Friday, February 27, 2009

Careers that ended in cardboard boxes

I'd never seen a newspaper vanish -- at least not from the inside. Friday, I stopped at The Rocky Mountain News. I don't know why I felt compelled to pay a visit, but I did. I hadn't been there in the year-and-a-half since I'd left. I wanted to say goodbye to friends, collect a few personal email addresses and share a sad moment with people I've known for years, many of whom face an uncertain future. I went for the same reason I went to News reporter John Accola's funeral in 2006.

John was one of the few writers at the News who knew how to carry a long story to its conclusion. He had a sweet demeanor, but could also be a tough reporter. I didn't really know John all that well, but it seemed right to attend the funeral of someone who got ambushed by death; John had a heart attack at 56.

Someone at the funeral asked me if I knew John well.

I didn't, I said, but added that I came because John was a newspaper guy.

The person who asked me nodded in agreement. He understood what I meant.

So there I was in the post-Joint Operating Agreement newsroom of the Rocky, a place where I'd never felt entirely comfortable. Everyone was dressed for moving day. Jeans and sweatshirts were the uniform of the day. Cardboard boxes were everywhere, as people emptied filing cabinets and sorted through the bric-a-brac on their desks. Someone, in a throwback gesture, was drinking bourbon and Diet Coke out of a paper cup. My former editor gave me a Rocky Mountain News lapel pin from last summer's Democratic Convention.

Eerily some people were staring at computer screens, looking as if they were working. They either were answering emails of condolence or sending emails to their personal accounts, perhaps preserving contacts. They all had to be out of the building by the end of the day. They'd have to turn in their IDs, account for whatever company equipment they'd been using, fill out some papers and hit the road. Would they tell each other to have nice weekends? In this context, what would that mean?

A couple of people talked about having lunch to discuss a possible Web site. Some didn't look up from their work, like the guy who was sitting at the desk I used to occupy. I felt a sudden and unexpected territorial urge to boot him out of his chair. Some of the faces belonged to people I'd know longer than my first marriage, a few even went back to the days of the crummy old newsroom where I first reported for work. That was the newsroom where they hung roles of newsprint in the bathroom instead of paper towels and where the concrete steps leading up from the street to the second floor were so trod upon they'd been worn down in the middle. That building and the one that was added on to it have since been replaced by something euphemistically called a Justice Center; i.e., a jail. No additional comment is necessary.

There's something about newsrooms, and for much of my life, they've have been one of the few places on the planet where I felt totally at home, those and, later, screening rooms. The first time I walked into a newsroom to work, I was a graduate student at Syracuse University and had landed a part-time job at The Syracuse Herald Journal, a paper owned by the Newhouse chain. It wasn't one of the great papers, but I was scared. Still, there was something about the atmosphere, a mixture of nervous energy and stale air that appealed to me, something that said, "No bullshit, please."

Over the years, I've met a lots of different kinds of people in newsrooms. Mean bastards. Wannabe mean bastards who couldn't pull it off. Men and women who were scary smart and others whose intelligence slid toward the low end of the scale. I met merciless grammarians and pathetic drunks. I met cynics and optimists. I met idealists and people who would rank among the biggest pains in the ass you'd ever want to know. I've met people who thought they were better than they were and people who were better than they thought. I also met some of the funniest people I've known, the type of wise asses for whom one-liners seem to come as easily as breathing. I've met sharp wits, self-promoters and people who cared so much about what they were doing it seemed to cause them physical pain.

As the years went on, the reporters seemed to dress better. Cigarette smoke vanished from the room. Typewriters were replaced by computer terminals. The bathrooms got better. The newsroom began to feel more corporate than chaotic, but it didn't lose all its scruffy charm. No one can make a room sloppier faster than a couple of hundred journalists.

Now, the expansive, annoyingly "modern" newsroom of the Rocky with its TV monitors and natural light will go silent. No one will report to work there Monday or Tuesday or ever. I was sad to go there and glad that I went. I was full of anxiety for folks who would wake up Monday in a frightening new world where they'd no longer have jobs and where they'd no longer have each other. They'd be something unspeakably sad -- newspaper people without a newspaper.

Thursday, February 26, 2009

Love after slit wrists

If you're looking to spend an evening with a brilliant and entertaining conversationalist -- and why wouldn't you be? -- you could do much worse than an encounter with director James Gray ("We Own the Night," "The Yards," and "Little Odessa"). I've met Gray twice and found him to be quick-witted and smart, one of those people with a wide-ranging intelligence that seems at home with nearly any subject. Gray's also an amusing name-dropper and a gifted mimic who does eerily precise imitations of the actors with whom he's worked. A careful stylist and a genuine auteur -- he never has made a movie he didn't write or co-write -- Gray has a gift that seems to produce interesting movies without quite blossoming into greatness.

