24 Frames

Movies: Past, present and future

Category: Dramas

Around Town: The Stooges ride back to town

November 24, 2011 |  6:00 am


The Three Stooges, a Gary Cooper double bill and a tribute to Japan’s Studio Ghibli are among the Thanksgiving week film offerings.

Nyuk! Nyuk! Nyuk! The Alex Film Society presents its 14th annual “Three Stooges Big Screen Event” Saturday afternoon and evening at the venerable Alex Theatre in Glendale. The slapstick, eye-poking comedy shorts starring Moe, Curly, Larry and Shemp are presented in glorious 35mm. Among the shorts scheduled are 1937’s “Back to the Woods” and “Goofs and Saddles,” 1948’s “Mummies Dummies,” with Shemp, 1943’s “Higher Than a Kite” and 1938’s “Wee Wee Monsieur.” http://www.alexfilmsociety.org

The New Beverly celebrates Turkey Day with a Gary Cooper double bill Thursday and Friday: 1930’s melodrama “Morocco,” directed by Josef Von Sternberg and also starring Marlene Dietrich in her only Oscar-nominated performance, and 1940’s “The Westerner,” directed by William Wyler and co-starring Walter Brennan, who picked up his third supporting actor Oscar as the infamous Judge Roy Bean.

Two seminal films from former cinematographer-turned-director Nicolas Roeg are screening Tuesday and Wednesday at the theater-1971’s Australian adventure “Walkabout,” with Jenny Agutter and David Gulpilil and the 1976 sci-fi fantasy “The Man Who Fell to Earth” with David Bowie. http://www.newbevcinema.com

Film Independent at LACMA shines a “Spotlight on Studio Ghibli” Saturday at the Leo S. Bing Theater. The Japanese animation studio was created in 1985 by directors Hayao Miyazaki and Isao Takahata and producer Toshio Suzuki. Screening late Saturday afternoon is 1986’s “Castle in the Sky,” Miyazaki’s debut film for the studio, followed in the evening by Miyazaki’s 2001 “Spirited Away,” which earned the Oscar for best animated feature. This week’s Tuesday matinee feature at the Bing is the 1936 screwball comedy “Theodora Goes Wild,” for which Irene Dunne earned a lead actress Oscar nomination. Melvyn Douglas also stars. http://www.lacma.org/series/film-independent-lacma

The American Cinematheque’s Aero Theatre screens 1952’s “Singin’ in the Rain,” which is widely considered the greatest movie musical ever made, on Friday evening. Gene Kelly, who co-directed with Stanley Donen, stars with Debbie Reynolds, Donald O'Connor and Jean Hagen in this effusive musical farce about the early days of the talkies in Hollywood. On tap for Saturday afternoon at the theater is “The Lord of the Rings” trilogy. The beloved 1939 musical fantasy “The Wizard of Oz” is set for late Sunday afternoon. And Wim Wenders’ 1999 musical documentary “Buena Vista Social Club” is on tap for Wednesday.

The Cinematheque’s Egyptian Theatre presents “French Female Directors Shorts Showcase” Saturday evening at its intimate Spielberg Theatre, while the main theater will be presenting the 1939 Oscar-winning epic “Gone With the Wind,” starring Clark Gable and Vivien Leigh. http://www.americancinematheque.com

Cinefamily at the Silent Movie Theatre presents the 1972 rock documentary “Pink Floyd: Live at Pompeii” and 1976’s “Led Zeppelin: The Song Remains the Same” Friday evening. The Silent Movie Theatre offers a free sneak preview Sunday afternoon of the film “The Death and Return of Superman,” starring Elijah Wood and Mandy Moore. Writer/director Max Landis, as well as several of the stars, schedule permitting, are set to appear for a post-screening Q&A. You must preregister for the screening.

