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2003 Milk Plus Droogies

Best Picture
Kill Bill Vol. I

Best Director
Quentin Tarantino, Kill Bill Vol. I

Best Actor (tie)
Johnny Depp, Pirates of the Caribbean

Best Actor (tie)
Bill Murray, Lost in Translation

Best Actress
Uma Thurman, Kill Bill Vol. I

Best Supporting Actor
David Hyde Pierce, Down With Love

Best Supporting Actress
Miranda Richardson, Spider

Best Screenplay
Sofia Coppola, Lost in Translation

Best Foreign Film
Irreversible

Best Cinematography
Harris Savides, Gerry

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The Blog:
Saturday, August 24, 2002
 
ivansxtc: B+

Exposing the real side of Hollywood and the film industry, the superficial, soulless and corrupt side is like shooting fish in a barrel, and it is getting to be a very tired subject for movies. So either Tolstoy or Bernard Rose (who adapted and directed ivansxtc from Tolstoy’s book The Death of Ivan Ilyich) were on to something when they took such a self-assured man, in this case a successful Hollywood agent, and gave him the death sentence of a fatal disease. In ivansxtc Ivan the agent (Danny Huston) lives the high life of Hollywood despite the modest success of the agency he works for. He is a good looking guy, polite and charming, but he has a few slight weaknesses. As everyone knows even the slightest touch of evil can be exploited in L.A. and Ivan’s weakness, plus his recent success of signing hot actor Don West (Peter Weller) to his agency, leads him to days full of smarmy Hollywood dealings, and nights full of booze, drugs and bimbos.

Somewhere along his path through vague doctor conversations and visits Ivan discovers that he has a rare form of lung cancer. Ivan who is all grins due to his success at his agency is hit like a hammer to the head by the news and he struggles to maintain face in front of his colleagues and his clients. The coupling of low budget digital handheld photography (the film was made for only $500,000) and Mr. Rose’s decision to cast his film with his crew and crew his film with his cast lends to an uneasy sense of realism to the movie and Danny Huston, who looks like Jack Nicholson when he’s grinning and Orson Wells when he is not, truly has the looks of a man who knows he is going to die. But Ivan is no sack, and besides for a few dark, quiet moments of inner contemplation, he has to put on his game face as he dines with his family, and alternately entertaining his girlfriend (Lisa Enos, also the film’s producer and co-writer) and Don West, his new client who has a similar taste in the wild side of life.

In the business he is in Ivan has little time to himself and when he is not sleeping off last night’s party, he generally is drowning himself in Hollywood schmoozing or liquor and drugs. Whether or not Ivan dramatically changes his lifestyle once he learns he is dying is not clear, or maybe not important-the film opens with his co-workers’ bland grumbling reactions upon hearing of his death, then it travels back to when he learns he is dying and chronicles his last couple days-it is implied that Ivan was a heavy drug user and partier before he died and whether he spends his last couple days doing what he has always done or if he is just taking it to a new level is a sad thing to consider. Coupled with Ivan’s gradual, and alarmingly realistic downfall is a frighteningly fitting score of music, especially Wagner’s Vorspiel to Tristan & Isolde which opens the film (played over a montage of shots of early morning L.A.) and Ivan’s death which elegantly paced with the Liebestod, the “Love Death” scene of the same opera. The music reflects both Ivan’s cultured taste (which illustrates how interesting and intelligent this man could have been, if his body wasn’t infected with the corruption of the industry and the disease that kills him), and it also draws attention to a strong paradox in the film: the music plays up how tragic Ivan’s death is (to himself and the viewer anyway who are the only people who really get to see him suffering when he is alone), but also how typical. Some self-obsessed Hollywood player dies after years of partying: how common, how clichéd is that? Even when Ivan’s co-workers are told he died of cancer they think that it is just a cover story for him overdosing. Ivan’s death and his process of dying are monstrously lonely for the man, and he fills his remaining days with little that has real meaning in his life. ivansxtc cleverly takes the most redundant subject for a film about Hollywood and turns it upside down by treating an insider’s death with the gravity and the grace it needs to become poignant and meaningful and thus allowing Ivan to transcend his own surroundings.


