Thursday, January 31, 2008

Bambi vs Godzilla

Last night I was having some ice cream with friends in Preston Center and during the course of our conversation, I mentioned this video. None of the friends I was with had even heard of it. So, as a public service to all those who have been denied this piece of cinematic history ....

Mavericks might trade Harris to get Kidd



Last night my son came in from walking the dog to tell me Sirius radio was reporting the Dallas Mavericks had acquired Jason Kidd from the New Jersey Nets in a trade. I wasn't that thrilled with the news. Personally, I think Kidd is highly overrated: I have yet to see him make a team he's been traded to appreciably better. The second thing that bothered me is that the Nets seem to get the better of other teams in any trade.

Anyway, I immediately checked the Web site of Dallas' only daily and found no word of a trade there, so I figured nothing was happening.

Wrong. A deal was nearly made and still might be made. It involves the Mavs, the Nets and the Portland Trailblazers. The latest word is that the Mavericks would send Devin Harris, Jerry Stackhouse and either forward Brandon Bass or center DeSegana Diop to Portland. Portland would then send Stackhouse, Travis Outlaw, Channing Frye and Jarrett Jack to New Jersey who would then ship Kidd to Dallas.

I don't like this deal. It is obviously designed to make the Mavs more of a contender now at the expense of the future. The thinking is that the Mavs' collapse against Miami in the 2006 finals and against the Warriors in the first round last year were the result of two problems: lack of toughness down the stretch and the inability of the guards to get the ball into either Dirk Nowitzki or Josh Howard. The thinking is that Kidd will solve both of these problems and, you know what, he just might.

Here' are my problems with the deal, though. I'm wondering how it jives with NBA rules about trading for folks with equal salaries. Dallas would be giving up about $12.9 million in salaries ($11.5 if Bass is in the deal and Diop isn't) while inheriting Kidd's $19.7 million contract.

But mainly I'm not big on this deal because I don't think the acquisition of Kidd at the expense of Harris, Stackhouse and Bass/Diop makes the Mavericks a better team than, say, Phoenix, which seems to be the class of the Western Conference this season. However, I see this as the last season Phoenix has a chance to win the big prize and I think the San Antonio Spurs have already reached their "sell-by" date. That positions a Mavericks team with a seasoned Harris and Bass to be in excellent shape to dominate the West for at least a couple of years beginning next season. I also don't like the idea of giving up either Bass, who has been the best backup Nowitzki has had since he's been on the team or Diop, who has been one of the main reasons Dallas has had so much success agaisnt San Antonio and Tim Duncan of late.

As I understand it, however, this deal was just about done 24 hours ago, but then Portland started having second thoughts about parting with three hot prospects, especially the way Outlaw has come along this year. I really think the folks in Portland are just drooling anticipating a starting front line next season that would put Outlaw and LaMarcus Aldridge alongside Greg Oden. From what I gather, Portland is now willing to trade a package that consists of Jack and point guard Sergio Rodriguez (which makes more sense if the Trailblazers are acquiring Harris), but that's as far as they intend to go. That's apparently not far enough for New Jersey and I can understand that position as well. If the Nets traded Kidd for Stackhouse, Rodriguez and Jack, New Jersey fans would think Isiah Thomas had crossed the Hudson.

I also think Harris' ankle injury is playing a big part in Portland's newfound reluctance. So right now the talks have apparently stalled. However, Harris is expected to return long before the Feb 21 trading deadline and, depending on his post-recovery performance, the talks could certainly heat up again.

An American wants out of Paris


Julie Delpy's "2 Days in Paris" has been compared to the films of Woody Allen, particularly his "Annie Hall." I can understand the the comparisons, even though I continue to have a fondness for "Annie Hall" that I'll never have for this film.

Delpy and Adam Goldberg play, respectively, Marion and Jack, an unmarried couple in Year 2 of a possible permanent relationship. They live in New York City where she is a photographer and he is an interior designer. They spend a vacation in Venice which turns out to be somewhat of a disaster, Marion feels, because Jack spent more time taking pictures than being with her. Now they are returning home and, on the way, they are stopping in Paris to retrieve Marion's pet cat she left in the care of her mother and to give Jack the opportunity to meet the folks that may be his future in-laws. The stay turns into a disaster worse than their experiences in Venice.

The problems arise from the fact that Jack doesn't speak a word of French and feels completely out of place and isolated in Paris, where Marion is surrounded by family, friends and, worst of all, her ex-lovers. Marion, who doesn't want to hurt Jack's feelings, tells Jack she has never had intimate relations with these men, but, when Jack learns differently, he interprets Marion's lies as bitter betrayals. He comes to view his girlfriend as a slut.

I think the comparisons between this film, which Ms. Delpy wrote, directed and scored, and Allen's comes from the fact that much of the dialogue in the film is observant and true to the natures of the individuals speaking it and some of it is actually funny, although not on Allen's level. The main difference between the two is that I really liked both Allen's and Diane Keaton's characters in "Annie Hall." Spending a couple days in Paris with Marion and Jack was a couple of days too many.

Grade: C+

Tuesday, January 29, 2008

How that elephant got into my pajamas I'll never know

What I want to know is what was that Plano bank doing wearing women's clothes. Pictures please.

