Saturday, August 30, 2014

Meet the 2014 Honorary Oscar Recipients

Every year, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences presents Honorary Oscars to members of the film community in recognition of their contributions to the medium. Though it would be ideal to just present these awards to people who have no previous nominations or wins, it doesn't always work out that way; in fact, two of this year's four recipients have multiple nominations and a win each to their names. The recipients will receive their awards at the Governors Awards on November 8.

Here are this year's honorees, three of which will receive Honorary Oscars and one who will receive the Jean Hersholt Humanitarian Award.


Maureen O'Hara

O'Hara was born in Dublin, Ireland, in 1920 and arrived in Hollywood when she was still a teenager, with her first significant role coming in Alfred Hitchcock's 1939 adventure film Jamaica Inn. She made a splash that same year with The Hunchback of Notre Dame, in which she played Esmerelda opposite Charles Laughton's Quasimodo. From there she would have a lengthy career throughout the 1940s and 1950s, appearing in films ranging from Miracle on 34th Street (1947) to Sinbad the Sailor (1947), from A Woman's Secret (1949) to The Parent Trap (1961). She was also a favorite of director John Ford, who cast her in five of his films, including How Green Was My Valley (1941), Rio Grande (1950), and The Quiet Man (1952). Incredibly, despite her obvious talent, she was never nominated for an Oscar throughout her career. Her most recent screen credit is in The Last Dance (2000), a TV movie for CBS, as she retired earlier that year.

More after the jump

Friday, August 29, 2014

First Predictions for the 87th Academy Awards: The "Way Too Early" Edition

After a lot of hand-wringing and a typing marathon, I've finally updated the "Academy Awards" page here on the blog with the first predictions for this year's Oscars. Predicting the awards this early - before most of these films have premiered, and with some still filming - is a foolhardy endeavor, since right now all I have to go on is trends in Academy voting and how these films look on paper. The deeper we get into the season, the clearer the picture will get, as some films surprise where others crash and burn.

A few burning questions for this preliminary set of predictions:

Will the Best Actor category actually feature nothing but first-time nominees? So far, that seems to be the case. The only one of the top contenders that has previous nominations right now is Ralph Fiennes (The Grand Budapest Hotel), and at the moment I'm not all that convinced that he can break into the category this year, as its an odd performance and the film came out way back in March. It's rare for an acting category to not have any previous nominees - the last time it happened was in 1999, in Best Supporting Actress (Chloe Sevigny, Samantha Morton, Catherine Keener, Toni Collette, and winner Angelina Jolie). Can it happen again this year?

Who's going to be considered lead and who will go supporting? In recent decades, the Academy has shied away from considering co-leads as such; the last time it happened in Best Actress was in 1991 (Susan Sarandon and Geena Davis, Thelma & Louise), and the last occurrence in Best Actor was in 1984 (F. Murray Abraham and Tom Hulce, Amadeus). The more common practice now is to promote one performance as the lead, then relegate the other ostensible leads to the supporting categories. For example, in 2005 Heath Ledger was nominated for Best Actor for Brokeback Mountain while Jake Gyllenhaal was nominated for Best Supporting Actor. An even more egregious example is 2010's True Grit, when the actual lead of the film - Hailee Steinfeld - was nominated for Best Supporting Actress, while Jeff Bridges landed a Best Actor nod for what's essentially an extended supporting role.

Channing Tatum in Foxcatcher. Will he be lead or supporting?

So how will things break this year for films like Foxcatcher, which has at least two lead roles (Channing Tatum and Steve Carell) and possibly a third (Mark Ruffalo)? Who will stand out in ensemble dramas like A Most Violent Year, Inherent Vice, and Into the Woods? In films about couples, which men will be considered leads while their female counterparts are relegated to supporting (I fear this is going to happen to Big Eyes, which given the subject would be unfortunate).

What films are going to end up being pushed to 2015? We still haven't heard much from Selma, Inherent Vice, and Carol, all of which have been filming and considered contenders. Also uncertain: Suite Francaise, Queen of the Desert, Suffragette, Mojave, Macbeth, Far From the Maddening Crowd, The Cobbler, Pawn Sacrifice, Dark Places, The Water Diviner. Will these films make out in time for consideration this year?

Check out the predictions here.

Wednesday, August 27, 2014

Jodorowsky's Dune (2014) and Three Other Famous Unmade Films

Every year, there are tons of films that go unrealized. Filmmakers talk about potential projects, only to select one and leave others by the wayside. Eventually, they may revisit the idea years down the line. For example, Steven Spielberg first began work on Lincoln as early as 2005, with Liam Neeson in the lead, before finally getting the film made in 2012 (with Daniel Day-Lewis in Neeson's place). Others are never heard from again. Quentin Tarantino is perhaps the most famous director today for all of the projects he's said he'd make but has yet to break ground on, including The Vega Brothers and Kill Bill Volume 3.

But every once in a while, there's an unfinished film that becomes legendary. A film that seems so wild, so ambitious, so revolutionary that of course there's no way it could ever be made. Jodorowsky's Dune investigates one such film: the big-budget adaptation of Frank Herbert's seminal sci-fi novel by midnight-movie maestro Alejandro Jodorowsky (El Topo).

Jodorowsky

As director Frank Pavich pieces together Jodorowsky's insane vision through interviews with the director himself and his collaborators, it becomes clear that this film was always going to be far too ambitious. Jodorowsky sought out a creative team that was well-known within the artistic counterculture of the late 1960s and early 1970s, many of whom signed on without ever reading Herbert's novel (that includes Jodorowsky himself). Austrian conceptual artist H.R. Giger, British designer Chris Foss, and French comics artist Moëbius all contributed concept art for the film's spaceships and creatures; Moëbius even storyboarded the entire film. Dan O'Bannon, who had worked on John Carpenter's cult sci-fi flick Dark Star (1974), was brought on to handle the complex special effects. Pink Floyd and art-punk band Magma were in negotiations to provide the film's musical score. Salvador Dali, Orson Welles, David Carradine and Mick Jagger were hand-picked by Jodorowsky for roles, despite their expensive egos and difficult behavior. Overall, Jodorowsky wanted to create a film that would transcend every conventional notion of what cinema could do, all while mimicking the effects of hallucinogenic drugs.

Concept art by H.R. Giger

Naturally, every studio in Hollywood balked. As Pavich's documentary notes, the only key problem that each studio found with the film was Jodorowsky himself. They loved the concept, but the director was considered too much of a firebrand to take a risk on. The film never went before the cameras. But Pavich's film does a terrific job at showing how the film - or, rather, the massive book of concept art by Moëbius presented to the studios - would go on to influence some of the biggest sci-fi films of the past 40 years. For example: most of the crew would go on to work with Ridley Scott on 1979's Alien, which was written by O'Bannon with creatures designed by Giger. As it turns out, Jodorowsky's vision of making the most influential sci-fi film ever wasn't all that far off.

Of course, Dune did end up making it to the silver screen. Producer Dino De Laurentiis managed to procure the rights, and went with the "safe" choice of director David Lynch for his would-be blockbuster (this was easily the only time in history Lynch could be described as a "safe" choice). The 1984 film flopped, being considered by most to be a Star Wars ripoff (Lynch himself has publicly disowned the film). It's actually better than its reputation suggests, but it certainly pales in ambition to what Jodorowsky dreamed up.

