Movies

The Great Gandolfini

The actor's genius was his knack for humanizing but not sentimentalizing his tough guy characters.

AP Images/Barry Wetcher
AP Images/Barry Wetcher There's a distinction to be made between dying too young and dying too soon. The first connotes unfulfilled promise: Heath Ledger, for instance, was barely beginning to realize himself as both an actor and a human being. Moviegoers can only guess what he might have gone on to. When it comes to James Gandolfini, on the other hand, we knew—we'd learned, we'd seen—what he was capable of. All we were asking for was another quarter-century or so of basking in it. Granted, that "we" is generationally skewed. However awed the middle-aged likes of me may have been by Ledger's talent, twentysomethings no doubt felt his loss more keenly. But until I got busy Facebooking—the modern wake—after Gandolfini's sudden death at age 51 on Wednesday, I hadn't fully realized how much people (OK, let's be accurate: men) in my age bracket had come to think of him as our guy. Not only the best we had, but the one we felt the most intimate with—and the most defined by. That was mostly...

Greta Gerwig, Dancing with Herself

The anti-celebrity of the Frances Ha star

John Cuneo C omic actress Greta Gerwig has a versatile look—indolent or boyish, athletic or glamorous, always blond and beautiful but with broad shoulders and doughy cheeks that make her resemble an improbably attractive rugby player. The through line in her work is her pained gaze telegraphing that she’s alone in the world, and she wouldn’t expect otherwise. Gerwig started her career in movies referred to as “mumble-core.” By definition, a mumblecore film was a low-key drama set in post-college American life in the first decade of the 21st century, made with sweat and the contents of a piggy bank. Many of the actors were nonprofessionals, and the stories they told were about well-educated people too creative to get a law degree but too pragmatic to idealize bohemian poverty. Both in front of and behind the camera, the mumblecore crew seemed like happy underachievers, confronting their tenuous existence with a mix of navel-gazing and bravery—in their element before the economy crashed...

Star Bleck

The second entry in the J.J. Abrams' reboot doesn't have the fun of the first outing, and all that's left is one more humongazoid, cluttered summer blockbuster whose gobbledygook plot just spackles over the interludes between kaboom-happy CGI set pieces.

flickr/skookums 1
Q uick quiz: which movie currently in theaters does worst by a beloved national classic, "modernizing" it in ways that violate everything people cherished about the original? If you picked Star Trek Into Darkness, let's have a beer one of these days. At least The Great Gatsby' s director, Baz Luhrman, puts his purple heart on his zircon-studded sleeve with a romantic pizzazz F. Scott Fitzgerald might approve of. From my lonesome perch, the cement-mixer racket from Gene Rodenberry's corner of the Great American Cemetery is a lot more deafening. Just so you won't misunderstand, a Trekkie I'm not. My indefensible affection for botched WW2 spectaculars apart—really, Is Paris Burning? does have its moments, folks, and I guess you had to be there as a susceptible tyke in 1966—I've never been an anything-ie, really. But I admire hell out of Rodenberry, who created the Shatner-Nimoy Star Trek almost half a century ago, for his humanism and humor. No other series as vividly evokes the liberal...

Da Gr8 Gatsbee

Nobody's going to mistake Baz Luhrman's adaptation of the F. Scott Fitzgerald classic for a great movie. But, there's no doubt it's a fun ride.

AP Photo, File
AP Photo/Warner Bros. Pictures T he book will still be around in the morning. That's the best advice I can give anyone appalled by the mere existence of director Baz Luhrman's 3-D, darn near transcendently tasteless screen adaptation of The Great Gatsby— or Da Gr8 Gatsbee, as I've grown fond of calling Luhrman's version. For once, I find myself almost envying people who've never read Fitzgerald's novel. Free of literacy's inner censure, untroubled by invidious comparisons, they can just let the whole whooshing, clamorous debauch run them over like a fire truck tearing after a burning Christmas tree, emerging dazed but sated. Then again, ex-English major or no, that was pretty much my own reaction. Combined, true, with a few incredulous giggle-fits that may have annoyed the soignée senior citizen sitting next to me. (No more Baz's target audience than I am, she did look charming in 3-D glasses.) Though I thoroughly enjoyed myself—and don't feel at all sheepish about it, so there—it may...

Tired of TV's Golden Age?

Shane Carruth’s Upstream Color shows why we still need the movies.

Courtesy of erbp
Courtesy of erbp I t is a truth universally acknowledged that TV has surpassed the movies as the medium of choice for the discerning viewer. Since the evolutionary leap that was “The Sopranos,” episodic television—the grown-up kind, that is; the kind that’s not TV, but HBO (or Showtime, or AMC, etc.)—has raised its game with complex plots, high-quality production, morally ambiguous protagonists, and eager forays into R-rated territory. So, this weekend, the sixth-season premiere of “Mad Men” will suck up all the cultural oxygen. A couple million viewers will tune in, and tens of thousands of words will be written obsessing over every detail of Don Draper’s continuing journey from icon to relic. Director Shane Carruth’s new film, Upstream Color , meanwhile, will open in one theater in New York, kicking off a brief art-house rollout that, if he’s lucky, will win over a modest, devoted following. For the last nine years, the only thing on Carruth’s filmography was Primer (2004), a 77-...

