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Blu-Ray Round-Up: Imperialists and their Semitic Subjects Embroiled in Deadly Struggle — That’s Entertainment!

Today we’re talking about three deluxe Blu-Ray releases of three highly notable films, each hugely important and influential in their own way. Coincidentally, each film also deals with what happens when European powers decide they’d really like to control a piece of the Islamic and/or Judaic world.

* “Ben Hur”– I finally caught up with this most popular of religious epics many moons ago at the Cinerama Dome in Hollywood, where it was introduced by it’s then elderly but still fairly hale star, Charlton Heston. Heston might have still been in good shape in the late 1990s or early 2000s, but the 35mm print that was shown on the giant screen, theoretically the best then available, was washed out and wan.

That disappointment is now a thing of the past with a restoration made frame-by-frame from the original 65mm negative that was so painstaking this “50th Anniversary” edition of the 1959 film actually arrives 52 years after the original “Ben Hur” release. At last, the spectacle looks as spectacular as a spectacle should, even if it’s now on relatively small home screens. (My 42 incher is by far the biggest TV I’ve ever had, but it’s obviously not the Cinerama Dome.)

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A roundtable chat with producers Irwin and David Winkler of “The Mechanic”

Irwin and David WinklerHealthy father and son relationships are certainly more the exception than the rule at the movies. Even so, the murderous biological and surrogate father and son pairings in the original film “The Mechanic” and its action-packed update with Jason Statham and Ben Foster, are unusually problematic. It’s a tale, after all, about a junior hit-man learning from an older paid killer who has, in turn, killed the younger killer’s dad.

That, of course has pretty much nothing to do with two of the new version’s real-life father and son producers, Irwin and David Winkler. For the remake of the 1971 actioner, the pair have teamed up with another parent-and-offspring team, Irwin Winkler’s long-time producing partner, Bill Chartoff and his son, Robert. (For the record, there are a total of ten producers and five executive producers credited on the film.) Both individually and with Bill Chartoff, the elder Winkler has been involved with a remarkable number of good movies and a few genuine classics, starting with Sydney Pollack’s pitch-black Oscar winner, “They Shoot Horses, Don’t They?” and also including two of Martin Scorsese‘s signature works, “Raging Bull” and “Goodfellas.” Winkler and Chartoff also, of course, produced “The Mechanic,” the first time around when it was as much of a chilling look at sociopathy as it was an action flick.

Like any great producer, Irwin Winkler has had his share of interesting financial failures.  There was the ultra-culty early John Boorman film, “Leo the Last” and Martin Scorsese’s big budget 1977 disappointment “New York, New York.” Fortunately, there was also the occasional modest but high quality success like Bertrand Tavernier’s great 1986 love letter to jazz and jazz fandom, “‘Round Midnight.” He and Bill Chartoff were also key players in one of the most enduring franchises in film history, the one that started with a low-budget boxing drama called “Rocky.” Since 1991′s “Guilty by Suspicion,” Winkler has also occasionally directed. His most recent films include the musical Cole Porter biopic, “De-Lovely,” and the Iraq war drama “Home of the Brave,” which received a speedy burial.

For his part, son David Winkler has worked on a number of television movies as well as with his father on 2006′s “Rocky Balboa.” He also directed the 1998 drama, “Finding Graceland” starring Harvey Keitel.

I was personally anxious to talk to Winklers during a recent L.A. press junket for “The Mechanic” because of an oddball “only in L.A.” family anecdote. I was nevertheless beaten to the punch by an Italian reporter with a rather distinctive interviewing style who tended to dominate the discussion.

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They’re singing my song

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It’s no secret around these parts that I love a good musical. Emphasis on both the “good” and the “musical” part. If you let me, I’ll give you an hour long dissertation on why John Cameron Mitchell’s “Hedvig and the Angry Inch” is way better than “The Sound of Music” which is, however, way better than Pauline Kael said it was and why Rogers & Hart songs are much better than Rogers & Hammerstein songs but that I still like “The King and I” and, yes, “Flower Drum Song.” Then, we’ll move on to MGM and the Freed Unit.