Thursday, August 22, 2002
 
Now I've seen everything. Around the time Bicentennial Man came out, I would have put money on the bet that I'd never see a movie containing a shot of Robin Williams sitting on the toilet taking a shit. I'd have lost the bet.

R.E.M. video director-turned-feature filmmaker (this is his second film after a supposedly crappy 1980s movie called Static with the amazing cast of Keith Gordon and Amanda Plummer; his R.E.M. video was the amazing "Strange Currencies" starring Samantha Mathis) Mark Romanek has included many other original and startling shots other than the Mork doing number two into One Hour Photo. But he's also written a script that follows the stalker-harasses-a-normal-middle-class-family formula we've seen in all kinds of films both good (With a Friend Like Harry) and bad (The Hand That Rocks the Cradle). We didn't need another one.

And although the genre is somewhat limiting, what makes the film worth seeing is the extremely clever and inventive visual sense created by Romanek and his great DP Jeff Cronenweth (Fight Club). Colors, compositions, lighting, and subtle camera moves work in an intense, slowly building rhythm that makes the rote seem fresh. Watch for a shot of Connie Nielsen coming up a mall escalator and her body entering the bottom of the static frame and leaving the top of it, then see the camera shift and tilt up to follow Williams (denoting that Williams' character is [a] trapped within the frame thematically and [b] the point of view we're following). Romanek knows just where to put the camera every time, reminding me of another music video director turned feature filmmaker that's used Cronenweth behind the camera.

Mad props also in order to the production design, outfitting the Walgreen's-ish store where the photomat is as a florescent-blown IKEA of suburban death, containing Office Space-like signs attempting to inspire employees with ironic motivational slogans like "the customer is all that matters." The screening was packed, so I was forced to sit in the fifth row back, and the best thing about being so close to the screen is that I got to read the fortune from the Chinese cookie on Nielsen's coffee table that's artfully placed right next to an in-focus photo of Williams smiling. It reads: "Someone wants you to be happy." Attention to detail like that earns big points with me.

Unfortunately, supporting roles like those played by Gary Cole (there's Office Space again), Clark Gregg, and Eriq LaSalle are rather thin and wasted, while the larger roles of Williams, Nielsen, and Vartan go pretty much undeveloped (pun intended) -- which sucks, because the existential themes of the camera stopping time and defining memories could have really meant something if investigated within the context of three-dimensional human beings. Instead we get rudimentary domestic drama and a hint at past trauma. If Romanek had put as much effort into his writing as he did into his directing craft, this might have been a Cadillac. As is, a solid steak knives worth seeing but nothing to scream about.


Wednesday, August 21, 2002
 
Thoughts on The Virgin Suicides that I posted on the forum:

My initial reaction to this film was a sort of, "That's it?". The more I reflected on the experience, the more I liked it however. Coppola's attention to detail was amazing. The cinematography was beautiful and I am always a sucker for pretty pictures. The sets and costumes are great but all these aesthetics were obvious from the beginning. What really comes through in the film (and I have always meant to watch it again) is the strange awkwardness yet idyllic rememberance of childhood. The late '70's sets make us think of a past, any of our individual pasts, but the fact that all of this decoration is out of style reminds one of the awkwardness of youth. The party scene where the girls and boys don't know what to say to each other is particularly authentic and I can imagine how hard it is to coordinate a bunch of actors to pull something like that off. Josh Hartnett is a perfect embodiment of the guy you knew in school who you thought at the time was screwing any girl he wanted, but now as an adult you realize he wasn't. The film depicts his exploits as you imagined them in high school but there is a certain emptiness about it that tells you it is all a myth. And myth is really what the film is about. The sisters are a mythology. The strange virgins who every 16 year old lusts for but can't touch. If only I could rescue them from their cruel parents who won't let them be free to fulfill my fantasies...


Tuesday, August 20, 2002
 
The Kid Stays In The Picture D

Legendary Hollywood producer Robert Evans is the subject of a film (or at least an E! style biography) about his life called The Kid Stays In The Picture, based on his autobiographical book of the same name. I do not know what kind of secrets, rich background information, interesting Hollywood factuals, or lessons learned are in the book, but they certainly are not in the movie.

