Tuesday, February 27, 2007

Interview with Kathryn Beaumont

My favorite childhood birthday party was my 6th -- we watched Alice in Wonderland. And yesterday I got to talk to Alice herself, Kathryn Beaumont, who provided the voice for both Alice and "Peter Pan's" Wendy. She was in Washington to talk about the new DVD edition of "Peter Pan" with all kinds of extras, including a 1952 featurette about the making of the film, a never-before-seen alternate opening, and a sneak peek of the new Tinker Bell movie. And, of course, a cover of one of the "Peter Pan" songs by a Disney-label pop group that just happens to have a new CD coming out.

It was a treat to talk with Ms. Beaumont, who still has that lovely, clear voice, and who remembers what it was like to sit with Disney's legendary "nine old men" and see them sketch out their ideas for the movie. I'm glad to be able to make it possible for viewers of this blog to hear our conversation here.
We chatted about how she got the job and how she provided not just the voice but the movement for her animated characters, how it felt to meet Walt Disney and Hans Conried (who played Captain Hook), what happened after she became a schoolteacher when her students asked her if she was really Alice and Wendy, and how it felt to get a call from Disney decades later when they wanted her to reprise her Alice voice for the Alice in Wonderland rides and parades at Disneyland and Disney World.

Monday, February 26, 2007

Oscar's biggest question

Thanks to Jen Chaney's wonderful Oscar night online chat for the Washington Post, I have the answer to the number one question for those who watched last night's broadcast: Why did Jack Nicholson appear to be trying to look like Jabba the Hutt? Answer: he is currently bald because he plays a cancer patient in his new film, "The Bucket List," directed by Rob Reiner and co-starring Morgan Freeman.

Friday, February 23, 2007

I Love People Who Love Movies

The Washington Post Weekend Section asked readers to describe their favorite movies and got more than 400 replies. I got a big kick out of the runner-up entries. People didn't just write about the movies -- they wrote about themselves, who they were when they sat down to watch these movies and the slightly sadder, wiser, deeper people they became while they watched.

Interview with Michael Apted (director's cut)

My interview with Michael Apted, director of "Amazing Grace," is in today's Chicago Tribune. Here's an unedited version:

Fifty-four years before the fight to end slavery in the United States led to the Civil War, England voted to abolish it, due to the pioneering leadership of a young Member of Parliament named William Wilberforce. His persistence in bringing the issue before the legislators for 18 years and his insistence that slavery was a violation of core human rights was grounded in his religious beliefs. He was also influenced by his friendship with John Newton, a former slave ship captain whose song, "Amazing Grace," described his own conversion and repentance.

Wilberforce has been a long-time inspiration to evangelical Christians for his belief that he was called upon by God to achieve social reforms. And he has been a long-time inspiration to politicians for his innovation in using the support of the voting public to put pressure on his fellow legislators. Now his story has inspired director Michael Apted ("Coal Miner's Daughter," the "Up" series of documentaries) to make “Amazing Grace,” a movie about Wilberforce and the British abolitionist movement. Apted spoke about the film in an interview.

Why was the progress toward abolishing slavery so different in the US and the UK?
Slavery didn't touch people in England directly the way it did in America. It wasn't in front of their faces. There were only 5000 slaves in London at the time of the film and they were domestic servants, and so were a lot of white domestic indentured servants, so it wasn't quite the cultural extravaganza that it was here.

Why is this story important to you?
For years I have wanted to make a film about how important politics and involvement in politics are in society. I think the general public today has become so disillusioned and indifferent to politics that all sorts of things can go on without anyone knowing it. It’s an environment where political self-interest can flourish because people aren’t interested. This was my attempt to make a film where politics is perceived as not necessarily heroic but as the messenger of good things and not corruption and secrecy.

In all my films, what draws me is always character, always relationships. That makes it easier to tell a story, even if it is not a romantic relationship. This one has two love stories, Wilberforce and his wife and Wilberforce and William Pitt, the Prime Minister. In some ways, the Pitt-Wilberforce relationship is even more touching than the other one.

One fascinating point made by the film is the way the tactics and arguments are so much like those raised in today’s political debates.
The Slave Trade Act was the first legislation supported by public opinion, petitions and such. My point was that this was the beginning of having to win hearts and minds to achieve political ends.

