I naturally meant no harm for the dearly beloved No Country for Old Men when I used the word “taint” in writing about the National Board of Review’s having given its Best Picture award to Joel and Ethan Coen‘s metaphorical crime film. I was referring to the fact that the NBR is regarded with so little respect that getting an award from them might carry a wee bit of an “uh-oh” factor.
Groucho Marx once said “I would never want to be part of a club that would have me as a member,” and I was thinking maybe that some critics might say to themselves, “Let’s not vote for a film that those NBR scuzballs have championed…let’s go in another direction.” It was a strange riff since top-dog critics (or the ones I know) are rarely influenced along such petty lines. Here’s hoping that No Country keeps on going and going, right up to the moment that it wins the Best Picture Oscar.
I didn’t have to see I Am Legend (Warner Bros., 12.14) to presume that serious problems would pop through. The guiding hand of director Francis Lawrence (who gave us the loathsome Constantine after directing music videos for Britney Spears, Jennifer Lopez and Janet Jackson) told me almost everything I needed to know months ago. Add Will Smith‘s almost-deranged-need-to-charm-and- be-loved impulse, which pops up in every film he makes (even The Pursuit of Happyness), and the badness, to me, was all but assured.
And now the first-hand dings from people who’ve actually seen it are coming in. The first was from Red Carpet District‘s Kris Tapley, writing this morning that he “mingled with Anne Thompson long enough to exchange unpleasant opinions on I Am Legend” at last night’s Sweeney Todd premiere.
The second air-rifle pellet came from Coming Soon‘s Edward Douglas: “After much-better variations on the apocalyptic premise like Children of Men and 28 Days Later, I Am Legend seems like little more than retread. Combining the poor choice of Will Smith in the lead role with some of the worst CG work since Van Helsing, this dog makes the recent The Invasion come across like a masterpiece.”
I didn’t use the term “pellet” thoughtlessly. I Am Legend has a rhinoceros hide as far as critical barbs will be concerned. The want-to-see is through the roof, the movie will pull down tens of millions on opening weekend, the public hass no taste, nothing matters, etc.
It turns out there’s one decent DVD store in the Boston area after all — the Video Underground in Jamaica Plain, which is somewhere south of Brookline Village. Open 1 to 11 pm daily, and specializing in independent, cult, foreign, classic and locally made titles. Presumably staffed with knowledgable cineaste types like Quentin Tarantino and Roger Avary used to be when they worked at Video Archives.
But that’s all she wrote in this area, and I’m in still grappling with the shock of realizing that if the communal DVD experience is all but obliterated in Boston, it must be pretty much finished nationwide except for the existence of those very few specialty DVD stores serving big-city elites.
What a wonderfully corporate Orwellian world we’re living in! No more going outside to stores where you can view and hold DVDs in your hands before buying them, and perhaps even discuss their merits and demerits with the guy at the counter. No more tasting or savoring life’s rough and tumble at all, really. Instead you go online and order a digital semblance of that rough and tumble, and two or three days later it arrives in your mailbox and you pop it into your DVD or X-Box or PS3 player, and you sit there on your couch, vegging out and munching out on sour cream and onion-flavored Ruffles. (My personal favorite…sorry.)
I’ve been noticing these grotesque life forms — products of an indoor, online-based, sedentary existence — walking down Newbury Street over the last couple of days. Kids with a simian aura, obviously unrefined attitudes, squealing with laughter at each other’s jokes, sounding like Sopranos extras, reeking of cigarettes or pot and carrying around massive loads of whale blubber. Give me a city and a lifestyle that keeps me away from these animals….these harbingers of cultural death. If the ghosts of Honore de Balzac or William Makepeace Thackeray were to run into these kids they’d reach for their muskets and start shooting.
I made the mistake of going to a Best Buy last night in hopes of finding the Ford at Fox collection among the new releases. Forget it. I asked a kid working there if it was at least in the Best Buy database and possibly available at some other store. “What’s this DVD again?” he asked. “Ford at Fox,” I said. “Movies made by John Ford…you know, one of the great all-time directors. An old-time guy.” He didn’t have a wisp of a clue what I was talking about. You don’t have to be a John Ford scholar but to have never heard the words “John” and “Ford” spoken in sequence ….good God.
Here’s a 7.9.06 Boston Globe piece by John Swansburg about the death of the local video store. “It’s a greater loss than you might think,” the subhead reads. No, no…I get it, I get it!
In response to yesterday’s Sweeney Todd episode at Leows Boston Common plex, HE reader Wrecktum remarked that “the biggest travesty” affecting the poor-projection-standards problem in the nation’s theatres “is that audiences never care. They’ll sit through a movie with green scratches on all reels, digital sound dropping out every few minutes, the image hanging half off the screen…bad splices, bad dirt, bad everything. And they don’t seem to mind.”
