Monday, July 31, 2006

New reviews: Scoop and Wordplay

I just realized that this is the third time this year that I've seen two movies in one day. Of the seven films I've seen in theaters this year, six of them have been viewed in couplets. Weird. Anyway...

I enjoyed Scoop. I don't get the hateful critical reaction. One of the main complaints seems to be that it's a light and inferior rehash of Manhattan Murder Mystery, and since I haven't seen that, I can't really speak to that point... but Scoop works well enough on its own terms. In starts off a bit shaky, but makes up for it by the end. Once one is able to get over the impossibility of the initial supernatural happenings necessary to set the scene, the movie's charm takes hold.

Contrary to popular belief, Woody does not in fact play Scarlett's father in Scoop; he actually plays a man playing Scarlett's father, and hence Scarlett's not actually "doing Woody" per se (though it's nice to see her have a go at broad comedy). Scarlett's character, Sondra Pransky, meets Woody's character, Sid Waterman, a magician, when he selects her out of the audience to be part of his magic act. While in his box ostensibly "disappearing", she meets the ghost of a famous reporter, who gives her the "scoop" (which he picked up beyond the grave) that rich socialite Peter Lyman (Hugh Jackman) is in fact the Tarot Card Killer, a serial killer on the loose. Once the show is done, Sondra enlists Sid to pretend to be her father to help her spy on Peter Lyman, and once they meet him at a club, she pretends to be an actress named Jade Spence, and begins falling in love with him.

By the time Scarlett and Hugh got together, and Woody was allowed free reign to parade his hapless self around rich people for their amusement, the movie had won me over. It has its flaws, sure, and is hardly the second coming, but I laughed a lot, and was quietly amused much of the time I wasn't laughing, and when I was neither laughing nor quietly amused, I was just enjoying watching ScarJo and The Jackman (hey, there are far worse ways to spend one's time). This was clearly "Woody lite", but it was still better than, say, Melinda & Melinda, where just about every character seemed to be a transparent Woody surrogate. Here, at least, the characters and charms feel genuine, if a tad derivative.

Scoop is clearly a companion piece to last year's Match Point, though to explain why would spoil things a bit... and while it's not quite the equal of Match Point (which I found merely "good" anyway), it's hardly a bad movie. By Woody Allen standards, it's not brilliant, but it's still worth a couple hours of your time. The critical community needs to get that stick out of its collective ass. That 39% rotten tomatoes rating is crap. Like last year's Prime, Scoop is a decent if flawed movie not given enough of a chance. OK, Prime was better, but still...

Verdict: Underrated. Worth your time."

Wordplay is a totally different animal. I really have no idea why I'm writing these reviews together; I suppose it's because I saw the films back-to-back, and that was just a time constraint issue. Anyway. Wordplay is a documentary about crossword puzzles. "Why?" you may ask. "Why a documentary about crossword puzzles?" And I have no answer. What a random film to make. But what a fascinating film to watch.

It basically divides itself into two parts. The first is a collection of profiles of notable crossword puzzle players, from random championship puzzlers to famous amateurs like Jon Stewart, Bill Clinton and the Indigo Girls (one segment focuses on the actual creator of the New York Times crossword puzzle, a professional puzzler with a degree in enigmatology).

The second is the following of an actual crossword puzzle tournament, in which the aforementioned skilled puzzlers face off against one another in their ruthless fight for the championship. In this respect, Wordplay recalls Spellbound, an uber-fun doc from a few years ago about kids in the national spelling bee. Unfortunately, Wordplay is far less funny and charming, and its contestants are actually much nerdier. Still, there's palpable drama in the tournament, and it's fun to see such highly intelligent people compete in such a specialized, pointless venture.

