RIP Patricia Neal

Patricia Neal circa 1963One of the finest, most beautiful and purely believable of film actresses has past on at age 84 of lung cancer. She had survived numerous personal tragedies and hardships including the loss of a child, a horrifying accident involving another, a beyond problematic marriage to author Roald Dahl (Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, James and the Giant Peach, etc.) and multiple strokes suffered when she was only 39 years old and pregnant.  Despite all of it, she has been consistently outstanding in numerous films and television shows, including three classics that likely wouldn’t have been classics without her, so much depth and believability did she bring to her roles in the “The Day the Earth Stood Still,” “A Face in the Crowd,” and “Hud.”

You could reach much more about her amazing life and her even more amazing skill as an actress via two first-rate remembrances by The Self Styled Siren and Sheila O’Malley, and I really think you should. In the meantime, her’s an example of what I think is probably her finest portrayal, from “Hud,” made only about a year after the death of her daughter. For some reason, her three greatest roles have her being involved in some way with men who were just no good, and this is the most vivid example. Her scene starts at about 5:00 or so.

Mubi has a lot more. Joe Leydon, in particular, is worth a read.

  

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Hollywood (and the rest of California) destroyed! Millions to be made!

John Cusack in

Yes, with just one really big new release this week, it’s looking like Sony and Roland Emmerich’s eschatological extravaganza, “2012,” will most definitely take the box office crown this weekend. Prognosticators are, however, offering a pretty broad range of possible results. Pamela McClintock of Variety says that “observers” are guessing the mega-disaster tale will make “north” of $40 million “or even substantially more” on its opening. The ever jolly Carl DiOrio of The Hollywood Reporter gets more specific on the “substantially more” and suggests that those mysterious tracking surveys mean that $55-65 million is “doable” for the first would-be blockbuster I’ve ever heard of to be based on the Mayan calendar. Some of this speculation, of course, is based on the large success ($186.7 million domestically) of Emmerich’s other mass destruction based sci-fi flick from 2004, “The Day After Tomorrow.”

Still, there are some issues, including an outsize running time of 2 hours and 38 minutes, forty minutes longer than “Day.” Predictably, most critics are making fun of the film. Let’s face it, Emmerich isn’t exactly known for thoughtful cinema. Still, while the film only scores a meager 32% “fresh” on Rotten Tomatoes, it does seem to generate a certain number of backhanded compliments from those who think it edges into guilty pleasure territory, including from our own David Medsker and a darn funny, three-star review by the Chicago Tribune‘s Michael Phillips. In any event, that running time could be an issue in terms of number of shows per day and also simply by annoying impatient filmgoers. However, the teen boys who go to this stuff never seem to mind a long running time if they get their share of thud and blunder and, by all accounts, “2012” provides oodles of some of the best wanton destruction in some time.

Bill Nighy in Being released in some 882 theaters, as compared to 3,404 for “2012,” is Focus Features’ “Pirate Radio.” It’s a shortened version of a fact-inspired comedy that was called “The Boat That Rocked” in the UK. Writer-director Richard Curtis of “Love, Actually,” “Four Weddings and a Funeral,” and cult TV favorite “Blackadder,” is once again splitting critics with this ode to the glory days of sixties pop. However, a running theme in the reviews appears to be that, for a comedy about a bunch of radio rebels forcing their way illegally onto English airwaves during the heyday of sex, drugs, and rock and roll, it’s a bit polite. And so, the RT rating is a mehish 56% as of this writing.

I should add, though, that there’s something about Richard Curtis — I’d guess it’s gratuitous niceness — that tends to make some critics underrate his films. “Love, Actually” was a terrific piece of work in my own opinion, but it only earned an RT rating of 63%, though it also earned roughly a million bucks for each percentage point. Will Harris, who got to travel to our nation’s mother country to participate in the press junket for “Pirate Radio” is of a like mind, but feels this effort is worthy but a bit less wonderful its predecessor. (Will’s interviews from his trip are highly recommended. I suggest you start with Richard Curtis.)

And that’s it for the major/semi-major releases, but there’s some very interesting action amongst the limited flicks. First, as per Box Office Mojo, the critically lauded, sure-to-be Oscar nominated “Precious: Based on the Novel Push by Sapphire,” which did amazing limited release business last weekend for Lions Gate with a per-screen average of $100,000 in 18 theaters, is expanding to 174 screens this weekend. Apparition/Sony’s critically derided and sure to be utterly un-awarded “Boondock Saints II: All Saints Day” is bumping up to 244 screens after showing some cult strength.

