Sunday, November 15, 2009

My List of Epiphany Films

Blogging is like being in a relationship. Revealing too much about oneself too soon can scare away a potential match. Conversely, revealing too little can come off as a sign of cold indifference, and can drive someone away just as quickly. Since I've had this blog up and running for nearly two years, I think it's safe to say that we've come to the point in our relationship where I make some deep, meaningful revelations. Not about my personal life, but about my taste in movies. While I have given hints from time to time as to where my tastes on the spectrum of cinema fall, I have yet to come right out and tell you what kinds of movies genuinely move me...until now.

Normally, any blogger worth their salt would reserve this list for the sidebar or another such feature on the home page of their blog. Since I have so much to say here, I just couldn't squeeze this missive into a space that small. Before I get to the first title on the list, I believe it necessary to make an important disclosure. These aren't necessarily my favorite films of all time; rather, these are films that appeal to my Renaissance Man sensibility and make me examine what goes on in every frame with a refined eye. These are movies I discovered at a time in my life where I was beginning my emergence from the angst-ridden pit of adolescence and making my gradual transition to the exciting new world of adulthood. Every title on this list holds a special place in my heart because they all came along at just the right time, like a dismissal bell that saves you from answering a tough question. Movies like these, I find, need to be revisited and appreciated for different reasons. Too often, we only taste the grape when we drink our first glass of wine. It's only after years of growth and experience that the palate grabs the other, subtler flavors.

The Godfather - Some films you remember for striking imagery, gripping scenes, or bright dialogue. Others you remember for exquisitely drawn characters who etch a permanent place in your memory. Others still you remember for a catchy musical score. The Godfather is a movie you remember for all these reasons and more. For me, there isn't a moment in this film that isn't a tour de force. Everything about this movie represents the best in every discipline of the cinema. The script sizzles with delicious dialogue, every actor is at the top of their game, every shot is painstakingly composed, and every period detail is rendered to perfection. Francis Ford Coppola blended every part of his production to create a cinematic offering as irresistible as pasta puttanesca. One could throw a dart at any page of the script and hit an unforgettable scene. I first saw this film at the age of nine, and have not seen a single movie the same way since. The murder scenes gave me nightmares, and to this day I cannot stop at a toll booth or walk through a revolving door without getting caught in the chilling grip of anxiety. Never before had I seen screen violence captured with operatic vividness. In spite of my trepidation, the film has not lost its ability to fascinate me. Whenever I need a dose of bonafide inspiration, a single viewing of this masterpiece restores my creative faculties to their fullest vitality.

The Graduate - The spring of 1995 stands out in my memory as one of the happiest of my life. I was seventeen, my Renaissance Man sensibility was awakening, and the unusually hot weather made my hormones run wild for certain girls at school -- not to mention some of their mothers. My fleeting crushes on female grade school teachers, babysitters, and my mother's hair salon clients from early childhood made me realize early on that I have romantic gravitations toward older women. With that penchant in place, it was only a matter of time before I encountered The Graduate. After renting a VHS copy from Blockbuster one Saturday night, I sat transfixed in front of the living room television for two hours, and can remember feeling sadly disappointed when I saw Dustin Hoffman and Katharine Ross going down a road in the back of that bus. But alas, all the great movies end too soon. Hoffman stunned me with his career-launching performance in the title role. Though I had already seen him in Tootsie, Rain Man, Dick Tracy, and Lenny, he reaffirmed his status as an acting hero in my book. He didn't play Benjamin Braddock so much as he inhabited him. The standout feature in this film, however, is the direction of Mike Nichols. There were so many touches -- the cut from Hoffman emerging from his swimming pool directly into Mrs. Robinson's bed, the toast popping up just after Ben announces his plans to marry Elaine, the filming of Ben's backyard birthday party through the goggles of his wetsuit -- that just floored me. The Graduate is one of those rare American movies that captures the joy of moviemaking. Too often, the atmosphere of a film set is characterized by the mood of a somber, suffering artist who takes his work (and himself) far too seriously. When Nichols helmed this production, his skillful poise, relaxed confidence and youthful exuberance no doubt had an effect on workplace morale. Little wonder the film remains a joy to watch, even if it hasn't aged well.

Midnight Cowboy - Continuing on my Hoffman streak, I first saw this movie in the summer of 1995, shortly after I completed my junior year of high school. In an echo of my experience watching The Graduate, I was open-mouthed with amazement from beginning to end. Never before had I seen a movie edited the way Cowboy was cut. The nightmarish flashback sequences still pack a punch and the montages made me gape in amazement at the power of the human imagination. John Barry's score, polished to perfection by Toots Thielemans' plaintive harmonica, captured the essence of big city loneliness and broken dreams. With his heartbreaking portrayal of crippled con man Ratzo Rizzo, Hoffman blew me away. This film came at the height of his late-sixties hot streak, and after viewing his body of work from that time on, one wonders, "Is there anything this man CAN'T play?" To say that the film stayed with me for days afterward would be a gross understatement. How badly I wanted to go out and make a movie just so I could experiment with editing rhythms the same way John Schlesinger did. In spite of the movie's unflinching portrayal of The Big Apple's gritty underbelly, I couldn't wait to visit the city that never sleeps. My exposure to Midnight Cowboy, Taxi Driver, the works of Woody Allen, and countless other films painted a romantic portrait of a city that beckoned for my presence. When I paid my overdue virgin visit at the age of 27, the first step I took onto Manhattan pavement from the airport bus felt like I had reconnected with a missing piece of my soul.

The Virgin Spring - Ingmar Bergman's Oscar-winning drama is the first landmark foreign film I remember seeing. I saw this movie as a college freshman eager to hunt down any gem within reach. When not in class, I worked as a clerk at Hollywood Video, a job that allowed me a free rental for every completed shift. Night after night, I found myself wandering toward the Foreign Film section. Though the selection was paltry, I derived the most from my ad hoc education in the works of Kurosawa, Fellini, Wenders, Antonioni, Truffaut, and Bergman. This film had me hooked from its first image of a woman stoking a fire with three deep breaths. Thirteenth century Sweden was an environment with which I was completely unfamiliar and Bergman's adaptation of Ulla Isaksson's ballad brought it sharply into focus. In the hands of a lesser artist, the trial of a dour Lutheran household for whom God remains silent would have been frightfully dull. Rendered by Bergman, the story absorbed me, even the frightening rape scene. Spring served as the perfect introduction to the oeuvre that brought us The Seventh Seal, Smiles of a Summer Night, and Wild Strawberries. Thanks largely to the visual artistry of Sven Nykvist, The Virgin Spring achieves a stark beauty that, like many other Bergman works, haunts me in a way no other cinematographer can. Like Vittorio Storaro, the man does not shoot subjects; he paints with light. That Bergman was able to achieve a glow to this film nearly five decades ago that remains pristine to this day is nothing short of remarkable. From the night of that revelatory first viewing, I have regarded Ingmar Bergman as one leg of a worldly tripod who, alongside Federico Fellini and Akira Kurosawa, will always stand as a giant in the realm of cinema.

The French Connection - I've always been a sucker for a good action flick. The pulse-pounding stimulus of gun fights, car chases, hand-to-hand combat, and massive explosions rarely fails to hook me. Throw the cop-robber dynamic into the mix and the result is a winning combination. That was precisely the impression William Friedkin's Oscar-winning crime yarn left upon my first viewing weeks before I began my senior year of high school. From the opening fade-in of the French café to the closing shootout in the abandoned factory, I sat galvanized at the edge of my seat. Once again, I encountered a film where all areas of production clicked into place like gears in a Swiss clock. The performances are among some of the most realistic I've ever seen, the editing is breathless (especially during the famous train chase scene), Don Ellis' score fits the action like a tailored suit, and the writing crackles with streetwise attitude. As soon as I finished watching this movie, I returned it to the video store, drove to the mall, and bought a copy for myself. Since that day, I estimate that I've seen Connection fifteen times -- and each viewing brings a new discovery. (e.g., the action jumps back and forth between the heroes and villains comic book style, the editing is comprised totally of cuts save for the opening fade-up of Marseilles, the direction of movement flips many times during chase scenes to suggest how difficult it is to catch a criminal) As a side note, any friend who visited my house that year could not leave until they watched the famous chase scene. My attempt to screen the sequence at a cast party for a school play I directed was met with a scattered chorus of "Oh God, not again".