Let the four winds blow

If I wanted this I would live in California. At least that state has an entertaining governor and doesn't stick high speed roads through its parks.

The State of the Groundhog


An interesting observation from Pete's Place's South Florida correspondent:

"This is a year where both Groundhog Day and the State of the Union address occur in the same week. It is an ironic juxtaposition of events: one involves a meaningless ritual in which we look to a creature of little intelligence for prognostication, while the other involves a groundhog."

Monday, January 28, 2008

Sayings of a Jewish Buddhist


If there is no self, whose arthritis is this?

Be here now. Be someplace else later. Is that so complicated?

Drink tea and nourish life; with the first sip, joy; with the second sip, satisfaction; with the third sip, peace; with the fourth, a Danish.

Wherever you go, there you are. Your luggage is another story.

Accept misfortune as a blessing. Do not wish for perfect health, or a life without problems. What would you talk about?

The journey of a thousand miles begins with a single Oy.

There is no escaping from karma. In a previous life, you never called, you never wrote, you never visited. And whose fault was that?

Zen is not easy. It takes effort to attain nothingness. And then what do you have? Bupkis.

The Tao does not speak. The Tao does not blame. The Tao does not take sides. The Tao has no expectations. The Tao demands nothing of others. The Tao is not Jewish.

Breathe in. Breathe out. Breathe in. Breathe out. Forget this and attaining Enlightenment will be the least of your problems.

Let your mind be as a floating cloud. Let your stillness be as a wooded glen. And sit up straight. You'll never meet the Buddha with such rounded shoulders.

Deep inside you are ten thousand flowers. Each flower blossoms ten thousand times. Each blossom has ten thousand petals. You might want to see a specialist.

Be aware of your body. Be aware of your perceptions. Keep in mind that not every physical sensation is a symptom of a terminal illness.

The Torah says, Love your neighbor as yourself. The Buddha says, There is no self. So, maybe we're off the hook.

The residents of Dallas versus change


Ask any resident of Dallas whether their neighborhood should change and I'd be willing to bet 99 out of every 100 will say "No, leave it just the way it is." I think that attitude is short-sighted and unrealistic because an environment is going to change whether you want it to or not. If residents simply fight change surrounding their neighborhoods, the changes that take place naturally are usually detrimental to those neighborhoods.

You'll find classic examples of this in Lake Highlands and along Garland Road, two areas I am more familiar with than other parts of the city. For many years, the people of Lake Highlands fought to preserve the integrity of the neighborhoods by resisting change. As a result, the area slowly deteriorated to where parts of it, especially those areas to the north near Skillman and Whitehurst, are among the most crime-infested in the city today. The people of Lake Highlands wanted boutique shops to dot their neighborhood and to keep the so-called "big box retail outlets" out. Yet the neighborhood, until recently, refused the type of housing that would cater to this kind of retail, the kind of housing that is now so prevalent in Uptown (where, not coincidentally, exactly the kind of retail Lake Highlands covets is flourishing).

There are certain realities the people of Dallas need to deal with and accept. (1) Dallas is a city, an urban area and we can no longer treat many of the residential neighborhoods within this urban area as though they were suburbs. (2) Dallas is landlocked. It cannot expand beyond its presents city limits because it is completely surrounded by other incorporated cities. (3) It is estimated that all available land in Dallas will have structures on it in about a quarter of a century.

So what does the city do then? Does it put a padlock on the door and say "Sorry, no vacancy. No more people allowed"? Or does it try to continue to grow?

If the growth is the preferable option -- and I hope it is -- but there is no available land to accommodate that growth, then there are only two directions to go: up or down. Down doesn't seem like such a great idea. I don't think pining for an underground abode is what Bob Dylan really had in mind when he wrote "Subterranean Homesick Blues."

That was one of the reasons I was so dismayed a year or so ago when short-sighted residents around White Rock Lake shot down a proposal to build a 25-or-so-story condominium complex along Garland Road. The sole reason they opposed the project was that it would change the nature of their neighborhood. Yes it would and probably for the better. The top floor residences in that complex were going to list for at least $1 million so that right there says something about the type of new neighbors that would be moving in. Plus, I believe, these new residents would demand nearby retail services that would further improve the Garland Road gateway (luxury furniture stores, restaurants, clothing stores, specialty food stores, etc.)--retail services that have been crowded out of Garland Road now by the dollar stores, the tattoo parlors and low-rent consignment stores.

Wake up, Dallas! The high-rises are coming. There is no way around it. You are living in a city!

I bring all this up right now because a similar fight may be brewing in the Lakewood area and Rick Wamre, the publisher of the community Advocate magazines, has a marvelously insightful account of it on his Backtalk Lakewood blog. Rick goes into this in great detail but the upshot is that Whole Foods wants to put in a store where the old Minyard's used to be at Abrams and Gaston. But the store is in a Planned Development District that has rules concerning setbacks, rules that compel retailers to place their front entrances close to the street. The idea was not to create a strip shopping mall atmosphere with large parking lots in front.