Finally, in an interesting strategy for a fairly high profile animated family film with an all-star voice cast, “Fantastic Mr. Fox” — from Fox, naturally — is opening in four theaters this weekend. The thinking here is, I’m guessing, that this isn’t just any animated family film based on a popular children’s book by Roald Dahl, but one directed by arthouse fave Wes Anderson. Though there may, or may not, have been significant issues during its making, it wound up with great reviews. In fact, the painstakingly non-CGI puppet animation is collecting the most consistently good notices of Anderson’s entire remarkable career, as reckoned by Rotten Tomatoes, beating even his instant classic “Rushmore” by four points. So, giving “Mr. Fox” a little time to percolate and spread some good word of mouth by opening it more slowly makes a lot of sense. It’s a strategy that should be used a lot more often, with good movies that is.

Fantastic Mr. Fox

  

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Stop-motion discord on “Fantastic Mr. Fox” (updated 2x)

I don’t know how I missed it up to now, but I just caught up with this fairly extraordinary L.A. Times article from Saturday’s edition by Chris Lee covering some pretty extreme sounding discord between writer-director Wes Anderson and at least some of the crew of his puppet-animation adaptation of Roald Dahl’s “The Fantastic Mr. Fox,” which is set to open on November 25th.

Now, a little grumbling is probably inevitable given that Anderson decided to eschew any and all CGI on the film and do everything “in camera,” including using live fur on the animal characters. As viewers of the original “King Kong” will note, stop-motion fur tends to rustle on screen because the effects people have to pick up and touch the thing and, barring CGI, I believe there’s really no way around it. However, like Anderson, to me there’s a wondrous handmade charm to it. As someone with highly retro sensibilities, I completely understand the aesthetic reasons for Anderson’s decision, though I realize it also makes a very hard job harder.

Fantastic Mr Fox Gets Set Photos

However, the quotes Chris Lee was able to get go far beyond just a disagreement about the production methods, and underline just how possibly wrongheaded his decision to direct the actual animation portion of the film’s production remotely from Paris might have been. I personally would not have expected Anderson to be on hand for every single frame of film shot — I doubt that Ernest Shoedsack and/or Merian C. Cooper were around for much of the shooting of the effects footage created by Willis O’Brien in “Kong” — but they were as far as I know they were all working out of the RKO lot, at least. True, Anderson had computer technology available to him but, assuming there was no journalistic malpractice, something clearly went very wrong on the set that he was not there to deal with.

To be specific, when you have high ranking production people providing material like this:

“Honestly? Yeah. He has made our lives miserable,” the film’s director of animation, Mark Gustafson, said during a break in shooting. He gave a weary chuckle. “I probably shouldn’t say that.”

…and this…

“We avoided wild animated flourishes of fantasy,” [Art Director Nelson] Lowry said. “Normally, an animated film allows you crazy camera angles shooting through a wild landscape. Instead, this feels like a dry adult drama.”

…and especially this…

“I think he’s a little sociopathic,” cinematographer [Tristan] Oliver said. “I think he’s a little O.C.D. Contact with people disturbs him. This way, he can spend an entire day locked inside an empty room with a computer. He’s a bit like the Wizard of Oz. Behind the curtain.”

…to a major newspaper, you have a real problem.

These are no rank amateurs or show business neophytes, even if they are effects folks. Oliver, whose comment Anderson somewhat understandably said “kind of crosses the line,” in particular is a veteran of Nick Park’s Ardman animation and worked on all of the “Wallace & Gromit” films as first a camera operator and later the DP. (For the record, however, I’m not sure Oliver understands the meaning of the word “sociopathic,” which indicates a complete lack of any conscience or compassion — that doesn’t seem to be exactly what he means.)

All of this leads to a question. I personally consider Anderson one of the two or three best American directors now working, give or take a Sidney Lumet, I know Paris is the city of lights and all, and clearly Anderson j’etaimes the place, which I get. But what’s London, chopped liver?

UPDATE: Variety‘s Todd McCarthy has a mostly positive early review which touches on some of the matters brought up above.

ANOTHER UPDATE: As pointed out in the comments, DP Tristan Oliver has basically charged Chris Lee and the L.A. Times with journalistic malpractice. You can reads his remarks to a Wes Anderson fan site here. Were his words really twisted by Lee or is this a case of after-the-fact damage control? Could be either, neither, or both. To paraphrase Will Rogers, all I know I read online.

  

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