OK, that was harsh. The point of the venture, we learn, is the human need to "figure things out." Crossword puzzles are shown as a symbol of mankind's drive to solve problems with knowledge. The film is at its best, I think, when it focuses less on the drama of the tournament than on the idiosyncrasy of the puzzle-solving process, and the part it plays in people's lives. The New York Time crossword puzzle, I've learned, is not only the gold standard of crossword puzzles, but also part of the routine of millions of enthusiastic puzzlers. I used to be an avid puzzler (in the larger sense)... and while I'm not much of one anymore, I'm still happy to watch good films about puzzles and those who love them.

Verdict: "A good film. Worth your time."

Still obsessed.

Sunday, July 30, 2006

I know I'm obsessed. Sue me.

But first, watch this YouTube video that someone made for Meryl Streep in Prada. Awesome.

I want her to get a double nom and win this year. I do love her so.

Last week, I read a post on Meryl Streep's IMDB board from someone who said he'd heard from his friend who works in a hospital that Meryl had been in a car crash and had just been rushed to the emergency room. I didn't really believe this, since the whole nature of it seemed highly dubious, but for that night, I got very afraid that Meryl might actually be dying in an ER somewhere, and it made me VERY upset. It was quite surreal. Could you imagine Meryl Streep just dying all of a sudden in a freak accident? No campaigning for Prada. No gliding into the twilight of her career. No watching her last daughter leave home. No becoming a grandmother. How awful.

I'm so glad that no news has been reported on the subject, and that hence, she's alive and well. Live long and prosper, Meryl.

(and feel free to have me arrested if I ever stalk you)

Wednesday, July 26, 2006

This week...

...The Devil Wears Prada is going to hit $100 million. Right now it's at $98.5 million (domestic). I don't know why I'm making such a big deal ticking down the days till it hits... probably because I love Meryl Streep (this is all HER doing).

Out of Africa coming soon... it's sitting on my desk as I type.

Tuesday, July 18, 2006

We hereby interrupt the Streepathon to bring you... of Streep's two new films:

A Prairie Home Companion and The Devil Wears Prada

Prarie: Typical Altman... many diverse actors gather and interact naturalistically throughout semi-plotless film. This time, the actors are particularly diverse, with, for example, Meryl Streep, Lily Tomlin, and Lindsay Lohan all playing a family (albeit not totally convincingly). I, for one, didn't think everyone quite geled, but they were all fun to watch anyway, and the great music got me through the lack of plot. Not one of Altman's best efforts, I don't think, but then, not all of his his films can be. Thoroughly charming and quirky, if a bit haphazard and meandering.

Disclamor: I had a random stomach ache creep up on me while I watched this, and that may have colored my view of it; it was hard to enjoy much at the time, but if I saw it again, I might like it more. UPDATE: I did see it again, and I did like it more.

Verdict: "A wistful charmer. Ages well."

Prada: Super enjoyable. Pland disney-esque premise elevated tremendously by stellar acting and directing. Song choices are perfect. Editing is quick and slick. Clothes and bodies are divine. Adrian Grenier is delicious. Emily Blunt is bitchtastic. Stanley Tucci is fabulous. Anne Hathaway is lovable. And Meryl Streep is to die for. She'd better win the globe for this one (she's deserved that comedy/musical globe already for Postcards from the Edge 16 years ago). Not much else to say really... just go see this one, and then see it again. A stylish and resonant romp.

Verdict: "A keeper. Popcorn fluff, but endlessly rewatchable."

...okay, so these weren't really reviews. They were... my thoughts, in something vaguely resembling paragraph form. But whatever. I can't do full write-ups on every film I see the way I do for the Streepathon entries. And why would I want to? No time. But just for fun, a few "head-to-head"s:

Better Streep Performance: The Devil Wears Prada (easy)

Better Ensemble Cast: The Devil Wears Prada (yup... close one, though)

Better Music: A Prairie Home Companion (close again)

Better film: A Prairie Home Companion (changed my mind... though I still think it's very close... both are keepers)

Friday, July 07, 2006

Streepathon Stop #4: Plenty

"I want to change everything... and I don't know how."
-Susan Traherne

Time: 1985 (11th film)

Role: Susan Traherne, postwar Brit

Awards: none

Fun Fact #1: This is the only film in the Streepathon for which Meryl received no year-end awards or nominations. This is undoubtedly because another of Streep's films, Best Picture winner Out of Africa, was released in the same year.