Doug Benson’s “Movie Interruption” presentation at Monday evening Cinefamily’s is the acclaimed “Rise of the Planet of the Apes.” http://www.cinefamily.org

Film Courage presents the L.A. premiere of “Missing Pieces” Monday evening at the Downtown Independent. Schedule permitting, there will be a Q&A with director Kenton Barlett and his stars after the movie. http://www.filmcourage.com

The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences’ “2011-2012 Contemporary Documentaries” series continues Wednesday evening at the Linwood Dunn Theater with Davis Guggenheim’s “Waiting for Superman” and Madeleine Sackler’s “The Lottery,” both released in 2010. http://www.oscars.org

UCLA Film & Television Archive’s Wednesday evening presentations at the Million Dollar Theatre in downtown Los Angeles offers two collaborations between Jack Nicholson and director Bob Rafelson: 1970’s “Five Easy Pieces,” for which Nicholson earned his first lead actor Oscar nomination, and the underrated 1972 drama “The King of Marvin Gardens,” which also stars Bruce Dern and Ellen Burstyn. http://www.cinema.ucla.edu


Miyazaki’s Studio Ghibli enters ‘The Secret World of Arrietty’

-- Susan King

Photo: The Three Stooges, from left, Moe, Curly and Larry. Credit: Alex Film Society

Toronto 2011: Madonna says she has auteur dreams

September 14, 2011 |  7:07 am


Of all the personalities to turn up at this year's Toronto International Film Festival, none seemed more outsized, and yet oddly appropriate, than Madonna.

The singer and actress is looking to make her mark on the directing world (AFI students, beware). And Toronto, place of 300 films and a thousand dreams -- not to mention a strong dollop of celebrity and hype -- seems the perfect venue for one of the most famous women in the world to take up a new career.

So into town she rode with "W.E.," a time-jumping historical romance that made its North American premiere at the festival earlier this week, ahead of its opening for general U.S. audiences on Dec. 9.

Sitting primly (in fishnet stockings) on an ornate chair in a hotel suite high above Toronto earlier this week, the 53-year-old made no secret of her latest ambition."I want to be taken seriously as a filmmaker," she told 24 Frames, her blond locks falling carefully onto and around a red-sweater top.

"I directed 'Filth & Wisdom' to teach myself about filmmaking," she added, alluding to her first movie, a lightly regarded immigrant tale of music and cross-dressing. "And now, with this self-punishing process of being a producer and a writer and a director, I'm taking the next step."

Continue reading »

Actress Sissy Spacek will take a seat in the director's chair [Updated]

May 9, 2011 |  3:05 pm


EXCLUSIVE: Over a remarkable 40-year acting career, Sissy Spacek has been nominated for an Oscar six times, played roles as diverse as Carrie and Loretta Lynn, and worked with directors as iconic as Terrence Malick, Costa-Gavras and Brian De Palma. But she's never taken a turn behind the camera. 

That looks likely to change very shortly. The actress is preparing to direct her first film, says Jack Fisk, Spacek's husband and Malick's longtime production designer. (The couple met on the set of the director's 1973 debut, "Badlands.") 

Spacek will helm "Buttermilk Sky," a 1930s drama based on a novel about a young mother called "Goodbye to the Buttermilk Sky" by Julia Oliver. [Corrected: An earlier version of this post referred to the book as containing supernaturally-inflected short stories.]

Oliver's book centers on various relationships in Depression-era Alabama. Publishers Weekly has said that, in her writing, Oliver offers what are "essentially parables of modern life, often profiling people at a pivotal moment after the death of a spouse, divorce or some other milestone." [Update, 7:52 p.m.: A spokesman for Spacek says that the film has now been renamed "Sweet Tea" and will also feature a script from C. Gaby Mitchell ("Blood Diamond").]

Spacek, who will next appear in the Southern drama "The Help,"  has held the option on "Buttermilk Sky" at various points in the 10 years since it came out.

The cast is being lined up and will be announced in the coming days, Fisk said, with Spacek not expected to star herself. But given the sort of acting talent the performer has worked with over the years, it's easy to imagine a long list of notable names.

--Steven Zeitchik


Photo: Sissy Spacek in "In the Bedroom." Credit: Miramax

Keira Knightley's 'Anna Karenina' aims to break new ground

March 30, 2011 |  6:56 pm

"Anna Karenina" was given a surprising vogue when Oprah Winfrey recommended the novel back in 2004. Suddenly people who wouldn't otherwise be inclined to Russian melodrama  could be seen lugging the encyclopedia-sized novel everywhere they went.