In a film you have to have heroes and villains, but in this film the villains have reasonable arguments. [They ask] “Without the sugar trade – today it would be without the oil industry – where would we be?” Pitt makes the point that is absolutely 9/11 – he says that the world is falling apart because we are at war and so Wilberforce’s issues are no longer important because we all have to devote ourselves to fighting the great enemy: “If you do not join us, you are disloyal.” In a sense that argument has to be put by the villain. Pitt, who is not a villain, who supports Wilberforce, makes exactly the arguments Bush and Cheney were putting forward after 9/11. What I like about it is that there is a big gray area here.

How do you avoid making a movie about centuries-old legislative debates stagy?
You have to think in the back of your head “This is happening now.” And you shoot it in such a way that it is not very statuesque and proscenium arch and historical artifact. You try and grub it up a bit, I suppose, but the main thing is to create an emotional involvement with the story. One of my big selling points with the studio was that we could have this marvelous true love story. In most movies the women are there in the story to say, “Don’t do it.” Here was a love story where she kicked his fat ass up in the air and said, “Get on with it,” and that was true, she did do that. To find a love story that was so dramatic and moved the story forward, that was too much to resist.

Monday, February 19, 2007

Tyler Perry's Most Important Audience

Movie critics shake their heads in disbelief. Roger Ebert said he got more angry mail protesting his one-star review of Diary of a Mad Black Woman than any other review he had ever written. But audiences love Tyler Perry's movies. And his plays, his DVDs, and his book. Soon, they will love his television series. Critics and commentators are put off by the way Perry's works defy categorization. In my reviews, I've said that they are a mash-up of low comedy, high melodrama, and unabashed spirituality. But this reflects and enhances the stories he tells about families who -- like real-life families -- often contain all of that and more. For me, what makes his work so powerful is another factor that can be disconcerting to critics -- the unabashed and undiluted sincerity of his commitment to spirituality and to family.

I've read a good deal about Tyler Perry, but the article I have enjoyed the most is the one in the current Fortune Magazine because it talks about Perry's success as a businessman.

Perry, 37, is building a maverick media company by translating "urban theater" - the often melodramatic, revival-style stage plays that tour the country catering to black audiences - into mainstream movies and television shows. It's a niche he has come to dominate so thoroughly that he is able to do things in Hollywood that most others - especially newcomers - simply can't.

The best thing about his financial success is that it has bought him a level of freedom as an artist that is close to unprecedented in Hollywood. The studios admit that they do not understand his audience and so they give him complete control and are happy to get whatever revenues he is willing to give them.
If Perry's work continues to perform at this level, Tyler Perry Studios could well have done $1 billion in business by the end of 2009, making it a major independent studio. It's staggering, especially since just a few years ago, most people had never heard of Perry. But it's precisely because he is an outsider that he's been able to ignore so many industry standards, usually to his advantage.

That is a happy ending right out of a Tyler Perry movie. I am delighted for him, but even more delighted that his success is teaching Hollywood to respect an audience they have never thought about seriously before. For me, that is his most important audience, and I expect his example to lead to more and better movies from other film-makers as well.
Similarly backward is Hollywood's historical neglect of black audiences. "There was a trend to doing gimmicky black movies," says Michael Paseornek, Lions Gate's president of film production. "Put a few rappers in, put some songs in, deliver any old thing. Well, the audience stopped coming, but Tyler's brought them back."

Sunday, February 18, 2007

Interview with the Patersons

My interview with the mother-son team behind "Bridge to Terabithia" is in today's Chicago Tribune. Here's a slightly longer version:

“Bridge to Terabithia,” opening on February 16, was adapted by David Paterson from the Newberry Award-winning book written 30 years ago by his mother, Katherine Paterson. It is the story of best friends Jesse, a quiet boy who loves to draw, and Leslie, a girl who is a gifted writer, and the imaginary land they create together called Terabithia. In telephone interviews, mother and son talked about the book and the movie and the loss that inspired them both.

Where did the story come from and why has it had such enduring appeal?

