOX's Brooklyn Nine-Nine, New Girl, and The Mindy Project, or NBC's Parks and Recreation and Community, were better for the long-term future of the network sitcom than blockbusters like ABC's Modern Family. The article argues that these shows are smart and funny, and though they garner small overall ratings, they score high in key demographics that the networks can then parlay into enticing specific advertisers for each show. Essentially, writer Josef Adalian argues that thinking like cable networks will help keep the broadcast networks afloat, at least when it comes to programming comedies.

Shortly afterward, veteran sitcom writer Ken Levine (M*A*S*H, Cheers, Frasier) wrote two separate responses on his blog: one a direct rebuttal to the Vulture article, the other a "defense of jokes." The first post argues that not aiming high in the ratings will always be detrimental, and that FOX and NBC would never keep these shows around if they had a ratings juggernaut on their schedules. The latter makes the argument that these shows aren't funny because "telling jokes" has become passé, and notes that the shows that still follow a traditional sitcom format - CBS' The Big Bang Theory and Modern Family - are the ones who are still dominating the ratings. In short, he defends the old-school he hails from, arguing that the form isn't dead yet.

The cast of New Girl

So naturally, I'm going to throw my hat in the ring and say that both sides have points that are good and bad.

More after the jump.

Tuesday, April 22, 2014

Hit Me With Your Best Shot: Pocahontas (1995)

*This post is part of the "Hit Me With Your Best Shot" blogathon at The Film Experience*

The story of Pocahontas and the first (permanent) English settlement in Jamestown has been oft-told, but hardly accurately told on screen. The two most famous film versions of the story came ten years apart, and only in recent times. 2005's The New World was filmed and released close to the 400th anniversary of the settlement (2007), but director Terrence Malick was far more interested in examining the environmental impact of European colonialism on the American landscape than he was in really telling the Jamestown story (this isn't a problem, because the film is gorgeous). Then there's this week's "Hit Me…" selection, the 1995 animated Disney musical Pocahontas. This film goes for romantic sweep as Pocahontas (voice of Irene Bedard / singing voice of Judy Kuhn), the daughter of a Powhatan chief (voice of Russell Means), falls in love with handsome John Smith (voice of Mel Gibson), an Englishman who's arrived with an expedition set on "glory, God, and gold" (though not necessarily in that order). From the fact that the latter phrase was actually the justification the Spanish used for exploration to the fact that Pocahontas never married Smith, it's safe to say that Pocahontas plays very fast and loose with history.

But historical accuracy isn't the point, at least the way that directors Eric Goldberg and Mike Gabriel frame the film. Instead, the film has broader ambitions befitting Disney's reference to it as a "prestige" project: a rip-snorting adventure for the kids, a rectification of Hollywood's previous portrayals of Native Americans for the adults, and a sweeping romantic epic for everyone.

More after the jump.

Sunday, April 20, 2014

Sight & Sound Sunday: Close-Up (1990)

*In 2012, Sight & Sound published its decennial list of the greatest films of all time, from critics and directors. "Sight & Sound Sunday" is a biweekly feature that investigates the top 50 films from this list, exploring how they came to be regarded as classics.*

2012 poll rank: #42 (tied with Pather PanchaliSome Like It HotGertrudPlay Time, and Pierrot le Fou)

Sometimes truth really is stranger than fiction. In 1989, a poor man by the name of Hossein Sabzian had a chance encounter on a bus with Mrs. Ahankhan, a middle-class wife in northern Tehran. Sabzian was reading a copy of the screenplay for The Cyclist, the latest film from esteemed Iranian filmmaker Moshen Makhmalbaf. Mrs. Ahankhan, being a fan of the film, asked where he had purchased the book. Sabzian told her that he was Makhmalbaf, and ended up coming to her home and meeting the rest of the Ahankhan family. Sabzian would continue to visit the Ahankhans for several days, going so far as to proclaim he would shoot his next film in their home and offered their children parts in the film. However, when a newspaper headline about the real Makhmalbaf cast suspicion amongst the Ahankhans about their visitor, the police were called and Sabzian was arrested and charged with fraud and attempted fraud.

