Thursday, December 30, 2004

The Year in Review: Movies

It used to be hard to draft a best list. Back before the shortened Oscar season, many of the year-end awards contenders wouldn’t be released nationwide until February. Now, MILLION DOLLAR BABY is the only major holdout, and I’ll be able to see it next weekend. I wouldn’t be surprised if it factored into my final tally; I’m a big Clint Eastwood fan and I read the F. X. Toole novella on which the film is based. (Although I have to say I thought Toole laid it on a little thick. I’m curious to see how a filmmaker as spare as Eastwood handles the material.)

I could wait until every county was heard from, but where’s the fun in that? So let’s call this my Slightly-Premature-Still-Haven’t-Caught-The-Latest-From-Clint-And-Marty Best of 2004. For starters, I have a rock-solid top 5:

SPARTAN. Am I the only person to consider this the best movie of the year? I don’t care. I don’t care that it was pilloried last week on Andrew Sullivan’s website when the New Republic named it one of the year’s overlooked movies. (The criticism at Sullivan’s site was off-base anyway. David Mamet is non-partisan. He thinks everybody’s a hustler. The film’s unseen president combines the worst excesses of Bush II and Clinton, just as the unseen president in Mamet’s script for WAG THE DOG was an amalgam of Clinton and Bush I.) Mamet’s gripping thriller draws its power from startling bursts of emotion and preys on everyone’s worst fears of politicization run amok. It knocked me on my heels back in March and I never forgot it. What can I tell you? I’m not like everybody else.

SIDEWAYS. OK, I am like everybody else. I love this movie and every screwed-up character in it.

BEFORE SUNSET. For being the least likely sequel ever. For being every bit as intense as a thriller. But mainly for having the best ending in years.

COLLATERAL. Michael Mann’s triumphant return to genre filmmaking asks what a job takes out of a man and what a man takes out of a job.

ETERNAL SUNSHINE OF THE SPOTLESS MIND. Funny, I found it easy to follow.

Close behind them is a second tier of movies:

BAD EDUCATION. This film noir meditation on storytelling is proof that Pedro Almodovar is the world’s finest active filmmaker.

BON VOYAGE. Did anyone else even see this? A lush, comic WWII adventure that’s also a celebration of style – in life and in movies.

CELLULAR. Laugh if you must. But this was the most fun I had in a theater this year.

HERO. The more political of Zhang Yimou’s two martial arts epics, and the more interesting because of it.

THE INCREDIBLES. Perhaps Pixar’s crowning achievement, and a watershed movie for animation in America.

INFERNAL AFFAIRS. A near-perfect piece of entertainment.

SPIDER-MAN 2. The comic book elevated to the level of opera. The highest compliment I can pay this movie: it made me feel like I was eight years old again.

THE TERMINAL. I thought I was the only person who picked up the blithe spirit of Chaplin here. But David Thomson spotted it, too.

Other quick thoughts on the year. There were three cinematic flashpoints in 2004 – THE PASSION OF THE CHRIST, FAHRENHEIT 9/11, and DOGVILLE – and I’m not sure what it says about me that I didn’t care for any of them. For a purportedly spiritual film, THE PASSION focused exclusively on the physical. Michael Moore couldn’t mount a cogent argument. Lars von Trier stacked the deck so that a cogent argument was impossible. Or, to put it another way: too bloody, too muddy, and too cruddy.

Overlooked Performances: Jeff Bridges in THE DOOR IN THE FLOOR, Helen Mirren in THE CLEARING

Performance I Was Afraid Would Be Overlooked: Clive Owen in CLOSER

Personal Cinematic Accomplishment of Which I Am Most Proud: According to David Poland, the lowest grossing film released by a major studio in 2004 was Disney’s THE LAST SHOT, starring Alec Baldwin and Matthew Broderick. It made $465,000. Ten bucks of that is mine.

Unsung Character Actor of the Year: Anybody can throw prizes at the big names. I want to single out someone lesser known who made my 2004 a little brighter. Rick Hoffman has an uncredited bit in THE DAY AFTER TOMORROW as a grumpy New York lawyer. In CELLULAR, he plays a sleazy Los Angeles lawyer. In a few minutes of screen time, he neatly delineates the differences between the coasts. That’s got to be worth something.

See you next year. Bring your own popcorn. I never touch the stuff.

Wednesday, December 29, 2004

R.I.P. Jerry Orbach

I’m not a regular viewer of LAW & ORDER, but I enjoyed many of the episodes I watched because of the work of Jerry Orbach. Sadly, I never had the opportunity to see him on stage, although Rosemarie did in a revival of 42nd STREET. His musical performances (including his voice work in Disney’s BEAUTY AND THE BEAST) and his epic run on L&O will no doubt be his legacy. But I’d like to single out a few of his other turns that might be overlooked.

The first time I saw Jerry Orbach was in 1986’s F/X. He played the hale Mafia kingpin whose faked death sets the story in motion. F/X was one of those movies I watched over and over in high school, and Orbach’s sly performance was a big part of its charm. He’s also terrific in PRINCE OF THE CITY, playing an undercover cop running a business as part of a sting which he manages to turn into a going concern. And for many years, Orbach was the record-holder on CELEBRITY JEOPARDY!, donating his winnings to the pet charity Bide-A-Wee. Quite a career.

Miscellaneous: Link

The Village Voice’s year-end film issue is, as usual, an embarrassment of riches. My favorite piece is the defense of the orphan picks, in which critics participating in the poll justify selections (BEYOND THE SEA, the DAWN OF THE DEAD remake) that are theirs alone.

Tuesday, December 28, 2004

The Year In Review: Books

The book topping my half-year recap maintained position: Edward Conlon’s BLUE BLOOD. A brilliant, incisive memoir of life as one of New York’s finest. Nothing else I read this year had the same impact.

As for fiction, here are ten titles from 2004 that mattered to me:

THE BURGLAR ON THE PROWL, by Lawrence Block
THE CONFESSION, by Domenic Stansberry
COTTONWOOD, by Scott Phillips
EARTHQUAKE WEATHER, by Terrill Lee Lankford
THE ENEMY, by Lee Child
A GENTLEMAN’S GAME, by Greg Rucka
HARD REVOLUTION, by George Pelecanos
SUNSET AND SAWDUST, by Joe R. Lansdale
THIEVES’ DOZEN, by Donald E. Westlake
THE 37th HOUR, by Jodi Compton

This year’s award of merit goes to Hard Case Crime, for bringing back pulp fiction in style. They published THE CONFESSION as well as GRIFTER’S GAME by Lawrence Block, which would have made this list handily if it hadn’t been originally released in 1961.

The Year in Review: Television

Best TV Series: THE WIRE
Hard On Its Heels: DEADWOOD, ENTOURAGE

I suppose I could have said “Best Network: HBO” and been done with it. What can I tell you? I only watch TV on Sunday nights. The rest of the week I’ve got movies to see. More on them later.

Miscellaneous: Link

Twenty-five new titles are added to the National Film Registry, including the original D.O.A., ENTER THE DRAGON, UNFORGIVEN, and that Cold War classic DUCK AND COVER.

Thursday, December 23, 2004

DVD: California Split (1974)

A few years ago, I instituted a three-strikes rule for directors. Make three movies that I can’t stand, and I never have to subject myself to your work again.

The only exception to this policy is Robert Altman. He’s responsible for some truly awful, self-indulgent films, several of them so long (PRET A PORTER, SHORT CUTS) that they should count against him twice. But when he’s on, there’s no finer observer of human behavior. SPLIT, one of his lesser-known efforts, has basically been out of circulation for 30 years. The DVD release reveals it to be among Altman’s best work.

That’s because it plays to his strengths. It’s a hangout movie, following a writer (George Segal) as he develops a friendship with a fellow degenerate gambler (Elliott Gould). Both actors are in top form here, the bond between them instantly electric. Ann Prentiss costars. She’s a dead ringer for her sister Paula. And you know how I feel about her.

SPLIT is one of the best films made about compulsive gambling because Altman and writer Joseph Walsh are willing to show the highs that come with the lows, and not only in terms of winning. There’s a chaotic rhythm to the lives of these men that at times seems enormously appealing. Eating Lucky Charms with Elliott Gould and two prostitutes has it all over punching in at nine and reporting to wavy-haired editor Jeff Goldblum, photographed during an unfortunate skin phase.

And the film’s ending is still potent. With Altman, you know you’re not going to get a rah-rah finish. But what he offers here isn’t the typical dark ‘70s finale, either. It features the kind of stark epiphany that so seldom occurs in life that you’ve given up expecting it in the movies. When it comes, it packs a hell of a punch.

DVD: The Night of the Hunter (1955)

A recent conversation about Martin Scorsese’s remake of CAPE FEAR prompted me to revisit this movie. Both employ a baroque visual style, but Scorsese’s approach seems wildly at odds with the psychological realism of the story. The theatricality that Charles Laughton brings to HUNTER is inseparable from Davis Grubb’s tale, adapted by James Agee.

I’d have to put this on the short list of true American classics. How could Laughton only have directed once? Only an amateur would attempt as scene as bold – and as terrifying – as Harry Powell’s ride across the landscape at moonlight, staged as Japanese puppet theater. Robert Mitchum acts against type and delivers his greatest performance. He’s less a psychopath than an escapee from Grimm’s Fairy Tales, a child’s vision of evil. And the closing scene with Lillian Gish made it appropriate holiday viewing.

And on that note, as I won’t be posting again until next week ... Ho Ho Ho!

Tuesday, December 21, 2004

Movie: Ocean’s Twelve (2004)

My dislike of the 2001 OCEAN’S ELEVEN verges on the irrational. It’s not out of loyalty to the 1960 original, which, to borrow a phrase from Mel Gibson, is as boring as a dog’s ass. And it’s not because of what many critics perceive as the remake’s smugness. I have no problem with a stylish director working his mojo and an attractive cast standing around looking cool.