The current structure already has an exemption to those setback requirements, hence the parking lot in front of the store. That exemption is grandfathered which would protect Whole Foods if it simply wanted to remodel the existing building.

But a simple remodeling job is apparently not what Whole Foods has in mind. It wants an outlet with more square footage than the present building and something that looks like its outlet in the Preston Forest shopping center.

Aha, but this means change and in typical Dallas neighborhood fashion, there's a host of Lakewood folks who are going to fight it. Not because Whole Foods won't improve the neighborhood, because, like the condominium proposal for Garland Road, it would. They are opposing a variance simply because it's different, a change in the way things have always been done around there. Mr. Wamre is saying such opposition would be a mistake. He writes:

"Whole Foods has put forth plans for a striking new building with amenities that will set a good tone for future development in and around Lakewood, and if we shoot it down here and now, we'll definitely be making it clear to future developers that even though we welcome them to the neighborhood, they'd better not try to do anything that is too far afield from what's already here."

There's a lesson there for a lot of other areas of Dallas as well.

Sunday, January 27, 2008

'Sydney' stumbles on its satircal path


Buried deep, deep, deep inside Joel Nussbaum's "Sydney White" lies a clever modern look at the "Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs" tale. Instead of an evil stepmother who believes she is the "fairest of them all," we have a prissy university student body/sorority president with the rather clever name Rachel Witchburn (Sara Paxton). Instead of the mirror on the wall, we get a Facebook contest in which university students vote on who is the hottest babe on campus. Instead of a poison apple, we have a hacker who destroys the hard drive on the laptop where the title character (Amanda Bynes) is working on a major school project. And, instead of dwarfs, we get seven university dorks who are outcasts from the main student body.

We also get a Prince Charming, named Tyler Prince (Matt Long, pictured here with Ms. Bynes), who awakes Snow ... er, Sydney ... with a kiss after she has pulled an all-nighter in the library rewriting her major school project.

The fact that there are some clever takeoffs on the Snow White tale makes it all the more shameful that the movie is ravaged by ethnic and racial stereotypes and and wrong-headed look at the title character. In the original Brothers Grimm tale, Snow White is a heroine who is the center of the action but not the initiator of it. Snow White does nothing at all; things just happen to her.

Sydney, on the other hand, becomes a political student revolutionary, a university version of Lawrence of Arabia who unites all the various independent factions to rebel against the fraternity/sorority clique that controls the campus. And that is where the real problems are revealed.

The college, Southern Atlantic University, is often referred to simply as "state," which, at least to my way of thinking, makes it a public university. Yet, this university is more snow white than the movie's inspiration--I don't remember seeing one black person in the entire film. OK, maybe an eagle-eyed viewer could spot one in one of the party scenes but only for a fraction of a second.

The film does trot out other minorities --Jews, gays, etc. -- but only to treat them as stereotypes and inadvertently holding them up to ridicule.

I am not sure the original folk tale as collected by the Brothers Grimm was supposed to have a morale. I think it was just supposed to illustrate the popular idea from the Middle Ages of "evil vs. innocent."

In Sydney White, however, Rachel isn't evil as much as she is defined by her own narrow existence and Sydney, while pure, cannot be described as innocent. And the movie's morale is that "We are all dorks." If you believe that, this films is for you.

Grade: D-

Friday, January 25, 2008

'Game' offers no new plans

Stop me if you've heard this one before. "The Game Plan" is a lame comedy that stars the charismatic Dwayne "the Rock" Johnson as this self-absorbed professional football quarterback who finds redemption in the love of the 8-year old daughter (Arlington's own Madison Pettis, pictured here with Johnson) he never knew he had. She unexpectedly shows up on his doorstep one day and ...

Oh, you have? That many times, huh?

Grade: D-

From grid iron to iron bars

Of the thousands of NCAA athletes, at least two of them will turn pro in something other than sports.

News from the Trinity

I always maintained that the Trinity River Project makes for a great jumping off place.

Can you guess what this is a picture of?


If you guessed it's a new design for a military vehicle bound for Iraq, then go to the back of the room. However, if you guessed it's the 71,000-seat stadium Tom Hicks and his partners are going to construct for their Liverpool football team, then award yourself a prize. According to the team's Web site, the stadium at Stanley Park should be completed in time for the 2011-12 English Premier League season.

Fly me to the moon (later)


This bit of news somehow escaped me when it was announced Wednesday but it's still worth mentioning now. Richard Branson, arguably the world's best known virgin, is announcing the commercialization of space flights. And at the bargain price of $200,000 a ticket, right around what I hear you'll pay for season tickets at the new Cowboys Stadium.

What's even more amazing is that, according to this story, 200 intrepid souls have already made reservations to come fly with Branson on this six-passenger (not including two crew members) spaceship.

Besides the fact that I have far more important things I would do with $200,000 at my immediate disposal, the spaceship's designer, one Burt Rutan, did not fill me with a lot of confidence when he said that, despite the craft's problems (a recent explosion on the ground killed three persons), once the ship starts flying it should be just as safe as any commercial airliner from the 1920s.

Sure. Fine. Whatever.

