Academy DVD Screener Round-Up!

5 12 2011

In Hollywood, there are two types of people: those who’ve risen through the ranks, paid dues, gained industry-wide respect and been recognized with membership in the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences… and then there are assholes like Steven Spielblog who go over to the homes of A.M.P.A.S. members, and watch all their Oscar-season screener DVD’s. This past weekend, I shamelessly devoured a metric ton of them. Here’s my report:

J.J. Abrams (right) directs SUPER 8

With SUPER 8, J.J. Abrams attempts the acrobatic feat of remaking every single Steven Spielberg film all at once, and again proves that he’s a better student of film than he is a filmmaker. Lose the near-constant lens flare and chock-a-block nostalgia, and the story here barely qualifies as a full one. Not for adults, anyway. As a Spiel-worshipper, I should say that it’s commendable that Abrams made a children’s film that’s meant to be a contiguous addition to the 80’s Amblin catalogue (with the man’s name on it, no less,) and if SUPER 8 turns kids onto CLOSE ENCOUNTERS, well, terrific. But in every other way, this is just a faithful footnote that strikes a grown-up fan as puny alongside the classics.

Johnny Depp as Donald Rumsfeld in THE RUM DIARY

Johnny Depp does Hunter S. Thompson proud in his portrayal of Paul Kemp, the protagonist of Thompson’s long-gestating semi-autobiographical novel THE RUM DIARY. The meandering but likeable film built around him has its highs (Richard Jenkins) and lows (Amber Heard,) but it hangs together – barely – as a result of a few choice lines, some priceless Depp deadpanning, and perfect costuming by the great Colleen Atwood. Still, crack open a Webster’s to the word “rental,” and this is what you’ll see.

Yeah, didn't make it to this part.

I didn’t make it through PIRATES OF THE CARIBBEAN: ON STRANGER TIDES. I shut it off. And no I will not apologize. Next!

The stuffy, overlong biopic J. EDGAR relies on the same narrative framing device as screenwriter Dustin Lance Black’s last film, MILK. It’s the “OK now let me tell you my side of the story” approach, in which the main character actually says the line “OK now let me tell you my side of the story” (or some minor variation of it,) and we then launch into a series of flashbacks. In J. EDGAR’s case, the flashbacks fare better than the ‘present day’ material, if only because in the role of FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover, Leonardo DiCaprio’s aging make-up is so hilariously wrong. The only believable aging anywhere in J. EDGAR is on America’s childhood crush Lea Thompson, who shows up in a small role. Lea, bless her, now without aid looks almost exactly like Lorraine McFly circa 1985 in BACK TO THE FUTURE. For your consideration in the category of Best Makeup: Time!

THE SKIN I LIVE IN is so good, you too may lick your TV screen.

Take Hitchcock’s VERTIGO, turn the ‘that’s fucked up, yo’ meter to eleven and dub it en Español, and you’ve got an idea of the treat you’re in for with Pedro Almodóvar’s newest, THE SKIN I LIVE IN. In SKIN, Antonio Banderas stars as an obsessive doctor whose live-in experiment (the gorgeous Elena Anaya) holds a dark secret… dot dot dot. Only Almodovar could pull something as twisted as this off and still make it so darkly hilarious, which does with typical style. THE SKIN I LIVE IN is weirder than anything he’s done in years, and what it lacks in the empathy of one of his masterworks like ALL ABOUT MY MOTHER, it makes up for in inspired macabre suspense. I loved it.

When brothers fight, we ALL win.

A manly melodrama, or “man-o-drama,” Gavin O’Connor’s WARRIOR casts Tom Hardy and Joel Edgerton as estranged brothers who enter an ultimate fighting championship in Atlantic City. Hardy’s the brooding/brawny Iraq vet, Edgerton the family man who can’t pay his mortgage, so he turns to professional bludgeoning. (And what’s more American than that?) The fighting on display is repetitive, but no matter, it’s the brothers’ emotions and motivations that take center stage, and in that arena WARRIOR clicks, particularly when booze-battling father Nick Nolte’s on screen. He makes a believable pops to both, and a believable alcoholic too, turning in his best work since AFFLICTION. But WARRIOR’s a film primarily for guys who think ‘Affliction’ is a clothing brand. Don’t worry, it’s safe to cry here, Ed Hardy Boys. No one will see you weeping inside the UFC cage…

Evil nazi gynecologist Jesper Christensen in THE DEBT

It’s no secret my favorite genre is ‘sexy nazi hunt thriller,’ so John Madden’s THE DEBT lands squarely in my sweet spot. It’s a suspenseful piece that builds to a gripping climax, with a superb cast playing characters in early days and later (Jessica Chastain turns into Helen Mirren, Martin Csokas turns into Tom Wilkinson and Sam Worthington turns into Ciaran Hinds,) a choice on Madden’s part that underscores the sense that our heroes’ dealings with the brutal Surgeon of Birkenau (Jesper Christensen) totally change them as human beings. Even so, the back-and-forth is just this side of distracting, with one too may inconsistent accents – and, you know, the fact that Sam Worthington looks absolutely nothing like Ciaran Hinds. But regardless of your affection for the ‘sexy nazi hunt thriller,’ this one’s worth your money. Or in my case, it’s worth – free! Ah, the joys of watching someone else’s Academy screeners! Sincerely, boo-yah.

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Nein NINE nein NINE nein NINE nein NINE!