Like all of Gray's previous movies, "Two Lovers" takes place in New York City, but this story of unrealized romance might be softer than anything Gray previously has attempted.

No one can fault Gray for failing to attract talented actors to his projects. This time, Joaquin Phoenix and Gwyneth Paltrow star in a story that focuses on Phoenix's Leonard Kraditor, a young man who's living with his parents after a recent suicide attempt. Leonard's parents (Moni Moshonov and Isabella Rossellini) encourage him to socialize by introducing him to the daughter of friends, a pleasant young woman played by Vinessa Shaw. But Leonard, who hasn't quite recovered from the failed relationship that presumably triggered his depression, has other things in mind. He has his eye on a neighbor, the alluring but erratic Michelle Rausch (Paltrow).

Phoenix gives a deeply muted performance. His Leonard struggles to find his way out of the gloomy Brooklyn neighborhood where his parents reside. Although Michelle lives in Leonard's building, she represents a break with the family and neighborhood forces that weigh on him.

Escape routes seldom come easy, and Leonard's path toward Michelle is paved with difficulty. Among other things, she's seeing a married man (Elias Koteas), a successful lawyer who may not want to dump his wife. At one point, Michelle invites Leonard to accompany her to dinner with her lover. Poor Leonard is supposed to share his impressions of Michelle's lover, a scene in which Phoenix captures every ounce of Leonard's impacted pain.

"Two Lovers" is neither sentimental nor hard-hitting; it's a little movie about a pivotal moment in the life of a young man who seems doomed to spend his days under clouds of depression. As played by Phoenix, even Leonard's smile suggests an inescapable sense of defeat.

A NOTE ON PHOENIX: Yes, I've seen Phoenix's non-performance on the Letterman show. And, yes, I laughed at what must have ranked among the top 10 worst celebrity interviews ever. I also laughed at Ben Stiller's imitation of Phoenix on the recent Oscar broadcast. It's the context that makes us laugh, though: anti-celebrity behavior in obvious celebrity venues. But when I watched the Letterman interview for a second time with a friend, we both looked at each other quizzically as if to say, "Geez, Phoenix looks like a guy you might see mumbling to himself on a subway." Personally, I hope he's one Phoenix who rises from the ashes of ridicule and acts again. Nothing wrong with wanting to be a rapper -- Phoenix's stated aim -- but he's far too talented to stay away from movies for long.

The Rocky Mountain News bites the dust

Having worked there for 30 years, I probably should say something about the passing of The Rocky Mountain News, but there'll be enough ink spilled by others. When I heard about the paper's demise -- which comes as no surprise to anyone -- I was in the midst of reviewing footage for two public service announcements, a project that I'm working on with filmmaker Jim Phelan. Failing newspapers have ceased to be news, and I leave it to all the others -- and there will be many -- to talk about how depressing it is to watch a newspaper die. I've seen more than a few go belly up in my lifetime. This is one particular loss I need to digest.

I feel for many friends who worked at the Rocky and who wound up going down with the ship. I hope they'll be able to surface elsewhere. It will be difficult for many. They all deserve a better fate.

Back in the day, I'd have gotten drunk. Now, I'll just reflect quietly on all the folks who passed through that place. Most of them labored in deep anonymity; you probably wouldn't know their names even if you read the News. Two buildings ago, some of them toiled late into the night, putting out a paper when the resources were slim and pats on the back were rare.

It would have been difficult for many of those folks to imagine a day when their paper -- and so many others -- would vanish. I'll say only this: It's to their credit that they would rather have been called newspaper people than journalists. Bless 'em all.

Classroom tensions and guerrilla warfare

Two noteworthy movies hit theaters in Denver this weekend as they slowly make their way around the country. A few words on each:

I wrote about "The Class" on this blog in connection with the Starz Denver Film Festival. You can search out that story, which ran on Nov. 6. Meanwhile, I don't think you'll find a better and more honest movie about the kinds of multi-ethnic tensions that arise in contemporary classrooms. The movie is French -- from director Laurent Cantet -- but the problems it portrays make one wish that an American director would try something similar. Happily, "The Class" is not made to be inspirational. Instead of raising false hopes, it takes an honest look at what happens when institutions try to absorb new cultural influences. Sound too sociological? Don't panic. The students and teachers in "The Class" make for lively -- if sometimes exasperating -- companions. The movie. which opens in Denver Friday, finally is beginning to find its way to art houses around the country.

