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Archive: February, 2011

POSTED: Monday, February 28, 2011, 9:19 PM

Culture, Bob Hope once said, is "the ability to describe Jane Russell without using your hands." The statuesque brunette for whom Howard Hughes engineered a cantilevered brassiere and who enjoyed a 10-year movie career as a good-natured mantrap, died today at her home in Santa Maria, California. The sleepy-eyed lady hugely proficient at playing wisecracking dames was 89.

Easygoing and amusing on screen -- her signature role was as Dorothy Shaw, the raven-haired friend of Marilyn Monroe in "Gentlemen Prefer Blondes" (1953) – Russell was discovered by industrialist/producer Hughes when she was working as a chiropodist’s assistant. The engineer liked her measurements, 38-25-36, and promptly cast her as the sexpot in "The Outlaw" (1943). Hughes promoted the movie with a picture of his discovery (literally) rolling in the hay, with the caption, "How would you like to tussle with Russell?"

She seemed amused by the attention. though her debut was ludicrous, she quickly developed into a gifted comedienne. She charmed as the tough-talking Calamity Jane opposite Bob Hope in "Paleface" (1948) and “Son of Paleface" (1952). She was ideally matched with Robert Mitchum, whose broad shoulders, sleepy eyes and lazy gait made him resemble her twin, in "His Kind of Woman" (1951) and "Macao" (1952). Her career peak was in the early '50s in "Blondes" and "The French Line" (1954), a 3-D movie advertised as "JR in 3-D!"

POSTED: Monday, February 28, 2011, 2:34 PM
Anne Hathaway + Hugh Jackman = chemistry

What can the Academy do to produce a three-hour awards pageant that engages the short attention spans of the twitterati while still entertaining people who actually like variety shows?

While the 83rd annual Academy Awards Sunday night was an improvement on the snorecasts of yore (I'm thinking of the years that David Letterman and Jon Stewart hosted), it still was, as former emcee Johnny Carson quipped decades ago, "two hours of sparkling entertainment spread out over a four-hour show." Preliminary ratings suggest that about 37 million viewers watched, (a 24.6 household rating/37 share), a slight dip from last year.

What worked: The opening montage/countdown at the top of the show that used clips from nominated movies to pump the audience up for the contest; abbreviating the musical numbers; the byplay between Robert Downey Jr. and Jude Law; Sandra Bullock's spirited introduction of the best-actor nominees; Steven Spielberg's intro to best picture announcement, reminding the audience both of the great films that won -- and also the equally great films passed over. Genuinely heartfelt acceptances from best actor winner Colin Firth, supporting actor recipient Christian Bale, screenwriter David Seidler (The King's Speech), Inside Job filmmaker Charles Ferguson (who noted that none of the bankers responsible for the 2007 financial crisis has been indicted) and short subject winner Luke Matheny who tossed Jimi Hendrix-scale tresses and quipped, "I shoulda got a haircut." The fact that most of the winners were popular films that the audience actually saw: Toy Story 3, Inception, The King's Speech, etc., etc.

POSTED: Sunday, February 27, 2011, 4:44 PM

For those who are both Eagles fans and Oscars fans, here's the complete text of the reaction of Christina and Jeffrey Lurie to the Oscar win of Inside Job, the terrific nonfiction film about the financial collapse of 2007, that took the best documentary prize at the Oscars. The Luries are the executive producers: 

“The Academy’s recognition of Inside Job is a distinct honor. We are humbled by winning this Oscar and we are very proud of the outstanding work of Charles Ferguson, Audrey Marrs and the entire team associated with the movie. Our goal was to bring a fair and thoughtful presentation of the actions that led to the financial collapse and show how it has negatively impacted millions of lives across the globe,” said Jeffrey and Christina Lurie, Philadelphia Eagles owners and executive producers of Inside Job.  “Many people are still suffering from this economic disaster and it is our hope that by understanding its root causes it can be better prevented in the future.”

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POSTED: Friday, February 25, 2011, 11:59 AM

Can't remember when it was that the Academy Awards became a subsidiary of the fashion and beauty industries, when the water-cooler talk the morning after shifted from what the winner said to what the winner wore. Though I scoff at the free publicity for designers and jewelers,  I would be lying if I said that what presenters and nominees wear is inconsequential.

 There is a language of Oscar clothes, from Daniel Day Lewis' frock coat and flowing locks that said Romantic poet to Helen Mirren's golden gown that announced "Not only did I play The Queen, I am the queen."

