Monday, January 31, 2005


And speaking of Scorsese-- We were speaking of him, even indirectly, weren't we? (Well, if we weren't, you can be damn sure somebody was)...

Brian Libby writes a rather impassioned plea directly to the famously Oscar-less auteur in today's Salon Arts and Entertainment section. Although Libby is rather too impressed with Scorsese's oeuvre on the whole, citing the usual suspects as, I think, arguable masterpieces (Raging Bull, GoodFellas), his panic upon hearing of Scorsese and Robert DeNiro's considering a sequel to one of the director's inarguable (I think) masterpieces, Taxi Driver, is well-founded and understandable. Libby's most compelling argument is that in creating an answer to the question, "Where is Travis Bickle now?" the ambiguity of the first film, part of what makes it rich and misunderstood and controversial, would be destroyed.

You can read Brian Libby's essay here at


After the inconclusive spreading out of honors at the Golden Globes a couple of weeks ago, it looks like the Oscar race is now a little more focused. Clint Eastwood has become the odds-on favorite to claim the Best Director Academy Award next month by winning the Directors Guild's highest honor Saturday night. Martin Scorsese, thought to be a favorite after The Aviator garnered 11 Oscar nominations, including one for Best Director, was passed over again for the Directors Guild Award on Saturday, as were fellow nominees Taylor Hackford, Marc Forster and Alexander Payne. Eastwood won the prize for directing Million Dollar Baby. Only six DGA winners in the past 57 years have failed to go on to win Oscar gold, including Francis Ford Coppola, who won the DGA for The Godfather, Steven Spielberg for The Color Purple, Ron Howard for Apollo 13, Ang Lee for Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and, most recently, Rob Marshall for Chicago. Other directors who were recognized by the Guild jury at this year's awards ceremony included Byambasuren Davaa and Luigi Falorni, whose Story Of The Weeping Camel earned them the Documentary prize, and Walter Hill, who claimed the honor of Best Dramatic Series for TV western series Deadwood.

Sunday, January 30, 2005


Sometimes things happen for a reason. But sometimes it seems they don't. What I'd really like to know is, is there a reason I was subjected to The Sound of Music twice this week? Was it the ghost of kindly old Father Phelan of St. Patrick's Parish in Lake County, Oregon getting some kind of metaphysical revenge on me for my being lukewarm (to say the least) on The Passion of the Christ? Perhaps I'd become the focus of an insidious torture campaign at the hands of the Daughters of Julie Andrews (or, as they were known in the heady days of kidnapping newspaper heiresses and winning them over to radical terrorist causes, the DJA) who conspired with the cackling Fates to make my week a living, candy-coated hell.

Oh, probably not. It's more likely just one of those ugly bits of happenstance that mean nothing, but seem like everything in the midst of enduring them. What makes the whole thing even stranger, in terms of coincidence, is that I'm also currently knee-deep in another movie that was released in the wake of The Sound of Music's middlebrow cultural hijacking, 1967's Bedazzled, written by and starring Peter Cook and Dudley Moore, a comic reworking of Faust in which Cook's Satan uses the magic words "Julie Andrews" to transport Moore's rumpled everyman soul-seller to and fro in the fulfilling of his various wishes. Believe me, the idea of using the name of a post-Poppins/post-von Trapp Julie Andrews as some sort of satanic invocation is a very appealing one to me right now. I've never been a fan of her squeaky-clean image or her clipped and overly precise enunciation of all those teeth-rotting lyrics. And although I've always found Mary Poppins entertaining, it's also a bit much-- my inevitable siding up with the movie's stern taskmaster, played by David Tomlinson, during each viewing is a pretty good indication that the movie doesn't work on me in the precisely the way its creators intended.

But as a kid I loved Mary Poppins and the world it lovingly (if a bit creakily, as it turns out) evoked. Not so The Sound of Music. My mom dragged my sister and I to see it in the friendly confines of the Alger Theater back in 1969-- probably on one of the movie's many, many re-releases-- and even as a relatively impressionable nine-year-old I found it virtually unwatchable, as dead in the water as any movie (and I hadn't seen that many yet, really) I'd ever seen. The Sound of Music is chock-full of moments that make me question the sanity of everyone involved: the queasy lunacy of the nuns' bizarre obsessing over their pesky postulant (the answer to their query, "How Do You Solve a Problem Like Maria?" always seemed obvious to me, but there just aren't many good Catholics like Torquemada around anymore); the lockstep animatronics of the von Trapp "children" (Nicholas Hammond as Friedrich is, I believe, the first MPAA-documented use of the UNIVAC Artificial Intelligence Unit in a worldwide Oscar-winning hit); the obvious homage to Hammer Films in the Christopher Lee-like entrance of Captain Georg von Trapp (surely the most paternalistically fascistic anti-Nazi in the history of lousy familial melodrama); that inexplicably perverse moment at the conclusion of the devastatingly bad Charmian Carr’s big “16 Going On 17” number when, in a burst of romantic joy at having had such a lovely encounter with her soon-to-be-goosestepping boyfriend Rolfe, she launches herself out of the gazebo, through the pouring rain toward the camera, and just before Robert Wise-ly cuts away, gives us a giddy, whooping “Wheeeeeeeeee!” as she gathers her arms around herself and swoons with delirious abandon (maybe that’s just delirium brought on by creeping hypothermia at being out too long in the cold Austrian rain); and, of course, the psychotically insistent effervescence of Maria herself (early on, when she describes to the Mother Superior how the birds calling to her was so sweet that she felt she could almost fly away with them, I can never hold back my fantasies of her being successful in her fine feathered flight of fancy, thus lopping off an excruciating two hours and 35 minutes of running time). Every time I see this movie I always end up with one question: What is it that others see in this movie that seems to so completely elude me?

And I think that's a fair question, if it's posed as more than a rhetorical one. So for anyone reading who finds The Sound of Music as rapturous and delightful as I find it inexplicable, uninspiring and fully absent of style, and who would like to take the opportunity to explain why, I'd love for you to do so.

But I'd also like to pose another question, and that is:

What movie, beloved by seemingly everyone else, do you find to be unconscionably, unsupportably, unmistakably bad?

Your choice really should be a movie that has enjoyed some improbable measure of popularity at the box office, critical acclaim, a plethora of awards, or some combination of these, which just drives you around the bend with frustration and irritation. Irrational responses are, I suppose, inevitable, but I'd like to hear why something grates on you so badly, when all else is but praise. I guess I've already answered that question for myself. Now I eagerly await your stories. Come share the pain.


Traversing the blogosphere as a writer is about the most exciting thing, creatively, that I’ve done in a long while, and one of the most satisfying. I’ve been able to write what I want, for as long as I want, with only my own editorial instincts to tell me when to rein it in or cut for length (a bad thing as well as a good thing). And even sticking to my stated themes (movies, baseball) is a flexible and negotiable restriction, though I have, with only a couple of exceptions so far, not challenged it too severely as yet. Learning to write on this platform has been, as a friend of mine so keenly referred to it when I first started, an exercise in confronting the terror of writing, of putting your work out there with no barriers between it and its intended audience, as well as the discipline to keep it up, even when there are no “deadlines” screaming and blaring at you. Another part of the excitement is discovering new sites where other people are doing the same thing. I’ve been able to communicate with a lot of people regarding their blogs, blogs that have inspired me to step out on my own, and I’ve seen some friends enter the fray recently and use the format in some interesting and exciting ways. Basically, I just wanted to take up a little bit of my own space to recommend some places to go when you’ve stopped by my SLIFR site, gotten bored and are looking for another place toward which to drift. Once I get a little more HTML-friendly (shouldn’t be too long now) I’ll have a sidebar up and running that will allow you to click on these sites and run. But for now, here are some suggestions that will just have to do:

The first blog I read with any regularity was Jon Weisman’s “Dodger Thoughts.” Jon calls it his “outlet for dealing psychologically with the Los Angeles Dodgers and baseball,” and given the Dodgers’ history over the last couple of decades, that’s a mighty tall order for a blog to fill. But Jon has developed a real following for what I’ve come to think of as well-considered, intelligent optimism toward the condition of being a Dodger fan, and his regular readership, and more to the point those who regularly post comments on his articles, form the most intelligent, non-flame-throwing forum for baseball talk (or any kind of Internet talk) I’ve ever seen. These guys are smart, opinionated, not beholden to Jon for his approval, considerate of Jon’s attempts to keep the comment strings family-friendly, and largely considerate of readers who care to read well-written thoughts, not illiterate Internet-ese peppered with bad grammar, typos and profanity for profanity’s sake. (As much fun as their response to Jon’s articles are, what’s really exciting is logging on during a game and taking part in the open forum chats—talk about adding a third dimension to watching or listening on TV, radio or the Internet.) The site has really been a sanctuary for Dodger fans in the off season who have searched for some voices of reason. to counterbalance the soft, indifferent, or at times downright hostile coverage of the team in the Los Angeles Times. The local paper of record seems to have given up on considered analysis and insistence on the value of the long view, preferring instead to give in to the prevailing winds, whether blown by panic, cynicism or narrow-minded nostalgia. Fortunately, for fans who have been made to feel like blind nincompoops for supporting the team by such coverage, reasoned overview is the meat and potatoes of “Dodger Thoughts,” and the site is regularly filled with the kind of writing and fan response that ought to have a lot of well-known sportswriters hanging their heads in shame. Jon Weisman’s “Dodger Thoughts” can be found at

I’m lucky enough to have three friends who have decided to navigate the blogosphere recently. All of them are sharp writers who threaten to illuminate virtual reality with some really interesting and provocative perspectives on various aspects of the lives they lead.

