June 27th, 2008
11:00 AM ET

Weekend plans

For me, this weekend means looking to the future and looking to the past:

"Wall-E" is the latest film from Pixar - and reviews suggest it's another classic.

  • As I’ve written in a previous entry, I’m a huge fan of Pixar. The studio is known for starting with a good story and working as hard on its scripts as it does on its animation, and the process has paid off: classic after classic, from “Toy Story” to “Monsters, Inc.” to “The Incredibles” to the wonderful “Ratatouille.” (If only every other studio was as devoted to story development, instead of a determination to blow money on special effects and poorly cast stars.) Pixar’s new film, “Wall-E,” looks to be another winner, based on the reviews. I can’t wait to see it.
  • One thing that’s struck me is how many reviews have compared the title character with Number Five in “Short Circuit” instead of the robot(s) that immediately came to my mind: Huey, Dewey and Louie from 1972’s “Silent Running.” Indeed, in some ways “Wall-E” is “Silent Running” from the other end of the telescope, the view from the polluted Earth instead of from outer space - in the case of “Silent Running,” ships that contain the planet’s forests and greenery.

    Of course, “Silent Running” is mostly tragic. I assume the G-rated “Wall-E” has a happier ending. And a better closing song.

  • On Tuesday, Criterion put out a new edition of “The Furies,” the 1950 Western directed by Anthony Mann (“Winchester ’73,” “The Glenn Miller Story,” “El Cid”). Watching “High Noon” has whetted my appetite for other unusual Westerns, and “The Furies” fits the bill: for starters, its lead character is a woman, played by Barbara Stanwyck. She’s trying to hold on to the family ranch by staying cleverly close to her father, played by Walter Huston in his last performance. The film contains psychological levels atypical of its time (and genre). Though Leonard Maltin’s film guide gives the film only 2 ½ stars, the L.A. Times and The New Yorker offer raves. Definitely worth a look.
  • And then there’s the 15th-anniversary edition of Liz Phair’s “Exile in Guyville,” the 1993 album that topped critics’ lists and made Phair an indie star - a status she’s struggled with ever since. I remember listening to the album when it came out, but with few exceptions it didn’t bowl me over - certainly not in the way some of “Whip-Smart” did a year later. Lord knows what happened to my old copy. I’ll give it another spin.
  • Or maybe I’ll rent “Silent Running.” It’s been awhile since I’ve watched it …

    - Todd Leopold, CNN.com Entertainment Producer

    Filed under: movies
    June 23rd, 2008
    10:59 AM ET

    George Carlin, 1937-2008

    One of the great joys of this job is that you occasionally get to meet your heroes. And they didn’t come much bigger, for me, than George Carlin.

    I was the kind of kid who repeated Carlin lines and routines to my friends (and received more Carlin lines and routines in return). I watched his specials. When my wife and I went to Las Vegas in 2002, the one show we took in was Carlin’s.

    So I was intimidated, to say the least, that day in late 2004 when he came by CNN Center for an interview. In Vegas, Carlin was at his best - which meant carving sacred cows into so much finely sliced meat. At one point in his show he poked fun at the name “Todd” (an easy name to make fun of, let me tell you). I didn’t want to end up on the end of his skewer.

    But the Carlin I met was everything I’d hoped for - relaxed, friendly, thoughtful, humane. He was modest about his own accomplishments, and saved his harshest (and most hilarious) words for two of his favorite targets, politics and religion.

    It was 30 minutes of heaven. Though I don’t know that a lapsed Catholic realist like Carlin would have used that word. (iReport: Share your thoughts on George Carlin)

    Like many fans, I find myself thinking of my favorite Carlin routines today. “Tonight’s weather forecast: Dark. Continued mostly dark tonight, followed by widely scattered light in the morning.”

    Baseball has the seventh-inning stretch. Football has the two-minute warning.”

    “Honesty may be the best policy, but it's important to remember that apparently, by elimination, dishonesty is the second-best policy.”

    I will miss him.

    - Todd Leopold, CNN.com Entertainment Producer

    Filed under: Uncategorized
    June 13th, 2008
    12:31 PM ET

    The big-screen experience

    Our friends at EW.com recently put out a gallery of films that the site’s readers would like to see in all their big-screen glory. Among their choices: “Star Wars,” “Lawrence of Arabia,” “2001: A Space Odyssey,” “Gone With the Wind” - excellent suggestions, all. (One person picked “Clue,” to which I can only say: It’s not going to get any better.)

    The glory of "2001: A Space Odyssey" is best enjoyed on a big screen.

    But the longing for seeing these classic films on the big screen makes me feel a little sad, because most of the people who wrote into EW - or, for that matter, most of the rest of us - will never get the chance to enjoy that experience.

    (Warning: Old-fart nostalgia on the way.)

    Nowadays, if you don’t see a movie in the three months - at the outside - it’s in a theater (and I’m being generous in calling some of those shoeboxes “theaters”), it’s on to video. And though there’s nothing wrong with a DVD, an HDTV and the comfort of your own couch, there’s always going to be something special about sitting in the dark, staring up at an image 20 feet high. Bigger, if it’s IMAX. (I won’t get into the psychological and technical differences between film and video, which are discussed here and here, among other places.)

