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Real-life movie moment

The movie: “Forrest Gump” (1994); dir. by Robert Zemeckis; starring Tom Hanks, Robin Wright Penn, Gary Sinise, Sally Field.

The moment: During my walk to work, a bird feather floated down and landed directly in front of my right shoe.

The correlation: My mom was right — these are magic shoes. Well, she said “unusual,” but I’m certain that she meant “magic.”

One to Watch: “Paper Heart”

Summer ’09 must be the summer of indie romances … which poses absolutely no problem for me, since I’ll take a fairly decent indie romance over something like “The Ugly Truth” or “The Proposal” any day. On the heels on “(500) Days of Summer” comes “Paper Heart,” a Sundance-beloved movie about a girl (Charlene Yi, whom you may remember as the perpetually stoned funny girl in “Knocked Up”) making a documentary about love. From what I’ve read, Michael Cera appears throughout to do what he does best: be shyly adorable and warmly quirky. Seth Rogen, Paul Rust and Demetri Martin co-star.

The author of Musings at a Picnic suggested a “Paper Heart”/”(500) Days of Summer” drive-in double feature. A girl can dream.


Perfect for every part (part deux)

DISCLAIMER: Pay no attention to the voices in your head that may have told you this was going to be a definitive — or even vaguely highbrow — list of actresses who seem right for every role. These voices, which may have some really good ideas sometimes, will steer you wrong here in a blog where the author ranks both “Young Frankenstein” and “Apocalypse Now” in the Greatest Movies Ever Made category.

Yeesh. Glad we got that out of the way. Now I’ll forge ahead to part two of my list, a tribute to the actresses who seem to make every character their own. Frances McDormand, of course, is our starter — and not just because Ebert said so. She’s a Coen brothers staple (she’s, uh, married to Joel), but she’s had an outstanding career outside Coenland that includes Oscar nods for drama parts (“North Country,” “Mississippi Burning”) and coming-of-age tales (“Almost Famous”). Whatever she does, she does well, and that makes her seem like a great new discovery every time I see her.

And the remaining nine actresses are:

  • Amy Adams — Amy, Amy, Amy. My love for Amy dates back to “Junebug,” when she proved a bubbly chatterbox could have depth. Then again, she gives depth to all her distinctive characters, from the serious bit parts (“Charlie Wilson’s War”) to fairy tale musicals (“Enchanted”) to smart-dumb comedies (“Talladega Nights”). She just can’t keep her darn light hidden.
  • Penélope Cruz — When Almodovar introduced Cruz in “Todo Sobre Mi Madre,” the world fell in love, and so did I. Inevitably she got thrust into numerous romantic comedies, but then she dared to go off the grid, take serious roles (i.e., “Elegy”) and, in “Blow” and “Vicky Cristina Barcelona,” shred the notion that she was just some Spanish Sandra Bullock. 
  • Maggie Gyllenhaal — There’s just something about Gyllenhaal. It’s not that she oozes sexuality (she does) or that she’s possessed of a strange otherworldly kind of beauty (she is). No, I think it’s that she’s willing to get naked, physically and emotionally, to find her characters. From mainstream parts (“World Trade Center,” “Dark Knight”) to the really bold stuff (“Secretary,” “Sherrybaby”), she goes all in every time.
  • Milla Jovovich — I’ll catch hell for including a supermodel here, and I know it. So Jovovich started off as a hot action starlet and not an Oscar contender — what of it? She’s got real acting chops (she lit up the screen in “Dummy” and “You Stupid Man”) and she’s not afraid to take on parts that are fun and funny and action-oriented. Laugh if you must, but Milla’s more than a pretty face.
  • Queen Latifah — Enter controversial choice No. 2. You may be tempted to think I chose her to fill some sort of racial quota. As if. Dana Owens ended up here because she deserves to be. Here is an actress who has spent too long making terrible movies bearable (“Bringing Down the House”) and too long playing sidekicks (“Stranger Than Fiction”). Give her a lead in something like “Last Holiday,” “Chicago” or “Set It Off” and she’ll surprise you. She’s got versatility, and it’s about time Hollywood gave her more opportunities to show it.
  • Laura Linney — Linney’s the best actress who will never win an Oscar. Why? She’s too good at being plain people, and plain people rarely get gold statues. Still, that hardly means this versatile actress plays one character over and over. She does something a little different every time, sometimes stepping out of the indie box (“Breach,” “The Exorcism of Emily Rose”). She’s one to watch.
  • Kate Winslet — Kate Winslet’s the silver screen equivalent of a extreme athlete. She’s totally unafraid to take chances, consistently picking parts that involve emotional or physical nudity. As a result, she’s done erotica, fantasy (“Heavenly Creatures,” her big break), literary adaptations (the best was “Little Children”) and everything in-between. She’s just astounding, pure and simple.
  • Renee Zellwegger — This cherubic Texan has picked some doozies in her career (re: “New in Town”), but she always rises above the most derivative scripts. Bonus: She’s fearless in the face of the unknown, be it musicals or Civil War-era fare, and she attacks every part with enthusiasm. There’s a lot to be said for enthusiasm when it’s backed by real talent.

