DID YOU READ

Meryl Streep is not a Na’vi.

Meryl Streep is not a Na’vi.  (photo)

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Profiling the directorial debut of “Ghost Whisperer” creator John Gray — who’s financing his directorial debut “White Irish Drinkers” with $600,000 out of his own pocket — The New York Times‘ John Anderson feels it necessary to tell us that “it’s never been a tougher climate for independent film, since they don’t usually feature seven-foot blue-skinned Na’vis or Meryl Streep.” Har. More importantly: when did super-advanced 3D f/x and a sexegenarian acting legend become the same thing?

About two years ago. In accordance with the old studio executive dictum that two of anything is a trend that can be ridden out indefinitely, Streep’s blockbuster summers with “The Devil Wears Prada” and “Mamma Mia!” led Entertainment Weekly to dub her a “box office queen.” Vanity Fair picked up the meme as their January 2010 cover story. The evidence: those two movies, plus “Julie & Julia” and “It’s Complicated.”

Though journalists who need to fill up space are often guilty of cooking up fake trends from anything that happens three or more times, in this case, it’s the studio heads that deserve the blame. The EW article has Sony chief Amy Pascal raving about how Streep let her “sexiness” out in “Adaptation.” More interestingly, Donna Langley — then president of production at Universal, now co-chair — was skeptical that would lead to more female-driven films. “I don’t think one has anything to do with the other,” she said. “It’s a specific Meryl moment. But it’s wonderful to watch.”

01252010_Julie&Julia1.jpgWell, no, it’s not even that. It’s certainly true that Streep is toplining successful films, and that she has something to do with it. But correlation and causation are not the same thing; if they were, we’d be talking not just about those four films, but all the other amazingly successful films she’s made since “Prada.” Ready? “Dark Matter,” “Evening,” “Rendition,” “Lions for Lambs,” “Doubt.” Do you see where I’m going with this?

Now, granted, all of those were tough sells (“Lions for Lambs” is straight-up garbage, in particular), but her hits have all needed a little more help than having her name above the title. “Prada” was an adaptation of a wildfire best-seller done right, timed to ride on the hysteria surrounding “America’s Next Top Model,” “Mamma Mia!” filled the musical void during the summer of 2008 and used ABBA like a club, “Julie & Julia” was a cross-generational biopic, one of whom was really famous, released during the height of the Food Network’s popularity. The only one I’m prepared to concede is “It’s Complicated,” and even there, it was an ensemble rather than a solo vehicle released when there were no other major comedies at Christmas.

This is no knock on Streep, who I’ve particularly enjoyed in her late-period comedienne phase; she’s finally stopped scaring the hell out of me, leaving me more time to have nightmares about Isabelle Huppert. But her success doesn’t really have much to do with audiences having an OMGMERYLSTREEP moment. And certainly no one’s going to confuse her with a Na’vi.

[Photos: “The Devil Wears Prada,” 20th Century Fox, 2006; “Julie & Julia,” Columbia Pictures, 2009.]

Jackie That 70s Show

Jackie Oh!

15 That ’70s Show Quotes to Help You Unleash Your Inner Jackie

Catch That '70s Show Mondays and Tuesdays from 6-10P on IFC.

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Photo Credit: Carsey-Werner Company

When life gets you down, just ask yourself, what would Jackie do? (But don’t ask her, because she doesn’t care about your stupid problems.) Before you catch That ’70s Show on IFC, take a look at some quotes that will help you be the best Jackie you can be.


15. She knows her strengths.

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14. She doesn’t let a little thing like emotions get in the way.

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13. She’s her own best friend.

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12. She has big plans for her future.

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11. She keeps her ego in check.

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10. She can really put things in perspective.

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9. She’s a lover…

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8. But she knows not to just throw her love around.

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7. She’s proud of her accomplishments.

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6. She knows her place in the world.

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5. She asks herself the hard questions.

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4. She takes care of herself.

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3. She’s deep.

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2. She’s a problem solver.

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1. And she’s always modest.

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“I learned fried chicken at the school of hard knocks.”

“I learned fried chicken at the school of hard knocks.” (photo)

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Slate‘s annual “Movie Club” meeting of critical minds is off and running, with some of our still-employed stalwarts — Slate‘s own Dana Stevens, the Boston Globe‘s Wesley Morris, Salon‘s Stephanie Zacharek, freelancer Dan Kois and Roger Ebert — united in order to hash out…well, “Precious,” again.

But in that process, Morris contributes the first genuinely original, compelling take I’ve read on the film.

It’s about the food. That Precious steals a bunch of fried chicken has been the single most-cited point for those arguing that the film runs towards racist stereotypes. Morris sees it differently:

If all we can see in this melodrama is a kind of “Rhythm Nation”-esque social tract (Illiteracy: No! Ignorance: No! Teen pregnancy as a consequence of incest: No!), then food is one of its complaints. […] There are obvious socioeconomic explanations for why some of us eat what we do, and this is the only film I can think of that manages to fold the problem of class and diet into the larger nightmare of abuse.

These days, food consumption is fraught with class and nutritional implications at all times — especially in a country simultaneously noted for its rampant obesity and its high expense of eating nutritiously.

01062010_informant5.jpgI’d argue that “The Informant!” also foregrounds the whole class/food connection in its portrait of an industry foisting a deeply unhealthy product (corn derivatives) on an unaware public. “The Informant!” briefly dramatizes what a movie like “Food Inc.” builds itself around: the idea that the way we eat (unless we’re very lucky, spend enormous amounts of time and money on food and can generally afford to be exceptionally conscientious) is not up to us to control, which is truer and truer the further down the economic ladder we go.

