Sad news today, and little time to say more than this: she was one of the biggest stars in the history of movies. Elizabeth Taylor died this morning, and she leaves behind many great moments, the best of which will outlive us all.
(For other clips and comments, you could run a search on the MAD About Movie front page, like this.)
A Place in the Sun (1951)
George Stevens, director
Elizabeth Taylor, Montgomery Clift
It’s a truism in the world of crosswords that the more you know about a subject, the more likely you’ll find something to object to when the subject appears in a puzzle.
An example: every now and then you’ll see “Velocity” as a clue for SPEED. When it happens, someone, usually with a background in physics, will say, “Hey, that’s not right.” They have a point: ”velocity” and “speed” are not the same thing, in certain contexts. If you equate the two on a physics test, good chance you’ll get dinged for it. (If you need to know why, look here.) The trouble with knowing about physics is that you may think about scalar and vector quantities. The non-expert thinks in terms of everyday usage, where ”velocity” and “speed” mean very much the same thing. (If you need to confirm that, check the dictionary.) The expert pauses, and maybe objects. The non-expert writes in the answer and moves on.
The same phenomenon happens with movies. A movie wants to tell a story, not give a finely detailed document of reality. It will simulate reality to the point that it makes the world it presents believable. But it does that by approximation. Even if the director gives ten interviews proclaiming the great effort expended to get all the details exactly right, the film at best is still an approximation. The ones who know the difference are the ones who know the world inside the movie best. A scene about meat packing may work for most people, but if there’s an objection from anyone, it’ll be a meat packer.
I’m not a meat packer. I’m a crossword constructor. I see a crossword puzzle in a movie, I pay attention. Most people, even non-solvers, have a fair grasp of what a crossword is, so you’d think it’s not a hard thing to get right in a movie. But apparently it is. Crosswords in movies frequently break the conventions that crosswords in the real world adhere to.
Case in point: The Cotton Club (1984), Francis Ford Coppola’s Jazz Age gangster film set in Harlem. I had it on Sunday and had to stop it around the hour-eleven mark. Here’s a picture. If you don’t see a problem, you probably don’t do puzzles.
First, let me give the film credit for having a crossword at all. As I mentioned last week, a crossword craze hit the country during the mid-1920s. This scene takes place in 1928 or 1929, so it’s fitting for a character to sit down and solve a puzzle. It’s a good period detail to have in the story.
Before saying more, here’s a caveat. I’m no expert on puzzles of that era. I’ve seen puzzles from the 1910s, and from the 1940s on, and what puzzles looked like in the 1920s involves a bit of guesswork. That said, my guess is that this was a 1980s-vintage puzzle modified for the purposes of the film.
The giveaway is the unchecked white square in the middle of the grid, just to the left of the A in RAGES coming down the center. That’s a no-no in the crossword trade. Another no-no is the two-letter word running down the unnumbered white squares to the left of ES in RAGES; standard crosswords require answers to be three letters or longer. While we’re at it, let’s note that the grid lacks symmetry. These are blatant errors. What’s going on?
The puzzle originally was a standard 78-word grid, with regular crossword symmetry, conforming to the usual rules. The filmmakers, however, decided to add a black square near the middle, just to the left of the G in GANGSTER. Why? GANGSTER is the answer being written in during the shot. It’s the the key word for the scene, and that extra black square makes room to fit its eight letters on the row across. No other across answer is eight letters long. GANGSTER had to go somewhere. (It could have gone down but that would’ve been harder for the audience to read.)
The prop department solved the problem by adding a black square. Maybe they didn’t know the errors they were creating. Maybe they didn’t care. Maybe they didn’t think any of the tens of millions of crossword solvers would notice. Maybe they didn’t think an answer like GANGSTER had to follow the rules anyway.
The easy fix would have been to use a different crossword grid, one with an 8-letter answer across. But if you know anything about the making of The Cotton Club, you know easy had nothing to do with it.
The movie cost north of $50 million, and it shows. The film looks great. The cars, the clothes, the dancing, the light falling through the smoky club room, the glass breaking in the phone booth from a fusillade of bullets. Great attention was paid to detail. The crossword puzzle, not so much.
That’s the way it always is. Hey, if you need help, Hollywood, just call. Meanwhile, I’ll be looking for a five-letter answer ending in BW, crossing BEER / WAR. Can’t say I’ve seen that one before.