As always, bloggers, I await your suggestions…

Perfect for every part

In his review of “Burn After Reading,” Roger Ebert remarked that Frances McDormand has a “rare ability to seem correctly cast in every role.” Truer words were never spoken, I’d say, but they made me little mind take a wander and a ponder. (It’s dangerous to do both at once, but my mind sort of walks on the wild side.) And so I considered: Are there other modern-day actors/actresses out there who seem perfect for every role no matter how good or bad the movie?

(Prepare for some serious anticlimactic-ness. I would have stopped writing if the answer to this question was “no.”)

Eventually I devised a list of modern actors/actresses who impress me every time I see them. Today I’ll keep the focus on the men.

The actors

  • Christian Bale — OK, fine, so this one was a gimme, you’re screaming at me. Maybe it was. But any list of chameleonic actors that does not contain Bale’s name is a fraud because nobody does it quite like Bale. He’s gotten stuck in a rut of late, but his talent tells me he’s got a lighter (though no less brilliantly acted) role in him somewhere.
  • Adrien Brody — From big-name critic pleasers (i.e., “The Pianist”) to low-budge, so-so indies (“Dummy,” “Love the Hard Way”) to a movie with Tupac (“Bullet”), Brody’s done it all, and every character’s believable. Now that’s real talent, and not the kind you can learn in acting school.
  • Don Cheadle — It goes without saying that no one’s quite as willing to try anything as Cheadle, who moves from Oscar-worthy stuff (“Hotel Rwanda,” “Crash”) to slick fun (the “Ocean’s” trilogy) to pure fluff (“Hotel for Dogs”) with an air of cool that can’t be penetrated. Bring on the new Col. Rhodes.
  • Johnny Depp — Everyone remembers Johnny Depp as someone different. (To me, he’ll always be Jack Sparrow/Gilbert Grape/Sam.) He’s never the same character twice (though he does bring that left-of-center attitude to many roles), and that’s why he continues to captivate us so. Anyone who has the stones to attempt to remake Willy Wonka gets in on sheer guts.
  • Richard Jenkins — All hail to the (until recently) unsung hero of Hollywood. Relegated to way-too-small parts, this superb character actor routinely steals scenes (“The Man Who Wasn’t There”) or improves a terrible movie (“Step Brothers,” anyone?). “The Visitor” was his chance to take the lead, and I hope he gets many, many more. He certainly deserves them.
  • William H. Macy — Macy’s the low-key guy who makes a point to sneak up and win us over when we’re not looking. TV, drama, black comedy (check him out in “Thank You for Smoking”) — there’s nothing this actor can’t handle. I think we all know he was the only heavy-hitter in “Wild Hogs” … which is a compliment even if it doesn’t quite sound like one.
  • Sean Penn — He’s a tricky, tricky fellow, this one, and a chameleon who just plain disappears into whatever character he’s playing. All talk of his petulance, snippy interviews, volatile relationship with the media melts away when he’s Harvey Milk, or Jimmy Markum, or Matthew Poncelot.
  • Joaquin Phoenix — There was a time (you remember it, and fondly) before Joaquin grew the mountain man beard and turned weirder than Kristen Stewart’s hair that he was quite the transformer. He could make funny (“8MM,” “Buffalo Soldiers”), do action (“Ladder 49”) and go for wrenching drama (everything else he ever did). Will someone order the exorcism so we can get the real J.P. back?
  • Geoffrey Rush — Rush has been so many colorful characters that it’s hard to pick a favorite (Casanova Frankenstein — wait, it’s not so hard). From the Marquis de Sade to Javert (how literary!) to Peter Sellers to the intellectual Captain Barbosa playing, well, Javert to Johnny Depp’s Valjean, Rush makes it look so darn easy, and cool to boot.
  • Benicio del Toro — Benicio always gets us with the drama. Nobody does “tortured and mysterious” quite like him (see “The Pledge” or “21 Grams”), and so the comedy — when he unleashes it — shocks us silly. But he’s got jokes, too, and a sly sense of humor that will come to good use in “The Three Stooges.” If anybody could revamp Moe Howard, it’s Fred Fenster, alright.