A shout-out for Sharon


Like many, I suppose, I first noticed S. Epatha Merkerson (the S. stands for Sharon) on the television program "Law and Order." But it wasn't in her role as Lt. Anita Van Buren, a part she has played for 16 years now, that caught my eye. In the show's very first season, in an episode called "Mushrooms," she played a cleaning woman whose 11-month-old child is accidentally shot. It was a memorable performance, one that obviously has stuck with me to this day.

Others have recognized her work as well. She was nominated for a Tony for her performance in August Wilson's Pulitzer-Prize winning "The Piano Lesson" and a couple of years ago she won a Golden Globe, a Screen Actors Guild award and an Emmy for the television production "Lackawanna Blues."

Still, it made me feel good this morning to read in the New York Times Ben Brantley's review of Ms. Merkerson's performance in "Come Back Little Sheba," a performance, Brantley writes, that "stops the heart." You can read the review for yourself here, although you might have to register with the New York Times if you haven't done so already. Don't worry, however; registration is free.

'Moliere' fails to be 'Shakespeare'


Laurent Tirard's "Moliere" tries, but ultimately fails, to do for the 17th century French playwright what "Shakespeare in Love" did for the 16th century English one; i.e., provide the romantic inspiration for his later works.

The movie is based on a factual premise. Saddled with debts, most of them from back rent on a theater where he and his acting troupe performed in Paris, Moliere (although at this time he still went by his real name, Jean-Baptiste Poquelin) was tossed in debtor's prison, but only for 24 hours. Historians differ on who paid his debts: some say it was his wealthy father and others claim it was the lover of one of the actors in Moliere's troupe. At any rate, immediately after his discharge from prison, he and his troupe began a 12-year theatrical tour of the French provinces, during which time Moliere honed his comic writing and acting skills.

According to the movie, however, Moliere's debts are paid by a Monsieur Jourdain (Fabrice Luchini) on the condition that Moliere (Romain Duris) teaches Jourdain how to act. Jourdain (who would wind up as the main character in Moliere's "Le Bourgeois Gentilhomme"), you see, is smitten by Celimene (Ludivine Sagnier) a comely, yet shallow, neighboring widow, whom, at the time Jourdain hires Moliere, Jourdain has yet to even meet face-to-face. But Jourdain thinks he can win Celimene's favors if he can convincingly act out this playlet he wrote in which he reveals his undying love for the widow. There's one major problem, however. Jourdain needs all this teaching to take place on the estate he shares with his wife, Elmire (Laura Morante, pictured above with Duris). Naturally, Jourdain would like to keep his wife from learning about all this Cilimene business, so Moliere shows up in the guise of a priest who has come to tutor Jourdain's youngest daughter. To make matters even more interesting, Moliere shows a lusty romantic interest in Elmire who, while aroused by all this, thinks it unbecoming for a priest to making sexually charged advances.

Now this set-up is a wonderful comic premise and would have worked in the hands of a writer like, well, Moliere himself. It doesn't work here because the script lacks the wit, the charm and the audacity of a Moliere comedy or Tom Stoppard's magnificent screenplay for "Shakespeare in Love." Plus, I never did believe that the Celimene as fashioned by Ms. Sagnier would be all that attractive to the bevy of suitors the film claims are trying to woo her. I think the only reason she is even in here is because the scriptwriters wanted to use this to illustrate Moliere's inspiration for his play "The Misanthrope." But the main problem I have with the film is that I never once bought into the romance between Moliere and Elmire.

Duris plays Moliere as a man who broods more than he loves, who yearns more than he writes. Joseph Fiennes brought Shakespeare to lusty life in "Shakespeare in Love," turning him into a guy you would like to have a pint or two or three of ale with at the nearest pub. Duris' Moliere, on the other hand, is an anthropological study and why someone with the depth and the intelligence of Elmire would give this self-possessed dullard the time of day is beyond me. In "Shakespeare in Love," I rooted for the romance between Will and Viola to end happily; in "Moliere," I couldn't care less.

Grade: C-

Thursday, January 24, 2008

"Hunting Party" misses its target


When the Academy Award nominations were announced this week, I read a number of articles heralding the studio subsidiary system, a system that allows for independent-minded films like "No Country for Old Men," "Juno," and "There Will Be Blood," to mention just three Oscar contenders, to even get made. Without such a system, you could picture a scene in which the Coen brothers were summoned to the office of some major studio honcho who told them: "The screening last night was OK, nothing to write home about, but we do have one major problem. It's the ending. The audience's reaction to the ending practically tanks the entire project. So we huddled immediately after the screening and Arthur down in accounting came up with a new ending that we believe might salvage the entire project so I'm putting him in charge of shooting some additional footage." The result probably would be a movie with a bigger box office than "No Country" has earned to date, but without any of the critical plaudits.

But sometimes, I am thinking, that kind of oversight can be a good thing. Take Richard Shepard's "The Hunting Party" for example. Shepard made the funny, entertaining "The Matador," a satire involving the psychological flameout of a Mafia-type hitman. Shepard tries to take the same approach to "The Hunting Party," which purports to be a satire involving the psychological flameout of a TV newsman. This idea worked to perfection in Sidney Lumet's "Network" because the satirical target there was network news' cravings for higher ratings. It doesn't work here because the satirical target is the Bosnian war and someone should have been in a position to tell Shepard there is absolutely nothing funny about genocide and ethnic cleansing.

