Friday, November 30, 2007

Interview with Jennifer Jason Leigh from AVClub

Jennifer Jason Leigh

Interviewed by Scott Tobias

November 21st, 2007

Born in Hollywood, the daughter of the late actor Vic Morrow and veteran screenwriter Barbara Turner (The Company, Pollock), Jennifer Jason Leigh immediately established a reputation as one of the most fearless actresses of her generation. Over the years, Leigh has specialized in playing characters on society's bottom rung—she's played a sex worker three times (Last Exit To Brooklyn, Miami Blues, and Short Cuts) and a junkie twice (Rush, Georgia)—but she's also shown a knack for playing hyper-intelligent women of bygone eras, in The Hudsucker Proxy, Kansas City, and as Dorothy Parker in Mrs. Parker And The Vicious Circle. In 2001, Leigh and her friend Alan Cumming tried their hand at directing with The Anniversary Party, a digital-video project shot over 19 days with an impressive cast list.
Two years ago, Leigh married writer-director Noah Baumbach (The Squid And The Whale), so she had the inside track for a plum role in Baumbach's new film, Margot At The Wedding. Leigh plays Pauline, an emotionally fragile woman whose monstrous sister (Nicole Kidman) threatens her impending marriage. Leigh recently spoke to The A.V. Club about growing up in Hollywood, naturalism versus stylization, and the perils of bringing a role home.
The A.V. Club: With this movie, you had the unique advantage of literally living with the material. What was that like for you, and what sort of influence did you have on the process?
Jennifer Jason Leigh: It was great for me, because by the time we started shooting, I was really, really familiar with the characters. I had seen so many drafts and versions that I knew so many details. I felt like I had been living with them all for a really long time. We talked about it constantly. I'd read the latest draft, and I would tell Noah my thoughts, and we would brainstorm and talk about the characters and things like that.
AVC: When you make a movie, do you usually familiarize yourself with the other characters in the script?
JJL: No, I'm just dealing with my own character that I am playing.
AVC: And you were always going to play this role from the beginning?
JJL: No. Not necessarily. I didn't know if I was going to be even in it, in the beginning. I was hoping I'd be in it, but I wasn't sure. And then one day, I don't remember quite when in the process, Noah told me that he wanted me to play Pauline. But Noah doesn't like to write with actors in mind, so I wasn't sure.
AVC: Did you feel like that was going to be the role for you?
JJL: I was trying not to read it with any kind of… I was really just trying to read it as a piece on its own, without thinking about it as an actress. I was looking at as the director's script, trying to see it as someone reading and helping Noah, and my thoughts about it, as opposed to scanning it for a role for me. But I was really thrilled when he wanted me to play Pauline.
AVC: The sisters you and Nicole Kidman play are estranged, but they know each other extremely well, and they fall into what feels like a familiar dynamic. Is that all there in the writing, or did you and Kidman have to work beforehand to give that impression of familiarity?
JJL: I think it's a combination. We had two weeks' rehearsal, which was incredibly helpful, and I think there's something that felt very familial about her to me. And probably vice versa. Like, I really did believe we were sisters and we bonded very quickly, and it was very easy to believe we had that history and all that stuff between us. It was effortless, kind of. Also, the script is very layered, so it was easy to just believe it.
AVC: Do the two of you have a fairly similar process?
JJL: I think so, even though it was kind of unspoken, but I felt it, you know? I felt like our approach to acting is very similar.
AVC: The performances in Margot are very naturalistic and sort of de-glammed. What goes into not making it look like you're acting? How can you be natural as a character who's not you?
JJL: Well, that's an interesting question, and I think Noah has a lot to do with that, because we live together and he knows me so well. He knows my qualities in real life. So he knows what I'm like when I'm really laughing. And he knows what I'm like when I'm really upset or angry… he just knows all the shades of me, so that's what he wanted. Even though I'm nothing like Pauline, he wanted me to bring myself to it. And so it's really very naturalistic, probably because it's the closest to me, in a sense, even though she's nothing like me.
AVC: To look on the other side of the equation, you've also done very stylized roles, like the ones in Mrs. Parker And The Vicious Circle, The Hudsucker Proxy, and Kansas City. How do you strike that balance between giving a stylized performance while still connecting with the character?
JJL: I have a lot of fun making that connection. It takes a lot of vocal work and a different kind of walk and some particular mannerisms. You try to find the internal life, but a lot of it is creating it through physical behavior and figuring out the voice when you create as much of a past as you would in a naturalistic piece. But it's fun, because it's like you're learning something, learning some kind of physical skill.
AVC: Is it tough to make that connection between the things you see on the outside, mannerisms and manners of speaking, and what's going on inside?
JJL: Sometimes it's tough and sometimes it's not. Sometimes the work can get in the way and you give a less-good performance, and sometimes it doesn't and you can really get to the heart of something. And all the other stuff is just interesting and adds another layer to your performance. It helps you find the reality. Because you're not just playing yourself, you know? That would be kind of boring.
AVC: Is that one of the things you like about acting, to be that removed from who you are?
JJL: I like to investigate all different kinds of people, I guess, and find out what makes them who they are, and try to be honest in the portrayal, and truthful, and find out how to understand that person, how to communicate that person's experience.
