Wednesday, August 29, 2007

Catsoulis on Sequels

Leave it to Jeanette Catsoulis to bring a fresh approach to the subject of stale sequels. Movie sequels have been around since the silent days, of course, and the 30's and 40's gave us popular series like The Thin Man, Blondie, and Dead End Kids. And let's not forget James Bond.

It's not called "show art" or "show originality;" it's called "show business," and that means that if there is money to be squeezed out of the public by showing them more of the same, Hollywood will provide, whether by establishing a franchise like "Rush Hour" or "American Pie" or following up a success like "Saw" with not only sequels but rip-offs ("Captivity," anyone?).

I think one of the differences between movie audiences and critics is that people who buy tickets are looking for a sure thing, and if they've seen and liked it before, that means their $11 investment (before popcorn) is low-risk.

Monday, August 20, 2007


Meeting the brilliant Dennis Lim was one of the highlights of the Film Critic Institute at the Museum of the Moving Image. His article on a new genre of independent films called mumblecore. "Specimens of the genre share a low-key naturalism, low-fi production values and a stream of low-volume chatter often perceived as ineloquence." Examples include "Funny Ha Ha" and "Puffy Chair."

Thor Halvorssen - Documentaries - Movies - New York Times

The New York Times has a profile of Thor Halvorssen , described by First Amendment activist Nat Hentoff as "the embodiment of the nonpolitically correct person." He is a half-Norwegian Venezuelan who has founded a nonprofit to support and distribute documentary films. "At a time when the most successful documentaries on political or social issues all seem to be anti-corporate, anti-Bush, pro-environmentalist and left-leaning, the Moving Picture Institute has backed pro-business, anti-Communist and even anti-environmentalist ones." I have seen four of their films so far, including "Indoctrinate U," about suppression of free (right-wing) speech on college campuses and "Mine Your Own Business," which "portrays environmentalists as condescending elitists while impoverished locals insist they would welcome the jobs and development the mines would bring." Like the films of Michael Moore and other left-leaning documentarians, these films do not pretend to be balanced. And like those films, they make important points that shift the burden of proof to the other side. I look forward to seeing how the films of Halvorssen's Motion Picture Institute are received by audiences and by the people they portray. And to seeing whatever they come up with next.

Sunday, August 19, 2007

Movie Locations Guide: Maps and Directions to Filming Locations

A friend sitting next to me at "The Invasion" this week passed the time by whispering "Washington, Baltimore, Baltimore, Washington" as Nicole Kidman and Daniel Craig drove around what was supposed to be DC but which included some footage of Charm City to the North. Just to make it more confusing, there were also scenes set in Baltimore, too. If you've ever wanted to find a movie location, take a look at Movie Locations Guide: Maps and Directions to Filming Locations. So far, they have 131 Movies/TV Shows in the database with a combined total of 276 filming locations. Each location includes a map, an address and a link to see the filming location in Google Earth.

Wednesday, August 15, 2007


This morning I saw the remake of "Sleuth." Like the original, it stars Michael Caine, but this time he plays the role of the older man, a mystery writer whose visit from his wife's young, handsome lover turns into a battle of wits and power. In 1974, the older man was played by Laurence Olivier. In 2007, the younger man is played by Jude Law, took over another of Caine's iconic roles in "Alfie." The original was an entertaining potboiler with one of theater and movie history's cleverest surprises (incomprehensibly omitted from the new version). In 2007, it gets a high literary sheen with a new screenply by Harold Pinter and direction, in between Shakespeare adaptations, from Kenneth Branaugh.

The play was written by Anthony Shaffer, identical twin brother of Peter Shaffer, who wrote "Equus" and "Amadeus." The themes of competition, identity, and duality run through the work of both brothers. I think their story would make quite a movie.

Tuesday, August 14, 2007

NPR commentary

My essay on Robin Hood kicks off a week of Marketplace commentary on what we can learn from "beach books" about business.

Monday, August 13, 2007

What is ABC's idea of family programming

The ABC Family channel is heavily promoting a new animated series called "Slacker Cats" with a commercial that includes the word "perv." One review notes:

The humor isn't dirty so much as disgusting. In tonight's show, Buckley and Eddie borrow Flat Man and have Dooper climb inside his corpse in order to collect reward money from the family who lost their cat. The jokes will appeal mostly to 14-year-old boys - or 35-year-olds who either never grew up or who have decorator bongs on their end tables.