Soderbergh covered the other end of the spectrum with “The Girlfriend Experience,” in which sometimes it seems the only reason Sasha Grey is an escort is to afford designer risotto which she picks at.

I’d also point to Nimrod Antal’s “Armored” as a subtle(r) corollary to “Precious,” its working class milieu equally menaced by social workers and bordered by lousy nutritional options; everyone’s chowing down on greasy hot dogs for lunch and cheap beer for dinner as a matter of course.

The loser in all of this? “Julie & Julia,” whose depiction of Julie Powell’s quest to master the Julia Child ouevre isn’t just oddly low on the kind of food porn you’d expect from the kind of movie that logically should slot next to “Babette’s Feast” and “Big Night,” it’s inadequate in thinking about how harassed, low-paying, living-in-Queens Powell got specialty ingredients for a whole year.

[Photos: “Precious,” Lionsgate, 2009; “The Informant!,” Warner Bros. Pictures, 2009]

Seven lessons from 2009.

Seven lessons from 2009. (photo)

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Stars matter. Sort of.
This one’s kind of up in the air (heh). On the one hand, it’s possible to launch and/or sustain a franchise these days with players who wouldn’t have the ghost of a prayer in opening a movie on their own (take Shia LaBeouf’s non-success-causing hand in the “Transformers” series, or the mostly low-rent “Star Trek” crew). But it decidedly helps if you have some kind of “star” to anchor your Indiewood movie, whether directly on-screen (George Clooney in “Up In The Air”) or in some other important association (Tyler Perry and Oprah Winfrey’s double-team on “Precious”). It gives the impression your film’s something special enough to encourage someone famous to take a pay cut.

Theory: a star like Clooney may have trouble launching his own studio product on a regular basis, but is nothing but an asset to the lower-budgeted fare. In the future, as “stars” decline, all it’ll take is a couple of solid hits where you’re not the main draw all on your lonesome (as in Clooney in the “Ocean’s” movies) to give you enough cred to launch low-/mid-budget fare. So don’t count the name value of marquee names out yet; your local Sundance aspirant needs them.

3D is here forever and ever.
It’s a truism that blockbusters are just old-fashioned B-movies with A-movie budgets (and that, nowadays, it’s the A-movies that get the B-movie budgets, but never mind). So what’s different about the new wave of 3D movies is that they aren’t the cheapie novelties of yesteryear (except for maybe “Battle For Terra”); they have real budgets and muscle behind them. No longer is 3D just for the third installment in some godforsaken franchise, and the equipment being installed is permanent. After two false starts in the ’50s and ’80s, looks like it’s here to stay.

People really, really like “Mulholland Dr.”
David Lynch’s final dispatch from the world of real film has been topping decade polls with surprising regularity. The reason’s obvious: “Mulholland Dr.” (frequently accompanied by “In The Mood For Love” and “Yi Yi”) came out at the beginning of the decade and has had more time to sink in than, say, “There Will Be Blood.” I have to admit I never though I’d be living in a time where one of Lynch’s more inscrutable exercises is a consensus pick. We live in a beautiful world, etc, etc.

Mumblecore’s been around long enough to be backlashed, dead and reborn.
It’s hard to believe that it’s been almost seven years since I first saw “Funny Ha Ha” projected in an ad hoc theater at the back of a coffee house in Austin, but sure enough the “mumblecore” movies (apologize to all those who automatically wince at this still-useful catchphrase) have been with us so long that “Team Picture” director Kentucker Audley could claim “Mutual Appreciation” as an influence.

In 2009, Andrew Bujalski’s third feature “Beeswax” was received at the Berlinale with mixed reviews, as if mumblecore rearing its head on the international premieres circuit was too much to bear. Meanwhile, Mark Duplass joined an FX show about fantasy football and mumblecore It Girl Greta Gerwig is working opposite Ben Stiller. (If you want to go back even further and accept the argument that David Gordon Green’s “George Washington” was the first m-core movie, it’s actually been a decade and “Bright Star”‘s Paul Schneider could well get an Oscar nomination.) However these movies age or are remembered, they’re the work of a group of filmmakers who stuck around longer than expected and left traces all over in ways that are still working themselves out.

01012010_allaboutsteve3.jpgWe live in a golden age for supporting comic players.
Having had the professional task of watching weak comedies like “The Goods: Live Hard, Sell Hard,” “Imagine That” and “All About Steve,” I can say with a fair degree of confidence that it’s hard to make a totally unredeeming studio comedy these days. Even your average mediocrity has turns worth treasuring from a newly ubiquitous group of second bananas — Ken Jeong, Thomas Haden Church, Romany Malco and so on. These guys deserve to be in the lead parts, really, but they make most everything go down a little easier.

Less movies are a good thing for everyone.
In the middle of a conspicuously underpopulated winter release schedule, everyone’s prospering as Hollywood completes another record box office year. A diminished release calendar (which looks to be the case for next year as well) doesn’t just help everyone make money; it frees up theater screens, maybe allowing some smaller films more space to play, and letting word-of-mouth hits to have time to stick around and build crowds. Everyone wins.

China is more important than you.
The PRC keeps popping up in all kinds of unexpected ways in film news, whether it’s creating an entirely internally-self-sustaining industry or becoming a huge new source of income for Hollywood product (something that’s only going to expand in 2010 as China is forced to take steps towards opening up the market even further).

[Photos: “Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen,” Paramount/Dreamworks, 2009; “All About Steve,” Twentieth Century-Fox Film Corporation, 2009]

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