Later that year, Iranian director Abbas Kiaorstami read an article about the incident in Sorush magazine, and immediately decided that it would be the subject of his next film. Close-Up is more than just a dramatization of incident, though, as Kiaorstami instead found a way to blend fact and fiction that turned the film into a international critical sensation, establishing Kiaorstami as a preeminent world filmmaker and arriving as one of several films that sparked a renewed interest in the West in Iranian cinema.

More after the jump.

Saturday, April 19, 2014

(Late) Thoughts on David Letterman and Stephen Colbert

Just about two years ago, Louie closed it's third season on FX with a trilogy of episodes titled "Late Show," in which Louis C.K.'s character - an exaggerated version of himself - was groomed by CBS to take David Letterman's place on The Late Show when Letterman announced his retirement. These were among the show's best episodes, particularly with directors Garry Marshall and David Lynch as studio executives leading Louie through an intense battery of emotional duress and Chris Rock giving him bad advice. At the time, though, it was Jay Leno who was retiring, relinquishing (for real this time) control of The Tonight Show on NBC, which eventually went to current host Jimmy Fallon.

Now, here we are, with Letterman's actual retirement. It's a moment that pretty much surprised everyone. Based on the video from his on-air announcement, even he seems a little taken aback when he actually says the words:

CBS spent very little time choosing a replacement, naming The Colbert Report host Stephen Colbert the heir to the Late Show desk. This means that Colbert will bring his eponymous, Emmy-winning Comedy Central show to close later this year and take over the Late Show in 2015.

I don't watch a lot of late-night television: what little bit I do see comes in the form of the viral videos and YouTube clips that come the next day. I certainly haven't seen much of Letterman's show, so I can't really pay tribute to him. He began his career as a raucous, subversive comedian, and in the early days of Late Show he continued to offer a sarcastic alternative to Jay Leno's "squareness" (Leno and Letterman have a contentious history, as Leno infamously outmaneuvered Letterman to replace Johnny Carson as host of The Tonight Show). However, many will say that the past decade or so have seen him settle into a comfortable groove, rolling out easy gags and generally putting his rebellious side to rest. What little bit I have seen of his show has been amusing and enjoyable, but not necessarily must-see TV.

As for Colbert, it will be interesting to see how he fares in this segment of the late-night environment. In the 18-49 demographic, The Colbert Report has been routinely trumping The Late Show, and CBS obviously hopes that Colbert will bring some of that audience with him. However, The Late Show with Stephen Colbert will hardly be The Colbert Report 2.0: this will be many audiences' first glimpse of Colbert outside of his faux-conservative blowhard persona, and he'll need to be able to handle the opening monologue (he does have stand-up experience), entertain, and interview guests. The last one is the most interesting prospect: on The Colbert Report, Colbert was able to mix it up with scientists, authors, and politicians, as well as entertainers, meaning he could illicit intellectual conversation even as he playfully pretended to poke holes in their statements. However, The Late Show will require him to mostly interview actors and musicians with projects they need to plug. Ideally, he'll prove himself to be an insightful interviewer and manage to turn these would-be puff pieces into something more, and he'll be able to pull some weight to nab a greater variety of guests. But one wonders whether CBS will really want to play ball with that.

However, it's hard to really know anymore what to make of a new host in late-night. The retirements of Letterman and Leno have brought the end of era; the version of late-night we used to know has been transformed by the viral-video click-bait of Jimmy Fallon and Jimmy Kimmel, the goofy absurdity of Conan O'Brien and Craig Ferguson, and the news-skewering of Jon Stewart and John Oliver (only Seth Meyers and Arsenio Hall still represent the "old-guard" late-night format). Colbert, for as successful an entertainer as he is, may find his new home a bit difficult to adjust to at first. But I think he has a lot of potential to do something truly special with The Late Show. Here's hoping he lives up to it.