N.Y.’s Rivoli theatre, early in the run of John Ford’s The Grapes of Wrath, which opened on 1.25.40
Sheep-like behavior is indeed the root of it. If only 10% of moviegoers had my attitude (i.e., politely but firmly pointing out problems if they exist), projection would be improved all around because squeaky wheels always get the grease. The underlying factor is that most moviegoers don’t seem to even notice when projection standards are poor (largely because they’ve never seen films projected the right way, as they are in studio screening rooms and theaters like L.A.’s Arclight), and of these 99.9% would rather suffer in silence than speak up. As they are in politics, American moviegoers are largely docile and vegetable.
Date: 12.5.07, 6:02 pm. To: Tim Burton, Dariusz Wolski — director and cinematographer of Sweeney Todd. From: Jeffrey Wells, Hollywood Elsewhere. Re: Today’s Sweeney Todd screening for Boston critics.
Gentlemen: I’m just writing to let you guys know that all the post-production work you sank into getting Sweeney Todd to look and sound just right was ruined today as far as the Boston critics were concerned, and all by some kid in a projection booth and a manager who didn’t care very much.
Leows Boston Common, 175 Tremont Street, Boston, Mass.
I saw Sweeney Todd last Thursday (11.29) in the big Paramount theatre on the Melrose lot, and it was beautiful…exquisite. It looked and sounded perfect in every way. Needle-sharp focus. Crisp full sound. More than enough projector light (i.e., foot lamberts) so that every last value in your somber-colored, almost black-and- white palette was on the screen.
I saw it again today at a 2 pm critics’ screening at Leows Boston Common 19, and the projection and sound were way below par. The delight that I experienced last Thursday had been reduced by a good 30% or 40%. The focus wasn’t quite 100% at first — I had to go out and complain and ask the projectionist to please improve it. The sound levels were pathetic at first, and even after they turned them up very slightly after I complained there was something odd about the mix — the orchestra seemed to overwhelm the voices.
On top of which the screen was lit with a red-pink glow on the lower right and lower left due to brightly-lit exit signs, which naturally fucked with your delicate gray- black color scheme.
I talked to a couple of critic friends about the lousy projection after the screening; I also spoke to the publicists who were handling it. They all agreed that the Leows Boston Common can be a substandard or at the least problematic place to see films, but what are ya gonna do? As one top critic said, “Welcome to our town.” I know that when I complained about the above issues the manager very faintly grinned during our conversation. Faint grins do not connote hard-core attitudes.
I don’t know how the Boston critics felt about your film (they’re voting this Sunday). Maybe they loved it regardless. But I know I felt much greater enthusiasm for it last week than I did today. It just wasn’t presented with the right oomph & pizazz. The word is “degraded.”
I’m just hoping that the National Board of Review having given its ’07 Best Picture award to No Country for Old Men (as well as one for Best Adapted Screenplay and Best Ensemble Cast) doesn’t…you know, taint things in some way. Let’s not go there. The bad-news group gave their Best Director award to Sweeney Todd‘s Tim Burton, so there was either a big Best Picture scrap between these two or…you know, they wanted Burton bad at the awards ceremony.
Michael Clayton‘s George Clooney was named Best Actor…I give up. Away From Her‘s Julie Christie named Best Actress…fine. Best Supporting Actor award went to Casey Affleck for The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford…fine…and the Best Supporting Actress awatrd went to Amy Ryan in Gone Baby Gone Best Documentary: Body of War. Best Animated Feature: Ratatouille.
What’s The Bucket List doing on their roster of ’07’s Ten Best films? I don’t think that’s going to result in Jack Nichiolson showing up for the awards ceremony so why’d they do it? Nobody but nobody is over the moon about this thing.
Wells to “Aguirre,” the ghost of Klaus Kinski — what was all that blah-blah about The Kite Runner being an NBR favorite to win Best Picture?
“Films do a have a tendency to live a long time, and sometimes they even change the audiences so that [viewers] 10 years from now are affected by more unusual films,” Francis Coppola remarked last Monday night at Manhattan’s Paris theatre after a screening of Youth Without Youth. “In fact, I can remember in my own career reading the reviews of the first Godfather film. Even our friends here at Variety gave it a terrible review.”
Really? A terrible review to an all-time classic by the entertainment industry’s leading trade? I did a search and found A.D. Murphy‘s review, published on 3.8.72, and Coppola, it turns out, was exaggerating. Murphy was not a huge fan and was obviously dismayed, but what he wrote was not a savage pan.
“With several million hardcover and paperback books acting as trailers, Paramount’s film version of Mario Puzo’s sprawling gangland novel, ‘The Godfather,’ has a large pre-sold audience,” Murphy began. “This will bolster the potential for the film which has an outstanding performance by Al Paclno and a strong characterization by Marlon Brando in title role. It also has excellent production values, flashes of excitement, and a well-picked cast.