I don’t like the new OCEAN’S ELEVEN because it’s a lousy heist picture. Nobody on the crew is squirrelly. It’s a given in a heist picture that there’s at least one guy on the job you’re not 100% on. Consider the Brando/DeNiro film THE SCORE, which came out the same year. There are only three guys working that caper, and you’re not sure about two of them. But none of Danny Ocean’s boys are toying with a cut and run. They’re as solid as New Hampshire granite. Come on. There are eleven of them, for Christ’s sake.

So I was a little apprehensive about seeing the sequel to the remake. (Now there’s a depressing sentence.) But see it I did, because I can’t resist a Steven Soderbergh movie. He’s the most consistently interesting mainstream director in Hollywood. Anyone who can make both OUT OF SIGHT and SCHIZOPOLIS is capable of anything.

To my surprise, the follow-up turns out to be better than the first go-round. Largely because Soderbergh and screenwriter George Nolfi dispense with the idea that they’re making a heist picture. There are robberies galore in the film, but they’re literally afterthoughts. We only hear about them after they’ve been pulled off.

Thus, OCEAN’S TWELVE is free to follow a higher calling, which is to celebrate the fabulous in all its forms. The attractiveness quotient of the cast is upped considerably with the addition of Catherine Zeta-Jones and Vincent Cassel. Eddie Izzard and Robbie Coltrane pop in just to be cool. And Soderbergh is clearly enjoying himself, spotlighting gorgeous European locales using a battery of nouvelle vague camera tricks.

The movie’s a broad, showy lark, reminiscent of flamboyantly mod 1960s films like DIABOLIK and CASINO ROYALE. The only problem, of course, is that none of those flamboyantly mod 1960s films are really any good. They eventually collapse under the weight of all that whimsy. And OCEAN’S TWELVE is no exception. It’s fizzy for the first hour, then it goes flat. But it looks great.

This movie should hold me over until the announced sequel to Pierce Brosnan’s THE THOMAS CROWN AFFAIR, which will borrow elements from the 1964 Oscar-winner TOPKAPI. Making it not only a sequel to a remake, but a remake in its own right.

Excuse me. I’ve got to go lie down.

Miscellaneous: Link

Variety’s Robert Koehler gives a complete rundown of every movie entered in this year’s Best Foreign Film derby. Check it out, because it may be the only publicity some of these films get.

Monday, December 20, 2004

TV: The Wire

Season three of HBO’s crime drama came to a rousing close last night. The focus of the series has always been the mechanics of big-city life; watching it is like getting a glimpse of how the world actually works.

This season was built around a concept that allowed the show to delve deep into the subject. A Baltimore police commander with his eye on retirement (Robert Wisdom, in one of the best performances of the year) decides to enact a drug enforcement policy of his own. If the dealers restrict the trade to unofficial “free zones,” the cops will leave them alone. (Wisdom has a magnificent speech, written by novelist Richard Price, in which he compares his plan to the paper bags that the old corner boys would use to conceal their drinking.) The rest of the season traced the fallout of his decision among the dealers, the police and the politicians.

The result was a brilliant piece of storytelling, packed with characters that live and breathe and a density of detail found only in novels. It was also important, a piercing exploration of the broken promises of both the drug war and urban life at the dawn of the twenty-first century.

Naturally, it’s the only HBO series that hasn’t gotten any love from the Emmys or even the Golden Globes. And it may be facing the end of its run; HBO has yet to decide if the show will be back. It was moved from the summer to the fall this year, where it ran head on into ESPN’s Sunday Night Football and the first non-cable water-cooler show in eons, ABC’s DESPERATE HOUSEWIVES. As series creator David Simon says, the days of HBO nurturing a marginal ratings performer like OZ are over.

I suppose I should feel angry at HBO for dithering about the show’s fate. But frankly I can’t believe THE WIRE ever made it on the air, much less lasted three years. So instead of complaining, I’m going to hope for the best and thank HBO for running one of the finest drama series in the history of TV. I guarantee that twenty years from now, people will still be talking about it. Season One is out on DVD, with Season Two to follow early next year. Do yourself a favor and check them out.

Book: The Confession, by Domenic Stansberry (2004)

I don’t believe in the phrase “guilty pleasure.” But I’m sorely tempted to use it when I say that I have an affection for movie thrillers written by Joe Eszterhas. Even the ones that don’t work – OK, none of them work – have a gaudy appeal. Many are set in and around San Francisco. They’re packed with sex, violence and outrageous plot twists. The characters are rich cops, lawyers or psychologists who all have wildly inappropriate relationships with each other.

So I intend it as a compliment when I say that Stansberry’s novel, from Hard Case Crime, reads like the most entertaining Joe Eszterhas movie ever made. All of the elements are here, perfectly combined. Stansberry’s greatest accomplishment is the voice of his protagonist. It’s cruelly insinuating, peppered with phrases like “as I’ve already said” and “I’m sure you agree” that make you complicit in his tale. I found myself wanting to draw away from him – but not so far that I couldn’t hear him talking.

Sunday, December 19, 2004

Website Update: Practice

Consider this an early Christmas present. The latest installment of In the Frame, my column in Mystery*File, is now up on the Practice page. Read all about the latest from S. J. Rozan and Greg Rucka, as well as the Warner Brothers film noir collection. If you want my take on GET CHRISTIE LOVE!, though, you'll have to subscribe to the magazine. Which is worth every penny.

Friday, December 17, 2004

Movie: The Machinist (2004)

I’ve come up with two reasons why Brad Anderson isn’t a better-known filmmaker. One is that his work isn’t easily pigeonholed. In the past few years he’s made the off-kilter romantic comedy NEXT STOP WONDERLAND, the sci-fi love story HAPPY ACCIDENTS, and the truly chilling psychological horror film SESSION 9. My other theory: too damn many Andersons behind the camera. We’ve already got Wes, Paul, and Paul Thomas to keep straight. Four may be pushing it.

Christian Bale stars in his latest film and lost some weight for the part. Maybe too much, because reports on Bale’s shockingly thin frame seem to be the only attention the movie is getting. Lisa Schwarzbaum focuses on it in her ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY review to the exclusion of all else.

Which is unfortunate, because THE MACHINIST is a creepy and unsettling film. Bale plays Trevor Reznik, a factory employee in freefall. He’s unable to sleep at night and growing isolated from his coworkers. His only human contact comes from Jennifer Jason Leigh as a tired prostitute and a friendly waitress (Aitana Sanchez-Gijon) at an airport café. Trevor begins seeing things which may be the beginnings of a vast conspiracy against him – or the onset of a nervous breakdown.

Anderson and writer Scott Kosar establish a powerful mood of foreboding in the opening half hour. It’s so relentless, though, that soon it begins to seem comic; just how bleak is this poor bastard’s world gonna get? But the ending packs a real emotional punch. There’s an elegance to the explanation of what’s happening to Trevor. It may not come as a shock; I had figured it out but got the specifics wrong in some surprising ways. But, as with the climax of SESSION 9, it reveals that the evils visited on the characters have a cause that is all too human.

The movie was filmed in some desolate urban locations in Spain that add to the sense of dislocation. And Bale gives an intense performance that bodes well for his upcoming turn as Batman.

Thursday, December 16, 2004

TV: Scorsese on Scorsese

Richard Schickel keeps himself busy. He’s writing for TIME magazine, supervising the restoration of classic films, and directing this Turner Classic Movies documentary. Which is in no way intended to promote the pending release of THE AVIATOR.

It’s essentially a ninety-minute interview punctuated by film clips, which means it’s impossible to screw up. Nobody talks movies like Scorsese.

He describes his great love of noir, saying how happy he was that Warner Brothers picked up MEAN STREETS because they made the best gangster films. It’s strange, then that his one overt attempt at making a movie in that mode – CAPE FEAR – is a misfire. The psychology of the characters may have been updated, but the movie is overheated and overwrought, with direction that calls attention to itself. The 1962 version, directed by journeyman J. Lee Thompson, is simpler, cleaner, and better.

A few of Scorsese’s films are given short shrift here. CASINO is only discussed in passing. There’s no mention of NEW YORK, NEW YORK, AFTER HOURS (for which he won Best Director at Cannes) or BRINGING OUT THE DEAD. But time is spent on my favorite Scorsese movie, 1983’s THE KING OF COMEDY. I watched it repeatedly in high school while everyone else was hung up on PORKY’S. No wonder I didn’t go to the prom.

Noticed: Bumper Sticker

Saw this on the back of a car festooned with Darwin fish –

FRODO FAILED! BUSH GOT THE RING

I object to this on both political and pop cultural grounds.

Miscellaneous: Link

Sidney Lumet, master of the New York police thriller, will finally receive a much-deserved Oscar. I doubt we’ll see clips from A STRANGER AMONG US, starring Melanie Griffith as a cop who goes undercover in the Hasidic community, in the highlight reel. But you never know.

Wednesday, December 15, 2004

Movie: The Big Red One (1980)

Reading Samuel Fuller’s memoirs a few weeks ago primed me to see the restored version of his WWII epic on the big screen. Which I was able to do this week thanks to the Northwest Film Forum. Critic and historian Richard Schickel supervised this new edit, which adds 45 minutes of footage. It’s as close as we’ll ever get to Fuller’s original vision; his dream cut ran four and a half hours.

Making this movie became an obsession with Fuller, so much so that he accepted the leanest of budgets. Like all great B-movie filmmakers, he turned the situation to his advantage. The sameness of the locations adds to the movie’s hallucinatory quality. Fuller shoots the action close-up and low to the ground, with the focus on the few feet – and sometimes the few inches – in front of his soldiers. His recreation of the D-Day invasion is a marvel of ingenuity. He may not have had the resources Steven Spielberg had on SAVING PRIVATE RYAN, but he’s every bit Spielberg’s equal when it comes to cunning and craft.