Thursday, April 17, 2014

Ten Films I'm Looking Forward to at Cannes 2014

Earlier this morning, the curators of the 67th Cannes Film Festival, running May 14-25 in the famed French locale, announced the lineup of each segment of the festival, including the prestigious "Main Competition" segment. This year, the festival heavily favored European filmmakers (though that's not too unusual), with the major headlines focusing on the showdown between master British filmmakers Ken Loach (Jimmy's Hall) and Mike Leigh (Mr. Turner). Main Competition jury president Jane Campion (The Piano, Bright Star) certainly has plenty of great films to choose from, but here are the ten films that I'm looking forward to the most.

(All films are in the "Main Competition" section unless otherwise noted)

Grace of Monaco (dir. Olivier Dahan)

Opening out-of-competition as the opening night film, Grace of Monaco was speculated to be released last year just in time for the Oscar cutoff, but was ultimately pushed back. Starring Nicole Kidman as actress-turned-royalty Princess Grace Kelly, the film has had a tumultuous history, including Dahan's very public denouncement of producer Harvey Weinstein's right to the final cut of the film. All of that aside, Dahan is best known for La Vie en Rose, the Edith Piaf biopic that won Marion Cotillard a Best Actress Oscar, and Kidman is an inspired choice to play the famed icon. Hopefully, it delivers on its much-anticipated promise.

The Search (dir. Michel Hazanavicius)

After winning the Best Director Oscar in 2011 and watching his film The Artist go on to win four other Oscars, including Best Picture, Hazanavicius has been very quiet in the years following. All that was known was that he wanted his next film to be a remake of the 1948 Montgomery Clift drama The Search. Finally, he's made the film, and like The Artist, it will bow at Cannes. The film updates the premise - a mother and child search for each other after being separated by war - from post-WWII Berlin to war-torn Chechnya, in which an NGO worker bonds with a young boy. Annette Bening and Berenice Bejo (who also starred in The Artist and is Hazanavicius' wife) are the only confirmed cast members at the moment, though more will surely be made available by the time it premieres. It's about time Hazanavicius finally returned to our cinemas.

More after the jump.

Wednesday, April 16, 2014

La Grande Bellezza (The Great Beauty) (2013)

Italy is so often associated with love, romance, beauty, and sophistication that those adjectives have become essential parts of the nation's identity abroad. Ask most Americans what they know about the country, and they'll likely mention pizza, the Mafia, Rome the city, Rome the empire, wine, and amore.  What you likely wouldn't hear, of course, is Mussolini, political scandal, and bankruptcy, all things that are also, for better or worse, ingrained in Italy's identity. So when an Italian film by the name of La grande bellezza - The Great Beauty - comes around, having premiered at Cannes in 2013 and later winning the Best Foreign Language Film Oscar, the expectation is a lovingly shot portrait of a nation built on bohemian ideals of love and beauty.

That's exactly what The Great Beauty delivers, but not in the way you'd expect. The film centers on Jep Gambardella (Toni Servillo), an aging socialite who writes culture columns for a Roman newspaper. Jep is introduced at his 65th birthday party, as he celebrates the high life that he's always lived. This birthday, coupled with a few other events in his life, cause him to re-evaluate the lifestyle he sustains, the city he lives in, and the lack of fulfillment in his life.

More after the jump.

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Hit Me With Your Best Shot: The Letter (1940)

*This post is part of the "Hit Me With Your Best Shot" blogathon at The Film Experience*

A full moon shines bright in the night sky, but clouds drift in front of it, obscuring the view of that all-seeing eye in the sky. There's a sticky stillness hanging in the air over this rubber plantation in early-20th-century British Singapore, as the native workers lounge about in the quiet and latex drips from a tapped tree into a bucket. The silence is broken by a gunshot, coming from inside the house. It's followed by another, and a man stumbles out onto the front porch. Behind him stands a woman, Leslie Crosbie (Bette Davis), who fires again as he tumbles down the steps and lands face-down in the dirt. Even though he's most certainly dead, Leslie empties the rest of the rounds into his back. The light of the moon peeks out from behind the cloud. Leslie's deed is exposed to the world.

