Monday, May 31, 2004

TV: Elaine Stritch at Liberty

A documentary team led by Chris Hegedus and D.A. Pennebaker captures the actress’ autobiographical one-woman show. The piece couldn’t be simpler; the wardrobe consists of a white shirt and tights, and the only prop is a chair. Yet the 77-year-old Stritch holds the audience rapt with tales from her life. Which is odd, because the show embraces every cliché of the form and Stritch’s life isn’t all that interesting. A Midwestern Catholic childhood and a strange date with Marlon Brando are the highlights. Everyone she ever worked with was a genius. Even her battle with the bottle is described in a curiously circumspect way that cloaks as much as it reveals. Further proof that it ain’t the story, it’s the teller.

My favorite Elaine Stritch appearance came on the Letterman show. She wandered onto the stage several times during the broadcast in the guise of a society matron, highball glass in hand, addressing Dave as if he were the pool boy she’d had an ill-advised dalliance with. Brilliant, bizarre stuff. And Stritch was wonderful.

Movie: Jackass (2002)

The R-rated stunts in this compendium are disgusting. Quite a few of the others are just about embarrassing the Japanese. (Did Spike Jonze leave Sofia Coppola alone in the hotel so he could film episodes of this show? Suddenly LOST IN TRANSLATION seems even more piquant.) And the whole thing is deeply homoerotic. Johnny Knoxville and the boys don’t have to go shirtless as often they do.

But several of this movie’s bits are absolutely hysterical. Like Johnny testing out a pair of Wile E. Coyote rocket skates. Or Bam Margera waking up his parents with a fireworks display in their bedroom. Or the priceless Roller Disco Truck. Even when the bits fall flat, you get a valuable glimpse into the psychology of the American male when the guys stand around laughing their asses off as one of their buddies flails around in pain and humiliation. The only truly disturbing thing about this movie is how much more Rosemarie liked it than I did.

TV: Punk’d

The show that doesn’t go far enough. If the pranks they pull on celebrities were true, the worst case scenario would be that a few good-looking actors/singers/whatevers would be out a couple of bucks that they can readily afford. So they get stuck with someone else’s bar tab or knock over a vase at an auction. These people are rich. If Ashton Kutcher and his posse had any nerve, they’d hit these celebrities where it hurts. Tell Jennifer Love Hewitt that Fox wants to bring PARTY OF FIVE to the big screen without her. Or trick Kutcher himself into thinking he’s been nominated for a MTV Movie Award for his performance in THE BUTTERFLY EFFECT. Then we’ll see some fur fly.

TV: 10 Days of Madonna

VH-1 Hits goes all Madonna all the time. I wanted to say ‘all Material Girl’ a la ENTERTAINMENT TONIGHT but thanks to Kabala she doesn’t answer to that anymore. When she performs the song on her current tour, she follows up the chorus (“‘cause we are living in a material world/and I am a material girl”) with “But not really!” Way to harsh everyone’s buzz, Madge.

I was never much of a Madonna fan. I tended to agree with the English commentator Clive James, who described her on FAME IN THE 20TH CENTURY by noting that she was a better singer than she was an actress, a better dancer than she was a singer, and we all know someone who dances better. But I’m beginning to change my tune. Madonna’s body of work bears up under heavy rotation, mainly because they’re not showing her movies. Her videos from the late ‘80s and early ‘90s still pack a punch, revealing just how callow her legion of imitators (this means you, Ms. Spears) are. In retrospect they do seem to offer authentic if half-formed and wildly commercialized ideas on female sexual empowerment. Maybe Camille Paglia was right all along. It’s worth noting that during this period Madonna was collaborating with talented video directors like David Fincher (‘Express Yourself,’ ‘Vogue’) and Jean-Baptiste Mondino (‘Open Your Heart’). It’s the later videos I can do without, the ones like ‘Ray of Light’ where she comes off like your friend’s hippie mom.

Friday, May 28, 2004

Movie: Bad Company (1995)

Not the lame Chris Rock/Anthony Hopkins thriller. And not the Jeff Bridges Civil War comedy, either. Fourteen movies have used this title, according to the IMDb. Once the count hit ten, it should have been retired.

This was one of ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY’s best videos of 1995, representing the many movies that sink without a trace in theatrical release only to find an audience later. Over the years the film has become a cable-TV staple; it’s been on every other day lately. Some attribute its popularity to the steamy love scenes between Laurence Fishburne and Ellen Barkin. I’m not about to discount them. But I’d also credit the original screenplay by Ross Thomas.

The humor that’s an integral part of Thomas’ novels doesn’t translate to the screen. Its absence makes the movie’s worldview seem cynical, even grim. But what do you expect from a man whose pseudonym was Bleeck? The story is set in a world populated solely by hustlers: disgraced CIA operatives, scheming industrialists, crooked judges. Every character is working his or her own angle, including Uncle Sam. It’s the rare Hollywood film that gives us absolutely no one to root for, making it tremendous fun to watch if you’re in the right frame of mind. God only knows what the Touchstone people thought of it. (Actually, we do know what they thought: they dumped it unceremoniously.) Thomas pulls a dandy reversal at the end of the movie, turning the least likely character into an avenging angel. The plot twist was probably the final nail in the movie’s coffin.

And it’s not entirely without laughs. For instance, the fact that all this high-level skullduggery is supposed to be unfolding in Seattle is hilarious.

Movie: Suddenly (1954)

Frank Sinatra’s other political assassination film, made eight years before THE MANCHURIAN CANDIDATE. He plays the heavy here, the leader of a trio of hit men who take over a house in the sleepy town of the title. It’s classic B-movie filmmaking, with the bulk of the action taking place inside a living room with a view of the train station where the President will make a brief stop. Like many films of the era, some then-newfangled psychological concepts are laid on a little thick. But the movie itself doesn’t seem to trust them; when Sinatra’s asked if he has any feelings, he replies, “No, I haven’t, lady. They were taken outta me by experts.”

Sinatra’s loathsome character mentions the Silver Star he won in the war anytime he’s accused of cowardice. Even more chilling, he has no idea who’s paying him to kill the President and no interest in finding out. The climax is a knockout, and should be studied in film schools the world over. Screenwriter Richard Sale plants critical pieces of exposition so subtly that their significance isn’t apparent until the movie’s almost over.

