Sunday, December 30, 2007

2007 in DVDs

A musical, an action flick, and a bio-pic. Drama? We address that in a different feature. Comedy? We'll get to it.

Reader Hobbs e-mailed (a) asking that we do a feature on films and (b) wondering what we thought of Hollywoodland which "I just got at Blockbuster for $3.99."

Hollywoodland was released at the end of 2006. For $3.99 ("pre-viewed" copy), you're getting a huge bargain. $3.99 wouldn't even get you "one for ___" at your local first-run cineaplex. Financial bargain but worth it?

The basic DVD (there's also a HD DVD version, the $3.99 version -- available at various locations around the country -- is the standard version) includes a commentary track from director Allen Coulter, deleted scenes and several featurettes. Clearly a bargain on many levels but is the Paul Bernbaum scripted film worth watching let alone owning?

Hollywoodland offers a retelling of the life and death of TV actor George Reeves who found fame -- lasting fame -- as TV's first Superman in the fifties half-hour program and then died shortly after. The film opens with private detective Louis Silo attempting to determine how Reeves died. Oscar winner Adrian Brody portrays Silo who is an amalgam of several real life people with a number of additional ingredients tossed in.

What he discovers is that after a series of minor parts, Reeves takes up with Toni Mannix a one-time actress now married to MGM cleaner Eddie Mannix. Toni provides Reeves with many things only to later be dropped for a younger woman. Silo attempts to determine what, if anything, the Mannixes had to do with Reeve's death by gunshot wounds?

Brody holds interest throughout the film but, performance wise, it belongs to Ben Affleck and Diane Lane who play Reeves and Toni Mannix respectively. Affleck's Reeves never takes him too seriously and is on the fringes which provides Affleck with a role written to his strengths and also sympathetic. The exposure from the Bennifer phenomenon did Affleck no favors as a film actor but it is equally true too many smart mouthed leads who always win also went a long way towards killing audience enthusiasm in his films. His most effective roles previously were in Good Will Hunting (which he co-wrote with Matt Damon) and Chasing Amy. In both films, his character loses a great deal before the credits roll. With Armageddon and too many other popcorn flicks, he's a wise guy who still comes up on top and even Bruce Willis, who copyrighted that role for decades, has trouble these days pulling in audiences with that mixture.

In his first scene, the meet up scene with Lane's Toni, Affleck is offering what everyone is familiar with but in a more likable manner. This is quickly followed by scenes that allow for greater shadings and explorations that remind film goers why Affleck first caught their eye.

When an actor that the public has burned out on and is openly hostile too manages to pull off the work Affleck does in Hollywoodland, that's a major accomplishment. With Brody and Affleck already providing so much, you really don't need anything else to qualify as entertaining but along comes Diane Lane enriching the film in ways you won't expect.

Lane's Toni grabs the audience's attention (and Reeves') in her first scene via her beauty and energy and audiences might expect that they're about to see the typical Lane film role where the actress shines in an under-developed role that leaves you wondering when or if the actress is ever going to be cast in a film that really lets her run with the part?

Hollywoodland is and isn't that film. On paper, it's another underwritten role that Lane fleshes out but the film's pace and the pace of the scenes where Toni is just supposed to be present allow the actress the space to create a fully-fleshed out character.

Hobbs wrote that Crapapedia notes the film takes "liberties" with the facts and his e-mail cites Toni's involvement with Reeves' casting in From Here To Eternity. Crapapedia informs you that Reeves won a small part in the film all on his own. Naturally, Crapapedia can't document that alleged 'fact.' Reality check for Crapapedia, Joan Cohn was a go-between for many women. The wife of Columbia head Harry Cohn was regularly sought out to use her influence. Joan Crawford, who regularly lobbied Joan Cohn, was originally cast in the lead role of From Here To Eternity -- this despite the fact that Harry Cohn loved to 'sample' the talent and Crawford had previously shot that notion down. Crawford would screw herself out of the part but most credit Joan Cohn's influence with her original casting. The film also brought Frank Sinatra back to film fame after a number of turkeys and a semi-blacklist and Ava Gardner repeatedly lobbied Joan Cohn to get Sinatra cast in the film. Hobbs quotes Crapapdiea noting that, in the film, when Reeves' agent thanks Toni Mannix for using her influence (to get Reeves cast), she responds, "For what?" thereby demonstrating that Toni had nothing to do with the casting.