Yojimbo - This title shares a ranking with Ikiru as my favorite Kurosawa film. The story brims with despicable characters, deception, double-crosses, prostitution, severed appendages, murderous misdeeds, and close-ups of blood among other unpleasantries...and yet, it succeeds as a comedy. I first saw Yojimbo in early 1997, one of the many free rentals I enjoyed while working at Hollywood Video. Toshiro Mifune cast an immortal prototype of the laconic assassin for hire that Clint Eastwood would later use as inspiration for his "Man with No Name" hero of the spaghetti westerns that catapulted him to international fame. What struck me about the character of Sanjuro is that he possessed all of the fighting skills of a samurai warrior, but none of the Bushido values of compassion, loyalty, or humility. In spite of his arrogance, I couldn't help but be drawn to his dangerous, rugged charisma. The final duel between Mifune and Tatsuya Nakadai's pistol-packing villain is every bit as riveting on the tenth viewing as it is when seen for the first time. One would be hard-pressed to find a sequence where the music blends so perfectly with the action on screen.

Citizen Kane - I first saw the film often hailed as the greatest ever made in June of 1996, one week before graduating high school. Early in the day of that memorable viewing, I submitted the final draft of my high school senior project research paper, "A Brief History of American Film". To reward myself, I rented this film from Blockbuster...and to this day, I cannot believe that I omitted this indispensable cinematic landmark -- not to mention the career of its genius creator -- from my studies! Having been exposed to years of media parody growing up, the secret of Rosebud had already been spoiled for me (just as the shocking surprise at the end of Psycho had already been spoiled for me), and the film still astounded me. The techniques that directors use left and right today (sets with ceilings, deep-focus photography, the synchronization of rooms lighting up with orchestral cues) all seemed new, and that night when I watched Kane for the first time, I felt like I was seeing those "cine-tricks" for the first time. Whenever I watch the film, a part of me temporarily transforms into a giddy 1941 filmgoer witnessing creative barriers being broken.

Cool Hand Luke - Here is yet another entry from that seminal spring of 1995. I first saw this film broadcast on TBS, and then ran straight to the mall to buy my own copy. I was going through a non-conformist period of sorts, and found an instant hero in Paul Newman's Christ-like chain gang prisoner. Readers who recall my obituary post for Newman know that this film contains, in my opinion, the best performance he ever gave. For me, Cool Hand Luke proves a first-class example of a gifted actor vanishing completely into a character. The care-free gait in his walk, the easygoing rhythm of his speech, the way he jumps out of bed, the way he stares at the ground, and that irresistible smile all combine to form a complete character painted with masterful brushstrokes. Newman's rendering of the Virgin Mary song never fails to get me every time I see it, even after all these years.

Vertigo - I first saw this film during my freshman year of college in the fall of 1996, and it still irks me that the mood wasn't right. It was late at night, I was exhausted from a full day of studies and running, and I kept nodding off to sleep. One could liken the experience to going on a first date with a beautiful woman while fighting a merciless migraine. Too much of the movie simply flew by me. Then, I saw the film for the second time in my mentor's Hitchcock/Spielberg seminar in spring of 1998 and the experience wiped my prior viewing from memory. Though the room was a bit chilly and the soundtrack was muddied from age, the environment could not have provided me with a better opportunity to absorb the myriad subtleties of Alfred Hitchcock's quintessential portrait of obsession. The brilliant use of psychological color, the haunting score by Bernard Herrmann, and Jimmy Stewart's incredible performance as the tortured detective (the best he ever gave under Hitchcock's direction) all contribute to the film's haunting effect on me. For the record, Vertigo tops my list of Hitchcock films as my personal favorite, with North By Northwest and Psycho trailing close behind.

One Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest - Though I first saw Milos Forman's adaptation of Ken Kesey's novel in its entirety in (you guessed it) the spring of 1995, I had seen bits and pieces of it as a kid whenever it was on TV. My folks made a point of watching it every Easter without fail. Just as I took an instant liking to Cool Hand Luke, I admired the cool, smiling confidence in R.P. McMurphy. I often adopted shades of this persona to hide behind at school whenever I was forced to cope with stress, laugh off criticism, or deal with bullies. Nicholson's performance aside, Cuckoo's Nest contains plenty of memorable moments that translate to movie magic. Among them, McMurphy's color commentary of a baseball game played on a darkened television moves the rebel in all of us who dreams of disrupting the abusive power structure of the Establishment. It is a simple scene that illustrates how a different point of view can open people's minds to new discoveries, and reminds us that those who dance are considered insane by those who cannot hear the music. Then, there is the staggering finale that begins on a note of tragedy and ends on a note of triumph. No matter how many times I promise myself in advance to keep it together when this scene plays, I always break down in tears. One would have to be made of stone to not be moved by the sight of a mercy killing followed by a daring escape. What One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest says to me is that there's a little bit of Randle McMurphy in all of us. It's a timeless story that inspires cowards to find courage they never knew they had, it makes burned-out workers quit their miserable jobs, and it turns apolitical citizens into activists. In short, one for the ages.

There you have it, dear readers. You have just caught a glimpse of a man who not only watches movies and not only reads movies, but consumes and enjoys movies as often as possible. Each of these movies kindles the curious adventurer in me. I hope I never lose that passion that makes my food taste better, the air sweeter, and the seventh art a part of my life. Now it's your turn to reveal what moves you up on that screen. What are your Epiphany films? As always, leave your comments and I'll be back soon with another treasure chest from my youth.

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Oscar Broadens Top Field to Ten Contenders

The Academy Awards are getting an overhaul. In the most surprising news to come from Oscar headquarters in years, the Best Picture category is being expanded from five to ten nominees. This decision marks the first time that more than five Best Picture nominees will be recognized since 1943, the year Casablanca won the top honor. Read the bombshell news story here.

Although this comes as good news for producers, directors, and other artists involved with Oscar bait films due for release this fall, the change presents a number of potential problems. For one, doubling the number of nominees to present will increase the already long running time of the telecast. Since the Oscar ceremony is no stranger to bad ratings, this might not be a wise decision from a fiscal standpoint. Oscar organizers have to remember that American audiences have some of the shortest attention spans in the world. If a program fails to provide a consistent source of audiovisual stimulation, the viewer will tune out.

One does not have to be a Hollywood insider to know the reason behind the expansion. When the nominations for the 81st Academy Awards were announced five months ago, many awards trackers, among whom I count myself, found the following words escaping our lips when reviewing the five films nominated for Best Picture of the Year: "Where the hell is The Dark Knight?" Kevin Smith hit the nail on the head when he called the picture "The Godfather, Part II of comic book films" last summer. Of course, I made my displeasure at the Academy's elitist omission known shortly after the nominations were announced. For The Dark Knight and other great films released last year, the double-up comes as too little, too late.

This brings up another problem. 2008 was a sensational year for cinema. An output that strong in both quality and quantity does not occur every year. Should the worst case scenario unfold one year whereby five decent films stand out from an abysmal crowd as the best of the worst, would that leave the Academy to scrape the bottom of the barrel for five stinkers to fill the vacancies? On the other hand, suppose the world sees another banner year for movies in the near future. With the roster bumped up to ten competitors, can we really count on the Academy to find at least one film viewers would tune in to see win a few statuettes on show night? Ideally, the widening of the competitive margin would spur Academy voters to drop their snooty sensibility like a hot rock and recognize top grossing films that deserve to be in the running. I shudder to think that the Academy would deliberately omit another Dark Knight from the top category with the number of entries now at ten.

Nominating films for major awards is a balancing act. While it does require a discerning mind to point out efforts worthy of accolades, ("best" is the first word of every category for a reason) there is such a thing as taking that mindset too far. To dismissively regard all popular movies as those pictures simply because they perform well at the box office is a tremendous mistake. Even if the Academy is represented by a group of voters whose tastes do not uniformly align, the one fact on which they must all agree is that it is possible to make blockbusters with artistic merit. It's been done before and it will certainly by done again. In my lifetime, there has been no stronger exemplification of this rule than Raiders of the Lost Ark.

With this, I hereby enforce an ad hoc policy on the Academy: from this day forward, said voters must nominate no fewer than one top grossing film for Best Picture every year. It's only fair, it will bring good ratings, and it will help repair your reputation as an out-of-touch country club who consistently alientates the public. You've got your work ahead of you, AMPAS. If you can't find one popular movie to include among the top contenders from here on out, the rest of us will know you haven't got much sense.

Here is where I'll submerge my impulse to expound what the change will mean for other categories and will instead open discussion for your thoughts. What do you think about the Academy widening the Best Picture category? Do you think it's a wise decision or a foolish one? Had the Academy made this decision last year, do think The Dark Knight would have been nominated for Best Picture? Whatever your thoughts, feel free to sound off.