TV: Celebrity Poker Showdown

The first run of this series made for a pleasant diversion. Big time gambler Ben Affleck was knocked out in the first round, and the ultimate victor (MAD TV’s Nicole Sullivan) came as a surprise. But Bravo’s screwed up the second season by giving us too much of a good thing. Each episode is now padded out to two hours. New host Dave Foley is an affable guy, and certainly the only person on TV cracking George Cukor jokes. But Kevin Pollak had more of a Las Vegas vibe, and he could say “Somebody flopped a boat!” with a level of excitement that recalled Howard Cosell.

Producer Joshua Malina (of THE WEST WING) recently compared this show to BATTLE OF THE NETWORK STARS. Sorry, Josh, but that won’t wash. Where’s the simmering intensity of staunch competitors like Gabe Kaplan and Robert Conrad? Where’s the dunk tank?

Thursday, May 27, 2004

Movie: Willard (2003)

My expectations were not high. There wasn’t much to the story of a misfit and the army of rodents at his command the first time around in 1971. The remake is from the team of Glen Morgan and James Wong, who were responsible for many of the best episodes of THE X-FILES, so I figured on some degree of cleverness. Which is what I got: most of the characters have animal names (Leach, Garter, Mantis), the original Willard Bruce Davison shows up in an amusing cameo, and there’s a hilarious training sequence where the rats climb tiny ropes and ladders made just for them. Morgan’s direction borrows a bit too liberally from the Tim Burton playbook. Even Shirley Walker’s score invites the comparison; it sounds like a pastiche of Danny Elfman’s work.

But WILLARD is well cast. The two lead rats, Socrates (the smart one) and Ben (the big one), have loads of charisma, although Ben’s size does present a story problem. Willard has no reason for his chronic lateness when all he has to do is throw a saddle on Ben and ride him to the office.

And then there’s Crispin Glover.

He’s still probably best known for his impromptu karate demonstration on Letterman back in the ‘80s. He’s one of a school of actors, like Nicolas Cage and Johnny Depp, heavily influenced by silent film. But he hasn’t matched their success. You still see him; his wordless performance as the lovestruck assassin in both CHARLIE’S ANGELS films is the one grace note in that series, and he and David Paymer anchored a scattershot 2002 adaptation of Herman Melville’s BARTLEBY. (Glover may be wearing the same black suit in all of his recent films.) But he’s never had a breakout role. He’s also genuinely weird. This is the man whose directorial debut features a cast of actors who have Down’s Syndrome.

Glover’s singular performance both elevates and demolishes WILLARD. He obviously gets the movie’s jokey tone, but at the same time he plunges so deeply into his character’s tortured isolation that he makes the action around him seem gimmicky and cheap. His loving coos to Socrates have a disturbing intimacy. He sobs frequently and with abandon, letting huge strings of snot hang from his nose. His overwrought response when a bank manager advises him to sell the family house and use the money to start over (“Start over?! I’m almost DONE!”) is transfixing, at once wildly comic and indicative of a madness that Glover has worked out to the last detail. Even the actor’s sharp facial features add to the effect, much like Anthony Perkins’ birdlike appearance augmented his casting in PSYCHO. In some respects WILLARD is more of a remake of Hitchcock’s film that Gus Van Sant’s soulless shot-for-shot recreation.

Overtly theatrical performances win acclaim if the films they’re in are successful (like Depp in PIRATES OF THE CARIBBEAN) or nominally serious (Willem Dafoe in SHADOW OF THE VAMPIRE). You don’t build a career by giving your German Expressionist all in a movie with more rats than humans. But Glover’s work in WILLARD deserves to be seen and praised for its absurd genius.

And don’t miss the closing credit song, a new version of the Jackson 5’s ‘Ben.’ Produced and performed by Crispin Hellion Glover.

Book: Confessions of a Master Jewel Thief, by Bill Mason with Lee Gruenfeld (2004)

The latter half of the book drags, getting bogged down in Mason’s legal battles. But the heist stuff is pure gold. Mason hacked through a hotel room wall to get at a Cleveland mob boss’ safe, ripped off Phyllis Diller – twice, and wore a Seiko watch he stole from Robert Goulet to prison. A lot of what he says can’t be verified. I hope at least some of it is true.

TV: The Taurus World Stunt Awards

A surprisingly entertaining show, largely because every award was preceded by a live stunt. Cars crashing onto the stage, guys on fire; I’ll bet the cinematography awards aren’t this much fun. The trophy itself looks like a cross between an oversized Rolls Royce hood ornament and a statue of Osiris. For a minute I thought the winners were supposed to fight each other with them.

Wednesday, May 26, 2004

Video: Going in Style (1979)

Warners has finally released this little gem on DVD. Three Queens retirees (George Burns, Art Carney and Lee Strasberg) decide to break up the monotony of their golden years by robbing a Manhattan bank. It’s a low-key caper in the vein of the Italian classic BIG DEAL ON MADONNA STREET, but with a more bittersweet taste. Burns, unafraid to play his age, gives a wonderful performance.

Writer/director Martin Brest was just starting out when he made this film. He would go on to become the master of smart action/comedy with BEVERLY HILLS COP and MIDNIGHT RUN, one of the best studio films of the ‘80s. How he ended up being responsible for the criminal bloat of MEET JOE BLACK is one of Hollywood’s greatest mysteries. His last film GIGLI seemed like a conscious attempt to revisit the form where he first found success, a dialogue-driven character piece with a relaxed plot. GIGLI is a failure, but at least it’s an interesting failure. Brest was attempting to say something about gender roles, although I’ll be damned if I can tell you what it is. Maybe his problem is that he made his movie about senior citizens when he was a young pup, and now he’s trying to relate to the kids when he’s getting on in years.

He should have done a commentary track. It might have made him feel better. The DVD’s only extra is a good one, though: a clip from Dinah Shore’s talk show featuring Carney and Burns.