This is how The Letter, William Wyler's 1940 adaptation of W. Somerset Maugham's play of the same name, opens, and from there it's all about Leslie's efforts to prove that she shot the man, a mutual friend by the name of Geoff Hammond (David Newell), in self-defense. She has no trouble convincing her husband Robert (Herbert Marshall) that she's innocent. It's her lawyer, Howard Joyce (James Stephenson), who she has a more difficult time persuading, especially when a letter Leslie had written to Hammond emerges and offers hard evidence that this murder had been in the works for some time.

Don't let Davis' wide-eyed innocence fool you. There's malicious satisfaction burning behind those famous pupils.

More after the jump.

Monday, April 7, 2014

The Lone Ranger (2013)

"It reminds me of a critic who called Flashdance a 'toxic dump.' Ten years later [the critic] said, 'this is really a good movie. I missed it.' I think [The Lone Ranger] is going to be looked back on as a brave, wonderful film."
- Producer Jerry Bruckheimer, to Vulture, on July 29, 2013 

The Lone Ranger was not the kind of flop that Walt Disney Pictures needed, but it wasn't one that would necessarily hurt the company either. On the one hand, the company can afford a flop: where this film and 2012's John Carter failed, the massive successes of The Avengers and Frozen, plus the numerous other ventures Disney is involved in, helped balance things out. On the other hand, they were dealing with a film that was in peril before cameras even began rolling. In 2011, the production was essentially cancelled, three years after Johnny Depp had signed on to play Tonto, because the budget was ballooning out of control. After agreeing to significant cuts, the film finally began shooting in 2012, but was marred by wildfires, weather, a chickenpox outbreak and the death of a crew member. Having finally finished principle photography, the film was slated for a prime release date over the Fourth of July weekend. It opened in second-place, with roughly $48 million - about one-third of what first-place film Despicable Me 2 made. Against a production budget of $215 million, the film's total domestic gross came in just over $89 million.

It seems fitting, then, that the first major setpiece in the film is an actual train wreck.

More after the jump.

Sunday, April 6, 2014

Sight & Sound Sunday: Stalker (1979)

*In 2012, Sight & Sound published its decennial list of the greatest films of all time, from critics and directors. "Sight & Sound Sunday" is a biweekly feature that investigates the top 50 films from this list, exploring how they came to be regarded as classics.*

2012 poll rank: #29 (tied with Shoah)

There are very few directors who have earned such high acclaim for such limited output as Soviet auteur Andrei Tarkovsky. By the time of his untimely death from a rare cancer in 1986, he had made seven narrative features (five in the Soviet Union, and two in exile in Western Europe). While all seven films have been heralded as masterpieces, three of those films have been in included in the top 50 of the most recent Sight & Sound poll. The only other directors to match that total are Jean-Luc Godard (four) and Francis Ford Coppola (three), and both of those are more fondly remembered for a distinct period in their career rather than their total output. Tarkovsky, though, was a talent who was felled before could build a larger body of work. As a result, it seems all the more impressive that he was able to craft such innovative, completely realized films (though a part of this was thanks to working in the Soviet system, where he spent years developing projects before being given the funds to shoot).

Unlike Dziga Vertov and Sergei Eisenstein, the Soviet directors that were previously covered in this series, Tarkovsky spent his short career making films that were subtly subversive of the Soviet government and its policies. Several of his films - including Andrei Rublev and Mirror, which will be covered in later editions of this series - criticized the regime's strict enforcement of atheism, and while nearly all of them rebelled against the idea of "commercial cinema," they weren't necessarily endorsing communist ideology, either.

But as Stalker demonstrates, Tarkovsky's main interest was creating films that could only be described as art, and pushing the form beyond mere entertainment.