KP: When David was 7 and then 8 years old his best friend was a wonderful imaginative tomboy of a girl named Lisa Hill. A great tragedy occurred, and she was killed in an accident. I wanted to write the book to try to make sense out of a tragedy that didn’t make any sense. I wanted it to be fiction, so I changed the ages and setting and parents. But it did grow out of David’s friendship with Lisa.

DP: Lisa was a gift to me. The movie is about the gift of friendship and the gift of imagination. That is something all children have, sometimes as adults we try to tuck away some of that, but it is there. I set out to make a movie that honored my mother and my best friend and I’ve done that. Why this book does so well over time is my mother has incredible grasp on some of the most basic emotions and weaknesses and strengths of young kids. Even adults remember that bully, that first crush, the fight with the father. Everyone has been in one or two of those situations. My mother wrote her hopes, fears, and confusions in her characters. In the end, Jesse is still a cool guy even though he doesn’t know it.

Does the movie’s Terabithia look the way you imagined?

KP: Of course not! It’s never going to be the way I imagined it. Every reader imagines uniquely. But that enriches it for me. I love the sharing of visions. It’s enormously collaborative. It was (co-screenwriter) Jeff Stockwell’s idea to tie it so closely to other events in the story, so the fantasy life is not that removed from their real life.

DP: Everyone has an interior director, designer, filmmaker in every book you read, so we have to deal with everyone’s individual imaginary movie version. Jeff Stockwell had no guilt about adding to my mother’s work. We welcomed his introduction of Terabithia to the rest of us, especially the way he legitimized the magical creatures in some form in real life. That showed that Jesse and Leslie still have their troubles in the back of their minds, even when they create a fantasy to get away from them.

One of the book’s great strengths is the way it allows Jesse to work through many of the genuine feelings of loss, many of which are not the kind of pure and selfless feelings we’d be proud of. How do you translate this kind of internal material to screen?

DP: That is the challenge. My mother’s book is very powerful, but it’s also very dangerous material to translate because so much of it takes place in Jesse’s head. He can’t turn to the audience and say, “This is what I am thinking.” The writer and producer can only take it so far. In the end, it’s the talent of the actors. Josh (Hutcherson) and AnnaSophia (Robb) added five times more than their lines of dialogue through the quality of their performances.

KP: Earlier, I was involved in adapting the book for the stage. How do you turn a book that takes place inside a boy’s head into a play? For the play we did it with music, but the movie’s not a musical. So much depends on eloquent acting where words are not spoken but feelings are expressed. You can really see that in the scene with Jesse and his father. Not much is said, but you can see how they feel.

Any religious material is highly sensitive these days. Why was it important to include in the story the children’s conversation about whether Leslie would go to heaven even though she did not share Jesse’s family’s beliefs?

KP: Because kids have these fears. They’re often not able to express them because they think they’re not okay to have. We do that to kids -- we don’t want them to feel bad or afraid. But that closes them down and makes it harder. David did say to me, “Lisa died because I was bad.” As adults, we get so wrapped up in our own grief, we say they’ll get over it, but how many of us get over it?

DP: A lot of people today curtail some questions from children to avoid going down the rapids that might upset the boat. These are not kids judging religion; they’re just wondering what’s true. It’s just three kids talking about this issue as they would about anything else. People read a lot of things into it. It’s not a Christian story and there was no agenda. It’s a great scene, showing kids questioning authority, religion, pretty much anything. In the end, there’s Jesse with the big question: Why? My mother sometimes has more questions than answers in her work, but that’s what life’s all about. It is good for kids to know that life is tough, bad things will come your way, and even the smartest people might not have the answer. That can actually be reassuring.

This is director Gabor Csupo’s first live-action film. His background is in animation, like Rugrats. Was that a difficult adjustment?

DP: I was terrified to have a first-time director, but what I didn’t count on or think about is that Gabor has made a hefty sum of money knowing what kids want. His working with the kids was like watching a well-oiled machine. He knew what to do, what to say to them, and the kids grew up with his stuff, so really related to him.

How did you feel when you got the news about the Newberry?

KP: I decided I would never have to mix another quart of dried skim milk, and I never have. I could afford to go out and buy fresh milk.

I’ll bet you still think of that when you buy milk.

KP: Every time. It still feels good.