I have a special place in my heart for this movie because it was filmed in my old neighborhood. In 1978 my mother and I were walking back from Steinway Street in Astoria and stumbled onto the crew. We hung around for most of the afternoon watching them shoot a single scene. You can see it about 31 minutes into the movie: as all three actors cross a street, Burns throws up his hand to stop a van from barreling into the intersection. In the movie the van looks close enough to bowl them over, but it actually came to a halt several yards away. It was strange watching the scene 25 years later, knowing that I was standing on the other side of the camera when it was shot. It provoked an almost Proustian reverie. Almost.

Monday, May 24, 2004

Movie: Troy (2004)

Can you have a serviceable epic? That doesn’t sound right, saying that a movie is adequately heroic. But the description suits director Wolfgang Petersen’s take on THE ILIAD to a T. TROY gets the job done and punches out at five. It won’t be fabled in song and story, and no garlands will be wreathed ‘round its head come Oscar time. But it does what’s asked of it in briskly entertaining fashion.

Liberties have been taken with the plot, as well they should be. It does seem odd that Homer can be streamlined and simplified but Harry Potter can’t be because, well, dude, that’s a classic. Screenwriter David Benioff has abandoned the gods, stripping away the mythic aspects of the tale and reducing it to a political struggle. One with scads of action, which Petersen and cinematographer Roger Pratt deliver with brio. Large-scale battle sequences alternate with intimate mano a mano duels; both types of scenes are cleanly shot, the tactics readily understandable. Petersen uses CGI to fill out the frame but not dominate it. The only misstep is the use of music. James Horner’s score is obvious throughout, except for one moment when it seemed to veer into the theme from MAHOGANY.

Denied his divine provenance, the movie’s Achilles comes across as a petulant jerk obsessed with fame. He doesn’t need a war so much as he needs Pat Kingsley to field his media requests. The casting of Brad Pitt works in this context; the part needs not just a star but a golden boy. Pitt’s accent visits more countries than the crew did, but he wisely keeps his dialogue to a minimum and his performance engagingly physical.

The other actors don’t fare as well as each is given a single note to play. Eric Bana’s Hector is the reluctant warrior, while Brendan Gleeson is wounded male vanity personified. The scenes featuring Orlando Bloom and Diane Kruger as Paris and Helen are like clips from the toga party episode of THE O.C. spliced in to cotton to the Fox demographic. Brian Cox emerges not only unscathed but triumphant. Most actors, even those with a classical background, have a tendency to indicate in costume drama, to signify that their characters are living in historic times in every sense of the phrase. Cox can’t be bothered with that. His Agamemnon exists gloriously in the moment, and his scenes have a ferocious, almost satiric crackle. He plays the king like a glory hound CEO who’s annoyed that he can’t fire that smartass Achilles because he’s the current sales leader.

Plus the horse looks very, very cool.

Miscellaneous: Links

David Thomson offers up a list of alternative movie gods. I can certainly get behind The Church of Claude Rains as Captain Renault. Scary thought of the day: the science in THE DAY AFTER TOMORROW comes courtesy of alien abductee Whitley Streiber and paranormal expert Art Bell.

Sunday, May 23, 2004

Video: In the Mouth of Madness (1995)

I praised this movie on Ed Gorman’s blog when Ed was talking about John Carpenter. I hadn’t seen it since its initial release and didn’t remember much other than my positive feelings toward it. It played even better upon revisiting it. It’s Carpenter’s most ambitious film, an homage to H.P. Lovecraft that comes as close as any movie has to bringing his mythos to life. However, any mental hospital staffed by John Glover and David Warner should be closed at once.

Sam Neill stars, and he’s the main reason why the movie works. The actor is a marvelous addition to any cast, but he’s particularly effective in films that touch on the fantastic. He acts as a sober, grounding influence. Here that ability is essential; his character’s dogged devotion to rationality becomes the engine that drives the plot. Anything Neill says in a movie, no matter how outlandish, you accept at face value. The work of a hack horror novelist is warping the fabric of reality? Of course I believe you. Cloned dinosaurs running amok? Must be true. Dingo ate your baby? Whatever you say.

TV: Cannes Film Festival Closing Ceremonies

The opening ceremonies are much more fun. There are no prizes to hand out, so the show primarily consists of a beautiful European actress babbling pretentiously about le cinema, comparing it to water, or ballet, or a water ballet. (“Fluid yet graceful, an eternally renewing cascade of imagery ...”)

The broadcast had a strong anti-Bush flavor even before Michael Moore took home the Palme d’Or for FAHRENHEIT 9/11. I know that most showbiz types are on the left, and that great swaths of Europe dislike the President. But you’d think that as entertainers these people would recognize the value of the unexpected plot twist. Couldn’t somebody onstage say something positive about the liberation of Iraq? Or suggest that voters turn Tony Blair or Silvio Berlusconi out of office? Just to keep the audience guessing.

The Belgian winner of the short film jury prize asked anyone watching in America not to vote for Bush. First of all, other than me nobody in America is watching. Second, he made this comment after saying he wanted Cannes to be more of a film festival and less of a business festival. And finally, he came in second. For short film. And he’s Belgian.

Nice to see THE LADYKILLERS’ Irma P. Hall get some love, though.

Magazine: Esquire

Time to play pop culture detective. I spotted the cover of the June issue as I entered Barnes & Noble. It recreates the famous Coppertone ad with a dog tugging down the bottom of a girl’s bikini. Who’d they get to do that?, I wondered, and gave myself until I crossed the store’s lobby to figure it out.

It had to be somebody famous enough to make it worth the magazine’s while. But with the kind of fame that wouldn’t be diminished by having her ass hanging out on the cover of a national magazine. If anything, her celebrity would be enhanced.

My guess: Carmen Electra. I was right.

I know. It wasn’t a particularly difficult case. It’s not like they could have convinced Kirsten Dunst to do it.

TV: The Late Show With David Letterman

I know you all join me in wishing a speedy recovery to Grindergirl, the novelty act who has become an indispensable part of the show. She was performing onstage with Mini-Kiss, the all-dwarf Kiss tribute band, when her grinder slipped off her metal bikini and grazed her thigh.

She’s fine. And I’m not making any of this up.

TV: Saturday Night Live’s Best of Christopher Walken

This may be a first, devoting a show to sketches featuring a frequent host instead of a regular. All I can say is I’ve got a fever, and the only prescription is more cowbell.