That's a curious (translation: false) reading of the way Lane plays the scene and also only demonstrates how little Crapapedia (in all it's Wiki-ness) knows. Joan Cohn was one of the great 'fixers' in the film world, smoothing over differences, advocating for friends and it's perfectly in keeping with the facts to picture Joan Cohn interceding on Reeves' behalf at Toni Mannix' request. Less realistic is believing that Reeves could have been cast on his own since he was known as Superman and the wall and war between TV and film at that point was an obstacle before one even considers the fact that the "heat" factor, as minor as it was, had already left Reeves' career. (The film conveys accurately that Reeves' base was small children. As those children grew up and other children exposed to the TV program grew older, Reeves had greater recognition in the entertainment industry than he did in his own lifetime -- a detail that film conveys accurately.)

"For what?" is one of those throw away scenes that director Bernbaum doesn't rush and allows Lane to layer with meanings -- both in the nervous energy before her line is delivered and after. Over the course of the film, the characters age and Lane captures that better than anyone in the film. (Reeves' aging is revealed to Brody's Silo only when watching a home movie near the end of the film.) Make up did a great job disfiguring her but Lane didn't need that trick-- in posture, movement and line delivery (she's slower and more halting as the film continues) she captures the serious toll time is taking on Toni.

Without giving away the ending, we need to note it's the biggest problem. It rings true; however, the director appears to think something has happened that, frankly, has not. Through out the film, as Silo attempts to determine whether Reeves killed himself or was murdered, he is threatened, beaten and encouraged to look elsewhere. At the end, he does just that. It's perfectly in keeping with life as presented onscreen; however, it is not 'redemption' as the director insists in one of the DVD's featurettes. Brody's Silo has not suddenly realized that his son is now important and should be the focus of his life.

Silo has internalized what Jake Gittes is told at the end of a seventies classic, "Let it go, Jake. It's Chinatown." As he gets closer and closer to truths regarding Reeves' death (we're taking no position on it), he also gets closer and closer to what's below the sheen of big business. Continuing to pursue it means a very difficult life. All that's onscreen suggests that's what Silo's decision is based upon. Silo sells out. And it can't be sold as 'redemption.'

The deleted scenes don't back up Bernbaum's reading and, in fact, demonstrate all the more how Silo's already shaking support is dwindling. Along with strong performances from Lane, Affleck and Brody, Bob Hopkins as Eddie Mannix also leaves a strong impression.

Hairspray is based upon the Broadway musical based upon John Waters' film. Waters' film is seen as the one of his best and that's not just due to the fact that no one's eating feces in it. Like most of Waters filmography, the original motion picture features a cast of odd balls all operating on their wave length. It also featured a star making performance from Ricki Lake. Among the many differences between the musical Hairspay and Waters' original film is that there's no Lake present. Nikki Blonsky plays the lead role of Tracy Turnblad.

Is Blonsky bad in the role? No, she's actually incredible but she and the movie suffer from the opening. Tracy wakes, sits up in bed and audiences are treated the teased up, ratted, 'back-combed' hair. It's a visual. Which leads into the dullest show opener and the most pedestrian opening a major film has suffered through in years. "Good Morning Baltimore" exists to place the location and to place Tracy in the context of where she lives. Like Judy Garland riding a tractor and singing through the worst scene of Summer Stock, it adds nothing and drains a lot of life from the film.