According to the show's website, future episodes include one where the cats sell their friend to a lab to raise stakes for a poker game. Whose idea of family programming is this again?

Lessons from the Movies about Money

In Eight golden lessons from the silver screen, one of my favorite columnists, Kathy Kristof of the LA Times, uses movies to illustrate principles of investing and saving (and quotes me -- thanks, Kathy!).

Friday, August 10, 2007

Be Kind Rewind Trailer

This is unquestionably the movie I am most looking forward to before the end of the year.

More lists from EW

Always fun to read and debate, or just to take a look at the video clips.

The best dance moves on video. Props for some great categories here, like "best awkward solo" (odds are that Napoleon Dynamite takes that one, though always a pleasure to see Dr. McDreamy do that anteater dance), and best dance-off (I love that they included "Breakin' 2: Electric Boogaloo," my all-time favorite sequel title), separate categories for Michael and Janet Jackson, and a best "shock the audience" award.

And then there's Best Movie Endings. Also some great choices, though, interestingly, they include my personal choice for best movie ending, "Godfather 2," but describe a different ending. The ending I love is the flashback to the Godfather's surprise birthday dinner, when everything that will happen over the two movies begins -- Connie's introduction to Carlo, Michael's enlistment in the Army. They focus on the last shot of Michael in the movie's present day. They do the same thing with "A League of Their Own," omitting the flash-forward, which always makes me cry. I love EW's mix of canon films, undisputed classics like "The Third Man" and "Gone With the Wind" and guilty pop pleasures like "Valley Girl."

Wednesday, August 08, 2007

The war on film critics

This defense of film critics seems rather cowed -- talk about damning with faint praise. We have to be able to do better than to say that local critics are better at responding to reader complaints. Thought the point about Metacritic is a good one. It won't be very Meta if the number of critics shrinks.

I was surprised when my positive review of "Bratz" elicited a barrage of angry and outraged comments over at Rotten Tomatoes, especially since it was clear that the posters had neither (1) read anything from my review but the pull quote or (2) seen the movie. It seems odd to me that people would come to a forum for the expression of a wide range of opinion and then freak out when someone does not agree with the majority. It also is ironic considering that one of the reasons I liked the movie was its low-key but sincere message in favor of rebelling against the tyranny of those, like clique-ish high school kids, who want everyone to act only according to established norms. Too bad the posters are too cool -- and too worried about not seeming cool -- to actually go to the movie. They might learn something.

Tuesday, August 07, 2007

More Bad News for Baby Einstein

From Slate:

A study suggests "Baby Einstein" and other baby videos are bad for kids. Findings: 1) "32% of the babies were shown the videos, and 17% of those were shown them for more than an hour a day." 2) "For every hour per day spent watching baby DVDs and videos, infants understood an average of six to eight fewer words than infants who did not watch them." Theories: 1) By spending time with "DVDs and TV instead of with people," the babies lose interaction with humans who "instinctively adjust their speech, eye gaze and social signals to support language acquisition." 2) Baby DVDs are worse than educational TV shows, because the DVDs "have little dialogue, short scenes, disconnected pictures and … linguistically indescribable images." Researcher's conclusion: Your kid is better off watching American Idol with you than watching Baby Einstein alone. Human Nature's view: You knew Baby Einstein had to be poison when President Bush extolled it.

Of course readers of this blog already knew all about that.

Sunday, August 05, 2007

Jeffrey Blitz on "Rocket Science"

Jeffrey Blitz, director of the award-winning spelling bee documentary Spellbound, was in Washington to talk about his first feature film, the semi-autobiographical coming-of-age story, "Rocket Science." He and I had a wonderful talk at the Georgetown Ritz hotel. We got off to a good start when we discovered we were both on our way to Comic-Con.

Most people would say that the lifetime period of greatest anxiety and misery is ages 13-15. What is it about that time of life that interests you so much?

You live an inwardly raw life at that age, you haven't got an ability to protect yourself from your own emotions and the world. You are ripe --when you fall in love you really fall inlove, when your heart is broken, your heart is really broken, you don't yet have the inner resoures to protect yourself or be anything less than completely that feeling.

It must be a challenge to ask kids to access and express emotions that are still unfamiliar to them. How do you work with these young actors?