A Season of Swords

Game of Thrones, otherwise known as every origins story trash-compacted into the "ultimate extrapolation of Dallas," returns for its third season this Sunday.

HBO
Once again, it's that splendid time of year when we get to cast aside human decency without a backward look. Let's savor ruthless ambition, revel in permanent war, and realize we don't give two hoots about the huddled masses being ground underfoot like cigarillos for conquest's sake. Kicking off its third season on Easter Sunday, and so much for piety, HBO's Game of Thrones may be the closest that high-minded lefties will ever come to experiencing the buzz Paul Ryan feels at CPAC. Meanwhile, virtuous conservatives get to gorge guilt-free on rampant carnality and unrepentant paganism, and who says there's no such thing as common ground anymore? Try Westeros. If you can believe it, GoT has gotten even more murky and brooding this season, creating an enjoyable illusion of depth where none exists. That's even true of the latest iteration of the title sequence, which is, as ever—thanks partly to Ramin Djawadi's theme music—among the most brilliant summonses to addiction in TV history...

Before You Know It, Change Happens

Movie Still/Mike Simpson
At SXSW, a festival geared toward the young, beautiful, and hip, I’m guessing few expected to be bowled over by a documentary film about aging and aged gay men. But Before You Know It , which made its debut this week, does indeed leave you wowed—and unexpectedly hopeful about the plight of gay seniors. The problems of aging are scary for any population, but for a generation of gay people, the situation is particularly difficult: many lost their connection to family when they came out and don't have partners to turn to for help as their needs increase. Following three gay men—one in his 60s, the other two in their 70s—director P.J. Raval sets out to chronicle what it is to be wrinkled and slow in a young, fast culture. Almost immediately, however, the movie documents the importance of creating a chosen-family—and just how difficult finding community can be for those who start looking late in life. In Galveston, Texas, Robert has built Robert’s LaFitte, a gay bar famous across the...

Advice for Escaping Film's Winter Doldrums

No need to despair and go watch Identity Thief when you can stay home and rent a Luis Bunuel flick.

First released in 1970, Tristana is one of the masterpieces of Spanish director Luis Bunuel's astonishing late-life creative spree after his return to Europe from exile in Mexico. Newly out on Blu-ray from Cohen Media in a handsome-looking restoration, the movie is such a bracing antidote to the slop playing in theaters that I almost broke down in grateful whimpers when the UPS guy handed it over. A week when a botch like Oz The Great And Powerful is No. 1 at the box office—and Identity Thief, which I'd hoped might be just a grotesque memory by now, is still hanging in there at No. 3—can make the likes of me feel seriously glum about how we've wasted our lives by tossing critical spitballs at Himalayas made of cheese. Along with Belle du Jour, Tristana is also one of only two movies Bunuel made with Catherine Deneuve, who's at once the unlikeliest actress ever to star in his films and uncannily perfect for them. She's Tristana, a demure 1930s waif taken after her mother's death into...

Schindler's List, 20 Years Later

How does the film, which defies routine criticism in many ways, hold up?

AP-Photo/Douglas C. Pizac
Universal has just brought out a 20th-anniversary Blu-ray edition of Steven Spielberg's Holocaust movie, Schindler's List . Don't blame whoever got stuck writing the box copy—"Experience one of the most historically significant films of all time like never before," and so on—for a certain awkwardness about how best to strike the celebratory note. The package is also notably stingy with the undignified extras that usually tempt consumers to repurchase a beloved classic, but what were you expecting, a blooper reel? That crack isn't meant to be gratuitous, believe me. Call it a reminder that Schindler's List is every bit as much a Hollywood product as Groundhog Day, which came out the same year. Unlike Groundhog Day, it's got the Academy Awards—seven of them—to prove it. In my book, nothing that wins that many Oscars can be altogether holy. However ennobled by its topic, the movie was nonetheless conceived as entertainment—of a very somber sort, to be sure—by one of the most gifted of...

Gleefully Hate-Watching the Oscars

You can complain all you want about the Academy Awards, but admit it. They're fun, and the griping is nearly the best part. 

AP Photo/ Reed Saxo
AP Photo/Damian Dovarganes M ost serious movie buffs—and not even only those of a certain vintage, which does at least provide an excuse for bitterness—never tire of expressing contempt for the Oscars. One of their favorite damning proofs of the Academy's puerility is that 2001: A Space Odyssey didn't even get nominated for Best Picture of 1968. That is, going on half a century ago, and talk about holding a grudge. In 1968, to put things in perspective, Christopher Nolan (director of The Dark Knight Rises ) hadn't been born yet. In 1980, when Martin Scorsese's Raging Bull scandalously— scandalously!— lost the Best Picture sweepstakes to Ordinary People, Wes Anderson was 11 years old. Perhaps the shock traumatized him into wanting to live inside painted boxes, but more likely it didn't. I don't recall any permanent damage myself. Nor do I get wrought up because, say, the obvious real Best Picture of 1990—at least to the handful of crazies who saw it—was Guy Maddin's gleefully...