Later in the day, I'll provide a link to my review of Steven Soderbergh's "Che," which will appear in Friday's editions of The Rocky Mountain News maybe my last contribution to a paper that seems to be counting its days. (WHO KNEW? AT THE TIME I POSTED THIS, THERE WAS STILL A ROCKY; THE PAPER DIED TODAY. FRIDAY'S EDITION IS ITS LAST. THROUGH A QUIRK OF FATE, I WOUND UP IN THE ROCKY'S LAST PAPER.) Soderbergh's 4 1/2-hour opus has many plusses, but seems so obsessively detailed that it forgets to make a larger point. "Che" has its problems, but I admire Soderbergh's commitment to making movies that interest him. He's one director who refuses to bow entirely to popular sentiment. Look, the guy could spend the rest of his life cranking out "Ocean's Eleven" sequels -- and it sometimes seems as if he will. But Soderbergh tries to mix his pitches. The resultant movies aren't always successful, but they seldom lack for ambition, and they can be downright daring, as was the case with 2005's "Bubble."

Sunday, February 22, 2009

Hollywood's big night -- Take 12

The night ends as "Slumdog" is elevated to the top of Oscar's list, this year's best picture. It was great to see most of the movie's cast on stage. Their victory felt like a communal celebration. The award for "Slumdog" concluded what amounted to a generally tasteful evening. Now, we can go back to watching movies without wondering whether awards are in store. The truth is that Oscar represents the collective wisdom of The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, nothing more. Oscars can help careers. Oscars can mean boosts in revenues. But they should never -- and I mean never -- stand in the way of what you love, remember and want to make a part of your own movie consciousness.

Hollywood's big night -- Take 11

OK, the big acting awards -- best actor and best actress.
Actress -- Kate Winslet doesn't gush as badly as she did at the Golden Globes. She seems to have gained a bit of composure, though not a gift for brevity.
Actor -- Sean Penn, described by Robert De Niro as a great human being, wins the Oscar for playing Harvey Milk in "Milk." I don't know about the greatness of Penn's humanity, but I do know he's a great actor, and he deserved to win.

Hollywood's big night -- Take 10

So much for surprises. As just about everyone predicted, Danny Boyle wins best director for "Slumdog Millionaire." In an off-year, "Slumdog" seems en route to a truly triumphant evening. Is it me or is the show moving faster than usual?

Hollywood's big night -- Take 9

Best foreign-language film turned out to be a shocker. I don't know of many (any?) who predicted Japan's "Departures" would beat France's "The Class" or Israel's "Waltz With Bashir," which should have also been included in the best animated feature category. If you want to read a review of "The Departures," try Variety. I haven't seen the movie, but it would have to be truly great to be better than either "The Class" or "Waltz With Bashir."

Hollywood's big night -- Take 8

I don't know what I expected from Jerry Lewis, who received this year's Jean Hersholt Humanitarian Award, but it wasn't a short thank-you speech that was short on both madness and maudlin sentiment. Lewis, who created "The Nutty Professor," received the award form Eddie Murphy, who starred in a remake of the same movie. Looking obviously debilitated, Lewis -- who's 82 -- may have given the briefest and classiest performance of his life.

Hollywood's big night -- Take 7

Worst presenter so far: Bill Maher. He handed out the awards for best documentary feature and best documentary short, and couldn't do it without mentioning his own movie, "Religulous," which doesn't belong in he same sentence with the five nominated films in the documentary feature category.

Hollywood's big night -- Take 6

The biggest question of the night. Is Philip Seymour Hoffman's head cold? What's up with the watch cap?
Having former supporting actors talk from the stage to the current nominees is a little strange. I guess it's a brave thing to hand out acting awards without showing any examples from the work of the nominated actors.
There's probably no one on the planet who's surprised that Heath Ledger ("The Dark Knight") won in this category. His family accepted the award for him, and did it with class. We didn't need cutaways to teary eyed audience members. Aside from that, the award reminds us of how much Ledger will be missed. I interviewed him once and was impressed by his desire to grow and master his art. He wanted to be able to plumb the depths of the characters he played. He did.

Hollywood's big night -- Take 5

"Slumdog Millionaire," which won a best cinematography Oscar for Anthony Dod Mantle was shot on a mixture of film and digital video. The times, they definitely are a changin'.

Hollywood's big night -- Take 4

If you're wondering whether "Benjamin Button's" win for art direction means anything in terms of the rest of the evening, I'd say, "No." I might have thought differently had "Benjamin Button" taken best costumes, which went to "The Duchess." "Button's" win for best makeup didn't change my mind about the movie's Oscar future. These kinds of awards for "Benjamin Button" seem right to me because the movie -- mostly a bore -- was a beautifully crafted bore.