Friday, May 21, 2004

Movie: The In-Laws (2003)

When watching a remake, it’s only fair to keep comparisons to a minimum. Particularly when the original is a personal favorite, featuring a pearl of a script by Andrew Bergman and two actors (Peter Falk and Alan Arkin) with inspired chemistry. When the word ‘serpentine’ in any context will produce guffaws. When you will sometimes ask “Did we hit the little boy on Sixth Avenue?” for no reason. That doesn’t matter here. You’ve got to play fair and judge the new version on its own terms.

Michael Douglas plays the Falk role ... whoops, my bad, let me start over.

Michael Douglas plays a self-confident secret agent and Albert Brooks is a neurotic. (Maybe they put this movie together over the holidays when the casting agencies were closed.) In the days leading up to their children’s wedding, Brooks gets sucked into Douglas’ globetrotting exploits.

Andrew Fleming directs in default comedy style: bright lights on whatever’s in the center of the frame and wall-to-wall pop favorites. (Note to Fleming: it’s bad form to open your movie with the title song from another. Especially when said movie is LIVE AND LET DIE.)

Stars who dominate in drama often seem eager to share the spotlight in comedy. Maybe they’re worried about getting laughs. Giving more screen time to Douglas’ son makes a certain amount of sense, and Ryan Reynolds channels Chevy Chase to give the character some buoyancy. But what should be a two-hander showcasing the leads becomes cluttered with supporting characters like Douglas’ spygirl protégé and his ex-wife.

There are some funny bits, including a tour of Barbra Streisand’s plane. Brooks can never be counted out; few other actors can get comic mileage out of their pronunciation of the word ‘laminate.’ I did not need to see him in a thong, however. The peerless character actor David Suchet gives the movie a huge boost with his portrayal of a French arms smuggler who’s been reading Deepak Chopra and who is absolutely not gay. He’s almost as funny as the 1979 film’s villain, a Latin American dictator obsessed with Senor Wences. (Sorry. I said I wasn’t going to do that.)

At least this movie has the good sense to end on a prison rape joke. In comedy, you want to send everybody out on an up note.

TV Commercials: Shrek 2

Until I read David Edelstein in Slate, I thought I was the only person who found the first movie an unbearable smugfest. Edelstein praises the sequel, but I don’t think I have to go. After seeing characters from the movie endorse Sierra Mist, Baskin-Robbins and M&Ms – all in the space of 75 minutes - I’m pretty sure I’m covered.

TV Commercial: Western Union

This ad offers two case studies: a man sends his brother enough to cover the electric bill before his lights are turned off, and an African immigrant wires money home to pay for his son’s education. There’s no attempt to sex up the company’s service, nobody using Western Union to file last-minute bids on the Conan Doyle papers at Christie’s. Such honesty is Sierra Mist refreshing. It makes me wish I had somebody to send money to.

Miscellaneous: Links

A peek inside three of the greatest minds of this generation. Nick Hornby on listening to rock as you get older. David Mamet on the insanity of the Hollywood development system. And courtesy of Gawker, Regis Philbin on how to succeed in showbiz. (In a nutshell: be lucky.)

Thursday, May 20, 2004

TV: Showbiz Moms & Dads

A funny yet deeply disturbing Bravo series that tracks five families with children hoping to make it as entertainers. But the title gives the game away. It’s all about the parents, specifically the question of whether they’re living out their own dreams through their children. The answer is so obviously yes that at times the show became uncomfortable to watch. I don’t care what their parents say, 4-year-olds are incapable of deciding to compete in beauty pageants.

The breakout clan of the series, if you can call them that, is the Nutters. (It’s explained that the name means ‘one who gathers nuts.’) Dad Duncan uprooted his wife and seven children from Vermont to NYC so he could turn the whole family into actors, even though none of them know how to act and few of them have any interest in learning. He’s so oblivious to their feelings that he becomes the show’s passive-aggressive villain, complete with comeuppance: in the finale, we see him torn to shreds by a child psychiatrist on OPRAH.

A range of vaguely sleazy industry types who earn a living feeding these parents’ fantasies – pageant coordinators, acting coaches – pop up during the show. My favorite was a low-rent producer boasting that his newest production would star “Ernie Borgnine” and the Purina National Trick Dog champion.

Book: The Road to Ruin, by Donald E. Westlake (2004)

A Dortmunder novel hard on the heels of THIEVES’ DOZEN, a collection of short stories about the character. Even in long form the poor bastard doesn’t have much luck. Here, Dortmunder sets out to steal several priceless antique cars from an Enron-style corporate bandit. To get to close to the loot, Dortmunder will have to stoop to a new low: he’ll have to get a job. And not just any job. He has to become a butler, a position he trains for by watching RUGGLES OF RED GAP and THE REMAINS OF THE DAY. As usual, things don’t turn out as planned. ROAD may not reach the hysterical heights of the series’ previous outing, BAD NEWS, but there are laughs to spare.

I try to stay away from casting games but so many actors have played Dortmunder that I can’t help myself. The best known incarnation is Robert Redford in 1972’s THE HOT ROCK. He was funny, but he was also at the apex of his handsomeness then, making him all wrong. George C. Scott, Paul Le Mat, Christopher Lambert and Martin Lawrence have since taken a crack at the character. Westlake himself favors Harry Dean Stanton, but that’s a little too hangdog for me. Right now I’d go with Paul Giamatti in the down-and-dirty version, or Bill Pullman if we’re throwing money around.

As for sidekick Andy Kelp, he will always and forever be George Segal.

Wednesday, May 19, 2004

Book: With Intent To Kill, by George Harmon Coxe (1964)

On a final sweep through Powell’s City of Books, I came upon a sizeable stash of novels by Coxe. I was unfamiliar with his work, which isn’t surprising. I’m not an expert in paperback fiction of the ‘50s and ‘60s, just a fan. I’d already assembled quite a haul so I limited myself to the title that sounded most appealing, “a hardboiled thriller of pursuit and revenge.”

