Tuesday, February 26, 2008

Quick follow-ups

1) Oscars. Long. Mostly boring. Short acceptance speeches, thankfully. The few little surprises along the way didn't add up to any huge surprise a la Crash, but the biggest of the little was definitely Tilda Swinton. I assume that it was a tight race and she slipped through between Ruby Dee and Cate Blanchett.

Interminable clip shows, but what I minded most were the dreadfully bland musical numbers. That was some fairly lackluster choreography and costuming.

2) Raisin in the Sun was very good (I didn't quite catch all of it), though I wish that the camerawork had been a tad more creative. I know, confined space, TV movie budget. Wonderful cast. I'd like to see Sean Combs do more in the future with his vocal inflection, but his timing and emotion are definitely in place. I look forward to seeing what he does next. And yes, to the hilariously enraged John Stamos fan who posted below and all others out there, he was very good indeed. There are many ways to play that little role, but I liked the idea of making him oily and quietly offensive rather than a pompous old man.

The best for me was Audra MacDonald, whose intensity and suppressed rage and hurt just can't be beat, even when it's channeled through the soapy Private Practice.

Monday, February 25, 2008

TV alert: Uncle Jesse?!

Post-Oscar comments another time, I hope, but tonight is the TV movie Raisin in the Sun, one of the most depressing plays ever written, about an aspiring African American family limited by poverty and discrimination. It stars Diddy, who I'm told is quite good, as well as the stalwart Phylicia Rashad, Audra MacDonald, and David Oyelowo. And... John Stamos. I thought I had gone temporarily blind from my new eyeglasses, but no, he's in it, as the president of the local homeowner's association. Good for him, I guess, but I think the cognitive dissonance of seeing Uncle Jesse in a Lorraine Hansberry play is going to make my head explode.

Saturday, February 23, 2008

24-hour watch

A few quick Oscar predictions:

1) Jon Stewart will look less nervous than he did two years ago.

2) Best Actor: This is the closest to a shoe-in, if you ask me or just about anybody. What is it with all the bouquets for Day-Lewis this time? Has he just reached that age where as a British Actor he qualifies for worship? A few years ago, with Bill the Butcher in Gangs of New York, he was viewed as kind of crazy. Maybe it was just the character, but there were also all these rumors about how he was found making shoes in Florence or something (which he actually did take up for a few months, apparently). This character is not less frightening, but the movie's being better received, and so is the man himself after his quite dignified Heath Ledger tribute at the SAG awards. I think it's in the (gift) bag.

3) Best Actress: You know, I just don't know enough about the Academy to call this one. Kind of like two years ago when it surfaced afterwards that power players and academy voters had been making all kinds of homophobic remarks about Brokeback Mountain. So much for liberal, open-minded Hollywood. Anyway, here it's probably veteran Julie Christie, fresh face Ellen Page, or lovely foreigner Marion Cotillard. I'm inclined to say Christie, but I'm really not sure. I really thought Ellen Page's nomination was her award, but I hear that there's buzz for her...

4) Best Picture: Eh... No Country, probably, though I'm going to wait to call it as the night goes on. Again, referring back to the Crash surprise, I thought I could see that one coming because awards were peeling off and going in scattered directions all night (Memoirs of a Geisha picked up three Oscars. Three. That's as many as Brokeback).

5) Ryan Seacrest will be everywhere.

6) Not seeing any love or opportunity for Atonement, unless it's for Best Cinematography for the Big Tracking Shot. I'm sure its stars will be presenting something or other. I sure hope it doesn't win Best Score. It wouldn't kill me if it won Best Costume Design, though I am a little tired of the media going on about Keira Knightley's green dress. It was a beautiful dress, yes, move on.

7) Poor Joe Wright didn't get nominated for Best Director, either. I'll go with the Coen brothers here.

That's enough. Not feeling a ton of energy for these awards, though as always, I look forward to Stewart. And pretty dresses. Let us hope that the Heath Ledger mentions are few, short, and tasteful.