It's a showy piece for cranework (in that regard, it's similar to the parade scene in the film Hello Dolly! -- no, that's not a compliment) but it does nothing. When a man exposes himself to Tracy, she grins and goes on. The people behind her will be shocked. What was Tracy's reaction?

There is none. Does she view nude men daily? Forget offense, might she have shown curiosity? Even a look to the camera, such as Julie Andrews provides in Thoroughly Modern Mille when noting the flattened, female chests around her, would have added a detail. Instead, you get Tracy traveling through a dull looking town in a hurried, dull manner that only comes to life (too late) when she's next to the school bus and begins dancing. To be clear, it's an awful song with on-the-nose lyrics and the sequence shows a lot of 'adventure' in term of film shot set ups but no creativity at all in terms of film making. It is so awful that some may turn the crap off right there.

Though you can't blame them, if you stick around, the film quickly finds life. Adam Shankman holds the title of 'director' for the film but you quickly grasp he's a director in the same way Herbert Ross was -- interested in every detail but lacking a vision. A musical really needs a vision and strong visuals. What saves Hairspray from turning into Funny Lady is the fact that the film doesn't have time to belabor the obvious.

Working with a wide cast of characters, it's necessary, whether the director wants it or not, for the film to pick up speed. Amanda Bynes is Tracy's best friend Penny and Bynes found a role. Via the work of the hair, make up and props department, Bynes was given a strong base for the weakest character in the film and it's to her credit (and our amazement) that she delivered such a strong and charming performance. In the role of Tracy's crush, Zac Efron is nothing but a time waster. Too dull to play a dreamboat and too self-amused to be believable as a character, he provides the worst performance and if Shankman made one smart move, it was not to have the camera focus, in the film's final scenes, on the 'love' between Linc (Efron) and Tracy because who gives a damn? For those who need context, he offers less charm than Jeff Conaway's performance as Kenickie in Grease.

James Marsden is quickly introduced as the host of a TV dance program, Corny Collins, and does such a strong job and provides so much humor (it's not all in the lines) that you wish the actor's age had been set aside and he'd been cast as Linc.

The cast is what makes the film. Though repeatedly betrayed by a director who rarely seems to know where the camera should be (have so many dance scenes ever been shot from above the waist?), the cast delivers. Queen Latifah is amazing throughout and finds the camera, even when it's not trying to find her. (In one scene, her character, Motormouth Maybelle, has to insist that the TV camera return to her and you wish the actors in the film had done the same.)

Hairspray traces the collapse of segregation via a TV dance show in the early sixties. That's a big theme for a musical -- a genre not known for tackling big themes. Grease was set in high school and involved falling in love. That film seemed to suggest that there was still an audience for musicals. Can't Stop The Music convinced film makers that wasn't the case. When musicals began returning in the 80s, they largely featured non-singers and focused more on dancing (Footloose, also with a high school setting, and Flashdance). Hairspray producers Craig Zadan and Neil Meron have spent the last several years delivering one musical success after another on TV and establishing the fact that musicals remain a popular genre. This decade they delivered with Chicago which was flawed but had standout moments and delivered an audience. Queen Latifah and Catherine Zeta-Jones were everything that was right about that film and they were both underutilized. The stars (including a too old Richard Gere) were everything that was wrong about the film. Too actorly and unable to zip the way real musical stars (Garland, Streisand, Gene Kelly, etc.) do. The producers' casting has consistently been so bad, you shudder to think what they'd do with a remake of West Side Story which, Rita Moreno aside, has the worst cast of a musical ever. But you're given an indication of exactly what they'd do with such a film via the casting of 'pretty girl' Zac Efron whom is filmed like an 'ugly girl' in a failed attempt to give him depth as Linc. Guys, you rent a trick for an hour, you don't cast them in a film.