The book is no lost masterpiece or unheralded gem. It’s simply a good story well told. A man accidentally kills another in a traffic accident. He’s cleared in an investigation. But the victim’s brother, a wealthy psychotic, demands satisfaction and stalks our hero to Belize for a final showdown. It turns into a conventional mystery halfway through, but one with a satisfying ending. Coxe’s prose is lean, and like many writers of the era he doesn’t dally. If one of today’s suspense writers used this plot – and they could – the resulting book would be three times as long.

I looked up Coxe’s name online and found very little. He wrote 60-plus novels and a handful of film and TV shows; the cover of this book calls him the “dean of American mystery writers.” Yet he’s largely forgotten now, his works relegated to the back shelves of used book stores. I can’t help but wonder which current big-selling authors await the same fate.

Movie: Queen of Blood (1966)

Also known as PLANET OF BLOOD. Which is not to be confused with Mario Bava’s 1965 PLANET OF THE VAMPIRES, even though this film is also about a vampire from another planet. With me so far?

This is one of Roger Corman’s chop jobs, where he created a film to go around special effects footage he’d acquired from a far more expensive Russian movie. The result is slow but atmospheric. Florence Marly makes a striking green-skinned alien bloodsucker. Her costume and performance (especially her movements) seem to have influenced Lisa Marie’s character in the Tim Burton movie MARS ATTACKS! The entire film is often cited as a precursor to ALIEN. I do have to wonder about any future where Dennis Hopper is an astronaut, though.

Miscellaneous: Link

David Kipen has a terrific article in the Atlantic about how the studios’ relentless focus on the global marketplace has led to a dearth of films about American life. A must-read.

Tuesday, May 18, 2004

Video: The Missing (2003)

It goes without saying that Ron Howard’s western looks great. The world’s up to its collective armpits in fine cinematographers. Even Kevin Smith’s worked with some. And Howard’s movie is peopled by actors who are at home in the period setting, like Tommy Lee Jones and Cate Blanchett. Too bad THE MISSING is inert from first frame to last.

Casting is part of the problem. Half the actors onscreen remind you of other, more entertaining westerns. Jones conjures up memories of LONESOME DOVE. There’s Val Kilmer from TOMBSTONE. Even the reverend from DEADWOOD puts in an appearance. Then there’s the story. I can’t speak to the novel it’s based on, Thomas Eidson’s THE LAST RIDE. The adaptation plays like a gloss on THE SEARCHERS (Jones, who abandoned his family to go native, tries to track down his granddaughter before she’s sold into slavery) that manages to be queasily titillating and politically correct at the same time. There’s a jarring shift in tone when we’re asked to accept that the black magic of the lead villain (Eric Schweig) is real. What had been a mannered attempt at a traditional western veers into the psychedelic territory mapped by Monte Hellman’s THE SHOOTING, with some cheap horror movie scares tossed in. Genre-bending is always difficult to pull off, and Howard never lays the groundwork for the transition. The DVD includes a few short westerns that Howard made as a child; it’s obvious that the man has a deep love of the genre. But loving something doesn’t automatically mean you understand it.

Why is that whenever directors want to stretch, they’re drawn to material that’s obviously outside their wheelhouse? Why don’t they dig deep into what they’re intuitively familiar with and try to subvert the form? All of Howard’s movies are about the power of the family unit. He even shoehorned this theme into APOLLO 13, a film that, to steal a line from my friend Noelle Noble, should have had more frosted spaceships and less frosted lipstick. But Howard’s New York-set comedies (SPLASH, THE PAPER) bristle with energy. I know he’s got a Preston Sturges-style social farce in him. We could use one right about now. Couldn’t he have made that instead of a self-consciously grim horse opera?

TV: Best Week Ever

The first show to use Abu Ghraib as a punchline. It’s official: VH-1 is the network of the damned.

TV: Superstar USA

The PUNK’D version of AMERICAN IDOL. I don’t know why the WB is going to these lengths when Fox found William Hung by accident. I must admit I was impressed by ‘celebrity judge’ Vitamin C’s ability to flatter terrible singers. I’d expect no less from the woman who originated the role of Amber von Tussle in HAIRSPRAY.

A show that sets up the delusional for a fall doesn’t bother me in the least. We have a surfeit of self-esteem in America. But I have to wonder about the friends and families of the contestants. Do they think that much of their loved one’s talents, or that little of the pop stars cranked out by the AMERICAN IDOL factory? This program raises more questions than it answers.

Miscellaneous: Links

A clever yet horrifying idea that we all should have seen coming: an animated film where your favorite supermarket icons like Charlie the Tuna and Mr. Clean join forces. In this world, are the Keebler Elves considered a gang? And in New Orleans, Anne Rice pulls up stakes.

Monday, May 17, 2004

Movie: Super Size Me (2004)

THE BLAIR WITCH PROJECT was a horror movie styled like a documentary. Morgan Spurlock’s indictment of America’s fast food culture is a documentary that plays like a horror movie. WATCH the audience recoil as Spurlock loses his lunch – literally! HEAR them gasp when the results of his bloodwork come back!

The straight journalistic aspects of the movie are well done. Spurlock uses McDonald’s own filings in lawsuits against them to damning effect, and he makes an excellent case against the commercialization of school lunch programs. But the essence of the film is its hook: Spurlock goes on a 30-day all-McDonald’s diet with disastrous effects on his health. The experiment brings home his point in way that the facts never could. By week two, you want to ask him why he doesn’t stop when it’s obvious that the food is bad for him. Then you realize that you could put the same question to the “heavy users,” in McDonald’s own parlance, who down Big Macs at least once a week.

Spurlock is being touted as the heir to Michael Moore; A.O. Scott wrote a piece linking the two in Sunday’s New York Times. But there’s a critical difference between them. Moore, the 50-year-old ex-Mother Jones editor, views himself as a crusader against monolithic corporations that prey on an unsuspecting public. Spurlock is 33, which means he came of age in the era of branding and media savvy. He knows that to some degree we’re all complicit in the success of these companies. Spurlock says at the outset that his movie is about finding the point where corporate responsibility ends and personal responsibility begins, an admission of culpability that Moore seems unwilling to make.

Two mistakes: when a map of America’s fattest cities is shown, one in south Florida is clearly labeled “Maimi.” And at no point in the film does Spurlock eat a McRib. I know they’re back. I can see the posters.