Evans started out as a bad, minor Hollywood star, and was suddenly thrust into a VP of productions job at the then floundering Paramount studios. Immediately he turned the studio around, and in quick succession he made Rosemary's Baby, Love Story, The Godfather, and Chinatown amongst other films. Then in the 1980s, like many of Hollywood's new young guard of the 70s, Evans had a downfall which included legal troubles and drug issues. And now in the 90s he is kind of doing alright. That about sums up what The Kid has to say about Evans' life, and one would think that an autobiography turned into a biographical picture narrated by the man himself would shed some light on such an illustrious career, instead directors Nanette Burstein and Brett Morgen (along with Evans evidently, he must have had a hand in trimming down his life into a 90 minute movie) give a very brief synopsis of a man who changed a studio and the kinds of movies that could be made there. Reading the back cover description of Evans' book probably gives more in depth information than this movie does, and it inexplicably leaves out the details in almost ever important event in his career (his sudden appointment at Paramount happens so quick one might miss it, and his legendary spats with Francis Ford Coppola are glossed over, the awards, press and praise over most of his hit films are much too humbly passed by, as is Evans' notorious womanizing).

The big surprise is that The Kid Stays In The Picture is the typical rise and fall arc common in almost any fictional or non-fiction story that starts all humble in the early 70s, rises to stardom soon after, and then hits the required drug bump/career nightmare called the 1980s. What could make this particular been-there-done-that arc different (besides the fact that it is mostly true, however one sided and biased) is that the movie is about ROBERT EVANS for heaven's sake, the man is responsible for more classic American films than any producer in history and his story should be interesting. This version is a watered down, glossed over, generalized, summed up, detail-less synopsis of a life that is obviously more fun, more interesting and had more ups and downs than The Kid makes clear. How did Evans learn how to produce? What exactly were his duties at Paramount? How much of a hand did he have in the classic films that bare his name? What kind of social life did he have? He says he loves his job, but what about it? Bossing people around? Creating art? Evans' rise is quick and painless, and apparently so is the creation of the historically difficult shoots of movies like The Godfather and Rosemary's Baby. Mr. Evans' narration, taken from his book, sounds like he is musing on something that happened so long ago he has strategically decided to forgive and forget all that happened, from his frequently vicious tiffs with Coppola to his sudden fall from grace in the 80s (who's origins are murky in the film, some drug this and that, some bad headlines and suddenly Evans is making bad films and no one likes him?). His wonderfully smooth, throaty voice irons over the tough wrinkles of his career, and under the guise of admitting how badly things went or how high he was on life, it is always clear that everything was much worse, or much better, than he makes it seem. The poor man does himself little justice.


 
Possession D+


Possession is a strange turn for writer/director Neil LaBute, usually known for his narrow view on women (bordering on misogynist) in such films as Nurse Betty and In The Company of Men. Here he does an about face with an utterly romantic but very thin quasi-period piece. Roland Michell (Aaron Eckhart) is an American teaching assistant working in England who happens upon lost correspondence to a lover written by a famously monogamous 19th century poet, Randolph Ash (Jeremy Northam). Roland finds that the lover might in fact be another poet, this one a woman named Christabel (Jennifer Ehle), and so he goes to Maud Bailey (Gwyneth Paltrow), who specializes in Christabel’s poetry, to try to track down the truth. Michell, an eager and enthusiastic American, eventually coaxes the reluctant Bailey into helping him follow Ash and Christabel’s trail through Europe. While Michell and Bailey hunt down the places visited and the things done by the poets, Possession flashes back to the past and then forward to the present, chronicling both Ash’s love affair with Christabel, and the eventual relationship that springs up between Maude and Roland.