So, since we're on the topic, here are three other famous unrealized films, and where they stand today:

The Man Who Killed Don Quixote (late 1990s-present day)

Terry Gilliam's loose adaptation of Miguel de Cervantes' novel Don Quixote is probably more famous for its litany of biblical-scale setbacks than anything else. Originally conceived as the tale of a 21st-century man thrown back in time as Don Quixote's new sidekick, the film originally began shooting in 2000 with Jean Rochefort as Quixote and Johnny Depp as the time-traveller. However, the production was cancelled after a number of problems, including Rochefort's declining health and floods that destroyed sets and equipment. This production was immortalized in the 2002 documentary Lost in La Mancha. Since then, Gilliam has attempted to get the film off the ground multiple times, with Robert Duvall replacing Rochefort and Ewan McGregor subbing in for Depp. Funding continued to collapse, the film became embroiled in legal issues with the insurers for the original production, and Gilliam had to nearly cut his requested budget in half. Gilliam has recently stated that he would like to start production again soon - now with a drastically different plot - but it remains to be seen if he'll ever actually get it made.

Napoleon (late 1960s/early 1970s)

It's possible to create this list just from the projects that Stanley Kubrick never brought to fruition. But among them all, his epic biopic of Napoleon Bonaparte is perhaps the most famous. After the success of 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), Kubrick had done extensive research on the infamous French emperor, putting together a preliminary screenplay that covered the majority of Napoleon's conquests, and scouted locations throughout France and Romania. He had even secured the services of 50,000 Romanian soldiers for the film's major battle sequences. However, the failure of other Napoleon-related films at the time prevented studios from taking a risk on the project, Kubrick's research informed a significant portion of his 1975 film Barry Lyndon, and Napoleon was put on the back burner. Steven Spielberg has since stated that he would like to finish the project as a television miniseries, though little else has been heard about it since.

Superman Lives (mid-1990s)

Following the successes of Batman and Batman Returns, Warner Brothers was eager to pair director Tim Burton with another major DC Comics superhero: Superman. Kevin Smith was brought in to write the script, while Nicolas Cage was signed on to star as the Man of Steel. Screen tests were conducted, costumes were designed, and a teaser poster was even drawn up. The film was set to have the villain Braniac unleash a beast called Doomsday - most famous in the comics for killing Superman in their showdown. However, financial troubles dragged the production out, and when Burton left to do Sleepy Hollow (1999) instead, the film began to fall apart. There's a documentary about the film's fate currently in the works.

Jodorowsky's Dune: A-

Tuesday, August 26, 2014

Emmy 2014 Recap: More of the Same

I'll be honest: this year's Emmys weren't very exciting. In each of the top series races, it seemed like there could be a tight competition, with old favorites giving way to newcomers such as Orange is the New Black or True Detective. Yet, in the end, voters went with those they were familiar with. Breaking Bad won almost every major award it was nominated for (losing only Best Director of a Drama), including Bryan Cranston's win in Best Actor in a Drama over presumed favorite Matthew McConaughey (True Detective). The comedy Emmys were similarly predictable, with Modern Family winning in the categories it has more or less dominated over the past five years. And in miniseries/movie, American Horror Story: Coven (which was bad) and Sherlock: His Last Vow (even worse) dominated. Nothing surprising.

Bryan Cranston

The ceremony itself was a bit of a drag, too. Seth Meyers was an amiable host, but I've never been all that partial to his snarky persona. None of the jokes really landed all that well, either, and the whole thing just lacked energy. But that's another ceremony in the bag. Better luck next year.

TRIVIA

  • All of the acting winners in comedy/drama series categories had won their respective award at least once in the last five years, with the only exception being Allison Janney.
  • By winning for the fifth year in a row, Modern Family matches the record for most series Emmy wins set by Fraiser.
  • Breaking Bad is the first show to win the Best Drama Series Emmy for its final season since The Sopranos in 2007. Those shows are also the only ones to accomplish this feat.
  • Aaron Paul is the first actor to win more than two Supporting Actor in a Drama Series Emmys, taking home his third. (Art Carney also won three - 1954, 1955, 1956 - but it was before the award for Supporting Actor was separated between genres). Paul is also the first to win three such Emmys for playing the same character on the same show.
  • Moira Walley-Beckett is the first woman to win an Emmy for Drama Writing on a solo credit in 20 years.
  • In the movie/miniseries category, American Horror Story: Coven and Sherlock: His Last Vow took home the most awards, but neither took their respective top prize. Coven lost to Fargo in Miniseries, while Sherlock lost to The Normal Heart for TV Movie.
A list of winners after the break.


Hit Me With Your Best Shot: Gone With The Wind (1939) - Part 2

*This post is part of the "Hit Me With Your Best Shot" blogathon at The Film Experience*
"I can't think about that right now. If I do, I'll go crazy. I'll think about it tomorrow."
- Scarlett O'Hara (Vivien Leigh)


There's no avoiding the march of time. The only way to survive in life is to move forward, to take both the happiness and the pain of the past and learn from them. Progress is going to happen whether you like it or not. Those who stick stubbornly to the past are doomed to be victims of it. You can choose to live in the past, but to do so is to live in a dream, a fantasy; it no longer exists. There is no going back. That's why ideas that were once accepted as the norm now exist only in textbooks and a few individuals here and there. Clinging to these ideals - especially ones that were never more than myths to begin with - will lead you to ruin. Adapt or die.


As the second half of Gone with the Wind begins, Scarlett seems to be adapting. She and her sisters are working desperately to stay alive and make the land of Tara plentiful again, but where Suellen (Evelyn Keyes) and Carreen (Ann Rutherford) complain about having to do so much work, Scarlett holds her head up and does what she has to. Her sisters don't understand why they have to work so hard; they never have before. The war seems to have hardened Scarlett, though; having to serve as the head of household has made her forget about the past and look ahead to what comes next. She's living in the present, at long last.

At least, until Ashley (Leslie Howard) comes home.

More after the jump.

Monday, August 25, 2014

The Top Ten Shows Currently on Television: 2014 Edition

*With the Emmys coming up on August 25th, The Entertainment Junkie will be providing content related to major nominees, culminating in not one, but two top-ten lists. Welcome to Emmy Week.*

Last year, I marked the end of Emmy Week with a list of the top ten television shows on the air. This year, I decided to update that list. Two times makes it a new tradition right? Anyway, the criteria are simple: this list is limited only to shows that I regularly watch (obviously), it includes only scripted, "primetime" programs (meaning no miniseries or reality shows, not necessarily airing in primetime), and needs to be still in production/on-air. And with those criteria set, here are the new top ten shows currently on television.

With apologies to: Breaking Bad (no longer on the air, as per the qualifying requirements of this list); Mad Men (I never got a chance to catch up on the show's most recent season before compiling the list); The Leftovers (a compelling show, but not enough episodes for me to really consider it here); The Good Wife (I know I need to catch up, and I swear one day I will)

Honorable mentions (just missing the cut): Boardwalk Empire, Looking, Parks & Recreation, Homeland, Archer, Brooklyn Nine-Nine, House of Cards

10. New Girl (last year: #5)


Season two of New Girl ended remarkably, by burning past the "will they/won't they" between Jess (Zooey Deschanel) and Nick (Jake Johnson) and planting them firmly in "they will." Season three - the show's latest - picked up immediately afterward, with the characters wondering where to go next. The show seemed to be asking itself the same question, figuring out how to maintain the incredible chemistry of the ensemble while also changing the dynamics of their relationships. It wasn't always easy to watch, as the return of Coach (Damon Wayans Jr.) took time to grow and the "departure" of Schmidt (Max Greenfield) from the loft was amusing if inconsequential. But the show handled the Nick-Jess relationship well, and turned in a collection of episodes that could be dramatically relatable and laugh-out-loud funny at the same time. It remains one of television's most underrated comedies, with a crackerjack cast that can make just about anything funny.