“But it is also overlong at about 175 minutes (played without intermission), and occasionally confusing. While never so placid as to be boring, it is never so gripping as to be superior screen drama. This should not mar Paramount’s b.o. expectations in any measure, though some filmgoers may be disappointed.”
Tip of the hat to the art guy with New York‘s “Vulture” team who slapped together this Sweeney Todd bloodletting chart. The copy claims that “no fewer than ten throats are slit in pretty much the most graphic way possible, with geysers of blood spewing in all directions.” I don’t remember more than seven or eight. I guess I’ll be doing a precise count at today’s 2 pm screening at the Boston Common 19.
I wouldn’t normally predict the National Board of Review‘s picks, which will be revealed sometime around 2 or 3 pm this afternoon, but since I’ll be in a Sweeney Todd screening that will start at 2 pm I may as well take a shot. I’m doing so knowing that the NBR has become an even worse joke than before due to the reported ouster of Annette Insdorf from the executive photoplay committee. The NBR picks will be old news by tonight and all-but-forgotten by tomorrow so I don’t know why anything bothers.
I’m not disputing the ghost-of-Klaus Kinski‘s prediction that The Kite Runner will take Best Picture, but a voice is telling me that it’s a 50-5O teeter-totter between this and The Diving Bell and the Butterfly. (They may go even further and give their Best Director award to Julian Schnabel.) It would be right and fitting to start the ball rolling for No Country for Old Men with a Best Picture win…
I can’t do this. I can’t do this. I really can’t do this. Whatever they choose, they choose. The groups that matter are the L.A. Film Critics (who will vote, I think, this coming Saturday), the Boston Film Critics (who’ll vote Sunday) and the New York Film Critics Circle (who will powwow early next week).
Each and every time I re-review the Oscar handicapper favorites, I’m reminded that I’m constitutionally incapable of standing completely off to the sidelines and trying to guess which films and filmmakers that Academy members are favoring at the moment. I try to ask around and listen and “read the town” as much as the next guy — I respect the industry perceptions of guys like Pete Hammond as much as anyone else, and perhaps more so — but I can’t keep my own feelings and convictions out of it. The mindset of the dispassionate handicapper-statistician is too bloodless and clinical.
George Clooney, Benicio del Toro
And frankly, I don’t know how anyone in this game can go 100% dispassionate and still sleep at night. You’ve got to make it personal these days. Or at least half-personal. Dispassionate reporting and sage analysis are so…print. We are all advocates. A columnist or critic is nothing without convictions and cojones that he/she is willing to lay on the line.
One of the things I love about Envelope columnist Tom O’Neil is that he predicts from his heart. He raises the antenna and puts his ear to the rails, but at the end of the day he can’t seem to keep his own passions out of the equation. That’s me also, which is why I had a mild seizure yesterday when it hit me that a majority of Buzzmeter contributors had named Michael Clayton‘s George Clooney as a Best Actor contender while ignoring — as they have been all along — Benicio del Toro‘s wings-of-angels performance in Things We Lost in the Fire.
It doesn’t matter — it can’t matter — that industry Zeligs are saying “Clooney, Clooney” because it’s just too…I don’t know what…insulated? In this context it doesn’t matter if Del Toro has the “votes” or not. The point is that his performance in Fire is at least ten or fifteen times greater than Clooney’s, and I’m saying this with a full acknowledgment that Clooney gave a sturdy, convincing, first-rate performance in Tony Gilroy‘s film. But he’s just not in the same league with Benicio, and it’s wrong, lazy and disproportionate to assert otherwise because some lazy-heads are espousing this view at parties after their second glass of wine.
The Academy chattering class (or is it really the journo-chatterers?) can’t do this, and if they are doing this it is the responsibility of the Oscar-watching columnist-bloggers to split their heads and hearts in the Wells-O’Neil fashion and say “no, it’s wrong. Just wrong. This isn’t a high-school popularity contest, and the Movie Gods will never forgive us.”
It’s all well and good to pass along what is connecting and what isn’t with industry audiences, but if these alleged favorites don’t correspond on some deep-down level with what an observer knows to be genuinely commendable or artful on some level, a columnist-observer is obliged, at the very least, to ask questions. Or, if he/she chooses, argue against the prospective nominee. You can’t just be a lamb in the field and go “baaah.”
The bottom line is not that I haven’t agreed with the calls made by the Motion Picture Academy over the years, but that I don’t respect the myopic and provincial and always political thinking that have so often part of their calls. The only thing I really and truly respect about this racket is the advertising money that comes in during Oscar season.
“No one here is making sport of the emotional discontents of other human beings,” writes The Envelope‘s Mark Olsen in a piece about Juno screenwriter Diablo Cody‘s “Wino Forever”-ing of her husband’s name on her arm tattoo. “But when a public figure’s self-created mythology becomes such a foundational part of their persona — bound up as it is in Cody’s case in confessional self-promotion — it all comes to seem like, well, fair game.”