Hollywood's big night -- Take 3

I'm enjoying the way that the screenwriting awards are being presented. Matching the words of screenplays with the scenes that developed from them was interesting, and also demonstrated how much directors, actors, production designers and cinematographers bring to the party. So far the awards have gone pretty much as predicted with "Milk" (original screenplay) and "Slumdog Millionaire" (adapted) emerging as winners.

Hollywood's big night -- Take 2

I can't decide whether I like the new format. The opening number impressed me with its energy and occasional wit, but I'm always a bit embarrassed by musical productions. Hugh Jackman, who knows that a smile counts for a lot, verged between endearing comedy and mediocre Broadway. The idea of having five past winners present the Oscar to the best supporting actress reminded me of various Bat Mitzvahs I've attended. The former winners -- they would be like the proud parents of the girl who has just turned 13 -- gave little speeches about the work of each of the nominees and then presented the award to Penelope Cruz, who certainly deserved it for her work in "Vicky Cristina Barcelona."

Hollywood's big night -- Take 1

It's good to be happy. I like actors and actresses who really know how to enjoy the moment. From the little I saw of the Red Carpet pre-Oscar hoopla, supporting actress nominee Taraji P. Henson ("The Curious Case of Benjamin button") seemed the happiest. The entire cast of "Slumdog Millionaire" looked equally buoyant. In any case, I eagerly await the start of the show, which supposedly has been retooled for the 21st Century. But wait. ABC's second Red Carpet show is on. One wasn't enough?

Live blogging on Hollywood's big night

During the evening I'll be commenting on the 81st edition of Oscar. I'm not one for spending much time thinking about Academy Awards, so live blogging seems the best way to deal with an evening devoted to glitz, glamor and movies that most of the U.S. hasn't seen.

Right now the major tension centers on the best-actor category. Will Mickey Rourke, who won the Independent Spirit Award Saturday, beat Sean Penn, who won the SAG award in the same category for his work in "Milk?" I predicted that Penn would win, but no one has campaigned harder than Rourke, who has been interviewed by everyone short of Martha Stewart. Maybe I just missed that one. In any case, Rourke has a lot going for him, a comeback story and the recent death of his dog, Loki. Don't get me wrong: I love dogs, and I know how much it hurts to lose one. I'm just saying, Rourke has the Big Mo, as in momentum.

Saturday, February 21, 2009

A family falls apart and you can watch

The documentary "Must Read After My Death" opened in New York and Los Angeles Friday, but is available online at Gigantic is exploring new models of film distribution, including day-and-date releasing for independent movies. If you don't live in New York or LA or you're agoraphobic, you can watch "Must Read" without leaving home.

I had been planning to ignore the whole thing, but I got a persuasive email from the company. Independent films might be an endangered species. New ways of reaching the public are necessary. Although I still haven't entirely adjusted to the idea of watching movies on computers, I've lately come to believe in supporting -- or at least trying -- mechanisms that expand a filmmaker's ability to reach more viewers. I asked for a DVD so that I could screen the movie for review.

In a way, I wish I hadn't because I found the movie intrusive and, at times, distasteful. I wish I could encourage you to race to Gigantic's site and prepare for a deeply emotional experience rather than one that might be viewed as increasingly off-putting.

Dews should, I suppose, be credited for attempting something with a high degree of difficulty. He assembled his documentary entirely from a collection of photographs, home movies and Dictaphone recordings that his grandmother left him. As he sifted through what I presume were box after box of Grandma's personal memorabilia, Dews discovered that his family history was anything but placid. Unhappy families aside, "Must Read" stands as the latest addition to a genre that might be dubbed "attic cinema," movies assembled from found materials that reflect the abundant self-absorption of those who made them. Grandma's well-stocked attic includes confessional sessions with tape recorders, recorded messages to kids, recordings of family screaming matches and more.

If every film needs a villain, the bad-guy mantle in "Must Read" wraps around Grandpa's shoulders. Grandpa Charley worked as an insurance executive, and seemed intent on making a philosophy out of his philandering. At times, he communicates the air of superiority of someone who believes he's pioneering important, new moral ground. Charley made no secret of his infidelities, recording messages for Grandma about his dates. Charley traveled a lot, which made his extramarital life easier.

For her part, Grandma Allis struggled with motherhood and household duties; she fulfilled her domestic obligations while Charley was busy espousing the glories of an open marriage. Allis doesn't seem entirely comfortable with Charley's values, but even if she wanted an open marriage, she would have been hard-pressed to maintain a rigorous bed-hopping schedule. She stayed home with the kids, and tried to keep the house from slipping into chaos.

