Alexander Payne

Alexander Payne does not make mistakes, and that would seem to be his only serious handicap or restraint. But he has so many delicious virtues of taste, precision, and modesty. He has tragic instincts but will not succumb to melancholy. He is reluctant to let sex or violence overwhelm his work, especially in igniting combination. He not inclined to trust his heroes or villains; he has made a habit of wayward, awkward or unreliable characters. Give Payne an obvious movie star—like Jack Nicholson or George Clooney—and he looks for their lost ordinariness.

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The real reason people go to Telluride.

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At the public screening of The Descendants I saw, there was gentle but earnest applause as the film ended. It’s merited, and I suspect it came from a middle-aged audience that is weary of noise and violence in our films, and respectful of anyone prepared to deal candidly with family material. That doesn’t mean this is softer than PG. It’s an R film, with a lot of rough language, most of it coming from a ten-year-old and a seventeen-year-old.

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Hillary Clinton got Flicked. Sarah Palin and Kirsten Gillibrand, too. In fact, it's now fair to say that any ambitious female politician with the ability to make men see starbursts--or at least whose hair is blond--will invite comparisons to Tracy Flick, the hyper-driven and not a little bit demented student body president Reese Witherspoon made famous in Election. Rare is the character who receives a second life as a cultural phenomenon--and that fate was particularly unlikely in Flick's case. The film made just under $15 million when it disappeared from theaters in the summer of 1999.

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Reviewing About Schmidt in January, I mentioned that I had not read the Louis Begley novel from which the screenplay was tenuously derived. Several people have written to say that, though they liked the film and they had read Begley's approval of it, I ought to read the book. I'm thinking it over. The correspondents' friendly suggestion is, of course, a return to the perennial question of adaptation, the degree of responsibility of a later work to its source. Every such discussion is a matter of instances, not of precepts. Who cares if an unimportant novel is altered for screen use?

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