The film is based on an Esquire magazine article written by Scott Anderson that wasn't funny either (nor was it intended to be). It told the story of five journalists, one of whom was Mr. Anderson himself, who had covered the Bosnian war and held a reunion in Sarajevo five years after the war. Before long, the group was mistaken for a C.I.A. hit squad hunting for fugitive Serb leader Radovan Karadzic.

In the very beginning of "The Hunting Party," a title card flashes on the screen that reads "Only the most ridiculous parts of this story are true." I don't believe that at all. I think all the ridiculous parts --and there are way too many of them -- are fiction and the only scene with a kernel of truth is one in which TV journalist Simon Hunt (Richard Gere), his long-time cameraman Duck (Terrence Howard) and the third member of their team, Benjamin (Jesse Eisenberg, pictured above with Gere and Howard) meet four other journalists in a Sarajevo bar.

But I'm jumping ahead of myself. Gere is terribly miscast as the grizzled Hunt (sorry, Richard, you're just too inherently elegant to ever pull off "grizzled) who had his psychological flameout during a live news segment during the war, after which Duck (Howard's immense talents are wasted in this role) left the war zone to return to network headquarters as the lead cameraman on the network news. It's now five years later. Hunt has faded into oblivion and Duck returns to Sarajevo with the network anchorman (James Brolin) for a celebration marking the anniversary of the war's end. Of course he runs into Hunt who tells him he knows where the No. 1 war criminal is hiding and together they could go to the hideout and film an exclusive interview. This, of course, would be tantamount to someone from one of the national networks tracking down Osama Ben Laden for an interview today.

The script inserts the Benjamin character because the audience needs to learn the real motivations of Hunt's character and other background on the war, and the easiest way to do that is to invent a character that Duck can explain all this to.

The problem is that Shepard never elevates this to the level of satire the way he managed to do with "The Matador." Instead we get jokes involving midgets, a waiter shooting at Hunt because he didn't pay his dinner bill and a shadowy C.I.A. operative whose ultimate fate, we are told, might be that he is eaten by squirrels in Africa (that actually reads funnier than it plays). We also get with Hunt every single cliche that surrounds a "grizzled TV newsman." This doesn't belong in Esquire as much as it does Amazing Wonder Stories.

Grade: D+

Wednesday, January 23, 2008

Good news from Her Tallness


Let me just say at the outset that it's next to impossible for me to be objective when the subject of Marcia Ball comes up. I have known her for close to 40 years now, even before she formed Freda and the Firedogs, the band that, for all practical purposes, started the so-called "progressive country music" and the "Austin music scene." Sure there was music being played at clubs in Austin but it was played by old-line country folks at places like the Split Rail or by rockers like the 13th Floor Elevators and Shiva's Headband at the Vulcan Gas Company on Congress. Freda and the Firedogs was the first band of "long-hairs" to play semi-traditional country music in Austin, which was strange coming from Marcia because I knew then her first love was the New Orleans-styled blues she grew up with in Louisiana.

But all this is extraneous to the real purpose of this post which is twofold. First, there's a possibility that Marcia will be playing at Poor David's Pub Saturday, March 22. The date is not set in stone yet, but I've got my fingers crossed.

What is more certain, however, is that Marcia's latest album, called "Peace, Love & BBQ" ("three of my favorite things," she says) should be released in April. It is produced by Stephen Bruton and features, among other guests, Dr. John and his band.

It's enough to warm my heart on a cold, cold day.

Tuesday, January 22, 2008

Ledger's death leaves one wondering "What might have been"


By PHILIP WUNTCH
Film Critic Emeritus


Heath Ledger was named for Heathcliff, the tragic, tormented hero of Emily Bronte's "Wuthering Heights." The actor's death Tuesday, at the age of 28, links his name to tragedy in an even more indelible fashion.

By most accounts, the death was accidental although the more sensational taint of "possible suicide" may linger for a while. Ledger's youthful, sad demise does not elevate him to the celestial status of the early-to-die James Dean. Movies as well as movie fans have undergone tremendous changes over the last half-century. The greatest tragedy, from a professional perspective, is for "what might have been."

Ledger was the kind of actor who gracefully moved from leading man parts to character roles, a trait that clearly signaled a long career that now will never be fulfilled. He didn't always demand the starring role; his footage as Billy Bob Thornton's sensitive, suicidal son in 2001's "Monster's Ball" contained only a few brief scenes. Nor did he favor glossy, romantic characters. In fact, his most conventional roles were among his biggest flops.

I met him only once, when he was touring for the lavish 2002 remake of "Four Feathers," in which he played a conventional hero role. The day of the interview, a trade paper panned the big-budget film, correctly predicting the public's apathy. As I entered the room, one of his personal handlers said, "Please don't mention that review. He's very vulnerable."

I made no promises. I didn't have to. Ledger mentioned the review himself.

"Have you seen The Hollywood Reporter?," he said. "They really blasted it. I knew going in that not everyone was going to like it. But it deals with a character's redemption, and that appealed to me."