Fun Fact #2: In Plenty, Streep plays a woman named Susan and works from a script by British playwright David Hare. In 2002, she would again play a woman named Susan (real-life writer Susan Orlean, in Adaptation) and would again work from a script by Hare (The Hours).

Fun Fact #3: Kate Nelligan, a British actress who'd starred in Plenty onstage, was considered for the role of Susan, but director Fred Schepisi ultimately chose Streep, due in part to her American stardom and ability to attract more money.

Streep & Sting: Who'da thunk it? Meryl Streep gets busy with Sting.

Film Review: This film has been growing on me slowly. I didn't think much of it on first viewing, but the longer I've had it and the more times I've watched it, the higher it's climbed in my esteem. I now see that it's one of Streep's best films, and an underrated wonder of the 80's.

Meryl Streep plays Susan Traherne, a passionate woman living in post-WWII England. The film begins with a scene during the war, where she meets a charming rogue spy (played by Sam Neill) while in France as a special forces agent. The two fall in a sort of love, briefly, before he must leave her unexpectedly. After the war, she returns to England to live, takes a job at a trade office, eventually meets and marries a stodgy diplomat (Charles Dance), befriends a spunky bohemian writer (Tracey Ullman), and tries, for a time, to mother a child with a poor boy from the other side of the tracks (Sting), all the while searching for a fulfillment she can never find. Susan is haunted by memories of her time in the war - a more exciting life - and by the love and adventure she's lost.

She is disappointed by her roles as both working woman and society wife, and suffers fits of fierce anger and resentment, separated by long periods of desperation. There are hints that Susan may have a form of bipolar disorder or other mental ailment, but her husband defends her personality, claiming she "just feels very strongly." This is a plum role for Streep, who seamlessly inhabits the intelligence and neuroses of this woman. David Hare, who wrote both the screenplay and the stage play on which it was based, also wrote the screenplay for The Hours, and there are hints of its three depressed women in Susan.

Plenty is a telling of the history of postwar Britain through the eyes of one strong woman, an excellent exercise in the historical-as-personal. The music, by Bruce Smeaton, is hauntingly beautiful with an epic sweep - lush, ravishing, pick an adjective - and adds much to the film's mood. The score was robbed of an oscar nomination (as was Hare's script); the film got no traction at all with awards groups (due, I believe, to a bungled release - see also: Malick's The New World), settling for a pair of BAFTA nods for supporting stars Ullman and John Gielguld, and a pair of critics' awards for Gielguld, who plays Streep's husband's boss, an ambassador. Other than being slow at first and a little dull at times, this is a terrific film, with glorious themes, fine writing and acting, and absolutely gorgeous music. Ultimately it's a film about expectations and disappointment, and the limits with which we must live.

In the film's final scene, a flashback to the end of the war, Susan stands atop a hill and looks around, exclaiming, "There will be days and days and days like this!" ...plenty of good days to come... but of course, she is wrong. That day was the only day like that; he future was not as bright as it seemed. Our lives are rarely as we'd hope them to be... they're usually stuck somewhere between our memories and our dreams. But of those, at least, we have plenty.

Streep Review: What can I say? Meryl's awesome. I can't help but compare her performance here to her perf in The Hours, as she is working from a David Hare script in both, and in both, playing depressed... and her Plenty perf is definitely the finer. Fred Schepisi talks on the DVD about how thoughts "flicker across her face like clouds through the sky" and it's true. The ease and subtlety with which she expresses her inner emotions is amazing... and it's particularly needed in portraying someone as troubled and enigmatic as Susan. This is one of the more complex parts I've Streep play, and the complexity just makes her so much richer. She feeds off of it - consumes it into her actorly mojo - and then reflects it back at the viewer. It's lovely.