There's no question that Dews faced a daunting task, weaving a coherent narrative out of so much material. The recordings seem far more interesting than the visuals, but in the end, I couldn't help wondering why I was immersing myself in so much family misery, a feeling I also had while watching "Capturing the Friedmans," another movie that relentlessly explored the life of a family but perhaps with better reason.

This time, I couldn't come up with a compelling excuse for eavesdropping. I was surprised at the way some people -- even in the days before the prevalence of video cameras -- compulsively put their lives on film and audiotape. No box of unmarked, fading photos for this grandma. But the line between exploitation and revelation gets thinner as the movie progresses, and, by the end, I was glad to be done with this fractured and fractious family. In short, it didn't seem to me that Dews had discovered a subject I needed to know about as much as he did.

Thursday, February 19, 2009

Let there be light! But not yet.

Yes, I, too, get sick of the sound of my own voice. So if you've got something to say, email me ( and I'll consider it for posting here. First entry is from Teresa, who has a complaint:

"What do you think about theaters that bring up the house lights before or just as the credits start? It makes me crazy. Since I patronize the arthouse circuit (hooray for sprung seats and lousy sound systems) and tend towards the heavier fare I like to process a little and watch the credits; others usually leave quietly. Lights are distracting and trigger an immediate ruckus. I have lights and ruckus at home for free. It's one thing at a multiplex but another thing entirely at an indie joint.

Examples - the Chez brought lights fully up halfway through the ending Bollywood number in Slumdog (movie not over yet IMO). There was plenty of time before the next showing - they didn't have to herd us right out.

The Regency blew the impact of No Country's ending by bringing lights up before the screen had even faded to black. We refused to go back to the Regency until yesterday, when I was dispatched there on a reconnaissance mission. Yup, the house lights came up during the written wrapup at the end of Frost/Nixon (again, movie not over, had to IMDB the cast later). Grrrrrr! The manager said this is permanent policy as a courtesy to their target market, which is seniors rather than filmies. That's their right, of course. But aren't there always throngs of seniors at the Landmarks? They somehow manage to survive five more minutes in the dark... I regret to announce that the Regency is dead to me forever. Too bad for them, we buy a heck of a lot of wine."

I agree with Teresa. Darkness is essential to the moviegoing experience. I don't like it when the lights don't dim until the main feature starts, and, yes, they should remain off until the last credit has rolled. Sometimes, you want to know who performed a song that's used on the soundtrack. Maybe you'd like to know where the movie was shot. Keeping the house lights off is not only a courtesy to the audience; it's a sign of respect for the filmmakers -- from the actors to the grips and gaffers. Yes, it really took all those people to get the movie on screen; they deserve their moment -- not in the sun, but in the dark. Replies from theater managers are most welcome.

Monday, February 16, 2009

Oscars: The lack of interest mounts

Of course, I'll watch. And, no, I'm not particularly excited about the Oscars, which will be awarded Sunday. I have no strong rooting interests, and I'm already sick of what has become an interminable awards season. This year's show may be spiffier -- see Sunday's New York Times -- but that may simply highlight the fact that the stars alone can't carry the night.

And there may be an element of woeful familiarity about the evening. We've already seen Kate Winslet gush (at the Golden Globes); we know Sean Penn will be humbled without totally masking the edgier parts of his personality; we understand that the people who made "Slumdog Millionaire" will be thrilled beyond belief and will acknowledge the people of Mumbai without whose help, etc.

There'll be fashion disasters, although they seem to have gotten fewer in recent years. There'll be surprisingly moving moments, and when it's all said and done, we'll have had much sound and fury and little will have been signified.

Oscar predictions are a risky business. I'm not sure who started trying to outguess the voters of the augustly named Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. I've generally wondered if the Oscars aren't more readily enjoyed by those who care the least and who view the whole business as a singular expression of Hollywood hubris: "We have evaluated our own work and found it to be superb."

But I've gotten into the habit of predicting and so I'll forge ahead with this year's guesses, which probably follow the path set by other prognosticators. There seems to be a fair amount of consensus out there, where ever "there" is.

Best picture: "Slumdog Millionaire."
Best director: Danny Boyle, "Slumdog Millionaire."
Best Actor: Sean Penn, "Milk."
Best Actress: Kate Winslet: "The Reader."
Best Supporting Actor: Heath Ledger, "The Dark Knight."
Best Supporting Actress: Penelope Cruz, "Vicky Cristina Barcelona."
Best Original Screenplay: Dustin Lance Black, "Milk."
Best Adapted Screenplay: Simon Beaufoy, "Slumdog Millionaire."
Best Animated Feature: "Wall-E."
Best Foreign-Language Film: "Waltz With Bashir."
Best Documentary Feature: "Man On Wire."or "Trouble the Water." It's a toss-up.