It’s a great, strange bird of a film. Some of Fuller’s more conventionally structured war dramas – like the Korea-set FIXED BAYONETS – may have more immediate impact. But this is obviously a reporter’s war movie, packed with detail. Fuller doesn’t bother to flesh out his quartet of soldiers or their sergeant, played by the great Lee Marvin, so there’s little here about the camaraderie forged in battle. None of the principals are killed, so the film isn’t really about loss. It’s simply a litany of bizarre and stupefying events that only men in war would see. Which is Fuller’s point. Ultimately THE BIG RED ONE is a movie about bearing witness, about coming home alive so that you can tell people about the insanity you were briefly a part of.

Tuesday, December 14, 2004

DVD: The Ref (1994)

A lot of the New York Times’ arts coverage isn’t worth reading. But Sharon Waxman’s piece on cynical Christmas movies is particularly dim. She heaps abuse on every holiday film made after NATIONAL LAMPOON’S CHRISTMAS VACATION for mocking the season. I don’t know why she’s picking on Hollywood when the real world is having plenty of problems with St. Nick.

Waxman’s article is undermined by its own sidebar, on how Revolution Studios has turned CHRISTMAS WITH THE KRANKS into a modest hit by emulating THE PASSION OF THE CHRIST’s marketing campaign. How can KRANKS be anti-Christmas if religious audiences are turning out for it?

Besides, anyone who has seen these movies knows what an utter crock Waxman’s argument is. These films all deliver the same traditional, even conservative message: a poor misguided soul learns the true meaning of Christmas. Granted, a few of these souls have further to go than others, as in BAD SANTA. But even Billy Bob Thornton learns to put others ahead of himself and ends up part of a (wildly dysfunctional) family. In truth, BAD SANTA’s story is very conventional. Apart from the rampant cursing, lawbreaking, alcoholism and wanton sex, that is.

I have very few holiday traditions, but one of them is watching a movie that Waxman doesn’t mention even though it fits perfectly in her paradigm. THE REF is the least likely Simpson/Bruckheimer production and my idea of the perfect yuletide movie. A bickering couple well on their way to divorce (Kevin Spacey and Judy Davis) is taken hostage on Christmas Eve by a thief (Denis Leary) trying to evade a police dragnet. Spacey and Davis have some hilarious and truly lethal arguments, but in the end their marriage and the spirit of the season are saved. I like to think of this movie as the cinematic equivalent of spiked eggnog. It’s not for everybody, but what holiday would be complete without it?

Video: Perry Como Christmas Specials

Just to prove that I do have a heart, I’ll admit that I watched two of these shows recently. EARLY AMERICAN CHRISTMAS, filmed in Virginia’s Colonial Williamsburg, includes John Wayne in a ruffled shirt hoisting a flagon of ale. CHRISTMAS IN THE HOLY LAND features “special American guest star” Richard Chamberlain. Rosemarie and I have fond memories of a show Perry did in Quebec, but we don’t have that one on video.

The original songs are lousy, and Perry’s ultra-laidback style makes Dean Martin look like Jerry Lewis. But the shows hold up. They’re simple, well-produced, and try to give a real flavor of what the season is like in other parts of the world. When the only holiday specials made are tongue-in-cheek affairs like Nick and Jessica’s, Perry’s relaxed charm and sincerity come as a welcome relief.

Miscellaneous: Link

Then there’s the Times’ art coverage that is worth reading. Like this piece on a collaboration between Mexican crime novelist Paco Ignacio Taibo II and rebel leader Subcommander Marcos.

Monday, December 13, 2004

DVD: Infernal Affairs (2002)

What’s the story on this movie, anyway? I’ve been waiting to see it since I read the review in Variety last year. It racked up raves on the festival circuit and won a score of Hong Kong’s Oscars. The remake rights were the subject of an intense bidding war. Miramax announced plans to release the original this fall. The trailer is available via On Demand right now, listed as ‘Coming Soon.’ I kept checking the papers for it.

But the other day I also happened to check Netflix. And there it was. ‘Coming to DVD on December 7.’ Was the theatrical release curtailed for some reason? I added it to the queue. Sure, I’d prefer to see it on the big screen. But I’ll take what I can get.

The premise is brilliantly simple. A promising police recruit is drafted to go undercover in the triads. At the same time, a young gang member joins the police force and rises through the ranks, secretly reporting to a crime boss. Ten years later, their paths collide. And each mole is ordered to hunt down the other. Kind of like a straight version of CORKY ROMANO.

There are plenty of opportunities for John Woo-style emotional pyrotechnics, but directors Andrew Lau and Alan Mak don’t go that route. Instead they tell the story as a procedural, adopting the lean, cool style of Michael Mann. The emotion is there, but it’s all under the surface. (There’s more overt sentiment in Woo’s best American film, the similarly-themed FACE/OFF, even though the plot is more outrageous.) Not that I’m complaining; this film is, in its way, a near-perfect piece of entertainment. Lau and Mak have made two follow-up films, set before and after the events of this one. No word yet on when they will come to video.

The U.S. version, due in 2006, will star Matt Damon and Leonardo DiCaprio. It will also be directed by Martin Scorsese. Usually, I’m opposed to remakes on general principle. But this one sounds like a great idea.

Friday, December 10, 2004

Book: Death of a Citizen, by Donald Hamilton (1960)

Here’s how stupid I was as a kid: I actually took Dean Martin’s Matt Helm movies seriously. It wasn’t until I got older and my irony gland developed that I realized how lousy they were, jokey send-ups of something (the 007 movies) that would soon drift into parody on its own. The poor quality of the films kept me away from Hamilton’s novels.

But articles in the last two issues of Steve Lewis’ Mystery*File (which you really ought to be reading, and I’d say that even if I wasn’t a contributor) piqued my interest. I found a copy of the first novel in the series on the fifty-cent table outside a used book store and snapped it up.

It’s a nasty piece of work, and I mean that in the best way. Hamilton wrote it without intending to bring Helm back, so he’s unsparing in his depiction of the character. Helm had been a black-bag operative for an OSS-style outfit during the war, a part of his life he has carefully buried. When a face from his past shows up at a cocktail party, Helm is forced to brush off his old skills. He takes to them with chilling ease: “I was through being a model citizen. I was myself again.”

I was also able to snag the follow-up title, THE WRECKING CREW. We’ll see how it holds up.

TV: The Nanny Reunion Special

Let me make this clear. I didn’t set out to watch this. I stumbled onto it while flipping channels. But I can’t resist TV series reunions, especially one filmed in a palatial home purchased with the proceeds from said series.

Late in the special, Fran Drescher shows some video she shot on the last day THE NANNY taped. When it ends, she says, “Isn’t that bittersweet!” Previously, I had only heard ‘bittersweet’ used conversationally when the subject was chocolate. It’s a great fake TV moment, and yet another reason why I’ll always love Fran.

Thursday, December 09, 2004

Book: Budayeen Nights, by George Alec Effinger (2003)

If any science fiction author deserves a renaissance, it’s Effinger. He died in 2002, after an interesting and often difficult life in which he suffered from chronic pain and illness, which contributed to his drug and alcohol abuse. In spite of that, he wrote some short stories that I count among the funniest I’ve ever read. Comedy is always difficult, but cut with SF it’s damn near impossible. Effinger pulled it off regularly.

His greatest accomplishment is the Budayeen series, a hard-boiled cyberpunk trilogy that considers the impact of technology on the Muslim world. The hero of the books is Marîd Audran, whom I can best describe as an Islamic Jim Rockford. Each of the three titles – WHEN GRAVITY FAILS (1987), A FIRE IN THE SUN (1989) and THE EXILE KISS (1991) – is structured as a mystery, but at heart is an exploration and appreciation of Eastern culture. They are singular books, all worth tracking down, and I can’t believe some enterprising publisher hasn’t reissued them. They have even more currency now.

I was thrilled to find this new collection of short fiction at the library. It even includes a fragment of a story that Effinger began a few days before his death. Barbara Hambly provides a foreword and introductions to each piece. It was good to spend time in Effinger’s company and in the world of the Budayeen again.

Wednesday, December 08, 2004

TV: So Funny It Hurt

The most painful half-hour of television I’ve seen in a while. This TCM documentary focuses on Buster Keaton’s stint as a contract employee at MGM. The studio was so regimented in the way it made movies that Keaton was denied creative input on his films. By the end of his five-year run, he was essentially unemployable, and was reduced to selling his old gags for use in Red Skelton movies. We see some of the bits performed by both actors back-to-back.

The documentary, which is included on a new DVD of later Keaton efforts, is hosted by Keaton’s friend, the character actor James Karen. He’s had a fine and varied career, but I’ll always think of him as the Pathmark guy.

I was convinced that the actor playing the German soldier in a scene from the 1930 WWI comedy DOUGHBOYS, which Leonard Maltin calls “one of Buster’s worst films,” was Donald Pleasence. That’s not possible, because Pleasence was 11 at the time. Still, the resemblance is startling.

Book: The Enemy, by Lee Child (2004)

Many authors delve into a character’s past as a way of keeping a series fresh. Few have done it as effectively as Child does here. In this book, set in early 1990, Jack Reacher is still a military policeman. It’s fascinating to watch him butt heads with those in authority and slowly become disillusioned with the service.

Reacher is assigned to look into the death of a two-star general at a sleazy motel. The book is more of a straightforward mystery than some of the other titles in the series, but Child’s gifts for pacing and sharp dialogue are on full display.

Noticed: The Christopher Guest Effect

I can take the new Sierra Mist ad featuring Fred Willard and Michael McKean, members of Guest’s regular company of players. But the villains in BLADE: TRINITY include Parker Posey and John Michael Higgins. Does this mean we’ll see Eugene Levy and Catherine O’Hara in MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE 3?

Miscellaneous: Links

If I wanted to reintroduce my grandfather’s classic silent comedies to “families, kids and regular people,” I don’t know that I’d begin by releasing a book of 3-D nude photos he’d taken of various women. But then, I’m not Harold Lloyd’s granddaughter. And from National Lampoon, here are the 10 least successful holiday specials. None of them would hold a candle to the STAR WARS extravaganza that George Lucas has tried to hush up. Happy Life Day, everyone!