Though I must say, once again, that Streep is not as flawless with accents as common wisdom upholds. Once in Plenty, while snapping at Sting, she seems to totally fall out of the British for a moment, before settling back in. I'm surprised her director let her do that; IMO, it was quite noticeable. While she's in dialect, she's usually perfect, though she does have a tendency to break. One hears these things when one's been hearing Meryl nonstop for weeks. It's disappointing, though expected, to some degree. I'm watchin' you, Meryl... no more slip-ups.

But still, slip-ups side, this is one of her best performances, in a stunningly undervalued film. We'll see how it stacks up against what comes...

Next in the marathon: Out of Africa

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Thursday, July 06, 2006

Streepathon Stop #3: Silkwood

"I'm doin' somethin' good." -Karen Silkwood

Time: 1983 (9th film)

Role: Karen Silkwood, blue-collar worker and whistleblower

Awards: 5th oscar nom, GG (drama) nom, BAFTA nom; KCFCC (Kansas City Critics) win

Fun Fact #1: This was the first time Streep had played a real person, and also the first time Streep had sung in a film (she gives an intimate rendition of "Amazing Grace").

Fun Fact #2: This was Streep's first collaboration with Mike Nichols. He has since directed her again on stage (The Seagull), in film (Postcards and Heartburn), and in television (Angels in America).

Fun Fact #3: Streep was pregnant with her second child during filming (and were those real cigarettes she smoked?).

Fun Fact #4: Meryl and Cher became close friends during the making of Silkwood and would remain close for some time. When Cher won an oscar over also-nominated Streep in 1988, she thanked Meryl in her speech for her friendship and guidance.

Meryl & Karen: (right & left) Joined in spirit if not in looks.

Film Review: If Erin Brockovich were a tragedy, it would be called Silkwood.

Part Erin Brockovich and part Dancer in the Dark, this beautiful film is a portrait of a brave, flawed woman who got a trip to heaven for her troubles instead of Erin's million-dollar check. As states the film's catchphrase, "Karen Silkwood was on her way to meet with a reporter from the New York Times. She never got there."

This is a simple film about simple people, made with the utmost care and attention to craft. It tells the story of Karen Silkwood, an employee in an Oklahoma nuclear plant, her boyfriend Drew Stephens, and her lesbian best friend, Dolly Pelliker. Their story begins happily and casually, but Karen's life and her friends' lives change drastically once she realizes that their workplace is frighteningly unsafe. Once Karen herself is contaminated by nuclear radiation and becomes ever more aware of the plant's corruption, she starts working with the union to make her story public. Unfortunately, all does not end well.

Streep, Kurt Russel, and Cher shine in the three main roles, with both Streep and Cher playing against the types they'd been pegged with up to the time. Streep plays her earthiest and funniest character yet (and also flashes the audience briefly... blink and you'll miss it), while Cher deglams to perfection as a dowdy butch lesbian. And Russell... well... let's just say that I'd NEVER been so attracted to him before. At all. But here, he's absolute perfection (and totally swoon-worthy) as Karen's gruff but loving boyfriend, Drew. Robbed of an oscar nom, he was (I seriously wanted him so bad while watching this... I'm not kidding... I don't really even understand why, but lust is like that). Together, the three of them are quite the formidable group. Throw in a fun supporting cast, including Sudie Bond and a young David Strathairn as co-workers at the plant, and you've got quite the tight ensemble.