Cruzbomb has started what promises to be a site filled with sharp wit revolving around pop culture and his experiences in the world of endurance running. It’s called “Revolution Pollution” and can be found and bookmarked at One of his first long pieces is called “Endurance Junkie,” a genuinely effective piece of inspirational writing that never succumbs to sentiment or platitudes (Cruzbomb’s wit is far too acidic, and he's too willing to break the mood at any point for another slightly cracked observation, fully confident in his ability to get back on point, for this to ever happen). The post chronicles his attempts to get his life together and push himself to places he never thought he could go, and it’s definitely worth checking out. He promises a couple of weekly features too, and if the first entries are any indication, there’s going to be some addictive reading added to my list. Just posted this weekend is a profane, and profanely funny, deconstruction of The Brady Bunch that rallies, helplessly, around poor Alice and her seemingly cheerful, and cheerfully imposed, life of servitude at the hands of her San Fernando Valley slave masters. Also, tantalizingly, Cruzbomb has yet to dig into his hinted-at obsession with Hayley Mills, so count me as one reader who is waiting very patiently for him to get there.

Loxjet, a recent Los Angeles émigré who has found himself back in his real world, that is, the Big Sky of Billings, Montana, from which he sprang, has not been at the blogging business long, but his economical, allusive writing style proves him to be the real deal. At his “Wailing and Gnashing: A Beginner’s Guide,” he’s set himself the goal of creating a blog that has functioned so far as an online diary, a journal of a man at a crossroads in his life, in the midst of rediscovering himself, with all the fears, insecurity and leaps of faith implied in such a journey. Loxjet clearly loves writing (a recent entry about the perfect paragraph is evidence of that), but he's a hell of a writer himself, one who knows the value of the economy of words (a lesson many of us, myself included, would do well to learn). But he locates the poetic heart of his tender appreciations of the land where he grew up, the struggles of raising a son diagnosed with autism (while never forgetting that those struggles never preclude love), and the aesthetic beauty of a Fender Stratocaster, with such ease and precision that I hope his journey through the blogosphere is a long and productive one, even if and when he gets everything he wants. Discover “Wailing and Gnashing” for yourself at

Finally, you’re not likely to find much poetry in Stoogeking’s raucous observations about punk rock and hard-core Italian giallo horror films, and it remains to be seen what direction the site will ultimately take (he has only posted twice so far—step it up, SK!), but “Hey Ho Argento!” looks like a lot of fun so far. His New Year’s Eve Eve (not a typo—Ed.) dalliance with Danzig is terrific and, depending on how much more writing we see from Stoogeking in the next month or so, is thoroughly indicative of the sensibility and powers of observation one might reasonably expect from this site. Catch up with this ne’er-do-well at

* Ten points and entry into the "Sergio Leone and the Infield Fly Rule Hall of Fame" to the first person who can tell me from whence cometh the line which this entry title twists ever so slightly. Sorry, Cruzbomb, Loxjet and Stoogeking, but your insider knowledge precludes you from participation. Your comments, however, are still as welcome as ever!

Friday, January 28, 2005


Just a reminder, because I promised, about the Don Siegel tribute coming up Monday on Turner Classic Movies. Here's the schedule (all times Pacific Standard Time):

5:00 pm
Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956)
Soulless pods take over the inhabitants of a small California town. Kevin McCarthy, Dana Wynter, Carolyn Jones. 80m

6:30 pm
Madigan (1968)
NYC police detective Madigan has 72 hours to find the mobster who got away with his gun. Richard Widmark, Henry Fonda, Inger Stevens. 101m

8:15 pm
Charley Varrick (1973)
A band of small-time crooks accidentally steals the mob's money. Walter Matthau, Joe Don Baker, Felicia Farr. 110m

10:15 pm
Hell is for Heroes (1962)
A small U.S. squadron holds off the Nazis in a desperate last stand. Steve McQueen, Bobby Darrin, James Coburn. 90m

12:00 midnight
The Big Steal (1950)
Seduction and murder follow the theft of an Army payroll. Robert Mitchum, Jane Greer, William Bendix. 71m

1:15 am
Telefon (1977)
A Russian agent travels to the U.S. to stop a crazed defector from triggering human time bombs. Charles Bronson, Lee Remick, Donald Pleasence. 103m

Thursday, January 27, 2005

DELIRIOUS NOTES ON THE 2004 OSCAR NOMINATIONS, or "Johnson Family Vacation" Was Robbed!

So, Michael Moore aces himself out of all Oscar consideration by not submitting his movie for Best Documentary (didn't want to distract from other worthy work, he says), but instead gambles on his movie's unprecedented popularity launching it to a Best Picture nomination. Well, Fahrenheit 9/11 failed to oust Bush from office, as was one of its stated goals, and Oscar voters, notorious and rabid liberals, one and all, must have thought it was better not to be reminded of the limits of film as a tool for social change and consequently left the movie completely off its honor roster for 2004. And Academy voters, each one surely a radical, left-wing, Christ-hating (or at least Gibson-hating) Jew, obviously conspired to make sure The Passion of the Christ, otherwise known as the People's Choice for Best Drama, got only perfunctory notice in technical categories, all the better to further punish its divinely inspired (and damnably wealthy) director. Those are the two angles you've probably already heard way too much about if you've followed any analysis of Tuesday's announcement of the 2004 Oscar Nominations.

But there were other questions not based in red state-blue state baiting that were equally compelling. I'll be damned if I can figure out how it happened, but when Paul Giamatti got out of bed Tuesday morning, listened to Adrian Brody read, in alphabetical order, this year's Best Actor nominees and realized they would never get further than the F's, I'll bet he suddenly had a much better idea of how Sandra Oh has probably felt all during this awards season, and more to the point, how Bill Murray felt in 1998 when all the talk about his performance in Rushmore failed to result in a nomination for the popular comedic actor. Much of the fretting and speculation about the logic, or lack thereof, behind figuring Oscar winners of any season is curiously predicated on decoding the mysterious groupthink of "they," as if the Academy, made up of voters from every field of expertise, gathered together in one room and cast the final ballots so as to better form some kind of a consensus statement. But even when one understands that the nominations are voted on only by those within the nominee's own peer group-- actors nominate actors, cinematographers nominate cinematographers-- the specter of "they" still raises its cloaked head. How could they find room for Johnny Depp and leave out Giamatti? How could they honor Thomas Haden Church and not Giamatti? How could they nominate I, Robot for anything? Well, just like it's silly to suppose that every member of the New York Film Critics Circle voted for Million Dollar Baby as Best Picture of the Year (reading David Edelstein's dismissive review in the online magazine Slate ought to put that myth to rest), artists and technicians who vote to nominate their peers are as prone to individual taste, splinter factions, politicking, and inconsistency, as any other group. It's the only way to explain how the Best Director nominees never quite match up with the Best Picture nominees. (Finding Neverland and Mike Leigh are this year's nominees without a corresponding director or film.) Explanations of groupthink are usually futile efforts anyway, except in years like the last one, in which one movie seems to totally overwhelm the sensibility of the voting body to such a degree that consensus almost seems plausible, if not probable.

Much better, and much more fun, then, to go at the categories one by one and point out the surprises and, more often, the deficiencies of the nominations in order to shore up the unassailable conclusion that the Oscars don't really mean a hell of a lot in the grand scheme of cinema. It's a very rare year that I can look back on in Oscar's 77-year history and say that the Academy really got much of anything right, as least as far as I can tell-- the list of Best Picture winners, despite the appearance of obvious classics like It Happened One Night, The Best Years of Our Lives, An American in Paris, Lawrence of Arabia, The Godfather (Parts 1 and 2) and Unforgiven, is as loaded with lard and empty calories as the drive-thru menu at Jackrabbit Slim's. (Would you like some fries with your Around the World in 80 Days? Or extra cheese on your Sound of Music?)

But the fact that the awards are largely insignificant to one's appreciation of film as an art form doesn't mean that following the vagaries and inconsistencies of the ceremony can't still be a lot of fun. And with the nominations announced Tuesday revealing that the 2004 Oscar race figures to be one of the tightest and, with one or two glaring exceptions, most unpredictable in quite some time, why not take a dip into Hollywood's foulest fondue pot and gulp down as much hot cheese and crusty bread as possible? (I haven't felt particularly well the past few days, so one would think I'd avoid rancid metaphors like that last one, but the weakness brought on by vacuum-packed sinuses, nausea and tumbleweed-ridden lungs may inadvertently lead me in directions I don't necessarily want you or I to go, so for that I apologize in advance.)