Saturday, April 4, 2009

Au Revoir, Monsieur Jarre


The world of cinema has lost one of its most gifted composers. Maurice Jarre, the man who brought us the timeless melodies of many classic movies, died last Saturday at the age of 84. Dennis McLellan of The Los Angeles Times has a fitting obituary here.

Rather than using the written word to recall Jarre's life, this blogger prefers the only substitute that could ever summate the beauty and genius of his legacy, the music itself. Constantin Stanislavski once said that music is the only way to the heart. A simple listen to the creations of Maurice Jarre affirms the late Russian theorist's observation.

To close this tribute, I leave you with a sample of Monsieur Jarre at work. Here are a series of excerpts from the scores of Lawrence of Arabia, Doctor Zhivago, and Jacob's Ladder. Good night, Maestro.

Wednesday, April 1, 2009

End of the Road for the Oscars


In the saddest and most shocking movie news item of the century, AMPAS president Sid Ganis held a press conference this morning in Los Angeles, where he announced that there will be no more Academy Awards ceremonies once his term ends this September. Read the breaking news story here.

Sunday, March 8, 2009

Movies à la Carte

Dinner and a movie has long been a popular way for people to spend a night out. For as long as movies have been around, millions of Americans have enjoyed countless evenings bookending these two dependable sources of recreation. However, a recent article in the city life section of MSN reports that a number of establishments across the country are starting to combine the two customs.

Let me begin by stating for the record that I am as opposed to this ritual as an old school film fan can get. This revelation no doubt comes as a surprise to many who know me. Since I am of Italian ancestry, one would think that my passions for food and movies would naturally merge. But alas, that is not the case. Granted, I do enjoy each of these activities, but separately. I'll elaborate on this later, but first I must recount a personal experience.

One Friday night eight years ago, I picked up my then-girlfriend from her apartment to take her out on a date. When we spoke on the phone earlier that day, she mentioned a place she had heard about called The Cinema Grill. This North Seattle establishment had only been in business a short while and had gained notoriety for serving food inside its theaters. Intrigued by the newness of the idea, I went along with her suggestion that we pay the innovative cineplex a visit.

Once inside, we took our seats on padded barstools and placed our orders. While waiting for our food, we talked about how the trend could very well sweep the nation given a few years time. I observed how it makes sense from an efficiency expert's point of view. By eating and seeing a movie in one location, I remarked, the trip to a restaurant beforehand or afterward is rendered unnecessary. People are growing busier with each passing day, and don't have as many discretionary hours as they once did. Thanks to modern technology, our lives have grown so busy that we feel the urge to combine certain activies. We drive while talking on the phone. We listen to life coaching programs on our iPods while exercising. Some of us even practice yoga and pilates while sitting at our computers. Dinner at the cineplex fits right into that multitasking fold.

While opining that those in the raging hormone demographic would no doubt appreciate having more of their evening available for bedroom recreation, the lights went down and the previews began. Our food arrived just as the movie started. Gaping at Guy Pearce's hand shaking a Polaroid picture, I reached for what I thought was a hot wing but instead plucked one of my girlfriend's nachos from her plate. Save for locating the napkin dispenser moments later, my eyes never left the screen.

Though I would later go on to select Memento as my favorite film of 2001, I wondered if dining on sports bar menu items added to my enjoyment of the picture. After giving the matter some thought, I concluded that the food was an unnecessary distraction and that I would have loved my viewing more had I seen it in a regular theater. Never mind the fact that Christopher Nolan's audacious detective story is an elaborately constructed brainteaser that requires the higher-order cognitive processing skills of the smartest viewer. I would take that position even if I had seen The Mummy Returns at The Cinema Grill. If I found the idea exciting going in, I found it obtrusive in retrospect. To me, having dinner in a movie theater was like joining The Century Club: it was an ordeal through which I put myself one time just to say that I did it. I haven't been back since, and I certainly don't plan on returning.

Whenever I dine on a special meal, the only accompaniment I prefer is jazz or classical music playing softly in the background, and even that's optional when I'm in the company of pleasant people. Conversely, I don't always like to eat while watching a movie. Due to my experience at The Cinema Grill, I find food a hindrance to a movie that demands (and deserves) my full attention. As a rule, the only foodstuffs I consume in a movie theater are popcorn and Coca-Cola -- and that's just when I see a summer blockbuster. I don't need chicken wings, fried pickles, miniburgers, onion rings, mozzarella sticks, jalapeño poppers, deli sandwiches, garlic fries, Waldorf salad, quesadillas, babyback ribs, bruschetta, rack of lamb, escargot, foie gras, shrimp toast, filet mignon, lobster tails, cole slaw, claw chowder, a sashimi plate, pączki, semla, strawberry cheesecake, tiramisu bars, flan, zabaglione, pistachio ice cream, or an oil drum full of pilsner to wash it all down. Just give me my popcorn and sugar water and I'm content. Like peanuts and beer at the ballpark, it's a satisfying combination. Anything more is distracting.

Maybe it's my ADD that keeps my mind from functioning on more than one track at a time. One of the best compliments I've ever received came to me during my undergraduate years at Pacific Lutheran University. A fellow student and I were sitting in a coffee shop when she broke her own train of thought to make a personal observation. "Do you know why I like talking to you? It's because you don't listen to people while their speaking. You consider them." After a slight pause, I retorted, "A rare benefit of ADD." She made my day with her words, and I remain flattered by them to this day. She was right. I don't just listen to people, I consider them -- and that goes for pretty much anything. If I'm genuinely in interested in a conversation, an idea, a book, a news article, a painting, a piece of music, or a movie, I give it my full, undivided attention.

Basic business sense dictates that movie theaters cannot survive on the sales of movie tickets alone. Concessions account for the majority of a theater's revenue, and it's been that way for as long as the communal movie house has existed. I realize that peripherals are necessary to the success of any product, but why did the trend have to get so out of hand? Increasing the quality of the movies would seem a viable response to this problem, but it seems that people would rather spend their hard-earned money on a ticket to an abysmal movie coupled with large portions of snack bar offerings than on a decent feature alone. I first saw trouble in River City when theater lobbies expanded their concessions menus to include ice cream, hot dogs, and bulk bin candy stands that allow patrons to load up on sugary vices by the pound. When I first caught sight of those atrocious provisions being cleaned out by a swarm of sweet tooth nursing moviegoers, I asked myself, "Are these people here to see a movie or to pig out on junk food?" To this day, I remain convinced that most people who bring vast quantities of food into a theater are lonely binge eaters who don't care what's on the screen; they just need a series of audiovisual stimuli to keep them company while they gorge themselves on garbage. Theoretically, one could argue that businesses like The Cinema Grill not only attract a classier cross-section of hungry fans but also enable nervous eaters.

The Grand Cinema in Tacoma, Washington has it just right. Their concessions stand serves popcorn with real butter, a handful of brand-name candies, a few fountain drinks, and nothing more. Their lobby radiates an unpretentious warmth and arthouse charm that reminds me of the dignified little theater in The Last Picture Show. It's a noble institution that refuses to be corrupted by the greed-driven, faceless machine of corporate America.

The advent of one-stop shopping clearly has a hand in movie theaters morphing into restaurants. While packaging products and services does have benefits for those on both sides of the cash register, the practice has its fair share of drawbacks. In the personal development audiobook Lead the Field, Earl Nightingale tells the story of an unnamed gas station owner in Arizona who grows his business from a humble truck stop to a multimillion-dollar enterprise. One day, the man saw a customer standing in front of a gas pump waiting for his tank to fill. Seeing the man with money in his pocket and nothing to spend it on gave the resourceful owner an idea. Inside his shop, he installed a refrigerated case of snack foods and beverages that customers could enjoy while pumping their gas. He then added a full service garage that changed oil, rotated tires, and gave tune-ups. Before too long, he started buying the contiguous properties around his original gas station to accommodate his expanding venture. He started selling lottery tickets. He started cashing checks on Friday. Eventually, he began to sell fishing rods, tackle boxes, tools, home improvement supplies, camping equipment, boats, rifles, ammunition, hunting licenses, and opened a photo processing lab.