9. The Middle (last year: #10)


The Middle came up to a difficult point in its run this year: oldest child Axl (Charlie McDermott) moved off to college, which distanced himself from the rest of the Heck family. "The College Years" are a pitfall that many television shows have fallen into over the years, yet The Middle handled it surprisingly well, keeping Axl in the loop either literally (constantly returning home for various reasons) or thematically. Growing up was the running theme for the show's fifth season, as all three Heck children - Axl, Sue (Eden Sher), and Brick (Atticus Shaffer) - navigated various stages of adolescence and explored who they are. Parents Frankie (Patricia Heaton) and Mike (Neil Flynn) faced the similar realization that it wouldn't be long before their children were out of the house for good. The Middle has long flown under-the-radar as ABC's best sitcom, providing huge laughs courtesy of its talented cast (Heaton and Sher being the MVPs) and its relatable slice-of-life vignettes. This season was the show's most emotionally resonant, in addition to being its best.

8. Game of Thrones (last year: #3)


In an effort to prevent the show from catching up to George R.R. Martin's A Song of Ice and Fire, the book series upon which the show is based (five of his proposed seven novels have been published), showrunners D.B. Weiss and David Benioff have taken to dividing books across multiple seasons. Season four, then, represented the back-half of A Storm of Swords, and in many ways it felt like it. Most of this season's storylines felt like a collection of payoffs from the previous season instead of self-contained narratives, and there were so many in play at once that none were given too much room to breathe and grow. At worst, this season attempted to shock for the sake of shocking, such as the never-again-mentioned rape of Cersei (Lena Headley) and the parade of gruesome deaths. But at its best, this season proved why Game of Thrones remains one of television's best dramas. In particular, Daenerys Targaryan's (Emilia Clarke) march of liberation through Slaver's Bay has been a powerful, thoughtful examination of power and what it means to rule, proving that being leader requires more than idealism. Though this season lacked the cohesiveness of the rest of the show's run, it was nonetheless fascinating, thrilling, and wholly rewarding.

7. Masters of Sex (last year: unranked)


On the surface, Showtime's Masters of Sex looked like the network's attempt to replicate the success of Mad Men: a glossy, mid-20th-century setting and the built-in prestige factor of being based on the famous sex study conducted by Dr. William Masters (Michael Sheen) and his assistant, Virginia Johnson (Lizzy Caplan). But make no mistake, this isn't a clone. The show's first season was a strong effort to make sense of sexuality and human relationships, and wisely focused more on the latter than the former. But what has really made Masters of Sex one of the best shows of the year are the performances: Sheen and Caplan are fantastic, and they're surrounded by terrific supporting turns by Beau Bridges, Teddy Sears, Julianne Nicholson, Annaleigh Ashford, Heléne York, Nicholas D'Agosto, and the phenomenal Allison Janney. The show is a stunning examination of sex and relationships, all with a warm, beating heart underneath.

6. Girls (last year: #4)


I wrote in my review of season three of Girls:
"…Girls has more in common with Louie than it does Seinfeld. Louie attempts to make Louis C.K.'s standup cinematic, and in the same vein, Girls could be seen as a collection of filmic essays and short stories involving the same characters."
This season, more than the previous two, found creator Lena Dunham adapting that short-story format. From Hannah's (Dunham) job at GQ Magazine and attempt to get her e-book together to Jessa's (Jemima Kirke) stint in rehab to Shoshanna's (Zosia Mamet) attempts to graduate from NYU to Marnie's (Allison Williams) general narcissism, this season's overarching narratives felt more like loose ties between episodes than anything else. The season (and series) reached a high-watermark with "Beach House," as all four main characters got together for a weekend together that ended in their relationships with each other more fractured than ever. If this season was about anything, it was about finding momentum in life, with all four women struggling to figure out what comes next in life. And it wasn't just the women, either, as Adam (Adam Driver) landed a role in a Broadway revival of Mother Courage and questioned where his relationship with Hannah was going. Girls still isn't the laugh-out-loud comedy people want it to be, but it is a searing portrait of finding your way in your 20s in the 21st century.

5. Hannibal (last year: #9)



The second season of Hannibal really felt more like two distinct mini-seasons. In the first half, Will Graham (Hugh Dancy) is imprisoned for the crimes Hannibal Lecter (Mads Mikkelsen) framed him for, with Will attempted to exact his revenge from his cell. The second half finds Will pairing with Margaret Verger (Katharine Isabelle), the sister of the deranged Mason Verger (Michael Pitt), to take down both Hannibal and Mason. This season was, in most ways, a marked improvement on the show's already-great first season, with more beautifully-shot grostequeries and disturbing plunges into the dark, twisted psyche of Will Graham. The performances, too, were universally strong, particularly Dancy, Mikkelsen, and Laurence Fishburne as Jack Crawford, the FBI head looking to protect Will and make a case against Hannibal. If there is one quibble with the season, it's that it struggles mightily with female characters, turning the most interesting women - like Alana Bloom (Caroline Dharvas) or Dr. Beverly Katz (Hettinene Park) - into sexual pawns or cannon fodder. If not for that, Hannibal could make a strong case for being the best show on television, period.

4. Bob's Burgers (last year: unranked)


Bob's Burgers is, without a doubt, the odd-one-out in FOX's animation lineup. It doesn't hail from the Seth McFarlane factory (Family Guy), nor is it The Simpsons. It's also far superior to either of those two shows in their current runs. The Belchers are, naturally, an unusual bunch: Bob (voice of H. Jon Benjamin, one of the funniest voices in animation) runs a boardwalk burger joint with the help of his wife Linda (John Roberts), who's prone to bursting into song, awkward oldest daughter Tina (Dan Mintz), obnoxious son Gene (Eugene Mirman), and troublemaking youngest daughter Louise (Kristen Schaal). It's a well-worn setup, but Bob's Burgers succeeds by making all of its characters just a little bit weirder, which in turn makes them all the more relatable. It's hard to watch Tina go through the pains of puberty without recognizing a bit of yourself in her. Moreover, the Belcher family may annoy one another, but there's never any doubt that this family loves each other and will do anything to help one another. In many ways, it's a lot like The Simpsons during its '90s heyday: lots of laughs mixed with a good dosage of heart.

3. Orange is the New Black (last year: unranked)


There were very few surprises on television this past year quite like Orange is the New Black. It wasn't exactly inspiring on paper: Jenji Kohan, best known for creating Weeds, would create a show based on Piper Kerman's memoir of her sentence in a women's prison, to be aired on Netflix. The two seasons that are currently available, though, are an absolute marvel. Using the character of Piper Chapman (Taylor Schilling), an upper-middle-class white woman who ends up in Litchfield for a crime she commits with her drug-dealing girlfriend Alex (Laura Prepon), the show enters a society where women are restricted in their rights and often abused at the hands of the predominantly-male guards and management. Sound familiar? The show works best as a study in gender, race, and sexuality and as a scathing critique of the American prison system and androcentric society. That's heavy, but it goes down easy thanks to the very best cast on television and the sharp writing, which can switch from comedic to tragic on a dime. It's safe to say there's nothing else like it on television.