TV: The Sopranos

A dream sequence? Didn’t we get one of these a few seasons ago?

It is healthy to dream about celebrities, though. Psychiatrists say that it shows a well-developed sense of self-esteem. I learned that tidbit on HOLLYWOOD SQUARES.

Miscellaneous: Links

Here’s a surprise: some banana republics have better voting systems than AMERICAN IDOL does. And all hail the Eurovision Song Contest.

Sunday, May 16, 2004

TV: CSI: New York

The spinoff will be introduced on Monday’s season finale of CSI: MIAMI. I’m tempted to watch because the new show will star Gary Sinise, one of those terrific Chicago actors who imbue every performance with a kind of grounded theatricality. But I’m also afraid that he’ll be hamstrung by the rigors of the franchise. I love Anthony LaPaglia on WITHOUT A TRACE, but the series doesn’t give him the opportunities to dig deep the way he did in films like BULLETPROOF HEART and LANTANA. Then again, Vincent D’Onofrio has managed to turn LAW & ORDER: CRIMINAL INTENT into a showcase for his twitchy histrionics, and I mean that in the best possible way.

Sinise stars in one of my favorite movie scenes of the ‘90s. In the so-so thriller RANSOM, he plays a crooked cop who masterminds a kidnapping. When his plan falls apart, he walks into a laundromat to ponder his next move. The play of emotions on his face as he comes up with a particularly ruthless solution and then steels himself up to carry it out is riveting. No special effects required.

Movie: Odds Against Tomorrow (1959)

Nelson Gidding, one of the film’s writers, passed away recently. I watched this movie for the first time a few weeks ago. Noir expert Eddie Muller named it as a personal favorite. So did director Jean-Pierre Melville.

The movie comes late in the noir cycle; some of the trademarks of the coming revolution in cinema are already in evidence, like the stark cinematography and innovative use of music. Robert Wise directs with a spare style that seems fused to the material. Robert Ryan plays a racist so desperate for a score he throws in on a bank job with an equally desperate black jazz musician (Harry Belafonte). The tension between the two finally boils over when the robbery goes south. Ryan is fearless; his scenes with Gloria Grahame are played with a blistering neediness. The closing moments overtly state what had been neatly underplayed, but it’s a bracing, adult film.

Gidding also wrote Susan Hayward’s I WANT TO LIVE! as well as THE HAUNTING and THE ANDROMEDA STRAIN. Here’s to a fine career.

Movie: Act of Violence (1949)

World-class director’s Fred Zinnemann’s lone foray into noir surfaced on TCM. It’s set primarily in one of those picture-perfect California towns where sin goes to fester. The underrated Van Heflin plays a veteran who’s built up a thriving business as a contractor. When his ex-service buddy Robert Ryan (again – where would noir be without him?) shows up intent on killing him, we naturally take Heflin’s side. Slowly, the truth comes out; while in a POW camp, Heflin sold out his own men to the Nazis. The reappearance of his one-time friend sends him spiraling into the shadows. Ryan’s sputtering attempt to justify his crusade to Heflin’s wife (Janet Leigh) is topped by another exceptional scene where Heflin’s rationalizations collapse into self-loathing. Potent stuff. Few characters in contemporary entertainment are as complex as Heflin’s is here, and when they are, that complexity becomes the entire point of the enterprise. (Witness AMERICAN BEAUTY.) That Zinnemann’s film can give us a taut story as well is nothing short of miraculous.

Miscellaneous: Links

North Korean pop culture tries to take root in the south. And no wonder most movies suck, with screenwriters carrying on like this.

Friday, May 14, 2004

Video: The Triplets of Belleville (2003)

I’ve never seen anything more French in my life.

Sylvain Chomet’s animated feature is virtually dialogue-free, its soundtrack filled with a cacophony of multilingual mutterings and sound. Chomet has forged a style that combines Tex Avery and Jacques Tati. There’s not much of a plot. An elderly woman raises her grandson, drawn to look like a Gallic Marty Feldman, to compete in the Tour de France. When he’s kidnapped during the race and Shanghaied to the city of Belleville, Grandmere pursues him with the help of the title act, a trio of elderly musical performers.

Belleville is not America, exactly, but a place where the cars are big, the hamburgers are bigger, and everybody is fat and proud of it. Chomet doesn’t spare his countrymen; the French gangsters are a collection of oddly shaped noses underneath berets, and the triplets attack their nightly dinner of frogs with a frightening gustatory zeal. Chomet includes enough visual quirks to carry the film past its slow patches. He’s aided enormously by Benoît Charest’s music and an insanely catchy title song by Mathieu Chedid. A music video, included on the DVD, belongs in heavy rotation on Guy Maddin’s MTV.

TRIPLETS gives the lie to the received wisdom that hand-drawn animation is dead. It’s strange that Disney and Dreamworks keep pushing this argument in an era when Hiyao Miyazaki won an Oscar for SPIRITED AWAY. More than any other form, animation demands a clearly-articulated central vision. Pixar’s films have that; the company’s last two efforts weren’t directed by John Lasseter but obviously spring from his sensibility. American conventional animation may be dead because there’s no place in the system for iconoclasts like Chomet. Bill Plympton has made a go of it. His full-length films like THE TUNE and I MARRIED A STRANGE PERSON don’t have the impact of shorts like HOW TO KISS, but he’s fighting the good fight. Mike Judge ultimately turned to TV.

BTW, BEAVIS AND BUTT-HEAD is back on MTV2. I wish Judge would make new episodes. I want to hear the boys’ commentary on Christina Aguilera’s ‘Dirrty.’

Movie: The Battle of Algiers (1965)

Gillo Pontecorvo’s controversial film about the French campaign against Algerian nationalists made the news when the Pentagon screened it prior to the invasion of Iraq. I saw it during its re-release earlier this year. It’s a harrowing piece of work.

Now word comes from Cannes that a remake is in the offing. (The Variety article on the project is subscription-only.) The original film’s producer and costar Saadi Yacef is involved, and the story will be opened up by adding an American character.