What say you, readers? Let’s hear your suggestions.

Blog love (Vol. 1)

Sometimes you have a great idea. But sometimes someone else has a great idea, and all you can do is applaud and stand, slack-jawed, in awe.

Such is the case with one Edward Boe, who has been stricken with the intense desire to see — and review — every one of the 1,001 movies listed in Stephen Scheider’s “1,001 Movies You Must See Before You Die.” ‘Tis a bold, time-consuming, gigantic undertaking. It might be a little crazy, too, but most great ideas are.

So mosey on over to 1001 Movies I Must Comment On Before I Die! to read, learn, enjoy and perhaps be inspired to try a cultural experiment of your own choosing. Inspiration is far too rare these days, if you ask me, and those who have flashes of it deserve support — and, of course, blog love.

Review: “Reservation Road” (2007)

reservation_roadBy all rights, Terry George’s “Reservation Road” should be a 2 a.m. Lifetime Television weeper. All the trappings are there — a freak car accident that turns into an unsolved hit-and-run case; a grieving father who sees closure only in revenge; a driver whose sanity is buckling under the weight of what he’s scrambled to cover up — just waiting to be exploited shamelessly. But here’s the real shocker: That … never … happens. “Reservation Road” is no crudely simplified fable with a villain and a hero and a gift-wrapped ending; it’s not that kind of movie. No, what happens here is complex, delicate and deliberate. Don’t expect to walk away unshaken. 

Of course, part of what makes “Reservation Road” so compelling is the (admittedly) hokey-sounding crisis at its center: Driving home from a late Red Sox game with his son, Dwight (Mark Ruffalo) veers off the highway and rams into a child on the roadside at a gas station, killing the 10-year-old boy while his father Ethan (Joaquin Phoenix) watches, too shocked to remember the car or the driver’s face. Dwight, without quite knowing what he’s doing, drives away, leaving Ethan, his wife Grace (Jennifer Connelly) and their daughter with a dead body and no answers.

All of this happens very early, and there’s a reason for those emotionally punishing first 10 minutes: These events provide a framework for the rest of “Reservation Road,” which grows more unsettling each minute. The pile of coincidences is a stretch — or is it? In a small town, is it so hard to believe that the victim and the criminal might know each other? Have kids in the same school? Maybe George pushes this angle a bit too hard, makes it a bit too unsubtle, but perhaps this is necessary to pull us in. After all, nothing about this film is easy because “Reservation Road” splits us right down the center, forces us t0 see humanity in the criminal (a divorced dad afraid to lose partial custody of his son), demons in the wronged man (whose grief takes him to an ugly place). To identify with one man is to identify with the other. Phoenix and Ruffalo’s gut-wrenching performances ensure this much.

Oh, and speaking of the performances: Many argue that the faceoff of 2007 was DiCaprio/Damon in “The Departed.” Hardly. What Phoenix and Ruffalo do in “Reservation Road” lays waste to that claim. These two pour themselves into roles that require a frightening amount of emotional energy. Phoenix, who specializes in surly intensity, shows how close resignation can be to blind rage. He takes Ethan’s sadness to a place no one can touch, not even his wife (Connelly, who’s more nakedly emotional than ever). “How do I get you back?” she asks. Damned if Ethan knows, either, and Phoenix makes this internal confusion hard to watch but impossible to ignore. Unglued, too, is Ruffalo’s Dwight, whose decision to leave the scene sticks in his subconscious like a hunting knife in the gut. He can’t shake the guilt. Credit must go to Ruffalo, one of the finest actors out there, for not reducing Dwight to weepy, drunken heap. Ruffalo is too smart, too intuitive an actor to make that mistake. Instead he gives us a man who is slowly unravelling, who knows more with each day that he did much more than kill a child: he killed himself.

And so “Reservation Road” leave us with a whole mess of unanswered questions. Dwight takes a life, reacts badly and suffers dearly for it. But does he suffer enough? Can he ever suffer enough? Does he deserve to die? Would his death give Ethan the kind of closure he wants and needs? Don’t expect an eleventh-hour hug, a Kleenex or a cheat sheet. “Reservation Road” offers no comfort and no answers … which, in an odd way, makes the film something of a miracle. 

Grade: A-

Review: “Spun” (2002)

SpunJonas Åkerlund’s frenetic “Spun” isn’t so much a movie as a series of disconnected scenes that deliver a Blitzkrieg-style assault on the senses. How fitting, since crystal meth is hardly a subtle drug. It bludgeons reality and lets illusion, paranoia and delusion run amock. Åkerlund knows this, and soon he’s made flag-waving believers of us, too.