2. Louie (last year: #1)


Season four of Louie was perhaps the toughest the show has yet produced. I've already written extensively about how this past season was an attempt by creator Louis C.K. to make his inner turmoil into something…well, if not watchable, then at least tangential. And at times it was close to be unwatchable in its awkwardness and refusal to provide any sorts of "laughs" the way a show defined as a "comedy" ostensibly should. It was nigh unbearable at times because it was so honest. It was C.K. bearing his soul, his fears, his personal dilemmas to us, and he pulled no punches in doing so. He wasn't afraid to make himself the bad guy. Episodes like "Model" seemed to be taking place entirely in Louie's (C.K.) head. It wasn't a particularly funny season. But it was a challenging, riveting, and wholly personal 14 episodes of a show that has been subverting television conventions since the beginning.

1. Veep (last year: #8)


For a long time in the creation of this list, I debated over which show would get the top spot. I mentally made cases for each of the top five shows on this list, whittling it down until it was just Louie and Veep. Two of television's top comedies are also the top shows. But when I finally had to make a choice, I decided on which show made me laugh harder than any other this year. I decided on the show that worked my brain just as much as my funny bone. I decided on the show that features the most loveably caustic, despicable people the medium of television has every produced (give or take the gang at Paddy's Pub). I decided on the show that I actively looked forward to the most week after week. I decided to cast my vote for Selina Meyer (Julia Louis-Dreyfus) and Veep. This season saw the show blossom into a razor-sharp political satire, with each episode a high-wire act of vicious put-downs, quick jokes, and shit-eating comeuppance upon shit-eating comeuppance. Having Selina begin a new campaign for president was a stroke of genius, allowing creator Armando Iannucci and company to delightfully skewer election-year mayhem through any number of means. One episode spent its entire 30 minutes on Selina and her team trying to determine her stance on abortion, lampooning the political doublespeak that dominates Washington. Another - a crossover with Iannucci's previous show, BBC's The Thick of It - sent Selina to London, where she was clearly out of her element. The writing was as pointed as the barbs Selina's staff trade with one another, and the performances from the entire cast were nothing short of inspired. Some actual workers from Capitol Hill have said that Veep is the most accurate depiction of Washington on television. I don't know whether to be impressed with the show or terrified of the reality. Perhaps both. It's all the more reason why Veep tops this list as the best show currently on television.

Sunday, August 24, 2014

Sight & Sound Sunday: L'Avventura (1960)

*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: #21 (tied with Contempt and The Godfather)

L'Avventura was not Italian director Michaelangelo Antonioni's first film in terms of production, as he had been making films for nearly a decade before this film's 1960 release. And yet, in many ways, it's the first "Antonioni film." Today, Antonioni is often mentioned in the same breath as the Jean-Luc Godard, Francois Truffaut, and Robert Bresson, three key filmmakers of the French New Wave. It makes sense to lump him in with that group, since like those three, his films attempt to challenge the conventions of mainstream cinema at the time. But where the New Wavers were often deconstructing very specific Hollywood tropes and cliches, Antonioni was doing something different. He was attempting to make films that could demonstrate what cinema could do on an emotional and intellectual level that theatre couldn't. His films often focused on relationships between the characters rather than plot or action.


This is true of L'Avventura as well. The title translates into English as "The Adventure," a clever bit of misdirection given the film's true aims. The film follows Anna (Lea Massari) and Claudia (Monica Vitti), who join up with Anna's boyfriend Sandro (Gabriele Ferzetti) and others for a yacht trip in the Mediterranean Sea. While visiting the Aeolian Islands, Anna disappears, leaving Claudia and Sandro to investigate her disappearance. They begin a relationship with each other, though, even as they continue to search for their missing friend (and lover).

As mentioned above, the film isn't really invested in its plot. That's the point: Antonioni has crafted a film that's about alienation and the distance between people.

More after the jump.

Friday, August 22, 2014

The Top Ten Episodes from the 2013-2014 Television Season

*With the Emmys coming up on August 25th, The Entertainment Junkie will be providing content related to major nominees, culminating in not one, but two top-ten lists. Welcome to Emmy Week.*

Last year, I put up a list of the top 10 shows on television right now. A revised version of that list will go up Monday afternoon, but we'll conclude the calendar Emmy week (damn you NBC and your move-to-Monday-night-because-football scheduling) with a different list: the top 10 individual episodes from the past season of television.

Before we get to the actual episodes, here are the criteria for making the list. I'm using the Emmy eligibility period, which means anything that aired between June 1, 2013 and May 31, 2014 is fair game (it's also why The Leftovers episode "Guest," one of the best episodes I've seen this year, isn't on the list). I'm also limiting each show to just one episode, since otherwise I could easily make this a list of just Breaking Bad and/or Bob's Burgers episodes. Finally, and most obviously, only episodes that I have watched - i.e., from shows I regularly watch - are on the list, so if your favorite didn't qualify, I may not have seen. This is an arbitrary list, for fun, after all.

And so, without further ado, the top 10 episodes of the past television season.

10. "Birthday" (New Girl)


By having Nick (Jake Johnson) and Jess (Zooey Deschanel) run off together at the end of the show's second season, New Girl set itself a new challenge: take an element that made the show one of the best sitcoms on the air and turn it into an actual relationship. It was a perilous attempt, and there were more than a few missteps in the show's third season, but "Birthday" proved that it could be done with aplomb. Though the return of Coach (Damon Wayans Jr.) to the loft did initially disturb the main cast's chemistry, by this episode everything was back in working order. Nick tries to set up a special day for Jess for her birthday, only to face a litany of unexpected obstacles. Schmidt (Max Greenfield) helps CeCe (Hannah Simone) learn to be a better bartender, and Coach and Winston (Lamorne Morris) compete with one another in preparing of Jess' party. Each character gets some hilarious material, and the episode's final scene is both funny and romantic. "Birthday" proved that New Girl could make Nick and Jess' relationship work, even if it seemed uncertain at times.

More after the jump.

Thursday, August 21, 2014

Nymphomaniac, Vols. I and II (2014)

To anyone who is at least vaguely familiar with Danish filmmaker and enfant terrible Lars Von Trier, it shouldn't come as a surprise that he would make a film like Nymphomaniac. The provocateur's latest effort - originally conceived as a single four-hour film, before being divided for release - has been described by Von Trier himself as "a woman's sexual journey from birth to age 50," and was heavily promoted for its use of unsimulated sex acts. The latter was a bit of a stretch; the actors themselves did not actually have sex, but rather had the genitals of body doubles digitally superimposed on their bodies. In other words, it was the same sort of controversy and titillation that greets any Von Trier feature.


Nymphomaniac follows Joe (Charlotte Gainsbourg), a woman who is found beaten in the street by Seligman (Stellen Skarsgaard). Seligman takes her back to his apartment, where she begins telling him the tale of her sexual life. Volume I focuses on her younger years, as young Joe (played by Stacy Martin) dabbles with multiple lovers but keeps finding herself drawn to Jerome (Shia LaBouf). Volume II focuses on Joe's recent life, particularly her marriage to Jerome and her dealings with the sadomasochistic K (Jamie Bell).

Based on the length and material, many assumed that Nymphomaniac would be Von Trier's magnum opus, his greatest provocation to date. But it doesn't quite live up to that status, actually falling flat while still managing to interesting.

More after the jump.