But whether it was too long in the tooth Richard Gere, John C. Reilly or a host of other dead in their tracks males, the producers have regularly demonstrated that their hearts and eyes goes to the female lead and they're not really concerned with creating a male musical star, let alone providing any eye candy. Which is why Marsden and Elijah Kelley (as Maybelle's son Seawood, love interest to Penny) are so welcome. Either man could become a musical star, they have the goods and deliver when they're on camera.

And the cast (with exception already noted) consistently deliver. John Travolta succeeds as Edna (Tracy's mother) and turns in the best work he's done this century. Edna's more reserved in this film version and there's an arc of growth to the character that allows Travolta to strut his stuff in terms of acting and dancing. Michelle Pfeiffer takes over the role previously played by Debbie Harry, Velma Von Tussle. Harry was more than effective in the previous film but the character was a permanent scowl. Pfeiffer brings to life a Velma that is much more captivating and much more threatening. In both films, Velma is the resistance to integration. As conceived in the original, her downfall is inevitable. As portrayed by Pfieffer, audiences are provided a stronger view of why the Civil Rights Movement was a struggle. Velma not only has more power (she's the TV's station manager), she's also more entrancing, demonstrating how racism wasn't held in place by a few oddballs that other Whites went along with to humor. Pfieffer's given a few lines that demonstrate Velma's prejudice but it's in her dancing moves that she telegraphs Velma's intoxicating power. No other actress could have delivered this performance because no other actress has embodied the movies lust for White blondes in years. Even someone as skilled as Zeta Jones, in a wig or with bleached hair, would have been sending it up. Pfieffer knows full well the power the archetype holds over film audiences and uses it to create a formidable foe that demonstrates just how real and, yes, attractive racism was seen by many when the Civil Rights Movement began. Velma's daughter Amber becomes a little nothing in this movie and that's because it's what she is. She's one more faceless racist, one more of a crowd refusing equality. It's the powerful like Velma that had to be taken on (and taken out) for strides to be made.

Pfieffer never overdoes the performance and bits of facial work behind Travolta's back, as she walks off from Blonsky and face-to-face with Queen Latifah are powerful minor moments that enrich the drama. Notice that Velma's only comfortable showing her true nature to Maybelle's character. She'll shield it, she'll conceal it, allow it to peak out a little with others (with Whites). She'll use her body (in dance) to enrapture/control males, but opposite Maybelle, Velma's offering no charm, no seduction, just hatred. Queen Latifah's controlled anger at the end of their big scene conveys a great deal about the character Maybelle and about the struggle for equality period. At that point in the film, Maybelle believes small steps will lead to equality but Latifah spins it with just enough of a trace of I'm-stuffing-this-down that the march she will lead later in the film is completely believable. A lesser actress would have audiences scratching their heads over the fact that the one-time-at-a-time character is now marching through Baltimore but Latifah sets up that transformation (which isn't a part of the characterization in the script) with delivery, looks, and the manner in which she holds her head -- a little higher with each scene leading up to the march. The story of the struggle for integration works in the film only due to the performances of Queen Latifah and Michelle Pfieffer. Without them, it's just a plot twist (as it was in the original film) and seems to just have 'happened.' It's a conventional way to present history and one that robs people of the understanding of how much progress has to be struggled for. Both actresses deserve tremendous praise. Latifah could have coasted, she's a natural musical actress. Despite the usual conventions, the film's not overly interested in the subplot. If Latifah had just coasted (as she did in the non-musical Taxi), she wouldn't have embarrassed herself and audiences would have still been entertained. She went for something deeper and she Pfeiffer enrich the film by doing so. Pfieffer could have played the part any number of ways, including the way Debbie Harry played it. Instead, she does what she's done throughout her career, surprises. The two women give two of the strongest performances in film for 2007.