Best Actor: Don Cheadle, Hotel Rwanda; Johnny Depp, Finding Neverland; Leonardo DiCaprio, The Aviator; Clint Eastwood, Million Dollar Baby; Jamie Foxx, Ray

Well, I already covered the puzzling absence of Paul Giamatti in this category, but I can imagine that Javier Bardem and Liam Neeson might also be scratching their heads in the wake of this category's announcement. The Sea Inside ended up with a foreign film nomination, but nothing for the virile Spanish star of this true-life drama, whose subjugation of his sex appeal to portray a quadriplegic campaigning for the right to die probably accounts for the film's only other nomination, one for Best Makeup (Bald Wig Division). Kinsey did receive one nod, in the direction of Laura Linney, which in the end may only make Neeson wish that his on-screen imitation of John Lithgow was as good as hers. I haven't caught up with Don Cheadle or Jamie Foxx yet (I know, I know, but I'm trying), but even sight unseen it's not hard to project why these acclaimed performances are getting some respect. Less obvious is how Johnny Depp, in a performance much less universally heralded, found himself among the final five. In fact, the whole Miramax-backed Finding Neverland movement, another film I have yet to see (and little interest in, to be honest), would only make sense to me had the film been directed by Lasse Hallstrom, thus completing a mysterious Chocolat-Cider House Rules trifecta of which the director's own The Shipping News (2001) fell far short. Finally, there's Clint Eastwood and Leonardo DiCaprio doing perhaps the best acting work of their careers (so far) in Million Dollar Baby and The Aviator, performances that in any other year would stand as strong a chance as any of taking the prize. But unless Foxx makes good on his Golden Globe acceptance speech joke and does something massively, publicly horrendous between now and the final ballot date, nothing short of a Roland Emmerich-sized global disaster could possibly detain the likable actor from his date with the little gold man.
Winner: Jamie Foxx My Pick: Clint Eastwood

Best Actress: Annette Bening, Being Julia; Catalina Sandino Moreno, Maria Full of Grace; Imelda Staunton, Vera Drake; Hilary Swank, Million Dollar Baby; Kate Winslet, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind

Okay, well, at least I've seen three of these nominated performances, and I fully intend to catch the outstanding two in this category before Oscar night, February 27. The rookies in this category are Moreno and Staunton, somewhat surprising nominees when you consider the under-the-radar status (at least by Hollywood standards) of the movies they were in. But given Oscar's fairly recent tendency in the acting categories to notice minimally hyped work from the industry margins that generates a lot of positive word of mouth, then suddenly these two actresses look less like dark horses for recognition and more like obvious choices. What, then, to make of Kate Winslet? (That's a rhetorical question.) I'm wondering-- only semi-seriously-- whether this talented British actress is going to start developing some sort of reputation for leaving her romantic costars in the Oscar dust. She was nominated in 1997 for Titanic while poor Leo was left holding James Cameron's bags (at the bottom of the Atlantic, no less). Sure, he's got his nod this year too, but now Kate's latest on-screen partner, Jim Carrey, whose got something of his own history of being ignored (rightfully or not) by Academy voters, finds himself hitched to Winslet's Love-'Em-And-Leave-'Em wagon as well. How long before Hollywood's he-men start shunning the stunning actress for fear of scuttling their own Oscar chances before a frame of film has been exposed?

And of course, the story in this category, surely to be rehashed into utter boredom and further inconsequentiality by, say, the end of the week, is the big "rematch" between likely front-runners Hilary Swank and Annette Bening. Swank snatched Bening's plump opportunity for a teary, pregnant appearance on Oscar's big stage right out from underneath her in 2000, winning for Boys Don't Cry, and most seem to believe, at this early stage of the game anyway, that the young whippersnapper might just be poised to do it again, despite both actresses taking home Golden Globes for their work a few weeks ago. I haven't yet seen Bening's film, and considering that I've only liked her on screen twice (in The Grifters and Mars Attacks!) I hadn't seriously considered doing so until my best friend Bruce saw Being Julia and recommended it to me, and now Oscar is kind of pressing the point. I can only hope her work in the new film is less stiff and obvious than her nominated turn in American Beauty, or, for that matter, her stilted Golden Globe speech accepting Best Actress honors this year. Bening is one of those major actresses whose persistent acclaim puzzles me, in large part because many of those praising her are people whose critical and observational instincts are usually fairly well attuned with my own. If they get it, why don't I? (Or, of course, the reverse.)
Winner: Hilary Swank My Pick: Hilary Swank

Best Supporting Actor: Alan Alda, The Aviator; Thomas Haden Church, Sideways; Jamie Foxx, Collateral; Morgan Freeman, Million Dollar Baby; Clive Owen, Closer

The hole in this category for me is Closer and Clive Owen, so I obviously have nothing to say about him, other than I thought he was better as the assassin in The Bourne Identity than he was in his perhaps purposeful sleepwalk through Mike Hodges' dreary I'll Sleep When I'm Dead. But since neither film is germane to the discussion at hand, I will gingerly move along. Alan Alda achieved something in The Aviator I wouldn't have thought possible in this day and age-- at no point during his performance did I find myself wanting to recoil in horror or revulsion at his mere presence. Now, after enduring 415 seasons of M*A*S*H, each one further paving the way for the actor's sainthood, and a career as a director of films with little ambition beyond hammering home the actor's most piously annoying liberal-humanist tendencies, how nice to see him tearing up a nasty, juicy character role as a corrupt senator that doesn't insist you find him likable or politically sympathetic. For Alda, at 66, that practically constitutes a leap of faith, and it comes courtesy of what might be his best performance since Paper Lion. Thomas Haden Church's work in Sideways is raucously delightful, but I think it pales next to Alda's, and I don't think either of them really approaches how Jamie Foxx holds the screen in Michael Mann's nightmarishly terrific Collateral. That said, they're all rookies, both in terms of previous nominations and sheer effortless effectiveness, next to Morgan Freeman, who not only does brilliant work alongside Swank and Eastwood in Million Dollar Baby, but also almost single-handedly redeems the concept and execution of the narrator from its many past excesses and misuses. And he's never won an Oscar before.
Winner: Morgan Freeman My Pick: Morgan Freeman

Best Supporting Actress: Cate Blanchett, The Aviator; Laura Linney, Kinsey; Virginia Madsen, Sideways; Sophie Okenedo, Hotel Rwanda; Natalie Portman, Closer

With apologies to Sophie Okenedo and Natalie Portman, neither of whose performances I have yet seen, this category looks to me to be as much of a slam-dunk as Jamie Foxx winning Best Actor, and, coincidentally, it's all about another uncanny embodiment of a beloved and distinctive real-life personality. From the minute Cate Blanchett strides on screen as Katharine Hepburn in The Aviator it's clear we're in the presence of an inspired actor who deepens what could be a simple impersonation with every gesture and with each beautifully written scene she plays against DiCaprio's Hughes. With all due respect to Virginia Madsen's career revival courtesy of Sideways, and to Laura Linney, whose work in Kinsey is creditable but not particularly distinctive, Blanchett is the clear choice here.
Winner: Cate Blanchett My Pick: Cate Blanchett

Well, the hour is growing late, and I stayed up even later last night, ignoring household chores, cold symptoms and the strong desire to crawl into bed and disappear, in order to get as much writing done as possible, so tonight I'm going to finish up and give in to at least the bed part very soon. But not before touching on some of the various other oddities that I saw crop up amongst the list of nominees yesterday.

Why, for instance, does the Best Animated Feature category this year look less like a place to honor quality work wherever it might manifest itself (The Spongebob Squarepants Movie, Teacher's Pet, the critically acclaimed Ghost in the Shell 2) than a clearinghouse for cruddy, big box-office flotsam and jetsam (Shark's Tale, Shrek 2)? Either The Incredibles takes this contest in a walk, or they might as well shut down the whole operation.

Does anyone else find the inclusion of The Passion of the Christ in the Best Makeup category as somewhat tasteless? Maybe only if you found the experience of watching the film as distasteful and borderline pornographic as I did. I would think that if those involved in this aspect of the film's production had even a degree of Mel Gibson's zealousness they might also find it odd being lauded for, essentially, flaying the Lord so graphically and in such loving detail. But in a way it's appropriate that one of the movie's only nominations should highlight what for most, including its director, was probably its most powerful attraction-- the opportunity to indulge in unparalleled sadism with equally unparalleled sanctimony. Here's hoping the Academy just gives it to Lemony Snicket so we can just put this all behind us.

The selected nominees for Best Original Musical Score seem to be a pretty middle-of-the-road bunch this year. Even John Williams' fine, prickly score for Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban skirts the familiar a little too closely. It's a damn shame that Clint Eastwood's sublime, haunting score for Million Dollar Baby was overlooked, but I didn't really expect recognition for the movie here. I had hoped, however, that Michael Giacchino, who composed the year's most rousing and delightful score, for The Incredibles, or Rolfe Kent, composer of Sideways' sassy jazz accompaniments, might find some respect. Howard Shore's terrific Aviator soundtrack was another obvious choice, but due to some odd Academy bylaw that I'm unfamiliar with, it was disqualified (if anyone can point me to a source describing the circumstances for this disqualification, I'd appreciate it.) Instead, room just had to be made, I guess, for more hackwork from the overly nominated James Newton Howard (The Village) and John Debney's derivative ambience for The Passion of the Christ. I'll be in the kitchen getting more bean dip when this winner is announced.

Perhaps the strongest technical category this year is that of Best Cinematography, with nominations going out to brilliant and evocative work from Robert Richardson (The Aviator), Zhao Xiaoding (House of Flying Daggers), Bruno Delbonnel (A Very Long Engagement) and Caleb Deschanel (The Passion of the Christ). But I would have gladly sacrificed John Mathieson's nomination for The Phantom of the Opera-- I'm sorry, Andrew Lloyd Webber's The Phantom of the Opera-- to see Tom Stern's name on the roster instead, not only to honor his fine, underrated work in Million Dollar Baby, but to also take a step toward acknowledging that work by other cinematographers and validating it against incomprehensible accusations of incompetence. I also wish voters were willing to cast more votes to acknowledge the groundbreaking digital video cinematography of Collateral courtesy of Dion Beebe and Paul Cameron, if only to spotlight what can be done brilliantly with a format that has more typically been implimented as an aesthetically neutral, economically feasible option for do-it-yourself filmmakers. But there may still be substantial resistance to tacit endorsement of the format in an industry comprised mostly of directors of photography who don't yet know their way around digital video the way they do celluloid, and who may resist contributing to a revolution they see as threatening to the legacy of film as film, even with pictorially challenging films like Collateral and Robert Altman's The Company pointing the way.

Finally, I couldn't be more thrilled for Brad Bird and his movie's nomination not only for Best Animated Film, but perhaps even more so for The Incredibles' wise and hilarious script. This movie bested just about every other live-action feature of any genre this year, and its appearance in this prestigious category is tacit recognition of that fact. I'm also very excited that, if the movie itself couldn't find its way toward other significant nominations, at least the dense and intuitive work from Richard Linklater, Julie Delpy and Ethan Hawke in their script for Before Sunset is being acknowledged. But in the Best Adapted Screenplay category? Adapted from what, exactly? From their extensive notes during improvisations? As I used to say to my high school English teacher, I just don't get it.