Tuesday, December 07, 2004

Movie: Closer (2004)

For some reason, I’ve been pronouncing the title of this film as if I’m repeating the flawed conventional wisdom about John Kerry (“He’s a strong closer”), when it’s actually a description of proximity intended ironically. Proof that I’ve seen GLENGARRY GLEN ROSS far too many times.

This adaptation of Patrick Marber’s acclaimed play never escapes its theatrical origins: four characters in various pairings speaking graphically about sex and not so honestly about love. But Mike Nichols, unlike most directors, doesn’t shy away from the staginess of the piece. Instead of “opening things up,” he narrows the focus on this roundelay and their exchanges. As a result, it takes a while for the characters to reveal themselves to us. But once they do, hide all the breakables.

Jude Law’s Dan is the most contrived figure of the quartet, and the actor is never able to transcend that limitation. Natalie Portman tries gamely as Alice, but she always seems to be playacting. Portman came across as older than her years in films like BEAUTIFUL GIRLS and THE PROFESSIONAL, but in her first truly adult role she seems very young.

Julia Roberts is as good here as she has ever been, ditching her usual mannerisms and playing the recessive Anna close to the bone. And Clive Owen is simply spellbinding as Larry. (He originated the role of Dan on the stage.) His presence seems to galvanize his costars; each has their best scene opposite him. Screw all the rumors about Owen becoming the next James Bond. He’s too valuable a resource to waste on a moribund franchise – and I say this as someone who still sees every Bond movie.

TV: Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer

Is it me, or is Santa a huge jerk in this show? In fact, everyone in a position of authority at the North Pole is something of a pill. And the show is riddled with bad writing: Yukon Cornelius, the Han Solo figure (roguish and solely interested in material wealth), falls over the cliff with the Bumble to a certain death. Then he turns up alive all of ninety seconds later. Why kill him at all, then, if you’re not going to milk it for suspense?

Yet I still watch this special every year. Nostalgia is a lethal thing.

Monday, December 06, 2004

DVD: Vampyros Lesbos (1971)

Honestly, I thought this movie was about something else.

TV: The Life and Death of Peter Sellers (2004)

Yet another film about a talented individual who turns out to be a bastard in real life. Is anyone surprised by such revelations any more? Rule of thumb: content, well-adjusted geniuses don’t get biopics.

To complicate matters, this HBO production is built around the notion that Sellers is the Oakland of thespians. There’s no there there. As the man himself said, “I did have a personality, but I had it surgically removed.” It’s an idea that’s fascinating to contemplate, but not to watch played out on screen for over 2 hours.

The conceit does give rise to some surface cleverness, like having Geoffrey Rush as Sellers play every other character in Sellers’ life: his parents, his wife, Stanley Kubrick, Blake Edwards. The only problem is that the insights Sellers offers in these guises aren’t particularly, you know, insightful.

Besides, a brief post-credit sequence encapsulates the movie’s message perfectly. The camera reveals that the film we’ve just seen was directed by Sellers himself. He shrugs disarmingly in a best-that-I-could-do way, then strolls through the props from his life to his trailer. The camera moves to follow, but Sellers bars the way. “Sorry,” he says. “You can’t come in here.” He closes the door on us. That’s all you need to know, and it only takes thirty seconds.

The movie is worth watching for the great production design and for the acting. Rush is phenomenal as Sellers. Wearing the actor’s distinctive glasses goes a long way to completing the illusion. But through subtle make-up effects, Rush resembles Sellers even without the specs. It’s an uncanny performance.

Miscellaneous: Link

Blogging at Ed Gorman’s site, Terrill Lankford reports from the 30th anniversary screening of CHINATOWN and offers a wonderful reminiscence of that film’s cinematographer, the great John Alonzo.

Friday, December 03, 2004

DVD: Criss Cross (1949)

The rest of the Universal noir collection. Armored car driver Burt Lancaster still has it bad for ex-wife Yvonne DeCarlo, now shacked up with local crime boss Dan Duryea. He’s hooked so bad that he hatches a robbery scheme just so he can stay close to her.

The casting doesn’t completely work. It’s tough to buy the ultra-virile Lancaster as this big of a chump, and DeCarlo has a brittle sexuality. But they compensate by pitching their performances at a near-delirious level, matched by Robert Siodmak’s swooning direction. And you have Duryea in what may be his definitive performance ... although now I can’t remember if he slaps any women, which was his trademark. Gimme a break. I’ve got a cold.

Steven Soderbergh remade this as UNDERNEATH (1995), which I’m pretty much alone in liking. It’s a slight but engaging film that I’ll bet Soderbergh did just so he could recreate the original’s best scene. The driver, played in the new version by Peter Gallagher, comes to in a hospital bed after the robbery has gone awry. Another man is in the hallway, waiting for an update on his injured wife. Or is he? Terrific stuff – in both movies.

DVD: The Big Clock (1948)

I’m not sure how noir this adaptation of Kenneth Fearing’s novel is, but there’s no doubt about its entertainment value. Big shot publisher Charles Laughton murders his mistress in a jealous rage and seeks to pin the crime on her mysterious visitor. He puts ace reporter Ray Milland on the case – not knowing that Milland was said visitor.

Jonathan Latimer’s mile-a-minute script tosses you headlong into the action. At first the caustic dialogue moves almost too quickly, but once the plot kicks in the film can’t be stopped. The last forty minutes in particular are a marvel of construction. Laughton is priceless, as is his wife Elsa Lanchester in a small part as a bohemian artist caught up in the manhunt.

Fearing’s novel was revisited forty years later as NO WAY OUT. I haven’t seen the movie in ages, but I remember being impressed by it. Especially by Will Patton, deftly taking over the toady role from GILDA’s George Macready.

Thursday, December 02, 2004

Books: The Hills Are Alive

GANGSTERS AND GOODFELLAS, by Henry Hill with Gus Russo
ON THE RUN: A MAFIA CHILDHOOD, by Gregg and Gina Hill

Henry’s life was the basis of Nick Pileggi’s WISEGUY, which in turn became GOODFELLAS. Gregg and Gina are his children.

You want a schizophrenic reading experience? Try plowing through these books back to back like I did. Each one tells the same story, first recapping Henry’s days as a New York gangster, then delving into the family’s experiences in Witness Protection in places like Omaha and suburban Seattle. (At one point, Henry set up a carriage ride for tourists in Cincinnati. He went on TV to promote it – even though Jimmy ‘The Gent’ Burke was still trying to have him killed.)

The facts in the books never quite match up. For instance, the Hills’ first new surname, depending on whom you ask, was either Haines or Haymes. Henry’s an affable rogue in his book, always trying to put one over on the feds. But let the kids tell the same story and he comes off as monstrous. Consorting with lowlifes, hooked on booze and drugs, forever taking stupid risks that put his entire family in harm’s way. My neck still hurts from the whiplash.

ON THE RUN is the better book, told in alternating sections by the two Hill children. Gregg in particular is very candid about the emotional problems his father’s lifestyle created. But Henry’s book is much more fun to read.

Although neither holds a candle to WISEGUY. Sometimes Henry would call Pileggi to work on the book and get his wife Nora Ephron. She turned their conversations into the script for MY BLUE HEAVEN, a Steve Martin comedy about a Mafia man relocated to the suburbs. Henry says more than once that if it had been anyone else’s wife, he’d have whacked her.

Magazine: The New Yorker, 11/29 issue

The phrase of the day comes from Frederick Kaufman’s piece on raw milk smugglers in New York:

... a secret Listserv of lacto-fermentation scofflaws.”

Wednesday, December 01, 2004

TV: Nightline

Anybody see last night’s show about departing JEOPARDY! champ Ken Jennings?

Yeah, well, forget him. He’s yesterday’s papers. Anybody notice the striking brunette in the red blouse featured in a good half-dozen shots in the behind-the-scenes footage?

That was none other than my lovely wife, Rosemarie. The day the NIGHTLINE crew was on set happened to be the day that Rosemarie was taping her first (?) appearance as a JEOPARDY! contestant. 25,000 people audition every year. Only 400 are chosen. And just a handful of them scored extra air time on NIGHTLINE. Not bad.

Rosemarie went down to L.A. under the impression that Ken had already lost. But he had come back to tape material for NIGHTLINE, so he was in the hotel. She slept poorly that night, convinced that she’d have to face off against him.

As for how she did, well, you’ll have to wait until next February to find out. Don’t worry. I’ll post reminders.

The oddest part of all this is that it happened less than a month after I taped my own game show appearance, which will also be airing early next year. More on that later.

Miscellaneous: Link

A question I know I’ve been asking, in the wake of the success of NATIONAL TREASURE: whither Jerry Bruckheimer?

Tuesday, November 30, 2004

Music: “Help Yourself,” by Tom Jones

I’ve always liked this song. It’s got a great cha-cha backbeat and silly lyrics that TJ has fun with.

It was still something of a surprise to learn that this was the selection for the mother/son dance at my brother’s wedding over the weekend – chosen, I might add, by my mother. The Jones jones runs in the family. There’s not supposed to be a dry eye in the house when this moment in the festivities is over. Leave it to the Keenans to turn it into Sigmund Freud’s Dance Party.

I was not at all surprised, though, that the familial rug-cutting turned out to be one of the highpoints of a fantastic evening. I’ll never hear the song the same way again.

Miscellaneous: Holiday Magic

Today’s mail brought the first Christmas card of the season. For reasons too complicated to explain, it’s from screenwriter-turned-gadfly-extraordinaire Joe Eszterhas. Life is good.

Movie: The Outfit (1974)

This adaptation of a Richard Stark novel from the same series that inspired POINT BLANK has never been widely available on video. So I was happy to catch up with it on Turner Classic Movies, even though they aired a scratchy, slightly edited TV print.

Director John Flynn, who also made the ‘80s B classic BEST SELLER, doesn’t bother with the stylistic flourishes that John Boorman brought to POINT BLANK. His lean and mean take on Stark is a faithful echo of the author’s style. Flynn fills out his cast with faces from the glory days of noir: Timothy Carey, Elisha Cook, Jr., Jane Greer, Marie Windsor, Robert Ryan. Robert Duvall is near-perfect in the lead role, combining grim determination with ruthless competence. I just never pictured Stark’s thief as bald.