Christopher Walken plays Tracy's father and, between the scenes with Tracy, Edna and Velma, Walken ends up with a more complex part than he's had in some time. With Edna receeding in character strength in the film (for the early parts), Wilbur has to be stronger in this version and still likeable and it's a testament to Walken's considerable skill that he pulls it off. But it all rests on Travolta. More so than on Blonsky. He's playing a woman (Edna's always been played by men) and will audiences accept that? Will they believe it? Travolta frees himself in the role the same way Affleck does in Hollywoodland. Both leave what they've been cast as too often, the stock leading man. And Travolta especially succeeds in the scenes requiring dancing where he conveys Edan's repression, delight and, finally freedom.

Like Hairspray, The Shooter also came out in 2007. The Mark Wahlberg action flick could be another run of the mill action flick but instead offers something far more satisfying. Antoine Fuqua directs, from a script by Jonathan Lemkin, a taunt thriller that calls to mind the strong works of the seventies (Klute, The Conversation) and has little to do with the action misteps of the last two decades. In this character study, nothing is what it seems and no actor hits a false note. Wahlberg delivers the sort of commanding performance he's too often exhibited in films that showed off his own talents but didn't make for involving films. (One noteable exception being I Heart Huckabees.) Kate Mara, as the widow of his former buddy, pulls one surprise after another in her performance and Danny Glover delivers real depth beneath the sheen of his character Col. Isaac Johnson. This is a difficult film to write about because there are so many plot twists and it would be easy to note those and leave you with the impression of, "Oh, I know what happens. No need to rent the thriller." The page-turning suspense will hook you for one viewing, the reason to own it is the rich work done behind and in front of the camera. DVD bonuses include running commentary from Fuqua, deleted scenes and a look at the making of the film.

No comedy makes the list. Why is that? Comedy is the favorite genre of the bulk of those writing this feature. Did 2007 deliver one strong comedy?


What you got instead were the Vince Vaughn, Ben Stiller, et al capers. They aren't bad movies. They're nice diversions, entertaining even. It's ttrue that this crop of film makers (the actors are actually the film makers even when a friend's behind the camera) is a little more in tune with the fact that it's not 1950 and we'll praise them for that. Women may not receive a great deal more screen time in these boy-epics than they did in past ones (see the bulk of Bill Murray's early work or all of John Belushi's films) but they're also not the one-note stereotypes they've been. They have wants, they have needs. They don't wilt (or vanish from the screen) when things go ugly. Christine Taylor, among other women, has delivered some strong performances in this genre and shaped some memorable characters. But we don't confuse them with true comedies.

We also aren't at all surprised that this decade has destroyed comedies.

Goldie Hawn is still fighting to make a film for which she has a script and a leading man (Kurt Russell). Meg Ryan, Sandra Bullock and other women have been reduced to thrillers (and Julia Roberts' long ago destroyed her own career by becoming the second lead known as "the girl"). It all goes into the destruction and devaluing of women that has been the hallmark of Bully Boy's occupation of the White House. Which is why the current comedy 'king' promotes misogny in scene after scene and isn't called out for crap like Knocked Up.

Though women don't matter in his sexist world, the reality is you can't make comedies without strong female characters. Barry Levinson may be able to reduce to them nothings for a film or two but women have always held on their own in comedies: Mae West, Carole Lombard, Katharine Hepburn, Marilyn Monroe, Judy Holliday, Shirley MacClaine, Jane Fonda, Barbra Streisand, Goldie Hawn, Lily Tomlin, Diane Keaton, Meg Ryan, etc. You can't cowboy up and get a comedy. (You can get a spoof which is all the bulk of comedies since 2001 have been.) Each year has offered two or three worthwhile comedies until this year when nothing worth seeing was offered. (Music & Lyrics, a romantic comedy, is rated highly by three who have seen it but the bulk of those participating haven't seen it and note that's a hybrid and not a comedy.) As Hawn continues to struggle to get a green-light for what is an inexpensively budgeted film, we don't see a great deal of hope for the near future.

The three films noted above all were released on DVD this year. We think you can start with whichever genre interests you and will be entertained, but entertained by all. All three are strong films regardless of genre. They also lead the pack of 2007's best DVDs.
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