The big winner of the night, with four Academy Awards including Best Picture, is The King’s Speech. Not my pick but hardly a surprise, either. I’m disappointed that The Social Network won only three Oscars; it deserved to win for director and picture too. The Academy’s taste for good, respectable fare with a British royal and a suitable accent knows no bounds. The Weinstein brothers, who once lassoed a Best Picture for Shakespeare in Love, were not a team to bet against.
A few highlights from the evening: Aaron Sorkin, ever the writer, with the most eloquent speech of the evening; David Seidler, the self-proclaimed oldest winner in the writer category; Susanne Bier, just the third woman director to win in the foreign-language category; and the too-brief appearance of Billy Crystal, who gave me the first laugh of the show. (The best hosts in the history of the show have been the great comedians—Crystal, Hope, Carson. The show succeeds when it’s funny. The Academy should find a funny, classy comedian who’s young, if that’s where the Academy is aiming, and if there isn’t one—can’t think of a name off the top of my head—they should find someone older who can provide a bit of entertainment.)
Because you probably cannot find a list of winners anywhere else on the web, I offer one below. (The * indicates winners that I had predicted. I finished 17 of 24, respectable—and better than Ebert, for what it’s worth—but not likely a winner in the pool.)
Summary of Oscar wins by feature film:
The King’s Speech — 4
Inception — 4
The Social Network — 3
Alice in Wonderland — 2
The Fighter — 2
Toy Story 3 — 2
Black Swan — 1
The Wolfman — 1
In a Better World — 1
Inside Job — 1
Winners by category:
WINNER: The King’s Speech
Actor in a Leading Role*
WINNER: Colin Firth, The King’s Speech
Actress in Leading Role*
WINNER: Natalie Portman, Black Swan
Actor in a Supporting Role*
WINNER: Christian Bale, The Fighter
Actress in a Supporting Role*
WINNER: Melissa Leo, The Fighter
WINNER: Tom Hooper, The King’s Speech
Writing (Original Screenplay)*
WINNER: David Seidler, The King’s Speech
Writing (Adapted Screenplay)*
WINNER: Aaron Sorkin, The Social Network
Animated Feature Film*
WINNER: Toy Story 3
WINNER: Inside Job
Documentary (Short Subject)
WINNER: Stranger No More
Foreign Language Film*
WINNER: In a Better World
Short Film (Animated)
WINNER: The Lost Thing
Short Film (Live Action)
WINNER: God of Love
WINNER: Alice in Wonderland
WINNER: Alice in Wonderland
WINNER: The Social Network
WINNER: The Wolfman
Music (Original Score)*
WINNER: The Social Network
Music (Original Song)*
WINNER: “We Belong Together,” Toy Story 3
Maria Schneider died on Thursday after a battle with cancer, at 58. The French actress was best known for the role of Jeanne, opposite Marlon Brando, in the 1972 film Last Tango in Paris. She was 19 at the time.
Bernardo Bertolucci would like to extend a belated apology:
Italian director Bernardo Bertolucci said Thursday he wished he could have apologised to the late Maria Schneider for putting her through graphic sex scenes in his classic 1972 film “Last Tango in Paris”.
“Her death has come too early, before I could give her a tender embrace and tell her that I was as tied to her as I was at the start and apologise to her at least once,” Bertolucci was quoted by the ANSA news agency as saying.
“The strong and creative relationship that we had during the filming of ‘Last Tango’ became poisoned with the passing of time,” he said.
“Maria accused me of having robbed her of her youth and only today am I wondering whether there wasn’t some truth to that,” he added.
David Thomson ponders if the film ruined her life:
It’s hard now to think the essential purpose of Last Tango in Paris wasn’t to take advantage of Maria Schneider to get our dollars. I don’t mean to say the film lacks anguish, or that Brando isn’t riveting in it. But I’m not sure it was worth doing if it ruined a life. You can argue that actresses know what to expect. Haven’t they heard about show business? Maybe. But some actresses are desperate to believe in what they are doing. Just like actors. Just like us. Let’s tip our hats to Maria Schneider.
Last week we looked at Sundance films from years past. Here are the top award winners from Sundance 2011, presented over the weekend:
Grand Jury Prize, Dramatic: Like Crazy
Drake Doremus, director
Anton Yelchin, Felicity Jones and Jennifer Lawrence
A cross-continental relationship drama
Audience Award, Dramatic: Circumstance
Maryam Keshavarz, director
An The Iranian lesbian romance drama (sui generis, I’d bet)
Grand Jury Prize, Documentary: How to Die in Oregon
Peter D. Richardson, director
A heartrending look at Oregon’s right-to-die law
Audience Award, Documentary: Buck
Cindy Meeh, director
The story of Buck, the real-life horse appearing in the Robert Redford film The Horse Whisperer
You can get more info and the rest of the winners at the festival blog.