Most projects trumpeted at Cannes never come to fruition; half of them are announced only to squeeze a few bucks out of dissolute investors who are distantly related to Queen Beatrix of the Netherlands. But this strikes me as a particularly bad idea. To paraphrase John Huston, there’s no point in remaking a film they got right the first time. And “opening up” a story almost never works.

What really annoys me is the rationale behind the remake. Producer Basil Iwanyk says, “A lot of people are trying to dramatize what’s going on the Middle East ... (but they) are afraid to look anti-American and don’t want to touch political issues.” Good luck. Iwanyk is to be commended for giving it a shot, but going back to the 1950s and a conflict that involves the U.S. only peripherally isn’t the way to illuminate the current crisis.

The recent contretemps over Disney’s decision not to distribute Michael Moore’s FAHRENHEIT 911 has led to bogus cries of corporate censorship. But the real fallout from media consolidation is the unwillingness of the studios to make films tackling contemporary issues at a time when we desperately need them. Oliver Stone said pre-9/11 that he wanted to make an ALGIERS-style thriller about terrorism. Instead, he’s retreated to ancient Greece. I do have hope, though. TRAFFIC collaborators Steven Soderbergh and Stephen Gaghan are reteaming along with George Clooney for SYRIANA, a film based on ex-CIA operative Robert Baer’s gripping book SEE NO EVIL. If they succeed, perhaps others will follow.

Miscellaneous: Link

Roller derby makes a comeback. Setting up a remake we can all agree on: Charlize Theron in KANSAS CITY BOMBER.

Thursday, May 13, 2004

Website Update: Comments

Thanks to the Blogger relaunch, this website now has comments. Feel free to sound off.

TV: Aaron Spelling

TV Land aired a mini-marathon of the master’s shows as part of Moguls night. He’s selling many of them to the movies now, which is a relief. I was afraid he would run out of money. (This is where I’m supposed to say that the wealth of Croesus couldn’t buy Tori Spelling a career, but I’m a fan. Tori’s very funny in the indie films THE HOUSE OF YES and TRICK.)

During the credit sequence of CHARLIE’S ANGELS: FULL THROTTLE, respect is paid to other Spelling shows. Drew Barrymore hugs the hood of STARSKY & HUTCH’s Striped Tomato, and the car that delivered Mr. Rourke to the seaplane dock at the top of every FANTASY ISLAND explodes as the Angels flee. Nothing like misplaced reverence to set the tone for your movie.

Any episode of STARSKY & HUTCH is much funnier, albeit unintentionally, than the recent comedy version. Here’s a line from David Soul as he’s leaving Capt. Dobie’s office: “Starsk, hand me my sweaters.” Let’s see Owen Wilson top that.

If TV Land wanted to pay tribute to Spelling, why didn’t they bring back BUDDY FARO with Dennis Farina and Frank Whaley?

TV: Morton & Hayes

Speaking of long-lost TV, did anyone watch this show other than Rosemarie and me? It aired during the summer of 1991. Each week Rob Reiner would introduce a newly recovered two-reeler starring the forgotten comedy team of Chick Morton and Eddie Hayes (Kevin Pollak and Bob Amaral). The shows were pitch-perfect recreations of Abbott & Costello shorts, written by, among others, Christopher Guest, Michael McKean, and Joe Flaherty. Considering the talent involved, you’d think the show would be better remembered. I want a DVD of all six episodes, primarily to prove that I didn’t imagine them.

Movie: The Day After Tomorrow (2004)

I had my post written even before the special preview aired on Fox: “Does watching 10 minutes of this movie mean that I don’t have to go see it? And if I don’t go, will Al Gore call to give me a hard time?”

But then I watched the preview and damned if the movie didn’t look like a good, stupid time. If the mercury breaks 85 degrees, I’ll go. And according to the science of this movie, it will.

TV: The Blockbuster Imperative

Trio’s pop culture documentaries don’t have much in the way of new information, but they’re easy to watch. This one detailing how tentpole movies took over Hollywood contains some smart comments from writer/director David Twohy, who knows his way around big-budget B-movies (THE FUGITIVE, PITCH BLACK).

A studio marketing rep talked about how depressing it is to dupe people into seeing movies she knows are crap. So now PR flacks are not only lying to us about their product, they want to commiserate with us as well. Doesn’t anybody hustle with conviction anymore? Give me a guy in the Jack Valenti mode, who will insist that he thinks WATERWORLD is the next wave in big-screen excitement even as he’s being run out of town on a rail. At least that guy worked for my ten bucks.

Miscellaneous: Links

A walk down Brooklyn’s Memory Lane, although I don’t see why the reporter has to razz my man John Saxon. And Cannes jurors Quentin Tarantino and Tilda Swinton agree to disagree.

Wednesday, May 12, 2004

Video: Death Race 2000 (1975)

David Carradine’s career resurgence prompted me to take another look at this movie. It’s a highlight not just for Carradine, but for producer Roger Corman and director Paul Bartel. (I miss Bartel. Back in high school, when everyone else was inserting toothpicks into the backs of their cable boxes so they could watch PORKY’S for free, I was obsessed with EATING RAOUL. There’s nothing sadder than sitting in the cafeteria reeling off lines from a movie that nobody else has seen. Unless it’s writing a blog that nobody is reading.)

Many people are familiar with the movie’s premise. In a dystopian future, the national sport is a cross-country race where points are scored by killing pedestrians. (People 75 and older are worth the most.) But that’s only a hint of how truly unhinged this film is. The United States is led by a President-for-life currently governing from his summer palace in China. Much of the movie is structured around the nonstop TV coverage of the race, which plays like a demented combination of professional wrestling, SURVIVOR, and ESPN’s remotes from the NFL draft.

It’s all served up with typical Corman verve; the damn thing’s only 78 minutes long. Here the cheap vitality adds to the flow of ideas. This is the movie that A CLOCKWORK ORANGE thinks it is, in only half the time and with better jokes. And it hasn’t dated at all. If anything, it seems even more relevant. Everything that goes wrong in the race is blamed on the French, for God’s sake.

A big-budget remake is in the works, but I’m certain it will have none of the original’s gonzo energy. The focus will be on the cars and the outsized characters. And it will be at least half an hour too long.

One other observation: whatever happened to casual nudity in the movies? It just made everything ... better.