In recent Academy history, the one who really best knows How to Oscar is Halle Berry. She understands both the language and calculus of clothes. (That calculus: Like an actress, the dress has to look good in the full body shot, when it moves, and in close-up.) Her dresses  say va-va-voom  in  silhouette,  flow easily to express her vitality and are distinctive from shoulders up when she's at the podium. No one has better used the Oscars to announce her transition from ingenue to woman.

POSTED: Wednesday, February 23, 2011, 1:35 PM
Natalie Portman as Nina in "Black Swan;" Annette Bening as Nic in "The Kids Are All Right"

If the Academy gave awards for most distinctive debut performance, then Hailee Steinfeld would certainly win the supporting statuette this year for her role in True Grit and Natalie Portman and Jesse Eisenberg would have Oscars for their movie debuts The Professional (1994) and Roger Dodger (2002). Famously, Portman played the alienated tween taken under the wing of hitman Jean Reno while Eisenberg was the sexually curious teen taken under the wing of his jaded uncle, Campbell Scott. By the same token,  Christian Bale would most certainly have an Oscar for his part as the displaced English boy in the Japanese concentration camp in Empire of the Sun.

The other two leading Oscar contenders, Annette Bening and Colin Firth, had less auspicious debuts. Bening played Dan Aykroyd's wife in the boor comedy The Great Outdoors (1988) while Firth was one of the students  in the hermetic making-of-a-spy drama Another Country (1984).

Bening and Firth were much more memorable in Valmont (1989), which had the bad timing of being the second of the two movies based on Choderlos de Laclos' Dangerous Liaisons.

POSTED: Wednesday, February 16, 2011, 1:33 PM
Proteus IV gets jiggy with Julie Christie in Demon Seed.

As Jeopardy-heads know, it's "Man versus Machine" time on America's favorite game show. But what if it were Machine versus Machine: What if Watson the computer competed against Hal 9000 from 2001: A Space Odyssey?

Imagine the possibilities if movie computers could be Jeopardy contestants. Would that smartypants Master Control Program from Tron (1982) -- who brags how much smarter he is than his programmers -- try to replace Alex Trebek as Jeopardy host?

Would the sexually frustrated Proteus IV from Demon Seed (1977) try some funny business on another machine?

POSTED: Tuesday, February 15, 2011, 2:31 PM
Jesse Eisenberg as Mark Zuckerberg in The Social Network (left); Colin Firth as King George VI in The King's Speech (left)

At the Oscars last year, the two top contenders for Best Picture were Avatar, the feel-good spectacle about a mythical tribe who stages an uprising against corporate occupying forces, and The Hurt Locker, the feel-bad movie about an American risk addict serving as a U.S. soldier in occupied Baghdad. In a terrific article about Oscar hopefuls published a few weeks before last year's Academy Awards, Mark Harris correctly predicted that Hurt Locker had the edge, for two reasons: Because it was the Movie That Spoke to the Moment and because It Was Time that a woman director's work won Best Picture honors.

This year the two top contenders, The Social Network and The King's Speech, both received four-star reviews from me. Like every other Oscar prognosticator, I am predicting that  The King's Speech will win. Why, if it is The Social Network that is The Movie That Speaks to the Moment? Because while both are about entitled individuals, finally The Social Network is about a guy who doesn't question his entitlement and The King's Speech about a guy who is grateful to those who help him maintain his entitlement -- and title. The takeaway of Speech is one of gratitude, a warmer, fuzzier feeling than the ambiguity of Network. If I were voting, I'd give Speech best picture and Network best director. You? Your thoughts on takeaway message as a factor in Oscar voting?

POSTED: Wednesday, February 9, 2011, 9:02 AM
Meryl does Maggie

Probably not since the 1930s when Paul Muni reigned as King of Biopics in The Story of Louis Pasteur and The Life of Emile Zola has an actor played as many notables as Meryl Steep, that one-woman portrait gallery. She's played activists (Karen Silkwood), writers (thrice: Isak Dinesen in Out of Africa,  Nora Ephron in Heartburn and Susan Orlean in Adaptation)  chefs (Julia Child in Julie & Julia), teachers (Roberta Guaspari in Music of the Heart)  and now,  Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher. Streep is currently shooting The Iron Lady for Phyllida Lloyd, director of Mamma Mia!, Streep's biggest hit (and with $600 million-plus grosses worldlwide, the most successful movie directed by a woman).

I got a chill when I saw her in Thatcher drag (hat tip, Anne Thompson). You? As to why biopics, you know the answer: They're consistent Oscar candidates (like three of this year's nominees, The Fighter, The King's Speech and The Social Network). Which other figures would you like to see Streep portray?

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