Quote of the Week -- Willie Waffle and Pajiba

I loved what my friend Willie Waffle had to say about "Ghost Rider" --

I kept hoping in the middle of the movie the Scooby Doo gang would come out, rip the mask off of Cage and reveal Ghost Rider really is crazy old man Ben Affleck!

I also enjoyed the review from Daniel Carlson on snarkier-than-thou Pajiba, which promises its reviews are scathing. Carlson delivers with the best dissection so far of the logical inconsistencies and howlers in this film.

Johnson is doing something deeply wrong here by refusing to give his fictional world its own constant reality, which in turn makes it impossible to believe in the characters, and their lives, and their actions, and their consequences.

Perhaps worst of all is Johnson’s curious take on the ins and outs of damnation. As J.B. says to the caretaker, “He may have my soul, but he doesn’t have my spirit.” The caretaker then responds, “Any man who sells his soul for love has the power to change the world,” before going on to pontificate that since J.B. sold his soul for the “right reason,” maybe that “puts God on [his] side.” Johnson’s wavering fictional universe is one where the devil is everywhere and God doesn’t show up much, and where Johnny Blaze hates the cursed monster he sees himself becoming but also won’t relinquish that curse when given the opportunity. Johnny pines for a second chance to fix his past, a shot at atonement to make things right, but he’d rather be the devil’s whipping boy than live free. If Johnson’s hero can’t even summon the courage to save himself, how can he save the world?

Saturday, February 17, 2007

The Story of My Least Favorite Movie

When people ask me about my least favorite movie, one that always pops into my head is "Patch Adams." Certainly, there have been dumber, more amateurish movies. But this one is at the bottom of my list because of its smug self-congratulatory, sanctimony and its blatantly contemptuous insincerity. The movie is meretricious claptrap. In my review, I said

There are a lot of important points to be made here about the dignity that all of us deserve when we are scared and vulnerable and about the importance of humor in the direst of circumstances. But this movie undercuts its own arguments by presenting us with a hero who is more narcissistic than humanitarian. The old joke about Hollywood is that the only thing that matters there is sincerity, and once you learn to fake that, you're all set. This movie, with its adoring bald kids and old lady swimming in noodles and bedpan clown shoes, cannot even manage to fake it.

My friend Bill thoughtfully sent me a lovely gift, the new autobiography by Mike Farrell of television's "M*A*S*H," which has a behind-the-scenes story about the making of "Patch Adams" that deserves a movie of its own. A horror movie.

Farrell is a friend of the real Patch Adams, and encouraged him to pursue a movie deal as a way of communicating his ideas about treating patients and to raise money for his clinic. Farrell obtained the rights to the story because he was enthusiastic about what the movie could be and wanted to make sure it did his friend justice. The man who gained his greatest success playing an iconoclastic doctor on television thought he understood both Adams and show business well enough to make the movie something they could be proud of.

Instead, Farrell, his partner, and Adams were swept aside by studio executives, a newly hot director, and a big star -- Robin Williams, whose wife was added to the film as producer. Farrell's rueful but good-humored description of thuggish, childish, narcissistic, and dishonest behavior by just about all concerned is the best dissection of the corrosive power of what happens all to often to good ideas when they meet the steamroller of the Hollywood machine since John Gregory Dunne's Monster: Living Off the Big Screen.

Shrinks on Film (in both senses of the term)

The New Yorker has an
essay about the portrayal of psychotherapists in films. Or, an essay about the way psychotherapists think about the way they are portrayed in films.

Glen O. Gabbard, as they say, wrote the book. Gabbard, a psychoanalyst and a professor of psychiatry at Baylor College of Medicine, in Houston, is the author of Psychiatry and the Cinema, a study of Hollywood’s transference issues. Gabbard’s book offers a catalogue of pompous quacks (“Mr. Deeds Goes to Town”), swingers with Prince Valiant hairdos (“What’s New Pussycat?”), sadistic enforcers of social conformity (“One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest”), love-starved lady doctors (“The Prince of Tides”), and serial killers who eat their patients (“Silence of the Lambs”)."

Gabard moderated a symposium on this subject at a recent conference, where the discussion focused on "The Treament," coming out this spring. I saw the film last year at the Tribeca Film Festival, and enjoyed it very much.
Rhona Engels, a psychotherapist, wondered why movies seem to offer three-dimensional portraits of patients but not of therapists. “I think it might have something to do with the power of what we do,” she said. “It can only be portrayed through projection—a kind of cutting down to size.”