In fact, coincidentally, my last post here last night was also about musicals. I’m also actually angry at the place where I got the picture  from above (it’s linked) because it’s from a “10 Musicals That Don’t Suck Piece” which fails to include any movies older than “The Rocky Horror Picture Show” and therefore implies that all musicals made prior to 1974 suck, especially “West Side Story.” So “The Bandwagon” and “Singin’ in the Rain” suck also, I guess. That really sucks.

So, if there was one thing possible to distract me from the current almost-everyone-is-somewhat-or-very-or-incredibly-wrong clusterfrack in our nation’s politics at the moment (and I’m incredibly glad I’m not a political blogger these days), it has arrived. The Hollywood Reporter (via Monika Bartyzel) reports that the “Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs” duo, Phil Lord and Chris Miller, are in negotiations to direct a project I’d either never heard of before or forgot all about, “Bob: The Musical.” The music will be the very talented composer Marc Shaiman, whose fingerprints are on countless film scores and everything from “Hairspray” to “South Park: Bigger, Longer, and Uncut.”

If you’re wondering what the big deal is and you’re not one of my three known regular readers (for some mysterious reason, all of their initials are “R.R.” — okay, two of them are brothers, so there’s that), look up at those tiny red letters near the title of this post and that’s all you’ll need to know. All I’m saying is, assuming this ever gets made, it’d better be good. Yes, I know “Bob” is a common name, but since I already have to live with “What About Bob?,” this better be at least as good as that decent comedy was. Good or bad, I’m going to have to deal with jokes about it until I die.

And now a great moment from my favorite previously made Bob-themed musical film.

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It’s your extremely abbreviated end of the week movie news dump

I’ve got just a little less than an hour to write this up tonight, but let’s see how much we can get through.

* RIP Jill Clayburgh. I’ll have more in remembrance of this very fine actress tomorrow. She passed on from chronic lymphocytic leukemia, an illness she’d been dealing with for more than 20 years.

* This makes me feel a bit old since I remember him before he was President of the United States in “The West Wing” and even before he was a very bad possible future U.S. President in “The Dead Zone,” Martin Sheen will be Peter Parker’s oh-so-doomed old Uncle Ben in the Marc Webb “Spiderman” reboot. Making me feel even a bit older, Sally Field is looking like a likelihood as Aunt May, who was always drawn by artists like Steve Ditko and John Romita as if she were about 99 years old. Of course, these days we mainly see her selling hawking Boniva for bone health, so I guess should just adjust to the new reality that Sister Bertrille (aka “The Flying Nun”)/Sybil/Norma Rae isn’t a baby anymore. And I really do like her. I really do.

* The very interesting, talented, and occasionally irritating (when he writes op-eds about with premises about the impact of movie violence I disagree with) Mike White has been offered the gauntlet of “Pride and Prejudice with Zombies” recently dropped by the equally interesting but more experienced David O. Russell. White is best known as a writer and actor. His most fiscally successful screenplay — in which he also acted — was the terrific “School of Rock.” In quirkier times, he starred in and wrote 2000′s “Chuck and Buck” as well as “The Good Girl.” This will be his second directorial outing, the first being…I don’t remember the name and you don’t either. It’s a bold and interesting choice, I will say that.

* A lot of people thought his “Hot Tub Time Machine” was kind of toxic (others thought it funny; I thought it not seen by me…I’ll get to it someday), so I guess it makes sense that Steve Pink’s next project will apparently be a remake of “The Toxic Avenger.” Gross-out franchise, here he comes.

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* Boy, that Lars von Trier is so f*cking suave.

* AFM, the American Film Market, has been going all week. It’s an event where lots of smaller films find distribution and foreign deals are made. Deadline has some interesting deals today. “The Giant Mechanical Man” might sound like one quirky rom-com too many, but any film with Jenna Fischer and Topher Grace in the lead has my attention. Starting up also is the AFI Film Festival, which I’ll be checking out some over the weekend and there may be some quickie off-the-cuff impressions of the movies there coming from there.