But you have to go back much further to encounter the story as a form of populist screen entertainment -- to the Vivian Leigh version in  1948, perhaps, or Greta Garbo's award-winning take in 1936. Leo Tolstoy himself had only been dead a few decades when those films came out, to give you an idea. (More recently, less well-regarded iterations have included a Jacqueline Bisset TV movie in 1985 and a Sophie Marceau theatrical film in 1997.)

But the pedigree on a "Karenina" production that aims to shoot later this year has a chance to bring the title back to its cinematic glory days. The triple threat of "Shakespeare in Love" writer Tom Stoppard penning the screenplay, "Atonement" director Joe Wright getting behind the camera and Keira Knightley playing the title role give it some pretty shiny bona fides.

Still, the question remains: What can 21st century storytellers bring to the epic love story that filmmakers from a previous generation couldn't?

Wright thinks there are plenty of opportunities. He told 24 Frames that a key difference with his and Stoppard's version (the two have been meeting in recent weeks to hash out the story) has to do with expanding beyond the scope of the title character.

"The Garbo version focused very much on Anna's story," Wright said. "And what Tom has written is a kind of multi-stranded portrait of a community."

He and Stoppard of course also have to deal with a 21st century problem: Anna's affair, so daring and scandalous to 20th century eyes, might merit little more than a shrug in some circles today.

The cast for the new film, incidentally, breaks down as follows: Knightley, who of course starred in Wright's "Atonement" and "Pride & Prejudice," will play Anna. Jude Law will star as husband Karenin and "Kick-Ass" star Aaron Johnson will play other-man Vronsky. (Teenage Oscar nominee Saoirse Ronan could also be joining the cast, but Wright declined to confirm that.)

Wright said that the new movie -- which returns him to period territory after the contemporary action thriller "Hanna," which stars Ronan and is due out next week -- will explore some rich themes. "It affords me an opportunity," he said,"to learn not just about literature but also human emotion and the state of drama, and fidelity, and love."

--Steven Zeitchik


Photo: Keira Knightley in "The Edge of Love." Credit: Liam Daniel / Capitol Films

Is the seriocomedy in danger of extinction?

January 18, 2011 |  5:42 pm


Some may be inclined to read the soft results for "The Dilemma," the Vince Vaughn-Kevin James movie that opened to $21 million over the holiday weekend, as evidence of the waning power of its stars, or perhaps the diminished appeal of the bromance. But there may be a more specific lesson in the struggles of the Ron Howard movie, which actually plays more serious than some of its ads imply.

The adult drama has been the subject of numerous obituaries in recent years, but looking at the success of movies like "The Social Network" and "Black Swan," it's doing just fine. What hasn't fared so well is the seriocomedy, a story of real people with real problems that also contains its share of laughs -- the drama, essentially, that wears its seriousness lightly.

In the 1980s, this kind of film was common, and commonly successful, particularly from a certain generation of American filmmaker: Lawrence Kasdan's "The Big Chill," James L. Brooks' "Broadcast News," Sydney Pollack's "Tootsie," John Hughes' "Planes, Trains & Automobiles" and so on.

These days? Not so much. In the last six months, nearly every attempt at the seriocomedy has struggled, certainly with audiences and sometimes with critics. First came "Cyrus," then "The Switch," followed by "It's Kind of a Funny Story," "Love and Other Drugs" and now "The Dilemma."

In 2009, "The 40-Year-Old Virgin" director Judd Apatow faltered trying a seriocomedy with "Funny People." Brooks, who practically pioneered the genre not only with "Broadcast News" but "Terms of Endearment," struck out in 2010 with "How Do You Know." If you were a studio executive, you could hardly be blamed if you read a good script for a seriocomedy and promptly threw it on the reject pile. (The lone exception seems to be "The Kids Are All Right," a movie that came from well outside the studio system and proved reasonably successful last summer.)

