A slightly lighter than usual end of week movie news dump

Well, at least I hope can get this done nice and quick because I’m really looking forward to making a Manhattan very soon. Forgive me if I miss something huge.

* As per Nikki Finke, the early box office returns for “Inception” are looking good.

* Though I was a big fan of “The West Wing” while he worked on it, my one complaint with Aaron Sorkin’s abandoned TV classic was that it was a bit rosy in how it viewed politics and politicians. Currently flying high as the screenwriter of the upcoming docudramas, “The Social Network” and “Moneyball,” he was almost the Gene Roddenberry of political drama in imagining a relatively ideal world that could be, but probably never would be. I don’t think excess positivity is going to be an issue in his movie directorial debut, as he’ll be covering the John Edwards mega-debacle. To think I contemplated voting for/volunteering for the egocentric jerkwad who, had he succeeded, would have sunk a party and a nation on the altar of his ego.

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* I don’t think I’ll really know what I think of Ryan Reynolds’ CGI-aided Green Lantern costume until I see it in the movie.

* Things have been hopping over at our sister site, Bullz-Eye.com. Earlier in the week Will Harris, with a little assistance from one or two other people who will remain nameless, took a look at 25 cinematic swan songs from film acting greats. Very cool (except for seven of them, which I’m unable to judge). Also, today, Will had a chat with his friend and rising young star, Dileep Rao, currently being seen in “Inception.”

* There may be no justice in the world, but Roman Polanski’s next movie is already being prepped, and it sounds good. It’s the film version of the London/Broadway hit play “God of Carnage.” Being as it’s a dark comedy/drama, it sounds right up Polanski’s alley. Also, Polanski’s 1994 film version of Ariel Dorfman’s “Death and the Maiden” was one of the most seamless stage-to-film translations I’ve ever seen.

* My high school history teacher, who was also a saxophone playing jazz fan on the side, always used to say that of all the rock music figures, the one he was sure wouldn’t last beyond another couple of decades in terms of popularity was Janis Joplin. Her super-gritty style was just too of the late sixties moment, he theorized. Indeed, she seems to be one of the less popular of the rock superstars of that era today. Well, director Fernando Meirelles of “City of God” and Amy Adams — a top-flight actress who is way cute to be playing the weather-worn Joplin  — will be hoping to disprove that theory with a new biopic.

* Okay, so we’ve got “Pride and Prejudice and Zombies” so why not Cain and Abel with Vampires (and Will Smith)?

* I like the sound of this: Stanley Tucci, who obviously gets along very well with Meryl Streep, will direct her and Tina Fey in a mother daughter comedy.

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* The Playlist apparently wants to make me happy. First, they report that the long-awaited DVD of the pre-prepared exploitation double-bill, “Grindhouse,” as it was originally presented in theaters is coming this October. Second, Joseph Gordon-Levitt is apparently planning to appear in some kind of a musical. Interesting.

I’m just annoyed that I missed his rendition of the Donald O’Connor “Make ‘Em Laugh” number from “Singin’ in the Rain” on SNL last year and it’s gone from Hulu for some reason. Moment of rank and utterly baseless speculation here: Could a team-up with fellow three-namer Neil Patrick Harris be in the cards? “Dr. Horrible and Dr. Horribler” perhaps? Forget I said that.

  

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Celluloid Heroes: Eight Musicals of the 21st Century

A funny thing happened this decade — the once dying genre of live-action movie musicals seems to have returned to the movie repertoire. As the decade closes, I can think of exactly two major westerns, but I keep remembering musicals that I should consider for this piece (including the mostly well-regarded French musical “Love Songs,” which I forgot to see before writing this, je suis désolé).

As a lifelong fan and a nearly lifelong tough critic of musicals, I love most of these films. However, this list is not so much a traditional “best of” and I’ve included one choice I definitely don’t like. (It won’t be hard to guess which.) These are musicals that I think contributed to the development of this polarizing and hard to pull off genre. They don’t hark back to times gone by or try to recapture a past glory that will never return, but actually take us into the future. That’s important now that musicals seem to have a future.

“Dancer in the Dark” (2000)

Earlier this year, the brilliant but often irritating Danish director Lars von Trier shocked hard-to-shock European festival audiences with graphic sexual violence in “Antichrist.” Back in 2000, all he needed to divide audiences was some really intense melodrama and an approach to making dark musicals partially borrowed from TV creator Dennis Potter (“Pennies from Heaven,” “The Singing Detective”).

Featuring a literally once-in-a-lifetime lead performance by singer-songwriter Björk as a young mother ready to sacrifice everything to save her son’s failing eyesight, “Dancer in the Dark” is maybe the most emotionally potent story of parental love I’ve ever seen. As a musical, it’s strange and arresting.

Like the Potter television shows and movies and “Chicago,” further down the list, the musical numbers take place in the mind of the lead character. In this case, however, it is particularly poignant as our heroine is a fan of musicals who, though she is gradually going blind, is attempting to appear in a community theater production of “The Sound of Music.” Below, she musically confesses her situation to a smitten Peter Stormare (yes, the guy from “Fargo”). Lumberjacks or not, “Seven Brides for Seven Brothers” sure seems like a long time ago.