* And finally, I’ve been guilty of ignoring the MGM bankruptcy this week, and I’m writing this directly across the street from the Sony lot, the home of Leo the Lion in his prime and for many years past that. Anyhow, the Wall Street Journal summarizes the situation numerically. Reminding us that, adjusted for inflation, “Gone With the Wind has made $1.6 billion. On the other hand, the studio only had one movie in the top 50 this year. What was it? The aforementioned “Hot Tub Time Machine.”

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It’s your Yom Kippur Friday movie news dump

Yom Kippur is the holiday where one abstains from worldly pleasures of all kinds, including eating and drinking, and reflects on spiritual and moral values, atoning for one’s sins, and becoming a better person. In other words, just another day in Hollywood!

*  The big news right now is the bombshell, but not unexpected, admission to the New York Times by Casey Affleck that “I’m Still Here” is a fictional film. Moreover, Affleck still may not have come completely clean because he stated that David Letterman wasn’t in on the truth during the notorious interview with star/co-conspirator Joaquin Phoenix. Via Company Town, we learn that Letterman writer Bill Scheft is comparing what went on to Andy Kaufman stunts and even took credit for one of the lines.

Joaquin Phoenix in A lot of people apparently think that Affleck, perhaps more than Phoenix, has some atoning to do, including Anne Thompson. I guess I can understand her frustration at being manipulated and lied to, but ultimately, it’s only a movie and we in the show biz press have all the credibility of car salesmen. Also it is, after all, a movie. From everything I’ve heard about the film, the far greater sin would have been if it had actually been real.

* Orthodox Jewish-bred Israeli-Brit Sacha Baron Cohen seems to be well on his way to a Shana Tova (good year). He’ll be moving into the world of “serious” acting in a planned biopic about the late multitalented Queen singer/songwriter/pianist Freddie Mercury to be written by the exceedingly busy docu-drama specialist Peter Morgan. I’ve read some ethnic quibbles somewhere (sorry, lost the link) since Mercury’s family hailed from parts of Asia. It seems to me the physical resemblance tells the tale and is no more offensive than the multi-ethnic Asian-Caucasian-Native American Lou Diamond Phillips playing a Mexican-American teen in “Stand and Deliver,” despite having not a drop of Latino blood in his veins. All ethnicities are really ethnic mixes anyhow. I can’t count the number of times I assumed someone was Jewish only to find out they were actually a mix of other groups that just came out looking all Jewy or people who look Latino who are actually Eurasian, etc.

No one seems to know whether Cohen, who can sing a little, will sing his own part. Considering Mercury’s remarkable voice, I wouldn’t complain if they simply used the old recordings. If it was good enough for “The Jolson Story” it’s good enough for this.

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It’s a brand new week in the movie rumor mill

And there may be some actual news mixed in here. Maybe.

* The big story today is that a lot of people have sussed out the the 23rd James Bond movie is, according to the possibly not-so-super reliable UK tabloid “canned.” Obviously, the same fiscal black hole at the once mighty MGM that is screwing things up royally for “The Hobbit” is also at least delaying the latest entry in what has to be the longest-running franchise in movie history.

He may be a bit emotional, but it’s hard to disagree with the passion of Harry Knowles on this, while Kevin Jagernauth provides some necessary background to the story. I agree that it’s a bummer this is happening during the era of Daniel Craig. As far as I’m concerned, Craig is easily the best Bond since Connery.

Daniel Craig in Casino Royale

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“The Hobbit” needs a new director

So, I was trying to get some other stuff done during the long Memorial Day weekend and thinking I could take a break from constantly monitoring the news as surely nothing earth shattering would happen in the movie world over the three days. However, all it took was one quick look to find I was late to learn of the geek movie bombshell of all time, or at least this month.

Via Mike Fleming and Anne Thompson comes the following: it seems that MGM’s serious fiscal troubles have delayed things as long as cowriter-director Guillermo del Toro’s insanely busy career can stand. Therefore, despite the huge amount of preparation that’s already been done, he is stepping aside as director of the two-planned films of J.R.R. Tolkien’s “The Hobbit,” the “Lord of the Rings” follow-up inspired by the children’s novel that preceded the literary LOTR, later turned into the glorious three part epic directed by Peter Jackson.  Del Toro will, however, continue working on the screenplays for the upcoming films.