Mr. LaBute’s film, which he helped adapt from A.S. Byatt’s novel, suffers from the limited minutes a film can devote to the background detail and character depth that the book had the luxury of expanding on. Byatt’s poetry, which she herself wrote for the fictional poets of the book, is lovely and sweet and Possession is unique in that most of the contemporary seduction takes place with either Maude or Roland reading the poetry out loud while the other listens. Both characters watch the reader and soak up the words with a hunger for the new lines about the poets’ affair, and as they listen intently what begins as interest in the poets turns into mutual attraction. Soon Maude and Roland are trying to figure out the nature of their affection, which is hampered by their work and the baggage each brings from past relationships; simultaneously LaBute shows Ash and Christabel’s doomed affair (often at the same time, crosscutting one hundred and fifty years earlier), which is hampered by more romantic issues like Christabel’s jealous lesbian companion and Ash’s sexless relationship with his wife. Neither relationship is fully understandable as Mr. LaBute is content simply portraying the relationships as they spring up, instead of showing exactly why each character was drawn to the other (Roland, for example, claims he forsakes woman and relationships with them, but soon Maude’s cold demeanor inexplicably seduces him out of his mindset).

This would be all well and good if the film was a dreamy ode to difficult love, or maybe if there was a strong parallel between the love affairs of two different centuries, or if Maude and Roland’s exploration of the poets’ affair helped them understand and work out their own problems, but Possession’s film adaptations decides to leave it at having Roland and Maude carry on a typical modern relationship and Ash and Christabel carry on a glossy, romantic, and very non-confrontational period fling. Mr. LaBute unfortunately cuts the occasionally fun, wistful atmosphere of the Maude/Roland adventure by misusing some gorgeous European locations and photographing an unnecessary amount of automobiles and shots of cars traveling-at first the film shies delightfully away from technology, as Roland and Maude venture out of London to the coast and to the countryside there is nary a cellphone or laptop in sight which adds considerably to the brief, elegant nature of their relationship…that is until there is a long tracking shot of a Saab cruising along interrupting the view of a charming English villa. With the film’s tendency to be wise-cracky in the first half, and buffered with a thin and pointless “evil” plot in the second, the contemporary love story has little going for it other than Ms. Paltrow’s predictable but lovely performance. She does her usual cold looking, pursed lips and worried frown thing for a while, but she believably melts just enough to a pleasant mixture of charming and brittle when Roland turns on his charms. Unfortunately Aaron Eckhart possesses an utter lack of romanticism, and his perpetually unshaven face and grubby clothes do not help his case much.

The 19th century story is similarly flawed, though its same qualities of being an overly typical and unexplained romance can be excused as it is being told through passionate letters, and the passion from the letters certainly seeps into Mr. Northam and Ms. Ehle’s performances, which are breathless and attractively idealized. Where the contemporary setting lacked a believable male lead in Mr. Eckhart, a finer 19th century romantic poet than Jeremy Northam is impossible to produce and though Ms. Ehle’s performance is repetitious, she is pretty and forlorn, and has eyes filled with the knowledge that every thing she sees she will lose, which is tragic enough to forget the monotony of her never changing expression.

Neither story is perfect, and neither story unites somewhere along the way to reach some sort of connection between the torments of an old, romantic kind of love and the kind that exists in the hustle and bustle of modern jobs in modern times. The fault rests squarely on the shoulders of Mr. LaBute and the people who helped him adapt the work, too many cuts were made around the modern romance to make it compelling, and similar cuts kept the old romance merely typical. If only one had something to say about the other, or maybe the problem is it is just too difficult to create a modern relationship that is as interesting or as passionate as the romances of old. Possession tries to crush too much action with too little detail into too small of a container, and though some bits and pieces fit nicely, it never gets all of it right.


Monday, August 19, 2002
 
Movies I saw recently that don't inspire long reviews:

Showtime is a mediocre comedy that scores the occasional funny joke. There is something to the idea of doing a movie about a real cop who shows why cop movies are stupid but then gets caught up in cop-movie-like situations, but these writers are far from clever enough to figure out how to make it work. Eddie Murphy is so much better when he has another big star, in this case Robert DeNiro, to bounce his material off rather than his often dreadful outings alone. It is so easy to forget that Murphy is (or at least was) a brilliant comic actor, which a recent viewing of Coming To America confirmed again. Showtime is mostly forgettable but a decent rental if you have nothing better to do. I love watching Rene Russo mostly because she is the most lovely person over 45 I have ever seen.

