Monthly archives: December 2006
Stay with Forest
Venus and Peter O'Toole delivered as expected. But as much pull as there is going to be for O'Toole to win his long-awaited Oscar, I hope the Academy stays with Forest Whitaker for The Last King of Scotland. O'Toole shows his mastery, but Whitaker does so too - while blowing you away. It's not an overdone performance; it's perfectly awesome.
Favorite Acting Performances, 2006
Jennifer Hudson, Dreamgirls
Leonardo DiCaprio, The Departed
Aaron Eckhart, Thank You for Smoking
Peter O'Toole, Venus
Cate Blanchett, Notes on a Scandal
Steve Carell, Little Miss Sunshine
Paul Dano, Little Miss Sunshine
Brad Pitt, Babel
Jamie Foxx, Dreamgirls
Meryl Streep, A Prarie Home Companion
Best Entertainment Blog
By Ken Levine. The longtime comedy writer (and baseball announcer) offers the funniest and most insightful, spot-on stuff around.
Rumor Never Had It
Since starting at Variety on September 25, I have seen 26 movies (giving me 30 for the year - hoping to publish my overall review soon). Remarkably, though some have been more than problematic, not one has been awful - and it had gotten to the point where I began to wonder if I was becoming too soft.
Then I happened to catch Rumor Has It on cable tonight, and man, was I reminded of how bad a movie can be.
I could have understood a sequel to The Graduate being crazy bad - too eccentric for its own good in trying to follow up a classic. But the most errant bullet in this misfire is the utter blandness of it - it is a movie truly without any soul. It's cardboard.
Man, if you're going to do a movie, why not create a character? You know, just to pass the time?
Why Does the DVD Industry Hate Me?
Why does every DVD player I buy stop working within one to 18 months? Why? Why?
Jennifer Hudson Is Everything You've Heard
When Jennifer Hudson leans her head into the crook of Jamie Foxx's neck, into the man who is the source simultaneously of her security and anxiety, with a delicate, surrendering close of her eyelids, Dreamgirls gives us as perfect a movie moment as there has been in 2006.
And that's not even the Hudson moment people are talking about.
For weeks and weeks, I have been hearing about the astonishing performance Hudson offers as Effie White, highlighted by her showstopping "And I Am Telling You I'm Not Going," and all I can tell you is that it's true. It may or not be the best supporting actress performance of the year, but it is powerful powerful, and it proves that by far the most worthwhile thing American Idol has done is enable the big screen to discover her.
Judging by the unabashed mid-movie ovations Hudson received this afternoon at a garden-variety afternoon showing of the film, others were convinced as well.
Dreamgirls is a bit stagy at times, but it builds strength as it goes, and the talent across the board does well, well, in support of Hudson.
But I think l'll be remembering that head tilt for a long time to come.
It's a Wonderful Life or A Christmas Story?
I'm probably in the minority now, but it's Life for me. Not that it doesn't have light moments, but the intensity in this film that some call overrated is so underrated. It is so strong. It is a wonderful movie.
A Christmas Story is fine - it has its fun, but it's mostly a trifle for me now. I saw it in the theater when it came out and liked it (it wasn't nearly as popular then as now), but now I think the hype has gone a little far.
How many of you disagree?
Dick Van Dyke: Mr. Green Screen
Eighty-one-year-old comedy legend Dick Van Dyke is a visual effects hobbyist who has had his own green screen (that he regularly upgrades) at home for nearly four decades, as this feature by Sheigh Crabtree for the Times illustrates:
Van Dyke says he started dabbling in the medium four decades ago on Robert Stevenson's "Mary Poppins," in which he dances and sings with animated butterflies and penguins.
"When I wasn't filming I was hanging out with the animators," Van Dyke says. "I spent a lot of time working with cartoon characters, which is what gave me the appetite for effects in the beginning. Looking at 'Mary Poppins' today, it's amazing how well the technology does hold up and that was way before computers."
After starring in 1968's "Chitty Chitty Bang Bang," in which he drove a flying car thanks to the magic of green-screen technology, Van Dyke bought a used Ultimatte system a pre-digital device that allowed visual-effects pros to do green-screen shots photochemically and set it up at his house. He played around with it a bit, and then about 15 years ago a friend recommended that he buy an Amiga Toaster, one of the earliest desktop computer-animating systems.
"You could take 3-D objects and figures and photograph a background and fill it in and animate," Van Dyke recalls. "In those days, if you had 15 frames to render it took all weekend. It was very, very primitive but I just got hooked on it."
Van Dyke produced special effects for Diagnosis, Murder, tested out tricks at home for Night at the Museum and - memo to producers - would jump at an effects job.