I’ve asked this question before, and I will ask it again: why didn’t Joanna Cassidy become a huge star?

Miscellaneous: Link

A great article from the L.A. Times on the fate of the modern character actor.

Wednesday, November 24, 2004

Remake Rematch: The Stepford Wives (1975 vs. 2004)

In Ira Levin’s ROSEMARY’S BABY, a husband offers up his wife as the devil’s consort. In DEATHTRAP, a husband conspires with his male lover to kill his spouse. And in STEPFORD, an entire Connecticut town full of husbands replaces their better halves with sexually compliant robots. To paraphrase a cartoon seen in KINSEY: is there a Mrs. Levin?

Welcome to another occasional feature, in which a remake squares off against the original in a battle to the death. Or to the point of boredom. Whichever.

The 1975 film is no classic, but it’s often treated as one because it introduced the title phrase to a wide audience. Bryan Forbes’ movie isn’t particularly suspenseful, and not simply because the payoff is common knowledge. Time has blunted its satirical edge, but at least its intent is clear. Levin set out to mock male fears of feminism, and the film makes a genuine if muddled attempt to engage the issue.

Katherine Ross may be the lead, but Paula Prentiss is the real star as her best friend. Funny, sexy, vibrant. I’ve developed a retroactive crush on her. When she goes Stepford, the loss is palpable. And the movie never recovers.

All I knew about this version before watching it was what I’d read in William Goldman’s ADVENTURES IN THE SCREEN TRADE. Goldman wrote the movie but considered it “doomed” because Forbes cast his wife Nanette Newman as one of the robots. She’s a fine actress, but no sex goddess. As Goldman says, “You don’t commit murder and make a new creation to have it look like Nanette Newman.” As a result of her casting, the entire look of the movie changed. No miniskirts, no sexy tennis outfits. Just floor-length sundresses and floppy hats. For what it’s worth, I think Goldman was right.

Aside: The new making-of doc on the DVD is one of the best I’ve seen, in part because it addresses Goldman’s comments. He’s not in the piece, but his friend (and STEPFORD co-star) Peter Masterson ably makes his case, while Forbes gets to defend his wife’s honor. Names are named: the original director, actors fired from the cast. And Prentiss remains as feisty as ever.

Paul Rudnick wrote this year’s remake, which is the start of its problems. Rudnick can always be counted for a few good bitchy lines, but he has never shown any interest in creating a plausible movie world. (Consider his script for 1997’s IN & OUT. Funny? You bet. But he’s got the Oscars, a wedding, and a high school graduation all occurring in the same week.) Not the best choice for a story that, as Goldman observes, is “only precariously real to begin with.”

Rudnick and director Frank Oz push the film toward comedy. Levin’s story gives them plenty to work with: the flight to the suburbs, the battle of the sexes as it’s being fought today. Instead, Rudnick and Oz settle for sending up the look of the first movie. Which, as we now know, was an accident of casting. Their ending is a flat-out disgrace that manages to be both toothless and nonsensical. In that sense, it’s a real achievement.

Of course, part of the problem is that it’s difficult to make a silly, feel-good comedy about a town full of cowardly men who murder their wives.

Winner, by default: the 1975 version.

One other thought: it’s a sign of the overall paucity of the culture that we don’t seem to have popular novelists like Ira Levin any more, who explore the key issues of the day in a lively, entertaining fashion.

Newspaper: The New York Times

Somebody needs to check the water in the Arts & Leisure section. We may have a case of seasonal distemper circulating. First, Manohla Dargis compares Santa’s sack full of toys in THE POLAR EXPRESS to “an airborne scrotum.” Now, the usually bland Stephen Holden weighs in with this bon mot on CHRISTMAS WITH THE KRANKS:

“(Jamie Lee) Curtis, wearing one of the ugliest haircuts I’ve ever seen, her upper lip weirdly curled-in, resembles a transvestite chimpanzee.”

You’re a class act, Steve. Somebody deserves a lump of coal in his stocking.

Miscellaneous: Link

I’m taking the holiday weekend off, so here’s something to keep you occupied. The latest issue of Allan Guthrie’s Noir Originals features interviews with Ken Bruen and Terrill Lee Lankford, authors of two of my favorite novels of the year, as well as Max Allan Collins, whose TWO FOR THE MONEY I’ll be reading shortly.

Happy Thanksgiving. See you next week. Bring leftovers.

Tuesday, November 23, 2004

Movie: Kinsey (2004)

Bill Condon, you’re one sly devil. Your textbook Oscar-bait biopic is cut straight from A BEAUTIFUL MIND’s cloth. All the elements are there: the towering lead performance, the uplifting story, the tasteful raising of social issues. But your movie is about one of the most divisive figures of the late 20th century. It’s a clever piece of sleight of hand – or at least it would be, if you’d given the movie a different title. A generic one that would get people with a bias against sex researcher Dr. Alfred Kinsey into theaters. MATTER OF THE HEART, REPORT ON LOVE, something like that. Oh, well. Too late now.

Liam Neeson may seem an odd choice to play Kinsey. He’s a physically large presence, for one thing. But Neeson uses his size to his advantage, making the doctor seem ungainly and a touch uncomfortable in his own body. He also captures Kinsey’s boyish enthusiasm for all things scientific, which carries over into his sex research. Neeson is well-matched with Laura Linney as Kinsey’s wife and collaborator. Condon’s razor-sharp screenplay lays out the context and the social ramifications of Kinsey’s work with wit and economy. He’s made a smart, fleet movie.

And yet ...

It seems churlish to knock a film for underplaying in this age of hype, but KINSEY never quite develops the head of steam you think it’s going to. There’s no contrived third-act crisis, no make-or-break presentation Kinsey has to deliver. What Condon shows instead is no doubt closer to the truth: Kinsey struggles for funding and begins to wonder if his work will have any impact. It feels real and is quite moving. But a little ‘zazz wouldn’t have hurt. Other than Linney’s Mac, the supporting characters aren’t well-delineated in spite of a wonderful cast (Oliver Platt, Peter Sarsgaard, Tim Curry).

I wanted to love KINSEY. But I did enjoy our time together. And I respected it in the morning.

Hey, you’ve got to give me at least one sex joke.

Miscellaneous: Link

Deepak Chopra, belted by gamma rays ...

It scans, anyway. He’s going to need a theme song now that he’s bringing superheroes to India.

Monday, November 22, 2004

DVD: Dogville (2004)

Prologue: In which the author expresses some general thoughts on director/egomaniac Lars von Trier

I put off seeing this movie because I’m not a fan of von Trier’s work. My reactions to his earlier films have been identical. There’s an initial emotional impact (stun, v., to make senseless as if by a blow) that gives way to “Hey-wait-a-minute” by the time I’m passing the concession stand. von Trier specializes in crass emotional manipulation masked with Scandinavian hauteur. But I can still feel his grubby hands pawing my heartstrings. And I don’t like it.

Chapter 1: Charges of anti-Americanism are addressed

The accusation has been leveled by several prominent critics including Roger Ebert. Bushwah, as they used to say and should start saying again. It’s obvious that von Trier doesn’t like America very much, but he doesn’t like anywhere very much. He won’t even go to Cannes to accept an award, for Christ’s sake.

Chapter 2: The film’s central conceit is exposed as wafer-thin

But his critique of America – which is not the same as being anti-American – is glib and superficial. He raises some interesting points about what he sees as the American way of life, but delivers them in the kind of puerile allegory I’d expect from a neurasthenic teenage girl. “Dear Diary, People are SO MEAN!! I’d like to show them what would happen if they took their actions to their logical conclusions!! Then they’d learn!!” Followed by a bunch of crap about unicorns.

The issues he brings up are worthy of discussion, and they can be dramatized. But the path he chooses demands that they be dealt with in the most simplistic of terms.

Chapter 3: The casting proves to be a problem

von Trier got away with his nonsense before because he was smart enough to cast actresses who were essentially unknown commodities (Björk and the debuting Emily Watson) as his preyed-upon waifs. We didn’t know these women, so it was easy for him to play the savage puppet master. With Nicole Kidman as his lead, he can’t hide the strings. Her presence reveals the contrivance of the enterprise.

Plus, she’s too old for the part.

Chapter 4: Some good is found in the production

I did like the theatricality of the film. (It was shot on a soundstage with no set.) von Trier knows that pushing the movie in that direction will make it easier to swallow; at least it kept me distracted for a while. And John Hurt’s curdled narration works wonderfully well. It achieves what von Trier wants, which is to make the movie feel like a fable complete with moral.

Chapter 5: The last stone is cast, and the post ends

But fables aren’t THREE HOURS long. What makes it worse is knowing exactly where it’s going every single minute. Lars only has two endings in him: either his long-suffering heroine finally kicks, or everyone else does. It’s not hard to divine which one would prevail in this outing. Especially when the sequel was announced long before this gloomfest ever screened.

Sunday, November 21, 2004

Movie: House of Flying Daggers (2004)

Zhang Yimou’s second movie to be released this year, after the surprising success of HERO. Three characters collide in 9th century China: a blind “top showgirl” who is actually a spy for the resistance, the government agent pretending to be her savior, and the agent’s superior and friend, determined to protect his charge’s identity.

The story proves to be intimate and straightforward, not epic (as in HERO) or complexly-structured (CROUCHING TIGER), so at times Yimou’s lush visual style threatens to overwhelm the narrative. But the star troika of Zhang Ziyi, Takeshi Kaneshiro and Andy Lau keeps the film grounded. I didn’t swoon. But I thought about it.

It goes without saying that the movie is extraordinary to behold, with action sequences that are literally breathtaking. Like the “echo game,” combining dance and martial arts, and an ambush in an emerald forest of bamboo.

Book: The Scarecrow Video Movie Guide (2004)

The sneak peek at Zhang’s latest was part of the launch party for this book from Seattle’s legendary video store. It’s home to 80,000 titles and has been called “the best video store in the world” by no less an authority than Bernardo Bertolucci.