He didn't make the remark as if hoping I would protest, "Oh, that critic had it all wrong." He spoke in a disarmingly open manner and seemed like a pleasant chap.

That pleasant impression was enhanced Tuesday with reports that when he and "Brokeback Mountain" co-star Michelle Williams split, he didn't want their 2-year-old daughter to feel disoriented or displaced. He had his new dwelling designed to look as much as possible like the one he had shared with Williams, with his daughter's new bedroom decorated almost exactly like the one where she now lived alone with her mother. As far as I know, these reports were only made posthumously. He did not parade his strong paternal instincts in public.

He showed a randy comic side playing a wryly observant high school iconoclast in 1999's "10 Things I Hate About You" and had the charisma necessary not to make a fool of himself in 2005's "Casanova." He was a savvy enough actor to overcome the plot conventions of 2000's "The Patriot" and hold his own with the then-imperial Mel Gibson. He was one of several Bob Dylan incarnations in "I'm Not There," and some critics thought his was the best.

But his finest performances were in two unconventional roles. He captured all the nuances of "Brokeback Mountain"'s initially reluctant gay cowboy, and he was startlingly good as a heroin-addicted poet in 2006's largely unseen "Candy," no relation to the Terry Southern novel. Both characters met tragic, lonely fates.

This summer he will be seen as The Joker in the newest Batman flick, "The Dark Knight," with the equally inventive Christian Bale reprising his Batman role. Warner Bros. issued a statement, properly regretting the "devastating and shocking loss." More pragmatically, studio honchos must be pondering how the Ledger loss will affect the advertising campaign and ultimately the box office. One of "The Dark Knight"'s key posters shows Ledger in clown's face, using lipstick to smear the words "Why So Serious?" on a mirror. Will the public feel like smiling?

The actor also had started filming "The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus" for irreverent director Terry Gilliam. That film's future is currently unknown.

Ledger leaves behind a solid inventory of courageous performances. They promised a durable and imposing career that sadly will never be.

Heath Ledger found dead in Manhattan apartment

Heath Ledger, the Australian-born Academy Award-nominated actor for his role in "Brokeback Mountain" has been found dead in a SoHo apartment. He formerly shared an apartment in Brooklyn with actress Michelle Williams, who was also nominated for "Brokeback Mountain" and with whom he fathered a child.

Police said his body was found in the apartment's bedroom by Ledger's masseuse. Reportedly, pills were found near the body.

Oscar predictions scorecoard

Not one of my better predicting years. In the top eight categories, I only got 33 of 40 nominations correct for a paltry 82.5 percent. The official breakdown:

Picture: 4 out of 5 ("Atonement" coming in ahead of "The Diving Bell and the Butterfly" was not that much of a shock, however).

Director: 4 out of 5

Actor: 4 out of 5 (Tommy Lee Jones was a major surprise; I did not see that one coming at all.)

Actress: Only 3 out of 5 but I can't say I was shocked by the choices or the omissions

Supporting Actor: 5 out of 5

Supporting Actress: 4 out of 5 (No surprise, I was torn between Ruby Dee and Catherine Keener and decided to go with Ms. Keener at the very last minute)

Adapted Screenplay: 4 out of 5 (Sarah Polley's nomination for "Away From Her" came out of left field; I figured if "Into the Wild" didn't make it into this list, "Charlie Wilson's War" would).

Original Screenplay: 5 out of 5

Other categories in which I did reasonably well: cinematography, 5 out 5; visual effects, 3 out of 3; animated feature, 2 out 3 ("Surf's Up" beating out "The Simpson's Movie" was completely unexpected, that smells of the Academy's anti-TV bias); art direction, 4 out of 5 (still don't understand "American Gangster" over "Elizabeth: The Golden Age" in this category); and film editing, 4 out 5 (not sure why "The Diving Bell and the Butterfly" was chosen over "Michael Clayton").

Jones, Linney top pleasant Oscar nomination surprises

By PHILIP WUNTCH
Film Critic Emeritus


The 80th Oscar nominations, announced this morning, made me a happy movie fan. Or at least, a reasonably happy movie fan. The lists have a noble share of pleasant surprises, and I can live with the disappointments.

In fact, the disappointments were fewer than I expected. I was eagerly prepared to lash out at the Academy for ignoring "
In the Valley of Elah" as well as Laura Linney's tender performance in "The Savages." But Tommy Lee Jones won a deserved nod as "Valley"'s grieving, searching father of a murdered Iraq war veteran. Despite favorable reviews, the film fizzled at the box-office, and voters keep an eye on the bottom line. With both "No Country for Old Men" and "There Will Be Blood" heralded as Oscar headliners, I feared Academy voters might have had an "enough, already" attitude towards "downers."

As for Linney, she's become so reliable that a poignant Linney performance is practically a given. She's also proved her versatility, with her blue-collar
Lady Macbeth in "Mystic River" never getting its due. Her "Savages" character, a daughter coping with both personal and family crises, was sympathetic enough to woo those softie Academy members. But don't expect a Linney victory.