Gabbard said simply, “If they ever showed an actual hour of therapy, it would be so boring that people would demand their money back.”

Afterward, Gabbard joined the panelists for dinner. At one point, someone suggested coming up with a list of movies that portray psychiatrists in a favorable light. Rudavsky named “Suddenly Last Summer,” in which Montgomery Clift plays a psychiatrist who saves Elizabeth Taylor from having a lobotomy. “Yes,” Gabbard said with a sigh. “That was from the golden age of psychiatry in the cinema.”


Gabbard’s own list included “Ordinary People,” but, he noted, “It’s the Hollywood version of therapy, which usually involves a dramatic, cathartic cure, brought about by a de-repressed memory of a traumatic childhood event, followed by tears and hugging.” He also cited the 1997 film “Good Will Hunting.” “It’s over the top, and the therapist uses methods that are unconventional and even outrageous,” he said. “But a naïve audience member could see it and come away with the impression that sometimes therapy actually helps people.”

I think the movies have done a better job portraying therapists than they have portraying mentally ill people, who are always either cute ("Benny and Joon," "King of Hearts"), less crazy than the "sane" people, or maniacal (horror/slasher movies of all kinds). In that same category of kind, caring, all-knowing psychotherapists who evoke great moments of breakthrough for their patients, I'd put Lee J. Cobb in "The Three Faces of Eve," Gregory Peck in "Dr. Newman, M.D.," and Ingrid Bergman in Hitchcock's "Spellbound."

OK GO -- Wallpaper

OK Go - Do What You Want (Wallpaper Version)

Buy OK Go - Oh No at iTunes.

Wednesday, February 14, 2007

With One of my Favorite Movie Stars

from "Pinocchio," Jiminy Cricket, official conscience and singer of "When You Wish Upon a Star"

Friday, February 09, 2007

Quote of the Week -- Jeannette Catsoulis on "Hannibal Rising"

When movies are good, the always brilliant Jeanette Catsoulis is very, very good, but when they're bad, she's better. This week, she, um, devours, Hannibal Rising.

Like Leatherface and Freddy Krueger, Hannibal Lecter is a monster who thrives in the dark; probe his past, and there’s a danger of finding only banality.

But this is America, where all pathologies must be excavated and neutralized, so we’re off to 1944 Lithuania, where the Lecter family is facing down Nazis, Russians, Vichy French and wild boars. The arrival — and subsequent dinner plans — of a gang of starving thugs swiftly disposes of young Hannibal’s little sister and awakens his cannibalistic cravings. Eight years in a Soviet orphanage do little to rehabilitate. “You do not honor the human pecking order,” the warden tells Hannibal (Gaspard Ulliel). “You’re always hurting the bullies.” Clearly he’s more disturbed than we think.

Scarcely pausing to wonder which wine goes best with East European thug, Hannibal sets out to avenge his sister and devise recipes....

Conceived in the clamor of the marketplace, “Hannibal Rising,” like its predecessor “Hannibal,” makes a star out of a character who should exist only in the margins, a peripheral terror made larger by mystery. The success of “The Silence of the Lambs” depends on a dense mixture of psychological intrigue and stylized flashes of brutality, glimpsed only from the corner of the eye like fleeting hints of Lecter’s psychoses. “Hannibal Rising” drags these into the light and applies a magnifying glass, reducing one of our most mythic villains to a callow, dysfunctional chef.

Thursday, February 08, 2007

Quotes of the Week -- "Norbit"

Nothing like a good, old-fashioned, awful movie to inspire eloquence in critics.

