Movie news and commentary…lots of it: “The Hobbit” is cast but <sigh> Mel Gibson exists and must be dealt with, somehow (updated)

Tonight’s box office preview has been moved to tomorrow because of a couple of a films news items that just can’t quite wait. The first can be dispensed with in a second. Casting has been announced on “The Hobbit,” short, snub-nosed and talented Martin Freeman will face his inevitable hobbity destiny as Bilbo Baggins, as Peter Jackson again casts a bunch of people I’ve mostly never heard of in smaller roles who’ll probably all be great.

And then there’s this news of Mel Gibson being let go from “The Hangover 2 just a day after it was announced he’d been hired to play a supporting role. Oy.

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A roundtable chat with director Stephen Frears of “Tamara Drewe”

Stephen Frears on location for Anyone who thinks that the only interesting directors are the ones with obvious personal styles needs to take a long, hard long at the filmography of Stephen Frears. Something of a contemporary, English throwback to such versatile craftsmen of pre-auteur theory Hollywood as William Wyler, George Stevens, Robert Wise, and Michael Curtiz, the Cambridge-educated Frears began his career neck deep in the English New Wave cinema of the 1960s as an assistant director on Karel Riesz’s “Morgan!,” and Lindsay Anderson’s 1968 surreal youth revolt drama, “If…” Later moving on to directing for the BBC, his second theatrical feature, 1984’s “The Hit,” was mostly ignored despite an all-star cast, but did gain a cult following of which I am a proud member. Frears’ follow up collaboration with writer Hanif Kureishi, a then-bold cross-racial same-sex romance, “My Beautiful Laundrette,” co-starred a young Daniel Day Lewis and got more immediate results. It was a hit in arthouses on both sides of the Atlantic and helped make Lewis a star; it also paved the way for Frears’ smashing mainstream Hollywood debut, 1988’s Oscar-winning “Dangerous Liaisons.”

Since then, Frears has enjoyed success both here in the U.S. and at home in England with numerous BAFTAs and films as diverse as “High Fidelity” and “The Grifters” — for which he was nominated for an Oscar — as well as the ultra-English “The Queen” and “Mrs. Henderson Presents.” He’s dealt with modern-day cowboys (1998’s “The Hi-Lo Country”), English fascism (2000’s “Liam”), the monarchy (2006’s “The Queen”), and the illegal trade of human organs (2002’s “Dirty Pretty Things”). When George Clooney decided he wanted to try a live television remake of “Fail Safe” back in 2000, Frears handled the chore to no shortage of acclaim.

Frear’s latest, “Tamara Drewe,” has fared reasonably well with critics on the whole, though not so much with this particular longtime admirer. An adaptation of a graphic novel originally serialized in England’s The Guardian by cartoonist and children’s book author Posy Simmonds, the tale is a comic, modern-day homage to Thomas Hardy’s tragic 1874 novel, Far From the Madding Crowd starring Gemma Arterton as a formerly large nosed “ugly duckling” whose swannish post-operative return to her family’s estate sparks chaos at a writer’s retreat in ultra-picturesque rural England.

Apparently taking the casualness of California fully to heart, the 69-year-old Frears, who bears some resemblance to the late Rodney Dangerfield, arrived unshaven and in a t-shirt that had seen better days. If the “just rolled out of bed” look was disconcerting, however, we needn’t have worried. Frears was in good spirits and clearly enjoys sharing his views with the press.

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I’ve got those midweek movie news blues

Leonardo DiCaprio* It’s not really new news and I even posted about it before, but Mike Fleming has returned to the possibility that Leonardo DiCaprio may eventually be undertaking the role of John D. MacDonald’s great gumshoe, Travis McGee. However, there’s more this time around. If DiCaprio strikes a lot of us as a counter-intuitive pick for the laid-back, heroic tough guy, the choice of possible director seems even stranger: Oliver Stone. Stone’s often hyperactive style simply strikes me as wrong, unless he can turn himself into Howard Hawks or Clint Eastwood or someone more in that vein.

Still, my discomfort is nothing compared to Drew McWeeney, who is obviously a huge, huge fan of the books and who read a script that he was none too fond of — though it’s been so long since I’ve read the books that I’m so sure why introducing McGee on a surfboard is all that terrible. However, I do remember McGee as being more a fishing-with-his-buddy-Meyer-while sipping-whiskey kind of a guy. By the way, if they don’t cast Paul Giamatti as Meyer, the world just doesn’t really make any sense.

* If some people are made nauseous by the camera work in the Bourne movies, how many more will be made ill if the approach is set in some guy’s bloodstream and in James Cameron-style immersive 3-D? It appears we may be finding out because director Paul Greengrass, whose high-budgetted “Green Zone” has been a commercial and critical disappointment, is “in talks” to be the director on the Cameron-produced 3-D remake of “Fantastic Voyage.” I’m thinking about buying shares in whoever manufactures Dramamine.

* Screenwriters, playwrights, aspiring TV scribes — are you ready for Script Frenzy? I just found out about it. Remember, there are only thirty days in April and the goal is 100 pages.

* Big news for this movie mad, West L.A. bred Bruin boy. Regency chain has purchased the endangered, historic twin single-screen movie theaters that anchor UCLA-adjacent Westwood Village, the appropriately named Fox Village and Bruin theaters. The chain recently let go of an important neighborhood theater a couple of miles east which was turned into a triplex back in the eighties or early nineties, the Fairfax, which anchors the traditionally Jewish neighborhood that is home to Canter’s Deli. Win a few, lose a few, I guess.