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Del Toro — one of my favorite filmmakers now working and, by all accounts and signs, a real stand-up guy — gave the bad news, alongside Peter Jackson, to those who care most, the devoted fans of the late author J.R.R. Tolkien, at theonering.net. It’s definitely being portrayed as the most amicable of semi-partings with both del Toro and Peter Jackson, the LOTR director who’s been overseeing the entire Tolkien project, chiming in. Here’s part of del Toro’s statement:

“After nearly two years of living, breathing and designing a world as rich as Tolkien’s Middle Earth, I must, with great regret, take leave from helming these wonderful pictures. I remain grateful to Peter, [co-writers] Fran [Walsh] and Philippa Boyens, New Line and Warner Brothers and to all my crew in New Zealand. I’ve been privileged to work in one of the greatest countries on earth with some of the best people ever in our craft and my life will be forever changed. The blessings have been plenty…Both as a co-writer and as a director, I wish the production nothing but the very best of luck and I will be first in line to see the finished product.”

Guessing about who the replacement director has already started. Early word is that it likely will not be the obvious choice, Peter Jackson, who it’s safe to say, has done enough for the Tolkien legacy — though Anne Thompson reports he told a New Zealand newspaper he would consider doing it if he had to “to protect Warner Brothers’ investment.” At this point, I’d say so many different things could happen it’s useless to speculate, but that won’t stop anyone.

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It’s your barely pre-Memorial Day weekend end of week movie news dump (updated)

And that’s only “pre” on the West coast. Anyhow, thing are going to get a lot less verbose from me over the next few days and I’m in a relatively laconic mood tonight, so enjoy the relative brevity to come.

*  “The Hobbit” remains in suspended animation because of MGM’s fiscal limbo, says Guillermo del Toro. Anne Thompson has some added details on the possible future of MGM, such as it is.

Johnny Depp in * “Alice in Wonderland” just crossed the $1 billion mark. Mike Fleming speculates that this might might make Johnny Depp — say it like Dana Carvey’s impression of Mickey Rooney now — the biggest star in the wooorld. If true, the questionable virtues of playing it artistically safe look ever more questionable.

* Interviews with remarkable men: Michael Caine and an extremely funny George Romero in Vanity Fair plugging his new “Survival of the Dead” which is a very limited release right now. Definitely read the Romero whose zombies, we must repeat, never ate brains and, since everyone else is doing it anyway, is working on his own zombie novel. And, yeah, someone is working on “Night of the Living Dead” musical for Broadway, but Romero’s smart enough to stay off of that particular gravy train.

* I’ve never seen them, and they’re not available on DVD, but the autobiographical dramas by Terrence Davies, “Distant Voices, Still Lives” and “The Long Day Closes” have an incredible reputation among critics and others. Davies is coming back with an adaptation of a play by Terrence Rattigan, “The Deep Blue Sea.”  This will be the first movie adaptation of a play by the English writer since David Mamet’s perfectly swell — and, believe it or not G-rated — 1999 version of “The Winslow Boy.”

* “Lost Boys 3” starring the late Corey Feldman doing a Batman-style raspy voice. I don’t even begin to know what to think. [Update: I obviously made a mistake here last night. Mr. Feldman is still, I'm happy to say, very much with us. See comments.]

* He didn’t make many movies, but RIP Gary Coleman anyway. Be sure and check out Will Harris’s terrific remembrance a couple of posts below this one.

* Action-meister Luc Besson is letting members of the French-speaking public become “producers” of an upcoming movie. The first ten-thousand participants will have their names in the credits. Talk about film-making by committee.

* It’s TV but this is too close to home to ignore…the cast of the upcoming HBO TV show starring Diane Keaton and directed by Bill Condon which is not about Nikki Finke just keeps getting better. Recent additions include Ellen Page and Wes Bentley.