While the story is an inspiration to any burgeoning entrepreneur, it raises an important question: did anyone remember the original gas station once the bonanza took off? One wonders how many customers walked into the new digs, took a look around, and with a confused expression, asked, "What kind of place is this, anyway?" If theater owners take their cue from the man in Lead the Field, cineplexes will eventually convert to faceless, generic service centers that cram a supermarket, health club, day spa, megachurch, and movie theater all under one roof. If we are to keep the Wal-Mart effect out of movie theaters, we need to remember why they exist in the first place: to specialize in the presentation of feature-length motion pictures. A theater manager's duty should entail keeping the facility clean, well-lit, and comfortable. The utmost care should be taken to ensure that the picture and sound quality of each film are excellent. As well, every customer should be treated courteously.

Another reason I reject this brand of filmgoing on principle stems from the increased potential for noise. It's bad enough that some couples use movie night as their time to vent about their day while letting their unruly kids run amok (and I'm not the least bit averse to shutting them up), but throw food and alcoholic beverages into the mix and the problem gets ten times worse. Some people act like schmucks when they have too much to drink, and these inconsiderate slobs do not belong in a movie theater. Like any other paying customer, the last thing I want is to hear is some fat, belligerent bricklayer sitting right in front of me scream, "YEAH! TAKE YOUR TOP OFF, HONEY! LET'S SEE THEM TITTIES!" before squeezing off a 90-decibel, nosehair-burning, upholstery-ripping, Blazing Saddles campfire scene, Miles Davis high-note fart.

Serving food in a movie theater could also pose a public health hazard. Suppose the movie playing is a comedy and someone starts to laugh just as they swallow a bite of fried chicken. Someone would have to perform the Heimlich maneuver to keep the poor soul from choking to death. Common courtesy dictates that the movie stops, at least until the crisis is averted. By that time, the evening would already be ruined for many viewers. Even if the poor soul lived to tell about his or her ordeal, he or she could sue the theater/restaurant chain and it would be goodbye to combining dinner and a movie. Don't even try to tell me that's not possible in this litigious culture. To avoid the unthinkable, the establishment could make each viewer sign a release form before entering the theater, much like the ones dance clubs hand you at the door on foam party night. Perhaps a flashing red light installed near the screen could warn the audience of a funny scene a few seconds beforehand, but that would take all the fun out of the movie.

One positive aspect of bringing food into a movie theater is that the actors have no idea that the audience is eating. Broadway would never hear of such a custom, much less tolerate it. In the world of the performing arts, live theatre is sacred ground. Many theater companies along the Great White Way (and across the country) enforce strict no eating or drinking policies not only because the artistic director doesn't want any stains on the seats and carpets, but because it's incredibly rude to the actors. One can only imagine how Katharine Hepburn, James Earl Jones, Kevin Spacey, Hugh Jackman, Brian Dennehy, or George C. Scott would react at the discovery of an uncouth audience member snacking on potato chips in the middle of a performance. True, there are such hybrids as cabaret and dinner theater, but the food served at these venues is often meant to distract you from the abysmal quality of the show. I can count on more than one hand the number of nights I've left a dinner theater performance and overheard someone say, "I've seen Oklahoma done better, but that chicken cordon bleu was delicious!"

Dinner theater is every live performer's worst nightmare. Silverware clinks. Lips pop and smack. Waitstaff dart in and out carrying trays. Glass is bound to shatter, which not only makes a distracting noise but also creates a safety hazard for other patrons and actors who use the dining area to enter, exit, and interact with the audience. What's more, there's almost always a conversation going on at every table. Giving a good performance amid this cacophony requires an actor to have the concentration of an ancient Zen master. I query all thespians: would you want to play a love scene opposite a dashing leading man or a ravishing leading lady in Tony & Tina's Wedding, only to have your precious moment of romance interrupted by the deafening belch of an overfed customer? If you want a cinematic example of how unpleasant it can be performing in a public dining area, watch the following scene from Annie Hall. The only thing missing is the flush of a nearby toilet.

For those wondering if there is any hope to be found amid my doom and gloom forecast, be assured. A restaurant attached to the theater just might be the best alternative to simultaneous eating and movie watching. Ideally, the exit doors would be placed so that outgoing foot traffic spills right into its entryway instead of the parking lot or corridor. Picture the exits of Disneyland rides leading straight into the gift shops for a clear idea of the blueprint. No movie theater in the United States is built quite like it (at least as far as I know; leave a comment if I'm wrong) and I think I have the perfect occasion for putting my idea to the test. In three years, Lawrence of Arabia will celebrate its 50th anniversary. The screening could be held at Planet Hollywood in Las Vegas. Damascus would seem a more appropriate location, but Sin City is friendly soil. If they're still with us, Peter O'Toole and Omar Sharif could arrive at the premiere on camelback.

After the movie, those in attendance would walk directly from the theater into a five-star restaurant serving a full menu of Middle Eastern cuisine. (Bobby Flay and Gordon Ramsay would jump at that gig in a minute.) Should find yourself crying foul at my idea on the grounds of commercial exploitation, remember that Lawrence of Arabia is a classic. This is the kind of treatment the film deserves. An evening like that would no doubt bring the film a new generation of fans. Besides, discussing a great movie fresh after a viewing among engaging people is so much more enjoyable when done at a restaurant instead of a cramped lobby or coffee shop.

This brings me to my last point, which is also my first point. Movies and food should be consumed -- and digested -- separately, not simultaenously. It's too much for the mind and body to take in all at once. It slows both metabolism and brain function. If you really want to appreciate all a movie has to offer, follow this advice. Work up a good appetite at the theater, then reward yourself with dinner afterward. Good food promotes healthy discussion. The solitude a quiet meal for one provides can be sublime, but dining in groups can be one of life's greatest joys, and it's certainly not meant to be a silent affair. Too much quiet in a dining environment can be awkward, and the tension can ruin the enjoyment of the food. I've always said that if people insisting on remaining silent while dining in groups, then how are they any different than prisoners, pigs, or cattle? If a rich pasta sauce glides across your palate with a seductive blend of flavors, then you have every right to vocalize your pleasure, but only in the right environment. On the other hand, if you find yourself moved by a particular moment in a movie, the best response (with few exceptions) is reverent silence.

I leave you now with a clip from The Last Picture Show. This scene features a small town movie theater that strikes my conservative sensibility as the perfect film viewing environment. Elegiac in its mourning of a tradition -- and an America -- lost to the winds of change, this masterwork certainly qualifies as what Robert Altman would call a sandcastle picture.

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

'Slumdog' Snags Eight Oscars

Slumdog Millionaire brought its awards season winning streak to a victorious close by taking home eight Oscars including Best Picture at the 81st Academy Awards. There were no surprise winners of the acting or writing awards, but there were upsets in other categories. For a full list of winners, click here.

Hugh Jackman completed his first stint as Oscar emcee and for his hosting efforts, the man gets nothing short of high marks from me. With weaker talent at the helm, the opening number saluting the five films nominated for Best Picture with makeshift set pieces would have looked silly, amateurish, and downright embarrassing. In Jackman's hands, the show played like a hit Broadway musical. If the anipodean actor's performance is a sample of what's to come -- and he will be back for future Oscar ceremonies; you mark my words -- Mr. Jackman is poised to place himself in the company of Billy Crystal, Bob Hope, and Johnny Carson as a great Academy Awards show host.

The intimate feel of the evening proved a welcome change of scene, as did the return of the podiums. I don't know what imbecile decided to get rid of them 11 years ago, but it just looks and feels awkward to see a winner with no elevated surface on which to set their award in front of them. Anyone who has ever had to speak in public can tell you that the presence of a podium makes a speaking engagement so much easier. Depending on how tall you are, the platform covers as much as half your body and can be useful in concealing notes, deflecting scrutiny, and shielding the speaker from objects thrown by hostile audience members. Everyone who won an Oscar between 1998 and 2008 must have felt so naked standing up there with nothing to lean on. This year's winners were no doubt grateful for the return to form.

Having five previous Oscar winners salute each of the five nominees in every acting category was a wonderful touch. Playing clips of every performance is always thoughtful, but this gesture personalized each nomination. It would have been sublime had Clint Eastwood, Martin Scorsese, Francis Ford Coppola, Robert Redford, and Steven Spielberg presented Danny Boyle with the Best Director Oscar.

The most moving moment of the evening came when Heath Ledger was announced as best supporting actor for The Dark Knight. Ledger's was the first posthumous Oscar awarded for acting since Peter Finch won Best Actor for Network. When his father, mother, and sister took to the stage to accept the man's award, I was impressed by their restraint and resilience. All three family members spoke movingly of Ledger's talent, compassion, and dedication to his art while remarkably maintaining their composure. Had Ledger come from an Italian family, his relatives would have jumped and down in their seats, hugged and kissed each other down the aisle, and flooded the stage with tears of pride. Picture a guy like Paul Sorvino taking the stage upon hearing his departed son's name announced as the best supporting actor of the year: (gesturing to the screen upstage) "Look at my beautiful boy. There's my son. (blows a kiss to the screen) All my boy ever wanted to be was an actor." The Ledger family speech was quietly eloquent, and helped to certify the highest acknowledgement a late actor's work can receive.