If you're looking for categories where we're most likely to see upsets, try these:
Best actor: Mickey Rourke, "The Wrestler."
Best actress: Anne Hathaway, "Rachel Getting Married" or Meryl Streep, "Doubt."
Best supporting actress: Viola Davis, “Doubt”

If you're interested in more insider information on the Oscars, you probably should bookmark two important blogs: "The Envelope," produced by The Los Angeles Times and "The Carpetbagger," a seasonal awards blog of The New York Times. Variety's "Award Central" page also is good a good source of news on Oscar.

Friday, February 13, 2009

Images you can bank on -- and little else

I didn't get to see "The International" until the night before opening, which -- come to think of it -- might have been a blessing. This thriller from director Tom Tykwer ("Run Lola Run" and "Perfume: The Story of a Murderer") has a plot that's as tangled as the current financial situation -- if a lot less dire. Had I seen the movie earlier, I might have spent more time trying to figure it out.

Say this, though: "The International" sprawls across the globe finding some of the best locations of the year in France, Italy, Turkey, the U.S. and Germany. That's not surprising because Tykwer knows how to create astonishing images, and, in this visually impressive effort, he receives a major assist from cinematographer Frank Griebe, who also shot "Perfume," a movie that seemed incomprehensible in far more intriguing ways.

Looking half-deranged -- no, make that fully deranged -- Clive Owen plays an Interpol cop who's trying to expose the evil doings at The International, a bank that's involved in arms sales to the highest bidder. Owen is joined by Naomi Watts, who seems to pop in and out of the picture at random. She portrays a Manhattan DA who's also involved in the case.

A long, destructive and skillfully executed set piece set in New York's Guggenheim Museum shows more respect for bloody genre conventions than for art or architecture, which is odd because Tykwer has a keen and acute visual sense. There are great shots of Berlin office towers, and the views from Istanbul's rooftops are at once bracing and mysterious. If I were a student of cinematography I'd race out to see "The International" because Tykwer seems incapable of framing a dull shot. Too bad he's not equally incapable of directing a movie with a plot that ties itself in knots.

"Shopaholic" proves easy to resist

How lightweight an affair is "Confessions of a Shopaholic?" Put it this way: This woeful piece of fluff makes "Sex and the City" look like something out of Eugene O'Neill. Based on books by Sophie Kinsella, the movie follows the exploits of Rebecca Bloomwood (Isla Fisher) as she negotiates her way through the New York magazine world while battling an insatiable shopping addiction. Her British boss (Hugh Dancy) struck me as a poor man's Hugh Grant, a dispiriting thought because Grant himself can seem a bit second-hand. Fisher, who grew up in Australia, seems intent on proving that she's the hardest working woman in show business. You could work up a sweat just watching her. A negligible supporting cast includes John Lithgow, Joan Cusack, Kristin Scott-Thomas and John Goodman. In all, "Confessions" feels like a low-rent version of other so-called "chic flicks," notably "The Devil Wears Prada." Calculated (boy is it ever) to speak to its target demographic -- teen and slightly upward, "Confessions of a Shopaholic" seems like a knockoff rather than the real thing. Like many knockoffs, it doesn't wear well.


Also, opening this week: "Friday the 13th,'' a remake of a touchstone bit of 1980 horror that spawned numerous gory sequels. Marcus Nispel, who provided a similar update of "The Texas Chainsaw Massacre" in 2003 follows the expected formula, which should please a new generation of viewers eager to watch young people hacked to death at Camp Crystal Lake. The words "offensive" and "gratuitous" must be applied here, and I wondered why a little more originality couldn't have been shown. Think of the possibilities had Jason -- the killer with the hockey mask -- been let loose in "Confessions of a Shopaholic." At the very least, he could have chopped up all those credit cards.

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Welcome to hard times, Part 2

Banks, brokerages and just about every other kind of business seem to be gagging on mega-helpings of financial woe. Now comes the disturbing news that elevator music may be also be taking a hit. The New York Times Wednesday reported that Musak Holdings has filed for bankruptcy protection. Musak's creditors evidently include music companies that license songs for use on elevators and also in stores. According to the Times -- which ran an Associated Press story on the Muzak matter -- the company plans to continue operations. But next time, you're on an elevator or in a store, don't take that background music for granted. Like everything else, it's not immune from economic difficulty. For reasons that have yet to be clarified, Treasury Secretary Timothy F. Geithner hasn't offered a comment on elevator music, even though the operative words for the economy might be, "Going down."

"Welcome to hard times" is an occasional feature of this blog.

Monday, February 9, 2009

A slogan that needs changing

“Limes regiones rerum.”