Ain’t It Cool News guru Harry Knowles wrote the intro to the book and signed copies after the screening. (In mine, he encouraged me to watch 5 Mickey Rooney films starting with QUICKSAND. Consider it done.)

The book contains reviews of 4,000 movies, almost all of them positive. They were written by the store’s entire staff, which makes the book somewhat uneven. But name another volume that takes the time to cover eight films by France’s master of erotic horror, Jean Rollin. For film buffs, it’s a must-have.

Friday, November 19, 2004

DVD: The Greatest ‘70s Cop Shows

Kim Morgan reviewed this disc of pilot episodes at her blog Sunset Gun. I knew I had to see it for myself. If I echo a lot of her thoughts, well, too bad. There’s only so much that can be said about processed cheese.

S.W.A.T. – The Catholic Church condemned this series for its violence, so my parents declared it off limits. It put me at a disadvantage when my friends and I would play S.W.A.T. in the alley behind the Morton house. “I wanna be Hondo!” “I call Street!” “I’m T.J. McCabe!” They’d look at me with pity and say, “You can be Luca.” Luca’s the Serpico knockoff whose jokes fall flat. I can see why they’d stick me with him.

The pilot is all set-up, complete with training montage. Geoffrey Lewis is great as a hillbilly cop killer with a cloudy motive who dances a jig over his victims’ bodies. We don’t see him do this. We just hear Steve Forrest say it through his permanently clenched jaw. Which is somehow worse.

THE ROOKIES – This thing ran for four years? I don’t know if that means people took too many drugs in the ‘70s or nowhere near enough.

CHARLIE’S ANGELS – The dullest episode of the bunch. Way too much plot. I didn’t watch during the Farrah years. (It took me a while to wear down my parents’ resistance to jiggle TV, which the church wasn’t too fond of either.) She’s no Cheryl Ladd. But I was always a Sabrina man.

STARSKY & HUTCH – A slo-mo SPEED about a bomb in a stolen car. The chemistry between Glaser & Soul makes it bearable, and Suzanne Somers turns up as a go-go dancer.

POLICE WOMAN – Easily the class of the lot. This episode, about an SLA-style gang of bank robbers, still packs a wallop. The cop banter is funny, and there’s some semblance of actual police work. Pepper Anderson is a real character, nipping from a bottle stashed in the office when the violence gets to be too much. Angie Dickinson was always underrated as an actress. She’s one of those smart, earthy women like Janet Leigh that Hollywood didn’t know what to do with.

Oddity alert: both THE ROOKIES and STARSKY & HUTCH include cop-on-punk basketball games scored to “Sweet Georgia Brown.” You see, kids, the Harlem Globetrotters used to be popular. And standards were lax at the ol’ Aaron Spelling factory.

Three of these shows have been turned into movies, none of them winners. It’s worth noting that the only one to play the material straight (S.W.A.T.) is the worst of them. While POLICE WOMAN goes begging for big-screen treatment.

But for the love of God, Hollywood, stay away from THE ROOKIES.

Thursday, November 18, 2004

TV: Monday Night Football

I’ve been asked why I haven’t weighed in on this week’s fiasco involving Terrell Owens and his DESPERATE HOUSEWIVES. I was hoping this tempest in a teacup would blow over; frankly, I’m far more annoyed with ABC over their handling of the SAVING PRIVATE RYAN imbroglio. And much of what I would say has been better expressed by others, such as Alessandra Stanley. I’m just happy DH got a little publicity. I’ve heard the show is struggling. And how much overlap is there between that audience and the MONDAY NIGHT FOOTBALL crowd, anyway?

But the truth is I never miss the opening of MNF. I always want to see which celebrity has been dragooned into introducing the game. Earlier this season, John Travolta talked up Ray Lewis and the Ravens the week that the Baltimore-filmed LADDER 49 opened. Billy Bob Thornton did a bit on coaches that happened to coincide with the release of FRIDAY NIGHT LIGHTS.

Occasionally the intros don’t plug anything. When the Cincinnati Bengals made their first home MNF appearance in 20 years, Leslie Nielsen dusted off his Frank Drebin character from POLICE SQUAD. (Which, come to think of it, was an ABC show.) The season opener had Dennis Hopper in EASY RIDER mode for no discernable reason.

And the cross-promotion doesn’t stop at the intro. During this week’s Eagles-Cowboys match-up, ABC sitcom star George Lopez turned up in the booth with Al and John. Jim Belushi seems to be there every other month. The week of ABC’s first airing of PRIVATE RYAN, Oakland boy Tom Hanks called part of the Raiders game. (Raising the question: is the network in cahoots with the league schedulers or just lucky?)

ABC has essentially turned MNF into one big promotional opportunity. Someone should take them to task for that, instead of complaining about the kind of nudity that’s common in soap commercials.

Miscellaneous: Link

Thanks to Jaime Weinman for linking to this piece by Bruce Bawer on cultural life in the early 1960s.

Wednesday, November 17, 2004

DVD: The Clearing (2004)

The directorial debut of veteran producer Pieter Jan Brugge sank like a stone earlier this summer. It’s the kind of film that requires critical support, which it clearly didn’t get. So I’ll get the ball rolling. THE CLEARING is one of the most intelligent and involving movies I’ve seen this year.

Robert Redford plays a wealthy Pittsburgh businessman who heads out to work one morning only to be kidnapped by his polar opposite (Willem Dafoe), a down-and-outer struggling to get by. The story then splits in two, cutting between Redford and Dafoe as they hike through the woods to meet the people who have ordered the kidnapping, and Redford’s wife Helen Mirren, waiting for some sign that her husband is still alive. The Redford/Dafoe scenes unfold over the course of a few hours, while Mirren’s stretch out for days. Justin Haythe’s script does a wonderful job of using the time differential to build suspense.

But the film isn’t really a thriller. It simply uses the form to meditate on larger questions. Only the final scene falters, taking the subtext and making it literal.

Redford and Dafoe are well-cast, but it’s Mirren who truly shines. Only as the film progresses do we realize that the story is all about her character. In a way, it’s no surprise that THE CLEARING failed to connect commercially. It makes no attempt to pander to the youth audience. From the theme to the casting, it’s about people of a certain age coming to grips with the totality of their lives. You’re not going to sell much popcorn doing that.

Tuesday, November 16, 2004

Movie: The Incredibles (2004)

It’s basically Alan Moore’s WATCHMEN retooled as a family comedy. And damned if it doesn’t work like a charm. I’m glad Brad Bird recognized that Elizabeth Pena has one of the sexiest voices around.

The critical reaction to this movie smacks of a mild Pixar backlash. Slate’s David Edelstein triggered a firestorm when he challenged the film’s take on modern educational philosophy, while some on the left see a more insidious agenda. Personally, I figure that whatever movie opened in the top spot in the wake of the election would be subject to this kind of scrutiny. I’m sure Frank Rich will attach far too much significance to it shortly.

Pixar’s films have been lauded for their storytelling. The Oscar-nominated script for TOY STORY (co-written by Joss Whedon) is as perfectly structured a screenplay as you’ll find. But the action sequences in THE INCREDIBLES also astound; they put anything in the latest Jerry Bruckheimer movie to shame. And in an era when Hollywood has lost the ability to make adventure films with characters, I’m not so sure that’s a bad thing. In recent CGI-heavy films like VAN HELSING and THE DAY AFTER TOMORROW, the actors seemed to be an afterthought. Animated films serve up the spectacle while allowing actors to deliver the goods – plus they only have to work for a couple of days. A week at the outside.

Monday, November 15, 2004

Miscellaneous: Quote of the Day

From THE SIMPSONS: “That’s so ‘90s! Let’s all move to Seattle and use slow modems!”

Yeah, what’s your point?

Book: Destination: Morgue!, by James Ellroy (2004)

Reading this collection of essays and short fiction was one of the more disturbing experiences I’ve had lately. And not entirely in a good way.

Ellroy’s tragic history – the murder of his mother when he was 10 and his subsequent tailspin into petty criminal behavior – has always informed his fiction, and he wrote about it directly in his 1996 memoir MY DARK PLACES. But since then, he’s basically stopped dissembling. There’s no longer any filter between fact and fiction.

For instance, the investigative piece ‘Stephanie’ follows three cold case detectives as they reexamine the 1965 murder of Stephanie Lynn Gorman. The same detectives, barely fictionalized, turn up in the trio of linked novellas that close the book, where they’re still on the hunt for Stephanie’s killer. Ellroy rehashes some of MY DARK PLACES in essays about the crimes that haunted his dreams as a child, and at the end of the book those very crimes inspire his fictional killers. We’re deep into his personal obsessions here, but without the artistry and distance that gave his breakthrough book THE BLACK DAHLIA its power. At times, the proximity to Ellroy’s secret self becomes uncomfortable.

The non-fiction is hit-and-miss. I agreed with his take on the Robert Blake case. I hope at some point Ellroy writes about Phil Spector. That sordid L.A. tale contains everything that interests him – celebrity, cruelty, and a good woman forgotten by the world.

This recent Guardian profile explains the Ellroy mystique. He gave me the thrill of swearing at me when I went to his last book signing. He shook my hand, then said, “Just let me get a bite of my fucking sandwich.” I’ll never wash my ears again.

Miscellaneous: Links

I can’t link to the Variety article about Ben Affleck’s latest ignominy. SURVIVING CHRISTMAS will be released on video on December 21 – a mere eight and a half weeks after it debuted in theaters. A new record. But I can link to this article about novelist Donald E. Westlake and his great success at the movies – in France.

Sunday, November 14, 2004

DVD: Black Angel (1946)

Following the Hollywood dictum “Anything you can do, I can do ... also,” Universal released a film noir collection at the same time that Warner Brothers did. The titles aren’t as well known, but that may work to the films’ advantage. They’re ripe for rediscovery.