"I haven't had a chance lately to do much visual effects work in a film, so I really loved working with the guys on Museum," Van Dyke says. "I would just give anything to be in a movie where I could have a hand in the visual effects."
The movies that changed my life are generally the movies that made me want to write movies, and subsequently, the movies I wanted to emulate.
Aside from those, there are the movies that made me depressed or exutlant, that changed my life in the short-term before I regressed to the getting-through-the-day mean.
But no movie has actually made me give up writing to do something more tangibly worthwhile. Which is more my fault than that of the movies.
Just for kicks, I ranked my favorite Seinfeld Seinfeld girlfriends (using the list at Seinology).
There was no science to my choices - it was an inconsistent combination of how much I liked their characters, how attracted I was to them, and how memorable the episode was. I think for the most part, the rankings define which girlfriend I look forward to seeing the most - but don't hold me to that. On a different day, the rankings would come out differently.
Episode (The Girl) Storyline
Paula Marshall - c'mon.
Hey, I thought she was adorable.
Ultimately, she's really the one.
Teri's best role?
Appealing until the very end.
Courtney was really cute in this.
How can one resist?
I've actually got a thing for Janeane
Jerry would have tired of her eventually.
Always liked Jessica - felt bad she got stuck with this plot.
She also played Eva, the neo-Nazi
One of the quirkiest.
Cute celebrity 1.
Cute celebrity 2.
I like how she stood up for herself.
Otherwise, she was nice.
This worked: the flaw in her was a turn-on.
I hardly ever see this in reruns, for some reason.
Menage a what now?
Wouldn't have minded seeing more of her.
Now a C. Guest regular, she plays it straight here.
Liked her from "Groundhog Day"
Didn't make much of an impression for some reason.
Mystery more compelling than the character
Not that rewarding
Too unforgiving (not that Jerry is any better)
Sleeping most of the time.
Quality of episode hurts.
Neither here nor there
Didn't get my vote
Not a big Anna Gunn fan.
Did nothing for me.
By design, not appealing
The Office Christmas Party Open Chat
It's now Friday morning, and I just walked into work, and before I got to my desk, in the space of about five minutes, a colleague and I just bantered about 20 things that were hysterical about Thursday night's finale of The Office. (Many of you have already listed many of them in the comments below.)
And I don't even think it was the best episode of the year, and as my wife pointed out, it probably wasn't even the series' best Christmas episode - last year's video iPod episode was gold standard. In fact, many of us have fallen so head over heels in love with the show that we're probably laughing at some things that aren't even that funny. But how much does that say about the overall quality of the show?
It's an amazing program. I simply can't recall any work on television that could be so funny while revealing the ugliness of the world - both our prejudices and our heartaches. The plotline that Michael Scott not only didn't realize that the Asian waitress he took to his office Christmas party wasn't the one who he was flirting with at the Benihana's, but that he also had to mark his "new girlfriend" with a pen so that he could distinguish her from yet another waitress, is as gruesome a characteristic as this show has revealed. The show never lets you feel settled with Michael - at some points, he's just that bad, at others, he's practically heroic. I think this range of righteousness is meant to showcase the extremes in all of us. We might not be Michael Scott, but none of us are completely perfect or sour. You just have to keep looking.
As for romance: The Photoshop breakup between Michael and Carol was hilarious, even if Steve Carell was not quite at his best playing the tears this time around. And absolutely, I think it had to be Jan accepting the all-inclusive invitation to Sandals (Scandals?) in Jamaica - her character's probablility for holiday blues is so well-defined by this point that we don't even need to see her or hear her voice to know. (My other theory, I'll admit, is that Michael's guest will be his mother.)
By the end of the episode, Jim clearly seemed to realize that he had better get back on the Pam train before it left the station again - though who knows whether he'll extricate himself from Karen in time. Pam, herself, may struggle with judging whether Roy's conversion will hold, though I think her CIA machinations with Jim may solidify her need for him. Clearly, Pam's not at a place yet where she would fight for Jim, but she might not have to.
But amid it all, so many great moments: Angela going to the mattresses on the holiday party, Kevin's tortured "You Oughta Know," all of Dwight's shenanigans, poor Toby and his bathrobe saga, Ryan's list of excuses and welcome back to Jim in the same breath, and of course, Oscar's "too soon" return.
When an average episode of a series offers this much, you have to be thankful.
Letters Goes 2 for 2
After feeling Flags of Our Fathers was luke-warm good, I saw Clint Eastwood's companion piece, Letters from Iwo Jima, last week and felt it was dimensionally better - a tightly focused, meaningful work that captured so many of the conflicting feelings that war evokes, both on a national and personal scale.
Others feel even more strongly about it. Over the past few days, Letters has won best picture honors from the Los Angeles Film Critics Association and the National Board of Review, positioning the film as a late-arriving Oscar frontrunner, despite its unique status as a U.S.-produced foreign language film.