The march toward Oscar Night is a mercifully short one, thanks to the newly condensed period between announcement of the nominations, the balloting and the awards themselves, all designed to discourage grossly excessive and unseemly campaigning. Of course, those in Hollywood who naturally gravitate toward the grossly excessive (there are so few of those, aren't there?) will find a way. It is my job to ignore as much of that as possible and try to enjoy the spectacle of Oscar Night divorced completely from any lingering thought that it matters a damn. And I will do my job. If it's your job too, I wish you much success and enjoyment in the next month or so. I'm sure there'll be plenty more to write about between now and then. But right now my head, she swims pretty fluidly, that going-to-bed idea is getting to be nearly impossible to ignore, and I don't think I have a whole lot more to say anyway... It was just outside of Barstow that we first saw the bats... Did I type that out loud? Dreams of Oscar, take me away...

Wednesday, January 26, 2005

GOODNIGHT, MOON: A Postponement and Other Thoughts

Well, I'm only into the first category of nominations in my logorrheic entry regarding Tuesday morning's Oscar announcements, and it's fast approaching 1:00 a.m. I in no way imagine there's anyone out there in Blogland breathlessly awaiting my observations re all this seasonal silliness. That said, I am going to have to pack it in tonight, as lingering cold symptoms and simple exhaustion are beginning to take their toll. If at all possible, I hope to have something posted and ready for shredding as early as tomorrow evening, and it promises to be a long one, so be sure to stock up on your double espressos and Diet Rockstars now.

But there are a few things outstanding, so with apologies to Pete Townshend, here are just a couple of unrelated quick ones before I go:

Patty and I managed to rent four movies this weekend and actually saw all of them. The first was Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. Leaving no room for "I told you so's" and the like, I have to admit that my original three-star, moderately enthusiastic response fell about a full star short of the mark. Seen in real time, and in color (my only previous encounter with it was at work), the movie neatly stripped away almost all of my objections and fulfilled its promises of heady sci-fi-tinged emotionalism rather spectacularly. What seemed like mere plot devices before seemed wholly integrated and organic developments this past weekend; the entire experience was a crash course in how a movie can expand (or, of course, shrink) on a second viewing, depending on a million different variables, some of which we control, some of which we don't.

The second part of our Saturday night triple feature was Young Adam, a grim, deliberately paced (a mite overly so, I thought) , pictorially splendid but ultimately unyielding exercise in British kitchen-sink noir. This movie goes a long way without saying much about its rootless, demon-driven protagonist, played by Ewan MacGregor, who knows more than he lets on about the cause of death of a female corpse he finds floating in a Scottish canal. And it's loaded with unpleasant sex, usually conducted in locations that made me think less about eroticism than goosepimples-- these folks are forever rutting outside, in the rain and fog, under train cars or in dimly lit and dank boat compartments, steam rising from their bodies more due to extreme thermal contrasts than carnality. The only sex scene that takes place in the comfort of the indoors is also the movie's most grotesque, a rape scene so humiliating that I was jarred out of all subjectivity and lost my desire to track what made its perpetrator, MacGregor's character, so reticently tick. I left the experience knowing two things for sure: 1) Ewan MacGregor is a very good actor and a magnetic screen presence 2) He's also got a very big penis. What I couldn't fathom was to what exactly was the film's title referring, or why I should care.

Thank God we topped off with Harold and Kumar Go to White Castle, in no way a great film, but still a terrific antidote to the rudderless nihilism of Young Adam, and a damn sight more intelligent a consideration of race in America in 2005 than I would have guessed when it came out last summer. It's a very funny gross-out comedy in a long tradition of gross-out comedies that deliver a lot less in terms of laughs and smarts.

The next night I finally got Patty to see Hidalgo, which she, to my delight, found as captivating and exciting as I did. My appreciation starts from director Joe Johnston on down, but while she loved the movie as a whole, I suspect her appreciation might find its roots closer to what my best friend Bruce has termed "Viggo Amour," a condition to which his wife has also succumbed. Not a bad weekend for Patty, all told, what with MacGregor and Mortensen both lighting up our big screen this past weekend. And imagine my surprise when I came home Sunday night and found her watching her special edition DVD of Trainspotting...

I have hopes for a movie currently featured at the Sundance Film Festival called Game Six, an original screenplay by author Don DeLillo centering around a kidnapping that takes place during the infamous Red Sox game which extended the Curse of the Bambino and made Bill Buckner an all-time Boston goat. This past Saturday's Los Angeles Times featured a very good article about DeLillo, his surprisingly avid appreciation for film, and the development of this project, the first screenplay he's written. Check it out at,2,6546903.story?coll=cl-movies-features

Speaking of good writing, Manohla Dargis has come up with another terrific piece, this time on plastic surgery's grim implications for actors and films, in the New York Times. Read it at

Finally, it's so strange to think of him as gone, but nonetheless I'd like to wish a pleasant journey to Mr. Carson...

Goodnight, stars... Goodnight, air... Goodnight, noises everywhere...

Tuesday, January 25, 2005


I realize I'm a little late in discussing this matter, but after being gently chastised for ignoring the subject, let me just say a few words about Shawn Green. I liked the guy from almost the minute he replaced the walking psychodrama that was/is Raul Mondesi in right field (Mondy is on, I believe, his sixth team since Green's first appearance as a Dodger in 2000, now that he has apparently reached an agreement with the Braves to start for them in 2005-- good luck and God bless, Bobby Cox).

Green was never a tower of personality, but he was likable and, despite the occasional lazy run-up on a pop fly that would end up dropping for a hit, he always seemed like he was in the game. He wasn't a complainer. He did his job, yet he gained the respect of many when he sat out a game in deference to Yom Kippur, following the example set by former Dodger great Sandy Koufax. He suffered agonizing slumps and the concurrent wrath of impatient Dodger fans who, perhaps because of his lack of arrogance, perhaps because of his potential, seemed to take Green's lulls harder than those of just about any other player, while Green himself would just quietly drop his bat and head back to the dugout.

But everyone loved him in 2002, especially on that astounding day in May when he went six for six, hit four home runs, drove in 7 RBI and ran up 19 bases in a 16-3 decimation of the Milwaukee Brewers at Miller Park, one of the only games of the year, of course, not to be televised in Los Angeles (I'll never forget my great friend Andy, an Angels and Expos fan, running down the hall at work yelling to me, "Holy cow! He hit another one!"). That same summer I lived through a grueling 15-inning contest that ended with a game-winning Green home run. By the time that dinger was hit, there were probably no more than 3,000 people left in the stadium, and I had gravitated from my field seat out by the left field foul pole to right behind the Dodger dugout. I was one of many fans who were draped over the roof of the dugout catching high-fives from the hero of the night, who I remember shouting to the group of us, "Why aren't you people home in bed? Don't you have to go to work tomorrow?" It felt good being one of the insane that night, and Green was a large part of the reason why.

2003 was a different story for Green, as it was for the entire Dodger offensive lineup, but he remained a fan favorite, and my wife still thought he and his big ears were as cute as ever, even when it seemed he stood just as much of a chance of getting a hit by waving them at the ball instead of his bat. 2004, however, was not only the year that the Dodgers finally won the National League West. It was also the year of the much-reviled Bobblehead Family ad campaign, and Green's part in it is, for me, a fond memory, a textbook case of likable athlete turned harmlessly wooden actor. His repeating a little boy's name while signing an autograph-- "Bri-i-i-ian..."-- reminds me of nothing so much as Karloff's monster reaching out to the old man in the cabin in The Bride of Frankenstein: "Fri-i-i-iend?" (Of course, the Monster was, despite his lumbering gait and the bolts in his neck, a much livelier screen presence than Our Man from Right Field.) Green's numbers began to pick up in the second half of last year, and he ended the season with two home runs hit during the only playoff game the Dodgers won against the Cardinals, which was highlighted further by the brilliant pitching of Jose Lima, the last game he would pitch as a Dodger. But despite that pickup in performance, he never put his emotions, one way or the other, on display for the amusement of fans or as grist for the sportswriter. Which made it all the sweeter when he came bursting out of the dugout, screaming and hollering with joy, rushing to mob Steve Finley after the amazing comeback against the Giants on October 2, 2004 that was capped by Finley's dramatic walk-off grand slam.

There were those who, in the midst of the Dodgers' dramatic and often agonizing winter trade season, fretted about Paul DePodesta's "dismantling" of the NL West champs, and when the Dodgers backed out of the trade that would have sent Randy Johnson to the Yankees for Javier Vasquez, who would then have come to L.A. with a couple of Yankee prospects for Green, Depo was treated by some, not the least of which several representatives of the Yankees, as if he were a petulant Indian-giver who ought to be worried about whether anyone would consider dealing with him again. But it was Green who had exercised his no-trade clause when the deal Arizona offered wasn't to his liking. When the Diamondbacks finally anted up, Green was gone, Vasquez was now his teammate, Johnson was a Yankee, and the Dodgers shed an expensive contract-year player (who may or may not have geared up his game like Adrian Beltre did last year in the same situation) for more terrific prospects, making their farm system one of the best in the major leagues, and freed up enough money to acquire Derek Lowe to go alongside other recent hires as Jeff Kent, Jose Valentin and, oh, yeah, right fielder J.D. Drew.