The seriocomedy has never been easy creative ground for directors. To make a good one you need to be proficient at constructing both laughs and drama, and have the dexterity to switch between them. From a business standpoint it's even dicier: How, in this age of marketing, do you retail these tweeners?
Movie-making these days seems to have calcified into genres. Dramas are intense and serious, like "The Social Network," or weepie and inspirational, like "The Blind Side" or "Secretariat." Comedies are  broader and more gross-out, like the best of Adam Sandler or Apatow.

"The problem is trailers," said James Schamus, the Focus Features chief who released "The Kids Are All Right." "These days with the Internet, it's more important than ever, and it's very hard to cut a good trailer for [seriocomedies]. If you go for the laugh you never get the full laugh because the humor is situational, and you can't play the drama because then you kill the comedy vibe."

All of these issues are significant. But when the seriocomedy works, it usually works exceptionally well. Some of the best dramas and comedies of today would have trouble matching the quiet ambition of the best seriocomeides of 25 or 30 years ago. Even as one more bites the dust, it's worth remembering how much promise the genre has, and how much it's worth making the good ones no matter the marketing challenges.

--Steven Zeitchik


Photo: The Dilemma. Credit: Universal Pictures


Are Americans ready for dramas again?

January 10, 2011 |  8:00 am

This weekend marked a milestone at the box office. No, not beause it was the first time someone paid to see Nicolas Cage as a witch-transporting Crusader. It was a weekend that saw the fourth independent drama in this season of serious movies pass the $30 million mark in domestic box office.

That may not seem like a hugely noteworthy event. But the last time it happened, the world was quite a different place.  It was January 2008, and a quartet of dramas  ("No Country for Old Men," "Atonement," "There Will Be Blood" and "The Great Debaters") all achieved that same watermark of mainstream success. A few months later, the financial crisis would take root and the world would go bleak, and Americans don't like to see dramas when the world goes bleak. The mark wouldn't be reached again until this weekend.

The movie that got this year's group over the hump, "The King's Speech," is continuing to show surprising strength even as it approaches two months in release. Two others of the fab four, "Black Swan" and "The Fighter," are doing even better, maintaining momentum as they push well into mainstream-hit territory. (The fourth, "Tyler Perry's "For Colored Girls," has all but finished its run at a decent but more niche place.)

All this doesn't count the blockbuster-level success of a pair of tough dramatic sells, "True Grit" and "The Social Network," which were made by studios but traffic in difficult subjects and embody an auteur spirit.

We've been hearing for years why audiences don't want to see dramas when the economy is bleak and wars are being fought -- namely, things are tough enough without us being reminded of more toughness at a movie theater. It's why studios have all but stopped making dramas, and even independent producers have spent the past few years talking a lot more about genre films. ("The Fighter" and "Black Swan' had to pare their budgets considerably even to get made as independents.)

And yet both of those movies have turned into bona fide hits, far outperforming supposedly more commercial bets like "Burlesque" and "Saw 3D." Is the no-drama rule finally being broken?

It would be easy to point to a (slightly) brighter financial picture as a reason we're embracing darker material. And there is a correlation between up economies and down movies (and vice versa), though it's not as direct as you'd think. During the Great Depression, for instance, people turned out in great numbers to see not uplifting movies but mob movies; in a time when people feel powerless, there's  gratification that comes from watching those taking matters into their own hands. Besides, given everything from a polarized electorate to the events in Tuscon over the weekend, it's not like these are days of rainbows and unicorns.

Some might say this year's movies are simply that strong, and strong movies can never be denied. But it's not as though "The Hurt Locker" -- another difficult movie, but one that few people came out to see last year -- was any slouch.

There may, however, be something more specific going on with these films. The three movies powering the trend deal with drug addiction, mental imbalance and the rise of Hitler. Not light subjects. But they also take place in worlds most of us don't have much  familiarity with. Unless you're an under-duress ballerina, a washed-up boxer or a speech-challenged duke, the content of these films won't hit very close to home. (Contrast these movies with "Rabbit Hole," a drama that deals with the far more relatable topic of death and family crisis; that film hasn't even reached $1 million in box office.)