17 12 2009

There were plenty of things I could have done instead of seeing NINE. My car could use a wash, I thought, as Daniel Day Lewis made his entrance as Italian film director Guido Contini. As Guido escaped a scandalous press conference, I remembered my gas bill was due. Gotta pay that. And as Guido’s convertible sped across a Roman piazza, I thought of my dog, what she might be doing right now, and whether it was more fulfilling than what I was doing. Mostly though, I thought about closing my eyes, and getting some sleep. Only to protect the integrity of Steven Spielblog did I muster the strength to stay awake through this film. Don’t thank me, readers. Thank my eyelids. DO IT.

Directed by Rob Marshall and starring Mr. Day, Mr. Lewis, and every single actress alive, (and in Sophia Loren’s case, ‘undead,’) NINE is a filmed adaptation of a Broadway musical which is a staged adaptation of Federico Fellini’s 8½. One of the pivotal films of the Italian neo-realist movement, 8½ is a kaleidoscopic study of Guido (Marcello Mastroianni,) a 43 year-old filmmaker struggling to translate his mid-life self-reflection into a piece of art that has value to anyone but himself. It’s one of the most insightful portrayals of an artist ever put on film. Comparing anything to it is stacking the deck – but comparing 8½ to NINE – that’s just sadistic. So, let’s get into it, shall we?

Daniel Day Lewis, not good, for once, in NINE

Right off, there’s the unfortunate Mr. DDL, who, though perhaps the greatest actor of his generation, brother just don’t do comedy. And 8½, which is many things, is frequently hilarious. Mastroianni’s Guido is a grown boy, who for all his troubles, views the world in wonderment – a man who spontaneously dances, alone, down a hallway. DDL’s Guido, by contrast, is a man in the midst of a manic breakdown. He’s twitchy, dour, and self-loathing, a serial philanderer who claims to be a child at heart, though evidence of this is absent from DDL’s performance. This choice on the actor’s part then renders the introduction of Guido’s “inner child” character in NINE a Disneyfied cliché: the man who’s lost his joie de vivre, rediscovering it in a magical encounter with his younger self. So when young Guido joins old Guido in the director’s chair for the big finale, (whoops, spoiler,) it’s a moment reminiscent of Bruce Willis’ THE KIDnot-ah so much-ah Fellini.

But it’s not just in DDL’s too-serious turn that NINE misses all the crucial humor of 8½. Maestro Marshall replaces the joy of his source material with the most miscalculated diva worship since Michael Jackson lopped off his nose to be Diana Ross. Take, for instance, the funniest, most delightful scene in 8½, in which Saraghina, a bulky, ferally sexual woman, dances the rumba for young Guido and his schoolmates. Marshall interprets this scene in what he clearly wishes were a showstopper, with the Black Eyed Peas’ Fergie as Saraghina. Now don’t get me wrong, Fergie is hulkingly enormous enough to play the part of Saraghina, but – oh wait – WHAT? Seriously, could Rob Marshall not get a single big-boned broad to sing a song? He has to take this Fellini icon and turn her into one more in a line of supermodels?

The repulsive women of NINE

In NINE’s pile-on of beauties, (hellooo Judi Dench,) Marion Cotillard and Penelope Cruz emerge unscathed as wife and mistress respectively. Sophia Loren phones it in, content, it seems, to accept her beatification as Prima Donna of Italian cinema, and so her part is nothing more than an extended, softly-lit cameo. But it’s Nicole Kidman who takes the crap cake, her upper lip sliding disconcertingly down her face before your naked eyes. In a film of spotty accents, (DDL not exempted,) Kidman gives up on the whole pesky ‘Italian thing’ after about two minutes. Why bother, really? ‘Chilly’ is a word I’d always use to describe Miss Kidman, but after watching NINE I’d suggest her next director check for pulse before rolling camera.

8½, che bel film, is presented in an ambiguous dream state where reality blends seamlessly with Guido’s memory and fantasy. NINE reduces this to a binary: there’s objective (and oh-so stressful) reality, and then, there are musical numbers. It’s very clear when we’re meant to be in Guido’s fantasy: everyone’s singing and dancing… and boring me to death. And worse yet, to reaffirm this conceit, Marshall shoots all the musical interludes the same, from the point of view of the audience. This gets old, in a hurry.

Hey, you know what this movie could use? Some incredibly boring dance numbers.

OK! OK. Maybe comparing this film to 8½ is just too diabolical, even for a diablo like me. I’d judge it solely as a musical then, except not one of the film’s songs stick, not a single hum-worthy chorus in the lot, and about 87% of the lyrics consist of people shouting “Guido! Guido! Guido!” Yes, Academy bylaws require an original song to win ‘Best Original Song,’ even if you’re adding a new number to previously staged musical. But Rob Marshall’s statue-lust doesn’t make it OK for any human person to have to sit through Kate Hudson’s jaw-droppingly awful “Cinema Italiano.” This sequence is so torturous it might as well have been directed by Alberto Gonzalez and choreographed by John Yoo – with ultimate sign-off approval from Dick Cheney, naturally.

The biggest war crime of all is that none of NINE elicits any emotional response – or it didn’t from your Spielblogger. 8½ endures, truthful and touching, because it defies structure to create an impression of life on earth and the challenges – the impossibilities, even – of representing it in art. It’s not a portrait of an artist, it’s the world as seen through the eyes of one. NINE, not just a copy of a copy but the very opposite of its original, is too enamored with its own style, structure, and performers, to truly be about anything but itself.

NINE

AMC Landmark Theaters, Los Angeles

Tuesday, December 8, 8:00pm showing

Oh wait - sorry.