Sketched Out: The Recent Rise of Sketch Comedy

*With the Emmys coming up on August 25th, The Entertainment Junkie will be providing content related to major nominees, culminating in not one, but two top-ten lists. Welcome to Emmy Week.*

Take a look at this year's Emmy nominees for Best Variety Series, and you'll see that the talk-show format is still most preferred by voters. Five of the six nominees are ostensibly late-night talk shows: Jimmy Kimmel Live!, Real Time with Bill Maher, The Tonight Show with Jimmy Fallon, The Daily Show with Jon Stewart, and The Colbert Report, with only Saturday Night Live as the odd-one out.

However, Saturday Night Live isn't really all that odd once you dig deeper into the Variety Series field. Look in the directing and writing categories, and you'll see a different set of shows: Portlandia, Inside Amy Schumer, and Key & Peele all score nods. It's a reflection of a greater trend that's been growing in television over the past couple of years: the sketch comedy is making a comeback.

 Peele (left) and Key

Not that it ever disappeared completely, of course. Saturday Night Live has long been a stalwart of the genre, entering its 40th season this fall (sadly, though, without longtime announcer Don Pardo). The aforementioned late-night talk shows, too, have always incorporated elements of sketch comedy, but hosts such as Jimmy Kimmel and Jimmy Fallon have increasingly turned to sketches and viral videos to lure in viewers (Fallon is a former SNL cast member, as is his NBC late-night companion, Seth Meyers). And cable networks such as Comedy Central have more or less kept sketch comedy shows around as their bread-and-butter, with that network in particular having a major critical and popular hit with Chappelle's Show in the mid-2000s.

In fact, Comedy Central is largely the benefactor of the new sketch show boom, as the network is home to three of the most critically-acclaimed sketch comedies on television right now. Key & Peele, starring comedians Keegan-Michael Key and Jordan Peele, has a strong irreverent streak, earning big laughs from sketches ranging from "Obama's Anger Interpreter" to two valet drivers raving about how awesome Liam Neeson is. Inside Amy Schumer, starring Amy Schumer, has earned sterling reviews for its cutting feminist humor. And Drunk History has a very simple concept: a comedian gets drunk, then tells a historical story, which is then recreated by actors. The result is a hilarious history lesson that isn't always accurate, but never fails to entertain.

Armisen (left) and Brownstein

But Comedy Central isn't the only one with a successful sketch show. IFC has Portlandia, from stars Fred Armisen (a SNL alum) and Carrie Brownstein (of Sleater-Kinney fame). What makes Portlandia so hilarious and successful is that it manages to meld humor that is both extremely specific - jokes about Portland, Oregon, and the hipsters that live there - and very broadly silly. You don't have to know the specifics to find it funny, but the more you know about Portland, the more levels of humor the show has. NBC also recently teased the idea of granting a sketch/variety show to Maya Rudolph (also an SNL veteran), though so far it's only gone so far as producing a one-off special.

So why is sketch comedy back on the rise? There are likely a few reasons for this. For one thing, as evidenced by the preceding paragraphs, a number of these shows involve former SNL cast members. With more television networks and programming options than ever before in the medium's history, there's more opportunities for these actors and writers to find a space to do their own sketches. Secondly, sketch comedies and variety shows are relatively cheap to produce, so they theoretically save the networks money to funnel into more ambitious, more expensive projects.

But the most likely reason is because of the success of Internet video servers such as YouTube or Vine. More than ever, comedy can be uploaded by anyone in bite-sized pieces. As a result, sketch comedy shows have become a way of creating viral videos that will then hopefully be spread across social media. SNL took advantage of this when Andy Samberg and Jorma Taccone came up with "Digital Shorts," a tradition that continues today even though both have left the show. And bits from the aforementioned shows have been shared regularly across Facebook and Tumblr, with varying degrees of staying power. There's no doubt that the networks hope that seeing a popular clip online will bring viewers to the show when it airs, though that's a hard metric to measure.

The sketch comedy series is definitely in the midst of a comeback right now. Whether it proves to be a passing fad or a glimpse into the future, for the moment it seems anything is possible.

Wednesday, August 20, 2014

Short Takes: Omar, The LEGO Movie, and more

Ernest & Celestine (dirs. Stéphane Aubier, Vincent Patar, and Benjamin Renner, 2013)


Of all of the nominees for Best Animated Feature at last year's Oscars, there's certainly none that are more visually charming than French import Ernest & Celestine. Ernest (voiced by Forest Whitaker in the English dub) is a eternally-hungry, ne'er-do-well bear who lives in the city. Celestine (Mackenzie Foy) is a young mouse who lives in the sewers below and rebels against becoming a dentist. Bears and mice are supposed to be afraid of each other, so naturally Ernest and Celestine become fast friends, much to the dismay of their worlds (they also steal a ton of sweets and teeth, making them criminals). There's not much surprise in where this is heading, but that doesn't stop it from being sweetly felt and genuinely moving. Plus, the animation is gorgeous, with lots of blank spaces in the frame for the mind to fill in. It may be slight in its running time, but it's hard to forget. A-

Omar (dir. Hany Abu-Assad, 2014)


Palestinian filmmaker Hany Abu-Assad has made a career out of incisive political cinema, often focusing on the human toll of violence and warfare. His latest film, Omar, fits the bill, but to modest success. Omar (Adam Bakri) is a young Palestinian fighter who is charged with killing an Israeli soldier. While he prison, he's given a deal to act as a double agent in return for his freedom, and to capture his close friend Tarek (Iyad Hoorani), who led the attack on the dead soldier. Further complicating matters is Omar's love for Tarek's sister, Nadia (Leem Lubady), whom he intends to ask Tarek for permission to marry. Bakri delivers a terrific lead performance, and when the film focuses on his struggles against Israeli aggressors, the film sparks with life. Unfortunately, Abu-Assad doesn't handle the romance quite as well, as it too often feels stale and contrived. Plus, the film has a few too many twists to be effective. But it delivers a gut-punch of a finale. B

Outside the Law (dir. Rachid Bouchareb, 2010)


Three Algerian brothers - Saïd (Jamel Debbouze), Messaoud (Roschdy Zem), and Abdelkader (Sami Bouajila) - witness their father's land taken from them by French forces at the beginning of the 20th century. Outside the Law, from accomplished Algerian filmmaker Rachid Bouchareb, follows these brothers as they participate in the Algerian Independence Movement in various ways, their paths intersecting frequently and often violently. In many ways, the film recalls the epic scope of The Godfather Part II, complete with a heavy aesthetic borrowed from Hollywood gangster films. But where the film really succeeds is evoking the injustices that Algerians faced under French rule, and parlaying those ideals into a personal story about three men coming to terms with their lives. It may be a tad too long, but it succeeds as a powerful piece of political cinema. A-

Suddenly, Last Summer (dir. Joseph L. Mankiewicz, 1959)


On the surface, Suddenly, Last Summer sounds like a classic Hollywood psychological melodrama: Violet Venable (Katharine Hepburn) wants her niece, Catherine Holly (Elizabeth Taylor), lobotomized so that she won't reveal the sordid details of her son Sebastian Venable's death. But it quickly reveals itself to be a film of delirious perversion, reveling in its exploitation while trying to keep a straight face. The result is a film that's pretty off-putting at first, and even though it never really finds a consistent tone, it manages to wring out some pretty fascinating moments. In particular, Taylor and Hepburn carry the film on their capable shoulders, while Montgomery Clift mostly hangs around the edges looking bemused. The majority of those involved in the film ultimately disowned it; that's a shame, because though it's not perfect, it's a lapse of sanity worth having (Best Shot discussed here). B

The LEGO Movie (dirs. Christopher Miller and Phil Lord, 2014)


The mere existence of The LEGO Movie is to do one thing: sell LEGO sets to kids. But in the hands of directors Christopher Miller and Phil Lord (21 Jump Street), the film attempts to be something more. Emmet (voice of Chris Pratt) is absolutely an ordinary construction worker, living a contently ordinary life until an encounter with secret agent Wyldstyle (Elizabeth Banks) reveals that he is a "chosen one" called "the Special." Emmet, along with a team of other "Master Builders," must accept his destiny to defeat Lord Business (Will Ferrell) before he permanently glues everyone in place. Where the film succeeds best is in it's childlike-sense of play; in fact, the film doubles as a commentary on acceptable ways to play with LEGOs (hint: there is no wrong way). The scattershot humor and hyperactivity can become a chore after a while, especially since the film clocks in at 100 minutes. Still, it's wholly enjoyable, and admirable for being something more than just a feature-length advertisement. B+

Tim Van Patten: The Man Who Made HBO

*With the Emmys coming up on August 25th, The Entertainment Junkie will be providing content related to major nominees, culminating in not one, but two top-ten lists. Welcome to Emmy Week.*

Steven Spielberg. Martin Scorsese. Francis Ford Coppola. Tim Van Patten.