The biggest part of it is casting. When you cast well you are casting someone who can access what needs to be accessed for that part. It was a low budget movie but we put whatever resources it had into casting. The great story about finding Reece [Thompson, who plays the lead] is that we had looked for six months and finally HBO, who was financing, gave us a two week grace period, or we'd have to shut down. And then one day someone was walking through the production office with a bunch of tapes that had been sent in unsolicted. Normally, we would not have watched them but we were ready to try anything. Reece's came from Vancouver and his agent sent it in. It was like when yiou meet someone you want to be friends with or fall in love, you don't ask why It's him, he thoroughly inhabits the role.

The big challenge was that in this case, we had a main character who stutters. It's like learning a very difficult accent. Sometimes a performance suffers because the actor's brain is working on the mechanical stuff their mouth has to do instead of what they need for the scene. We looked for six months, everywhere, we tried actual stutterers, but this character had a very particular kind of stuttering that is more amenable to the way of comedy, to set-ups and punchlines, it has a rhythm.

Our female lead, Anna Kendrick, came in very early into the process. After her audition, I wrote down Anna Kendrick is Ginny Ryerson, but because it was so early we thought we should keep looking. But she was one of the few girls we auditioned who could grasp everything she was saying, not just rattle off all those serious SAT words.

Boys and girls at that age seem to be from completely different species. How would you describe their differences and how does that affect their ability to communicate with each other?

We tried to get out of the idea that boys and girls are of completely different realms. Everyone in the movie is lost when it comes to love and romantic relationships and that defines them more than any differences. Ginny is very ambitious, not a typical girl role. They're all kind of gender neutral in a way, all striving.

The adults in the film all seem to be dealing with their own difficulties. Despite the fact that the characters are surrounded by parents and teachers who theoretically have a commitment to concern for the kids, most of them do not seem to be capable of it. What is their role in the story?

We were not trying to make a comment about adults in general or say that adults are useless. If my main character is lost and all he needs to do is turn to his parents, there's no story. It is so much more interesting if he has to solve things on his own. It's not about debate, not about who wins; it's about kids who are trying to grapple with questions that are bigger than they are. You can love but still not feel you understand it. The adults are childlike, all at the mercy of the mystery of love. The Violent Femmes (whose song is played in the movie) are so expressive of the anger of love gone bad. I love the idea that the adults' idea of therapy is to do a cleaned up, dainty version of the songs that are roiling with such anger.

In a movie about the power of speaking to express oneself, why have a narrator? He seems to be omniscient, not just older and wiser. Who is he and what does he contribute to the movie?

Hal is a character who essentially has no voice and is struggling to find his voice. He has a fantasy of a voice like James Earl Jones. With a narrator, we had one character with no voice and one who is noting but a disembodied voice, a purely articulate voice. It shows the gulf between who Hal is and who he wishes to be. You are given Hal's dream voice and confronted with his real voice. I love the idea of a torrent of words. When you grow up as a suttterer you are very aware of the power of words.

What do you want to do next?

I'm working on a documentary about lottery winners. It is another low budget scrappy project, just me operating the camera and producer/sound man. It is a great thing to go back and forth between big productions with a crew of 100 people and this little two-person movie. In a bigger production, you speak in a different language to the cinematographer and the production designer and the cast, many different languages all day long, saying the same thing over and over again. On this new film, I just put the camera exactly where I want to put it. I don't have to say anything to anyone, I just start to shoot. There are two American myths about the lottery. One is the Protestant work ethic, it's tainted, bad, and you're cursed if you did not earn the money. The other is that it solves all your problems. The reality is that your sense of scale shifts, your sense of the money that you need or want shifts. If you have more money, you have more financial concerns. And family members and friends expect you to help them out.

Can you give examples of the kinds of movies and directors who have inspired you?

Hal Ashby -- I watched his films again and again, the cinematography and production design. He has a masterful blending of absurd comedy and naturalism. His characters do outrageous things that are not of the real world and yet I feel like he's someone I know. I did not want a Wes Andersen snowglobe artificial world. I wanted characters with real human emotion but exaggerated. I watch a lot of Billy Wilder films, the way he brings intelligence and humanity into whatever genre he was working in. I love the idea of being able to genre-hop the way he did. He brought his stamp to every one of his films, and I would love to be able to do that.

Saturday, August 04, 2007

Quote of the Week: Jeanette Catsoulis on "The Ten"

From the New York Times: With “The Ten,” David Wain uses the Ten Commandments the way a suicide uses a bridge.

Friday, August 03, 2007


Thanks to the Kansas City Star for running my review of Bratz!

