Monday, December 31, 2007
The Best Film of 2007: "Juno"
For its first 15 or 20 minutes, "Juno" is a very smart and funny movie about a hyper-articulate 16-year-old girl who finds herself pregnant after a bit of fooling around with her best friend. Then, gradually, it turns into something much deeper than that: a story about the importance of community and family and sticking together in the face of adversity.

After an ill-fated visit to an abortion clinic, Juno decides to have the baby and give it up for adoption. She finds a pleasant yuppie couple living in what looks to be a freshly-built suburb, the kind with tract mansions built on an endless series of cul-de-sacs. (Juno herself is the product of a lower-middle-class upbringing and a broken home, and it seems obvious that on some unconscious level she wants her child to have a different kind of life.) The wife, Vanessa, comes across initially as a slightly icy perfectionist, the type of woman who spends hours deciding which color to paint the nursery ("custard or cheesecake?," she muses, looking at two practically identical shades of off-white); the husband, Mark, is an ex-rocker who now writes music for TV commercials and bonds with Juno over a shared love of horror movies and Mott the Hoople. At first Mark seems like a cool guy while Vanessa's more of a cold fish, but the viewer's perceptions of the two shift and turn over the course of the film. Much of the credit for that goes to Jennifer Garner, whose portrayal of Vanessa is exceptionally nuanced.

Usually I watch films with a certain amount of emotional detachment, but "Juno" broke through all of my defenses. One of my favorite scenes in the movie is a brief bit near the end, when a lost-looking Juno is lying in bed in the maternity ward, her father sitting by her side, stroking her hair: "Someday," he reassures her, "you'll be back here on your own terms." For all the attention "Juno" has been getting for its flip and witty dialogue, the thing that really makes it work is the truth underlying the relationships between its flawed but lovable characters.

The rest of the top 10:

2. "The Lives Of Others"
3. "Once"
4. "The King Of Kong: A Fistful Of Quarters"
5. "Ratatouille"
6. "Rocket Science"
7. "The Lookout"
8. "Knocked Up"
9. "The Bourne Ultimatum"
10. "Paris Je T'aime"
posted by 125records @ 9:20 AM   3 comments
Sunday, December 30, 2007
The Best Film of 2007: "The Savages"
Guest blogged by Joe Mallon

How fitting that the last movie I saw in 2007 was the best movie I saw in 2007: "The Savages," written & directed by Tamara Jenkins. Philip Seymour Hoffman & Laura Linney play Jon & Wendy Savage, siblings who share a love for theater and ambivalence toward their father Lenny (Philip Bosco), who's losing his mind to dementia. When he can no longer care for himself, Jon & Wendy must work together to put him in a nursing home. The experience causes both to re-evaluate their own lives and how Dad's abusive parenting warped them.

That doesn't sound like a laugh riot, and it's not, but the movie is consistently funny, finding humor in bleak places. More importantly, it's moving and scary, confronting head-on the effects of age-caused incapacity on the "elder," as the movie's ads for a high-end "care center" puts it, and his family. The children try to keep their father connected to the real world -- going so far as to attend a support group to learn just that -- and are just as disappointed as he is when that proves difficult.

There are several scenes of life at Valley View, none of which are scary in their own right, but all of which add up to a chilling picture of reduced independence and decreased capacity. Even as the nursing home staff tries its best to keep Lenny healthy and engaged, it's clear that there's only one way rooms become available at Valley View.

The movie concentrates on the effect of her father's illness on Wendy, a struggling playwright in Manahttan. She's a scared, sad, manic depressive who's been trying to escape her father's shadow for decades. (Her unfinished opus is a "subversive semi-autobiographical play" called "Wake Me When It's Over.") Watching Wendy fight her way through the pain and fog of losing the father, reliving his abondonment, is heartbreaking, and Linney is perfect. Her rapport with Hoffman feels real. They fight, they meddle, they console, and, finally, they support each other.

The movie never strikes a wrong note, never veers into sentimentality or offers an obvious solution to an inescapable problem. The dialogue sounds like people actually talking, instead of cleverness wrapped in irony. "The Savages" is a rich portrait of the struggle of one family to free itself from the past, and the pain that separation causes.

Though it might be hard going, especially for people with older parents (or those older parents themselves), "The Savages" does one of the best things movies can do -- share an experience in all its complexity and beauty. I saw more than 50 movies this year, and this was the best.