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Last month, I interviewed Eastwood for the Variety issue previewing best director candidates. Here's a link to the piece - mostly a Q&A.
VISION: "I started to get to thinking about both of these movies as sort of a tribute to the common man," Eastwood says. "It came to be not so much about who won or lost the war, it came to be about the people who fought it and, (when) fate put them in their position, how they acted."The interview itself was funny for me. Eastwood had been in Japan that week and wasn't available to talk until Saturday afternoon. So there I am, sitting with my 4-year-old daughter at home, my wife trying to sneak in a nap, when Clint Eastwood calls on my cellphone. And there I am, asking Eastwood to hang on while I get my daughter situated. And there I am again, a minute later, asking Eastwood to hang on again when my daughter wants to do something else.
And Clint, much more grandfatherly and much less intense than his persona, never had a problem with waiting.
My wife had earned the right to nap, but my going into the bedroom to say, "I need you - Eastwood's on the phone" worked just fine as far as rousing her.
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I also have a short feature today on Best Supporting Actor candidate Jackie Earle Haley of Little Children - one of the best interviews I've had:
The question hangs in the air before Jackie Earle Haley responds. How could the actor relate to the character of convicted sex offender Ronald James McGorvey in "Little Children"?This morning, Haley took honors from the New York Film Critics Circle. United 93, which I would still put above Letters from Iwo Jima, won best picture.
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I watched A Prairie Home Companion over the weekend and it was quite sweet (without being sappy). It was a movie about time passing, a movie with sadness but without lament - it was sincerely life-affirming. Not a best picture, but I can see a legitimate case for Robert Altman as a best director candidate - independent of the sentiment over his recent passing. You can really feel his direction building that movie in a positive way.
Little Miss Sunshine Meets Little Children
The directors of Little Miss Sunshine, Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris, will next take on The Abstinence Teacher, an adaptation of from Little Children co-screenwriter and novelist Tom Perrotta, Variety reports.
"I'm still on a major high over UCLA's stunning upset over USC on Saturday. To put it in perspective, imagine Veronica Mars beating American Idol."
Pre-Prelude to the Oscars
With all the movies pouring into theaters these days, it's like Niagara Falls out there. From our place in the barrel flying toward splashdown, my Variety colleague Stuart Levine and I thought we'd take a peek at the okay, this analogy is already tapping out.
We're gonna talk about movies.
Jon: Let me start things off with what I saw Wednesday - and I admit, I got to it later than many other people. It was Scorcese's The Departed, and while I thought it was a fine picture - completely entertaining - I can't call it a Best Picture candidate the way so many others have. It just didn't seem to be about very much to me, and I think an Oscar nominee needs that. While the quality of Babel, for example, was more inconsistent, the scenes with Rinko Kikuchi affected me more than anything in The Departed (although Alec Baldwin rocks my world).
Put more simply, Departed was good, but not one of our five best in 2006.
Stu: The Oscars haven't annointed Marty king -- not even once!! -- and now no love from Jon. What's a guy have to do to get some cinematic appreciation around here?? Well, I have to say I loved it. If not my top movie of the year, at least in the top three. From Jack's menacing mob boss, to Leo's infiltration, to Damon's good cop gone bad, it just entertained me and kept me riveted throughout.
It's rare that you see a film that you can't find some sort of flaw, but I wouldn't change a thing in The Departed. Not a single frame.
Jon: That's how I feel about The Last King of Scotland, United 93, Little Children and The Queen - each had a riveting story and something more - but I realize not everyone's on board with me to that extent.
Stu: All of those are good ones as well. Maybe because it came out early in the year or that the subject matter was so somber, but I think United 93 is vastly underrated. What I really enjoyed about it was that it wasn't a star-driven film but, rather, it let the events of the day shape the story, not the cast.
In World Trade Center, Oliver Stone specifically reminds you that the day in question was Sept. 11 -- via the police roll call -- and it also seemed ingenuous that he would open the doors to his kids' bedrooms at 3 a.m. to check on them. A loving gesture, no doubt, but somehow rang false to me.
What United 93 did was show that Sept. 11 was just like any other morning at Newark Airport. People dealing with traffic, rushing through airports, etc. World Trade Center is a fine film but United 93 is a remarkable one.
Jon: Do you think United 93 overcome its lack of names, its tough subject matter, its direct competition with WTC and its early release date to get a nomination? That's a lot to overcome - but it's so worthy.
Stu: That's the 100K question. My gut feeling is no, it doesn't make the cut. I hear from a bunch of industry types who all tell me: "Yeah, I heard it was great but I didn't see it." That's never a good sign.