At first glance, at least three of those names will be familiar to the majority of the population. It's the lattermost that's confusing. Who is Tim Van Patten? Why am I including him in this list of some of the most iconic American filmmakers from the "golden age" of cinema in the 1970s? What has he done to earn that distinction?


It's not like you should recognize him right off the bat. Van Patten is a television director, having worked in the industry for several decades and is nominated this year for a Best Directing of a Drama Series Emmy for his work on Boardwalk Empire ("Farewell Daddy Blues"). But you've seen his work. Here's a handful of shows he's worked on, with notable episodes in parentheses:

- Homicide: Life on the Street ("Nothing Personal")
- Sex and the City ("An American Girl in Paris, Parts Une and Deux")
- The Wire ("Stray Rounds")
- Deadwood ("Childish Things")
- The Sopranos ("Whoever Did This," "Unidentified Black Males," "Long Term Parking")
- The Pacific ("Okinawa")
- Game of Thrones ("Winter is Coming")

All of these shows have gone on to be considered some of the greatest the medium ever produced. And Van Patten was behind some of those shows' best episodes, especially when it comes to The Sopranos (he also had a writing credit on that show's classic episode, "Pine Barrens").

That alone would be enough to make Van Patten a memorable television director, but the reason I put him in league with Spielberg, Scorsese, and Coppola is because he arrived in the midst of a golden age, and he greatly influenced the visual language of the medium through his work. His style is marked with distinct compositions, often framing a character off-center while keeping everything in the frame in focus. His camera is steady, even when it follows characters as they move from one location to another. Most importantly, his visuals often serve symbolic purposes; repeated close-ups of an eye, for example, when a character is finally seeing the damage they've caused.

It's not particularly flashy direction, but it's almost always noticeable when it's Van Patten at the helm. More importantly, it's permeated into other shows, having established the visual grammar that many dramas - particularly HBO dramas - utilize to this day. In fact, you could make the argument that Van Patten was just as influential in establishing the HBO brand as creators David Chase (The Sopranos), David Milch (Deadwood), and David Simon (The Wire). But it's not limited to HBO either: you can see his influence in the work by fellow nominees Carl Franklin (House of Cards) and Cary Joji Fukunaga (True Detective), the latter of whom made a name in film beforehand.

It was only in 2012 that Van Patten finally won an Emmy for his direction (for Boardwalk Empire), but his fingerprints are all over the visual style of many acclaimed dramas. He may not win again this year, but his influence is hard to ignore.

Tuesday, August 19, 2014

Pulp Fiction, or: A Closer Look at Best Writing for a Drama Series

*With the Emmys coming up on August 25th, The Entertainment Junkie will be providing content related to major nominees, culminating in not one, but two top-ten lists. Welcome to Emmy Week.*

What makes a prestige television drama, well, prestigious? The answer, quite simply, is that there's any number of things that it could be. While there's a fairly basic idea of what makes an "Oscar movie" (important issue + melodramatic relationship + acclaimed crew + historical setting), there isn't really a set format for what makes a television drama a source of prestige throughout Emmy history. If you wanted to develop a formula for the past, say, 15 years though, it would probably look something like this:

Male antihero + dark thematic material + violence + cable network = acclaim 

This isn't necessarily foolproof: The West Wing took home four consecutive Best Drama Series Emmys while being an ultimately-optimistic series about American politics, while Mad Men wasn't a particularly violent show and also won four consecutive Emmys in the same category.

But take a look at what networks have developed over the years, and you'll see one thing is true: many shows, whether they actually win Emmys or not, conflate "prestige" with bad men and bloody violence. Without a doubt, Tony Soprano has cast a long shadow over the television landscape, with many imitators looking to recapture his magic with varying degrees of success.

This year, five episodes from four different shows were nominated for Best Writing in a Drama Series, and all of those shows to some extent follow the formula previously laid out. What makes these shows fascinating, though, is that all of them have premises that seem lifted from trashy paperback novels and cultishly-beloved B-movies.

More after the jump.

Hit Me With Your Best Shot: Gone With The Wind (1939) - Part 1

*This post is part of the "Hit Me With Your Best Shot" blogathon at The Film Experience*
"Do you mean to tell me, Katie Scarlett O'Hara, that Tara, that land doesn't mean anything to you? Why, land is the only thing in the world worth workin' for, worth fightin' for, worth dyin' for, because it's the only thing that lasts."
- Gerald O'Hara (Thomas Mitchell)

It's an understatement to say that Gone with the Wind is a monumental achievement of Hollywood filmmaking. No other film produced by a major American studio has even approached the sheer scope of this film, be it visually, romantically, or lengthy. The film is the result of a Herculean effort to turn Margaret Mitchell's acclaimed novel about an Old South family struggling to find a place in the brave new world of post-Civil War America into a sweeping romantic epic. Casting took nearly two years, post-production lasted until just a few weeks before the film's Atlanta premiere, the screenplay underwent multiple revisions, and three different directors - George Cukor, Sam Wood, and Victor Fleming - cycled through principal photography (only Fleming was credited). The film cost Selznick International Pictures $3.85 million, making it the most expensive film ever produced at the time (a record it would hold for 20 years, until Ben-Hur came along).


Despite all of those troubles, though, the film went on to become an enormous success. To this day, if adjusted for inflation, it remains the highest-grossing film in American history. The characters of Rhett Butler (Clark Gable) and Scarlett O'Hara (Vivien Leigh) are among the most iconic in all of cinema, and many lines of dialogue have been quoted (and misquoted) endlessly over the years. The film's a lasting testament to the power that Hollywood could yield in creating a cultural juggernaut, and serves a rose-colored vision of "classic Hollywood."

Yet the film has not been immune to criticism. Over the years, many have decried it for celebrating the antebellum South, viewing slave-holding society wistfully as "the good ol' days" and downplaying the more disturbing aspects of the plantation system. Watching through the film's first half for this week's "Hit Me With Your Best Shot" (the second half will be discussed next Tuesday, August 26), what's most striking about how the film actually dismantles those notions. Scarlett's tale is less about her romantic endeavors in a war-torn environment, but her desperate clinging to a world that is quickly crumbling around her.

More after the jump.