YouTube turns six next month. By many standards, it’s been a huge success. Google paid more than $1 billion to buy it, making YouTube’s founders rich. It’s a popular site for catching up with whole variety of things (news, politics, music, sports, other entertainment), and for connecting people in new and different ways (social networking, education, marketing, etc.). It’s been a wonderful time-waste for millions of bored workers around the world. Where else can you find hours of video of dumb things pets do in the backyard? Or hours of new and old movie clips, for that matter—hey, what would this site be without YouTube?
On the other hand, much of the content newly created for YouTube is dismal, very primitive. We’re just a few years into the small-d democratic video age, and it seems that no one quite knows what to do with it yet. (Let’s agree that mumblecore and mashups are not the answer.) I’m not looking to compare YouTube videos with big-budget Hollywood productions. But the fact is, the tools needed to make a decent video are available to virtually anyone who has the interest, yet the appeal and production values of the typical YouTube clip doesn’t measure up to what you could have found in the past on public-access TV.
YouTube is just a distribution outlet (like Hulu and other sites), and it’s not in the production business. I understand that. But I think there’s much greater promise for independent video and film than what we’ve seen so far. Which may be, I hope, just around the corner. Looking back to the very early days of cinema, it took about a half-decade before some very creative storytellers started using the tools that were available then to make films that had aesthetic and lasting appeal. Maybe that’s where we are today.
With that said, here’s a perfect example of the future of independent film. In three minutes and thirty-five seconds, Jamie Stuart captures a few hours from a snowstorm in New York in a wonderfully fresh way that’s impossible to stop watching.
This film deserves to win the Academy Award for best live-action short subject.
(1) Because of its wonderful quality. (2) Because of its role as homage. It is directly inspired by Dziga Vertov’s 1929 silent classic “Man With a Movie Camera.” (3) Because it represents an almost unbelievable technical proficiency. It was filmed during the New York blizzard of Dec. 26, and Jamie Stuart e-mailed it to me with this time stamp: December 27, 2010 4:18:18 PM CST.
Here’s more from Ebert, comments from Stuart, and other clips, including Vertov’s Man With a Camera.
I count at least eight movie posters for Black Swan. Here are three of them.
My favorite, and it’s not even close: the one on the right. It’s startling, and it captures Natalie Portman in all her beauty and fragility. My choice for best movie poster of the year.
One question for any movie based a real-life story is how close to the truth does it get. Truth can be viewed in different ways, of course, and one of them is just getting the facts straight. As I was saying at the end of the year, I’m not sure that’s the most important thing. I expect some invention in the storytelling, as long as we’re not talking about a documentary.
Perhaps there is another standard for films—or at least, scenes in films—that are part of the public record. They invite, and receive, a higher level of scrutiny. Here’s one example: Kevin B. Lee’s fascinating look at the title fight sequence in The Fighter.
Director David O. Russell does take one or two liberties with his re-creation, but overall I’d say it’s some remarkably true-to-life filmmaking.
You can tell that Oscar campaigns are in full swing when you see front-page articles like this in the New York Times:
Mr. Moore of Paramount stopped short of making Oscar predictions. But he noted that only two western dramas, “Dances With Wolves” and “Unforgiven,” had been major hits in the last 20 years.
“And both won best picture,” he said.
The article asks the burning question: “As a Hot Ticket, Will ‘True Grit’ Sway the Oscars?” Good for the Coens that they have their top box office success evah! Asked if he had any idea why, Joel Coen said, “None at all.” But it’s not as though the season’s more critically acclaimed films have been flops.
Case in point:
Domestic: $89,292,295 (13 days)
The Social Network (95 days)
And there’s this:
Inception (172 days)
Besides, wasn’t the question about any box office/best picture connection answered last year?
The Hurt Locker
I don’t recall James Cameron thanking the Academy on Oscar night.
On a separate note, anyone associated with a system that calls True Grit a PG-13 film (killings left and right, dismembered fingers, other bloody behavior) and The King’s Speech an R (one brief flurry of mild cursing that wouldn’t make a nun blush) should be locked in an asylum. It’s ratings madness.