Norbit isn't farce--it's a thoughtless, cancerous, viral, irresponsible pollution whose existence speaks ill of the society that produced it and of any society that would endorse or defend it. It's not the end of civilization, just symptomatic of how easy it is to get laughs on the backs of the disenfranchised--and of how African-American actors get awards for singing and acting like criminals (or bright children and athletes) but generally get paid for acting the fool.
Walter Chaw, Film Freak Central

Usually, it takes six or so months for an actor to parlay a Best Supporting Actor nomination into a cringe-worthy career-derailing performance in an unbelievably awful picture.
Jon Popick Planet Sick-Boy

I swear, I don’t look away from horror movies nearly as much as I did this film...Possibly the most poorly-done politically incorrect movie to be released – and during Black History Month, no less – “Norbit” has something to offend everyone. It’s got fat women jokes, fart humor, mind-numbing racial stereotypes and Eddie Murphy in the Asian version of blackface playing his own adoptive Chinese father. All you need is Isaiah Washington and Michael Richards in the movie spewing homophobic and racial slurs to make it complete. Kevin Carr 7M Pictures

Surely some humanitarian organization will recognize the selflessness with which Murphy has taken three of the movie's major roles, thus saving two other actors from a nasty black mark on their résumés.
Sam Adams LA Times

Wednesday, February 07, 2007

Beliefnet's Spiritual Film/Performance Awards

I was delighted to participate for the second time in Beliefnet's film awards. I especially like the way they invite the judges to write "pro" or "con" pieces about the nominees. You can see my comments on "The Pursuit of Happyness" and "The Nativity Story" (pro) and "The Peaceful Warrior" and "Flags of our Fathers" (con).

Friday, February 02, 2007

Washington Post critics talk about the Oscars

It's a lot of fun to see Washington Post critcs Stephen Hunter, Desson Thomson, and Ann Hornaday talk to Washingtonpost.com movies editor Jen Chaney about their Oscar picks for the supporting actor and actress roles.

Quotes of the Week -- "Because I Said So" round-up

A little glass half full action here:

The only thing you can't fault in "Because I Said So" is Keaton's integrity, as she commits herself completely to a disastrous role.
Bruce Newman, Mercury News (He also says, however, that "but the pyre that Keaton makes of her career with this ghastly contrivance is unforgettable. And unforgivable.")

Sitting through a horrifically misbegotten movie can inspire meditations on the bigger picture:

If these are the only kinds of roles we can conceive for actresses who have grown into their faces, as Keaton has, it's no wonder so many younger performers are seeking the knife.
Stephanie Zacharek, Salon

Ann Hornaday puts the movie on the couch:

Movies about therapy are fun. Movies that need therapy are not.
Washington Post And love her description of Keaton's performance: Acting like a whooping crane on Ritalin and getting hit in the face with a bar mitzvah cake.

And, of course, the inevitable play on the title:

"Stay home. Because I said so."
Victoria Alexander, FilmsInReview

I will be unavailable on July 21 this year

Thursday, February 01, 2007

Baby Einstein's founder replies, and Timothy Noah has the last word

Timothy Noah responds to Baby Einstein Founder Julie Aigner-Clark, who wrote to object to his critique of President Bush's shout-out to her at the State of the Union. Her non-denial denial attempts to change the subject by bragging about her charitable contributions and attempting to distance herself from "Baby DaVinci," which she says was produced after she left the company.

He points out that she appears on Baby Einstein's website and on its behalf, including at the SotU itself, and has not attempted to distance herself from any of its products. And that the name itself is deceptive, suggesting there is an educational component not supported by any research.

But you didn't market these videos under the brand name Baby Hypnotize or Baby Chloroform. You marketed them under the name Baby Einstein. That's deceptive...And in what sense can a video really "teach" an infant anything? What evidence do you have that anything is being learned, other than an early attachment to the TV screen?

Aigner-Clark ends her letter by telling him she was raised a Democrat. Noah's response is exactly right:
You may have been raised a Democrat, but you are now being used by Republicans. Don't mistake the president's mentioning you in his speech as anything other than condescension—a condescension of which Democrats are equally capable. If President Bush cared at all about the issue of child development, then someone on his staff would have taken the five minutes necessary to discover that prominent medical professionals consider the business you founded to be a scam. (For that matter, if President Bush cared at all about the issue of early child development, then he wouldn't have let Head Start funding lie flat during the past five years. But that's another story.) The White House's choosing to spotlight your accomplishment was surely meant to demonstrate its commitment to children, to families, and to all those other womanly good feelings it fears that House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D., Calif., taps into with female voters. But in failing to perform even rudimentary research on what it is Baby Einstein actually does, the White House ended up demonstrating the precise opposite.