How does he do it? Well, he creates a what must be called the quintessential meth experience and peoples it with characters who have lost interest in anything but meth — snorting it, shooting it, looking for more so they can snort or shoot it. At the heart of “Spun” is dealer/hard-core tweaker Spider Mike (John Leguizamo), who shares an apartment with his girlfriend Cookie (Mena Suvari). Meth, it becomes clear, is the only thing they have in common. Also in the mix is Ross (Jason Schwartzman), Spider Mike’s best customer, who might look like the nice, average guy at the Y if he wasn’t all twitchy and squirmy from crank withdrawals. Mike, Cookie and Ross owe their habit to The Cook (the unassailably cool Mickey Rourke), meth cooker extraordinaire who feeds his whiny girlfriend Nikki (a frighteningly gaunt Brittany Murphy) meth to keep her out of his way while he diddles strippers.

Åkerlund directs all these stories with a kind of intense, hyperactive energy that makes “Spun” feel as, well, twitchy as its characters. There are lightning-quick cuts, rapid camera work and jittery scenes (including one involving more of Mena Suvari’s bathroom habits than anyone — even her most devoted fans — wanted to know) that give us the feel of a meth binge. There’s an undercurrent of comedy, particularly involving The Cook’s perpetual condescension for Nikki and Spider Mike and Cookie’s constant feuding. But the humor is edged with a desperation that’s just plain scary. Nowhere is that more evident than a scene where Ross leaves a kindly hooker (why are they always kindly in movies?) tethered to his bed to go on a meth run … and doesn’t come back for days. Schwartzman plays this for comedy, but his utter lack of concern for anyone or anything other than meth, his disconnect from reality, is bone-chilling.

In fact, it’s Ross who hits us the hardest. Leguizamo is comical with his monkey-like energy; Suvari’s barely concealed hatred for her boyfriend/dealer draws a few laughs; Rourke’s air of complete calm and disdain toward Nikki is marvelous. These characters are a little left of center, a little funny, sure, but they’re hardly the meat of the story (and despite all the MTV-esque camera stylings and jerky humor, there is meat). Schwartzman makes us feel every bruise and scrape Ross got on his way to the bottom. We hear messages go unanswered on his machine, and we intuit how he’s ignored and abused and neglected a laundry list of people, including his ex-girlfriend Amy (Charlotte Ayanna). By the time he connects with Nikki and becomes a driver for The Cook, he’s a goner, too much in love with meth to notice or vaguely care about anyone else who isn’t. Murphy does commendable work in making Nikki a sympathetic character, an ordinary person who escaped her ordinary problems through drugs. She could be anyone. Ross could be anyone. Under the right set of bad circumstances, they could be us.

That’s not to say that “Spun” can be called a deep or meaningful film, or even a film in the strictest sense of the term. It’s more of a kinetic, hyper-stylized, arty but not entirely unfeeling snapshot of how drugs change people, and not for the better. What truth could be more simple, and more powerful, than that?

Grade: B-

Real-life movie moment

The movie: “The Big Lebowski” (1998); dir. by Joel and Ethan Coen; starring Jeff Bridges, John Goodman, Steve Buscemi, Julianne Moore

The moment: My glasses have disappeared.

The correlation: I loved those glasses. They really tied my face together.

A case for Christian Bale

Wait ... is that ... is that a ... is that a SMILE? On Christian Bale's FACE?

Wait ... is that ... is that a ... is that a SMILE? On Christian Bale's FACE?

There comes a time in a reviewer’s life when she (this is my story, so the reviewer has girl parts) must defend the honor of a very fine actor who has, in recent times, made several not very fine movies. Or seems to have grown an ego large enough to consume Amy Winehouse’s beehive with a single dainty princess bite.

To no one’s surprise … that actor is Christian Bale.

Of late, several friends (and, OK, me) have mentioned that the post-“Batman” Bale bears precious little resemblance to the actor who wowed us with intense performances in movies of every genre, from odd, disturbing arthouse to coming-of-age drama to nihilistic horror. Whatever magic Bale had, whatever innate ability to dissolve completely into a character and eliminate all traces of self, he’s starting to lose it. He’s certainly never been a whimsical actor, but these days he seems to approach every role the way Idi Amin approached dissenters. And Bale’s just about that subtle, too.

Despite this turn of events, I want to believe that Bale isn’t through yet, that he didn’t let “Batman” fame ruin him for acting forever. Why, you wonder, would I keep hoping when there’s so much evidence suggesting that he is, well, a complete jackass? One: The cynic inside hasn’t managed to kill the dreamer … just duct-taped her and stashed her in the nearest closet. And two: Bale has a history too full of daring, innovative or just plain commendable performances that suggest there’s enough talent to beat down that ego.