Monday, August 18, 2014

Creative Arts Emmys 2014: Guest Acting Winners and Other Highlights

*With the Emmys coming up on August 25th, The Entertainment Junkie will be providing content related to major nominees, culminating in not one, but two top-ten lists. Welcome to Emmy Week.*

Saturday night, the Creative Arts Emmys were held in Los Angeles. What makes these different from the Primetime Emmy Awards? The answer is relatively simple: the Emmy Awards have so many categories that they hold two separate ceremonies. The Primetime Emmy Awards are the ones that people are most familiar with, honoring the big, above-the-line categories such as acting, writing, directing, and the major series categories as well. In other words, the categories with nominees that mass audiences would be most familiar with. The Creative Arts Emmys, then, are for everything else: the technical aspects of making a television show, and the program awards that may be less familiar to audiences.


The Guest Acting Emmys are also, for some reason, handed out during this ceremony as well. This year's winners were…(see the nominees here; a complete list of winners and nominees can be found here).

More after the jump.

Sunday, August 17, 2014

Louie, Season 4 (2014)

Writing about television - especially for me - is hard to do in a timely manner. When it comes to television, I'm often stuck watching it on my own schedule, not on the schedule the show airs. On the one hand, it means I can take the time to really savor a series; there's no rush on me to throw up a quick analysis without having time to really let the show work its magic on me. On the other hand, I'm usually late to the conversation, discussing things after everyone else has moved on to the next big thing. The result is that when I do a review or analysis of a recent season or episode of television, it usually comes as interest has faded. This isn't necessarily a complaint; it gives me time to write something more thoughtful, and to even draw comparisons between shows.


All of this is to say that, nearly two months after the show's fourth season ended, I'm finally writing something about Louie. But this is a good thing: this recent season was a challenging, dark, and complicated work, one that needed time to be processed and properly analyzed. It defied instant reaction. Or, rather, it subverted instant reaction, teasing audiences with material that wouldn't be resolved until later.

If you'll allow me the analogy, the fourth season of Louie was Louis C.K.'s Yeezus.

More after the jump.

Wednesday, August 13, 2014

Dawn of the Planet of the Apes (2014)

Back in 2011, just before Rise of the Planet of the Apes premiered, there was no reason to expect anything great. The original franchise had sputtered out after a string of terrible sequels, with the first film generally considered a B-movie sci-fi classic but not much more. A big-budget 2001 remake, directed by Tim Burton and starring Mark Wahlberg, attempted to make the franchise work again, but audiences kept their paws off those damn dirty apes. So why, then, should there have been any expectation for a new version that's really a prequel and stars James Franco and Freida Pinto, and debuts in August, the summer movie season's unceremonious dumping ground?

Except that it actually turned out to be really good, particularly thanks to a strong script, director Rupert Wyatt's terrific direction, and Andy Serkis' stunning motion-capture performance as Caesar, the chimpanzee who would lead the ape revolution. In fact, the film was quite possibly the best major blockbuster of that summer, and ended up on this blog's year-end top 10 list, a distinction that even I would have never supposed would happen at the beginning of the year.


So with expectations now far above the base level that greeted Rise..., the sequel, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, has a lot to live up to.

More after the jump.

Tuesday, August 12, 2014

Hit Me With Your Best Shot: Suddenly, Last Summer (1959)

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

Where do we even start with Suddenly, Last Summer? The film has plenty going for it: it's based on a one-act play by Tennessee Williams, with a screenplay by Williams and Gore Vidal. Katharine Hepburn, Elizabeth Taylor, and Montgomery Clift are the headlining stars. Four-time Academy Award-winning director Joseph L. Mankiewicz (All About Eve) was at the helm of the production. Ostensibly, just from this line-up, something classic is going to emerge, right?


And something…interesting does, to say the least. The film centers on the death of Sebastian Venable, who perished under questionable circumstances while on vacation in Europe with his cousin, Catherine Holly (Taylor). Sebastian's wealthy mother, Violet (Hepburn), is eager to have Catherine committed to an institution to be lobotomized in order to cover up the possibly sordid details about Sebastian's life and death. She calls on Dr. Cukrowicz (Clift) to "assess" Catherine's mental state, but the more he attempts to understand the situation, the closer this family comes to reconciling the secrets they've long kept buried.

What would those secrets be? Well, you'll have to find out after the jump.

Monday, August 11, 2014

RIP Robin Williams (1951 - 2014)

The Marin County (CA) Sheriff's Department released a statement this afternoon announcing that Academy Award-winning actor and comedian Robin Williams had died around noon today, from asphyxiation from apparent suicide. He was 63.


Williams was born in Chicago, Illinois to a former model and a senior executive of the Ford Motor Company. He was a shy child, but became interested in acting and attended the prestigious Juilliard in 1973, where he was accepted into the Advanced Program alongside Christopher Reeve. He earned his first big break on Happy Days, playing a goofy alien named Mork in two episodes. The character was such a hit that Williams was given his own spinoff show, Mork & Mindy (1978-82), that made him a household name in the 1980s. He used his acting career to launch a hugely successful stand-up comedy career as well, becoming famous for his scattershot improv.

Naturally, his success in these areas paved the way for a largely successful film career. He appeared early on in hits such as Popeye (1980) and The World According to Garp (1982). But Williams truly made a name for himself in Barry Levinson's biting war comedy Good Morning Vietnam (1987), which earned Williams an Oscar nomination for Best Actor. From there, he starred in a string of major movies, ranging from nutty comedies like Hook (1991) and Mrs. Doubtfire (1993) to heartwarming dramas like Dead Poets Society (1989) and Good Will Hunting (1997), the latter of which he won the Best Supporting Actor Oscar for. Though he had a number of critical and commercial misfires, he was never out of demand, finding success on the big screen as Theodore Roosevelt in the Night at the Museum films and on the small screen with his recent CBS sitcom The Crazy Ones (which, despite debuting to big numbers, fell off in viewership and was ultimately cancelled after one season).

If there's one thing that Williams never received enough credit for as an actor, it was for his willingness to challenge himself in different genres. He was just as adept at drama as he was at comedy, and experimented in everything from animated voice-overs to thriller and horror films, such as One Hour Photo (2002) or his chilling turn in Insomnia (2002). He worked with a number of esteemed filmmakers over his career, including Steven Spielberg, Barbara Streisand, Terry Gilliam, Gus Van Sant, Christopher Nolan, Barry Levinson, Woody Allen, and Peter Weir. In addition to film and television, he also performed in several stage productions, including a Lincoln Center production of Waiting for Godot with Steve Martin in 1988 and the Broadway production of Bengal Tiger in the Baghdad Zoo in 2011, his Broadway debut. He was always willing to push himself as an artist, to better himself and his craft.

Despite his successes, he struggled in his personal life. In the 1980s, he underwent a bitter divorce with his first wife, Valerie Velardi, after becoming infected with herpes from an extramarital affair. He also developed a severe cocaine addiction during the 1970s and 1980s, and though he quit shortly after the death of his friend John Belushi, it may have caused heart complications he suffered from later in life. In recent years, he had checked himself into rehab for substance abuse several times, having relapsed. Still, he was well-known for his humanitarianism, particularly in his support for St. Jude's Children's Research Hospital.

My personal favorite memory of Williams is, like most children of the late 1980s/early 1990s, is his performance as the Genie in Disney's 1992 animated hit Aladdin. Williams imbued Genie with heart, soul, and, most importantly, manic energy that was positively infectious. It was perhaps the most iconic performance of his career, one that captured every side of his screen persona and encapsulated his entire acting career. But I also have a deep fondness for his performances in Dead Poets Society, Mrs. Doubtfire, and Mork & Mindy.