More after the jump.

Saturday, April 5, 2014

Short Takes: Pi, The Past, and more

L.A. Confidential (dir. Curtis Hanson, 1997)

Even on multiple viewings, it can be difficult to untangle the knotty plots and twisted morality of L.A. Confidential. But when the film is this good, those viewings are never short of rewarding. It's 1950s Los Angeles, and by-the-book Ed Exley (Guy Pearce), brutish Bud White (Russell Crowe), and showboating Jack Vincennes (Kevin Spacey) find themselves entangled in a diner shooting that goes much deeper than any of them know. The Oscar-winning script - written by Hanson and Brian Helgeland - masterfully balances the whodunnit plotting with sharp characterization, carefully pulling back the glossy layers of Hollywood life to expose its seedy underbelly. It's a story about how corruption is like a virus, and the film is at it's best when it focuses on this aspect. It's odd, then, that Kim Basinger's Oscar-winning performance is one of the film's weakest aspects. Her performance is solid, but her character is never given all that much to do. The rest of the film, though, works like gangbusters. (Best Shot discussed here) A-

The Letter (dir. William Wyler, 1940)

Based on the play of the same name by W. Somerset Maugham, The Letter tells the sordid tale of Leslie (Bette Davis), the wife of a Singapore plantation owner who shoots a man in her home. She claims it's self-defense, and her husband Robert (Herbert Marshall) fully stands by her, but her lawyer (James Stephenson) questions her story when an incriminating letter surfaces. The draw here, of course, is Davis, who does a terrific job at playing a woman who's far too confident in her ability to pull of a "perfect murder," and she manages to make Leslie sympathetic despite her crimes. Wyler's direction isn't flashy, but it is dependable and story-focused, and he succeeds in conveying the heat and humidity of Southeast Asia. The only major problem with the film is the third act: it was changed from the original to satisfy the censors, but it comes at the cost of the characterizations and plot development that the film had been building up to that point. It's the only thing holding it back from being a true classic. (Best Shot post coming April 15) 

Pi (dir. Darren Aronofsky, 1998)

Pi, Aronofsky's feature film debut, feels very much like the first feature by a talent who's confident in their voice. The film concerns a mathematician (Sean Gullette) who's obsessed with discovering a number that will be key to understanding all of the underlying patterns of existence, only to be slowly driven to madness by his quest. Aronofsky regular Mark Margolis appears as a fellow mathematician who has long since given up on the same endeavor. The film, shot in black-and-white, is a taut psychological thriller that plays like an unholy union of Dostoevsky, David Lynch, and David Cronenberg, and Aronofsky showcases his penchant for stories of destructive obsession with visual flair. At a brisk 84 minutes, it has difficulty culminating to a coherent ending. But it set the stage for a career that has never been short of fascinating. B

The Past (dir. Asghar Farhadi, 2013)

At first, I intended to write a full-length review of The Past, Iranian auteur Asghar Farhadi's follow-up to his acclaimed masterpiece A Separation. However, I decided against that for two reasons. First, it's very hard to discuss this film without spoiling its many twists, and it works so much better when the viewer goes in blind. The most I'll say is that film involves Marie (Berenice Bejo), a French woman living in Paris who is in the process of finalizing her divorce with her Iranian husband Ahmad (Ali Mossafa), who is confronted with secrets from the past that threatens her current relationship with Samir (Tahar Rahim). The second is that this is a film that needs to sit for a while, viewed again, and re-analyzed to grasp everything that it's accomplishing. Bejo - who won the Best Actress prize at Cannes last year for this role - and Mossafa give especially great performances, as does Elyes Aguis as Samir's young son Fouad. The only slight demerit for the film is that it may have one twist too many, slightly robbing the film of potential emotional power. But more than anything, this is a film that demands to be seen. Do yourself a favor and check it out. A

Can't Stop the Music (dir. Nancy Walker, 1980)