Tune in tomorrow for Sue's pick.
posted by 125records @ 12:49 PM   2 comments
Friday, December 28, 2007
The best thing about this group of candidates... that only one of them can win.
--Will Rogers

The usual rule around here is: no politics. But with the primaries drawing ever closer, it's a hard topic to avoid. So in the spirit of year-end list-making, let's... rank the presidential candidates! My sole criterion: who is ready & qualified to step into the Oval Office? Warning: This list is guaranteed to infuriate Republicans & Democrats alike.

1. Joe Biden: He seemingly has no Joementum, despite the fact that he is arguably the best equipped to deal with the foreign policy issues that will be critical during the next four years. You want experience? How about three decades on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, which he now chairs? If only he were stirring up a bit more excitement in the party faithful than some of the candidates with far less substance.
Fun Fact: Elected to the Senate at the age of 29 (he reached the constitutionally mandated age of 30 before he was sworn in).

2. John McCain: We've had our differences over the years on a number of issues, but I keep coming back to Sen. McCain's essential integrity and moral authority. One of the few candidates in the race who seems like a genuine leader and is willing to take risky stances on, say, immigration hurt him with his party's base. Also, this is one man who will step up and insist that our returning soldiers get the care and support they deserve.
Fun Fact: Sen. McCain graduated fifth from the bottom of his Naval Academy class in 1958. Who graduated at the top? Iran-Contra figure John Poindexter.

3. Bill Richardson: Embarrassingly, when Joe & I were trying to name all the Democratic candidates, both of us forgot about Gov. Richardson, despite the fact that New Mexico is one of our favorite states! His extensive experience as a diplomat and Secretary of the Department of Energy make him a qualified candidate.
Fun Fact: Listed "diet milkshakes" as his favorite food in a recent AP survey, which is pretty sad coming from someone who lives in the state with some of the best food in the nation. Acceptable answers to the question could have included sopapillas, huevos rancheros, or the cinnamon buns at the Frontier.

4. Barack Obama: I'm putting him this high up on the list because from what I've read, he's surrounded himself with some extremely smart and capable people, and who knows, maybe he'll be able to inspire Americans in a Kennedyesque manner. But it'll require quite a leap of faith on the part of voters to put him in the White House.
Fun Fact: Only Grammy winner in the race (he got the trophy for Best Spoken Word Album for the audio edition of Dreams From My Father).

5. & 6. (tie) John Edwards & Mitt Romney: I know they're in different parties, but to me, they're two sides of the same perfectly coiffed head, so to speak. Sen. Edwards: I can't trust a savior of the working class who lives in a 28,000-square-foot house with an indoor basketball court & squash court; sorry, I just can't. Gov. Romney: I don't buy his late-stage conversion to the anti-abortion, pro-gun, anti-gay marriage side that just happens to dovetail with the politically important religious right. To quote the Washington Post's Richard Cohen: "...his craven crawl toward the White House shows a man of obvious talents and experience who illustrates how broken our system is. Why should anyone have to tailor his beliefs to get past ideological bottlenecks in the early primary states?"
Fun Edwards Fact: His house is 80% the size of a football field.
Fun Romney Fact: His sons keep a campaign blog.

7. & 8. (tie) Dennis Kucinich & Ron Paul: Lots of intriguing ideas from both of these men, but a President has to work with the Congress to pass legislation, and I am unconvinced that either of them are sufficiently skilled in the art of compromise to be effective Commanders-in-Chief.
Fun Kucinich Fact: Was third-string quarterback on his high school football team despite his 4-foot-9 stature and weight of 97 pounds.
Fun Paul Fact: Three of his five kids are physicians; he paid for their educations rather than have them take out federal student loans because the program was taxpayer-subsidized.

9. Hillary Clinton: Busy touting her "35 years of experience" on the campaign trail, which I suppose means that I have 10 years of experience as a software engineer, since I'm married to one. Nominating her would be tantamount to party suicide.
Fun Fact: According to her MySpace profile, her favorite reality TV show is "American Idol" and the last album she bought was Carly Simon's Into White.

10. Rudoph Giuliani: My least favorite Presidential candidate of the primary season, perhaps of my entire lifetime. From his fear-mongering rhetoric to his klatsch of nutty neocon advisors to the duplicity and scandal in his past, not to mention the fact that HIS OWN KIDS CAN'T STAND HIM, I remain convinced that electing the hot-headed, egotistical ex-NYC mayor would be a disaster for America.
Fun Fact: Got an annulment from the Catholic Church for his first marriage on the rather dubious grounds that he had just discovered, after 14 years of marriage, that he and his wife were second cousins.