Tuesday, February 19, 2008

Birth of a series

My friend pointed me towards a new Victorian-era mystery series by Deanna Raybourn, featuring two sleuths -- one a newly widowed lady from an eccentric titled family, and the other a gentlemanly but taciturn sleuth with a mysterious past. Sounds unoriginal, but very well written, and with actual character development. Great treadmill reading. Two are out already, and hopefully it will be a long series.

Monday, February 18, 2008

The Cats of Mirikitani

A strategic title, as the director admitted, to bring in the cat lovers -- of which she is one herself, and connecting about cats was the origin of this really great documentary.

I saw it downtown at a commemoration of the signing of Executive Order 9066, which cleared the way for the Japanese American internment. One of those internees was hapless young Jimmy Mirikitani, who was born in Sacramento, was taken back to Hiroshima as a child, and came back to America at the age of 18 to elude military service in Japan. Talk about not catching a break; Jimmy was interned at Tule Lake (the worst of the camps, where the "disloyals" were segregated), separated from his sister who he never found again after the war. He renounced his citizenship, like so many at Tule Lake. Most of his mother's family was killed in the atomic bomb drop.

Jimmy seems to have drifted after internment. He went to work at Seabrook Farms in NJ, like a lot of post-internees, and then drove for a rich man in NYC, cooked for Jackson Pollock in East Hampton for a while... Eventually, he was living on the street in Soho and surviving as an artist. Quite a remarkable one, as you'll see by this little sample. He started drawing cats in the internment camp for a young boy who liked cats. That boy died there and was buried in the desert.

After 9/11, the director Linda took eighty-year-old Jimmy into her apartment, and together they changed his life. I won't spoil it for you. It's really a great little film with many different plot arcs. Jimmy himself is a fantastic character, with trenchant criticism of the government, a sly sense of humor, and an unbelievable, almost completely untrained artistic gift. I'll warn you that it's quite weepy along the way, and I have a couple of critiques of the ending, but run, don't walk to see it. You can buy the DVD from the official website, wait for PBS to show it again, or go see it in Manhattan right now, where it's showing at a theater downtown.

Friday, February 15, 2008


I did see Hairspray when it came out, with a couple of friends, and we all enjoyed it. Colorful, bouncy, upbeat, lots of fantastic dancing. I Netflixed it and found myself mentally cutting bits here and there, shortening numbers, making it a little darker here and there. Like most reviewers, I would certainly have cut down the numbers featuring the adults, because the kids are so sharp and energetic. Christopher Walken and John Travolta do a cute duet together, but there are two fantasy sequences spliced in, one tango-ish and one tux and evening dress. I would have cut the tango and severely shortened the Astaire. I would also have cut the fantasy sequence from Michelle Pfeiffer's first number, which does nothing but show off her legs. Incidentally, Pfeiffer is quite good, but for me probably the weakest of the whole cast -- which is not a harsh thing to say, as they're all so good.

Second time around, I also don't know how I feel about John Travolta playing the mom. The character is traditionally a drag character, but on film, as Travolta astutely noted, you have to play it more straight or it's just ridiculous. In that case, what's really the point of having a man at all? Just to gawk at Travolta playing a woman? It becomes a distracting novelty focused on star power instead of a wink-wink campy Harvey Fierstein.

A very enjoyable musical, with plenty to think about between its theme of racial integration/ tolerance for all body types, and its send-up of the sixties. A special shout-out to James Marsden, who is just so super-committed to his character, the aptly named Corny Collins. In one group number, there's a throwaway shot of him with his arms out like an airplane, grooving to the music, and it's lol funny.

Wednesday, February 13, 2008

To the TV stars

I've been reading like a maniac for my latest dissertation chapter, and I don't usually post about what I read for 'work' on here. But I found myself reading something that required some considerable explanation when a friend found me reading in a spare moment: George Takei's autobiography, To the Stars. There's a picture of him on the cover, looking off into space. I don't know how recognizable he is, but between the uniform he's wearing and the fact that the bottom of the cover says "Star Trek's Mr. Sulu," I think people get the general idea.