Dustin Lance Black gave the finest acceptance speech of the evening, in my opinion. Upon winning the original screenplay award for Milk, the openly gay screenwriter fought back tears when speaking of his hope to one day get married. His timely words echoed the struggle for gay citizens to achieve equal rights across the nation, an effort marred by the passing of Proposition 8 in California last November.

Ben Stiller's hilarious parody of Joaquin Phoenix was responsible for the funniest award presentation of the show. His timing, facial expressions, and wandering off to watch footage of the cinematography nominees on the big screen behind him gave proof that his comic skills continually improve over time. It was a far cry from his embarrassing green suit presentation of the Visual Effects Oscar at the 79th Awards.

The biggest surprise of the evening for me was Departures upsetting Waltz with Bashir for the Best Foreign Language Film award. The acclaimed Japanese film about an unemployed cellist who answers an ad for what he believes is a travel agency, but is actually for a funeral home edged out Israel's animated favorite about the 1982 invasion of Lebanon. This was the biggest upset in the foreign language film category since The Lives of Others beat Pan's Labyrinth two years ago. Now that Departures has claimed the first Oscar for Japan since this category was created (three other Japanese films -- Rashomon, Gate of Hell, and Samurai, The Legend of Musashi -- received special honorary awards before the introduction of the best foreign language film category in 1956), director Yojiro Takita may very well be on his way to building a career as great as Kurosawa's.

For the first time in as long as I have been following the Oscars, I had the benefit of seeing three of the five films nominated for Best Animated Short before the show. My first instinct was to go with La Maison en Petit Cubes, but switched my vote after watching Lavatory - Lovestory on Youtube. (So much for that strategy!) This charming little film is an absolute delight and should have won the Oscar. Make time to see it here. Invariably, my predictions for the categories of Best Animated Short, Best Documentary Short, and Best Live Action Short account for my wildest guesses on the ballot. From now on, I'll have to make a point of seeing as many of the nominated films as I can on YouTube. Eventually, the maniac in me will find the time to watch every animated short, documentary short, and live action short that's ever been nominated for an Oscar.

As for my scorecard, I went 14 for 25. My all-time highest score is 20 out of 24 from 2004, the year Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King won Best Picture. My calls were tougher to make this year due to the fact that I (don't come unglued on me) didn't see any of the five films nominated for Best Picture. This was the first time I had gone in that cold for as long as I've been watching the Oscars. Honestly speaking, I'll be the first one to admit that this is inexcusable behavior for a movie blogger to exhibit. If this bothers you, be assured that the moment my schedule and budget allow capacity for regular moviegoing (whenever that may be), this blog will deliver all the benefits of a syndicated movie column. In the meantime, what you see is what you get.

The show was a vast improvement over last year's dull telecast, and the ratings prove it. Of course, if The Dark Knight had been nominated for Best Picture as it should have been, the Nielsen figures would have tied -- if not beaten -- the record for the most watched Oscar telecast in 1998, the year Titanic won Best Picture. Though some of the acceptance speeches were downright boring, the pace never dragged when the performers were in command. If I had to raise one quibble with the show, it would be the fact that the clips from upcoming 2009 movies that played over the end credits did not include scenes from The Road and Ashecliffe.

What were your favorite moments from the show? Would you like to see Hugh Jackman return as host? What changes would you make to the telecast, if any? As always, leave your comments below and speak your mind in kind.

Sunday, February 22, 2009

Picking the Winners

With the start of the 81st Academy Awards just hours away, excitement for Hollywood's biggest night of the year is reaching a fever pitch. Stars will start to make red carpet arrivals any minute now and major news outlets will soon begin their coverage of the grand event. With many changes to the telecast that include the list of presenters being kept top secret for the first time and Hugh Jackman serving his first stint as master of ceremonies, the evening is shaping up to be a show of shows.

Just as I did last year, I will now unveil my predictions for each winner by category.


The Curious Case of Benjamin Button
The Reader
Slumdog Millionaire


David Fincher, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button
Ron Howard, Frost/Nixon
Gus Van Sant, Milk
Stephen Daldry, The Reader
Danny Boyle, Slumdog Millionaire


Richard Jenkins, The Visitor
Frank Langella, Frost/Nixon
Sean Penn, Milk
Brad Pitt, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button
Mickey Rourke, The Wrestler


Anne Hathaway, Rachel Getting Married
Angelina Jolie, Changeling
Melissa Leo, Frozen River
Meryl Streep, Doubt
Kate Winslet, The Reader


Josh Brolin, Milk
Robert Downey, Jr., Tropic Thunder
Philip Seymour Hoffman, Doubt
Heath Ledger, The Dark Knight
Michael Shannon, Revolutionary Road


Amy Adams, Doubt
Penelope Cruz, Vicky Cristina Barcelona
Viola Davis, Doubt
Taraji P. Henson, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button
Marisa Tomei, The Wrestler


Courtney Hunt, Frozen River
Mike Leigh, Happy-Go-Lucky
Martin McDonaugh, In Bruges
Dustin Lance Black, Milk
Andrew Stanton, Jim Reardon, and Pete Docter, Wall-E


Eric Roth, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button
John Patrick Shanley, Doubt
Peter Morgan, Frost/Nixon
David Hare, The Reader
Simon Beaufoy, Slumdog Millionaire


Kung Fu Panda


James J. Murakami and Gary Fettis, Changeling
Donald Graham Burt and Victor J. Zolfo, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button
Nathan Crowley and Peter Lando, The Dark Knight
Michael Carlin and Rebecca Alleway, The Duchess
Kristi Zea and Debra Schutt, Revolutionary Road


Tom Stern, Changeling
Claudio Miranda, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button
Wally Pfister, The Dark Knight
Chris Menges and Roger Deakins, The Reader
Anthony Dod Mantle, Slumdog Millionaire


Catherine Martin, Australia
Jacqueline West, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button
Michael O'Connor, The Duchess
Danny Glicker, Milk
Albert Wolsky, Revolutionary Road


The Betrayal (Nerakhoon)
Encounters at the End of the World
The Garden
Man on Wire
Trouble the Water


The Conscience of Nhem En
The Final Inch
Smile Pinki
The Witness - From the Balcony of Room 306


Kirk Baxter and Angus Wall, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button
Lee Smith, The Dark Knight
Mike Hill and Dan Hanley, Frost/Nixon
Elliott Graham, Milk
Chris Dickens, Slumdog Millionaire


The Baader Meinhof Complex (Germany)
The Class (France)
Departures (Japan)
Revanche (Austria)
Waltz with Bashir (Israel)


Greg Cannom, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button
John Caglione, Jr. and Conor O'Sullivan, The Dark Knight
Mike Elizalde and Thom Floutz, Hellboy II: The Golden Army


Alexandre Desplat, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button
James Newton Howard, Defiance
Danny Elfman, Milk
A.R. Rahman, Slumdog Millionaire
Thomas Newman, Wall-E


"Down to Earth" from Wall-E (music by Peter Gabriel and Thomas Newman; lyrics by Peter Gabriel)
"Jai Ho" from Slumdog Millionaire (music by A.R. Rahman; lyrics by Gulzar)
"O Saya" from Slumdog Millionaire (music by A.R. Rahman; lyrics by A.R. Rahman and Maya Arulpragasam)


La Maison et Petits Cubes
Lavatory - Lovestory
This Way Up


Auf Der Strecke (On the Line)
Manon on the Asphalt
New Boy
The Pig
Spielzeugland (Toyland)


Richard King, The Dark Knight
Frank Eulner and Christopher Boyes, Iron Man
Glenn Freemantle and Tom Sayers, Slumdog Millionaire
Ben Burtt and Matthew Wood, Wall-E
Wylie Stateman, Wanted


David Parker, Michael Semanick, Ren Klyce, and Mark Weingarten, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button
Lora Hirschberg, Gary Rizzo, and Ed Novick, The Dark Knight
Ian Tapp, Richard Pryke, and Resul Pookutty, Slumdog Millionaire
Tom Myers, Michael Semanick, and Ben Burtt, Wall-E
Chris Jenkins, Frank A. Montaño, and Petr Forejt, Wanted


Eric Barba, Steve Preeg, Burt Dalton, and Craig Barron, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button
Nick Davis, Chris Corbould, Tim Webber, and Paul Franklin, The Dark Knight
John Nelson, Ben Snow, Dan Sudick, and Shane Mahan, Iron Man

That's all you'll be reading from me today. I'll be back tomorrow with a post-show recap. In the meantime, I'll be enjoying a special Oscar dinner prepared by my wife. Each course will pay tribute to the five films nominated for Best Picture: sautéed button mushrooms for The Curious Case of Benjamin Button (we'll eat them first and cook them later), East Indian garbanzo beans for Slumdog Millionaire, German potatoes and sauerkraut for The Reader, and frosted cookies for Frost/Nixon, with plenty of Milk to wash it all down.