That's the Latin inscription that appears on the gateway to the University of Southern California’s School of Cinematic Arts. The school's new facilities were designed -- at least in the earliest stages -- by George Lucas, who donated $175 million for construction. Warner Brothers, Fox and Disney threw in another $50 million. The University is looking to raise another $50 million, most of it for its animation department. That would make a grand total of $275 million for an institution that has a fine reputation when it comes to film schools. It's the oldest in the nation.

But about that motto. I gave up on Latin as soon as it ceased to be compulsory; i.e., at the end of the seventh grade, an altogether miserable year made worse by endless conjugation. I was happy that the New York Times, which ran an article on the USC school in today's editions, translated. It means: "Reality ends here."

At first, I misread the quote, mistaking "rerum" for "rerun," which would have a whole other meaning, one that might prove a little too apt for an industry dedicated to formula; i.e., attempts to mine future profits by repeating the elements of past success. But even an accurate translation bothered me.

Look, reality is a construct, so in a way the quote is grandly and pretentiously meaningless, particular when rendered in Latin. But I'd be more encouraged about the future of "film" -- better termed "moving images" because the long-term future may be mostly digital -- if the slogan were changed to read, "Reality begins here." How about a school with a commitment to the arts as a quest for personal and social truths that resonate deeply?

The discussion of reality and art could sink any blog entry, an anchor of gravity tossed off a rowboat built for quick-hit observation. So I offer my suggestion in the same genial spirit that once inspired the late Jimmy Cannon, a fine New York sportswriter. Cannon occasionally wrote columns -- actually collections of one-liners -- entitled, "Nobody asked me, but..."

Nobody asked me, but I think it's time that cinema renewed its commitment to reality -- even when it's fantasizing. After all, what's artifice for, if it not to bring us closer to what's real?

Friday, February 6, 2009

A beautifully realized fantasy world

It should come as no surprise that "Coraline," a movie directed by Henry Selick ("The Nightmare Before Christmas" and "James and the Giant Peach") proves visually stunning, particularly at selected theaters which are playing the movie in 3D. I'm not a huge fan of 3D -- hate the glasses, hate thinking about it while watching a movie -- but I'd say that Selick makes wise use of the third dimension, emphasizing depth over gimmicky stunts in which objects seem to fly off the screen. Initially charming but increasingly prone to darkness, "Coraline" has been creatively realized by Selick, who specializes in stop-action animation and brilliant puppetry.

The story centers on Coraline (voice by Dakota Fanning) an 11-year-old who moves with her parents (Teri Hatcher and John Hodgman) into a large, somewhat lonely house. The isolated Coraline turns to her parents for attention, but they're always busy working. Left to her own devices, Coraline discovers a hidden door that leads to a tunnel which lands her in an alternate universe, the flip side of a life in which mom and dad never seem to leave their computers.

Coraline's mom and dad are present in this new world -- after a fashion. Unlike their real world counterparts, "alternate" mom and dad are happy, fun-loving folks. Everything looks rosy for Coraline, although signs of trouble quickly appear. Both mom and dad have buttons where their eyes are supposed to be. I don't know about you but the thought of eyes sewn onto a face -- especially if it's mine -- feels pretty disturbing.

The bright imaginative surface of this new world masks its perils. Mom isn't quite as accommodating as she initially seems. In fact, menacing adventures await Coraline, who learns that she probably should have been a little more accepting of her parents, the ones with real eyes and busy schedules.

So appealing at first, Other Mother -- as alternate mom is known -- turns out to be a monster, and "Coraline" takes a creepy turn that disqualifies it as entertainment for the youngest children. (Someone suggested that age 12 might be an appropriate starting point to enter the sometimes threatening world that Selick creates.) Little kids may be justifiably unnerved by the fact that Coraline's Other Mother doesn't want her to return to the "real" world.

It may be possible to walk into "Coraline" at any moment during its 100-minute running time and be swept away by its colors and hand-made artistry. Early on, I found myself completely engaged in the world that Selick creates; but as "Coraline" wore on, I began to forget the story and focus on the visuals. For me, "Coraline" stopped being a movie and turned into a museum-quality curio -- an achievement to marvel over even when it wasn't being totally enjoyable. Put another way, the world that Selick creates may be as memorable as anyone in it. Still, it's quite a world.

Thursday, February 5, 2009

A trendy guide to relationships

Here's what you need to know about "He's Just Not That Into You," provided that the word "trendy" makes you run for cover.

-- The movie is a big-screen adaptation of a bestselling 2004 relationship guide by Greg Behrendt and Liz Tuccillo. The book's subtitle: "The No-Excuses Truth to Understanding Guys." The whole thing reportedly was inspired by a line from a "Sex and the City" episode. Need I say more? Need you hear more?