* As part of a lame maneuver to try and do and end-run around critics on behalf of what surely seems to be a lame movie, alleged actor Ashton Kutcher is claiming that he’ll pirate and release — all on his own of course — the first ten minutes of his upcoming and pretty lame looking “Killers.” Spare me. Truly.

* If you live in the movie capital, things tend to get a bit quiet over holiday weekends like Memorial Day. It can be kind of nice. Not like the beautiful short below by Ross Ching, but not completely removed from it either. Strangely enough given the impossibility of what’s being shown, this, by the way, is one of the closer depictions of how L.A. actually looks to a native like me.

Running on Empty from Ross Ching on Vimeo.

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RIP Lena Horne

The great singer, talented actress, and crucial civil-rights pioneer, Lena Horne, has passed on age 92. The Guardian has a very good obituary which summarizes her life and work.

Ms. Horne’s involvement in the movies was limited by racism — even the movies she appeared in tended to feature her in short musical segments that could be easily edited out for play in the South. Still, she made enough of an impression in two major all-African-American MGM musicals from 1943, “Stormy Weather” and Vincente Minelli’s debut, the musical religious fantasy, “Cabin in the Sky“,” that my favorite uncle always remarked that it was the first time he’d seen an alluring black woman on the screen. If it impacted my very not-black uncle that way, I probably can’t begin to imagine how it must have felt for countless African-American men and women.

Below, Horne shows she’s a natural on-screen with a humorous duet with an unlikely partner from “Cabin in the Sky” — easily my favorite scene from the movie. As the old joke goes, musically speaking it’s a case of “The Agony and the Ecstasy.”

That’s Eddie ‘Rochester’ Anderson, best known as Jack Benny’s greatest comic foil, providing a huge musical contrast while being tempted to the ways of Satan above.

Below, we have Ms. Horne singing the song which became her signature number, and my father’s favorite all-time recording, I believe — from the 1943 movie of the same name and her only lead role until 1969, “Stormy Weather.”

David Hudson of the Auteurs has accumulated the reaction and notes on her passing. From it, I want to particularly recommend Sheila O’Malley’s remembrance. It includes a clip of Ms. Horne taking a lead in a “Sesame Street” duet of “Being Green” with Kermit the Frog that I found incredibly moving. If you consider what the song is really about, I don’t think it’s a mystery why I was so moved.

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A capery, spy-ey, hobbity, clashy, ghosty midweek movie news

A sprained ankle and other unexciting matters sidelined me yestereday, but now I can use my imposed semi-immobility for bloggy purposes.

* THR is claiming an exclusive that a date has finally been set for the two-part Peter Jackson/Guillermo del Toro collaboration, “The Hobbit.” (That’s with an assist from the late J.R.R. Tolkien, of course.) There was some apparent confusion earlier in the day, but it now looks like the two films will be released in Christmas of 2012 and 2013. That’s a year off from the original plan for the LOTR follow-up/prequel (though LOTR is technically the sequel here). Though this article doesn’t mention it, at least part of the problem was widely supposed to be the decline and fall of MGM.

* I’m not at all sure how the “poison pill” actually works but it appears that a decision by authorities up in British Columbia — which is, like, part of an entirely different country than ours and everything — will make it easier for Carl Icahn to attempt his hostile takeover of Lionsgate.

* Does anybody really want a “Clash of the Titans” sequel? Well, we’re getting one anyhow.

Clash of the Titans

* Bill Murray is apparently bound and determined to be the proverbial turd in the “Ghostbusters 3″ punchbowl. It wasn’t a punch I had my heart set on, in any case, much as I liked the first one.

* Just the day before yesterday I was part of a press round-table with the affable, stylish French director Jean-Pierre Jeunet (“Amelie,” “City of Lost Children”). Someone brought up his adapatation of the acclaimed, fantastical Booker Prize-winning novel, The Life of Pi, a project which the vagaries of movie-making had apparently forced him to give up on. Today, Anne Thompson brings word that it appears that the project has been picked up by another strong directorial hand, Ang Lee.  And, guess what, it’ll be 3-D. Lee’s one of the movies’ great humanists still working, so I’m sure the film won’t be overwhelmed by effects.

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