The rest:

Mike Huckabee: Wouldn't it be slightly embarrassing to vote for a Presidential candidate whose initial claim to fame was penning a diet book? Bonus points for having appeared on "The Colbert Report" several times. Minus points for having a son who is the Michael Vick of former Arkansas First Family members.
Fun Fact: Owns two dogs, a black lab named Jet and a shih tzu named Sonic. Hope he keeps 'em away from his kid!

Christopher Dodd: The only thing I know about Christopher Dodd is that he supposedly moved his entire family to Iowa so he could campaign there full-time. Judging from his poll numbers, Iowa didn't catch Dodd Fever.
Fun Fact: Used to date Bianca Jagger.

Mike Gravel: His YouTube video is a brilliantly Dada-esque. How cool would it be if he ultimately revealed his entire campaign had been a piece of performance art?
Fun Fact: His sister is a nun.

Fred Thompson: Every time Joe & I go to the theater, we play a little game in which we count how many of the actors have a guest spot on "Law & Order" listed in their bios. Who knew the game would translate to the campaign trail?
Fun Fact: He's already got presidential experience, having played Ulysses S. Grant in HBO's film "Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee."
posted by 125records @ 11:01 AM   8 comments
Thursday, December 27, 2007
Best of 2007: TV
1. "Slings and Arrows": I already wrote about it at length here, but this bittersweet Canadian series is worth plugging again. Available from Netflix, and you'll want to keep it in mind when the writers' strike drags on and the American networks are serving up "Big Brother XXI" and "Who Wants To Be Hooked Up To A Lie Detector?" It's enough to make you wonder what other televised entertainment they might be cooking up in the Great White North.

2. "Flight of the Conchords": Utterly hilarious, deadpan comedy about two New Zealand naifs who move to New York to jump-start their musical career, with the help of Murray, their manager/deputy cultural attache at the Kiwi consulate, and Mel, their only fan-cum-stalker.

3. "30 Rock": There's hope for American TV yet, when something this strange and wonderful can get on the air. Sometimes during its first season, I felt it was trying a little too hard to be the next "Seinfeld," but it's really come into its own now, thanks to both the brilliant ensemble (Alec Baldwin, Tina Fey and Tracy Jordan) at its core and a host of memorable supporting characters.

4. & 5. "The Daily Show"/"The Colbert Report": It's been so long since they've been on the air with new episodes that fans are going through withdrawal. They'll both be back on Jan. 7, but without their indispensable writers, what will these shows be like?

What I'm watching now: Season 2 of Discovery's "Everest: Beyond the Limit." I have a weird fascination with Mt. Everest, probably because I can't understand why anyone would want to climb it. You have to spend tens of thousands of dollars and set aside months of time, and your dream could be thwarted at the last minute because of poor weather, or you could lose all your fingers to frostbite, and for what -- just so you can say you were there? I guess I don't have the adventurer's spirit. "Everest" follows a group of climbers, including an arrogant American biker and (my favorite) a Danish triathlete with asthma who insists on attempting to summit Everest without the use of bottled oxygen, as they try to make their dream come true. The narration (by a voiceover guy who sounds exactly like the "In a world..." man who narrates every single movie trailer) is usually annoying, managing to mention approximately 48 times per episode that climbing Everest can mean death, but the scenery is jaw-dropping -- it's almost like being there, without the risk of hypoxia and cerebral edema! Besides Dane Mogens Jensen, my two fave personalities on the show are Monica Piris, the British expedition doctor who always keeps her cool no matter what medical emergencies come into her tent, and Phurba Tashi, the super-sherpa who's constantly rescuing stupid Westerners from life-threatening situations with grace and style.
posted by 125records @ 8:34 AM   2 comments
Sunday, December 23, 2007
Theatrical genius
It's the holidays, a period when people are gathered with friends & family and blog readership is surely way down, so I'll lay on you the least popular Conical Glass topic: yes, it's time for theater!

Overall, I saw a lot of incredible stuff in 2007 and except for my #1 choice, the rest of the top 10 could be fairly fluid.

1. "Great Men of Genius," Mike Daisey (Berkeley Rep): If I may quote myself, back on June 11 of this year: "Is it too early to declare 'Great Men of Genius' the theatrical event of the year?" Why, no; it wasn't too early at all, as it turns out. This was a genuine tour de force by the young, prolific monologist, five absolutely riveting hours. I'm on Daisey's mailing list and I keep getting notices of new monologues he's performing in places like New York and Seattle; his latest is called "How Theater Failed America." This is a guy with ambition and big ideas to spare. I hope the Berkeley Rep invites him back again in 2008, 'cause even after five hours, I want more.