AVC: You're pretty deeply invested in the roles that you play. Does a character tend to bleed into your life when the cameras aren't rolling, or can you easily detach yourself from the characters you're playing?
JJL: No. Even when you think you can, you don't. Because you're spending so much time trying to realize this person and make them real that they do infect you, in a way. And you do take them home and live with them, even if you think you're turning the character off. But in order to pull off a role convincingly, you wind up thinking about that person all the time, and it does sort of creep into you. And then there are things that you'll respond to, or react to in a very different way than you would normally. It usually takes about two and a half weeks after you're done filming where you kind of return to yourself again. It's subtle.
AVC: Can it get unhealthy?
JJL: Nah, I don't think so. I've never done anything that I felt was crossing the line for me. But everybody has to make that decision individually. Like, I've never shot heroin to play a heroin addict. I've never turned a trick to play a prostitute. Whatever. You draw the line where you feel it could be harmful.
AVC: But you have lost weight for a couple of roles.
JJL: Yeah, but not to a degree where I couldn't gain it back or something. Not to where it was life-threatening.
AVC: You grew up in Hollywood. What was it like having actors and directors around all the time? Were you certain from an early age that you wanted to act rather than write or direct?
JJL: Yeah. I loved acting as a kid because I was kind of shy, so it brought me out of myself. Acting for kids is like playing house, you know? But growing up in Hollywood, it just made it seem possible. It wasn't like some idea of going to Hollywood; it was in my backyard. I lived two blocks from Grauman's Chinese Theatre growing up. It was what people did. It's an industry town. So it wasn't some far-off fantasy, it was like "Oh yeah, when you grow up, you do this because that's what people do here." [Laughs.]
AVC: How does that affect your perspective on the world? Does that environment ever seem insular?
JJL: Well no, because that's how I grew up. It didn't feel insular to me. Children accept their world as the world. I grew up like kids that I went to school with. Their parents were either shrinks or actors, you know? [Laughs.]
AVC: When you research a role, what sorts of things are you looking for that might help your performance? How long does it generally take you to prepare?
JJL: I like as much time as I can get and I'll do whatever I think is helpful. Sometimes it's practical research, meaning if I had to write shorthand, I'd learn how to write shorthand. Or if I have to know how to dance a certain way, I would learn that. And then there's just research of talking to people similar to the characters I'm playing. And there's stuff that I just feel is inspiring, whether it be music or a painting or a photograph. I've used a lot of Nan Goldin's photos in the past to inspire me. I use certain paintings and pieces of music.
AVC: In the past, you've expressed a particular affinity for working with Robert Altman and Alan Rudolph. What sort of environment do they create that helps you do your best work?
JJL: I think Altman could see things in me that I didn't know I possessed, which is really exciting. He also instilled a tremendous amount of confidence, because he would say things like, "These are the bare bones, but I want you to go fill it out. You find the character. You bring it to me. You write whatever you want." And if you had an idea, he wouldn't want to hear about it. He's want you to show it to him. So there's so much confidence and freedom that comes from that way of doing things. And he and Rudolph make the set the place to be. It's fun. It's a kind of creative freedom that's really inspiring. [Altman] loved actors so much. Everyone came to dailies—this is when dailies used to be projected—and there would be food and wine. You had to come. It was like required reading or something. [Laughs.] If you didn't come, you were in trouble. But it was so much fun. They could be endlessly long, the dailies, but you know. He was a great mentor for me, really.
AVC: Are you less gratified by films where you're given less room to maneuver?
JJL: Not necessarily. Because I love a great script, and I love to respect it, and I love to try to give a director what he needs and wants, especially having directed now. [Laughs.] I'm much more open to try to give him what he wants and figure it out. I like working with directors I respect and admire, obviously. And everybody has their own way.
AVC: How has your relationship with your craft changed over time? Do you do things differently now than you did, say, 20 years ago?
JJL: Probably. In some ways, you're always redefining it and figuring it out, but in some ways, I almost feel I'm going back to what I was doing 20 years ago. What Noah gave me on this film, I'd like to experiment with more. It was really kind of exciting to me, and I think it's sort of how I initially began.
AVC: How do you mean?
JJL: There was a kind of purity with Margot that I had in Fast Times At Ridgemont High, just kind of being young, in a way. And I was nothing like that girl in Fast Times either, though I did get a job at Perry's Pizza, and I did do this "research" or whatever I was doing, but I was using a lot of myself, because I didn't have a lot else to draw on. I wasn't out interviewing lots of people, and I wasn't doing that kind of stuff. And there's a kind of purity to that that I'm kind of interested in again. To disappear, but also not disappear, in a way.
AVC: To bring more of yourself to a role?
JJL: Yeah. Even if the role is very far away from me, to try and make it as nakedly me as possible is an intriguing notion. We'll see. Who knows? The next role I get, I could feel like fucking with some crazy accents and whatever. [Laughs.] But right now what I'm interested in exploring more is doing this kind of work again. It might not even look different to you, or feel different to you, but to me, it was a very different kind of thing.