I still like Green, and I appreciate the memories he's helped to create for my family and me. As my wise friend Andy said last night, it's easy to understand how a Dodger fan might be upset by the loss of perhaps the last major piece of a team that is no longer recognizably the team he/she's been twisting in the wind with for the last four years or so. But he also said (and here's the wise part) that if you're not just a Dodger fan but a baseball fan, it ought to be a pretty exciting prospect to look at the lineups of the Dodgers, the reconstituted Diamondbacks, and even the aged Giants, and realize that the National League West is suddenly a much better division all around, and a more competitive one. For a fan of baseball, that means more exciting games, more close races, and the potential for more glorious, gut-wrenching agony wire-to-wire in the NL West in 2005, no matter who wins. Shawn Green going to the Diamondbacks may be, to some, an unconscionable concession to a division rival. But he wasn't given away, and what the Dodgers got in return figures to impact their performance far past the three years of Green's Arizona contract extension.

I wish Shawn Green good health and happy days in Arizona, but I won't be giving him any more quarter than I did when Paul Lo Duca returned to Dodger Stadium for that big love-fest last August. I'm a baseball fan who knows nothing but the thick days of free agency, and thus I've had to learn that favorites come and go, just like losers and lunkheads, and so it's the spirit of a team's history and what that team has meant to me personally over the years that has to earn my allegiance. Despite the horrors of the Fox era, the Dodgers have done just that, and I see little reason to suspect that Paul DePodesta is the clueless bumbler Bill Plaschke and his ilk seem to think him to be. He seems to have a long-term plan that I'm confident to watch play out, and as the winter wore on and it became clear that Shawn Green was not going to be a part of that plan, I did what every Dodger fan, what every baseball fan, has done before and will do countless times again-- I began preparing myself for the Green-less season that will be, ready to cheer for the players and coaches on the field, but also ready, if necessary, to analyze and criticize moves within the games and the season and chew over the whole thing with those who love the game like I do.

I hope my wife Patty will keep wearing her Shawn Green shirt proudly in 2005, and her Lima Time T-shirt too. That garment in particular is a gloriously tacky souvenir of a particularly glorious season, and an even more glorious game, when two Dodgers who are no more shone bright enough to end a 16-year playoff drought and point the direction for a franchise that would risk the ire of fans and the chemistry, the very "heart and soul," of a team that could not possibly rest its future on that one game, that one season, that one group of 25, but instead would look ahead to acquisitions and prospects and expect, despite howls of fury and protest, to do it all again.

Friday, January 21, 2005


I vow to do no more retroactive tinkering with my Top 22 of 2004 list (Clint, you’re Best Actor to stay), but had I waited until Thursday to post the list, and the article, I would have had to find room for Jean –Pierre Jeunet’s magnificent A Very Long Engagement. The movie reunites the director with the star of his previous hit Amelie, the sprightly sprite Audrey Tautou, but those expecting the kind of arched-eyebrow whimsy of that first director-actress collaboration are in for a much different sort of journey from this new film. Not that Amelie’s admirers should automatically be expected to reject Engagement’s rather more grim tone, but the reverse does seem to be true-- some of those who disdained the uncut sweetness of the former seem to have shown much more receptiveness to the latter’s potent mixture of sweetness, grotesquerie and undiluted romantic yearning.

A Very Long Engagement is an adaptation of a well-regarded book of the same name by Sebastian Japrisot that, by all firsthand testimony (I have not read the book myself), retains the complexity, and the attendant pleasures therein, of the novel’s structure. Translating this observation into my own experience, I found myself marveling throughout my viewing at how adeptly Jeunet juggles all the strands of the plot—strands that could have been easily entangled and lost in confusion in less nimble hands—and how his response to that narrative challenge translates into pure enjoyment for his audience.

Tautou plays Mathilde, a young woman afflicted by polio (mobile here, Mathilde was confined to a wheelchair in the novel) whose boyfriend, Manech, is one of five soldiers in the trenches of World War I France sentenced to certain death as punishment for self-mutilation (hands tied, they are dumped into the no-man’s land between the French and German lines to await eventual execution at the hands of the enemy). Mathilde’s perhaps too-starry-eyed romantic sensibility is fed by the whims of chance—she lends significance to random occurrences, such as a dog entering a room before a beloved uncle announcing dinner, in order to feed her seemingly irrational belief that, despite all evidence to the contrary, Manech is somehow, three years after the fact, still alive. The movie is constructed, with all the brilliant wide-screen flourishes Jeunet and his masterful cinematographer Bruno Delbonnel can muster, as a kind of sprawling detective story—Mathilde uses personal belongings, letters and the help of a private detective (not to mention the boundless funds available to her due to the untimely deaths of her parents), to track down the fates of the five soldiers and their loved ones, whose stories intertwine and illuminate each other with the allusiveness and expansiveness of literature.

Jeunet might exhibit signs of a short attention span at times (the narrative hurtles forward at such a pace that sometimes you want a little more time to soak in the rapturous imagery), but God bless him, he hasn’t a myopic bone in his body. He’s not afraid of potentially derailing Mathilde’s narrative quest to take long asides with the rest of his bounteous cast, all wonderful actors (Denis Lavant, Albert Dupontel and Jerome Kircher, as well as Chantal Neuwirth and Jeunet regular Dominique Pinon, among many, many others) who are allowed, by the director’s grand, confident approach, to show just how wonderful they can be. This roster of talent, mostly unfamiliar to American audiences, also includes a cameo appearance by a well-known American actress who is perhaps better here than she has been in a lead role in several years, and French actress Marion Cotillard, as the Corsican lover of one of the doomed soldiers, who takes upon herself a vengeful parallel course with Mathilde’s investigation, cleverly eliminating those she knows to hold some responsibility for her lover’s death. Cotillard has a graceful physical beauty and piercing blue eyes, very similar to those of Zooey Deschanel, used to chilling effect. The scenes in which she encounters and dispatches her victims are marvelous set pieces of cunning cinema in which Jeunet cuts loose with the kind of devilish cackle that will be familiar to those who loved his Delicatessen.

Jeunet sports the obsessive precision of a master clockmaker—his movies, including Delicatessen and The City of Lost Children (both co-directed with Marc Caro), have a distinctive, lived-in, jerry-rigged feeling that feeds an impish impulse for control—grafted onto the seat-of-your-pants instincts of a true entertainer. It’s this entertainer’s pulse that courses through the movie, in much the same way that Manech claims to feel Mathilde’s heartbeat in his hand, even after it’s been brutally disfigured. One might expect a movie partially about the grotesque horrors of World War I to be somewhat stone-faced and exhibiting a certain level of piety about its subject. But Jeunet manages to balance seriousness about the soldiers’ experience—these sequences are astonishments of texture and horror and empathy—with his abilities to use the language and techniques of cinema to construct his film in such a way that they are never given too much weight.

It is, after all, Mathilde’s heartbeat that is also the film’s, and Tautou, while never unleashing Amelie’s disarming smile, digs deeper here and gets the audience on her side by sheer force of will, Mathilde’s and her own. She isn’t a particularly surprising actress, but Jeunet, in his two films, finds what it is that connects her to an audience’s sympathies and builds on it, rather than shoving it down our throats, and allows her her own moments to breathe as well. When Mathilde does use a wheelchair it’s not for need or sympathy, but to cunningly manipulate a sympathetic but somewhat patronizing lawyer into going beyond the call for her and her investigation, and Tautou pulls off these moments with quiet comedy, with the saucy thrust of someone who knows what she can get away with and is unable to resist pushing just a bit further.

Those tendencies toward girlish arrogance, mixed with the character’s panicked romantic yearning, her need to keep her hope alive, strengthen Tautou's performance—Mathilde certainly needs something more Amelie’s smile to hold the center of this movie. But the pushing of boundaries is Jeunet’s strategy too. The Panavision frames he and Delbonnel compose are so well utilized, filled to the edges with trickery and filigree and important information that may not register until a few seconds or minutes after it has passed, that the movie comes to resemble nothing so much as a contraption constructed not just to express the joy of its makers—a filmmaker’s obsessive need to tell a story-- but the joy of the contraption itself. Few filmmakers can get away with this kind of celebration of technique without appearing cold and manipulative, but it seems to be Jeunet’s raison d’etre. A Very Long Engagement is the opposite of a clockwork orange; its gears and hinges and swivels and pins are all out in the open, a beautiful toy to be delighted in and amazed by, and on the inside, a heart of bittersweet fruit to be enjoyed and by which to be moved.

And for those of you who care to go back to Tuesday’s posting, you can situate A Very Long Engagement at number six, right between Dawn of the Dead and Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban. Sorry, Hellboy. But you’re still my favorite movie of the year about a reluctant, cigar-chomping, demonic superhero!


From the Speaks-For-Itself, Don't-It? Dept.: My last thought regarding the failure of Team America: World Police, to which I've probably already devoted too much time and space in "Cheer and Loafing in El Sobrante" (January 5, 2005), comes by way of Wednesday's Internet Movie Database "News" column:

"Matt Stone has finally explained why Matt Damon's puppet in recent marionette movie Team America: World Police looks 'retarded' - it was accidental. Stone, who made the satirical film with his South Park partner Trey Parker, was surprised when Damon's puppet came out of the oven looking nothing like they were expecting him to. He says, 'When we looked at the plans for his head he looked good, but when we came out of the oven he just looked retarded. I think it was well thought out. Honestly, I think Matt Damon is one of the better actors around. I think he's a pretty great actor. He's pretty talented. And for no real reason, he is retarded in this movie.'"

So now observations about the movie's wit and political savvy being half-baked can be taken literally, I guess. The movie feels like the work of people who came up with a terrific concept and then got overwhelmed by the practical difficulties in bringing it to the screen. But that suspicion only holds water if you assume the script was written on the fly, in the midst of all the technical wrangling and headaches about which Parker and Stone have complained publicly and often. What I'm left with, then, is to assume that they approached the whole movie with the kind of "whatever" attitude the Damon puppet anecdote implies (To what is Parker referring when he says "I think it was well thought out"?). That might explain the doughy, scattershot effectiveness of the humor, as well as the slacker's disdain for methodology that might inspire them to come up with a point of view about Matt Damon (or anything else in the movie) dictated by anything other than the temperature of their puppet master's kiln.