Yet along with many others, I'm surprised at the "
Into the Wild" shut-out. Sean Penn's expert direction was excluded, as was Emile Hirsch's powerful performance. In the past, Hirsch seemed like just another photogenic male ingenue, but "Into the Wild" called for strength and majesty, which he provided. And Catherine Keener can play an "earth mother"-type with total conviction. But Hal Holbrook's penetrating depiction of senior-citizen loneliness deservedly received mention. If anyone can usurp Javier Bardem in the supporting-actor ranks, it will be Holbrook. Still, someone ought to clasp Penn on the back and buy him a couple of drinks.

The best-actress category also had two notable omissions,
Angelina Jolie and Keira Knightley. Jolie's "A Mighty Heart" made only the mildest murmur at the box-office although the actress remains a star of tabloid TV shows. (Marry the girl, Brad). Or does estranged father Jon Voight have a lot of friends among Academy members?

Knightley's snub for "
Atonement" recalls the shunning of Nicole Kidman for 2003's "Cold Mountain." Both actresses looked great in their roles, with "looked" the operative word. On closer inspection, both their performances seem posed although, to give dear Keira her due, her aristocratic Brit was brought up to be a poseur. "Atonement" remains a noble, heartfelt effort, but like "Cold Mountain," its central romance was more penetrating in novel form than on the screen.

In the lead actor category, I wish there had been room for
Benicio Del Toro in the unjustly neglected "Things We Lost in the Fire," Frank Langella in "Starting Out in the Evening" and Gordon Pinsent in "Away From Her." Pinsent's performance as Julie Christie's confused, remorseful yet hopeful husband was a tower of quiet strength, overshadowed by Christie's showier role.

It also would have been gratifying to see
Josh Brolin's breakthrough performance in "No Country for Old Men" acknowledged. His bumbling yet resilient Everyman anchored the movie. Meanwhile, he's just signed to play Dubya in Oliver Stone's "Bush," which the controversial director says "will contain surprises for Bush supporters and his detractors."

With noble resignation, I had prepared myself for the snubbing of "
Before the Devil Knows You're Dead." But it still rankles. It could be Hollywood's prejudice against New York-based director Sidney Lumet. The gifted director has never received his deserved Oscar attention. He was last nominated as Best Director for one of his most Hollywood-ish films, 1983's Paul Newman starrer "The Verdict," which Lumet described as "Rocky Goes to the Courtroom." Or it could be that Academy members didn't want too downbeat a list, which could explain director Jason Reitman's suprise nomination for the endearing, popular "Juno."

Also missing from top categories were "
Zodiac," released early in the year and featuring a dynamic Robert Downey Jr. performance, and the haunting "Once," about two musicians who express their amorous yearnings through their music. "Once" was an art-house success that crossed over to mainstream audiences.

Other than
Ruby Dee's nod, "American Gangster" got no mention in the main categories. I am not weeping. The movie was watchable without being riveting and paled alongside last year's "The Departed." It seemed calculated to win Oscars, and, at least on occasion, poetic justice prevails.

"
Michael Clayton"'s triumphant showing confirms George Clooney's standing in Hollywood. His democratic on-the-set behavior wins friends, and he's definitely a talent. And Hollywood can relate to all three nominated roles: Clooney's disillusioned, tarnished "fixer," Tilda Swinton's edgy executive on the verge of freaking out and Tom Wilkinson's ready-to-jump kingpin. Has anyone noticed, though, how closely their characters mirror Lumet's 1975's "Network" ensemble of William Holden, Faye Dunaway and Peter Finch?

As always, the lead acting and supporting acting ranks grow fuzzier.
Casey Affleck was superb in "The Assassination of Jesse James By the Coward Robert Ford," but his screen time matched Brad Pitt's, and Casey's Ford, rather than Pitt's James, fueled the film's narrative.

Had Affleck been in the lead-actor category, there might have been room for
J.K. Simmons, who was sublime as the title character's father in "Juno." You could sense their testy yet undeniable father-daughter bond in every scene. Also worthy of mention was Paul Dano's conflicted faith-healer in "There Will Be Blood," with Dano also making a brief but memorable appearance as the faith-healer's twin brother.

I can't argue with any of the supporting-actress nominees, but, again, I wish room could have been made for two "Juno" players.
Allison Janney can do no wrong as an actress, and she was both hilarious and moving as Juno's stepmother, while Jennifer Garner did her finest big-screen work as an eager adoptive mother.

For now the supporting-actress frontrunner looks like
Cate Blanchett for playing a character based on Bob Dylan in "I'm Not There." Blanchett won the 2004 Oscar as Katharine Hepburn in "The Aviator." The Academy probably won't be able to resist the novelty of having one actress win Oscars for playing both Bob Dylan and Katharine Hepburn.

Other probable winners:
Best Picture: "No Country for Old Men"
Best Actor:
Daniel Day-Lewis, "There Will Be Blood"
Best Actress: Julie Christie, "Away From Her"
Best Supporting Actor: Javier Bardem, "No Country for Old Men"
Best Director(s):
Joel and Ethan Coen, "No Country for Old Men"

But, as always, a lot can happen between now and Feb. 24.