2. "Angel Face," Cornell Woolrich (Word for Word): Who knew film noir would translate so well to the stage? I'm not always sold on Word for Word's "performing short stories verbatim" approach, but in this case, particularly with Laura Lowry as the dame trying to help her brother who's been framed for murder, it worked like a charm.

3. "Frost/Nixon," Peter Morgan (Broadway): This is the kind of show where you will look back on it for years to come and think how lucky you were to see Frank Langella and Michael Sheen in these roles. Fortunately for everyone who didn't make it to New York for this limited engagement, the actors are reprising them for a film due out in November 2008.

4. "The Pillowman," Martin McDonagh (Berkeley Rep): One of the most fiercely imaginative shows I've ever seen, in a typically well-produced and well-acted Berkeley Rep production.

5. "Sweeney Todd," Stephen Sondheim & Hugh Wheeler (ACT): I'm proud of myself for conquering my cannibalism phobia and going to see this play. (Please note, however, that I do not think I have the stomach to see the film.) The hyper-stylized, stripped-down version of the show puts the emphasis on Sondheim's magnificent score, not on the gore.

6. "Bulrusher," Eisa Davis (Shotgun Players): Every single thing Shotgun did in 2006 was sheer glorious perfection, so maybe their '07 season suffered a bit in comparison for me, but I did love this magical play by the multitalented Davis (soon to be starring on Broadway in the musical "Passing Strange"). She deserves to be a household name.

7. "Citizen Josh," Josh Kornbluth (Magic Theater): A year without Josh is like a year without sunshine. The man's plays make me smile and always provide a lot to chew on afterwards. I'm bummed that his wonderfully quirky public TV interview show got canceled (and just after I'd sent in my annual donation -- grr), but I'm sure there'll be new Kornbluth productions on the horizon, and I'm equally sure I'll enjoy them.

8. "Grey Gardens," Doug Wright, Scott Frankel & Michael Korie (Broadway): I didn't actually see the famous documentary until after I'd seen the Broadway musical, so now I'm even more impressed by how dead-on Christine Ebersole's performance as "Little" Edie Beale was. I wish someone was filming this production for posterity.

9. "Blackbird," David Harrower (ACT): As the 2,000 pound gorilla of the local theater scene, with a lot of older and more conservative patrons, you couldn't fault ACT for serving up splendid productions of chestnuts like N. Richard Nash's "The Rainmaker" and Somerset Maugham's "The Circle" (to name two worthy '07 offerings). "Blackbird," a taut, two-person show that races by in an intermissionless 85 minutes, was their edgiest show since Albee's "The Goat," and bless 'em for doing it.

10. "Jersey Boys," Marshall Brickman and Rick Eli (Curran): Since I'm not much of a Frankie Valli fan, I didn't expect to like this show as much as I did, but it's really a heck of a lot of fun. Bay Area audiences obviously agreed since it played almost all year long; I feel lucky to have seen it with what was apparently the best cast (the first one).

Shows I'm looking forward to in '08: Carrie Fisher's "Wishful Drinking" at Berkeley Rep, Tom Stoppard's "The Coast of Utopia" (nine hours long! -- I'm hoping my fave local actor John Mercer has a nice big role in it) and Mark Jackson's interpretation of "Macbeth" at Shotgun, and the touring production of "Spring Awakening" at Best of Broadway (since we missed it when we were in NY).

Best addition: Jud Williford to ACT's core acting company. He's just good in everything. I'm a little dismayed that he's only supposed to be in the company for the current season and hope they decide to keep him on... or, at least, that Jud (who made a splash early in '07 as the star of Mark Jackson's "American $uicide") sticks around the Bay Area. I still haven't gotten over Marco Barricelli. (Luckily, Marco may be treading the boards soon down in Santa Cruz.)

Worst show I saw in 2007: "Spamalot." I'm a fan of the movie and the Pythons, but I hated the musical. The one saving grace: no Clay Aiken.
posted by 125records @ 9:44 PM   1 comments
Saturday, December 22, 2007
National Wild: Into the Secrets
Several of my favorite blogs have gone on holiday hiatus, but the Conical Glass is here for you throughout the Xmas season, to entertain and/or annoy. I've planned an exhaustive schedule of moviegoing, and my annual best of the year lists are coming up.

A few days ago, I declared my intention of seeing "National Treasure: Book of Secrets" at the local mortuary-turned-theater, and I was so eager that I attended the Friday afternoon showing. This movie totally lived up to my expectations of being cheeserific. It's like a cross between The DaVinci Code and the Hardy Boys. For instance: the Nic Cage character, Ben Gates, is wanted by the Secret Service and the entire Washington, D.C. police force for kidnapping the president (just for a few minutes, though, so the prez could give him some information about the eponymous book). He's on the run in D.C., being driven around in his girlfriend's huge, conspicuous SUV -- and somehow they are able to elude all the law enforcement. Next thing you know, they're all in South Dakota!