Good-bye, Team America! May your journey to the sewage processing plant, and then to the sea, be a swift one!

Wednesday, January 19, 2005


I know I'm jumping the gun on this by about a week and a half (and I'll probably throw a shout out about it before another week goes by), but while I'm thinking about it I wanted to remind anyone who has an appreciation for the hard-boiled films of Don Siegel to sit up and pay attention the Sunday after next, January 31, for a six-film tribute to the director on Turner Classic Movies. Siegel directed Clint Eastwood in Dirty Harry, The Beguiled, Two Mules for Sister Sara, Coogan's Bluff and Escape from Alcatraz, and appeared in the action star's first directorial effort, Play Misty for Me. He's also an acknowledged mentor of Eastwood's, and the Oscar-winning director paid tribute to him and Sergio Leone, director of Eastwood's star-making Dollars trilogy, in the end credits of Unforgiven. The TCM festival includes none of Siegel's Eastwood films, but it does offer a nice overview of the director's style, and each one is a terrific movie. Included in Sunday's festival are Invasion of the Body Snatchers, The Big Steal, Hell is for Heroes, Telefon, Madigan and one of my personal favorites, Charley Varrick. You can check showtimes at where there are also links to terrific articles on each of the six films, as well as a nice profile piece on Siegel himself.

CLINT EASTWOOD INTERVIEWED (not by me, unfortunately)

For those of you who have seen Million Dollar Baby and are interested in reading a very good interview with Clint Eastwood, check out the latest issue (Jan/Feb 2005) of Film Comment. The piece, as it appears in the magazine, was cut for space. But you can follow this link to the unexpurgated conversation between Eastwood and critic Amy Taubin (who also placed MDB at the top of her ten-best list).

SPOILER ALERT: For those who have not yet seen the movie but intend to, be warned that Taubin and Eastwood discuss the movie rather freely. So if you're intent on avoiding too much information, best to bookmark this link and save the interview until after you've seen Million Dollar Baby.

Tuesday, January 18, 2005

THE TOP 22 OF 2004

I don’t get to the movies as much as I’d like to these days, so this list is by no means the kind of exhaustive, all-inclusive list one would expect to see from writers who do this sort of thing for a living. For every one of the movies listed below, good and bad, there are probably three or four others that my real life insisted that I skip, wait to catch on DVD later (that list gets longer every day!) or give in to my prejudices and preconceptions and just outright dismiss. And the list itself proved, more than any other year I can remember, to be a lot more elusive and ever-changing as I tried to pin down the rankings (next week it might look a lot different—hell, two minutes after I post this it might start to look different-- in fact, I updated this post on January 18 at 2:07 pm because I've already done a little waffling on my Best Actor pick*). But this is, for better or worse, how I saw the movie year in 2004. I apologize for all the important stuff I can’t write about here. But when I do catch up with those titles on DVD (and I will), at least this blog exists so I can attempt to make up for my deficiencies then.

Clint Eastwood truly inherits the mantle of Old Hollywood with this masterpiece, in which the skin of ostensibly time-worn material is filled with fragrant new wine; in its confidence, its devastating power and bleak emotional terrain, it’s like a pessimistic post-war drama retold for a new age of uncertainty, where the possibility of redemption exists but is by no means guaranteed. Eastwood’s own performance, a career best, squares him and the movie with the kind of brilliantly understated work most associated with powerful, reticent and underrated actors like Gary Cooper and Robert Ryan.

Courtesy of Miramax’s inexplicable two-year shelving of Hero, Americans were treated to the greatest one-two punch (and flying kick) in the history of martial arts cinema when these two brilliant works from Zhang Yimou were released within months of each other. Hero is the more complex politically (and anyone who says it’s a sell-out to the oppressive Chinese government must have closed their eyes during the last half-hour), but Daggers is even more lush, stunning and moving—aside from its one-of-a-kind action sequences, it may one day rank as one of the great movie romances of all time.

Pixar goes six-for-six courtesy of the visionary expansiveness of writer-director Brad Bird (he of the neglected and equally amazing The Iron Giant), who fashions his spectacular, and spectacularly funny, superhero family saga as a celebration of individuality amongst society-endorsed mediocrity. This movie, and the two described directly above, redefined the scope of visually imaginative and expressive storytelling in 2005; Bird rises to the ranks of the great animation directors with his work here, folding James Bond, the Fantastic Four and the Warner Brothers classic cartoons together to create a vibrant design and crackling sensibility all his own. Somewhere Chuck Jones and Albert Broccoli are smiling and shaking hands…

The most naturally, painfully romantic movie of the year. Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy reunite after nine years and a promise to meet again that was never kept. Viewers who remember this film’s predecessor, Before Sunrise, are likely to be shocked by a brief flashback to that film that is a tidy economic lesson in how even beautiful people are subject to time’s craftsmanship and deconstructive qualities. And the dialogue, devised by the actors along with director Richard Linklater, is incisive, realistic, funny, but never precious, and takes on the subject of time, impermanence and missed opportunities with elasticity and fertility. Linklater shoots long takes filled with vibrant conversation between two intelligent people floating through the streets of Paris—eloquently simple filmmaking that compliments the eloquent struggle of old lovers grappling with the implications of that love in the light of lives that could have been and the reality of those that are.

I recently revisited the first eight minutes of this movie (the unrated director’s cut) on DVD and was surprised at how easily the inescapable dread and panic that left me paralyzed with fear when I saw it at the local multiplex came flooding back, as if it had been floating around in my bloodstream all this time, just waiting for a prick of the skin. And I think, somehow, it probably has. I know grown men and women, jaded horror fans who’ve seen and shrugged at it all, brought low in their seats and desperate in their dreams by this vivid reimagining of George Romero’s vastly overrated and inferior original, and I can honestly say I’m scared to see the rest of the director’s cut. But not too scared—after all, honest fright generated by a horror movie is just too rare an experience these days, and Dawn of the Dead offers dread and hair-whitening shudders that horror fans (and fans of good movies, period) will want to savor. No movie this year was as on fire with pure filmmaking fury as this one.

Director Alfonso Cuaron delivers all the magic, the horror and the filmmaking wizardry so lacking in the first two films, which were textbook examples of how to be slavishly faithful to the novels and still be pedestrian and uninspired. The universe of Harry Potter looks and feels lived-in here, and the entire movie has a palpable texture, like the rough-hewn pages of a brilliantly illustrated fairy tale that envelop you in the silky, sinister imagination they convey. The three juvenile leads finally seem comfortable in their roles, which allow them to approach puberty, within the movie’s subtext, with sly humor and dread, and the rest of the cast is a who’s-who of brilliant British character actors who also seem more at home in the world according to Alfonso Cuaron than that of Chris Columbus. Cuaron is not directing number four, but we can hope that his influence will continue to be felt.

Martin Scorsese’s vibrant biopic of Howard Hughes jauntily turns the conventions of the genre on its ear, orchestrating spectacular visual set pieces that function as the intimate moments in the billionaire’s increasingly recessive life (Hughes filming elaborate dogfights seems like a happy kid at play), while staging physically intimate encounters (between Hughes and a mesmerizing Cate Blanchett as Katharine Hepburn, between Hughes and a doorknob he cannot force himself to touch) that eventually assume the function that big, life-defining set pieces might in a more typical biographical approach. Leonardo DiCaprio is fairly amazing here, and the movie trumps another biopic convention by taking us and the actor to what might be the beginning of the third act—when Hughes finally begins to slide into full-time madness—and leaving us, and him, to stare into the abyss of what is come—the way of the future, the way of the future, the way of the future…

Some critics, in their year-end polls, can’t distance themselves fast enough from Sideways and the unprecedented swell of critical support it has managed to garner so far. And some have accused the movie of being condescending and mean-spirited, as if the very notion of showing people glorying in their obsessions (in this case, wine appreciation and sex), or showing overweight people boning with obsessive abandon, means you’re making fun of them—a curious prism through which to view social satire that, to my mind, speaks more about the prejudices of those raising the objections than it does about the film’s intentions. Sideways is a movie that deals with characters in a framework—the raucous road movie—that is usually left to those about half the age, or younger, of its two lead characters, and it succeeds in suffusing that framework with enough middle-aged insecurity and desperation to offset the bitter laughs that run parallel with those desperate lives. Alexander Payne’s directorial hand makes it look easy, but this comedy is hard.

This is the kind of family-friendly wide-screen action epic that doesn’t get made much anymore, and the sweep and excitement derived from this old-fashioned entertainment make you wish and hope it won’t be the last time director Joe Johnston gets a shot at making one. Johnston is not a vivid stylist, but he is at the head of a shrinking class of modern filmmakers rooted in American special effects spectaculars who have the hearts of storytelling classicists like Howard Hawks, William Wyler and David Lean. Hidalgo, the story of a dangerous horse race across the Sahara desert, showcases Johnston’s storytelling chops admirably—it’s a thrilling, white-knuckle adventure—yet Johnston remains under the radar, perceived more as a hack-for-hire than the emerging showman-artist on display here. Here’s hoping that he and directors like David R. Ellis (Cellular), Paul Greengrass (The Bourne Supremacy) and John Moore (Flight of the Phoenix) can continue fruitful careers making the kinds of films that may get precious little critical respect but fulfill the profound possibilities of pleasure of the best popular cinema.

