Friday, December 26, 2008


For this edition of the video roundup I call SIDE ORDERS, I've again fallen back on my love for the marriage of movies and music:

The single best trailer this year was for Michael Haneke's stunning shot-by-shot remake of his 1990s classic Funny Games. This has the drive and flavor of a trailer for one of Kubrick's movies, right down to the choice of music, graphics, and shots. Alone, by itself, this trailer is a damn rocketship that DEMANDS you see Haneke's disturbing indictment of his own viewers as slavishly thirsty consumers of movie violence.

I loved Chicago when I first saw it in 2002, but subsequent viewings have left me sometimes resentful that director Rob Marshall cribbed so much glitter from the directorial stylings of Bob Fosse (who deserves an article all his own on filmicability soon). Fosse's sadly short film directorial career included only five films: 1969's Sweet Charity, 1972's Cabaret (1972 was the year Fosse became the only director in history to win the Oscar, the Tony and the Emmy in one year--a entertainment feat that the world will not ever see matched), 1974's Lenny, 1979's All That Jazz, and 1983's Star 80. On stage, he was behind the choreography and often the direction of such titles as The Pajama Game, Damn Yankees, How To Succeed in Business Without Really Trying, Sweet Charity, Pippin (a version of this starring Ben Vereen, William Katt, Martha Raye and Chita Rivera is still available on DVD and is worth searching out), Dancin', Chicago, and Big Deal (I was lucky enough to see the latter on Broadway while Fosse was still alive--it was actually the first Broadway musical I ever saw, and I loved it, even if it wasn't critically embraced.)

Fosse himself should have directed Chicago on film, but fate had different plans--he died in 1987 at age 60. Still, if one were to look for the director nowadays who do the best Fosse imitation, one would have to stop at Marshall. Studied in every detail, Chicago is very much a Bob Fosse film that's been channeled through the adoring hands of a fan (Marshall even dedicated the film to Fosse and credited him with the choreography). The legendary director's presence can be sensed most egregiously in the nearly climactic number "They Both Reached For The Gun," which follows lawyer Billy Flynn (Richard Gere) as he manipulates both the statements of his murderous client Roxie Hart (Renee Zellweger) and the snarlings of the Windy City's rabid maddog press. Fittingly, this is all performed in an alternate dreamscape (common to Fosse's works) as if Hart is Flynn's ventriloquist dummy, and the press is loping about on marionette strings pulled by the flashy counselor. Coupling a chugging tune, quicksilver editing, note-perfect performances, and creepy Fosse-esque sets/makeup/costumes, "They Both Reached For The Gun" is a powerful defense for the film's eventual win as Best Picture of 2002, if only as a tribute to Fosse's singular genius.

When I first sat down to watch Lina Wertmuller's passionate WWII/Holocaust comedy Seven Beauties, I never expected to see an opening like this! It still stands as one of my twenty favorite beginnings to any film ever. Consisting almost wholly of vintage footage of wartime atrocities, it's punchily narrated (Oh yeah) by the film's lead, Giancarlo Giannini, and jazz scored by Enzo Jannacci. An angry yet amusing damnation of war and its mongers.

Usually, when songs come sweeping into animated movies, I feel them stopping the whole show cold. With notable exceptions like Snow White, Lady and the Tramp, and Beauty and the Beast, I've rarely felt as the addition of songs deepens the quality of animated films. Not so with Randy Newman's "When She Loved Me," the only number written for 1999's Toy Story 2. By the end of this heartrending segment (directed by John Lasseter and Ash Brannon), the viewer cannot help but be moved to their very core. In four minutes flat, the movie vividly reminds us of the adoration we all had for our favorite childhood toys, and the regret most of us have for treating them so poorly once we grew up; it also reminds us somehow of the people we've forgotten in our lives--the ones who once meant so much to us, but who are now nowhere to be found. As such, this scene is one of cinema's sublime contributions to humanity. Sung with typical emotion by Sarah MacLachlan, "When She Loved Me" has set up permanent shop in my soul. It'll always remain one of my favorite movie moments, and is definitely film history's premier match-up of songwriting and animation.

Finally, this little bit of film first appeared on TV as part of Sesame Street, which I watched without fail every day when I was a kid. Recently, one of my friends sent me a link to Lower Case n on YouTube, and I almost doubled over with a nostalgia stroke! This has to rank as the most haunting 1-minute-movie of all time. Written and recorded by Steve Zuckerman in 1970, it was submitted to the Children's Television Workshop from his San Fernando Valley studio, where he concocted the piece solo on a four-track recorder. This unprecedentedly melancholy cartoon (I wish I knew who animated it) is decorated with colorful flower-power-era images and an earwormy tune with evocative lyrics:

In an unknown and far-off place
There was a lower-case n.
Lonely and cold, she would stare off into space
And it was known that she would cry now and then.

Lower-case n
Standing on a hill
The wind is very still
For the lower-case eh-en...

Then one day a rocketship
Came racing from the sky.
It landed on the hill and it opened up a door
And somethin' started comin' outside...

It was a lower-case N!
(She's not lonely anymo-o-re)
Standing on the hill
(There are two that stand for su-u-ure)
The wind is very still
For the lower-case eh-ens!

Thursday, December 25, 2008

Film #99: A Charlie Brown Christmas

The 99th film I'm profiling isn't a theatrical product--it was made for CBS in 1965. It has been repeated as the centerpiece of every Christmas for nearly 50 years, and must surely rank as the most watched (and treasured) examples of animation art ever produced. Thus I think it deserves its place as my favorite short film of all time.

A Charlie Brown Christmas, a 25-minute animate piece based on Charles Schulz's masterful comic strip, is completely unlike anything I've ever seen; once it's on-screen, it's utterly successful in setting a mood all its own. There are two elements, initially, that distinguish it: the music by Vince Guaraldi and his trio (which still stands as the finest Christmas soundtrack, especially with its delightful opening song "Christmas Time is Here"); and the indescribable vocal performances by the mostly amateur kids Schulz and producer/animator Bill Melendez chose to represent these characters. Incredibly, both were originally nixed by the CBS executives, who not only felt that adults should have been cast in these roles and that the eventually-million-selling score was too boppy for the mainstream, but that the whole piece would be better sullied up with a laugh track. This shows how out-of-touch these execs were, because it's the resplendent SOUND of A Charlie Brown Christmas that really grabs our hearts.

Originally sponsored by Coca-Cola (who bizarrely tried to fit in a few now-deleted product placements in its first airings), this half-hour piece follows Charlie Brown as he battles a holiday depression brought on by the commercialization of Christmas. Visiting Lucy's psychiatric stand, he's cajoled into being the director of the kids' Christmas play (the way his face lights up when Lucy suggests this is pure joy). Charlie Brown arrives on stage as Schroeder and the gang are dancing madly about. (The dances each of these eight kids are doing have become cultural touchstones; these are some terrific moves!)

As director, Charlie Brown struggles to get his cast's attention but when it's clear they're not getting anywhere near discovering the true meaning of Christmas, Charlie Brown determines the play's necessity: a big Christmas tree as the stage's centerpiece. It's here that Charlie sets out with Linus to find the perfect tree. But instead of getting a big pink artificial doo-dad at the local lot (as Lucy suggests), Charlie Brown falls in love with an anemic-looking baby tree with barely enough branches on it to hang one ornament on ("Gee, do they still make wooden Christmas trees?" Linus exclaims). It's this little tree that becomes the symbol for what Christmas is all about: a pure, unadulterated love for the most forsaken of beings.

Even after seeing it hundreds of times, I decided to pop in my old 1985 VHS copy of the special this Christmas morning. Being a lifelong fan of Charles Schulz's work, I knew I would enjoy watching A Charlie Brown Christmas again. But I was surprised at how many times I howled during the piece. Most of these laughs come from Snoopy, who's first seen in the body of the special sitting atop his doghouse, reading the paper and literally crunching bones one by one. I treasure the way he imitates on stage a sheep, a cow, a penguin, a vulture, and finally a fussbudgeting Lucy. And when he's caught dancing atop Schroeder's piano, the music abruptly stops and, as he's being stared down by Schroeder and Lucy, the beagle turns red (through his fur) and sheepishly slinks away. I'm telling you, this is comedy.

Child actor Peter Robbins played Charlie Brown all throughout the 1960s, up until the comic strip's 1969 big-screen outing A Boy Named Charlie Brown. His impassioned, strangely gravelly delivery IS the way Charlie Brown is supposed to sound, and unfortunately, when Robbins quit doing the voice, he'd so embodied the role that none of his replacements could measure up. Ditto Chris Shea (brother of actor Eric Shea, most famous for being the kid in 1972's The Poseidon Adventure). Shea's lispy personification of Linus Van Pelt has precisely the intelligence, humor and warmth this classic character deserves. I swear, when Linus takes the stage ("Lights, please!") and quotes from the King James Bible, with that poetry echoing through a quiet, cavernous gosh, I tear up every time. This surely must be the most effective use of Bible verse in pop culture:

"And there were in the same country shepherds abiding in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night. And, lo, the angel of the Lord came upon them, and the glory of the Lord shone round about them: and they were sore afraid. And the angel said unto them, Fear not: for, behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people. For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Saviour, which is Christ the Lord. And this shall be a sign unto you; Ye shall find the babe wrapped in swaddling clothes, lying in a manger. And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God, and saying, 'Glory to God in the highest, and on earth, peace, good will toward men.'"

The utter silence after this moment passes is complete sublimity. Blanket in tow, Linus approaches his depressed friend and sagely says "That's what Christmas is all about, Charlie Brown." (Amazingly, the CBS execs even wanted to delete this scene, because they felt no one would sit still for a Bible lesson. But Charles Schulz stood firm: "If we don't say it, who will?")  I always loved Charles Schulz for his obvious faith, and for his firm but delicate way of transmitting it to all his comics' fans; it's the one place where no one, even unbelievers, can submit a complaint against such perfectly conveyed passion. 

I could go on and on about the merits of A Charlie Brown Christmas--about the unique animation, and the film's emotional fun. I suspect that, for the rest of my life, I will rarely let a Yuletide go by without enjoying it at least once. That there are millions upon millions who agree with me surely must be the highest praise that can be bestowed upon it. Winner of the 1966 Emmy and a prestigious Peabody Award to boot, this moving short film is a masterpiece if ever there was one.

NOTE: The amazing Happiness is a Warm Blanket, Charlie Brown, from 2011, produced and co-written by Shulz's son Craig, is a sign that things are gonna get better for this series. 

Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Film #98: Little Women (1994)

It being Christmas Eve, 2008, I figured I'd offer up a recommendation for a holiday movie everyone should enjoy, but relatively few movie lovers ever site in this manner. Australian director Gillian Anderson delivered quite a lovely screen version of Louisa May Alcott's perennial classic Little Women in 1994, and though it's not a Christmas movie per se, it sure feels like one. In fact, watching Little Women is not unlike cuddling up with your loved ones in front of a warm fire, as the lights twinkle on the tree, the snow billows outside a vast picture window, and the musty scent of hot chocolate wafts in from the kitchen. It's just that cozy a picture.

Episodic, and largely plotless, Little Women charts ten years in the lives of the March women--mother Abigail (called "Marmee" by her hatchlings, and played with verve by Susan Sarandon) and her four daughters: fledgling writer Jo (Winona Ryder), shy Meg (Trini Alvarado), quiet homebody Beth (Clair Danes), and the boisterous Amy (played both by the young Kirsten Dunst, and then in later ladyhood by Samantha Mathis). If the film does have a story arc, it lies in the search by all four of these girls to find love and personal identity as they weather poverty, illness, family strife, and loneliness for their father, who's off fighting in America's Civil War.
The male side of this film's cast is as stellar as its female coterie. Christian Bale officially made the jump from child actor (Empire of the Sun, Newsies) to adult star with his showy supporting role as Laurie, the wealthy next-door neighbor's son who's smitten mightily with the March family. Gabriel Byrne is fine as Friedrich, the wise literature maven whom Jo falls for in her writerly sojourn to New York. And Eric Stoltz--who, that same year, delivered another impressive supporting role in a very different movie called Pulp Fiction--plays Laurie's ultra-serious teacher who's wandering eye is also drawn to the Marchs. Add to the mix veteran character actress Mary Wickes in her final film role as the snooty, headstrong Aunt March, and you get a playbill that's quite difficult to best.

In cinema history, Little Women hit the big screen twice before: George Cukor delivered a 1938 version that starred Spring Byington as Marmee, Katherine Hepburn as Jo, Frances Dee as Meg, Jean Parker as Beth and Joan Bennett as Amy; then, in 1949, Mervyn LeRoy directed a version with Mary Astor (Marmee), June Allyson (Jo), Janet Leigh (Meg), Margret O'Brien (Beth) and Elizabeth Taylor (Amy). Both adaptations are worth catching, especially considering their star power. However, surprisingly, Gillian Anderson's version is the definitive one; it is warm, funny, empowering, and highly, wonderfully sentimental (plus its casting, unlike on previous attempts, is pitch perfect).

Though Winona Ryder was the only lady in the movie to garner an Oscar nomination--in what's certainly one of her finest on-screen showings--I guarantee there will be two supporting performances that will really knock your socks off. The 11-year-old Kirsten Dunst, who'd only debuted in movies months before with a showy role in Neil Jordan's Interview with a Vampire, carved another notch into an instantly promising career with her performance as the young, chatty Amy. She gets most of the movie's laughs with her endless kvetching about bringing limes to school, her witty home truths ("You only need one boy--if he's the right one"), and her silly brattiness (the moments where she takes revenge on Jo in a most unsettling manner come to mind here, as well as here reaction to Jo cutting off her hair to provide money for her family: "No! Jo! Your one beauty!"). If the movie strikes even one disappointing note, it's that Dunst isn't able to appear in the latter half of the film, as she's replaced by the older Samantha Mathis (it's intrinsic to Amy's character that she grows up to be a more refined lady, but Anderson's film loses a little steam without Dunst's brassy presence).

Most surprisingly, though, it's the quietest member of the cast that gets the tears rolling down my face every time I watch Little Women. Clare Danes plays the least ambitious of the March clan, Beth, with a boundless surplus of heart. Sickly and unfailingly domestic, her Beth is unbelievably sweet, and unjustly low of self-esteem. Though she has many fewer lines than her counterparts, she's at the center of the film's two most heart-tugging scenes (which I won't give away here). Suffice it to say that her one monologue in the movie will have you grabbing for a hanky or two--and I don't care how hard-hearted you are.

There are a few sparkling yuletide scenes in this snowy, New England-set tale that cement my proposition that Little Women is an unsung Christmas classic. And there are further gifts under the film's tree: the snappy, never-boring screenplay by Robin Swicord (co-writer of this year's The Curious Case of Benjamin Button); the lush, even heartbreaking score by Thomas Newman--one of the 50 best examples of movie music in the history of cinema (and which was also nominated for an Oscar, as was Newman's other shining 1994 contribution to film music, The Shawshank Redemption); Colleen Atwood's perfectly detailed costume design; and Geoffrey Simpson's gorgeous lensing, which offers us creamy pastels, toasty reds, and blinding ice whites. Do yourself a favor: this Christmas, treat your family--especially if you have some budding ladies in the house--to Little Women, and bathe yourselves in its abundant warmth.

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Film #97: Napoleon Dynamite

A reprint here of the interview Dark City Dame (of Noirish City fame) conducted with me in November 2009 regarding one of my favorite movies of the 2000s!

DarkCityDame: Let me start off by asking you this question: why did you select the film Napoleon Dynamite to be #23 on your list of the top 30 films from this decade?

Dean: It's really quite simple: no movie of the 2000s made me laugh harder. I cackled all the flippin' way through. I marveled at Jon Heder's mouthbreathing lead performance, at Aaron Ruell's whiny Kip, and at Jon Gries' way-too-confident Uncle Rico. I laughed at the bargain-basement shirts Napoleon wears, his shaded drawings of ligers and farting unicorns, and at Napoleon's obvious bliss at miming the flapping bird wings during a sign-languaged classroom performance of "The Rose." I laughed at that memorable dialogue, and those rigid camera set-ups. And I seriously almost burst a blood vessel guffawing at Napoleon's on-stage dance toward the film's end; that's a split-second in a theater where I thought I might choke from glee (it's a movie that benefits from seeing it with an audience, like any great cult film does). I mean, I could go on and on talking about all the merry details of this movie, extraordinarily well-directed by Jared Hess. Have you seen it, Dame?

DarkCityDame: Yes and no. While channel surfing I’ve stumbled upon it in the middle and watched it to the end.

Dean: It’s an easy movie to pick up on in that way. It makes for perfect television. I think one of the best things about Napoleon Dynamite is that, in its ease, it refrains from making fun of its characters. It finds them funny, yes, but it treats them as humans, not just as the butt of hateful jokes as in a movie like Welcome to the Dollhouse, for instance, which I think is quite cruel to its nerdy characters (and which is a movie I absolutely abhor--one of the meanest of all time, in my opinion, though that may be part of its point). By the end of Napoleon Dynamite, we find we've fallen in love with Napoleon, Pedro (the terrific Efren Ramirez), Kip and Deb (Tina Majorino) and even the wonderfully-named "villain" Summer Wheatly (Haylie Duff, Hillary's sister). Hell, I even loved Summer's always-incredulous-faced boyfriend Don, smartly played by Trevor Snarr (every time that guy came on screen, even as part of a huge crowd, I smiled). This is a movie that really has no villains. It's just too lovely for that. 

DarkCityDame: I liked the character portrayed by Jon Gries--Uncle Rico.

Dean: Yeah, he was nominated for an Independent Spirit award for his work, which is superb. On the DVD commentary, Gries (the son of Emmy-winning director Tom Gries, who did Helter Skelter, Will Penny and so much more distinguished work) talks about how he had to eat a lot of bloody steaks in his role as Uncle Rico. Rico is definitely a meat eater. Only problem is, the actor's a vegetarian, so he had to spit the steak out after each take. If you notice, you never see Gries swallowing anything. And that character of Rico is such a gloriously phony, lovable tough guy. I adore how he screams really high-pitched when Napoleon nails his ultra-cool van with some rotten fruit! And the goofy little fey pose he offers up when Deb takes his photo is pure genius. It make you root for him! 

DarkCityDame: Hahaha!

Dean: And that scene in the dojo with Diedrich Bader beating up on Kip is a scream (Jon Heder says that's the scene he had the hardest time keeping a straight face with during shooting--if you look closely, you can see Heder in the background trying to hide his laughter). But nothing trumps the moment where Napoleon performs on stage. It's strange to say but it's true: it's one of the most electric dance numbers since Travolta hit the floor in Saturday Night Fever! Seriously, no one in modern movies has such smooth and original moves as Heder sports in this sequence. And I absolutely adore the gentle love affair between Deb and Napoleon. Their slow dance together, to Cyndi Lauper's "Time After Time," where he comments on Deb's dress sleeves, saying he likes them and that they're "real big," is something so sweet that I look forward to every time I see the film. And that final shot of them playing tetherball together, all to that transcendent closing song, with the school's water sprinklers spritzing delicately in the background, is utter cinematic perfection. It's the kind of perfection that makes me weep with joy. 

DarkCityDame: Too bad Roger Ebert wouldn't agree with you!

Dean: Really? Ebert didn't like the movie?

DarkCityDame: Nope. Check out what he thought over there on Wikipedia about this film. But Rotten Tomatoes gave it the thumbs up!

Dean: Okay, I'm reading it now. Hmmm...I see Ebert also compares it to Welcome to the Dollhouse. He writes: “Watching Napoleon Dynamite, I was reminded of Welcome to the Dollhouse, Todd Solondz's brilliant 1996 film starring Heather Matarazzo as an unpopular junior high school girl. But that film was informed by anger and passion, and the character fought back. Napoleon seems to passively invite ridicule, and his attempts to succeed have a studied indifference, as if he is mocking his own efforts.” But, like a few of the critics on Rotten Tomatoes, I don't think this is the case at all!

DarkCityDame: Why not? 

Dean: Napoleon is an individual who's perfectly happy with the world he’s set up for himself. (The film's first lines: "What are you gonna do today, Napoleon?" "Whatever I feel like doing! God!!") Look, he's always trying to improve his station in life--he could use a few more bucks and a few more friends. But he's got plenty of confidence and comfort on his own. Shit, no one could get on stage and dance like he does at the end of the movie without a lot of inherent confidence. Napoleon hears a different drummer, that's for sure, but it's no prob. He's got Deb and Pedro and his hobbies and his pride, and even without that support system, he's devised some way of coming out on top. And, contrary to what Ebert thinks, he fights back quite handily against anyone who's dumb enough to confront him (it's right there in the film). Geez, I feel like the girl in Welcome to the Dollhouse plays the victim a great deal more; she's just a boneless punching bag in that movie. I dunno. Ultimately, it sounds like Ebert wanted this to be one kind of film and it turned out to be another, and THAT'S what he's angry about. He just couldn't get into the goofy spirit of it all. It's too bad. I respect his writing tremendously, of course. However, I never agreed with him every single time. In fact, I should say that Ebert often gave the benefit of the doubt to movies I felt should've been dismissed outright. Why he couldn’t offer a kind little film like Napoleon Dynamite more of a chance is beyond me; it just does not compute. Maybe he was infuriated by the dumb yuks Hess was successful in getting, while ostensibly smarter pictures failed miserably in this effort. But, personally speaking, this sweet, doofy, well-crafted movie represents the rare instance in which I revel in essentially idiotic, but somehow smart spirits. Napoleon Dynamite is like a math conundrum that's already been solved, and yet its solution is so simple few can come close to comprehending it, except to say that it results in truth.

DarkCityDame: Was this film released through a major studio? I wonder how well it did at the box office?

Dean: Fox Searchlight picked it up after it got tremendous buzz at Sundance. They paid for the song rights to the soundtrack, and for a tony credits sequence masterminded by graphic design artist Pablo Ferro, who did the credits for Dr. Strangelove and A Clockwork Orange and special sequences for Midnight Cowboy and Being There. About the only thing I don't think really works in Napoleon Dynamite is the post-credits epilogue Fox shelled out for after it became a hit, which has Napoleon attending Kip's wedding to Lafawnda (a fun, unusually mature Shondrella Avery). This epilogue feels like what it is--a stuck-on afterthought--and it has relatively few laughs (though I do greatly enjoy Kip's lame-o wedding song, which really makes it worth watching). But this is a minor point to pick at. In the end, Napoleon Dynamite is to me the most engaging comedy of the past 15 years. It's right up there with This Is Spinal Tap and The Princess Bride in its quotability. And, not that it matters, but it did tremendously well at the box office, making $46 million worldwide on a $400,000 investment, easily becoming the most profitable movie of 2004.

DarkCityDame: I know that it's quotable. You can find a ton of t-shirts decorated with lines from it.

Dean: I know! "Vote for Pablo." I'd wear that shirt anywhere. That's because the film rings so true, even if it is delivered in a highly unusual manner. "My lips hurt real bad." I like that line especially. And I swoon with laughter when an irritated Napoleon has to go out and feed his grandmother’s llama--“Tina, you fat lard, come and get your food. EAT THE FOOD!” In fact, Hess (who penned the script with his wife Jarusha) staunchly admits much of the film's moxie hails from he and his brothers' own high school experiences in Idaho, where the movie was filmed (and, yeah, that’s Hess' mother’s llama). That basis in reality shows up in surprisingly believable ways, even though this is a very stylized movie. Actually, I should note here that I find Napoleon Dynamite quite beautiful to look at, which is not something one can say for most comedies. Every cloud in the sky, every Idaho hill, every telephone wire and chain link fence seems to be just-so placed in the frame (and the camera never moves!). Amazing! And I love the way everything in this small town is fifteen years behind the times. They have the internet, but the Dynamite family still doesn’t have a cordless phone? They still look at videotapes? They still listen to '80s music and sport '80s fashions? It's all so wonderfully weird, and yet not outside the realm of possibility.

DarkCityDame: It's almost like they're caught in a time warp!

Dean: Exactly. In fact, one of the funnier moments in this rather episodic movie has Uncle Rico, who painfully longs to be back in his '80s-era football hero days, bringing home a "time machine" which Napoleon tries out. (In the DVD commentary, Hess said that he and his brothers once purchased a machine very much like this--"Wait, let me add the crystals"--and all it did was shock them!)

DarkCityDame: Hahaha!

Dean: Good stuff. The DVD has a terrific commentary and lots of nifty extras, including the 10-minute black-and-white short that inspired the film. And Napoleon Dynamite has a splendid soundtrack, bedecked with a poppy original score by John Swihart. I'm not much a fan of '80s music, but the film sports some choice picks from that era, as well as from the '90s and 2000s (a White Stripes song, "I Can Tell That We Are Gonna Be Friends," opens the film). And it closes with “The Promise,” a catchy one-hit-wonder by When In Rome that I just can’t get out of my head after the film's over. I love that song so much I think I’ve got it committed to memory. Ahh, that ending to this's majestic.

Dean: I have to say, I've found myself wishing Hess and company would mount a sequel. With so many needless continuations out there, I could see so many places for this character to go! Here's a perhaps pedestrian idea: I’d like to see Napoleon travel to a bigger city in Iowa to compete in a tetherball or dance championship or something like that (although that might be a little bit too much like those bad sports comedies that have been coming at us in the wake of Dodgeball). Still, I bet Hess could make it work (now, it's too late, though--the actors have aged out of the roles). I liked very much Hess' wrestling movie follow-up Nacho Libre, starring Jack Black, even though it wasn't half as engaging as Napoleon Dynamite (Gentleman Broncos came much closer to matching Hess' original promise, but by the time that accomplished film arrived, it certainly felt like the director's heat had diminished). Admittedly, he and his wife Jarusha (the writer of the more recent Austenland) might have to try very hard to deliver a work as good as this one. But I still maintain high hopes for them both. Napoleon Dynamite is just a really charming, uproarious movie throughout. I'm passionately rooting for the Hess team to rise again, because I believe in my heart that subsequent works could be comedy of the first order.  Actually, in my mind, Hess is already at the apex.

Dean: And I have to reiterate: That dance scene at the end. Oh my gosh. It's perhaps the greatest solo dance scene in extra-modern movie history. And the way it functions as a kind of unexpected Rocky-like ending is just like nothing one could have imagined. It's so simply filmed and, other than that strikingly zoomy A-Team scored sequence, is the only time we see any movement from the camera. Jon Heder, moving with such exquisite precision to Jamiroqui's incredible "Canned Heat," while in those moon boots that were so beat up on set, they were nearly falling apart--oh my lord...what a dynamic bit of movie making we have here. Just incredible. I have no further words for it. I'm done.

DarkCityDame: Thank you, Dean for talking to me about this incredible comedy.   

Dean: Thank you, Dame, for giving me the opportunity to go on and on. Napoleon Dynamite is a piece of film work I could gush about endlessly. Literally, every shot in this movie makes me wanna go on a rant about how moving and hysterical it is. It's strange--there's a part of me that tells my soul it's a movie made for me, and only me. That so many others love it--worship it, even--just completely devastates me with silly ecstasy.

Sunday, December 21, 2008

What About The Honorary Awards?

As a ridiculously devout follower of the Oscars, I pay attention to the details. That means that I wonder, every annum, who's gonna win the Honorary Oscars AS WELL as them Golden Boys we all expect to be handed out year after year.

To wit: In 2004, I was surprised, but then really not so much so, when I predicted the winner of that year's Honorary Oscar to be the reliable producer/director/writer Sidney Lumet, who'd just done too many great movies to be ignored--among them, 12 Angry Men, Long Day's Journey Into Night, The Pawnbroker, The Fugitive Kind, Fail-Safe, The Hill, The Anderson Tapes, Serpico, Murder on the Orient Express, Dog Day Afternoon, Network, Equus, Prince of the City, Deathtrap, Running on Empty, and The Verdict.

In 2005, I easily (I thought) predicted Robert Altman would win a Special Oscar for his unparalleled career work, which included M.A.S.H., Images, McCabe and Mrs. Miller, The Long Goodbye, Thieves Like Us, California Split, Nashville, 3 Women, Popeye, Brewster McCloud, Come Back to the Five and Dime Jimmy Dean Jimmy Dean, Secret Honor, The Player, A Prairie Home Companion, Short Cuts, Cookie's Fortune, and Gosford Park.

In 2006, I amazed myself mightily by predicting that Ennio Morricone would win an Honorary Oscar for his contribution to film music, with credits such as The Good The Bad and The Ugly, The Mission, The Untouchables, 1900, La Cage Aux Folles, Once Upon a Time in the West, Once Upon A Time In America, Days of Heaven, Burn!, Bugsy, Frantic, Danger: Diabolik, The Thing, A Fistful of Dollars, For A Few Dollars More, Duck You Sucker, and The Bird with the Crystal Plumage.

I admit now that I failed to predict the 2007 winner, Robert Boyle (whose credits include North by Northwest, The Birds, Fiddler on the Roof, The Russians are Coming, Gaily Gaily, and Shadow of a Doubt). I mean, really--who could have predicted that? However, I heartily applauded the Academy's notation.

Now I attempt to foresee the 2008 winner of the Honorary Oscar (as well as the winner of the Jean Hersholt Humanitarian Award).

This is an uber-challenging aspect of Oscar prognostication that I haven't even seen my three favorite Oscar predix sites The Envelope, In Contention, and Awards Daily attempt to tackle. But I'm now hellbound to deliver my top ten possibilities (or recommendations) for the winner of the AA's Honorary Award, with only two predictions--long time comin'--for its Humanitarian Award PLUS a special bonus.

The top ten possibilities, in my view, for the Honorary Award (in order):

Gordon Willis, cinematographer (The Landlord, Klute, The Godfather, Bad Company, The Paper Chase, The Godfather Part II, All The President's Men, Annie Hall, Interiors, Manhattan, Stardust Memories, Pennies From Heaven, Zelig, Broadway Danny Rose, The Purple Rose of Cairo, The Godfather Part III) (Willis's singular style of photography put a chestnut-colored brand on the movies he's worked on like no other cinematographer out there. With only one nomination under his belt--believe it or not!--the man has been ignored for too long. He is my #1 pick for the Honorary Oscar this year.)

Lauren Bacall, actress (To Have and To Have Not, The Big Sleep, Dark Passage, Key Largo, How To Marry a Millionaire, Written on the Wind, Murder on the Orient Express, The Shootist, The Mirror Has Two Faces, Dogville, Birth, Manderlay, The Walker) (Bacall is one of the last the major star-powered name left from the 40s. She's running neck-and-neck with Willis, and may very well best him.)

James Ivory, writer/director/producer (Shakespeare Wallah, The Wild Party, Roseland, The Europeans, The Bostonians, A Room With A View, Maurice, Mr. and Mrs. Bridge, Howards End, The Remains of the Day, A Soldier's Daughter Never Cries, The White Countess) (The American-born Ivory has been a internationally-renowned figure of cinema for four decades. He'll might not win Best Director this late in his career, so should he now win an Honorary Award, given his resume's brilliant pedigree?)

Roger Corman, producer/director/impresario (It Conquered The World, Not Of This Earth, Machine Gun Kelly, A Bucket of Blood, The House of Usher, The Pit and the Pendulum, The Intruder, The Raven, Little Shop of Horrors, The Terror, X: The Man with the X-Ray Eyes, The Masque of the Red Death, The Wild Angels, The St. Valentine's Day Massacre, The Trip, Bloody Mama, Dementia 13, Boxcar Bertha, Unholy Rollers, Cockfighter, Big Bad Mama, Death Race 2000, Hollywood Boulevard, Jackson County Jail, Eat My Dust, Candy Stripe Nurses, I Never Promised You A Rose Garden, Targets, Saint Jack, Rock and Roll High School, The Tin Drum) (Corman has mainly been a purveyor of A-list schlock. But how can one ignore the guy who gave starts to Coppola, Scorsese, Bogdanovich, Ron Howard, Joe Dante, Jonathan Kaplan, Jonathan Demme, and sooooooooooo many others?)

Albert Maysles, director/producer/cinematographer (Salesman, Primary, Gimme Shelter, Grey Gardens, Christo in Paris, Showman, Christo's Valley Curtain, Running Fence, The Gates, The Beatles: The First US Visit, Monterey Pop, Meet Marlon Brando) (The greatest living documentarian has never won an Oscar. Is it time to rectify this?)

Jerry Lewis, actor/writer/director/producer (My Friend Irma, The Errand Boy, Scared Stiff, The Bellboy, The Ladies Man, The Nutty Professor, The Patsy, Artists and Models, The Delicate Delinquent, The Geisha Boy, The Family Jewels, The Disorderly Orderly, Who's Minding The Store?, Arizona Dreams, Funny Bones, The King of Comedy) (Not only is he an influential screen comedian, he also has captivated the world with his groundbreaking directorial stylings, has impressed with his late-career adventurousness and will always be remembered for his undying devotion to his pet causes.)

Werner Herzog, writer/producer/director (Aguirre: The Wrath of God, Fitzcarraldo, Cobra Verde, Woyzeck, Nosferatu The Vampire, Even Dwarves Started Small, Every Man for Himself and God Against All, Heart of Glass, Stroszek, Where The Green Ants Dream, Lessons of Darkness, Little Dieter Needs To Fly, Grizzly Man, Rescue Dawn, Encounters at the End of the World, Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans, Cave of Forgotten Dreams, ) (His is an unusual body of work that's very obviously award-worthy, even as it seems to be entering a third distinct phase.)

Jean Luc-Godard, writer/director (Breathless, Weekend, 2 or 3 Things I Know About Her, Band of Outsiders, Masculin/Feminin, Alphaville, Contempt, Pierrot Le Fou, Number Two, Hail Mary, Histoire(s) du cinéma, Nouvelle Vague, Forever Mozart, In Praise of Love) (Godard would be number one on this list, were it not obvious that he might literally piss on the Oscar live in front of a billion viewers.)

Peter Bogdanovich, writer/director/producer (Targets, The Last Picture Show, What's Up Doc?, Daisy Miller, Paper Moon, Nickelodeon, Saint Jack, They All Laughed, Mask, Texasville, The Cat's Meow) (Like Altman, only less long-lasting, Bogdanovich is another director from the 1970s that has done enough great work to merit the award' this in addition to his continuing contribution to recorded film history with his always revealing DVD commentaries, which further his standing as America's answer to France's cabal of critics-turned-filmmakers.)

Woody Allen, writer/director/star (Yes, he's already got three Oscars. But I defy anyone to name one past superstar winner--like Robert Redford, Warren Beatty, and Sidney Poitier before him--that deserves to net this special award as well.)

Thursday, December 18, 2008

Film #96: Oh How I Hate To Get Up In The Morning!

Max and Dave Fleischer were sibling animators who made film history with their long series of Betty Boop, Popeye, and Superman cartoons, and with their groundbreaking full-length 1939 movie Gulliver's Travels (the first non-Disney animated feature and the first film to use a process of animation called rotoscoping, based on tracings of live action images, later popularized further by 70s/80s-era animator Ralph Bakshi). In 1932, the Fleischers also unwittingly helped pioneer the art form of the music video with Oh How I Hate To Get Up In The Morning, a promotional clip for Irving Berlin's song, here spiritedly sung on-screen and off by those powder-faced "Wandering Minstrels" Les Reis and Artie Dunn. After a chorus or two, Reis & Dunn's early-Gramophone-flavored harmonies act as score for the Fleichers' playful illustrations in which absolutely everything--even the morning bell--is waking up before the army grunts at a sluggish boot camp.

There's no plot at all to this piece--it really does resemble a "Wandering Minstrels" video, with the Fleichers generously throwing in a Betty Boop cameo, a bouncing-ball sing-a-long segment, and a clever blend of animation and live-action. I saw this short once on AMC, back when the network was still cool and commercial-free, and somehow I've always remembered it--maybe because the song itself is so catchy. It IS an Irving Berlin creation, after all (it was performed by Berlin, George Murphy, and Charles Butterworth in Michael Curtiz's 1943 film of the songwriter's wartime stage revue This Is The Army). I, personally, do despise getting up in the morning, so it's the kind of ditty that's fun for me to hum sometimes, y' help get me through the dreaded A.Ms. Anyway, there's a mother lode of teeny, delightful animated moments here--some surprising in their surrealism, others in their charming obviousness. As usual with the Fleichers' work, Oh How I Hate To Get Up In The Morning fleetly chugs along, with its simple construction from a plotless string of visual gags being a pro rather than con. And, hey, dig that 30s-era pop music sound--talk about a window into another era! How can ya not love it?

Thursday, December 11, 2008

My 20 Favorite Actresses

In taking Tony Dayoub of Cinema Viewfinder up on his invitation for me to join the 20 Favorite Actresses meme started by Nathaniel at Film Experience, I tried hard to balance my love of these ladies' acting ability equally with my adoration of their feminine wiles. I also attempted to make my list an appreciation of actresses from all different eras--from the 1920s to now. I think I've done quite well on both fronts. At any rate, here are my current favorites:

Emily Watson (key films: Breaking the Waves, Punch-Drunk Love, Synecdoche NY, Hillary and Jackie, Angela's Ashes, The Proposition, Gosford Park, The Boxer, War Horse. Cradle Will Rock, Corpse Bride, Anna Karinina, The Book Thief)

Meryl Streep (key films: Kramer Vs. Kramer, Sophie's Choice, Manhattan, A Cry in the Dark, The Devil Wears Prada, Silkwood, Julia, Adaptation, A Prairie Home Companion, Doubt, Ironweed, Defending Your Life, Mamma Mia, Julie and Julia, Out of Africa, One True Thing, The Bridges of Madison County, The Hours, Angels in America, Holocaust, The Deer Hunter, The Iron Lady, Hope Springs, August: Osage County, The Homesman, Into the Woods)

Grace Kelly (Key films: Rear Window, To Catch a Thief, High Society, High Noon, Dial M for Murder, Mogambo, The Country Girl, The Bridges at Toko-Ri)

Greta Garbo (Key films: Queen Christina, Ninochka, The Flesh and The Devil, Camille, Grand Hotel, The Painted Veil, Anna Christie, Anna Karinina, Mata Hari, Conquest)

Diane Keaton (Key films: Annie Hall, Reds, Manhattan, Play It Again Sam, The Godfather, Looking for Mr. Goodbar, Interiors, Love and Death, Sleeper, Lovers and Other Strangers, The Godfather Part II, Shoot the Moon, The Good Mother, Manhattan Murder Mystery, Something's Gotta Give, Marvin's Room, Crimes of the Heart, Sister Mary Explains It All)

Vivian Leigh (key films: Gone With The Wind, That Hamilton Woman, A Streetcar Named Desire, Ship of Fools, Waterloo Bridge, The Roman Spring of Mrs. Stone, A Yank at Oxford, Anna Karinena, Fire Over England)

Audrey Hepburn (key films: Funny Face, Breakfast at Tiffany's, Two for the Road, Wait Until Dark, Roman Holiday, The Nun's Story, Sabrina, Love in the Afternoon, They All Laughed, Robin and Marian, Always, The Children's Hour, Charade, How to Steal a Million, My Fair Lady)

Jean Arthur (key films: The More The Merrier, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, Shane, The Talk of the Town, The Devil and Miss Jones, Only Angels Have Wings, Easy Living, You Can't Take It With You, Mr. Deeds Goes to Town, The Plainsman, History is Made at Night)

Kirsten Dunst (key films: Bring It On, Little Women, Interview With A Vampire, Spiderman, Crazy/Beautiful, Levity, Marie Antoinette, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, The Cat's Meow, Spiderman II, Dick, The Virgin Suicides, Wag the Dog, Melancholia, Bachelorette, Fargo (TV))

Zooey Deschanel (key films: All The Real Girls, (500) Days of Summer, The Good Girl, Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, Tin Man, Live Free or Die, Almost Famous, Mumford, Elf, The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, New Girl (TV))

Myrna Loy (key films: the Thin Man series, Mr. Blandings Builds His Dream House, The Best Years of Our Lives, The Thin Man, After The Thin Man, The Mask of Fu Manchu, The Great Ziegfeld, Manhattan Melodrama, Another Thin Man, The Rains Came, The End, The Bachelor and the Bobby-Soxer, Cheaper by the Dozen, Shadow of the Thin Man, Lonleyhearts, Midnight Lace)

Helen Mirren (key films: O Lucky Man, The Tempest, Excalibur, The Cook The Thief His Wife and Her Lover, Red, The Queen, The Mosquito Coast, Caligula, Gosford Park, The Madness of King George, Age of Consent, Cal, Prime Suspect, Elizabeth I, The Long Good Friday, Hitchcock, The Last Station, Phil Spector, The Hundred Foot Journey)

Ann-Margret (key films: Tommy, Bye Bye Birdie, Viva Las Vegas, The Swinger, Carnal Knowledge, The Cincinnati Kid, State Fair, The Villain, The Cheap Detective, Magic, Twice in a Lifetime, Kitten with a Whip, 52 Pick Up, Who Will Love My Children?, Pocketful of Miracles, The Train Robbers, Joseph Andrews, Grumpy Old Men, The Break-Up, Any Given Sunday)

Virginie Ledoyen (key films: A Single Girl, La Ceremonie, 8 Women, The Beach, Late August Early September, A Soldier's Daughter Never Cries)

Greta Gerwig (Key films: Hannah Takes The Stairs, Baghead, The House of the Devil, Nights and Weekends, Greenberg, Arthur, Lola Versus, Damsels in Distress, To Rome With Love, Frances Ha, The Humbling, Eden, Mistress America, Lady Bird (as writer/director))

Diane Lane (key films: A Little Romance, Six Pack, Unfaithful, The Outsiders, A Walk on the Moon, Streets of Fire, Touched by Love, Secretariat, Cinema Verite, Ladies and Gentlemen The Fabulous Stains, Rumblefish, The Cotton Club, Wild Bill, My Dog Skip, Virtuosity, Hollywoodland)

Marisa Tomei (key films: My Cousin Vinny, The Wrestler, Oscar, Before the Devil Knows You're Dead, In The Bedroom, Untamed Heart, Factotum, Cyrus, Happy Accidents, The Slums of Beverly Hills, Crazy Stupid Love, The Ides of March, Love is Strange)

Chantal Goya (key film: Masculin/Feminin)

Catherine Deneuve (key films: Repulsion, Belle De Jour, The Umbrellas of Cherbourg, Indochine, 8 Women, Dancer in the Dark, The Young Girls of Roquefort, Hustle, The Last Metro, The Hunger, A Christmas Tale, East-West, Scene of the Crime, Persepolis, A Christmas Tale, On My Way)

Amy Adams (key films: Junebug, The Fighter, Catch Me If You Can, Enchanted, Doubt, Charlie Wilson's War, Sunshine Cleaners, Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day, Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby, Psycho Beach Party, The Master, Her, American Hustle, Big Eyes. Arrival)

There are so many actresses I painfully had to leave out. So MY 20 RUNNERS-UP are Jill Clayburgh, Ingrid Bergman, Thelma Ritter, Julianne Moore, Liv Ullmann, Veronica Lake, Natalie Wood, Michelle Williams, Ruth Gordon, Barbara Stanwyck, Ginger Rogers, Charlotte Rampling, Scarlett Johansson, Naomi Watts, Elizabeth Taylor, Isabelle Huppert, Maria Falconetti, Lili Taylor, Sissy Spacek, and Jessica Harper.