BLACK ANGEL, the genuine sleeper of the four, has such a great premise that I’m shocked it’s the only one that hasn’t been remade. June Vincent’s husband is on death row for killing his mistress. She sets out to clear him with an unlikely ally: the mistress’ husband (Dan Duryea).

Other than some questionable police work by Broderick Crawford, what’s not to love? You’ve got Duryea playing a lout, Peter Lorre simpering gloriously, and a lulu of an ending courtesy of Cornell Woolrich. This was the last film by Roy William Neill, who directed many of the Rathbone/Bruce Sherlock Holmes series. It’s a fitting tribute.

DVD: This Gun For Hire (1942)

Does every film noir have to feature what Variety would call a chantoosie? June Vincent becomes one in BLACK ANGEL, and Veronica Lake plays one here.

This adaptation of Graham Greene’s novel proved something of a disappointment, with a plot stitched together by coincidence. But Alan Ladd is fierce as Raven, the hired killer on the run. And I relish any chance to watch Laird Cregar work his peculiar dark magic. He should be mentioned in the same breath as other character actors from the period, like Lorre and Greenstreet. But he acted for only five years before dying at age 28. I watched I WAKE UP SCREAMING a few months ago because I loved the title, but I’ll never forget Cregar’s performance as an implacable detective.

Lake wears a fishing outfit for one of her musical numbers. Black vinyl hip waders with a matching hat. I demand to know why Kim Basinger doesn’t wear one in L.A. CONFIDENTIAL.

Miscellaneous: Links

It’s the annual movie issue of the New York Times magazine. So naturally all of the interesting articles are in other sections of the paper. Here’s a glimpse at some of the academic papers presented at a recent symposium on Godzilla. A.O. Scott offers an appreciation of Sam Fuller and THE BIG RED ONE. And a sitcom set in the world of Halo and Halo 2.

Friday, November 12, 2004

Miscellaneous: Links

Two lists from They Shoot Pictures, Don't They? to get you through the weekend, courtesy of GreenCine Daily. The first is the 1,000 Greatest Films Ever Made, according to surveys of various filmmakers and critics. It's a bracing corrective to the IMDb list. I mean, I like THE SHAWSHANK REDEMPTION, too, but come on.

The second list is far more interesting. It cites 100 movies that came up in the survey of filmmakers and critics - but only once. Call them lost soul movies. Then fire up the Netflix queue.

Thursday, November 11, 2004

Miscellaneous: Bad Night Out

We recently landed free tickets to one of those dinner-and-a-show extravaganzas. A five-course meal punctuated by circus acts, the kind of night meant to make every clock-puncher feel like a potentate along the lines of Genghis Khan or Steve Wynn. I generally don’t believe in mixing soup and acrobats. But the show had gotten good reviews, and it unfolds in a rare jewel box theater imported from Belgium. I wanted a look inside.

But first, I scoured those reviews for the two most dreaded words in the English language: audience participation.

It’s not that I have a problem with making a fool of myself in public. I’ve done it before and will shortly do so again, in front of my biggest audience yet. But it’s my decision to do so. I don’t want to be compelled into humiliation. Hands off, Tati. No ‘professional’ is needed to help me have a good time. I’m a mirth generator, thank you very much.

The reviews give no sign, but I should have known better. There’s always audience participation at a show like this. The first bit isn’t too bad – a poor schmoe pulled out of his chair for some awkward jitterbugging. But the second guy ends up shirtless. The audience is howling throughout. It’s part relief, part encouragement, and all unpleasant. I thought of Baudelaire: “When I hear laughter, I hear the roar of the wild beast.”

The next victim was the most obviously reluctant, which made his transformation into a drag queen even funnier to the crowd. I made my excuses and left before the main course was served. Maybe I’m a spoilsport, but I can’t stand that stuff. It’s the lowest rung on the show business ladder.

For what it’s worth, the theater was lovely.

Cable Catch-Up: DiG!

Ondi Timoner’s award-winning documentary debuts on the Sundance Channel while still in theatrical release. It’s worth seeing however you catch up with it.

The film profiles two up-and-coming West Coast rock bands in the midst of a friendly rivalry. The Dandy Warhols have one minor U.S. hit (“Not If You Were The Last Junkie On Earth”) which leads to a massive career in Europe. By the end of the film, they’re headlining in front of 100,000 people. Meanwhile, the Brian Jonestown Massacre are destined for greatness. Just ask front man Anton Newcombe. He’s a real-life version of Jack Black’s character from SCHOOL OF ROCK, always talking revolution and how it’s all about the music. He’d be amusing if it weren’t for his chronic drug addiction and a family history of mental illness. In concert, he not only picks fights with fellow band members but his own fans. He’s a case study in self-destruction, yet he’s still out there performing. Maybe because he can’t do anything else.

A&R reps are quick to tout Newcombe as a genius, and his sound does presage the rise of the garage rock movement spearheaded by the White Stripes. But I have to say I like the Dandys better. Bear in mind I’m a total sellout.

Wednesday, November 10, 2004

DVD: The Bird With The Crystal Plumage (1969)

It sounds better in Italian. L’UCCELLO DALLE PIUME DI CRISTALLO. I’ll take that over the American reissue title, THE PHANTOM OF TERROR.

Dario Argento has made some riveting horror movies, most notably SUSPIRIA. But his straight thrillers leave me cold. This one plays like a rip-off of BLOW-UP. (So does DEEP RED, which goes so far as to use BLOW-UP’s star David Hemmings.) The dream logic that adds to Argento’s supernatural films works against the plot here, and the set-pieces are so stylized that they’re drained of any suspense. The movie pulled off the unique trick of making me appreciate Brian DePalma’s sense of story and characterization.

The plot summary on the envelope from Netflix noted that the film starred Tony Musante from TOMA. I wasn’t sure that series was a selling point until I mentioned the actor’s name to Rosemarie and she said, “From TOMA?”

Noticed: About Schmidt (2002)

Look fast in this Alexander Payne movie and you’ll see Jack Nicholson’s motor home roll past a theater marquee advertising SIDEWAYS.

Miscellaneous: Link

The New York Times ventures to the Screenwriting Expo’s pitch-a-thon. Here’s a perfect example of “helpful” Hollywood thinking. A computer geek from Texas pitches his sci-fi epic to a pair of producers. They pass, then say:

“Why don’t you fire another one at us? ... Pick your best.”

Considering that the guy paid over eighty bucks to get in, I’d assume that was his best.

Miscellaneous: Huh?

Spotted this on one of those music kiosks now taking up space at Starbucks everywhere, in reference to the album LARGO by Brad Mehldau:

“The counter-melody propels the lyric, sending the listener into a glistening sea of contemplation.”

Incidentally, the song being played was an instrumental.

Tuesday, November 09, 2004

Movie: Sideways (2004)

Alexander Payne scores again with one of the year’s best films. He somehow got me to empathize with a would-be writer in his 30s amassing an impressive collection of near-miss rejection letters. Amazing.

Unlike many of his contemporaries, Payne steers away from the fanciful and grounds his films in keen observation of human interaction. Maybe it’s because he’s spent much of his life in Omaha, outside the L.A./New York showbiz nexus. Or it could be that, with the exception of CITIZEN RUTH, his films have all been adaptations. He’s able to get outside of his own head and into the world.

His films focus on people whose lives haven’t quite fulfilled their expectations. Payne has the daring to cast this movie accordingly. Thomas Haden Church, a skilled TV actor who never quite broke through, plays a skilled TV actor who never quite broke through. Virginia Madsen was once touted as the next big thing, only to end up as a straight-to-cable starlet. She’s luminous here as a woman who has accepted her lot but is still looking for opportunities to shine.

With his performances here and in AMERICAN SPLENDOR, Paul Giamatti has become the male counterpart to Julianne Moore. Both specialize in characters convinced that the world isn’t listening to what they have to say. The only difference is that Moore’s characters are described by critics as martyrs, or victims of an unfeeling patriarchy. They aren’t dismissed as losers. Just saying.

The movie unfolds during the course of a weeklong wine binge – sorry, tasting tour – in Santa Barbara. I’m no oenophile, so I can’t speak to the accuracy of the wine material. I can tell you that a guy sitting two rows behind me moaned appreciatively at the mention of several vintages, so I’m willing to bet that the movie got it right.

Miscellaneous: Link

It’s the website of the moment, and with good reason. Publishing insider Mad Max Perkins vents his spleen at Book Angst. And Slate offers an appreciation of the 9/11 Commission report as narrative journalism.

Monday, November 08, 2004

Book: A Third Face, by Samuel Fuller (2002)

This memoir by the filmmaker would be considerably shorter if all references to the testicles were removed. Fuller is forever working on one of his “ballsy yarns,” each of which has a “grab-‘em-by-the-balls opening.” Those descriptions are accurate. The book is written the way Fuller talked, which is one of the reasons why I loved it.

Fuller was a master of the B-movie, pushing the form to its limits. Anyone who’s seen PICKUP ON SOUTH STREET, THE NAKED KISS or SHOCK CORRIDOR will vouch for that. He also led an extraordinary life, as reporter, soldier, filmmaker, and human being. His book is studded with memorable encounters with the likes of Jim Morrison, Marlene Dietrich, Hitchcock, Fassbinder. Reading it has only stoked my anticipation for the restored version of his 1980 WWII epic THE BIG RED ONE, slowly making its way around the country before its DVD release.

Conventional wisdom says that a B-movie sensibility has permeated Hollywood. Looking at any Fuller movie, you realize how untrue that is. His films contained shocking plot developments that provoked the audience into thought. (No less a B-movie authority than Roger Corman said that some trace of political awareness was a key ingredient in making a successful picture.) Big-budget films kept the twists without connecting them to the real world. They’re used as fashion statements, not personal or political ones. They don’t challenge any preconceived notions.

As for indie filmmakers, as much as I enjoy this current flowering of their work, they’ve retreated in the other direction. Too many of them make films that come out of their own heads – or other movies – and not life on the ground around us. We desperately need someone like Fuller right now, someone who will merge life and art into a heightened reality. Who’ll make a picture that tells you something about the world while grabbing you by the short hairs, goddamn it!