Sunday, February 8, 2009

'Slumdog' and 'Milk' Win WGA Awards

The fictitious account of an East Indian game show contestant and the true story of a slain gay politician have nabbed top screenplay honors at this year's Writers Guild of America Awards. Simon Beaufoy was honored for his adaptation of best picture favorite Slumdog Millionaire, while Dustin Lance Black won original screenplay honors for Milk. According to Tom O'Neil, Slumdog Millionaire and Milk have the writing Oscars in the bag and I think he's absolutely right. For a complete list of winners at last night's event, click here.

Riot on the Set

The surfacing of an audio tape featuring Christian Bale's blow-up on the set of Terminator Salvation was the top movie news story last week. Though Bale has since apologized for his actions and several public figures have come to his defense, the story isn't going away anytime soon. Bloggers are criticizing Bale left and right, YouTube is currently bursting with hundreds of amusing remixes poking fun at the actor's tirade, and the incident will certainly return to headlines when Salvation hits theaters this May.

Though the scuffle could have turned out a lot worse (he never physically assaulted anyone), I'm resisting the urge to jump on the mockery bandwagon. Instead, I'm using his outburst as a reminder of colossal Hollywood temper tantrums of bygone years. Here now, for your viewing pleasure, is a list of my top ten movie set meltdowns of all time.

10. They Were Expendable - I start off this list by taking a trip back to the year 1945. America declared victory in World War II, the endearing melodies of big band jazz dominated the radio, and John Ford directed this solid adaptation of William L. White's novel. During a particularly tense day of shooting, Ford heaped a torrent of abuse at star John Wayne. Though Wayne was noticeably agitated, he dared not counterattack for fear of suffering a merciless humiliation in front of the whole set. When Ford noticed Wayne saluting incorrectly, Ford gave him the cruelest admonishment: "For Christ's sake, Duke. If you're gonna salute a man, do it right. Maybe if you'd had the guts to sign up and fight, you'd know that. Now that I think of it, I should've gotten a real veteran to play your part. At least he'd know what he was doing. What do you have to say for yourself now, you goddamn coward?" At that point, Wayne burst into tears and walked off to regain his composure. Seconds later, co-star Robert Montgomery made a beeline for Ford, placed his hands on the armrests of the director's chair, looked the old tyrant in the eye, and said, "Don't you ever talk to Duke like that. You ought to be ashamed." Ford ordered a break, everyone took a breather, and the day's work was finished without any further outbursts. Neither cameras nor microphones captured the incident live, so eyewitness accounts will have to suffice. For a nearly comprehensive portrait of John Ford, which includes his many run-ins with cast, crew members, and studio bosses, I highly recommend Scott Eyman's superb book Print the Legend: The Life and Times of John Ford.

9. Rumor Has It... - Kevin Costner's egotistical antics arguably ruined this not-quite sequel to The Graduate. While the film was shot during the summer of 2004, Costner repeatedly criticized freshman director Ted Griffin for his handling of scene set-ups in front of producer Paula Weinstein. The scuffle came reportedly came to a head when Griffin quietly but firmly told Costner to return to his trailer. Costner shot back, "I will not. Not until you change that lighting set-up like I told you." Overhearing the conflict, co-star Shirley MacLaine told Mena Suvari, "There was once a time actors respected their directors." This prompted an annoyed Costner to shoot back, "You keep out of this!" Best Director Oscar winners like Ron Howard, Robert Redford, and certainly Sir Richard Attenborough would have been more patient and understanding with Griffin. Apparently, Costner thought that he could use his Dances with Wolves Oscar (not to mention his movie star clout) as an excuse to run roughshod over the poor man. Unfortunately, his strategy proved successful, as Griffin was replaced by Rob Reiner and hasn't directed anything since.

8. The Shining - The late Stanley Kubrick is regarded as a demanding perfectionist by those who worked with him. Driven by a mad scientist's desire to craft the perfect film, he pushed his cast and crew to exhaustion and beyond, shooting dozens of takes per scene. Shortly after completing production on Spartacus, Kirk Douglas was asked by a reporter to give a summation of the acclaimed director. Douglas replied, "Stanley is a talented shit." Here, Kubrick loses his patience with Shelley Duvall while filming a tense action sequence in his adaptation of Stephen King's best-selling novel. This is one of the few scuffles included on my list that features the added bonus of video footage. If the fight seems tame, that's because it is -- compared to the next seven.

7. Easy Rider - Principal photography of this counterculture indy classic was anything but a feel-good road trip. While shooting a parade sequence in New Orleans during the spring of 1968, director/star Dennis Hopper regularly blew up at his crew for the crime of making suggestions on how to film certain scenes. Driven by drug-fueled paranoia, Hopper often let loose with extended fits of screaming which included many reminders that "I'M THE FUCKING DIRECTOR!". The original, ad hoc crew who worked on the test shoot captured several of Hopper's hotheaded histrionics on tape. When a proper crew was assembled, Jack Nicholson was brought on board not only to replace Rip Torn in the role of the alcoholic ACLU lawyer, but also to serve as a mediator between Hopper and anyone who triggered his temper. Peter Biskind enjoyably documents Hopper's heated exchanges with his collaborators in his indispensible 1998 read, Easy Riders, Raging Bulls. Here is a clip from Shaking the Cage, the documentary that chronicles the making of the picture, where Peter Fonda recalls a scuffle between Hopper and camera operator Barry Feinstein. (The story begins at 7:42.)

6. Major Dundee - When a production team sets out to make a war movie, the challenge to be met is great. When the studio financing the film allows limited time and money, the pressure to succeed is stifling. When the director hired to keep the production on track happens to be none other than that irascible maverick Sam Peckinpah, tempers are bound to fly. That's precisely what happened on the set of this 1965 Civil War epic when Peckinpah infuriated leading man Charlton Heston. Nearing the end of a difficult day of shooting, a drunken Peckinpah ordered Heston to lead a regiment of Cavalry troops down a hill at a trot. With a precious few minutes of daylight remaining, Heston rallied his fellow actors and followed his direction to a tee. When he reached the bottom of the hill, Peckinpah yelled, "CUT! Goddammit, Chuck! That looked like shit! You came too slow!"
"You told me bring them down at a trot," Heston replied.
"The fuck I did, you goddamned liar," Peckinpah shot back.
Pushed to the brink, Heston snapped, wheeled his horse around, drew his Cavalry saber, and charged at full speed toward Peckinpah. Were it not for the fast-acting camera crane operator who lifted the belligerent filmmaker out of harm's way at the last second, the filmmaker's career could have been brought to an untimely end and would have been given his now-familiar nickname "Bloody Sam" for a different reason. David Weddle briefly recalls this episode in his definitive Sam Peckinpah biography, If They Move...Kill 'Em!

5. The Exorcist - I must confess to an act of cheating when citing this famous adaptation of William Peter Blatty's novel, for its making isn't responsible for one on-set ruckus, but several. In order to create the tense, possessed mood the story required, director William Friedkin did all he could to tyrannize his actors. While filming a scene where Linda Blair slaps Ellen Burstyn so hard that she falls onto her back, Friedkin quietly signalled special effects supervisor Marcel Vercoutere to grab hold of a wire connected to a harness fitted around Burstyn's midriff and yank it as hard as he could. With a thrashing tug, Burstyn flew off her feet, fell onto her coccyx, and screamed in agony. Seeing her face morph grotesquely, Friedkin ordered cinematographer Owen Roizman to zoom in for a close-up. A furious Burstyn then screamed, "Turn off the fucking camera!" (Everything that occurred in the scene up to that point appears in the film.) After admonishing Friedkin for continuing to film the scene instead of calling an ambulance, Burstyn stormed off to her chiropractor to begin treatment for a spinal injury that continues to bother her to this day. There were other instances where Friedkin slapped Father William O'Malley across the face without warning in order to achieve sadness for Jason Miller's death scene, (sorry to spoil the movie if you haven't seen it) discharged various firearms without warning to scare his actors, and expressed his disapproval of composer Lalo Schifrin's score by hurling the reel-to-reel tape recorder into the studio parking lot in a drunken fit of rage before exclaiming, "Get that fuckin' Mexican marimba music outta my movie!" (Schifrin was later replaced by Jack Nitzsche.) Most of these war stories are recalled in Fear of God: The Making of The Exorcist, the documentary made for the 25th anniversary of the film's release. Watch it here.