Why was I reading it? Well, not for the seemingly obvious reason; I have seen exactly one Star Trek (The Original Series) episode in my life. Takei, being a Japanese American of a certain age, lived through the unconstitutional, racist, and generally shameful internment during WWII. As a matter of fact, because his parents answered 'no-no' to the double questions of serving in the military and swearing a loyalty oath to the very government that was quarantining them, the Takeis were sent to Tule Lake, where all the rebels and 'no-nos' were segregated. I'm working on memoirs of the internment right now.

The book was very useful from this point of view, because the internment is almost Takei's first memory. He was four when they went to the camps, seven when they came out. He also talks about living in a mostly Mexican American area afterwards, and then his early days as an actor, moving from bit part to bit part. I didn't even know that he was in some fairly major films like John Wayne's Green Berets and Ice Palace with Richard Burton. Nor did I know much about his political work in more recent years.

And yes, there's Star Trek. It's not a pretty account. He constantly had to lobby to advance Sulu and his salary, and he clearly detested Shatner and his huge ego. From what he recounts, so did many of his fellow actors, who Takei loved very much. The little snubs and credit-grabs that he remembers are sad--I understand his resentment, of course, but it comes across as a little sad, too. Takei seems particularly respectful of Leonard Nimoy's acting skills, which might be odd to people who have only seen him as Spock. It certainly is to me!

A surprisingly good read in an unexpected place. Oh, and in case you were wondering, no mention of his sexuality at all; there's a little smokescreening when he mentions kissing one of his female castmates in an early play. It's a long journey from there to this.

Sunday, February 10, 2008

BAFTA note

I see that the BAFTAs, Britain's equivalent of the Oscars, gave Best Film to Atonement. No shock there, given Britain's love affair with all things World War I. What I was more interested in seeing was whether they would throw poor James MacAvoy a bone, seeing as both he and Keira Knightley were Oscar-snubbed (she evokes less pity in me somehow, probably because she was nominated for a good but decidedly not great turn in the forgettable Pride & Prejudice). The answer? Daniel Day-Lewis. I don't know how revered he is in Britain (his father was poet laureate), but apparently there was just no getting past his juggernaut of a performance.

Life post-SatC

I don't think I'm exactly going out on a limb to say that the Sex and the City movie will be vastly more popular and successful than either of its two follow-ups on TV, Cashmere Mafia and Lipstick Jungle. I watched the pilots of both and barely made it through for CM. To my surprise, I vastly enjoyed the Lipstick premiere, but then found myself wondering why -- and kind of judging myself for falling prey to its Knight on a White Jet character (Andrew McCarthy, all growed up).

Both have quite stellar casts featuring people I'm quite fond of from other assorted venues. CM boasts Miranda Otto of LOTR fame and Frances O'Connor, who I liked very much in Mansfield Park (she also played the bitchy girlfriend in Bridget Jones). Also Lucy Liu and Bonnie Somerville, who I had to look up to realize that she played one of Ross's girlfriends on Friends. She's one of those actresses who has been kicking around various projects forever.

So is Lindsay Price on Lipstick, that poor beautiful woman who was part of the train wreck o'crassness that was the American Coupling. She's half Asian, by the way -- interesting, isn't it, that both shows went for a token minority and made it an Asian? (Bonnie Somerville has a black girlfriend, but I don't know if that'll be long-term.) Her costars are much more famous, Kim Raver from 24 and Brooke Shields. McCarthy likewise needs no introduction. Really lots of good acting all around on both shows, with very slight scripts.

They're really identical shows in a lot of ways; lots of pretty clothes, high-powered careers all emphasized heavily this time (no Charlottes), dysfunctional relationships with good-looking men, and feeling put upon. All the time! I think that was why I could barely make it through CM. These women just didn't look like they were having any fun to me, unless they were enjoying strutting around in Patricia Fields' designs.