Also: Ben and on-again, off-again gal pal Abigail enter Buckingham Palace as tourists, then manage to make it all the way to the Queen's personal study to search for a clue, thanks to computer genius pal Riley, who hacks into Palace security by means of an iPod, a cell phone and a laptop. In a nice touch, the Queen's desk has a framed photo of a corgi sitting atop it.

The movie is so implausible that it verges on the witless -- every time Ben is presented with a puzzle, he solves it correctly the first time -- and somehow, I enjoyed it. It's certainly well made and the cast is top-notch. Helen Mirren plays Ben's mom with so much gusto that you actually believe she took the role because she felt it would be fun to star in a big American blockbuster, and not just for a paycheck. Maybe Laura Linney or Cate Blanchett could show up in NT3 as Ben's long-lost sister. You know there's gotta be another sequel, since NT2 seems to be making tons of money.

Since I have a weird obsession with staying through movies' closing credits, no matter how long they are, I'm going to start a new feature called I Sit Through The Credits So You Don't Have To (ISTTCSYDHT). Sometimes, after, all, movies have "credit cookies," i.e. extra scenes that come at the very, very end of the credits. "National Treasure" has none, just lots and lots of names (not surprising, considering all the stunt work and special effects that went into making this mega-production).

Today, Joe and I decided to catch up with some older releases at the second-run Cerrito Theater. He saw "No Country For Old Men," which I had worried would be too violent for me (he said afterwards that he was pretty sure I had been correct in that assessment), and I saw the Sean Penn-directed drop-out-of-society pic "Into the Wild." Based on the Jon Krakauer book, "Wild" tells the story of a young man named Christopher McCandless who, after graduating from college, decides he's fed up with society and his parents, man, and sets off on a long, long journey. If you're my age chances are you'll identify more with Chris's parents, who are, understandably, extremely worried about him when he disappears without a trace; even if his mom & dad weren't exactly the Cleavers, there's really no good justification offered for why he never even sent word to his beloved sister after hitting the road. Penn obviously has a certain affinity for Chris but the character is portrayed as multi-dimensional, an extremely intelligent and charismatic young man who nevertheless overestimates his own wilderness survival skills and winds up making some really regrettable mistakes.

Chris (who adopts the rather silly moniker Alexander Supertramp when he hits the road) is beautifully portrayed by Emile Hirsch, who obviously gave everything he had to the role -- he is onscreen through virtually the entire two and a half hour running time and never fails to hold our attention; at the end of the movie, when Chris is starving to death in the Alaskan wilderness, Hirsch is frighteningly gaunt-looking (he reportedly lost 40 pounds for these scenes, and never used a stuntman). The only problem I had with the film is that it just feels too long. Penn and his cinematographer, Eric Gautier, capture some of the most gorgeous scenery I've ever seen, but after a while, I'd had my fill of Chris hitchhiking through a beautiful landscape/meeting colorful character who becomes completely entranced by him/tearful parting. I began wondering how Krakauer managed to track down all the people who encountered Chris on his journey, which is what he apparently did; it must have been a superhuman feat of research. (I wasn't able to find any interviews on the web explaining his process; if anyone knows of one, tell me.) "Into the Wild" will be out on DVD in a couple months and may play better over the course of a couple nights than in one giant-sized helping.

ISTTCSYDHT: Amusing credit: Bart the Bear as The Bear. Otherwise, just an Eddie Vedder song.
posted by 125records @ 8:33 PM   4 comments
Wednesday, December 19, 2007
Secret sushi
Our friends Michael & Susan had been raving about this Japanese restaurant they'd been frequenting. Oh, I remarked, maybe we can all go there sometime. They proceeded to inform me that would not be possible, as this restaurant refuses to seat parties larger than three.

That made no sense to me. Don't most eateries want to maximize the number of patrons they serve? Several times, I've had to seek out restaurants that will seat a party of 10-15 people, and I understand perfectly why a lot of them aren't equipped to do that. But four? I had a vague memory from my Japanese-language classes that the word for "four" sounds like the word for "death," so it's considered extremely bad form to give a Japanese person a set of four objects. Still, forbidding parties of four seemed to be taking that to an extreme.