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http://www.gq.com/entertainment/celebrities/201001/william-shatner-captain-kirk-interview?printable=true

* GQ’s Andrew Corsello has a very cool piece up about William Shatner and his battles with irony. But if anyone out there has seen him in Roger Corman’s sole non-genre film, “The Intruder,” they know there was a time when he was a very good actor who could it keep it fairly simple, even playing a villainous antihero, back in 1962.

* I’m a little late on this, but Steven Spielberg absolutely does not, repeat, does not, have Asperger’s Syndrome. In other news, I can now announce that I am 100% free of ovarian cancer.

* Bryan Cranston, star of AMC’s “Breaking Bad” and also the upcoming “John Carter of Mars” is a popular guy around these parts. He’s currently “eying” a part in “Larry Crowne,” the upcoming Tom Hanks starring/directed by dramedy co-starring Julia Roberts and written with Nia Vardalos of “My Big Fat Greek Wedding.” The character in question is  Roberts’ husband, whose a blogger who spends way too much time “looking at” porn. I wouldn’t know anything about that.

  

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The Pacific war in the movies, pt. 2

Continuing our look at film about the allied war against Imperial Japan inspired by “The Pacific“, which debuts on HBO Sunday night, we’ll start with a movie that isn’t as well known today as you might think considering that it’s directed by Howard Hawks one of the most rousing of the wartime-era propaganda/action films.

Did that seem a bit familiar? If so, it could be that “Air Force” is often cited as a major inspiration for “Star Wars” and that briefing scene certainly seems like a tell to me. Still, I’d probably argue that “Air Force” is — cultural/geek impact aside — the far better film objectively.  Hawks had a very personal connection with aviation, the topic of one of three or four greatest works, “Only Angels Have Wings” and no one in his time was better at expressing the visceral thrill and danger of flight. The film also benefits from a screenplay written by one of the greatest of classic Hollywood-era writers, Dudley Nichols (“Stagecoach,” “Bringing Up Baby“) with an uncredited assist from William Faulkner and two lesser known scribes,

So why isn’t “Air Force” as well known as the two classics I discussed yesterday?  Well, John Wayne‘s not in it, so there’s that. No, this film was made in the throes of the deep U.S. anger created by the Japanese sneak attack on Pearl Harbor, the kind of anger we would not see again in the U.S. until September 11 of 2001, and there are some disturbing, though historically understandable, moments in the film that might seem both callous and racist to modern audience because they kind of are. Still, “Air Force” remains one of the best films of its type from an era when making a war film that was also kind of fun  didn’t seem as borderline obscene as it does in our post “Saving Private Ryan”-era.

But that’s not to say that Hollywood never tried to make an slam-bang action-oriented World War II film set in the Pacific again. They just did it with more bloat in 1976.

Toshiro Mifune, the only Japanese film star to really become a household name to American audiences, gets a mention here. Now, however, the great Japanese-American James Shigeta. Shigeta is probably the equal of Mifune in terms of acting talent and presence but being an American of Asian ancestry seems to severely limit your acting possibilities somewhat no matter how talented and charismatic you are, even today — just ask Harold John Cho. Shigeta did get to play a male romantic lead in an actual tough-guy film in his first film and one kind of fun/silly/embarrassing musical, and that was it. You don’t get to be an actor of Mifune’s stature by being the token Asian in Elvis Presley movies.

  

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Friday night movie news dump

Regulars might have noticed a bit less movie news this week. Don’t worry, I won’t try to cover everything that happened in movieland this week tonight. Unfortunately, I have to start with three notable deaths.

* The saddest for me personally, and perhaps for some of you horror fans out there, is the most recent. Dan O’Bannon has died from Crohn’s Disease at age 63. Best known for the horror-comedy hit, “The Return of the Living Dead,” and for writing the screenplay for “Alien,” O’Bannon emerged out of U.S.C.’s film school with his friend, John Carpenter and together they collaborated on an odd science fiction comedy called “Dark Star.” While few remember that film, it set them both on a pretty interesting path.

When I was in the middle of high school and at the height of my geekness  (three terms as president of the Venice High science fiction club!), I actually met O’Bannon in some odd circumstances at a crisis point in his career. Buy me a drink and I’ll tell you the story, but suffice it to say he seemed like a good guy and he was clearly something of a minor genius. He’ll be very much missed.

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* Roy Disney, the nephew of Walt Disney and the son of Roy O. Disney, also passed on at age 79. The younger Disney emerged as a king-maker and king-breaker of sorts, launching insurgent movements that wound up putting Michael Eisner in charge of the studio in 1984 and then deposing him in 2004.

* Finally, if you’re a former film student like myself you’ve probably had to read some of the work of famed academic critic and scholar Robin Wood, who was so respected that almost no one noticed when serious film-criticism aficionado Joss Whedon named a supercool cool high school principal/cum monster-fighter after him on “Buffy.” (How could anyone namecheck him on a mere TV show? It had to be a coincidence.) One of the first critics to approach genre films seriously, he is famous for works on Alfred Hitchcock and Howard Hawks, among many others. He has passed on at age 78, and the always interesting Glenn Kenny has a remembrance.

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