Why Liberals Make Better Political Pop Culture than Conservatives

An image from the libertarian animated film "Silver Circle"
In my ongoing quest to reach across the aisle and foster bipartisanship, I come to praise Jonah Goldberg—yes, that Jonah Goldberg, the author of Liberal Fascism and innumerable appalling columns, for what he writes in the Los Angeles Times , in which he recoils at the suggestion by some of his brethren that they need to buy a movie studio and start churning out conservative films: There's a difference between art and propaganda. Outside the art house crowd, liberal agitprop doesn't sell. Art must work with the expectations and beliefs of the audience. Even though pregnancies are commonplace on TV, you'll probably never see a hilarious episode of a sitcom in which a character has an abortion — because abortion isn't funny. The conservative desire to create a right-wing movie industry is an attempt to mimic a caricature of Hollywood. Any such effort would be a waste of money that would make the Romney campaign seem like a great investment. There's something Goldberg doesn't mention,...

You Can't Lip-Synch a Hip Shake

Beyoncé's new documentary Life Is But a Dream marks a brief pit stop during her rise to world domination.

AP Photo/ David Drapkin
AP Photo/Jed Jacobsohn If you're as stubbornly naive as I used to be, you probably think that following up a performance of the National Anthem at Barack Obama's second inaugural with one sizzler of a Super Bowl halftime show would be exposure enough for anyone. A pop-cult twofer that unprecedented might tempt even the most driven of superstars to rest on her laurels until, say, early March. So it's a relief to learn that Beyoncé Knowles—known throughout the Milky Way, of course, as plain and simple Beyoncé—has her head screwed on right: "I don't want to never be satisfied. I don't think that's a healthy way to live." Honest, that's how she feels. If you're so minded, you can see and hear her say so in Beyoncé: Life Is But A Dream, airing on HBO on Saturday. She's credited as both "director" and executive producer, and adding "star" would be redundant at a level to invite the gods' mirth. Her 90-minute self-portrait hits cable under a month after she serenaded Obama's swearing-in, and...

Did Jodie Foster Just Come Out?

Dan Steinberg/Invision/AP
On Sunday night, as Jodie Foster accepted her Cecil B. DeMille award for lifetime achievement at the Golden Globes, made an awkward and extremely peculiar speech. No one seems to be entirely sure what she was saying. Was she retiring from acting? Was she coming out even though she didn’t actually say she’s a lesbian—and even though she’s made out-ish comments and gestures in the past? Here are the parts that suggested coming out most clearly: So I'm here being all confessional and I guess I just have the sudden urge to say something that I've never really been able to air in public, so a declaration that I'm a little nervous about. But maybe not quite as nervous as my publicist right now, huh Jennifer? Um, but uh, you know, I'm just gonna put it out there, right? Loud and proud, right? So I'm gonna need your support on this — I am single. Yes I am, I am single. No, I'm kidding. But I mean I'm not really kidding, but I am kind of kidding…. I hope you’re not disappointed that there won’...

Media Violence versus Real Violence

In the days since Wayne LaPierre of the NRA blamed the Sandy Hook massacre on violent movies and video games (in particular, for some reason, Natural Born Killers , a film that came out 19 years ago and was a critique of the media's obsession with violence), a number of people in the entertainment industry have been asked about whether their products contribute to real-world violence, and they've seemed extremely uncomfortable answering the question. They seem to have no idea what the answer might be. As it happens, this is a question that has been studied extensively, although the research is a bit ambiguous and unsatisfying. Nevertheless, I thought it might be worthwhile to go over just what evidence there is for the assertion. So if you're a Hollywood big shot, read on so you'll have some idea what to say next time the question comes up. But before we get to that, I was prompted to write this by seeing this interview Quentin Tarantino did with the UK's Channel 4. When the...

To Stop Rape Culture, Ring the Bell

Very few men are rapists . Very few men are abusers. Or stalkers. Predators are the minority. The vast majority of men are decent people who want to do the right thing. What would it take to shift from a rape culture to a respect culture, and end violence against women? You have to involve the decent men. You have to let them know they are our allies, not our enemies. You have to let them know what they can do to help—to interrupt violence, to help spread new norms—without having to call themselves feminists or become full-on activists. In yesterday’s post, I wrote about some such efforts in the United States. Bystander-intervention efforts, in which groups train young men and women in what it takes to derail a situation that could lead to rape. Today I spoke with Mallika Dutt, founder of the binational organization Breakthrough, which works in both the U.S. and India to build a respect culture and prevent all kinds of violence against women—one by one, at the local, personal level,...

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