At first glance, this is just your usual tale of the working class fighting back against "the man", but the lovely romance, comedy, and humanity on display set it apart from other examples of this genre. Mike Nichols' assured, low-key direction feels just right, bringing out the universality of longing in these characters and their situation, and the beautiful musical score is alternately placid and stirring, expertly creating a peaceful, pastoral feel to the proceedings and then shattering it when things go wrong. One masterful touch in the music is how it swells into an epic sweep during the most intimate moments between characters; Mike Nichols knows when to punctuate a seemingly "small" scene, and how effective that emphasis can be. One scene between Streep and Cher, in which Karen sings Dolly a lullaby on the porch, is pure gold.

In that scene and throughout the rest of the film, the acting all feels real and organic; the characters are strong and compelling, and never feel less than human... though sometimes more than human, particularly one Karen Silkwood. Despite all the film's obvious social relevance (worker safety and unionization, gay tolerance, etc.), this is really just a story about Karen Silkwood, and the unlikely course her life took. This is her story - her journey - and by the end, she seems an almost mythical figure, growing ever stronger and more beautiful as she heads toward her imminent demise. The film around her is not half bad either; in fact, I'd say it's a masterpiece. Easily one of Nichols' (and Streep's) best films.

Streep Review: Long story short: Meryl is awesome in the film. While this is not my absolute favorite of her performances (that honor is still reserved for Sophie's Choice), it's definitely one of her best. Silkwood revealed a new playfulness and grittiness in Streep that viewers hadn't seen before (not even in Sophie Zawistowsky). She handles the romance, comedy, pathos, and flashing with ease.

I have, however, started to notice chinks in Streep's dialect armor; there are several moments in this where the dialect doesn't feel quite "right on." This is probably the result of my watching TOO MUCH Meryl Streep for too long, but I'm starting to appreciate the slight slips in form that she herself has admitted. She is not a god, after all, as much as I love to think otherwise. Still, Meryl is awesome here, at once ballsy and totally vulnerable, compassionate and coolly distanced, bawdy and deeply sensitive. Her Karen Silkwood is a marvel, the best perf in the Streepathon so far.

Rest in peace, Ms. Silkwood, and keep on truckin', Ms. Streep.

Next in the marathon: Plenty

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Wednesday, July 05, 2006

Everyone in America should see An Inconvenient Truth.

This movie was great. When I went into it, I went because it seemed like one of those "important" films that I "should" see, and while it was indeed important (even moreso than I realized), I'll be damned if it wasn't gleefully entertaining, too. Not to say that it wasn't harrowing. It puts you through the ringer and gets you out the other side in a way comparable to any fiction film, but with this, it's even better, because the stuff you're hearing about isn't fiction at all; it's REAL. And it's scary. But there's enough genuine warmth in the telling, and even enough great cartoon global warming sketches, to actually make it fun to watch. The film is very funny. Al Gore is very funny. Why my dumbass country couldn't get its shit together and elect him president is beyond me.

The film works on two levels: as Al Gore's warning and explanation of global warming, and as a portrait of the man telling the tale. Thus, it transcends both educational viewing and character study, and becomes something greater than either. Ultimately, it's about loving your life and your world, and not taking either for granted. It's about the need to adapt to a changing world, to see clearly the course our world is taking and change that course now, before it's too late. It's about a hero, with a vision born from the union his own intellect and curiosity, and the unique circumstances in which he found himself. It's about the willingness to accept the truth, however painful or inconvenient.

If you're reading this, SEE THIS MOVIE. Everyone in the world should be see it... except maybe Glenn, since Australia is apparently responsible for only 1.1% of the world's global warming problem. Certainly, everyone in America should. Come on, America. Step up. Global warming is our fault, yo. It's our responsibility to change.

Here's a thought: if no habits are changed, both my parents' home (Miami) and my preferred adult residence (Manhattan) could be underwater before the end of my lifetime. That is not cool. That cannot happen. I intend to help make sure that doesn't happen; I've been converted. And I felt so good after seeing this film. "Expanded and filled," as they say. Go get expanded and filled, yourself. You'll be glad you did.

Verdict: "SEE THIS MOVIE. It's more than just a slideshow."