In The Bedroom is just as fine the second time. I was a little worried that the surprises too greatly affected the impact of the drama, but I don't think they are so important after further review.

Super Troopers is a silly stoner comedy destined for dorm room DVD players for the next 25 years. There is a certain earnest joy to the film. The guys making it have this aura of "hey, someone is letting us make a movie, goddamn life is good". It has it's moments and on the whole I am glad I rented it. It is sometimes so bizarrely offbeat that you have to smile.

Yun- A German friend here who doesn't speak fluent English asked me to ask you what the English equivalent of the German expression "I heard the grass whisper" would be. I suggested to him "I heard it through the grapevine" but I was curious what you would say since you seem to have the whole English metaphor thing down better than me.


 
Recent stuff:

First week. The Sum of All Fears keeps up a good potboiler pace, even if Phil Alden Robinson wouldn´t know the term "depth of field" if you carved it into his forehead. Unfortunately it´s also mostly ludicrous (quite treasured the bit with Alan Bates as Viennese Neonazi), what with not even an inkling of letting any of the foreigners become more than a broad caricature, while some old pros and Liev Schreiber, clearly having fun, have to make room for the big hole in the movie, Ben Affleck, to suck it out. At least its unabashadly stylish stupidity excuses the offensive parts. Despite the historic sight of Peter Boyle entering his Marlon Brando phase, Monster´s Ball isn´t much better, having noble written all over it, and wasting its poor little pretentious arthouse soul with ominous solemnity (the Shyamalan sickness) that glaringly points to a weak script. There´s some interest left in the rubbing of Thornton´s (Coen redux without the fun) and Berry´s (barely contained, but honest mediocrity) acting styles.The Terrorist, like Santosh Sivan´s following Bollywood exercise Asoka is too intoxicated with its vidoeclip aesthetic to pay much attention to anything else, but comparing this weak, if good-looking, deliberately vague parable to Thin Red Line for its director´s telegenic water fetish, as some critics have done, sheds a bad light on film culture. Jeanne la pucelle is - at least in its first part, The Battles - the most shining example of Rivette´s "neo-classicism" in the 90s. The second part, The Prisons is a bit too close to Rivette´s La religieuese to cause the same unaffected impct-sensation of sober, insistent re-imagination of a myth-soaked incident. I guess that left it to Besson to finally disgrace the long, billiant row of Jeanne D´Arc films.


Second week. Did I mention that Blue Moon, the not so-good Austrian film that ran in competition at Locarno was sold to quite a few countries? Be glad if you see that one and not Poppitz, an Austrian aberration you´ll probably never have to hear about again. In that spirit, I´ll remain silent. Sia, a low budget Burkina Faso folk ballad, has been evoking comments about Fordish grace. Well, not really, but for all its budgetary constraints its quite an ok document of a weird, theatrical acting style that at first looks "bad" to Western sensibilities and the oral tradition. It´s a bit short on ideas, though. Goodbye South Goodbye I had programmed at a summer retrospective so I could finally see it on the big screen. Given that it´s a film of light and landscapes, full of narrative ellipses, comic deadpan expression and beautiful Lumierish capturing of movement and rhythms, it´s the only way to see it. Still my favourite Hou Hsiao-Hsien film, a cornerstone of 90s cinematic obsession, and probably more influential than it´s been given credit for. Quick retribution in Bad Company, a sour Bruckheimer mash so devoid of interest in any respect that its actor puppets seem to sleepwalk through the blank inanity. Luckily I also rewatched Tourneur´s sublime masterpiece I Walked With a Zombie on the big screen, so it erased that image. Apart from admiring the meticulous textures and the inexplicably haunting atmosphere, I was consummated by the thought of how much Tourneur and Dwan have in common. Vera Chytilova´s wild, slighty dated, but still very funny ´66 ode to slapstick feminism, Daisies was thrown in the mix since it´s rumored to be an influence on Rivette´s Celine and Julie Go Boating. It´s mostly a series of delirious framed and colored sketches that barely form a narrative arc, but thrive on constant invention, interspersed with animation and a heavy-handed, thankfully short, uncharacteristically concerned atomic allegory (undoubtedly censor bait). Its crafty style strangely contradicts with the feel of anything-goes, but its passionately destructive mid-film climax - when the two giggling, wilfully decadent heroines embark on Laurel&Hardyish food dissection via scissors - is priceless.