I went on and searched for the restaurant. It got rapturous reviews: "This is the best sushi outside of Japan"... "this place is phenonemal"... "Simply incredible!" OK, I had to check it out. To avoid the dreaded party-of-four, Joe stayed behind. I felt a little bad about that but I figured he and I could go back someday.

The restaurant is conveniently located a 15-minute walk away from my house; you go through an inconspicuous door between a nail salon and an upscale card & gift shop, and up a steep flight of stairs. Once inside, the place turned out to be about the size of our guest bedroom. There's a sushi bar with eight seats and two tiny round tables with two chairs apiece. We arrived at 5:15 and were the first customers. (No reservations are accepted.) Instead of barging into the restaurant, the protocol seems to be that you sit down on the chairs in the tiny lobby and wait to be acknowledged. It didn't take long. The chef and his wife, the sole employees, seemed unfazed by our party of three, luckily (some Yelpers have claimed they've only been able to get service as a party of two; maybe our early arrival helped. Plus I would guess that if you tried moving a chair to create a table for three, you'd be in a world of trouble).

It was great fun to watch all the food being made in front of us; the chef has a tiny toaster oven, several plastic containers of vegetables and garnishes, and, of course, lots and lots of fish in a glass case. Everything was exquisitely fresh. We ordered omakase, which means the chef just makes whatever he feels like making and serves it to you. After a short while, a young couple came in, followed a few minutes later by a single guy, who amused us gaijin by ordering a natto hand roll. (Luckily, the chef didn't include anything natto-based in our omakase.)

At one point, two middle-aged women came in. One of them was disabled and using those short crutches that Jimmy on "South Park" has. The women were welcomed until it became clear that they would soon be joined by -- two other people! The female proprietor, the "bad cop" in the husband-wife duo, politely but firmly informed them that would not be acceptable. "What if we sit at separate tables?" one of the women asked. Ha! You think you can get around the rules that way? Nope. I suppose it's theoretically possible that your party of four could get in if you came two by two at least 15 minutes apart, and pretended you had "just happened" to run into each other. But these folks were obviously not acquainted with the rules (which are posted on a small sign by the door), and were shown to the exit. The disabled woman moaned loudly about having to walk all the way back downstairs (there's no elevator). Shortly thereafter, the natto eater was kicked out when he took a call on his cell phone (he was allowed back in, though, once he was off the phone).

Apparently the other big rule, which I did not see demonstrated, is that no children are allowed. You should probably have at least a learner's permit before you set foot inside the place.

The Soup Nazi episode of "Seinfeld" proved that the harder something is to get, the more some people want it; part of the mystique of the French Laundry, after all, is that it's virtually impossible to get a reservation. Some people would no doubt prefer not to worry about a list of rules (some spoken, some not) when they go out to eat; they just want to kick back and unwind. If you're looking for something more, an experience that is about as far as you can get from the usual mass-produced, cookie-cutter cuisine most places serve these days, sometimes you have to be willing to wait, not bring too many friends, turn your cell phone off and leave the kids at home.
posted by 125records @ 4:35 PM   9 comments
Sunday, December 16, 2007
That'll do, pig.
I work hard all week and the least I can expect on the weekend is some good, solid entertainment, right? Sometimes it works out and sometimes it doesn't...

Last night I went to see the new Shotgun Players production, "The Shaker Chair." I don't think their 2007 season was one of their best; the only play I embraced fully was "Bulrusher." I had high hopes for "The Shaker Chair" because I thought Encore Theater's 2005 production of playwright Adam Bock's "The Typographer's Dream" was superb, but "Shaker" isn't as fully realized. The characters' speech patterns made me wonder if Bock is a bit too influenced by David Mamet, although I suspect the tendentious storyline, about a 60-ish woman who becomes converted to the cause of ecological activism, will ensure a long, healthy run in Berkeley. I will say that Francis Lee McCain, the lead actress, was absolutely marvelous. I was amazed at the extent of her IMDB listing -- she's appeared in dozens of movies & TV shows.

One of the much-buzzed-about aspects of "The Shaker Chair" is the fact that a live pig appears onstage during the show. The pig (courtesy of a local pig sanctuary) even has its own understudy. However, the pig's role is minimal; it's only onstage for a minute or so. At the very least the pig could have come out at the end for the curtain call. If you're making a big deal about the pig (it is pictured in several of the publicity photos on Shotgun's web site), shouldn't it be more significant? It winds up feeling contrived and gimmicky.

At least "The Shaker Chair" is a brisk 75 minutes. "Atonement" is two hours that sometimes feels more like twenty. I know a lot of critics have been talking this one up as Oscar bait, but I found it unbearably slow-moving and remained curiously unmoved by the tale of two ill-fated lovers. The middle World War II section felt muddled; a long tracking shot on the beach at Dunkirk seemed like a pointlessly show-offy move. But this was the sort of movie where I kept noticing things like tracking shots and the scary sharpness of Keira Knightley's shoulder blades (Keira: eat something!) and the wallpaper in the gorgeous estate where the first portion of "Atonement" was filmed. I wish I could have been swept away by the drama, but alas, it was not to be.
posted by 125records @ 8:09 PM   4 comments
Friday, December 14, 2007
James commented on the last post, "I'm remorseful that I urged you to see SUPERBAD, since you hated it. Now you'll never see ENCHANTED, will you?" For one thing, "Superbad" was practically "Citizen Kane" compared to "Ocean's 13." Also, I did go see "Enchanted," so there! I don't think anyone could hate "Enchanted"; it would be like hating puppies and kittens. It may be the most relentlessly lovable movie ever made. I'm not sure how it got a PG rating; if my 90something grandmother were still alive, this is a film I'd recommend to her. Or to anyone else's grandma, for that matter, who gets upset because there's "too much bad language and sex in movies these days." Don't you just love Amy Adams? Whoever cast her in this movie was a genius, because it would never have worked without her.

I suspect "No Country For Old Men" is the anti-"Enchanted." I am a Coen Brothers fan but the 30-second snippet of "No Country" I heard during a review on NPR gave me the creeps, and I don't think I dare see it. Maybe once it's out on DVD and I can leave the room or fast forward if it gets too disturbing.

Movies I plan on seeing before the end of the year: "Juno," "Atonement," "Walk Hard," and "National Treasure: Book of Secrets." I know, I know, but the trailer is so cheesetastic, I can't resist! Even if it gets a 0% on Rotten Tomatoes, I'm going. Plus, it'll be opening at our local neighborhood cinema, which is where Joe & I saw "Enchanted." It's a tiny theater with a few second- (and possibly third-) hand couches scattered around. Joe said it's housed in a former funeral home, which is a bit creepy -- I thought it had been a church, but I think he's probably right; they do often have the same kind of windows, don't they? It probably seats around 40 people, max. Right now, it's the only movie theater in town; next spring, a megaplex (highly controversial with many locals!) will be opening about a 15-minute walk away from our house. I'm looking forward to the greater variety of movie options, but I hope the neighborhood theater finds a way to survive, as well. The screen was surprisingly large and the projection quality was really good. I have no idea how they can make a go of it now (there were a total of 5 people at last night's screening of "Enchanted," which = total revenue of $40, although I suspect they do a lot of family business on weekends), but I'm glad they're there, as it's quirky but high-quality local businesses like that one which make a community special.
posted by 125records @ 12:15 PM   10 comments
Saturday, December 08, 2007
Ignore the critics!
"The Golden Compass" got a mediocre 44% fresh rating at Rotten Tomatoes, so chances are that if I hadn't attended the sneak preview last weekend, I would have skipped it, figuring it must not have been very good. And I would have missed a film that I really enjoyed. (Roger Ebert gave it four stars, but he seems to have been giving half the movies he sees four stars since he returned from his long period of convalescence; I suspect surviving a life-threatening illness gives one a certain joie de vivre.) I think the lesson here is that if something looks interesting, go see it no matter what other people are saying. Trust your instincts. I thought "Superbad" looked stupid, but I went to see it anyway because it got such rave reviews, and I hated it. "The Big Lebowski," which is one of my favorite films of all time, was greeted in its day as a disappointing follow-up to "Fargo"; I loved "Lebowski" immediately and have always felt that "Fargo" is the most overrated film in the brothers' canon. ("The Man Who Wasn't There" may be the most underrated, now that "Lebowski" is a screaming cult sensation.)
posted by 125records @ 2:00 PM   2 comments
Thursday, December 06, 2007
The name is Todd
Guest blogged by Joe Mallon

The musicals of Stephen Sondheim are particularly complex, both thematically and musically, making them difficult at best to film. The last really successful movie of a Sondheim musical was "A Funny Thing Happened On The Way To The Forum" in 1966. Videos of several stage productions are available, making movies unnecessary, especially since Sondheim's fan base is ardent but hardly Webberian in number.

Flying in the face of all that is Tim Burton, who's directed a version of one of Sondheim's masterworks, "Sweeney Todd - The Demon Barber Of Fleet Street". Perfect marriage of director and content, no? "Sweeney Todd" is a tale of revenge served piping hot - a barber wrongly imprisoned so a judge can steal his beautiful wife - and the path that revenge takes into the prepared meat pie business.