Straight Time

Dustin Hoffman is notorious for his preparation for a role. For Straight Time, he spent considerable amounts of time with real life felons trying to get everything he could out of them. It shows in this flick from 1978 by Ulu Grosbard (Georgia). Hoffman originally was even going to direct the film, but found himself overwhelmed by the pressure and called in a friend.

Straight Time is based on a novel by Eddy Bunker who was a real life professional thief. Bunker even makes an appearance here as an fellow member of the underworld. Hoffman plays Max Dembo who is more or less based on Bunker's experiences. The start of the film finds Dembo getting out on probation only to find his parole officer (M. Emmet Walsh) seems a litte too hard on him. After Dembo's friend (Gary Busey) shoots up at his casa, Walsh's character finds the evidence of it and sends Max back to the tank to be drug tested. Dembo is cleared, but totally loses it and is sucked back into previous life.

While out on parole, Max meets a knock-out named Jenny (Theresa Russell) at the temp office who tries to help him. They begin some sort of relationship whilst Max promises to keep his dark side out... but you know that can't happen. Dembo gets back with his old running mate played by Harry Dean Stanton and you know this isn't going to end well.

Great casting amongst the leads and the incredible attention to the nuances of the criminal life makes it all feel entirely real. You get a sense of what it is really like for a con to get out and go straight. It doesn't glamourize the life one bit. Stanton's character seems set up for life with a good job and a wife, but he misses the thrill of the robbery and is pulled back in.

Straight Time is a terrific film that would be an excellent watch alongside Michael Mann's Thief. It would be an interesting back to back to see one film made with criminals and another that was made in the Hollywood view of what they think criminals are and how they live. It is quite the contrast in styles.

You should also check out an informative commentary track on the dvd with Hoffman and Grosbard... some fascinating tidbits about the making of the film.


Interview with Eliza Dushku from the LA Times

Eliza Dushku goes from 'Buffy' to group sex

In 'Sex and Breakfast,' the 26-year-old actress explores a controversial topic.
By Rachel Abramowitz, Los Angeles Times Staff Writer November 29, 2007

IF you make a movie about group sex, you must be prepared to own up to your point of view on the subject. But when actress Eliza Dushku, star of the indie "Sex and Breakfast," which opens in limited release Friday, is asked whether she's pro or con group canoodling, she giggles, before fessing up, she's more of a monogamous kind of gal."It doesn't even make sense to me," she says on the phone from her childhood home in Watertown, Mass., where she spent the Thanksgiving holiday. That would be a pass from Dushku, 26, best known for her stint on "Buffy the Vampire Slayer" and as the title character on the series "Tru Calling." That's why they call it acting. "Let us live it up for you," she cracks.

Sex is certainly a hot topic in Hollywood, whether it's sexual dysfunction, unplanned sex, too much sex, too little sex. Sexual problems seem so distinctly less nihilistic -- so eminently solvable -- compared with the war in Iraq or global warming or anything else in the newspapers. The burdens of sex are driving such comedies as "Superbad," "Knocked Up" and "Juno," as well as the TV dramas like "Californication" and "Tell Me You Love Me."Now come the twentysomethings' turn. "Sex and Breakfast" tracks two couples ("Home Alone's" all-grown up Macauley Culkin, Kuno Becker, Alexis Dziena and Dushku) who've lost the passion in their relationships and consult a therapist who advocates communal sex. Still, Dushku points out, the movie is less risqué than your average Paris Hilton sex tape."It wasn't about the sex so much, than about the feeling, the confusion, the experimentation," she says. "Those are really honest things that aren't necessarily explored in the movies I've seen. Relationships can be so maddening and just all over the map. Of course, the sex is a major part of it, but it goes so much deeper."Although she doesn't play the girl next door, Dushku, a sloe-eyed beauty with an insouciant air, steers away from her more typical screen image as "the bad, sexy girl." She was pleased when writer-director Miles Brandman, 26, offered her the other female lead, the not-as-adventurous-as-she-thinks woman who's "more personal and just vulnerable at times, raw."Dushku has been acting since she was 10, debuting opposite Juliette Lewis in "That Night." She played Arnold Schwarzenegger's daughter in the James Cameron film "True Lies," traveling for nine months to locations all over the world. "I hung off airplanes in Miami. My poor mother was standing on the rooftop. My mother is a political science professor. Never, ever in a million years would she have put me in this business, except I tripped and fell in my brother's audition when I was 9."That pratfall snagged the attention of the powers that be. Coming of age in Hollywood sounds tabloid-esque. "There was a lot of craziness, immaturity. . . . These stories about kids in the industry, where adolescents are left unprotected and hung out in this town. It can be a disaster. I really truly felt what a lot of these women feel. I wish them the best."Dushku admits that she got "sober" a couple of years ago, and that has made a difference. "I'm clean and relatively unscathed by the whole process."Up next is "Dollhouse," the TV reunion between Dushku and "Buffy" creator Joss Whedon. Part "Truman Show," part "Alias," the series will begin shooting after the writers strike is settled. The new show concerns people who live in a biosphere who are imprinted with personalities and sent on spy-like missions, after which their memories are wiped. Dushku, who also executive-produces the series, says, "It's the ultimate outlet for me to direct this constant stream of crazy energy. I get to be a new personality every week."

Planet Terror

The other half of Grindhouse is quite the surprise. I should know better than to forget about Robert Rodriguez since he is certainly a filmmaker who knows how to make entertainment. I would never confuse Planet Terror with a "great" movie, but it is a hell of a lot of fun.

The movie starts with a deal going bad between some black market types and a group of soldiers led by Bruce Willis. A toxic chemical gets into the air and starts changing the residents of a small Texas town. More or less, the infected start changing into zombies. Michael Biehn (who has been AWOL from good films for awhile) plays Sheriff Hague, who is trying to deal with the crazy mess that is going on. Freddy Rodriguez plays an ex-soldier type named El Wray that is thrust into action with his exgirlfriend (Rose McGowan) has her leg ripped off by some zombies. All the survivors come together (like they always do in zombie films) to try and get to the bottom of what is happening.

Okay so plot out of the way, Planet Terror is just a blast to watch. The key to all this is great casting . In addition to the main's I already mentioned, Josh Brolin, Marley Shelton, Nicky Katt, and the wonderful Jeff Fahey(Lawnmower Man) are all dead on in their roles. Everyone knows this is being played for camp and they have a great time doing it. Each has some great scenes of their own, but one with Nicky Katt and Josh Brolin is hilarious. Katt plays a man who comes in with a bite to see Brolin (who plays a doctor)... I'll leave it at that... Marley Shelton also has some great material was a cheating wife of Brolin who still has to work with him during the outbreak of infection.

Rodriguez knows how to make great b-movie action. Desperado and Once Upon a Time in Mexico were both lots of fun to watch and that continues on here. I think Tarantino (who made the other half of Grindhouse) still needs to work on his actual movie making skill because while his dialogure is great, the actual movement of the film is quite benign. Rodriguez gets what makes a film rock.


Thursday, November 29, 2007


I've never played the video games or really know anything about the storyline other then it is about a hitman. I was compelled to watch this film for the simple reason that Timothy Olyphant is the man. He can do comedy(Broken Hearts Club, The Girl Next Door), action (Deadwood, Man Apart), and try to freshen up a shitty chick flick (Catch and Release). Olyphant doesn't get a chance to do much in the way of acting in Hitman, but he is quite good when he does.

Hitman is about a fellow by the name of Agent 47. Agent 47 was a cast-off that was recruited by "the organization" at a young age. He was taught to kill with cold efficiency and was given a bar code on the back of his head. There were no names for the children, just a numbers. With his skill shown in several early action scenes, you get the impression that Agent 47 could make short work of Jason Bourne.

Agent 47 gets a job in Mother Russia to rub out the current President... only something goes wrong, which of course there has to be for a movie to take place. 47 finds himself on the run when his employer sells him out. He kidnaps an absolutely gorgeous prostitute (Olga Kurylenko) who supposedly witnessed the assassination attempt, but we will soon find out that is not the case. Dougray Scott plays an Interpol agent investigating our title character's misdeeds around the globe.

The plot goes deeper into Russian politics and really gets bogged down in trying to be too mysterious about what is really going on in the conspiracy. The Russian actors really aren't that good and gives off a stink of made for tv which is really puzzling with the large budget of the film (70 mil). A more streamlined approach would have suited this launching pad of a franchise much better. I tend to like my action movies with less plot... which hurts me to say. Commando, for example, is the perfect action vehicle. Someone kidnaps Arnold's daughter to blackmail him... Arnold has to get her back... simple, to the point. I think movies get too caught up with trying to make a complex plot when really all people who watch action films want is ACTION.

With all the problems I had with Hitman, I genuinely hope they do get to make a sequel with a better plot and secondary actors. The look of the film was also quite impressive. From the locales to the costumes, it was a definite unique vision. Bottom line, Olyphant is a bad ass and there is lots of great eyecandy and explosions. Action fans could do a lot worse than Hitman.


Tuesday, November 27, 2007

Rise: Bloodhunter

The storyline of a woman who wakes up in the morgue as a vampire looking for revenge sounded interesting. Throw in some good actors like Lucy Liu, Michael Chiklis, Carla Gugino, and James D'arcy and you've got me looking forward to it. Alas, I didn't see that Sebastian Gutierrez (wrote the screenplay for Snakes on a Plane) was the writer/director of the project. Gutierrez attempted to make the worst movie ever with his Mermaid Chronicles: She Creature in 2001. Why was I watching said terrible film? I was intrigued much like I was with the cast for Rise. Surely the lovely Ms. Gugino and Rufus Sewell couldn't be in that bad of a film? I was wrong both times.

Rise starts out with the priviously mentioned scene of Lucy Liu waking up and trying to find out what happened to her. She finds out through her investigative skills of her former life that a shady character named Biship (D'arcy) was involved in her fate. As she she tries to track down Bishop, she comes across the path of alcoholic cop Clyde as played by Chiklis. Clyde has had his daughter taken by a myserious cult of goth's and thinks that this Bishop could be the key to her safe return.

On tv, the directors of The Shield make Chiklis seem larger than life. Here in the film, his character seems tiny and weak. His character Clyde has little more than a few scenes drinking in which to try and establish some depth. Lots of holes surround his character that you are just supposed to accept. Liu gets some major props not just for the gratuitous nudity (Thanks Sebastian), but for a lot of hands on fighting. She is obviously in great shape and it seems a pity that the low budget didn't allow her to show this in more elaborate scenes.

Gutierrez just isn't a very good filmmaker. Somehow he keeps getting actors and producers to work with him. I can only hope that will stop... soon please.

Note: After I wrote that, I discovered he already has a new screenplay being made with Jessica Alba, Parker Posey, and Alessandro Nivola (Junebug). How does this keep happening?

10/100 (only received 10 for having Lucy Lui in various states of undress, so if that is not your thing, call it 0/100)


Writer/director Dylan Kidd brought the public one of the best films of 2002 in Roger Dodger. That film was about a teen who spends a night with his playboy uncle and learns about women. It dealt with sex and all the courtship ideas in a mature, funny way. Alas... I wish I could say that continued with Kidd's follow up, P.S. A story of a admissions officer (Laura Linney) who finds herself thrown for a loop when an art student F. Scott (Topher Grace) applies to her university. Topher's character shares the name of an old high school boyfriend of Linney's WHO was also an art student... hmmm.

Linney calls to schedule an interview and she quickly takes him to her apartment soon after for sex. As if that wasn't a complicated enough start to a movie, Gabriel Byrne appears as Linney's exhusband whom she still works with and talks to everyday. Toss in a Marcia Gay Harden as another old love of F. Scott and is best friends with the Linney character and you have a lot of different avenues for the film to go down.

Laura Linney and Gabriel Byrne have the best scenes of the film. Witness one scene where Gabriel owns up to what really drove apart their marriage. This perfectly illustrates just what a good actor can do with so-so material. Whereas, all the scenes with Topher Grace never quite work. Grace seems completely out of his element with real actors. (Apparently, he still thinks he is on a goofy sitcom with that assclown Ashton Kutcher.) His performance is the most important to the story of whether or not you believe Linney's ex is in fact reborn in his body. Grace has proved himself a functional actor who did a decent job with In Good Company, but is all over the place here.

The films takes some very safe choices and tries a little too hard to have a fully resolved ending. I expected much more from the ballsy filmmaker who brought us Roger Dodger. Perhaps with another actor in the F. Scott role, Kidd could have made this material work well enough to give it a shot.... ah but we shall never know.



Quentin Tarantino and Robert Rodriguez set out to create the experience of the "grindhouse" films they grew up loving. Their two films were released together as a 3 hours plus of big budget b-movie lovefest. Grindhouse flopped so the studios were quick to split them up for overseas and dvd.

Tarantino's opus is the killer stuntman on the loose Deathproof. Kurt Russell brings his A-game with his turn as Stuntman Mike. The story is basic and completely throwaway. Mike wants to kill some gals for some reason or another that is never really explained. The first half of the film finds him wanting to kill some gals he follows to a local watering hole. After going through the first half of the film, you find yourself watching a similar scenario 5 years down the road. In this scenario though, Mike has the tables turned on him.

The problem with Deathproof is in the design. Tarantino wants to make a throwback to b-movies, but the problem with that is most b-movies suck. The only thing that can redeem the experience is if the film is fun. Is Deathproof fun? Well... watching Kurt Russell get to do some Tarantino dialogue is a lot of fun. Russell has always been a terrific actor and never gets his props for his acting ability. But the plot behind the film limits to Russell to a one dimensional character for the rest of the film.

All the other performances are awful. Sydney Tamiia Poitier as Jungle Julia is the biggest culprit. She throws out her lines as if she is doing a cheap Samuel L. Jackson impersonation. Hey Sam's great, but you aren't him! Try doing it like a normal person. You find this happening with another actress later on in the film... I guess no one else can bring anything original to the film. Only professional stuntwoman Zoe Bell gets to have some fun in the second half of the film playing herself!

Now that Tarantino has had his fun with the samarai orgy of Kill Bill (which I liked) and the cheap schlock of Deathproof, I can only hope he gets back on track with a real film.


Thursday, November 22, 2007

Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer

Henry is based loosely on the Henry Ray Lucas confessions. Lucas had confessed to killing around 300 people after being caught. The movie never claims to directly reflect any of those acts. Instead it takes the idea behind his life and turns it into a fictional story. Henry (Michael Rooker) is a nomad wandering from town to town. When in Chicago, Henry stays with his friend and former prisoner Otis (Tom Towles). This time when Henry hits the Chi-town, Otis has his sister Becky(Tracy Arnold) staying with him. Becky finds Henry to be a gentleman and perhaps the solution to her loneliness.

One night while out and about, Henry and Otis pick up some prostitutes. In the process of completing their service, one of the prostitutes is quite loud and Henry chokes her to death. Having to act quickly, Otis is forced to help Henry kill the other one. Otis finds that he like the killing and wants Henry to show him how to do it so he won't be caught. This sets up some fascinating and true observations from Henry about the art of murder. Such as, you have to keep moving and never kill anyone you would have a motive for killing.

The killing escalates and soon finds Otis losing his grip on reality completely. The third act delves into the the relationship amongst the three. You do get a sense of where it will go from little hints along the way. A tight 83 minutes means that this film never has a chance to drag.

Rooker is quite good here as the title character. Listening to the commentary from director John McNaughton, you learn that Rooker was basically the third choice for the part. The only way they found him was that he was friends with someone on the crew. Towles is a veteran actor whom most will recognize from his parts in the Rob Zombie films. The movie rests squarely on their shoulders since in essence there is only 3 characters.

Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer caused quite a bit of controversy when it finally got released. By today's standards, it is quite tame. But the acts of violence are quite startling because of the randomness. Rooker portrays Henry as a ruthless machine incapable of being normal for extended periods of time without being able to act out his rage. I found that I appreciated this film more the second time through without being burdened by the initial shock of the plot. An interesting watch and a nice lesson on low budget filmmaking. With just a $100,000 budget to work with, McNaughton manages to craft a chilling tale of just how scary humanity can be at it's worst.

Paths of Glory

Inexplicably, Paths of Glory currently rests in 42nd place on the top 250 of IMDB. Not that it is a bad film, but have this many people really seen it and considered it to be a classic? I realize that the giant population of internet nerds out there who think director Stanley Kubrick is a God and could film dolphins having sex and still get an 8 on IMDB.

The truth is that Kubrick is a great director, but really hit his stride three years later with the classic Spartacus. Paths is a simple film, almost too simple... really unlike his later work. Kirk Douglas plays a French colonel who is given the impossible task to trying to take a hill in WWI. His soldiers are worn out and shredded to pieces from the constant barrages of artillery. When he gives the order to take the hill, a third of the soldiers never even leave the trenches. This angers Douglas's commanding officer enough to request that several of the soldiers be put to a firing squad for cowardice. Douglas decides to investigate and defend said soldiers in their court marshall hearing.

That's about it for plot. At 87 min, there is barely anything to Paths of Glory. Douglas is fine and so is the rest of the cast. The problem is that there is not enough for them to do. My description probably sounds boring... there's a reason for that. The only really positive thing I can say is that the black and white looks great on the battlefield. It adds a starkness to the plight of the soldiers who are faced with certain death if they charge up the hill. It reminded me of that scene in Glory where the regiment attacks the fort.

This film is really for the cinema nerds out there who want to study Kubrick's work. There is some nice visuals for the time period. There is just not enough story to make this essential viewing.


Tuesday, November 20, 2007


Watching a Robert Altman film is like having a great conversation with a beautiful woman for two hours and never seeing her again.
Shortcuts is an adaptation of 6 Raymond Carver stories more or less intertwined together. Some of the stories are more interesting than others. For example, I could have probably done without the Andie Mcdowell storyline all together. In fact, most of the stories on their own wouldn't have made for a decent movie. It is kind of like Memento isn't the same when you watch it in the right order (On the dvd you can unlock an option to do just that). You need to have the other stories to add that level of interest in how they all fit together.

Oh yes, the storylines. One of my favorite scenes in the film is between Fred Ward (underrated) and Anne Archer. Ward has been up fishing with a couple of buddies and they found a floater. Ward explains their decision to not report the body until they get to the last day of their fishing. Of the couples in the film, these two really have chemisty. To watch the interplay between the Archer and Ward does make you wish they had more prominent parts in the film.

Another of the better storylines concerns Tim Robbins as a policeman who is cheating on his ridiculously attractive wife played by Madeline Stowe. It is great to see Robbins in full "Robbins" mode (Not to be confused with going into "Liotta-mode"). He can reach that level of arrogant douchebagness with attention to every detail from his slicked back hair to his sunglasses he keeps on indoors. He is currently seeing Frances McDormand (kind of hot when she was younger) who is going through a divorce from Peter Gallagher.

Shortcuts was one of the first films to really go at the multiple storyline approach. Lots of directors have stolen the concept (Crash, Playing by Heart), while others (Magnolia) have pretty stolen everything from it. Playing by Heart is an underrated gem that feels more like a stage version of an Altman film. The dialogue is less spontaneous and more lived in, but you get a similar experience.

One of the few faults with Shortcuts is that since you are just seeing a snapshot of the people's lives, you never get to find out what happens with most of the characters. Only some of them find resolution before the film comes to an end. The only other complaint I have is that at 190 minutes you could do well to simplify things a bit. Lots of parts could be trimmed down to give more emphasis on the stronger material. I wouldn't quite say a masterpiece, but a near one.


Monday, November 19, 2007

Perfume: The Story of a Murderer

Perfume: The Story of a Murderer tells the tale of a young man named Jean-Baptiste Grenouille who aspires to be a master perfume maker. Grenouille works in a tannery when he convinces an old has been played by Dustin Hoffman. Hoffman's character is the one shining light in this film. It is too bad there isn't more for him to do.

Grenouille (Ben Whishaw) eventually makes the Hoffman character rich and famous again, but with the one condition that he receives a letter designating him as a journeyman perfume maker so he can get a job in the glamorous town of Grasse. The problem is that Grenouille wants to save all the wonderful smells of the world and what could be more wonderful than the scent of a beautiful woman?

Grenouille's arrival in Grasse begins with the glance of such a gal played by Rachel Hurd-Wood. Her father (Alan Rickman) finds out that woman are starting to disappear all over town and instantly wants to look out for his daughter since she is the fairest in the land.

Perfume was directed and cowritten by Tom Tykwer who brought us the misguided Heaven and the overrated Run Lola Run (yes I said it-there isn't enough story to fill up a 30 min sitcom). Obviously... Tykwer has talent in the overall mechanisms in shooting a film and a sense of cinematography. The mistake in Perfume that perhaps can be traced to the source material of the novel of the same name. The third act is quite possibly the worst thing I've ever seen for an ending. Maybe in a lyrical way it fits the book whose tone I'm not familiar with, but as a choice for where this film should go based on the first 110 minutes it fails miserably... it feels like a lazy cop-out.


Sunday, November 18, 2007


Jennifer Jason Leigh is one of the best actresses in film. She throws herself into roles with the feel of a female DeNiro. While no one can doubt her acting chops, you can question her choices in roles. We get it... you like dark characters that usually chain smoke and have an alcohol problem. I think that is a problem with a lot of actors... sometimes the roles just seem to the same thing over and over again. Pacino has practically turned into autopilot with roles in drek like Two for the Money.

Leigh's performance in Mrs. Parker and the Vicious Circle will always be the bar for which her acting will be measured by. With that film you get a full developed character with chilling results. You feel the pain of her failure with men. In Georgia, Jennifer Jason Leigh(Sadie) plays the much less famous sister of a folk singer played by Mare Winningham(Georgia). Sadie's life has consisted of a constant string of failures as a solo artist and in several bands. Drugs and alcohol seem to hold her back each time she takes a step forward.

At one point in the film she meets Axel played by her Rush costar Max Perlich. Axel sees what Sadie can be and can't help fall for her. Like so many people he then finds himself watching the person he cares for come back down to rock bottom. Sadie loves her sister and yet resents her for hitting it big time without any ambition. There's a Buffalo Bill sighting with Ted Levine playing Georgia's loving husband. He sees that Sadie needs help and loves her despite her many mistakes.

Ultimately you have to be able to say whether this film has anything new to say about anything involved. Musically the film seems kind of slapped together in a rush. Despite the appearance of John Doe (X), you never really get going with the music. I think if the filmmakers could have integrated more of that into the storyline and explain what it meant to the sisters that you could have more understanding of the relationship. It all looks good on paper, but it just doesn't add up.

Leigh probably chose this film because of her mother writing the screenplay. It is too bad that it is just all been done before. Picture this as a tv movie with great casting.


Friday, November 16, 2007

Down in the Valley

Cowriter Ed Norton plays a cowboy named Harlan who meets a teen girl named Tobe (Evan Rachel Wood) that invites him to the beach. Harlan accepts the offer and their lives are forever changed. The idea of a relationship between a teen and a 30 year old will probably turn most off of this film right away. That is fine...the goal of this film is to echo westerns in a new age. The age difference in the days of the old west wasn't such a big deal and after awhile I stopped thinking about it.

Obviously, the age difference does make a difference to her father played by the always reliable David Morse. Morse gradually finds his daughter rebeling against his rule and blames it on Harlan. The movie takes a dark turn 80 minutes in that changes things around very quickly. It makes sense, but it doesn't make you feel the same magical way it did before. Reality has shifted from the classic style to reflect the current times.

A lot has to be said for writer/director David Jacobson. The man is very talented in his shots and pacing. I thinking pacing is one of the most underrated aspects of a good film. The directors that do it well consistently make good films. This one does have some lingering scenes, but it all seems to fit the dreamlike atmosphere created by the music. The music consists mostly of songs by Peter Salett and Mazzy Star. It is absolutely haunting when each piece of music comes on...I found myself thinking of the trippy visions of Koester and Sparklehorse. That combined with the cinematography left me thinking of another brilliant filmmaker, David Gordon Green (All the Real Girls).

In a way, Down in the Valley is a beautiful love story and in another its a sad message about our society. Still it challenges the way we view things - people, life in general, and love.
* Down in the Valley was my best film of 2006


A subtle indie flick with Paul Rudd as a clam digger who has to deal with the loss of his father and the call of the road in the summer of '76. The rest of the cast is just as talented as the always terrific Rudd: Ron Eldard (Shep from ER) stars as his best friend Jack who may be dating his sister played by Abby from ER (or Maura Tierney). Josh Hamilton (Kicking and Screaming) plays another friend and digger who is supplementing his income by providing drugs for the local community.

Rudd's father's demise sets into motion the plot of the film with really centers around his character. He starts dating a young gal (Lauren Ambrose from Six Feet Under) from Manhattan who puts into his head the idea of leaving the town. Each of the "diggers" is also contending with the pressure being applied by the large company South Shell that is slowly driving them further away from the best waters and making it tough for them to make a living.

Fine performances all around and some nice cinematography highlight an average indie flick. The story never really takes hold and leads you to anywhere. Afterwords you find yourself having enjoyed the time you've spent with the cast, but you ultimately want something more. There were some nice outtakes and deleted scenes including on the dvd.


The Lives of Others

Winner of the Best Foreign Film at the 2006 Oscars, The Lives of Others comes with impecable reviews. I'm generally a little leary with movies as such... lots of times they seem to be well made, but have some issues with the pacing. The Spanish filmmakers seem to have taken to the style of Tarantino whereas other European directors subscribe to a more old school approach. Lots of lingering shots and symbolism... ala Sean Penn. That style can be good too, but you have to be in the right mood for it.

After finding the time (runtime of 138 min) to watch The Lives of Others, I found myself growing a little restless at the halfway point in the movie. An incredible amount of time is used to set up the last act of the film. The story is about a playwright Georg Dreyman played by the wonderful Sebastian Koch (from Black Book). Dreyman is supporter of the administration in East Germany during the late 70's, early 80's when he catches the eye of a higher up member in the party. He is suspected of treason against the gov't so he is put under the watchful eye of Captain Wiesler (Ulriche Muhe). Wiesler is an admirer of the artist and his lifestyle. He soon becomes defensive of his target when his superiors come looking for dirt on the artist.

Needless to say, complications arise leading Wiesler to have to choose between helping someone he admires or keeping his career on the right track. All the actors do a fine jobs and the subtitles aren't bad at all. It is a shame Muhe died after the film came out because he has a marvelous face for the camera to capture. He gives off the genial Ian Holm vibe, but there always seems to be something lurking under the surface.

Pacing problems aside, The Lives of Others is a well crafted film with great performances from its leading men. I would have liked a bit more of the story to relate to the Wiesler character and less of the repetitive stuff from his target. The ending starts to feel a little tacked on only to finish with a nice touch.


The Reaping

One thing you should know about me... I absolutely adore Hilary Swank. I realize she isn't your usual Hollywood actress. She seems intelligent... maybe a little bit from the country... she is not your typical "beautiful..." but ever since Insomnia... I've loved her for whatever reason. She has earned a long leash on what she does that I will watch. Going into The Reaping I was fully prepared to like what what already proclaimed as a stinker at the box office. For the first 30 minutes, I thought... wait this isn't that bad... how could all these people be talking about this as a blight on Swank's resume? Then I hit the last hour...

Wow... what a mess. Swank plays a former ordained minister who lost her husband and daughter on a mission in Sudan. She since has thrown out the church and investigates "miracles" in an effort to disprove them. Swank gets a request for her and her friend's presence(Stringer Bell from The Wire baby! See pic) in a small town called Haven. Evidently, the river is flowing red with blood. This is allegedly supposed to be the start of the ten plagues... and this my friend is where our old buddy logic goes out the window.

David Morrissey plays a small town widower that helps out Ms. Swank in her investigation. Needless to say, his character knows more than is let on. This, is the same man who sold his soul to appear in the sequel to Basic Instinct.

Let's skip to the complete mess of an ending... I'd love to talk about the stupidity that follows in the plot, but I don't think I could properly put it into words. Wooooooow.

Anway... I think a much better topic would be the career of director Stephen Hopkins. Hopkins was key in directing the first couple of years of the great 24. He has brought you great work such as Ghost and the Darkness, Under Suspicion, and the Life and Death of Peter Sellers along with the imperfect films Judgement Night and ooooh Blown Away. Of course, he also brought us a pile o'shite altready with the big budget version of Lost in Space.

What an intriguing filmmaker! Part of me wishes I could listen to a commentary for The Reaping so Hopkins could explain what the hell was going on.


Thursday, November 15, 2007

The Staircase

Originally a tv movie, The Staircase boasts two very talented leads(Barbara Hershey and William Peterson) stuck in a movie cliche hell. Hershey plays the head nun at a Catholic outpost in New Mexico. She is trying to build a grand church to carry on her legacy after she passes away. The only problem is that death is catching up and the idiot architect forgot to put in a staircase. Ah there you go... a plot... sort of.

The story is set at some point during the 1800's since there is some side story with Geronimo thrown in to pad the film's time. I mean you can't have a tv movie without being able to fill up two hours including the commercials. Peterson plays Joad the carpenter who shows up out of the desert and wants to help. Hmmmmm such subtle symbolism... I must tell you at this point the word "staircase" has been used 4927490702347209 times. It reminds me of when you would read a paper aloud to check to see how it sounds before you turn it in....(back in college) then you notice you've used the same phrases over and over and over and over again. Maybe someone should have read this script out loud before they filmed it.

But I digress... The film is clearly done with the best intentions. The characters are one dimensional and you never really understand what makes this nun so great anyway. There are hints at a romance between the two leads and I found it kind of disturbing... much like when the delicious Natascha McElhone played the uber-hot nun in Revelations. You find out after the film that the story of The Staircase is based on true events. And you get to see photographs of it... wow. Too bad that was the most exciting moment in this movie.


Black Book (Zwartboek)

Paul Verhoeven has brought us several classic films over the years from sci-fi thrillers such as Total Recall to erotic whodunits in Basic Instinct. You always know what you are going to get: lots of sex, lots of graphic violence, and some marvelous camera work. Although most importantly, you get a film director with a vision.

To say I was excited to see Black Book would be an understatement. Verhoeven doesn't make a lot of films these days since the flop that was Hollow Man. We start off with a Jewish girl named Rachel(Carice von Houten) living in hiding during WWII in occupied Netherlands. A twist of fate causes her to once again go on the run from those damn Nazis. She eventually falls in with a group of freedom fighters working the underground.

Rachel decides that she is willing to do anything for the cause... so she, with a former doctor named Hans(Thom Hoffman), goes undercover as Ellis. Her task is to get close to a key German officer played by the gifted actor Sebastian Koch... who many might know from the 2006 Best Foreign Film The Lives of Others. That is enough of a set up... either you'll be intrigued or not by that description. The plot unfolds with quite a few twists and turns to keep you paying attention to every detail.

Verhoeven is a master of the camera, but you never get a feeling that he is grandstanding or doing unnecessary shots to draw attention. But taking a look at the opening sequence is enough to tell you that he and his crew are quite skilled. It sets a tone for the rest of the film that you are in for the aforementioned "vision" the director has for this time period and circumstances.

All the actors are quite strong, but the three leads do award worthy work here. Carice von Houten has the difficult task of holding it all together with a performance that doesn't come acrossed as forced. The complex storyline could easily gone astray without someone to keep the audience grounded. Sebastian Koch also manages to add some depth and humanity to a man that could have been a stereotype.

Black Book is the second best film I've seen this year and that is only because a director named David Fincher decided to drop one of the decades best films (Zodiac) on us earlier this year.


Running on Empty

Sometimes you get a chance to see a truly unique film meant for adults. And that doesn't necessarily mean you get sex, violence, etc, but rather a film that is both intelligent and sincere.

Running on Empty tells the story of the Popes on the run from the law after they blew up a napalm factory during the Vietnam War. Turns out, that a janitor was in the building that wasn't supposed to be... so if the FBI catches them it could mean 15 years in prison. The parents are played very convincingly by the splendid actors Judd Hirsch (Ordinary People) and Christine Lahti (Chicago Hope). They have two sons who constantly have to learn new identities which each new town they are forced to move to each time the "shoes" get too close. River Phoenix is the center of the movie with his portrayal of the older son who finds a first love and a teacher who wants to help him get into college. To do so would mean abandoning his family and stepping into the spotlight.

Most films have taken on the need for plot driven narratives, but this movie feels like a throwback to when the characters were the most important. Being able to get inside of them people you are watching instead of following where the script tells to go is a treat for someone who is tired of the current ouvre of cinema.

This film was directed by Sydney Lumet who I've always felt was a little overrated, but his body of work is quite impressive: The Verdict, Network, Prince of the City, Dog Day Afternoon, The Anderson Tapes, Serpico, and the wonderful Michael Caine film Deathtrap. Lumet seems a bit hit or miss, but always puts an emphasis on the actors and craft. Deathtrap is an essential watch. It is a story about an two men and the secrets between them. It is all set in a country house... I know that sounds someone boring by today's standards, but watching Caine and Christopher Reeves square off is magic. Running on Empty has that same spark each time one of the three leads gets their chance to take center stage.