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Off the Wahl

Searching for quality fall flicks


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By Jan Wahl
Special To The Examiner
Published on Friday, October 17, 2003

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It's starting to look a lot like fall, because the good movies are coming at us!

The best ones are the toughest to find, but the search is worth it. They may not be playing at a multiplex near you, and they may be aced out of the Oscar race. That new rule about no screeners for Academy members means these smaller films won't get the publicity or nominations they deserve. The studio bosses and Jack Valenti, who works for them, have done this not because of piracy, but to make sure the small movies stay very, very small.

But we, the audience, can still win by at least supporting these films when they are released. Two films that are proving to be the best of the year are "My Life Without Me" and "Station Agent."

When we hear about the plot of "My Life Without Me," we expect a depressing movie. A 24-year-old woman finds out her life is coming to an end (information that in no way ruins a surprise in this movie). What is uplifting about it is we fall in love with this delightful, earthy woman and root for her all the way as she follows her list of must-do chores.

Sarah Polley ("The Sweet Hereafter," "The Weight of Water") infuses her character with honesty, love for her husband and children and appreciation for the small moments of life. This is an Oscar worthy performance, if voters get to see it. Directed from the heart by Isabel Coixet, costarring Mark Ruffalo, Deborah Harry and Scott Speedman, "My Life Without Me" is a spiritually rich and beautiful movie.

"The Station Agent" also introduces us to an unforgettable character. In this case, he's a railroad buff who likes to keep to himself. Peter Dinklage plays the 4-foot-5-inch loner who suddenly finds himself surrounded by some colorful, but lonely characters. Patricia Clarkson creates a raw portrait of grief and Bobby Cannavale provides warm laughs, but it is Dinklage that keeps us attached and meandering along the scenic route of this charming movie. Director/writer Tom McCarthy knows his actors and lets them shine in every frame. These are characters to connect with and enjoy, especially the charismatic Dinklage.

The movie you will be able to find in every megaplex and hyped in a thousand ads is "Intolerable Cruelty." This is one of my favorite genres: romantic comedy. Unfortunately, it is not a throwback to the screwball comedies starring Cary Grant and Rosalind Russell, William Powell and Myrna Loy or Henry Fonda and Barbara Stanwyk.

The problem with this new one, starring George Clooney and Catherine Zeta-Jones, is that we never care if they get together because it is cold where warmth is needed. Oh sure, there's a fun storyline about wealthy people and their divorces; for that reason I recommend it when you need a laugh. But Zeta-Jones has been directed to play it so smooth as to be passionless. Clooney has zany energy, but screen chemistry only works when both sides are armed and ready for battle. Her armor is her drop-dead looks and unflappable coolness. Not enough for me, though I'm sure enough for others.

"When the agents took over Hollywood, it became all about the deal. Say what you will about Warner, Mayer, Cohn and the rest, they at least cared about their movies saying something. Now it's all about money and catering to the lowest common denominator," said terrific actress Shirley MacLaine in a phone interview this week.

MacLaine writes books and leads seminars about "The Artist Within." She's bringing that one to the San Francisco Academy of Arts College Oct. 18-19.

"I take people through exercises. To be able to touch vulnerabilities, fears and what gives you the most joy. Students walk away with new ways to get in touch with the artist they are, whether its design, business, writing," said MacLaine.

MacLaine has a new book herself, called "Out on a Leash." It's about her relationship with her dog Terry and the many lessons she has learned from that special bond. For information on her seminars, call 1-800-544-ARTS.

I had a chance this week to speak with another Hollywood veteran, the fine character actor James Hong. Though he's worked with everyone from Clark Gable ("Soldier of Fortune") to Jennifer Jones and William Holden ("Love is a Many Splendor Thing"), it was his role as Faye Dunaway's butler in "Chinatown" that gave him a lesson in acting technique.

"Watching Dunaway I saw how to prepare for a scene, to get into the character. She's a very intense actress and it pays off," Hong said.

Hong remembers some intensity from an earlier Hollywood icon: "I was on the 'Blood Alley' set with Lauren Bacall and director Bill Wellman. Wellman was a tyrant, always shouting and raving. A crewmember finally threw a spitball at him. He spun around and was ready to slug someone. Bacall said, 'Oh, sit down, Bill. Control yourself!' Her timing and delivery was perfect!"

James Hong will be celebrating his 50 years in film when he is honored by The Asian American Donor Program on Nov. 14 at the San Mateo Marriott Hotel. For more information on this gala evening, call 1-800-593-6667 or log on to www.aadp.org .

Wahl's winner on video: Another look at the great director William A. Wellman: "Wild Bill, Hollywood Maverick." Bill Wellman, Jr. the director's son, has put together a fitting tribute to this brilliant, feisty filmmaker.

Jan Wahl of KRON-TV4 and KCBS All News 740 is a multi-Emmy-winning entertainment journalist, a member of the Directors Guild of America and the Broadcast Film Critics Association, a lecturer and film historian. You can e-mail her at: wahl@kron4.com.

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