Okraina, by the underrated Russian maverick Boris Barnet was chosen by Rivette as one of seven accompanying dilms for the upcoming retro of his oeuvre. He places BB alongside Eisenstein and it´s easy to understand why: his madcap farces have the same kinetic power of montage and composition as the films of his contemporaries, but he rejects all flourishes of style and formalism for the spontaneous idea. Okrania, a masterful exhibit from 33, charts WWI as a story of alienation-reconciliation between Germans and Russians in a small Ukrainian village, the pathos undercut by myriads of visual gags and puns and an irreverent sense of being constantly on the move; both the accomplished beauty of the film and the unfinished soundtrack of this effort give a sense of Barnet´s torn, alive, unfinished aesthetic. I would watch anything by him. Eight Legged Freaks is probably the best time I had at an American movie all year: it hits the all the right notes on the terror-comedy scale despite a slow buildup (unbilled Tom Noonan dies after ten minutes, but he has the scientist part that requires five minutes of throwing over all spider cages while croaking), mainly thanks to a few inventive touches (a Warner Bros. cat-spider-battle in bas-relief, a walking tent to a bad muzak version of "Strangers in the Night") and like Tremors and Lake Placid it actually believes in its cardboard b world and infuses it with life, despite a few easy irony-quatations. It has the same lackadaisical charme as the lead David Arquette which makes the cast right, and along with Starship Troopers it proves that insects are the best CGI material, especially if they have a sense of humour.


Sunday, August 18, 2002
 
I had fairly high hopes for Blue Crush, given that I really enjoyed John Stockwell's last film, Crazy/Beautiful; I liked the new film, which all in all is a by the numbers sports film, with some added extra touches. Kate Bosworth is the shapely and nubile former junior surf champion Ann Marie, who lives in a beat-up shack on the beach with her younger sister Penny, who sounds like she had Kirsten Dunst dub in her dialogue, and two fellow surfing friends, Eden and Lena. All three also work as maids at an upscale hotel on Oahu, fitting in as much surfing as they can in the early morning and evenings; the movie is set during a week that shares both the Pro-Bowl and a Women's Professional Surfing Competition on the Oahu Northshore. The Pro-Bowl provides Ann Marie with a love interest, and the film with some comedic relief in the guise of some boisterous offensive lineman; the surfing competition provides Ann Marie with her dream. Guess how it plays out. While the sports genre film plot mechanics are enjoyable (will she overcome her accident-crippled psyche to make a big splash at the tournament, garnering her dream of appearing on the cover of a surfing magazine, as well as a sponsorship; will she choose her dream over material well-being; will her hunky, yet sensitive, new pro-quarterback support her dream; will her alienated sister finally get to see the role model she wants; will the fat guys make some more jokes?), even if they have been done better, it is the incidental pleasures of the movie that make it worth while (it certainly isn't the acting, which isn't all that bad, but most of the characters seem to be actual, local surfers, with somewhat limited talent; and there was a lot of not so good looping of dialogue, due to the crashing surf). For one thing, the entire surfing sequences, even with CGI enhancements, is freakin' awesome, exciting, and well done; I can't believe people actually do some of that stuff for fun, most of it just looks to terrifying and dangerous to seriously contemplate, though the film did convey the pleasures of surfing, and I would probably give it a try if I was ever in Hawaii. Other pleasures include some glimpses of how Hawaiians live and work away from the tourist industry, and how crappy it is to be a hotel maid (though I still think that Jacquot Benoit's A Single Girl is a better maid-centric film), the film didn't pull any punches in describing how bad it can get, and the three actresses did a good, convincing portrayal of three working-class women, with somewhat limited economic horizons, but a real sense of camraderie. Oh yeah, they all looked good in bikinis too, that never hurt a film in my book.