As it stands now, I'd say the five best picture nominees look to be: The Departed, The Queen, Dreamgirls, Little Miss Sunshine and ?? The fifth spot is a real puzzler. Could be anything from Volver, to The Pursuit of Happyness, to Babel, to Little Children. My vote would be for the latter, but the dark subject matter in that one might scare off some.
Jon: Really - Little Miss Sunshine? I've sort of thought enthusiasm for that film had dipped, though it is No. 5 on my current list. I agree with the first three favorites you mentioned, but I'd wager that Little Children grabs the "Little" spot, with the final spot remaining wide open. One thing I will bet on: The film most mentioned in Oscar ceremony jokes and banter will be Borat.
Stu: Every year there's usually one indie that makes the cut: From Sideways to Crash to Lost in Translation, to something from Miramax. Sunshine, it seems to me, has built up a lot of goodwill this year and there's nary a bad word anyone can say about it. I know it made me laugh -- certainly more than Borat did.
Jon: No argument from me on the merits of LMS (or the hit-and-miss quality of Borat). I just think that Little Children might have enough indie sensibility to take that slot. It'd be lovely if there were room for both.
Let's talk a little about performances. I already mentioned Kikuchi. Helen Mirren has to get nominated for The Queen. Forest Whitaker for Last King. Who from The Departed do you think will bag a nomination, and who are your locks from other films?
Stu: Nominations from The Departed are tricky. Warner Bros. decided to run everyone as supporting. Makes sense for Nicholson and Wahlberg, but not so sure about Damon and DiCaprio, especially the latter since Leo really shines here. On a studio level, the decision is all about Blood Diamond, where DiCaprio is the true lead. The no-win scenario for WB is that if he runs for lead and splits the votes, then he doesn't get nominated for either. But the risk is if Blood Diamond isn't a critical hit and he doesn't pull in votes for that, he's lost out on a lead performance nom for The Departed, if that makes sense.
You're right about Mirren - who's in the driver's seat to win - and Whitaker. Other sure things are Will Smith (The Pursuit of Happyness) and Peter O'Toole (Venus). O'Toole has never won before after seven nominations, so while the performance is certainly noteworthy and well-done, having been shut out for decades makes him the best chance to win this year on the male side.
Great female performances are in abundance. After Mirren there's Kate Winslet in Little Children, Penelope Cruz in Volver, Meryl Streep in The Devil Wears Prada and Judi Dench in Notes on a Scandal. Of these, Cruz is probably the most vulnerable to get cut and maybe Annette Bening (Running With Scissors), Naomi Watts (The Painted Veil) or Cate Blanchett (The Good German) sneaks in.
Jon: Considering that DiCaprio has to worry about a vote split if he runs in the supporting category for Departed, they might as well have had him go for it with a lead candidacy. Though I don't think he'll win the Oscar, his performance is huge and the key to that film - and I've heard someone say that it's an honor just to be nominated.
For supporting actor, I'm going to root for Jackie Earle Haley of Little Children. Great performance, and call me crazy, but I think he's got a shot. What a story it would be if Kelly Leak went to the podium.
Stu: Having a rooting interest always hurts me in the Oscar pool. I ignore what I think is going to happen and mark down what I want to happen. And working here, it's almost as if we're overexposed to the whole thing anyway.
I think we'll know more, nominations-wise, after the Globes announce their noms Dec. 14. If you don't get Globe nominated, it can be tough to gain traction, Oscar-wise. Not impossible but tougher.
Jon: The year I won an Oscar pool was the year I saw the fewest movies of my conscious life.
Let's wrap up with a quick look ahead. Not all the contenders have been released. Although it appears Clint Eastwood's Flags of Our Fathers will fall short of getting much major award recognition, Letters from Iwo Jima, the Eastwood-directed, Japanese-language companion piece that had its release date moved up to December, may be coming on as a dark horse. Dreamgirls, as you indicated, has a great deal of buzz. And, of course, there's Rocky Balboa
Stu: I'm very much looking forward to Letters From Iwo Jima, especially after Flags proved to be an ultimately disapointing experience. And though I hate to admit, I'm mildly curious about Apocalypto too. Most of the reaction so far has been strongly positive, though there's a lot of violence. Man, Gibson just loves to push the boundaries with violence: From Braveheart, to Passion, to this.
I have to say it's been an overall strong movie season. I wouldn't go as far as to call it an abundance of riches but a lot of well-made films. There's nothing worse than sitting in a theater, watching a bad movie and wishing you could get those two hours of your life back. Not so much the case right now.
Jon: Agreed. Though not everything has been great, almost nothing that I've seen over the past couple of months has been awful. Can't complain!
Where Hill Street Blues is kingand Lady Luck is queen
by Jon Weisman
About the Toaster
Baseball Toaster was unplugged on February 4, 2009.