And here's my interview:

Talking to the girls who play the Bratz on screen is like being at the coolest lumber party in town. Like their characters, Skyler Shae (Cloe), Janel Parrish (Jade), Logan Browning (Sasha), and Nathalia Ramos (Yasmin) are big time BFFs, very different but utterly supportive, all talking at once but somehow always somehow hearing, loving, supporting, and responding to what the others are saying. In Washington, they went on a night-time sight-seeing tour of the monuments in Washington, signed autographs for fans who were all but levitating in excitement, and stopped by to visit the patients at Children’s Hospital before sitting down with director Sean McNamara for an interview.

McNamara sat back and let the girls do most of the talking – it was easy to see that he was used to that. It was also easy to see how much he genuinely enjoyed and respected the young performers. “When we announced that we were making the movie online we had 1400 submissions in one hour,” he said. “We saw over 5000 girls. We didn’t have fixed characters in mind, so we asked what they could bring that no one's ever seen before. We looked for the ability to act, to make us believe their performance, and that special something that comes between the words. These girls got it; they created believable, interesting characters that came through.”

What's on your iPod?

All four at once: Everything!

LB: I love everything! Let me just tell you my playlists: Country, Bumpin', Poppin’, Rock, Indie, and Musical.

SS: I've got David Gray, Lonestar, Justin Timberlake

JP: I'm a theater freak. I was in "Les Miserables" on Broadway, so that is my favorite. I listen to tons and tons of Broadway. It's my dream to be in "Miss Saigon." I've also got classic rock, oldies --- that's the foundation of music. I love artists that play their own stuff, especially Holly Brook, Robin Thicke, and Alicia Keys.

NR: A little of everything, but my passion is classic rock. My dad has over 2000 records at home, lots of vinyl, (Peter) Frampton, (Eric) Clapton, Supertramp, and The Beatles. I love "Go Your own Way" by Fleetwood Mac.

You never met before the movie. How did you find ways to connect to each other to make your onscreen friendships seem real?

SS: We hung out all the time, went shopping, had our nails done.

JP: We did a lot of dancing and singing together, and we had the most fun set, with constant humor, constant jokes.

NR: We learned acting skills from each other and dance moves. Logan really inspired me.

LB: We feed off each other's energy and make each other laugh by imitating each other. Janel has cute little baby voices. And Nat is always practical, a great advice-giver.

In the movies, the Bratz get their name from a “mean girl” who tries to boss around everyone in the school. What makes people behave that way and what makes the Bratz the only ones who don’t do what she says?

SS: People want to fit in, so they are afraid to say no to her. Because she is beautiful and controlling and powerful, and people want to go to the coolest party.

NR: She wants attention. She is insecure, so she overcompensates.

JP: I think some people who truly believe they're better than everyone else. The Bratz show that the good relationship with their family is the foundation for having the confidence to say no to her.

LB: All the Bratz are anti-stereotypical; they do not feel they have to do what everyone else is doing.

What makes Bratz dolls so popular?

NR: They're cute, trendy, different, young, and diverse. Each girl can relate to one of them. And we’ve seen that girls do not necessarily pick the one of the same race as their favorite.

LB: The idea behind it was girls expressing themselves different ways, finding their own way.

Bratz all have “a passion for fashion.” How do clothes help you express yourself?

SS: Chloe loves sports and film-making, so that affects her look, jeans and hoodies.

LB: We all have unique and different styles in the movie, and it helps us show who our characters are, what makes each of us unique. We all have different color palates. Sasha is very Beyoncé, very classy, and animal prints are her signature.

ND: Yasmin wears fun, flirty dresses.

JP: Jade loves very funky, old stuff, loves to take something and “Jade-ify” it, with lots of chunky skull jewelry and lots of black.

What makes girls' friendships so special?

JP: To have someone that's always there for you not matter what, even though you have little fights and get torn apart.

LB: I have five best friends back in Georgia. We are there for each other with family situations, with school, they're the ones that will help you when everyone is against you, exactly like in the film.

Even more pics from Comic-Con

Adam Bernstein on Movie Geeks podcast

The Washington Post's Adam Bernstein, whose wise, erudite, and lyrical tributes to Ingmar Bergman and Michelangeo Antonioni ran this week, will be discussing Bergman on the Movie Geeks Unlimited podcast this weekend. After it runs, you can click on the link any time to hear the interview.

Wednesday, August 01, 2007

Even the list made me cry -- Best movie tearjerkers ever

A brief break from Comic-Con highlights for another list -- Entertainment Weekly's best movie tearjerkers ever.