#38 - The Black Hole

Dedicated To

Peter Ellenshaw
1913 - 2007

Added 2/26/07

So let’s start, huh?  2007 is well underway with a whole new crop of fresh movies to talk about.  Why waste time with looks back at 2006 when we’ve got flicks like…um, Because I Said So and Norbit?  Oh, OK, just one more.

The 79th Annual Academy Awards

Sooooo, yeah. Oscars. Woo-hoo. First off, let me clarify some things. People often ask me if I "care" about the Oscars. Well, yes and no. Mainly no, not really. I care about my friends and family so in comparison, the Oscars matter not one whit. And as arbiters of taste, I disagree with the Academy more often than not. I know what I likes and don't need the Oscars to agree with me on it to justify that choice. The last time I agreed with their selection for Best Picture of the year was...oh, let's see, when was that again? Oh, that's right. Never. Even so, I watch the show every year and enjoy aspects of it. Part of me still likes all the Hollywood glitz and glamour that goes along with the Oscars, so if that means I care about them, so be it. As for this year's show? Well, for a year when no one movie dominated the nominations and everything was supposed to be up for grabs, it was one of the most predictable Oscars in recent memory. If I'd gone to Vegas this year, I'd have done alright for myself. I correctly predicted about 95% of the awards (and yes, that includes Alan Arkin's win for Little Miss Sunshine...sorry, I just couldn't see Eddie Murphy winning for that movie). Ellen DeGeneres was a fine host but after Jon Stewart knocked it out of the park last year, "fine" just doesn't quite cut it. She didn't exactly have me rolling in the aisles but she didn't make me cringe either, so kudos to her. I could have done without all the random shadow dancing sprinkled throughout the show (was it meant to be a belated tribute to Andy Gibb? And if you get that obscure reference, congratulations. You've just dated yourself as badly as I have). For the most part, this was the "nice" Academy Awards. As in, it was nice to see Martin Scorsese finally win. It was nice to see Ennio Morricone receive an honorary award (and I'm dying to know...was Clint Eastwood actually translating on the fly or was that all scripted? Wouldn't surprise me either way, I guess). It was nice to see Little Miss Sunshine, my second favorite movie of 2006, pick up a couple of well-deserved trophies. And it was nice to see Tom Hanks (with a decent haircut again, finally) ad lib a funny response to super-irritant Chris Connelly's backstage question. But the whole evening lacked energy, surprise and enthusiasm. The worst moment of the evening had nothing to do with the Oscars, however. It was the Cadillac commercial using the Pogues' song The Sunny Side of the Street that had me wincing. I'm guessing that the folks at Cadillac are hoping that Shane MacGowan's vocals are unintelligible to most Americans. In case they are, allow me to quote the lyrics so you'll understand just how inappropriate this song's use is: "So I saw that train / And I got on it / With a heart full of hate / And a lust for vomit / Now I'm walking on the sunny side of the street." Enjoy your new car, vomit-lusters! More than anything, last night's show reminded me of one of Johnny Carson's best lines when he hosted the Oscars over twenty years ago. Welcome to the Academy Awards. Two hours of sparkling entertainment spread out over a four-hour show. This year, it was closer to ninety minutes, tops.

That’s enough of that.  Let’s move on.


The A-Picture - Breach

Usually the first few weeks of the year are a major dumping ground for everything the studios just want to get rid of.  It’s rare to see anything even remotely enjoyable during this time and even more unusual to see something as good as Breach.  Honestly, I’m a little perplexed why Universal would release this when they did.  A few weeks earlier and there would have been some serious Oscar talk for Chris Cooper and his performance as Robert Hanssen, the FBI agent convicted of selling secrets to the Soviets in 2001.  Significantly, Breach isn’t really about Hanssen.  Instead, it’s about the Bureau’s efforts to catch him using Eric O’Neill, an ambitious young recruit eager to make agent.  It’s the cat-and-mouse aspects of the story that make Breach such an engaging thriller despite the fact that we already know the outcome.  Ryan Phillippe does a good job as O’Neill.  He’s smart enough to get picked for this assignment but still so untested that it seems possible that the whole operation could be derailed at any time.  Director Billy Ray did a fine job with Shattered Glass, another ripped-from-the-headlines story, and once again succeeds in finding the movie within the true story.  But the best reason to see Breach is Chris Cooper.  We never really get inside his head but that’s as it should be.  Secrets were his business, after all.  As Cooper plays him, we get a portrait of an intensely guarded and endlessly complex man, one who has made every effort to reconcile the conflicts within him and, to his mind, has almost succeeded.  It’s one of Cooper’s best performances in a career that doesn’t hold too many duds.  (* * * ½)

Now Playing at the Hell Plaza Octoplex - Ghost Rider

It shouldn’t have been hard to make an OK movie out of Marvel Comics’ Ghost Rider.  Unlike Spider-Man or X-Men, there aren’t really a lot of great Ghost Rider stories, so the filmmakers should have carte blanche to do whatever they want.  The character is beloved because his head is a flaming skull, he rides a bad-ass motorcycle and looks cool as a tattoo.  In comics, you can tell lame stories as long as it looks cool (and you could especially get away with it back in Ghost Rider’s heyday of the 1970s when comics only cost a quarter).  But if you expect people to plunk down sixteen quarters or more, you’d better give them something a little more than an idea for a tat.  Director Mark Steven Johnson wasn’t up to the task of adapting Daredevil to the screen and now he proves himself incapable of dealing with Ghost Rider.  The story is pretty basic stuff.  Young stunt rider Johnny Blaze sells his soul to Mephistopheles (casting Peter Fonda here is admittedly somewhat clever) to cure his dad of cancer.  After screwing him on the deal, the devil waits for this strapping young man to age into a 40-something Nicolas Cage before assigning him his first gig as Ghost Rider, capture his rogue son (Wes Bentley, overacting strenuously) and his demon pals.  Comics fan Cage seems to be happy to finally get a chance to play a superhero but his performance lacks the spark of his truly oddball interpretations in movies like Vampire’s Kiss.  Like in the comics, Ghost Rider does look cool but Johnson’s screenplay is beyond embarrassing.  The only reason I even thought Ghost Rider might be fun was because of a scene in the trailer showing Johnny Blaze riding alongside his predecessor, who rides a flaming horse.  But apparently the old guy was saving his energy just to keep Johnny company on the long ride because once they get where they’re going, he disappears and doesn’t even help take on the bad guys.  I don’t doubt that Mark Steven Johnson is a major comic book fan and I’m sure that were I to get together with him, we’d have a fine time reminiscing about our favorite issues of Marvel Two-In-One.  But he has no business turning these books into movies.  He’s now apparently developing the great comic book Preacher for HBO.  If you see him around, tackle the guy and wrest the comics out of his hands.  Preacher deserves better.  So did Daredevil and Ghost Rider, for that matter. (* ½)


American Women

In a sleepy Irish seaside village, the lads are bored with the status quo and looking for excitement.  After a screening of Blake Edwards’ 10, they decide to import some new ladyfriends from America.  Needless to say, the village’s lassies don’t appreciate the attitude.  Despite the title and DVD cover art, this is one of those small, warm comedies like Waking Ned Devine that makes Ireland look like a haven of quaint charm.  It’s no masterpiece and the characters may be a bit too quirky for the movie’s own good but by and large, American Women is an entertaining bit of light fun.  Ian Hart (memorable as John Lennon in BackBeat) is winning as a local butcher who pins his hopes on the imminent arrival of the Americans.  The memory of American Women fades almost as quickly as the end credits but while it lasts, it’s charming, innocuous and enjoyable. (* * *)

The Beat That My Heart Skipped

French movies have been Americanized for generations but here’s a rare example of the reverse, a French remake of the 1978 movie Fingers starring Harvey Keitel.  Romain Duris stars as Tom.  He works for his dad collecting back rent with his fists and participating in shady real estate deals.  But his late mother was a concert pianist and a chance meeting with her former manager gives Tom hope that it’s not too late for him to follow in her footsteps instead.  Director Jacques Audiard makes the material his own and Duris is terrific in the Keitel role.  Tom’s every conflict is etched on his face and we see and feel his frustration, his disappointment and his hope.  Fingers, I thought, was flawed but fascinating.  The Beat That My Heart Skipped fixes a lot of those flaws and emerges as one of the few remakes superior to its source. (* * *)

Dark Portals: The Chronicles Of Vidocq

I was apprehensive going into this period fantasy adventure.  It’s directed by Pitof (rarely a good sign when the director goes by one name), whose follow-up was…uh, Catwoman.  But Pitof began his career doing visual effects with Jean-Pierre Jeunet on movies like Delicatessen and I hoped that the presence of Jeunet’s ex-partner Marc Caro as designer here would make this worth a look.  And by and large, it’s not bad.  Gérard Depardieu stars as the legendary detective Vidocq and the movie is structured around the investigation into his death.  Visually, this is spectacular.  Narratively, it rings hollow, especially when it takes a detour into sci-fi/fantasy territory toward the end.  The movie is even more disappointing when you realize that Vidocq was a real person and the least interesting part of his life is about a zillion times more compelling than this movie’s plot.  As eye candy, Dark Portals is a passable time-filler but I’d love to see a movie that sticks closer to the real-life Vidocq. (* * ½)

The Fanny Trilogy – Marius / Fanny / César

You may not be familiar with the name Marcel Pagnol but if you follow international cinema at all, you’ve probably seen his work.  Most recently, his writings provided the basis for the diptych films Jean De Florette/Manon Of The Spring and My Father’s Glory/My Mother’s CastleThe Fanny Trilogy (or, as it’s more accurately called, The Marseilles Trilogy) provided Pagnol his first taste of film.  The trilogy begins with 1931’s Marius and concluded five years later with César and covers over twenty years in the lives of characters in Marseilles.  The central characters are Marius, the woman he loves, Fanny, and his father, César.  The movies are a bit dated, suffering from some of the staginess not unusual in movies from the early 30s.  But Pagnol’s writing shines through, capturing small moments of friendship and familial bonds.  The performances are wonderful, especially Raimu as the patriarch César.  The final movie is the best of the three and is self-contained enough that it could be seen on its own, although an extra layer is added when you grow with these characters over the course of all three.  The Fanny Trilogy is charming, low-key and its leisurely pace is a welcome antidote to most modern movies. (* * *)

That’ll do it for this week.  I’d like to thank the Academy and I’ll see you next time.

Your pal,