Saturday, January 19, 2008

Oscar Nomination Predictions


Listed in the order of confidence I have that they will be nominated:

BEST PICTURE
The Final Five
No Country for Old Men
There Will Be Blood
Michael Clayton
Juno
The Diving Bell and the Butterfly
Still in the running
Atonement
Into the Wild
Sweeney Todd

DIRECTOR
The Final Five
Joel and Ethan Coen, No Country for Old Men
Paul Thomas Anderson, There Will Be Blood
Julian Schnabel, The Diving Bell and the Butterfly
Sean Penn, Into the Wild
Tony Gilroy, Michael Clayton
Still in the running
Joe Wright, Atonement
Tim Burton, Sweeney Todd
Sidney Lumet, Before the Devil Knows You're Dead
Jason Reitman, Juno

ACTOR
The Final Five
Daniel Day Lewis, There Will Be Blood
George Clooney, Michael Clayton
Johnny Depp, Sweeney Todd
Emile Hirsch, Into the Wild
Viggo Mortensen, Eastern Promises
Still in the running
Ryan Gosling, Lars and the Real Girl
James McAvoy, Atonement
Denzel Washington, American Gangster
Frank Langella, Starting Out in the Evening

ACTRESS
The Final Five
Julie Christie, Away From Her
Marion Cotillard, La Vie en Rose
Ellen Page, Juno
Angelina Jolie, A Mighty Heart
Keira Knightley, Atonement
Still in the running
Cate Blanchett, Elizabeth: The Golden Age
Amy Adams, Enchanted
Laura Linney, The Savages

SUPPORTING ACTOR
The Final Five
Javier Bardem, No Country for Old Men
Hal Holbrook, Into the Wild
Tom Wilkinson, Michael Clayton
Casey Affleck, The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford
Philip Seymour Hoffman, Charlie Wilson's War
Still in the running
Paul Dano, There Will Be Blood
Tommy Lee Jones, No Country for Old Men

SUPPORTING ACTRESS
The Final Five
Amy Ryan, Gone Baby Gone
Cate Blanchett, I'm Not There
Tilda Swinton, Michael Clayton
Saoirse Ronan, Atonement
Catherine Keener, Into the Wild
Still in the running
Ruby Dee, American Gangster
Jennifer Garner, Juno

ORIGINAL SCREENPLAY
The Final Five
Juno
Michael Clayton
The Savages
Ratatouille
Lars and the Real Girl
Still in the running
Knocked Up

ADAPTED SCREENPLAY
The Final Five
No Country for Old Men
There Will Be Blood
The Diving Bell and the Butterfly
Into the Wild
Atonement
Still in the running
Charlie Wilson's War
American Gangster

FOREIGN LANGUAGE FILM
The Final Five
The Counterfeiters
The Year My Parents Went on Vacation
Days of Darkness
12
The Unknown
Still in the running
Beaufort
4 Months, 3 Weeks & 2 Days
Persopolis
The Orphanage
You the Living

DOCUMENTARY FEATURE
The Final Five
Sicko
No End in Sight
Lake of Fire
Autism: The Musical
Nanking

ANIMATED FILM
The Final Three
Ratatouille
The Simpson's Movie
Persopolis

CINEMATOGRAPHY
The Final Five
The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford
There Will Be Blood
No Country for Old Men
The Diving Bell and the Butterfly
Atonement
Still in the running
Into the Wild

EDITING
The Final Five
No Country for Old Men
Michael Clayton
Into the Wild
The Bourne Ultimatum
There Will Be Blood
Still in the running
Sweeney Todd
Atonement
American Gangster

COSTUME DESIGN
The Final Five
Atonement
Sweeney Todd
Elizabeth: The Golden Age
Hairspray
The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford
Still in the running
3:10 to Yuma

ART DIRECTION
The Final Five
Sweeney Todd
Atonement
There Will Be Blood
Elizabeth: The Golden Age
The Golden Compass
Still in the running
Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix
No Country for Old Men
The Diving Bell and the Butterfly

MAKE-UP
The Final Three
Sweeney Todd
La Vie En Rose
Pirates of the Caribbean: At World's End
Still in the running
The Diving Bell and the Butterfly
300

ORIGINAL SCORE
The Final Five
Atonement
There Will Be Blood
Lust, Caution
Into the Wild
Ratatouille
Still in the running
The Kite Runner
Eastern Promises

ORIGINAL SONG
The Final Five
Guaranteed, Into the Wild
Falling Slowly, Once
That's How You Know, Enchanted
Come So Far (Got So Far to Go), Hairspray
Do You Feel Me, American Gangster
Still in the running
Society, Into the Wild

SOUND MIXING
The Final Five
Transformers
Sweeney Todd
No Country for Old Men
The Bourne Ultimatum
300
Still in the running
Pirates of the Caribbean: At World's End
Into the Wild
There Will Be Blood
Ratatouille
Hairspray

SOUND EDITING
The Final Five
Transformers
Pirates of the Caribbean: At World's End
Ratatouille
300
Spider-Man 3
Still in the running
3:10 to Yuma
The Bourne Ultimatum
Beowulf

VISUAL EFFECTS
The Final Three
Transformers
Pirates of the Caribbean: At World's End
The Golden Compass
Still in the running
300