As a pseudo-biopic about the formation of popular disco group Village People, Can't Stop the Music rightfully is kitschy and goofy. The film is perhaps today best known as the inspiration for the Razzie Awards (it was the first "Worst Picture" "winner") and as a cult favorite, but at the time it was a major flop. To be fair, this isn't a particularly great movie. The acting talent of Village People is serviceable at best, while Steve Guttenberg mugs for the camera and Valerie Perrine sometimes seems pained to even be involved in this mess. Similarly, Walker - in her only feature-film directing credit - often seems confused as how frame a scene, leading to a lot of shambling action. Yet all of that comes together in a way that's silly fun, and the musical sequences - especially "YMCA" and "Can't Stop the Music" - are energetic blasts. In many ways, the film is like Village People themselves: ridiculous, over-the-top, and highly entertaining. (Best Shot discussed hereB

Wednesday, April 2, 2014

Action Hero World Champion: An Addendum

Last week, I published an article about who the current "action hero world champion" is, with a list of possible contenders. Since hitting "publish," I've realized - thanks to input from Facebook and Twitter - that there are a handful of actors that I had (shamefully) neglected to include in the first go-round, as well as clarify the criteria that I was using in creating my list.

I was working from a slightly different framework than writer Bill Simmons did in the piece that inspired last week's article. For one, I included franchises such as Mission: Impossible and James Bond, but tried to keep superheroes out of it for the most part. "Action heroes," by this definition, only have one superpower: being able to kick copious amounts of ass. Moreover, they had to meet to other qualifications: the actor must be best known for their work in action movies, and they must be best known for that work within roughly the past five years. For example: I chose Liam Neeson because his recent work has mostly been in action films, and today he's more well-known for those than his more serious roles. If we had done this in 2007, on the other hand, Angelina Jolie would have definitely made the cut with the Tomb Raider franchise and Mr. & Mrs. Smith; since then, even with films like Wanted and Salt, she doesn't do action movies quite as often, and she's more famous for many more, better reasons related to her humanitarian efforts.

Granted, these qualifications don't necessarily clarify every candidate that I listed. Jennifer Lawrence, for example, remains an enormously iffy choice, which I'll still defend because her most famous role of the moment is Katniss Everdeen in the Hunger Games movies. However, it's very likely that she won't be on this list any more once that series ends. But hopefully that makes my reasoning a little more understandable.

Now, here are a few more contenders for the "action hero world champion" title, after the jump.

Tuesday, April 1, 2014

Hit Me With Your Best Shot: Can't Stop the Music (1980)

*This post is part of the "Hit Me With Your Best Shot" blogathon at The Film Experience*

Time to state the obvious: there are a lot of "bad" movies out there. Cinephiles - myself included - easily get wrapped up in discussing the works of auteurs, filmmakers that are considered geniuses and seek out their masterworks. These films prove our belief that film is an art, and that they are worthy of dissection and interpretation just as much as the symphonies of Beethoven and the paintings of Monet. Oscar geeks - again, myself included - obsess over completely subjective labels of "best" by awards bodies that treat film as an art, but trend toward "comfortable" over "difficult" when presenting their honors. We bicker endlessly about whether The Artist was really better than The Tree of Life, or debate the merits of American Beauty topping films that weren't even nominated. But for every one of these films that makes the official "great film" canon, or has its named etched on the Academy's historical record, or places on the decennial Sight & Sound poll, there are hundreds of other films that simply come out, are seen by people, perhaps are even enjoyed, but then disappear into the ether. Most simply suffer the fate of indifference; these films, like the Usher-starring In the Mix, vanish from the collective conscious, only remembered when they surface in a Wal-Mart five-dollar-DVD bin. But every once in a while, one of these films goes down in infamy: it's a work that's so bad, either in quality or reputation, that it becomes a source of fascination. These are the Showgirls, the I Know Who Killed Mes, the Caligulas; these are the films that were made to be discovered late at night on basic cable, then seen again with friends who don't believe it could be real.

More after the jump: