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Friday, Sep 22, 2006


After a series of highly ambitious, but financially unrewarding efforts – including his gross out revamp of The Thing, an adaptation of Stephen King’s classic killer car novel Christine, Starman‘s stellar sci-fi romanticism and that unique take on the martial arts comedy known as Big Trouble in Little China – John Carpenter wanted to get back to his low budget genre roots. His idea? Make a movie using both a theological and a scientific basis for the existence of evil. Mixing physics with the supernatural and arguing that Satan’s potential return to Earth for Armageddon may just be a provable mathematical theorem, we follow a group of graduate students as they try to unlock the secrets of viscous liquid swirling around in an abandoned church basement. Toss in a little unconscious bi-location, rocker Alice Cooper as the leader of a zombie-like clan of homeless people, and a smart, intelligent script, and you’ve got all the makings for a highbrow horror classic. Naturally, it bombed at the box office.


Yet brains are only part of the reason why Prince of Darkness is so special. Throwing away the typical conventions of your standard dumb monster movie, and dealing with fear and evil in engaging philosophical debates, Carpenter created as much a comment on the nature of wickedness as he does an illustration of same. In fact, the last act of the film could easily be mistaken for a standard scarefest, with the possessed servant of Satan (or his actual disembodied son) looking for minions, as well as a way to bring his dethroned Dad back to prominence. With a stellar cast including Donald Pleasance, Victor Wong, Jameson Parker and Lisa Blount, Carpenter argued that there were still some major motion picture shivers left in the old shockmeister. Sadly, after the fun social satire of They Live, and the uneven if effective In the Mouth of Madness, this would be the last significant Carpenter creepfest. But it is clearly one of his best. 


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Friday, Sep 15, 2006


I think that, in this day and age, you must have more than just a simple pair of good performances in order to make a movie. Georgia, however, represents, for me one of the best examples of how two unique, totally left-field performances manage to carry an innately weak film and create a completely character-driven drama that succeeds wholly because of the work of the actors involved. Clearly a labor of love for those who made it, the narrative harkens back to the days when movies were made as an exploration of people’s lives rather than as an exhibition of their super-powers or their privileged internships for big, bad magazine editors (or any other big-budget, high concept extravaganza is gracing your local cinema each summer).

Jennifer Jason Leigh (the most under-appreciated actress of her generation) plays Sadie Flood, a dirty loser who has a single dream: to be a famous singer. She has the ambition. She has the desire. She even gets some gigs. The most important thing that she is missing, though, is huge: she cannot sing to save her life. Sadie is so deluded into believing that she’s talented that her drive and blind ambition lead her into a host of really weird places. She’s managed by a junkie-creep and sings backup for with a volatile blues singer while also sleeping with him. Add Sadie’s problem with drinking and heroin into the tragic reality of her lack of vocal skills and what you have is the slow-burning saga of a young woman sliding into a devastating downward spiral. Sadie never learns from her mistakes and this makes her a danger to herself and everyone else who knows her.


Another large problem that figures into the story is the title character Georgia. She’s a famous folk singer, who just so happens to be Sadie’s sister (much to her talentless sibling’s chagrin). Played with subtlety and grace by Mare Winningham in a soft, motherly tour-de-force, Georgia is a marvelous creation. Where Sadie is fire mixed with bare, grating nerves, Georgia is ice and calmness personified. She is a working mother who never really had the aspirations of her desperate sister, a star who handles her fame coolly. Winningham’s gentle, canny performance compliments Leigh’s less subtle turn perfectly and she uses her natural musical skills to great effect.


The film explores the dynamics of the sisters’ relationship believably and totally. The burden of having such a train wreck for a relative, of having to watch out for her and bail her out constantly, wears on Georgia. Naturally, jealousy is Sadie’s main problem with her sister. What the actresses end up creating is a dynamic portrait of familial devotion that is heartbreaking, frustrating and true. One of the film’s best scenes involves a benefit concert, in which Georgia has arranged a spot for Sadie to sing: Sadie, who uses her time pre-show to get sloshed, stumbles onstage and pummels her way through a Van Morrison song for eight very hard minutes. This scene shows why Leigh is among the best actors of her generation. She conveys Sadie’s desperation, her hunger for love and fame, her raw ambition, her devotion to her sister, and her own personal confusion all in one fell swoop. Another thing that’s painfully evident is that Sadie is truly untalented. Her singing is astoundingly bad and very hard to watch. It’s a dynamic sequence that by the end has the horrified Georgia coming out onstage to bail her sister out yet again.

The film is based on Leigh’s real life experiences with her own sister’s substance abuse problems, and I believe putting herself into her shoes is a brave and special form of flattery. There is also no doubt that the great deal of her own private grief is expressed expertly in Winningham’s touching performance. Georgia was written by Leigh’s mother, Barbara Turner, which makes it even more obvious that the film was made with care and love.


Leigh (who in real life is married to The Squid and the Whale director Noah Baumbach, and will star opposite Nicole Kidman in his next film), had a miraculous run of interesting character parts in the early to mid nineties: some of her most stellar work during this period includes playing legendary wit Dorothy Parker in Mrs. Parker and the Vicious Circle; two vastly different hookers with hearts of gold in Miami Blues and Last Exit to Brooklyn; two outings with Robert Altman (Short Cuts and Kansas City) and shows up as “the roommate from hell” opposite Bridget Fonda in Single White Female. The actresses’ work in Georgia only cements her as inventive, courageous and fiercely committed. Hopefully, her upcoming collaboration with her husband will put her back on the mainstream map.


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Friday, Sep 8, 2006


Generally, when I think of Diane Keaton, I think of a “modern woman”. Leave it to 1984’s Mrs. Soffel to ship the performer off to the turn of the century, take away her usual contemporary manners and tics, and in the process show off an important and unique side of her capabilities as an actress, talents that extend far beyond the ability to make people laugh.


Over the course of her fascinating film career, Keaton has garnered Oscar nominations in each of the decades since the 1970s. She also has one win for Woody Allen’s Annie Hall (1977), a role that made her an American icon. She has exemplified the ideal of a woman living in contemporary society: funny, brainy and naturally sexy (she’s even a L’oreal spokes-model now, at age 60!). In each of these roles, her innate likeability comes across easily, and her particular charms seem to be tailored to fit current times. For me, Keaton is reminiscent of Katharine Hepburn, down to the offbeat manner in which she dresses. Her icon status, her technical skill, and her ability to get consistently interesting work for over four decades makes the comparison even clearer.


At the dawn of the ‘80s, Keaton scored with one of her best roles, yet oddly it wasn’t in the more celebrated yin of Reds or the yang of the for-then very raw divorce drama Shoot the Moon. It the follow-up to these critical successes, Mrs. Soffel, which showcased her most nuanced performance to date; free of all of the modern conventions that had peppered her other work.


Keaton manages a complete immersion into time and character. The sets, costumes and cinematography all conspire to paint a very grim, foggy portrait of Pittsburgh during 1900. Director Gillian Armstrong gets the technical stuff down without being overly showy, and she conveys a really nice sense of era through her color choices. Using washed out blues, grays and other subdued, fuzzy tones, she filters the film through this particular prism, creating an appropriate backdrop for a film set in a prison. Keaton plays a warden’s wife in this true-life tale, a woman who wants to help two convicted killers (Mel Gibson and Matthew Modine) escape death row by utilizing the guise of teaching them the bible.


She falls under Gibson’s romantic spell and throws away everything she has to join the fleeing criminals. Keaton is breathtaking, moving easily from frail to hot-and-bothered, from naive to furious all within a matter of scenes (a tricky high-wire act for a performer that is so often associated with wacky physical comedies). It is such unexpected turn that the “Diane Keaton” everyone knows so well just vanishes as Mrs. Soffel is finally freed of her repressed existence. In truth, Keaton is again playing a liberated woman, someone ahead of her time in every way. This time, however, she is able to effortlessly separate herself from her far more famous off-screen persona.


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Friday, Sep 1, 2006
“Family film” has become such an ugly term for me lately: most of these Disney-endorsed flicks are barely passable as entertaining morality plays. Instead, they seem to offer up wiseacre kids trying to act like adults while their unfortunate parents dither about incompetently. The saccharine, phony nature of this present-day PG-fare seems to frequently be accompanied by some sort of rock and roll performance set piece in which young and old either share the mic in a duet, or exchange loving glances while playing guitar. It seems that in all of the commotion and emo, they forgot to include something important: the actual FAMILY. Lucky for us, we can be transported back to a time where this genre was actually embraced and celebrated with an offbeat, often unsympathetic take on the “family values” feature: Martin Ritt’s Sounder.

The world this celebrated director conjures up is about as far as you can get from traditional or contemporary, what with the story centering bravely on the trials and tribulations of the Morgan’s, a family of sharecroppers overcoming impossible bad luck during the Great Depression. It’s a tale full of rough edges, no-holds-barred sadness, and a complete lack of pity. The often unsympathetic tone the film takes is a bit shocking at times (no stranger would dare hit a child they didn’t know today, not without severe consequences), but is still dependable and accurate. Sounder preaches its morals and values in a subversive, non-offensive way that is never false or cloying. The story watches eldest son David Lee (Kevin Hooks, in an introspective film debut) grow into a man while learning the hardest life lessons from his wise, yet misguided parents Rebecca and Nathan Lee (Cicely Tyson and Paul Winfield; the first African-American man and woman to be simultaneously nominated for acting Oscars). His parents see the spark in the young man’s mind and they push him into a life of education rather than work. The journey of the young man stays at the center of the film, letting the viewer peek into a world long past, exposing all of its cracks in a believable way.