4. I Heart Huckabees - To say that Lily Tomlin went eye-to-eye with director David O. Russell while shooting this existential detective story would be a gross understatement. When the clip you're about to play made headlines in early 2007, I immediately asked myself whether she always flies off the handle on a movie set or if she saved her wrath especially for Russell. If the former is the case, I would pay top dollar for recovered video footage of Tomlin giving Robert Altman a piece of her mind on the set of Nashville. But I digress. (The footage in question begins 38 seconds into the video.)

3. Terminator Salvation - Claiming the newest entry on the list, here is the inspiration for this crack-up compilation. Christian Bale assails director of photography Shane Hurlbut for committing the unforgivable transgression of walking through his shot. No further setup is necessary. Listen to the full, four-minute rant here:

2. Fitzcarraldo - No list of this kind would be complete without at least one foreign film. Besides, Americans aren't the only ones capable of going completely berserk on a movie set. To prove it, here is the late Klaus Kinski blowing up at fellow cast and crew members during the tension-packed filming of this gripping masterpiece that arguably qualifies as the German equivalent of Apocalypse Now. When characterizing his working relationship with Kinski, director Werner Herzog is quoted as saying, "I had to domesticate the wild beast." If there is any exchange between the two that affirms those words, the following one is it. This clip is taken from Herzog's documentary My Best Fiend.

And finally, the award most unhinged movie set altercation of all time goes to...

1. Maidstone - Norman Mailer directed and starred in this forgettable drama about a famous movie director who makes a quixotic run for president. When the film's production neared completion, co-star Rip Torn expressed his unhappiness with Mailer's interpretation of the story by assaulting him with a hammer. In a move that predated Mike Tyson's disqualification match against Evander Holyfield by 27 years, Mailer retaliated by biting Torn's ear. The most outrageous part of the brawl lies not in the fact that it caused both men to lose a considerable amount of blood, nor in the fact Mailer's terrified wife and children ran in to break up the fight, but in the fact that the entire incident was caught on film by Mailer's crew...and later edited into the final cut of the film. Should you find yourself too cheap and lazy to snag a copy of the film from eBay or Netflix, take comfort, for here is my pick for the most infamous movie set meltdown of all time in its ten-minute entirety:

There are other dust-ups that have gone unmentioned. Among these dishonorable mentions that didn't quite make the list are Alfred Hitchcock calling Kim Novak "a goddamn fucking cow" for not putting forth her best effort on the set of Vertigo, Roman Polanski plucking one of Faye Dunaway's hairs while shooting Chinatown (Dunaway reportedly retaliated by urinating in Polanski's coffee cup) and Billy Wilder lambasting Marilyn Monroe for forgetting her lines on the set of Some Like It Hot.

Which Hollywood altercations are among your favorites? Have you ever worked as a PA on a movie set and borne witness to an ego-driven blow-up that didn't make headlines? Whatever the case, please leave a comment and tell me all about it.

Sunday, February 1, 2009

Boyle Brings Home DGA Award

Slumdog Millionaire helmer Danny Boyle was honored as the best feature film director of 2008 at the 61st Directors Guild of America Awards last night in Los Angeles. This win places Boyle in the front-runner position for the Best Director Oscar, to be awarded three weeks from tonight. To date, the DGA has a 90% accuracy in forecasting the Academy Award winner for Best Director, as the guild has failed to predict the subsequent Oscar winner only six times.

Last night's DGA ceremony also honored the year's best directorial efforts in television, as well as a special honorary lifetime membership for Roger Ebert. Click here for a text of the moving acceptance speech written by Ebert and read by his wife, Chaz. For a complete list of winners, click here.

Saturday, January 31, 2009

'Slumdog' Scoops Up Top SAG Award

The accolades for Slumdog Millionaire show no signs of stopping as the film took home the trophy for Best Motion Picture Ensemble at the 15th Annual Screen Actors Guild Awards last Sunday. The L.A. Times has a decent recap here. View the complete list of winners here.

This year's little-film-that-could is expected to win the feature film honor at the 61st Annual Directors Guild of America Awards, to be held tonight at the Hyatt Regency Century Plaza Hotel in Los Angeles.

Sunday, January 25, 2009

'Slumdog' Slams Competition at PGA Awards

Adding another win to its seemingly unstoppable streak, the uplifting drama Slumdog Millionaire picked up the best picture award at the 20th Annual Producers Guild of America Awards last night. Among other films in competition for the gong were Frost/Nixon, Milk, The Dark Knight, and The Curious Case of Benjamin Button. See the complete list of winners here.

Chances of Slumdog snagging Best Picture at next month's Academy Awards ceremony have now increased, as 12 of the past 19 winners of the Producers Guild's top prize have gone on to claim the Best Picture Oscar. (For the trivia junkies, those films are: No Country for Old Men, Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King, Chicago, Gladiator, American Beauty, Titanic, The English Patient, Forrest Gump, Schindler's List, The Silence of the Lambs, Dances with Wolves, and Driving Miss Daisy.)

Next up on the awards show schedule is the 15th Annual Screen Actors Guild Awards, which airs tonight at 8pm PST on TNT.

Thursday, January 22, 2009

Snubs and Other Surprises

This year's Oscar nominations have revealed a few surprises, to say the least. As announced by current Academy president Sid Ganis and past Oscar winner Forest Whitaker (Best Actor for The Last King of Scotland in 2006) this morning in Los Angeles, the selection of this year's contenders for the highest of all film awards leaves no shortage of dropped jaws and raised eyebrows among film pundits. Roger Ebert has an insightful write-up here. View the complete list of nominees here.

For me, the single biggest shock of the morning is the absence of The Dark Knight from the Best Picture category. This is the most noticeable Best Picture omission I've seen since Dreamgirls was shut out of the top five two years ago. Many had Knight pegged as a shoo-in for the top nod, myself included. Why has the Academy turned up its nose at the best superhero movie to date? It has just as much depth, intelligence, and emotional power as the five films nominated this year. To say that it struck a chord with its audience would be a gross understatement. (Need I mention its staggering performance at the box office?)

If the summer blockbuster factor is their objection, then why did the Academy nominate Raiders of the Lost Ark for Best Picture 27 years ago? Same goes for Jaws, Star Wars, E.T., and Forrest Gump. Do the voting members of the Academy sway closer to the Barnes & Noble crowd than to DC Comics fans? Whatever the reason, the Academy needs to realize that there is such a thing as a masterfully made comic book movie, and The Dark Knight certainly fits that description. If those divinely chosen final arbiters good taste continue their elitist trend of snubbing par excellence popular movies in favor of lukewarm literary adaptations, the Academy will place itself in grave danger of alienating the public -- even more than it already has.

The Best Actor category delivered not one, but two snubs. Leonardo DiCaprio, who gave an acclaimed performance as Kate Winslet's frustrated husband in Revolutionary Road, was overlooked. (Look for him in the running next year for Ashecliffe.) Also ignored was Clint Eastwood's gripping turn as a bigoted Korean War veteran in Gran Torino. Richard Jenkins turned up as a surprise top-of-the-list nominee for his well-received role as a lonely professor whose life is changed when he befriends a pair of illegal immigrants in The Visitor. Jenkins faces strong competition from Frank Langella as the latter half of Frost/Nixon, Sean Penn as a courageous gay city supervisor in Milk, Brad Pitt as a man who grows younger as time passes in The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, and Mickey Rourke as a middle-aged pro wrestler making a comeback in The Wrestler.