HELLBOY ***1/2
Guillermo Del Toro’s deliriously vivid comic-book adaptation has visual conceits and constructs that stare down genre cliché and familiarity and twist away from its grip with impish sprightliness, leaving the viewer gasping with delight at its audacity, at the sheer unlikelihood that what he/she’s seeing could possibly feel so fresh, so electrically charged, so vital and, yes, unpredictable. Del Toro fuses standard genre tropes with grandiose Catholic iconographical allusions and torrents of emotion, and he knows how to stage action that breaks down your resistance to familiar CGI technology and thrusts you into the emotional core of the scene. Everything happens, as it did in his brilliant gothic The Devil’s Backbone, at a slightly off angle; violence erupts in a fashion skewed by enough unpredictable rhythm to keep the adrenaline flowing and the audience’s emotional investment in a satanic, lovelorn, and somewhat reluctant red-skinned hero, very high indeed. The best movie of its kind in years.

The Second 11:

“I’m sorry, Shaun.” “Don’t worry about it.” “No… I’m sorry, Shaun…” Then the disfiguring twist on Shaun’s face as he realizes his friend is apologizing (and none too sincerely) not for any misbehavior, but for his inability to control certain gaseous tendencies… Worse than any zombie!

The car that blindsides Bourne and hits him squarely in the driver’s door—how the hell did they do that?

The critical cliché of martial arts choreography and its connection to dance is not so much reimagined as literalized; I stared at the screen with awe, delight and utter amazement, thinking that thought we so often think but rarely really mean: “I’ve never seen anything like that!”

The wolf crosses the path of Jamie Foxx’s ill-fated cab, its silver eyes glinting from the headlights—the poetry of primal fear and power misplaced and loose on the streets of Los Angeles.

Demme never matches Frankenheimer’s visualization of the deadly brainwashing sessions as a malevolent ladies’ garden club, but he tells the story in an intimate way that emphasizes its plausibility while intensifying its political resonance. The second remake of the year that surpasses the original. Still, Meryl Streep never emerges from the shadow of Angela Lansbury.

Alongside his previous feature, Final Destination 2, the exceedingly clever Cellular establishes director David R. Ellis as a perversely exciting talent to watch, an action director with a real eye and a intuitive understanding of how the pieces can fit together to make an audience sit up and watch.

MR. 3000
The best baseball movie in years not directed by Ron Shelton. Bernie Mac is alive and exciting in so many ways that never even occur to most actors to explore. But why, in a movie about a player for the Milwaukee Brewers, is there no Bob Uecker? Is the ghost of Major League that imposing?

Two surreal and brilliant big-screen debunkings of the notion that there’s no good TV for kids that’s also good for adults. Teacher’s Pet casts a spell of escalating oddity and perversity, and Spongebob, for this previously uninitiated adult, was a revelation of spastic slapstick and wacky wordplay.

Everything, in tone and pace, that the moderately successful first episode should have been. But I still object to Kirsten Dunst—she hasn’t the fire, the sassiness, the sex appeal I recall—no, demand—from the Mary Jane Watson of my Marvel-ous memories.

Oh, to see volumes 1 and 2 back to back someday. Where the first film is excitable and excessive in every way, the second film takes a more languid course (all things being relative, of course) and blindsides the viewer with unexpected and deeply felt ruminations on motherhood and, of course, killing the one you love.

Other Titles That Made Going To The Movies Exciting, Troubling or Otherwise Worthwhile In 2004:

13 GOING ON 30

The Worst Movies of 2004 (In Descending Order):







Clint Eastwood, Morgan Freeman, Hilary Swank,
Ziyi Zhang, Takeshi Kaneshiro, Andrew Lau,
Jet Li, Maggie Cheung, Tony Leung, Zhang Ziyi, HERO
Craig T. Nelson, Holly Hunter, Sarah Vowell, Brad Bird,
Jason Lee, Elizabeth Pena, Samuel L. Jackson, THE INCREDIBLES
Ethan Hawke, Julie Delpy, BEFORE SUNSET
Sarah Polley, Mehki Phifer,
Jake Weber, Ving Rhames, DAWN OF THE DEAD
Emma Thompson, David Thewlis, Gary Oldman, Michael Gambon,
Leonardo DiCaprio, Cate Blanchett,
Alec Baldwin, Alan Alda, THE AVIATOR
Paul Giamatti, Sandra Oh,
Thomas Haden Church, Virgina Madsen, SIDEWAYS
Viggo Mortensen, Zuleihka Robinson,
Omar Sharif, J.K. Simmons, Elizabeth Berridge, HIDALGO
Ron Perlman, John Hurt, David Hyde-Pierce, Selma Blair, HELLBOY
Simon Pegg, Nick Frost, Penelope Wilton, Bill Nighy, Kate Ashfield,
Matt Damon, Joan Allen, Brian Cox, Julia Stiles, Karl Urban,
Takeshi Kitano, Taramoru Asano, Guadalcanal Taka,
Jamie Foxx, Jada Pinkett-Smith,
Irma P. Hall, Tom Cruise, COLLATERAL
Denzel Washington, Liev Schreiber,
Kim Basinger, Jason Statham,
William H. Macy, Chris Evans, CELLULAR
Bernie Mac, Angela Bassett, MR. 3000
Nathan Lane, Debra Jo Rupp, TEACHER’S PET
Tobey Maguire, J.K. Simmons, Alfred Molina, SPIDER-MAN 2
Uma Thurman, David Carradine, Michael Madsen,
Daryl Hannah, Michael Parks,
Gordon Liu, KILL BILL VOL. 2
Jorgen Leth, Lars Von Trier, THE FIVE OBSTRUCTIONS
Lily Tomlin, Naomi Watts, Dustin Hoffman, Mark Wahlberg,
Jim Carrey, Kate Winslet, Elijah Wood,
Liam Neeson, Peter Saarsgard, Laura Linney,
William Sadler, John Lithgow, KINSEY
Catalina Sandina Moreno, MARIA FULL OF GRACE
Dennis Quaid, Giovanni Ribisi, FLIGHT OF THE PHOENIX
Will Ferrell, Steve Carell, Fred Willard,
Vince Vaughn, Christina Applegate,
Tom Hanks, Irma P. Hall, Tzi Ma, J.K. Simmons, Marlon Wayans,
Mario Van Peebles, BAADAASS!
Ben Affleck, George Carlin, JERSEY GIRL
Kurt Russell, MIRACLE
Jennifer Garner, Andy Serkis, Judy Greer, 13 GOING ON 30
Thomas Jane, STANDER
Shawnee Smith, SAW




MR. 3000












Harlan Jacobsen, in the most recent issue of Film Comment (Jan-Feb 2005, “Chop Socky Soap Suds”), whining about how grindhouse martial arts cinema of the Bruce Lee variety has been appropriated by revisionists like Ang Lee and “lost-in-a-fog auteur and former Fifth Generation wunderkind” Zhang Yimou, not to mention critics who love to talk about action choreography as “ballet.” Listen to this, and know, if you loved Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, Hero and/or House of Flying Daggers, just how deluded you are:

”With both (Hero and House of Flying Daggers) on stateside display in the same year, it’s become painfully clear that things have degenerated way past the point of ballet.
Bye-bye, Bruce! And welcome to the land of Harlequin romance, in which gorgeous hunks on either side of some Robin Hood revolution fight to the designer death over a fairy-tale princess, running to and fro in the color-corrected forest as in a Breck shampoo ad, ending it all in a decorous splash of red. We are not talking here about some form of feminist realignment. This is nothing less than the reconfiguration of an entire genre—once a form of meta-pornography for pimply faced geeks, for whom every thud and crrrack offered a form of virtual revenge on schoolyard bullies—as a Spanish TV soap opera, for our collective Inner Girl!!! Aaarrrggggh!”

Hell hath no fury like a pimply faced geek deprived of his meta-pornography, I guess. And while we’re at it, that Francis Ford Coppola has got a lot of nerve for mucking around with Mario Puzo and making some sort of “big statement,” when we really only want tommy guns and mother complexes from our gangster pictures.
















MEET THE FOCKERS (I wouldn’t actually know, though, as I never saw it)

MOVIE I ONLY SAW ONCE THAT I’M ITCHING TO SEE AGAIN (I’m hoping a second-viewing might reveal to me more of what others seemed to see the first time)



Sarah Vowell, Brad Bird, THE INCREDIBLES



Best Actress: JULIE DELPY

(* See? I waffled already!)

Best Supporting Actress: CATE BLANCHETT

Best Supporting Actor: MORGAN FREEMAN


Best Original Screenplay: BEFORE SUNSET
Richard Linklater, Ethan Hawke, Julie Delpy
Runner-up: THE INCREDIBLES Brad Bird

Best Adapted Screenplay: MILLION DOLLAR BABY Paul Haggis
Runner-up: SIDEWAYS Alexander Payne and Jim Taylor

Runner-up: HERO

Best Cinematography: HERO
Runner-up: THE AVIATOR

Best Film Editing: THE AVIATOR

Best Makeup: HELLBOY

Best Musical Score: THE INCREDIBLES
Runner-up: SIDEWAYS


Best Sound Effects Editing: THE INCREDIBLES
Runner-up: HELLBOY

Runner-up: HELLBOY


A year or so ago a bunch of coworkers and I went through a sort-of getting-to-know-you exercise in which we all exchanged lists of out top ten horror movies, Desert Island Discs
(CDs you’d taken along if you were stranded on a desert island), top ten comedies, top ten albums of the ‘80s, et cetera. When it came time for the top ten albums of the 90s list, one of the participants, Sean Newcombe, taking on the persona of Duncan MacLeod, the 600-year-old Immortal Highlander of the movie and TV series, pretended to misunderstand the category and turned in a list of his favorite albums of the 1890s. The list has nothing to do with the movies of 2004, or movies in general, but it’s such a funny piece that I begged Sean to allow to me to include it in my article. He generously agreed, and so here, without further delay (it’s been put off far long enough already) is Duncan MacLeod’s list of the Best Albums of the 1890s:

Compiling a list of the top ten albums of the 1890s was a difficult undertaking-- but, also, a labor of love. I remember the decade well. As I told Teddy Roosevelt when we stormed San Juan Hill, "Ah, indeed, this is a splendid age." He, too, is a Highlander, and now lives in Passaic, New Jersey as a grocer.