    Of course, the moviegoing experience has been changing for generations. Early films played on nickelodeons, after all; it wasn’t until the 1920s and ‘30s that the giant, “healthfully air-conditioned” movie theater became widespread. At 43, I’m old enough to remember the dawn of the multiplex, which shrunk screens to screening-room dimensions; the words “held over” (“Jaws,” I recall, ran for more than a year at one New Orleans theater); and when VHS tapes cost $89 at the mom-and-pop video store, hence the rise of rentals.

    There was also something called the repertory theater, which showed classic, independent and foreign-language films in an ever-changing run. Those theaters still exist, but they’re increasingly hard to find - and, short of the occasional film festival or university, they’re about the only places you’ll see classics on the big screen.

    I’m not putting down video; it’s a great boon to have an entire film library at your fingertips through Netflix and other services. And the way TVs are growing, eventually we may all get the wall-sized screens forecast in old science-fiction novels.

    But seeing “2001” in full Cinerama with 1,000 equally awestruck theatergoers? Well, you had to be there.

    - Todd Leopold, CNN.com Entertainment Producer

    Filed under: movies
    June 10th, 2008
    11:10 AM ET

    'High Noon,' forevermore

    “A simple little Western,” Frank Langella intones in the narration to the documentary “Inside ‘High Noon,’ ” one of the bonus features on the new “Ultimate Collector’s Edition” of the 1952 classic, out Tuesday.

    And, indeed, “High Noon” does seem to be a Western stripped down to its most basic elements: the reluctant lawman, ready to leave town with his bride, called back for one last showdown with a group of outlaws as his townspeople desert him. The film even looks basic, with minimal scenery, terse dialogue and black-and-white photography.

    But, as the documentary notes with deliberate irony, "High Noon" isn't "a simple little Western." There’s a reason the film has become one of the all-time classics, its very title a synonym for a moment of decision: There’s more than meets the eye.

    There’s the script, for one thing. Carl Foreman’s screenplay is often taken to be an anti-McCarthy allegory - though, as one film historian says, you can also read Gary Cooper’s Marshal Will Kane as Joseph McCarthy, with Frank Miller and his gang as the Communists. (Similarly, “Invasion of the Body Snatchers” can be read as a film that argues against ‘50s conformity - or a horror film about the Red Menace.)

    There’s Fred Zinneman’s direction, carefully calibrated to heighten suspense with its tightly drawn scenes and cuts to the ticking clocks.

    And, of course, there’s Gary Cooper, whose stolid acting style - Harrison Ford is probably the closest analogue - works to the film’s great advantage, as his every emotional expression deepens the film’s power.

    His performance is all the more striking considering that Cooper, 51 at the time of the movie’s release and a dimming star, wasn’t the first choice to play Will Kane, who was supposed to be in his 30s. The role had been pitched to Marlon Brando, Montgomery Clift, Gregory Peck and Kirk Douglas, among others. But the film was made by Stanley Kramer’s independent production company, and Kramer could only get the cash from an investor who insisted on Cooper.

    Cooper won an Oscar for his performance. The film, however, was beaten by “The Greatest Show on Earth” for best picture. (Oscar historians have long believed that “High Noon” faced anti-liberal bias - Foreman was blacklisted during production - and split the vote with competitors “Moulin Rouge” and “The Quiet Man,” allowing “Greatest Show” to slip through.)

    “High Noon” isn’t on everybody’s short list of great films. The great director Howard Hawks called it “phony,” and many fans of Westerns prefer their genre with less allegory and more, well, West. But it’s cast a long shadow. The film has made the American Film Institute’s two lists of top 100 films (most recently at No. 27) and is allegedly a favorite among U.S. presidents. (One of those presidents, Bill Clinton, offers commentary in “Inside ‘High Noon.’ ”)

    For those who purchased the 50th anniversary "Collector's Edition" DVD of “High Noon” six years ago, the new set doesn’t offer much fresh material. But if you haven’t added “High Noon” to your library, the new edition is a good place to start.

    - Todd Leopold, CNN.com Entertainment Producer

    Filed under: Uncategorized
    June 2nd, 2008
    02:42 PM ET

    Bo Diddley, 1928-2008

    There was something elemental about it.

    The Bo Diddley Beat announced itself from the first “bump.” Coupled with the lyrics to Diddley songs - “I’m a man/I spell M-A-N,” “I walked 47 miles of barbed wire/Used a cobra snake for a necktie” - you knew you were in touch with a primal spirit, a rhythm that suggested swagger, energy, danger.

    And yes, sex. (Of course, sex.)

    Bo Diddley never got the recognition his contemporaries did. Chuck Berry wrote poetry about American life and joined it to his own distinctive riffs. Fats Domino had those rollicking piano triplets and that smooth voice. Buddy Holly could do rockabilly and romance. They were all mainstays in the Top Ten.

    Bo Diddley? Though his early songs topped the R&B charts, his highest-charting pop hit was 1959’s “Say Man,” which peaked at No. 20 on Billboard’s Hot 100, according to Allmusic.com.

    But Bo had the Beat.

    And, thank God, he gave it to the rest of us.

    - Todd Leopold, CNN.com Entertainment Producer

    Filed under: Music
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