He is survived by his wife Susan Schneider and three children. His presence and talent will be deeply missed in the film and comedy communities.

Sunday, August 10, 2014

Sight & Sound Sunday: Singin' in the Rain (1952)

*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: #20

Practically since the beginning of cinema itself, there have been movies about the production of movies. Many of Buster Keaton's slapsticks directly referenced the influence of film on culture (particularly Sherlock, Jr.), while a number of comedies set themselves in the world of Hollywood. In fact, Singin' in the Rain, Stanley Donen's and Gene Kelly's Hollywood-history musical, wasn't even the only high-profile "movie-about-movies" of 1952: it went head-to-head with Vincente Minnelli's melodrama The Bad and the Beautiful. So the idea of setting a major Hollywood production in the late 1920s, with the transition from silents to talkies driving the narrative, wasn't exactly a unique idea at the time (and still isn't: 2011's Best Picture Oscar winner The Artist is more or less the same story, sans musical numbers).


Gene Kelly - who co-directed and co-choreographed - stars as Don Lockwood, a silent film star who, together with ditzy starlet Lina Lamont (Jean Hagen), form the Hollywood It Couple of the time. However, their relationship is fabricated for publicity, and Don finds himself attracted to young dancer Kathy Selden (Debbie Reynolds). When The Jazz Singer premieres and becomes a huge smash, Don, Kathy, and Don's best friend Cosmo Brown (Donald O'Connor) work to turn Don's latest picture into a musical. The only problem: Lina has a wholly unpleasing voice.

What sets Singin' in the Rain apart from the rest, though, is more than its relentless cheer and witty, breakneck humor. It's the way that the film fully and completely embraces its artificiality, constantly winking at the audience as it revels in the filmmaking process.

More after the jump.

Friday, August 8, 2014

Top 5 Steven Spielberg Films, Post-1993 Edition

The other day I was randomly thinking about Steven Spielberg's recent career. I don't really remember the context: maybe it had something to do with the upcoming Jurassic World (which Spielberg isn't involved in), or with that terrific social media incident with a set photo from the original Jurassic Park. Or maybe it was just one of those things that happens from time to time (I'm not saying that I have a ton of random movie thoughts every day, but…yeah, that's actually exactly what I'm saying).


Anyway, I was thinking about how you could bifurcate Spielberg's career around the year 1993, when he released the double-whammy of Jurassic Park and Schindler's List. The former was a huge box-office hit and near-perfect work of entertainment, while the latter was a personal film about a man who helped save Jewish prisoners during the Holocaust, which also won the director his first Best Director Oscar and became his only Best Picture winner. It was a remarkable year for him, but it marked a significant change in his career: after 1993, Spielberg has more or less alternated between blockbuster entertainment and "important" prestige films.

This isn't to say that he hasn't always hopped around between genres - after all, the man pretty much invented the modern blockbuster - but there's been more of an established pattern after 1993. In fact, he's replicated the "one for them, one for me" strategy in four different years: 1997 (Lost World: Jurassic Park and Amistad), 2002 (Minority Report and Catch Me If You Can), 2005 (War of the Worlds and Munich), and 2011 (The Adventures of Tintin and War Horse). And he doesn't seem intent on deviating from this pattern, with The BFG and his upcoming Cold War film on the horizon.

So, anyway, to get to the purpose of this article, here are the five best films Spielberg has made since 1993…after the jump, naturally.

Wednesday, August 6, 2014

The Grand Budapest Hotel (2014)

Considering his now-infamous filmmaking style, it's rather surprising that it has taken director Wes Anderson this long to make a farce. His precise, diorama-like frame construction and living-dollhouse worlds are the perfect setting for quick, controlled chaos to unfold, and his films always have a biting sense of humor that always seems just a few steps removed from madcap screwball. The Grand Budapest Hotel, his latest film, promises a classic farce through Anderson's skewed lens, and for the most part, the film delivers on that promise.


The film mostly takes place at the titular hotel in the fictional European nation of Zubrowka. In 1968, an author (Jude Law) visits the hotel and encounters its proprietor, Zero Moustafa (F. Murray Abraham). Zero proceeds to tell the author the story of how he came to own the hotel, beginning in the 1930s, just before the outbreak of WWII. Young Zero (Tony Revolori) was a lobby boy at the hotel, under the guidance of concierge Gustave H. (Ralph Fiennes), a much-beloved figure and notorious womanizer (particularly older women). When one of his conquests (Tilda Swinton) dies and leaves him with her prized painting, Gustave and Zero find themselves at odds with the woman's son, Dmitri (Adrien Brody), who despises Gustave, and his threatening thug, Jopling (Willem Dafoe). The two of them soon find themselves framed for the woman's murder and on the run from Jopling, the Zubrowkian authorities, and German troops under the command of Henckels (Edward Norton).

As far as Anderson's films go, The Grand Budapest Hotel is perhaps his most plot-heavy. The result is a film that's plenty imaginative, but feels just a little overcrowded.

More after the jump.

Tuesday, August 5, 2014

Hit Me With Your Best Shot: Why The Anderson Children Didn't Come to Dinner (2003)

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

I don't usually watch a ton of short films; the only time I sort-of do is when specialty theaters roll out the "Oscar-Nominated Shorts" packages in January/February every year. Even that's a rarity: this year was the first year I've lived close enough to a theater that did offer it (I'm sure Asheville did, and I missed it, but you get the idea). So it's exciting that for this week's selection for "Hit Me With Your Best Shot," The Film Experience's Nathaniel chose a trilogy of short films from new filmmaker Jamie Travis (For a Good Time, Call…) for us to watch. And you can too - they are available online!


Why the Anderson Children Didn't Come to Dinner was the earliest of what's been billed as his "Saddest Children in the World" Trilogy, serving as Travis' graduating film. The plot is fairly simple: Eliza (Katherine Eaton), Chester (Michael Kurliak), and Godfrey (Colton Booreen) decide to escape the abrasive cooking of their mother (Patti Wotherspoon). It's not so straightforward, though, as Travis imbues the film with plenty of quirks and oddities.

What's generally exciting about short films is the economic storytelling: the filmmaker has an abbreviated time to tell the story, and so certain details are often expressed visually rather than being explained. It's difficult to present a beginning, middle, and end when there's only a few minutes to do so. So it's impressive that this remarkably odd little film manages to make the impact that it does, despite the fact that nearly everyone wears the same facial expression and only the mother speaks.

More after the jump.

Friday, August 1, 2014

Life Itself (2014)

I never had the opportunity to meet Roger Ebert. This isn't something that should come as a surprise; by the time I began working on this blog, Ebert was living a life mostly confined to hospitals, a result of his cancer diagnoses. He was writing more on his blog than he was for the the Chicago Sun-Times, his longtime newspaper gig. I wish I could have met him once along this mortal coil, though. He was the film critic that I - not just I, but all of us who call ourselves film geeks, who take time out of their days to write about film because it's a compulsion - aspired to be. His reviews were erudite, drawing from a wealth of knowledge about the world and everything in it, but were also always accessible. You didn't have to understand literary or cultural theory to grasp the points of his writing. He was that friend you had that seemed to know everything, but never acted like he was above you. If I could write just one-tenth as well as he did…


Life Itself, a new documentary based on Ebert's memoir of the same name, paints a portrait of the man who brought "thumbs up" to the lexicon of reviewing movies. And the film doesn't pull any punches: filmed during the final months of his life, it presents Ebert as a man who was certainly brilliant, but was nonetheless a flawed man struggling to make sense of life.

More after the jump.