There's also something weirdly triumphant about the dynamic trio -- all of them are, in their way, underdog stories, and give characters and audiences a happy ending  (yes, even "Swan," though exactly how happy is a matter of debate).

It may well be that, after a few years of saying no, we're finally ready for some drama. Or it may simply be that filmmakers have finally figured out a more palatable way to serve it to us.

--Steven Zeitchik


Photo: 'The King's Speech.' Credit: The Weinstein Company


Movies take a page from reality TV

December 27, 2010 | 10:29 am

Among other trends at the movies this year, 2010 has been a year when nonfiction films have increasingly assumed the shape of the scripted feature. The social-media movie "Catfish" was as much a thriller as a documentary. "Jack-Ass 3-D" was a true story, but with as many gross-out hijinks as "Bruno."

But as nonfiction films imitated their scripted cousins, the trend has also unfolded in reverse : scripted features are now more influenced -- and constrained -- by the conventions of documentary.

At least 13 movies this fall season are based on real-life stories, including a survival drama ("127 Hours"), a Silicon Valley history ( "The Social Network"), a legal tale ( "Conviction"), a boxing saga ("The Fighter"), a heart-stopping action flick ( "Unstoppable") and a heart-tugging romantic dramedy ("Love & Other Drugs").

In a story in Monday's Times, we take a look at the fact-based trend: what's behind it, where it's leading and what risks it poses. As "127 Hours" director Danny Boyle says: "As a director, you like having a real story because that's what makes it more powerful. But it's also hard because you know you're dealing with someone's life." Or as "Conviction" star Hilary Swank says of the subgenre: "You can't take a lot of liberty with the storytelling."

After a decade of reality television, the movie business is finally catching up. Studios are flogging the truth (or at least truthy) horse. And judging by how well some of the movies have performed so far, it's not a moment too soon. We're all suckers, it seems, for stories that come with a based-on-a-true-story tag.

But are we consumed by reality-inspired stories at our peril? 

"I think everybody is exhausted by neat, shapely fictional stories we've had for so long, and a compelling situation from real life is much more interesting," film historian David Thomson tells The Times. "But there's a great danger. Every time a story is made out of a real person's experience, we enter into a process of distortion."

More on all these issues and entanglements here.

-- Steven Zeitchik

Photo: James Franco in "127 Hours." Credit: Fox Searchlight

Paul Haggis crashes into a new love

November 4, 2010 |  6:10 pm

No Academy Award best picture in recent years has been as polarizing as Paul Haggis' "Crash." The interlocking stories of a diverse group of Southern Californians was a blazingly honest exploration of race, if you were a fan -- or a schmaltzed-up melodrama, if you weren't.

We can only imagine the reaction to the filmmaker's next project.

When we caught up with Haggis this week about his forthcoming release, the Russell Crowe prison-break thriller "The Next Three Days" (which hits theaters Nov. 12), Haggis tipped that the current object of his attention was a heretofore unreported script he's writing titled "Third Person." The movie is an ensemble drama about three couples around the globe -- think "Crash," but with romance instead of race. (One of the characters is a writer, hence the title.)

The idea, Haggis said, is to do a serious story about modern relationships set against scenic locales (New York and Rome are two of them) and to develop each character as much as possible -- which is why he is keeping the plotlines to three instead of the roughly half-dozen in "Crash." Haggis said he hasn't taken it to a studio yet, hoping that, as with "Crash," he'll get the best results if he works solo. (He took a similar approach, and had an equal mount of artistic freedom, in developing his well-regarded Iraq mystery-drama "In the Valley of Elah.")

When we mentioned to Haggis that his new idea seemed to fit a current Hollywood vogue for an ensemble romance -- the kind seen in movies such as "Valentine's Day" and "He's Just Not That Into You" -- he replied, "Yes, it's a little like those. But darker. Much, much darker."

--Steven Zeitchik


Photo: "Crash." Credit: Lionsgate.