-- "He's Just Not That Into You" has been filled with a variety of pretty faces, actresses with a definite appeal for a female audience in which ages top out at about 40 -- and probably skew a little younger.

-- The key players in this ensemble are Jennifer Aniston (as a woman who's been living with a guy for seven years and wants to get married); Jennifer Connelly (as a wife who's renovating a house with her less-than-committed husband); Ginnifer Goodwin (as a young woman who wants a relationship but tries too hard); and Scarlett Johansson (as a singer who's not sure what she wants, maybe another movie with Woody Allen.)

--Goodwin currently can be seen as the impetuous Margene in "Big Love." In that popular HBO series, she plays one of three wives in a Utah family that believes in "the principle;" i.e., multiple wives. Here, she can't even get a date.

-- The movie was directed by Ken Kwapis, who directed "The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants" and who has a lot of experience in television. It shows.

-- An episodic "story" is interrupted by self-conscious monologues that enumerate the ways in which men are dogs.

-- There are some amusing moments, and everyone is attractive, but the movie tries too hard to reflect the contemporary social scene, at least as its experienced by a variety of young, reasonably affluent residents of Baltimore.

-- Many guys are going to be dragged by their dates to see this movie.

-- Kris Kristofferson has a blinkingly tiny role as Aniston's father. Ben Affleck plays one of the nicest guys in the movie, prompting what might be its only lingering questions: "What's the world coming to?"


I decided to attend a preview of "Push," the new sci-fi action movie, because the movie was filmed in Hong Kong. I've never been. I want to go. Movies may be the closest I'll ever get. "Push" offers some great shots of teeming city streets, sleek glass skyscrapers, a harbor dotted with small boats and a variety of bustling markets. Too bad, the actors sometimes block the view.

Watching "Push," all I could think about was the meeting that might have taken place when this misshapen mess was hatched. What if we took a really confusing story, created a bunch of characters with paranormal powers, wrote some bad dialogue, incorporated a variety of special effects that evoked memories of movies such as "The Matrix," and hired actors who seem committed to showing only one facial expression? Sounds like a winner to me.

"Push," which features characters who are pushers, movers and watchers, tells the story of Nick Gant (Chris Evans), a guy who's trying to hide from The Division, a force dedicated to capturing people with paranormal powers and using them as weapons. He's joined by Cassie Holmes (Dakota Fanning), a teen-ager who can see into the future. That's what watchers do. Nick is a mover, he makes objects float through the air. Pushers, by the way, don't sell drugs; they penetrate people's minds and overwhelm them with the power of suggestion. Everyone runs around madly with director Paul McGuigan setting a frantic, panicky pace. Talk about ruining a trip to Hong Kong.

Tuesday, February 3, 2009

Welcome to hard times

The other day, my filmmaking partner -- Jim Phelan -- and I were talking to a friend and client about (what else?) the disastrous state of the economy. Jim, who's prone to optimism, took the lead, saying that perhaps some good may come from the current decline in just about everyone's financial prospects. Maybe people would stop thinking so much about themselves and start helping one another, he said. The third party to our discussion agreed and mentioned something about the way people sometimes will bring dinner to a person who's suffering a loss and how maybe more folks might start thinking that way now that we're all in the same leaky economic boat.

As I listened, it occurred to me that the four most powerful words in English might be "How can I help?" I wish I used them more often, but even as this discussion was going on around me, my brow began to furrow. When times are hard, wouldn't evidence suggest that people might become more brutal and more self-centered, that a "me-first" attitude might become even more prevalent? I hope I'm wrong. I hope my companions are right, and, as I grow older, I have to admit that simple acts of kindness seem more important to me than, say, intellectual accomplishment or other stunning feats, like winning the Fourth of July hotdog eating contest at Nathan's in Coney Island. (Yeah, I watch it every year.)

So I vowed that I would keep a sharp eye out for evidence that supported one or the other of these theories about human behavior. Today, I noticed a story in the New York Times that seems to lend credibility to those who worry that deprivation doesn't often lead to a bull market in goodness. It appeared under the headline, "Where snow has fallen, plow thefts have risen."

The headline pretty much tells you what you need to know about the story, which was filed out of Boston, but I'll give you the second paragraph anyway: "Reports of stolen trucks and plows are on the rise in many cold-weather states, and the authorities suspect that people who have lost their jobs or are looking for extra work are stealing the plows and setting up shop or selling them to plow drivers in need of new equipment."

I'm drawing no larger conclusions based on a single Times story that appeared toward the back of the first section, but I offer it as the way of encouraging you to keep an eye out for stories that may shed light on this important question: Are our better angels likely to be pulled toward the ground as the economy goes to hell? Stay tuned.