By the way, in the 1890s we referred to them as "spools," as they came on cylinders.


1. Never Mind the Fisticuffs, Here Now's the Bowery Lads - The Bowery Lads (1898)

The Bowery Lads were an audacious quartet that thumbed their noses at the blue blood establishment with such songs as "Did You See Her Ankles?" and "We Have Liquor on Sundays," to name only a few.

2. Rabbi Feivel's Secret Klezmer Band - The Dreidels (1894)

This kabbalah-tinged effort was the first "concept" spool of its era and it featured the songwriting duo of Levitz/Malachi.

3. O, Mighty Timber! - Mr. Paul Bunyan's Original Quintet (1894)

What today is called "folk" music, we called "backwoods pleasantries." The perfect spool after a long carriage ride.

4. Manifest Destiny - John Philip Souza (1891)

This "Heavy Brass" effort was an ear-splitter from beginning to end.

5. We'll Not Wear Bloomers - The Susan B. Anthony Singers (1897)

A true "protest" spool by a daring band of suffragettes.

6. Two Games a Day - "Iron" Joe McGinnity (1899)

I know, I know, this was what would now be called a "novelty" album (we called them "curiosity spools"), but it still reminds me of going out to the Polo Grounds to watch Iron Joe pitch.

7. My Lady's Private Rag - Scott Joplin (1899)

I loved this bawdy jaunt. I'd invite the ladies over to my parlor and dance the buckles right off of my shoes.

8. 40 Whacks and Fiendish Deeds - Lizzie Borden (1897)

You might call her an "Original Gangstress"-- or you might not.

9. The Girl with the Big Balloons and Other Funnies - Giggles McGee (1892)

This was my favorite spool of jokes. We'd sit around with a bicarbonate of soda and laugh till our bellies ached.

10. Through the Looking-Glass - The Charles Dodgson Homage (1893)

Really, The Charles Dodgson Homage was the first tribute band. They took the works of Lewis Carroll (born Charles Dodgson) and made them their very own. Wondrous.

Friday, January 14, 2005


Well, I'm glad it was not a wide-ranging problem. Seems, as you suggested, Murray, in the comments from the previous post, that what was needed was a industrial-strength pop-up blocker, and that is now what I've got operating on this end. Thanks to everybody (Doug, Jonas, Sharon & Murray) who helped me suss out and fix this annoyance. Now I just wish there were pop-up blockers to apply to non-virtual-world-type problems as well!

Top Ten List, and some attendant goodies attached to it, is just around the corner!


Hi, folks!

I've been having some trouble accessing the site from various computers here at work and also at home, and I know others have expressed the same difficulties to me. If you've tried to access my blog and had any oddities like pop-up menus blocking your access, I apologize. If, upon attempted entry, you're asked to download a file with the name or anything like it, please don't. I don't think it's a virus, but I'm not exactly sure what it is or how it got there. I'm hoping the support staff at will have some insights for me soon. For now, it seems a darn good pop-up blocker does the trick on this thing-- I was able to access and view theblog on my laptop at home. But this post is basically an experiment to see if it's at least possible for me to continue to post articles on computers that seem to be affected during this annoying episode. Please e-mail me if you encounter anything strange in the next few days (my-blog related, of course, unless you just wanna post something about strange things in general), and I will attempt to keep Blogger as informed as I can and get the problem fixed.


Wednesday, January 12, 2005


Sideways has been garnering almost unprecedented attention among critics groups as the march toward the Oscar nominations grinds on, and just this past week the movie took home several more awards for its actors, writers and director from the Broadcast Film Critics Association. BFCA member David Poland may have been overstating his case when he proclaimed that the career of director Alexander Payne could stop now and he’d still, with this movie and Election, be responsible for two of the best comedies of all time. But Payne’s work is extraordinary, no less so for being far less self-conscious than his previous films (including Election, which I, along with Poland, love). Then there’s Paul Giamatti, glimpsed onstage basking in some more well-deserved glory, as well as Virginia Madsen, for whom Sideways represents a career revitalization out of the dregs of straight-to-video purgatory, and Thomas Haden Church, for whom this may be his first real taste of respect from peers and observers, as well as the best material with which he’s ever been associated.

But somewhat lost in the Sideways juggernaut is the fact that its acting ensemble is a four-person gathering, not just the celebrated three. Therefore, I feel compelled to throw a shout out to the witty and sexy Sandra Oh, who has the misfortune (at least as far as folks who hand out awards are concerned) to be cast in the film’s least showy role—she’s Stephanie, the restless wine pourer who falls for Church’s rutting actor Jack and gets snared (or allows herself to be snared) in his seemingly harmless deceptions. Oh can’t lay claim, as her cast mates can, to any Oscar clip-ready scenes—her “big” moment comes when she busts someone’s nose open with a motorcycle helmet in a fit of unleashed anger. Instead, she’s almost solely responsible for the degree of impish sensuality to which the film can lay claim, and I suspect there are a huge percentage of the movie’s fans that are more than just a little appreciative of that fact.

Jack’s an insufferable poon hound, as would be Giamatti’s Miles, if he could only roust himself out of his depressively romanticized remembrances of his past marriage. And Madsen’s Maya is the attractive ideal which Miles, and to an uncomfortable degree the movie, hesitates to sully with base suggestions of carnality. But if Oh’s part is the most underwritten, she more than compensates with an insouciance that hits the viewer like the first buzz from a good pinot noir, and a natural, untamable sexiness that informs her character from the inside out. She does wonders with a casual glance, and she has that rare quality in an actor, the ability to convey the sense that she’s actually listening to what’s going on in a scene, reaching out telepathically, feeling the contours of the situation and the actors (and, of course, their characters), and spinning a startling response out of often very thin air. It amounts, in large part, to generosity, to giving her colleagues their due, and causing them to respond in kind, and it’s why the scene where she first meets Jack and Miles is charged with so much inexplicable electricity.

The buzz is set off when Stephanie launches into what is probably the company line pimping her winery’s cabernet franc, only to have Miles reveal, with a casual bluntness, that he’s never come to expect greatness from that particular varietal, nor has he found it with this one. There’s barely a flutter of her facial muscles as Jack jumps in to try to ease any potential tension with some small talk, which Stephanie herself defuses with an offhand admission that she agrees with Miles about the cab franc. The crackling in the air intensifies when Stephanie, increasingly disarmed by Miles’ honesty and Jack’s pheromones, and perhaps overstepping her professional bounds, refills their glasses to the rim. Jack takes this as a very good sign and chuckles, “Stephanie, you are a bad, bad girl,” to which she replies, with timing worthy of Katherine Hepburn and body language by way of Bette Davis as she begins to turn away, “I know—I need to be spanked.” Without another word she completes the turn and saunters away, and the camera stays with her as she approaches some other customers with the same kind of prepared friendliness we’ve just seen get peeled away for Jack and Miles. I’d like to think that the camera follows her walk down the bar because it just can’t turn away, and we in the audience, similarly seduced, wouldn’t want it to either, not for all of the top-drawer cab franc in the room.

Oh, a terrific comedienne who first crossed my radar in Audrey Wells’ curious romantic comedy-drama Guinivere, may be familiar to viewers of HBO’s Arli$$ who stuck with that series and found it far less insufferable than I did. But I’m always happy to see her name in the opening credits, even though she has, to this point, largely been relegated to minor roles that usually zero in on her off-kilter comedic timing. (In some ways her career is analogous to that of Allison Janney’s, before The West Wing homogenized that actress’s similarly quirky instincts and subsumed them under the revival tent of Aaron Sorkin’s self-righteous political agenda). I hold out hope that her unprepossessing turn in Sideways might open doors for her to step out of sidekick roles, like that of the pregnant lesbian best friend to Diane Lane in Under the Tuscan Sun, and into parts that can really showcase her talent. This is, after all, an actress who could effortlessly outshine the likes of Julia Roberts, Cameron Diaz and Naomi Watts in the roles those highly paid stars are routinely offered.

But that’s why all the attention paid to Giamatti, Madsen and Church, to Oh’s exclusion, makes me nervous—it’s almost as if she’s viewed as the replaceable element by all the attention lavished upon these other (very worthy) actors, when, in fact, Sideways would be only three-fourths the movie it is, despite the thinness of her role as written, without her contributions. Sideways’ director, Alexander Payne, who is Oh’s husband, is unlikely to have fretted over potential accusations of nepotism by casting her. She’s far too smart and energetic and generous an actress for charges like that to be believable—it’s hard to imagine any director not wanting her in their movies. Nevertheless, I’d love to see Payne use his current cachet to craft a vehicle for her, another deep-dish comedy, perhaps, that might give her the chance to send signals to the film industry, and to those who would still tend to marginalize Asians in anything other than period martial-arts extravaganzas, that here lies a major, unpredictable talent in waiting. In the right role, Oh could bridge the gap between classic screwball comedy and more modern “dramedies” like Sideways with enough saucy exuberance and sheer talent to make swooning viewers think Carole Lombard had come back in a vibrant new shell and whispered sweet nothings (or perhaps a little barbed innuendo) in their ear, just before pivoting on a heel and walking slowly away. There’d be no need for her to look back either, because she’d know we were still watching, waiting to see what comes next.