Kenneth Turan's film pick of the week: 'Mademoiselle Chambon'

July 29, 2010 |  7:51 am

Mademoiselle Chambon

People fall in love in every country, but nowhere is the experience put on film with the consistent style, empathy and emotion the French provide. "Mademoiselle Chambon" is the latest in that line of deeply moving romances, an exquisite chamber piece made with the kind of sensitivity and nuance that's become almost a lost art.

Starring the top-flight acting team of Vincent Landon and Sandrine Kiberlain, actors who were once married to each other but are now divorced, "Mademoiselle Chambon" is about the power of love to disturb as well as elevate, about the profoundly disconcerting experience of falling terribly in love when that's the last thing you want to do.

Impeccably directed by Stephane Brize, "Mademoiselle Chambon" is less concerned with the protagonists' ultimate resolution than with bringing us into the journey, showing us how it came to be that these people fell and how they reacted. This would be a welcome film any time of the year, but to have it during the dog days of summer is something like a miracle.

— Kenneth Turan, Los Angeles Times film critic

Photo: Sandrine Kiberlain and Vincent Lindon in "Mademoiselle Chambon." Credit: Michaël Crotto.

Why isn't there a great movie about baseball umpires?

June 3, 2010 |  3:00 pm

There are many worthy films about the farce and tragedy of playing Major League Baseball -- "Field of Dreams," "The Natural" and "Bull Durham," to name a few. But after Wednesday's debacle at Comerica Park, it bears asking why there's no great movie -- or movie of any kind, really -- about being a Major League Baseball umpire.

On Wednesday, veteran official Jim Joyce openly blew one of the biggest calls in recent baseball history when he called Cleveland Indians shortstop Jason Donald safe at first base with two out in the ninth. Donald was clearly out, and Joyce's call swiped a perfect game from Detroit Tigers pitcher Armando Galarraga.

Unlike the usual reticence and spin of a pro-sports officiating crew, Joyce immediately copped to his mistake.  "It was the biggest call of my career and I kicked it. I just cost that kid a perfect game," he said, adding a human -- and cinematic -- dimension to a part of sports most of us never see.

And yet despite the emotional depth, baseball umpires have stayed out of not only the glare of fans but of Hollywood as well. There's been just one movie that we can recall about an umpire, a William Bendix film from 60 years ago about a retired baseball player, who, running out of career options, reinvents himself as an ump. It's titled "Kill the Umpire" (rentals for it have apparently soared in the Detroit metro area).

Yet as Wednesday's high drama points up, umpires are fascinating, filmic figures.

One can imagine a great character drama that centers on an umpire. Their itinerant, frequently thankless life -- most of us don't notice an umpire until they mess something up -- along with the requirement to maintain a stoic public face while perhaps inwardly resenting their judge-and-jury role is pure George Clooney in "Up in the Air."

You could go even darker with it, take it in a "Big Fan" direction. Joyce-gate has brought back to the surface, and elicited interviews with, Don Denkinger, the umpire who famously took the 1985 World Series from the Kansas City Royals and gave it to the St. Louis Cardinals. [Update -- Oops, Freudian slip -- of course he took it from the Cardinals and gave it to the Royals]. Denkinger received numerous death threats from St. Louis Cardinals fans, and one can think of a story about an umpire who blows a call forced to go into hiding from bloodthirsty fans calling for his head. "[I]t will never go away. It will be there at every turn," Denkinger told the New York Daily News , describing what Joyce can now expect.

And if you want to get into a genre film, into conspiracy theories and corruption, there's a Scorsese or Coppola or James Gray film in the story of umpires caught in the cross-hairs of some brutal forces; the men in blue are, after all, in a unique position to affect outcomes and thus control huge sums of money, and could do their damage well outside of public view.

We combed development slates looking for movies about umpires, and couldn't find anything. But producers and executives looking for a film containing a tragic figure, a searing sense of injustice and an angry mob wouldn't need to look through the slush pile. They could just watch "SportsCenter."

--Steven Zeitchik


Photo: Jim Joyce, the day after his major league gaffe. Credit: Paul Sancya / Associated Press

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