So now I present the facts:

  • “El Maquinista” — Every list of great Christian Bale performances must be topped with his work in “The Machinist.” It counts as a stunning physical transformation because Bale did Matt Damon’s gaunt smackhead in “Courage Under Fire” one better. Bale lost a frightening amount of weight to play tortured insomniac Trevor Reznik, so much that you fear for the actor’s own safety. It’s an extreme, brave performance, and that’s what makes it so haunting and memorable.
  • “American Psycho” — Bale might not have been the first choice to play superficial, amoral serial killer Patrick Bateman, but he was the best. As buff as his “Machinist” character was skeletal, he manages to evoke wit, charm underlined by subtle menace as a murderer who takes lives for no other reason than to curb his boredome. Compelling, scary stuff.
  • “Little Women” — Anyone who believes Bale came out of the womb with a grim frown on that chiseled face need only look back to 1994, where he played the spritely, witty, delightful Laurie in Gillian Armstrong’s “Little Women.” Fifteen years later, his heartfelt speech to Jo March still makes my heart turn into a mushy, mushy bowl of Cornflakes.
  • “Harsh Times” — Bale, much like Ray Liotta, possesses just enough menace to make him seem a hair-trigger from cheerfully choking (or worse) the next person who steps in his path. He tapped into that bubbling inner rage pit to play Jim, an ex-Army ranger discharged for mysterious reasons. PTSD turns him into violent, delusional free agent, but Bale makes him into someone who seems human despite his seemingly inhuman rage.
  • “The Prestige” — Here is a movie that I love for many reasons, and the main one is Christian Bale as Alfred Borden, a magician with loads of raw talent but (surprise!) little flash and almost no skills. But Bale had a gleam in his eye, a slight spring in his step that suggested he was having a bit more fun with this part, crafted in part by Christopher Nolan. Oh, Chris, can’t you coax Fun Bale out again?
  • “3:10 to Yuma” — I can’t quite resist a film (especially a Western) where the hero (Bale) is far more discouraged and damaged than the villain. Enter Bale as Dan Evans, a got-nothing-left-to-lose man who can’t even farm his land, much less keep the respect of his wife or teenage son. There’s a hint of sly humor in his verbal sparring matches with Russell Crowe that suggests Bale does have a lighter side … buried under all those layers of dark twistiness.

Perhaps there is hope for Christian Bale yet, though his next projects — including a pic about boxer “Irish” Micky Ward, a pairing with Mark Wahlberg for 2011’s “Prisoners” and more movies for the “Terminator” and “Batman” sagas — hardly suggest he’s lightening up. Maybe he can wise up to the fact that it’s possible to play a serious character without losing his sense of humor.

At the very least, he could take Heath Ledger’s advice and, every other day or so, look in the mirror and ask himself: “Why so serious?” ‘Cause chances are, Mr. Bale, if you’re not having the slightest bit of fun, neither are we.

Romeo, Romeo, text me wherefore thou art

YouTube is the supreme time waster (and you thought it was Wikipedia), but on occasion I stumble upon a video containing flashes of brilliance that manage to provoke thought and uproarious laughter. Enjoy … and, if you’re feeling chatty, suggest other movies you’d like to see infiltrated by the evil necessity that is cell phone technology.

And so I was inspired to come up with a few of my own suggestions:

  • “Titanic” — What a world of difference one text from Jack to Rose could have made: “My husband’s an ass. U r young + hot. Let’s steal a lifeboat.”
  • “Lord of the Rings” — One phone call from Sam to Frodo containing seven simple words could have saved us all so, so much suffering. And those seven words are: “F*ck the ring, Frodo. I love you.”
  • “Sleeping with the Enemy” — If only someone at the Y could have given Laura fair warning with a “Your husband knows you can swim!,” she might have ditched small-town America for Brazil, where people really disappear every day, and sometimes right out of their cars at stoplights.
  • “Citizen Kane” — Worker to reporter Jerry Thompson: “Rosebud’s his sled. I know; we just torched it.”
  • “Vanilla Sky” — This one’s a little more clean-cut than the others: It merely involves me reading the proposed plot and phoning Cameron Crowe with this plea: “I will give you my first-born child if you do not make this movie.”
  • “Atonement” — A distraught, saucer-eyed Briony  phones Mum to deliver a crucial message: “Robbie didn’t rape Cecilia. They just had sex. But you may want to wipe off the desk … and the bookshelves … before you touch them again.”