Sorry. Read 559 pages and it’s bound to rub off on you.

TV: The Surreal Life

I’ll admit it. I watched the entire third season. I’m not proud of it. But no experience is wasted. Here’s what I learned:

- Brigitte Nielsen is terrifying.
- Flavor Flav can be annoying.
- Dave Coulier is a nice, if dull, guy.
- Charo is actually kind of cool.
- AMERICAN IDOL contestants like Ryan Starr have an inflated sense of their own importance.
- Jordan Knight was apparently in New Kids on the Block.

On second thought, I didn’t learn anything.

Sunday, November 07, 2004

Movie: Ray (2004)

Going into a biopic, you generally know what to expect: a towering lead performance that threatens to overwhelm the movie, a script with a complex structure meant to mask volumes of exposition, newspaper articles griping about the short shrift given to others in the main character’s life.

‘Twas ever thus, until the writing/producing team of Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski monkeyed with the formula. They chose unconventional subjects like Ed Wood, Larry Flynt and Andy Kaufman. And they dispensed with the “sweep of a man’s life” approach, limiting their focus to a few critical years. For a while, the genre seemed fresh again.

But Ray Charles simply looms too large as a cultural figure for that method to work. Taylor Hackford’s film goes the old-fashioned route, to largely positive effect. The movie occasionally falls into the biopic trap of seeming like an artifact from the era it’s depicting – the sequence showing Charles’ withdrawal from heroin addiction is right out of a ‘50s melodrama – but on the whole it’s solid big-studio filmmaking.

Jamie Foxx is every bit as good as early word indicated, nailing Charles’ reticent speech and ungainly walk, communicating volumes without using his eyes. The script by James L. White doesn’t shy away from the man’s selfish, domineering side. Charles’ music is the movie’s trump card, providing a joyous buzz that propels the film through its dull patches.

RAY runs out of air just past the two-hour mark, when it introduces a key character (Harry Lennix as Charles’ new right-hand man) at the exact moment it should start winding down. The concluding rehab sequence feels rushed, and glib psychology abounds. But overall it celebrates the man and his music in a respectful way.

The same day I saw the movie I happened to catch a few minutes of the 2003 documentary TOM DOWD AND THE LANGUAGE OF MUSIC on the Sundance Channel. Dowd, one of the premier recording engineers and producers, is depicted in RAY by actor Rick Gomez as the bright young man in the control booth solving everyone’s problems. The doc features interviews with Charles as well as Atlantic Records moguls Ahmet Ertegun and Jerry Wexler. Actors Curtis Armstrong and Richard Schiff did them proud.

Friday, November 05, 2004

Cable Catch-Up: Dracula, Pages From A Virgin’s Diary (2002)

Guy Maddin pays no attention to calendars. His movies address modern themes using silent film techniques. Sometimes they work, and sometimes they really don’t.

But in DRACULA, technique and subject matter blend perfectly. The Royal Winnipeg Ballet’s production of the Bram Stoker novel, choreographed by Mark Godden, is brought to the screen in mesmerizing fashion. It’s in black and white, with startling tints of color. There’s no dialogue, but Maddin employs sound innovatively, weaving it into the music by Gustav Mahler.

Zhang Wei-Qiang makes a seductive, irresistible Count. By telling the story solely through dance, the film does a miraculous job of retaining the erotic charge of Stoker’s tale. In many ways, it’s the strongest adaptation of the novel I’ve ever seen.

Book: The Handbook of Practical Spying (2004)

This silly little book from Washington D.C.’s International Spy Museum is by Jack Barth, although his name doesn’t appear on the cover. It’s written with what Rosemarie calls “a tone.” For instance, Barth refers to the knighthood received by Cambridge spy Anthony Blunt as “the most embarrassing royal honor bestowed on any Brit until Phil Collins.” Still, the book does a surprisingly good job of laying out basic espionage techniques and adapting them for everyday use. Barth suggests an innovative way to keep people from swiping your lunch out of the office refrigerator.

I visited the Spy Museum on my last visit to D.C. and heartily recommend it. You can actually crawl through a vent in the building, like a secret agent in countless movies and TV shows. That alone made it worth the trip.

Thursday, November 04, 2004

TV: The Wire

Yesterday was a strange day. Everyone seemed to be drawn inward, weighing the results of the election, contemplating the future. I was in a good solid funk myself.

Then I turned on this week’s episode of THE WIRE. An hour later, the fog had lifted. Spending time in the company of characters I’ve come to know so well was all I needed to right my equilibrium. It demonstrates the power of narrative, which Jack O’Connell describes so movingly in this piece.

Book: The Box, by Peter Rabe (1962)

The best way to get back in the crime fiction swing is to turn to older material. This novel makes up half of a Stark House Noir reprint. It’s got a crackerjack premise. A crate is opened in a dusty North African town. Inside is Quinn, a one-time Mafia lawyer being shipped around the world for his sins. Quinn seizes the opportunity to set up a new racket, only to realize that one way or another, he’s always going to be trapped in that box. Donald Westlake cites Rabe as a major influence, and you can clearly see why. Lean writing, with nary a wasted word.

The other day I was browsing in a used book store and found a novel based on the TV series MANNIX by J.T. MacCargo. It turns out that MacCargo was actually Peter Rabe. If I’d known that, I’d have bought it.

DVD: Laserblast (1978)

I saw this at the Astoria Quad, double-billed with Christopher Lee in THE END OF THE WORLD. A teenage outcast with the chronic inability to button his shirt finds an alien ray gun. He uses it to smite his enemies, unaware that the aliens are hunting for the weapon – and that every time he fires it, he mutates a little more.

This played a lot better when I was ten. But David Allen’s stop-motion aliens look as cool as I remembered.

Wednesday, November 03, 2004

DVD: Dawn of the Dead (2004)

So many of the blogs I read regularly have either gone silent or focus exclusively on the election results. I’ve decided to riff on some horror movies I watched over the weekend. Whether that’s a contrarian impulse or a political statement is up to you.

This remake of George Romero’s 1978 landmark has a few effective moments and a strong cast, but when it was over I was more than disappointed. I was irritated. It’s nowhere near as scary as the original and has none of its pungent social commentary. I blame the fast zombies.

The deliberate pace of Romero’s film gave us time to appreciate the full horror of what had befallen the world. It also made the suspense almost unendurable. With zombies as fast as Carl Lewis, the remake becomes an action movie. A particularly dumb one, with characters behaving idiotically.

I believe in judging remakes on their own terms. But when you invoke a classic title, that history must be acknowledged. The original film is the one of the most disturbing and powerful I’ve ever seen. Nothing in this version compares. OK, there’s a zombie baby. But there’s a difference between a cheap shock and a profoundly challenging idea.

The ending is a dismal cheat, one that negates all that’s gone before. And the extras – 20 minutes of bogus news footage and a video diary by a minor character – only add to the unpleasantness. Romero has a new zombie film in the works. I hope it washes the taste of this one away.

Movie: Bay of Blood (1971)

Also known as BLOODBATH, CARNAGE, LAST HOUSE ON THE LEFT II, and TWITCH OF THE DEATH NERVE. Now those are titles!

IFC aired this as part of their tribute to Mario Bava. A group of people at an isolated house are killed off one by one in unbelievably brutal ways. Bava serves up the mayhem with his typical bravura style, and when the admittedly paper-thin story is resolved, it turns out a perverse moral order has been at work all along. (The twist ending is phenomenal.) In the countless American rip-offs – most notably the FRIDAY THE 13th series – there’s none of that. We only get the gore. Typical.

Miscellaneous: Link

Time for a little blatant self-promotion. My extended review of Criterion’s EYES WITHOUT A FACE DVD is now up at Jeff Wells’ Hollywood Elsewhere.

Tuesday, November 02, 2004

Miscellaneous: Report From The Polls

No lines to speak of when I showed up at an off-peak hour. Just a steady influx of voters. A few turned in their absentee ballots in person. Which begs the question: why did you need an absentee ballot if you’re here? I know some people like to vote in the privacy of their own homes. The neighboring state of Oregon now does all of their voting by mail. But I enjoy the ritual of going to the polling place. It underscores the gravity of the task.

I thought about taking the day off from the site, but who am I kidding? I need to keep myself occupied. So herewith, a few posts continuing the day’s theme ...

TV: Soldiers Pay

David O. Russell made this documentary to accompany a planned special edition DVD of his Desert Storm drama THREE KINGS. When Warner Brothers balked, IFC stepped in, scheduling the film for the night before the election.

Russell bites off more than he can chew in 35 minutes. There are two potentially compelling storylines: revisiting the Iraqi-American actors who appeared in THREE KINGS, and reconstructing the theft of Saddam Hussein’s money by U.S. soldiers in a real-life echo of the earlier film’s plot. Both get short shrift so that Russell has room for an unfocused critique of the war. Much as I hate to agree with The Man, Warners was right to drop this movie and let Russell screen it on its own.

DVD: Secret Honor (1984)

Philip Baker Hall’s searing performance in this one-man show about Richard M. Nixon gave him an underground fame long before Paul Thomas Anderson made him one of our premier character actors. Robert Altman brought it to the screen in an ultra-low-budget 16mm production crewed by grad students. Criterion’s DVD gives new life to what critic Michael Wilmington calls “perhaps the least seen and appreciated of all the great American films of the 1980s.”

Nixon, fueled by Chivas Regal and bitterness in the wake of his resignation, rants into a tape recorder about his life. His ravings about the corruption of the system – you mean rich people try to influence politics? – aren’t as interesting as his attacks on Eisenhower and that “whoremonger” Henry Kissinger. Nixon may have been vilified by the left and disowned by everyone on the right except Gov. Schwarzenegger. But he remains a figure of Shakespearean depths, and Hall makes the most of it.

The extras include 81 minutes of archival footage. All of Tricky Dick’s greatest hits are here: the ‘Checkers’ speech, his farewell to the White House staff. Seeing the genuine article only adds to the impact of Hall’s performance.