I don't think either show really has a point right now, which is a serious problem. Ally McBeal, much as I hate it for many reasons, introduced a new modern archetype: the neurotic, high-powered career female, who is still nothing without a man. SatC at least improved this by making it strong career females who were romantics at heart (well, though extremely deep down in Miranda's case). It also celebrated sisterhood as the strongest bond. These two new shows offer nothing new yet; CM could do well by going the deliciously evil route, if they're brave enough. Well, we'll see. The SatC pilot was no prize.

Tuesday, February 5, 2008

There Will Be Blood

You've probably been hearing about this movie There Will Be Blood, which is getting a lot of attention for Daniel Day-Lewis's amazing performance. He's said in a number of interviews that the character really started coming together for him when he found the voice and sound that he would use, and that made sense when I saw the movie. It's an odd, round, weirdly cadenced voice that makes his bursts of uncontrollable yelling all the more frightening.

And yell he does. Daniel Plainview, oilman, who climbs up from being a single miner with a bucket and a stick of dynamite, is an inexplicable character. "I have a hunger in me," he says in a rare moment of confession. The film is really all about exploring that hunger, and incidentally about the oil industry. I had read that it was about the conflict between Plainview and young preacher Eli Sunday (Paul Dano, also a great performance). It is, but there are just innumerable other threads, none entirely surprising and yet woven into a whole that keeps you engaged (and in my case, still thinking about bits and pieces). Plainview himself is such a mixture of good and evil that you could interpret the film on a number of levels (not least of which is the intertwining of oil and religion, as my friend pointed out). One of the eeriest moments, for me, is when he grabs the little girl, Mary Sunday (Eli's sister), at the picnic celebrating the opening of the oil well in the Sundays' town, compliments her new dress, and promises her that her father, sitting right across from him, won't beat her anymore. The power dynamic in that moment and Plainview's uncharacteristic protectiveness which might just be posturings are strangely tense.

The oddly abrupt ending, which I won't spoil, is made even odder and more abrupt by the break into classical music, which is used for a lot of the score. The score's very creative, by the way, although apparently not original enough to get nominations. Gorgeous cinematography, too. I think it would lose a lot if you watched it on a small-screen TV.

I don't give it a blanket recommendation -- I think it's more for certain people. But if you were thinking about it, then definitely run to a theater. It's a genuine experience, not just a pleasant way to pass an afternoon.

Old Faithful

From TIME:

"Rudy Giuliani was faithfully smiling at his side in New York and New Jersey, where McCain confidently declared that he was going to "take" both New Jersey and the nomination on the big day."

I've been seeing this coming for a long time, but what an unholy duo that ticket would be. It's not that I think their positions are so incompatible (though on some issues they are), but just something about their general ethos... it's like pairing Cher with Bono instead of Sonny Bono.

Saturday, February 2, 2008

I Heart Jonathan Ross

I'm back, and more importantly, so is my computer, with a new hard drive.

With it back, I've been happily TouTubing with the excuse of testing out the new drive; as you might know, I love late-night television, and somehow I stumbled across Jonathan Ross on YouTube. He's a British talk-show and radio show host, also a film critic, I believe, and he is absolutely hilarious. The set is colorful and kitschy, he has singers who make up jingles to introduce his guests, he is famous for his ridiculous suits and ties, and of course, since it's British TV, no holds barred. How could you not at least shake your head in tribute to a man who asked a Conservative politican if he used to wank off to the thought of Margaret Thatcher?

I'm sure that you can see his show on BBCAmerica if you get it, but if not, it's worth checking it out on YouTube.

His first interview with Daniel Radcliffe was great. Radcliffe is also surprisingly funny, if a little overeager (not surprising for a 16-year-old). The second one is on YouTube as well, also very good.

I love this one with Halle Berry and Hugh Jackman for X3, though you have to just roll your eyes when Berry is going on about how Storm needed to be a better character (i.e., she wanted a bigger part).

If you get into it after that, the one with Renee Zellweger and Jerry Seinfeld is interesting, partly because Seinfeld clearly doesn't quite know what to make of Ross's weird humor at first.

And finally, this is best once you see what he's like now as a TV icon: a young Ross being steamrolled by Steve Martin at the height of his glory, around 1987.