Moulin Rouge” (2001)
As the non-musical Pixar films became the dominant template for animation and the musical form lost its last apparent movie bastion, big studios began to experiment with musicals starring humans. Unfortunately for me, the first and still one of the most popular of this decade’s high profile film musicals was Baz Luhrmann’s beautifully shot, amazingly designed, dull-witted, and over-edited “Moulin Rouge.”

Yes, this musical fan is not a fan of the musical that’s been credited with resurrecting the genre. Why? A couple of sequences work, but on the whole I expect the funny parts of a movie to make me laugh and, even more important, I like to see the movies I’m seeing. As far as I can tell, Luhrmann simply doesn’t have the confidence in this film to allow us time to view the arresting images he’s worked so hard to craft, nor does he permit time to actually see the hard work his dancers and actors put in. Editor Jil Bilcock is expected to do all the performing instead.

As for what Luhrmann and his arrangers did with the various classic songs they threw into a musical Cuisinart, the less I say about it the better. At the risk of sounding like a fogey (or a member of an 18th century Austrian court), too many notes. Way, way, way, too many notes. See if you disagree.

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TV in the 2000s: The Decade in Whedonism – 10 Small Screen Masterpieces from Joss Whedon

Like an awful lot of film and TV geeks, and just plain geeks, I’m a pretty big Joss Whedon fan. In fact, my devotion to his unique blend of fantasy and science fiction melodrama, sometimes arch old-school movie-style witty dialogue blended with Marvel comics repartee, strong characterization, and often somewhat silly plots has at times gotten almost embarrassing. A few years back some of my very adult friends were suggesting in concerned tones that I should really marry the man if I love him so much.

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More recently, I thought my fandom was under relative control. But now, I’ve been asked my opinion on the ten best examples of small-screen work in this decade from the creator and guiding force of “Angel,” “Firefly,” the already canceled “Dollhouse,” and, of course, “Buffy, the Vampire Slayer.” I only have to be thankful for the fact that first four seasons of “Buffy,” which contain most of that show’s greatest episodes, are disqualified because they appeared on TV sets before 2000. We take our mercies where we find them. (And, yes, if you’re about to catch up with these on DVD, there are a fair number of spoilers below for the various series, though I’ve tried to keep a few secrets.) One word of warning: my relative ranking of these shows is a matter of mood and borders on the random. In other words — don’t hold me to these choices!

Out of competition:

BTVS, “The Body” (“Buffy, the Vampire Slayer”) – This episode usually ranks extremely high when people make these kind of lists. Entertainment Weekly named it as pretty much the best thing Joss Whedon has ever done and maybe the best TV thing ever. The truth of the matter is that, yes, the episode where Buffy Summers (Sarah Michelle Geller) discovers the already cold body of her mother, Joyce (Kristine Sutherland, a wonderful asset to the show for the five previous years), dead from an entirely natural brain tumor, was probably one of the most remarkable episodes of television ever shown, and probably the only thing I’ve seen that comes close to capturing the essence of what it feels like when someone dies unexpectedly. The problem was, I didn’t find it depressing; I found it real. I didn’t feel any more like repeating the experience than I would the death of an actual loved one.

Whedon – who wrote and directed the episode himself – deserves all the credit in the world for the brave choices he made, including shooting the episode in close to “real time” and not using any music. If I have one complaint with Whedon, it’s his tendency to close emotional episodes with, dare I say it, somewhat drippy montages. His choice to eliminate music from the kind of “very special” show where other creators would lay in with three or four montages of Joyce frolicking in the woods or what have you, shows Whedon is, at heart, an outstanding filmmaker. I’ve never had a problem with his much-noted tendency to kill off sympathetic and/or popular characters. It might anger some fans, but especially if you’re dealing with inherently violent material, there’s something morally wrong about not dealing with the fact that good people are just as mortal as bad people. Still, I don’t enjoy watching this episode. If this were a movie, maybe I’d be more in awe or eager for profundity. However, if I’m going to be honest, I can’t call “The Body” a favorite and I can’t be sure it’s one of the “best.”

#10, Shiny Happy People (“Angel”) – Fans of the spin-off about Buffy’s ex, the vampire-with-a-soul detective (David Boreanaz), and various assembled demon-hunters and occasionally friendly demons, will be scratching their heads at this choice. It’s an unpopular episode from a widely and justly derided storyline involving a very weird affair between Angel’s unbalanced super-powered teenage son from another dimension, Connor (Vincent Kartheiser, now of “Mad Men“), and a suddenly evil Cordelia (Charisma Carpenter), a former high school mean girl turned lovably complex grown-up foil for her vampire boss. And, yeah, it was a little freaky for Cordy to give birth to a fully grown creature called Jasmine.

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However, as played by the wondrous Gina Torres of the then recently-canceled “Firefly,” Jasmine was freaky in a good way. A being whose god-like ability to create an instant sense of peace, happiness, and complete obedience, is somewhat set off by the fact that she’s actually a deformed and decaying, if not entirely evil, monster who must consume people to live, she was every charismatic leader and every great screen beauty rolled into one monstrous ball. More than anything else, “Shiny Happy People” reminded me of Don Siegel’s 1956 film verson of “Invasion of the Body Snatchers.” It was another believable demonstration of how we humans are only too willing to surrender our our humanity to the first apparently completely beauteous and 100% wise being who comes along. You know, like Oprah, only less powerful.

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