One of the most difficult parts in moving a musical to film is casting. In order for the movie to have a chance of making money, the producers (speaking of movie musicals...) have to cast stars. Unfortunately, not all stars can sing. Sadly, that's the case with "Sweeney Todd". Neither of its leads, Johnny Depp & Helena Bonham Carter, can sing very well. Not for nothing is "Sweeney Todd" produced by opera companies. It requires a lot of range, and neither actor can do much better than speak-singing, a la Rex Harrison in "My Fair Lady". In days of old, that would have been no problem. Just call Marni Nixon, and Natalie Wood sounds terrific! In the modern world, though, authenticity is all. If the actor isn't doing his own singing, the whole enterprise is a fraud, treating singing like stunt work. "Do your own stunts, or you're a wimp!" In this case, the audience suffers for that bravado.

Most musicals also call for over-the-top, reach-for-the-back-seats acting, especially a role as, well, meaty as Sweeney Todd. Depp chooses a naturalistic style that would work well for a straight film, but grates against the dark humor in the story that makes palatable Sweeney's change from a wronged man into a psychopath. As a result, Sweeney becomes unsympathetic at the time the audience should most be in his corner.

That time is "A Little Priest", a duet between Sweeney and his benefactor Mrs. Lovett (Carter) in which they discuss the best way to dispose of the folks of various occupations whom Sweeney has pledged to dispatch on the road to revenge. While the subject matter is horrific, the song is very funny. Carter seems to get that, but Depp is so busy "brooding over wrongs what happened ages ago" that he looks no different during the song from any other time in the film. From then on, Sweeney seems more like Jason or Michael Myers, never cracking a smile, just killing.

There are other differences between the musical & the movie, but they pale in comparison. The reduction of the counterpoint love story would be a tragedy if the actors playing Anthony & Johanna weren't so bland. Timothy Spall swans around as the Beadle in a part better played as a pompous buffoon. As for Sacha Baron Cohen, as a singer, he's a great Kazakh Journalist.

Sondheim has said he wrote "Sweeney Todd" to see if audiences in the jaded '70s could still be scared. Burton has taken up that challenge for the '00s, spilling oceans of blood. I'ts not for the faint of heart or stomach. The art direction is, as expected, spot-on, revealing a London grimy and gray to the core. There's a lot of red (guess which shade), but no orange to speak of. Depp & Carter are pale white with rouged eyes throughout, dressed in Victorian rags. It's the best Goth movie of the year, maybe ever. As for me, I'll curl up with the original Broadway soundtrack and a nice meat pie.
posted by 125records @ 4:52 PM   1 comments
Sunday, December 02, 2007
Girls rock!
All too often, when there's a movie that looks interesting, I wind up second-guessing whether I really want to see it, checking its score, etc. "Well, I loved Todd Haynes' last two movies, but I can't stand Bob Dylan. It's got a 79% 'fresh' rating, but Rex Reed called it 'a tumultuous disappointment.'" Etc., etc., until it just seems easier to stay at home and read a book. However, as I've mentioned before, I do love the blank slate that a sneak preview provides. So on Saturday, Joe and I went to see "The Golden Compass," the new film based on Philip Pullman's novel (which neither of us have read), the first in the "His Dark Materials" trilogy.

Unlike "The Lord of the Rings," where New Line committed to filming all three parts of J.R.R. Tolkien's epic saga, we won't get Parts 2 & 3 of "Materials" unless "The Golden Compass" does well, so here's my opinion: everyone should go see it when it opens next Friday! Not only is it an entertaining film but it has a totally awesome young (age 12-ish) girl as its heroine. I'm sure this provided quite an obstacle in bringing Pullman's book to the screen because movie & TV execs believe that boys won't go see stories about girls, but girls will go see stories about boys. I hope people of all ages and both genders will support "Compass." I am not a big fantasy fan and tend to prefer the sometimes ploddingly literal world of police procedurals and detective fiction, but after "Compass" got underway, I totally bought into the talking polar bears and Nicole Kidman's wildly sophisticated dirigible (picture the Hindenburg crossed with a Rolls Royce) and lots of other stuff that requires a serious suspension of disbelief. It's fun. I only wish there had been more Daniel Craig -- he's depicted prominently on the posters but his role is really more of an extended cameo. Presumably if Part 2 is made he'll figure more prominently in that... but will there be a Part 2? Only your box office dollars can decide.
posted by 125records @ 6:44 PM   3 comments
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Name: Sue
Home: San Francisco Bay Area, California, United States
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