Sounder deals with some very heavy issues (including the horrifying, inhumane and unfair physical and emotionally cruelties most black people of the time were expected to silently tolerate) without becoming bogged down with cliché-riddled sermonizing. Feeding your hungry family during hard times, working hard labor jobs at a young age, and love in the most dour of circumstances are some of the universal themes Ritt and his great cast touch on. They remain equally relevant to families today, more than thirty years later. At the core, the film is a story about the love and loyalty shared between parents and children and the ties that bond a family together – a closeness that often requires great sacrifice and strength. Rebecca, for example, must learn to let go of her son as he readies to leave the nest. Selfishly, she wonders aloud “who will help me around the house? Who will help me out in the field?” while he looks on with disappointment.


Tyson, as a flawed (but fundamentally wholesome) mother of three, shies away from playing her character for cheap sympathy or dignified suffering: Rebecca is scared for her family’s well-being, and must endure long days of back-breaking work to be the sole provider once her husband is arrested for stealing meat to feed them. She is strong without being overbearing, sensual, and wise without being particularly sophisticated. Her pride is visible when scolding two racist officers who will not allow her to speak with her imprisoned husband (classily tossing off the barb “You got yourself a real low-life job, Mr. Sheriff”; an offense that in is very daring given the potential consequences). Winfield too creates an indelible character: sometimes selfish, other times brutish. As Nathan Lee, he imparts wisdom to his son; but also makes sure to tell him that he is loved: something that is conveyed imaginatively with dialogue and nuance rather than through present-day neuroses or an uninspired musical extravaganza. It’s Sounder‘s strongest selling point.



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Friday, Aug 25, 2006


Clint Eastwood as the “master director” is sort of a new concept thanks, largely, to his recent box-office and award-circuit triumphs with Mystic River and Million Dollar Baby. While Eastwood’s first major critical success came with 1992’s unlikely Oscar winner Unforgiven, the veteran Hollywood star’s 1988 gem, Bird is the film in his canon that best represents the scope of his talents.


Charlie Parker was one of our greatest musicians. “Yardbird” was one of the true jazz pioneers, blending vision, skill and creativity perfectly. Unfortunately, he was plagued by a terrible drug habit, bad business decisions and bleeding ulcers. Eastwood explores the mind of a creator, which is fascinating considering the director’s own gifts and his love of jazz, and it is obvious he can relate to the struggle of having to be the best, even when you don’t feel like it. When the possibility of electric shock therapy is tossed around as a possibly cure for the musician’s ailments, it is just as quickly dismissed. No matter the demons involved, changing the mind and chemistry of a great artist is always detrimental.


What we then witness is a thrilling, career-best performance from Forest Whitaker, a turn which took the male acting prize at Cannes that year. He not only captures the grandeur of a music firebrand working with a heavy heart, he somehow also finds the kindness, the wit and the humanity inside the fast living man. The actor is fearless: he doesn’t go for cheap sentimentality and plays Parker as incredibly flawed, to the point of being incapacitated by his own bad behavior. He expects those that surround him to blindly tolerate his addictions without really thinking through the consequences. While Whitaker blazes through the narrative with an unlikable abandon, one of my favorite is also one of the most simple. After playing wherever he could, to little or no acclaim, Bird visits Paris and is welcomed with open, adoring arms. After a particularly intense performance he is rewarded with a hail of accolades and a storm of roses thrown at the stage. It is a glorious moment, especially when one views Whitaker’s reaction. His gratitude, his humbleness and his pure happiness at seeing his real love connect in the way he wants it to is startling.


Bird also intimately examines the performer’s partnership with dancer Chan Parker (played with vigor by Diane Venora). The scenes between the concerned common-law spouse and her disturbed, creative partner crackle with a rare energy and sharpness. Venora delivers an unexpected performance, in every sense. It may be “the thankless wife” role, but Venora elevates her character above the rut most women who play the quietly supportive type fall into. Chan is sublimely devoted to her husband, to his music and his creativity. She is tolerant of his habits, sometimes despite the welfare of their children. She sees his problems as being intertwined with his gifts and allows him to continue on his path with little interruption, even if it means she will eventually lose him to the grip of these vices. She deals with the tricky subject of being romantically affiliated with a black man and having his children - which in itself was a pioneering effort in those times - with a sense of pride and love that is a refreshing twist on the relatively stock role. The film is in fact based on the memoirs of Parker’s widow and Eastwood managed to not only gain her blessing on the venture, but also received access to a slew of unreleased recordings that were previously locked in a bank vault thanks to her involvement.


Eastwood manages to lift his tidy little story into another dimension by putting the music at the forefront, something that is clumsily absent from the slew of recent films with similar topics. While musician bios like Ray and Walk the Line seem like elaborate showcases for rising talent to posture about, imitating their subjects, Bird is a more artistic and more thoughtful effort. It lets its actors’ characterizations unfold at a sumptuous, un-rushed pace around the music. Though Bird’s physical struggles and his relationship with those closest to him are intrinsic plot elements, the vigorous musical sequences (where Whitaker avoids a stock imitation, meticulously re-creating not only the artist’s techniques, but also his inner fire) are the real draw, proving Eastwood can’t really be placed in a box when it comes to his directorial choices


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