Critical darling Sally Hawkins was MIA on the Best Actress list after winning the Golden Globe for her delightful performance as a vivaciously optimistic schoolteacher in Happy-Go-Lucky. Also missing therein was Kristin Scott Thomas, lauded for her work in I've Loved You So Long. Those who made the cut are Anne Hathaway, clinching her first nod for portraying a recovering drug user preparing to witness Rachel Getting Married; Angelina Jolie, as a distraught single mother who determines to recover her missing son in Changeling; Melissa Leo, as a woman who turns to human smuggling in order to make ends meet in Frozen River; screen veteran Meryl Streep, earning a record-stretching fifteenth acting nomination as a take-no-prisoners mother superior of a Catholic school in Doubt; and Kate Winslet, earning her sixth nomination as a German tram conductor hiding a frightening secret in The Reader. Winslet won the Supporting Actress Golden Globe for this performance and finds herself in the Best Actress category here. Her performance as a disillusioned housewife in 1950s Connecticut in Revolutionary Road was overlooked.

Nowhere to be found among the Best Supporting Actor nominees are Dev Patel, who portrayed the older Jamal in Slumdog Millionaire, and Jason Butler Harner, who received many glowing notices for playing a monstrous child murderer in Changeling. Josh Brolin, nominated for playing disgruntled city employee Dan White in Milk, was the first name announced in this category. He'll be competing with Robert Downey, Jr., who earned his first nomination in 16 years in a hilarious turn as "the dude playin' the dude disguised as another dude" in Tropic Thunder; Philip Seymour Hoffman earned his third nomination in four years as a priest accused of abuse in Doubt; the late Heath Ledger, as criminal mastermind The Joker in The Dark Knight, was nominated exactly one year after being found dead in his Manhattan apartment of an accidental drug overdose; and Michael Shannon, as an institutionalized man who bears witness to a crumbling marriage in Revolutionary Road.

There were no snubs to speak of in the Best Supporting Actress camp. Taraji P. Henson's performance as a kindhearted nursemaid to Benjamin Button came as a surprise, but the remainder of the selections panned out as expected. From the Doubt cast, Amy Adams and Viola Davis were nominated for portraying a naive teacher and a suspicious parish parent, respectively. Penelope Cruz earned her second nomination as a fiery Spanish ex-wife in Vicky Cristina Barcelona. To round out the category, Marisa Tomei was included for her role as an aging stripper in The Wrestler.

The Curious Case of Benjamin Button claimed the most nominations with 13, just one nod behind the all-time record held by All About Eve and Titanic. Slumdog Millionaire came in second with ten nominations, followed by The Dark Knight and Milk with eight apiece. Frost/Nixon and The Reader bring up the rear with five nominations each. Though Button leads the pack with the most nominations, Golden Globe winner Slumdog Millionaire is already the odds-on favorite to win Best Picture.

As for other categories, it's too soon to tell who will win. Danny Boyle appears to be the likely winner for Best Director, given his Golden Globe victory last week. He's in like flint if he snags the DGA Award come the 31st. Each of the five directors is nominated for a film in the running for Best Picture. This is the first time this perfect lineup has occurred since 2005. The last time it happened before that was in 1981. (Coincidentally, both years saw a disparity in the awards of Best Director and Best Picture. Warren Beatty won the Best Director Oscar for Reds in 1981, while Chariots of Fire crossed the Best Picture finish line. In 2005, Ang Lee won Best Director for Brokeback Mountain, while Crash claimed an upset Best Picture victory.) Every year since has seen at least one director without a picture among the top five (the kiss of death in that category) and one Best Picture nominee whose director isn't nominated. Last year, for example, Atonement was nominated for Best Picture while its director, Joe Wright, was shut out. Conversely, Julian Schnabel was nominated for directing The Diving Bell and the Butterfly, while the film failed to make a purchase in Best Picture territory.

Traditionally, the Best Actor race comes down to two horses and this year, those horses are Sean Penn and Mickey Rourke. Penn has an advantage over Rourke in that he has four prior nominations (one of which, for 2003's Mystic River, resulted in a win) under his belt, in that Milk is nominated for Best Picture, and in that the passing of Proposition 8 in California gives his performance a timely relevance. Rourke, however, has no prior nominations to his credit and The Wrestler did not make the top five. On the other hand, Rourke recently beat Penn to the Golden Globe for Best Actor and Las Vegas oddsmakers current project Rourke as the winner. Personally, I would love to see Sean Penn collect statuette number two. Rourke's performance is heartbreaking, but to award him an Oscar would put an end to his triumphant comeback just as quickly as it began, thereby reducing his career rejuvenation to a mere flash in the pan. (To interject a non sequitur, nine of the 20 performers nominated this morning -- exactly 45% of the total -- are first-time nominees. Of the 20 actors, three -- Frank Langella, Sean Penn, and Josh Brolin -- are nominated for playing real people.)

The Best Actress category is another tough nut to crack. Kate Winslet seems like the most sensible choice, as this is her sixth nomination and she has yet to win her first Academy Award. Her toughest competition comes from Meryl Streep, who has an almost certain third Oscar in her future.

Best Supporting Actor is by far the easiest race to call, as Heath Ledger is a hands-down lock for the Oscar. Not only does he have unanimous critical praise to his credit, but no other contender in his category can hold a candle to Ledger's insane portrayal of a comic book character that leaves Jack Nicholson's campy mugfest in the dust. Trivia junkies will be quick to point out that Ledger's will be the first acting Oscar awarded posthumously since Peter Finch won Best Actor for Network in 1976.

Best Supporting Actress, at this stage, appears to be a toss-up between Penelope Cruz and Viola Davis. Cruz won the New York Film Critics Circle, Los Angeles Film Critics Circle, and National Board of Review Awards in this category. Plus, she has one previous nomination under her belt. (as Best Actress for 2006's Volver, lest you wonder) Davis, on the other hand, won the runner-up slot in this category from the LAFCC and the Best Breakthrough Performance by an Actress Award from the NBR. What's more, this is only her first nomination and her total screen time is limited to one scene. However, word of mouth suggests that Davis is absolutely riveting and gets maximum mileage out of her role. Besides, limited screen time has not stopped actors from winning Oscars in the past. (e.g., Dame Judi Dench for Shakespeare in Love, Beatrice Straight for Network, Anthony Quinn for Lust for Life) To add, it would be a (pardon the pun) mortal sin to let all four nominated performances from Doubt go unrewarded. If the Academy honors one role from the film, Davis' will be it.

Do you have any sins of omission to share? Who will you be rooting for this year? Care to give me a hard time for my shoddy prognostications? All comments, within reason, are fair game today, especially if you'd like to join me in thanking the Academy for keeping Che off its radar.

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Oscar Prognostications 2009

In seven hours, the 81st Academy Award nominations will be announced at the Samuel Goldwyn Theater in Los Angeles. Movie blogs are buzzing with anticipation as to who will make the shortlist in each of the ten categories announced tomorrow morning, and this one is no exception. Here are my predictions for which films, actors, directors, and writers will snag nominations.


The Curious Case of Benjamin Button
The Dark Knight
Slumdog Millionaire


Danny Boyle, Slumdog Millionaire
David Fincher, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button
Ron Howard, Frost/Nixon
Christopher Nolan, The Dark Knight
Gus Van Sant, Milk


Leonardo DiCaprio, Revolutionary Road
Clint Eastwood, Gran Torino
Frank Langella, Frost/Nixon
Sean Penn, Milk
Mickey Rourke, The Wrestler


Anne Hathaway, Rachel Getting Married
Sally Hawkins, Happy-Go-Lucky
Angelina Jolie, Changeling
Meryl Streep, Doubt
Kate Winslet, Revolutionary Road


Josh Brolin, Milk
Robert Downey, Jr., Tropic Thunder
James Franco, Milk
Philip Seymour Hoffman, Doubt
Heath Ledger, The Dark Knight


Amy Adams, Doubt
Penelope Cruz, Vicky Cristina Barcelona
Viola Davis, Doubt
Marisa Tomei, The Wrestler
Kate Winslet, The Reader


Woody Allen, Vicky Cristina Barcelona
Peter Docter and Andrew Stanton, Wall-E
Ben Stiller, Etan Cohen, and Justin Theroux, Tropic Thunder
Dustin Lance Black, Milk
Robert D. Siegel, The Wrestler


Simon Beaufoy, Slumdog Millionaire
Justin Haythe, Revolutionary Road
Peter Morgan, Frost/Nixon
Christopher Nolan, Jonathan Nolan, and David S. Goyer, The Dark Knight
John Patrick Shanley, Doubt


Kung Fu Panda


Revanche - (Austria)
The Class - (France)
The Baader Meinhof Complex - (Germany)
Waltz with Bashir - (Israel)
Everlasting Moments - (Sweden)

Look sharp for an Oscar nomination announcement post in the morning, complete with a link to the official web site of the Academy Awards. Sleep fast!