TV: Turner Classic Movies

The network devoted an entire afternoon to movies beginning with MURDER. As in IN A PRIVATE CAR (1934), BY AN ARISTOCRAT (1936), and so on. I managed to catch MURDER ON A HONEYMOON, a Hildegarde Withers mystery from 1935. Co-written by the great humorist Robert Benchley and filmed on location in Catalina. Can a TV network be declared a national resource?

Music: Separate Ways (Worlds Apart)

Every time I go to the gym I’m assailed by the limp electronica remake, so I bought the Journey original from iTunes. Let me state this in no uncertain terms. I love this song. Unironically and unreservedly.

Tuesday, May 11, 2004

TV: Jeopardy

Power Players week, featuring D.C. insiders. The first contestants were Bob Woodward, Peggy Noonan and Tucker Carlson. None of them knew which team John Elway QB’d for, and many of the pop culture questions went unanswered. I’m not picking on them. I just thought politics was a redoubt for what guidance counselors call “well-rounded individuals.” Like Tracy Flick in ELECTION. I’m more well-rounded than these three. I even know who the Secretary of Labor is. Go ahead. Ask me.

Book: The Burglar on the Prowl, by Lawrence Block (2004)

My influences as a child were Bugs Bunny and James Bond. I like to think of myself as a synthesis of those two icons of masculinity. Nobody else does, but I do. As an adult, Block’s Matt Scudder series has had the biggest impact. They’re low-key books with a stark emotional intensity as well as the most loving depiction of New York currently in print.

It’s a measure of Block’s skill that he also writes the Burglar series, which read like Nero Wolfe tales penned by P.G. Wodehouse with a dash of Damon Runyon thrown in. The latest is a hoot. Coincidence piled on coincidence, and a chapter that ends with our hero Bernie Rhodenbarr assembling the entire cast in one room and saying, “I suppose you’re wondering why I summoned you all here.”

Video: American Splendor (2003)

Either this or MASTER AND COMMANDER was my favorite movie of 2003, depending on which day you ask me. An adaptation of the autobiographical comics of Harvey Pekar, SPLENDOR blends live action and animation, documentary and dramatic film, in service of a story about the necessity of stories. And it’s hilarious into the bargain.

It’s also proof that Hollywood needs to get out more. There’s no way the Cleveland of this movie could be recreated on any soundstage. It should have been eligible for the foreign film Oscar as the entry from America.

Movie: Out For A Kill (2003)

Steven Seagal’s movies are going straight to basic cable now. I’m sure that as a Buddhist he’s one with the decision. The movie was directed by Michael Oblowitz, who made the flawed but interesting Jim Thompson adaptation THIS WORLD, THEN THE FIREWORKS a few years ago. Any hope of watching this movie was obliterated when Rosemarie observed that Steven Seagal now has Ann Miller’s hair.

Miscellaneous: Link

A New York Times article puts a post-9/11 spin on summer blockbusters. Universal’s Stacey Snider says she greenlit VAN HELSING because she was struck by the word vanquish in the script: “It just feels so strong, like it’s going to eradicate bad things.” Conquer, quell and subjugate are still available, screenwriters, so let’s get cracking.

Monday, May 10, 2004

TV: The Sopranos

Oscar nominee Mike Figgis (LEAVING LAS VEGAS) takes the reins and proves there’s room for directorial flourishes in episodic TV. Some of them worked: the use of the zoom after Johnny Sack disrespects Tony in the matter of the Vespa scooters, or holding on Tony as he storms away from Janice’s house instead of going to black as the credits roll. But Figgis’ most showy trick, employing slow motion as Carmela brushes off her onetime lover, knocked me clean out of the show.

Movie: I’m Not Scared (2004)

Based on Niccolo Ammaniti’s novel, one of the best-selling books in recent European history. Michele (Giuseppe Cristiano) and his family are spending the summer in the Italian countryside. At ten years old, he’s feeling the first stirrings of adolescence, staying up late to write stories, wandering away from the playmates that have been forced on him by circumstance. At an abandoned house he discovers a pit, inside of which is another ten-year old boy who believes that he’s dead. As the two boys bond, Michele pieces together the story of how his new friend came to be there.

Director Gabriele Salvatores, responsible for one of the most uninspired of ‘90s Oscar-winners in MEDITERRANEO, does an extraordinary job of capturing a child’s eye view of the world. Every adult looms mysteriously, including Michele’s exhausted mother and charming but distant father (Dino Abbrescia, a young Italian Anthony Hopkins wielding a cigarette holder). Salvatores and d.p. Italo Petriccione lay on a few too many shots of rippling wheat fields due to face the thresher, but they also uncannily recreate the quicksilver feeling of long summer afternoons when the grown-up world seems to forget that children exist. Cristiano is an enormously engaging young actor, devouring the world with curiosity. But the movie is made by the otherworldly Mattia Di Pierro as the sad little boy who calls Michele his “guardian angel.”

Seeing this and MAN ON FIRE only days apart made for an odd double-bill: kidnapping as seen from both sides. Odder still is the fact that the novel MAN ON FIRE is set in Italy during the same period.

Video: Stuck On You (2003)

For once the sweetness that has overwhelmed the last few Farrelly Brothers films feels like an integral part of the story. Matt Damon and Greg Kinnear play conjoined (not Siamese, thank you) twins trying to make a go of it in Hollywood. THERE’S SOMETHING ABOUT MARY may be funnier, but in some respects this is the Farrellys’ best movie. It’s certainly their most mature, if that word can be said to apply to them. The film is a detailed exploration of the long-term bond between brothers, a subject these two know something about. The movie loses steam toward the end, and the climax, a number from a musical version of BONNIE & CLYDE, seems out of place. But there’s a sight gag involving Kinnear and a park bench that’s worthy of Chaplin: simple, funny, and almost absurdly moving.

TV: King of the Hill

Johnny Depp scores as a Texas yoga guru. No surprise, really, because he’s got a voice for animation. His delivery of the line “I demand that you buy a tank top” is priceless.

Relying on their voices alone is a great way for actors to show off their chops. I gained a whole new respect for Jennifer Aniston after hearing her on this show and SOUTH PARK.

Sunday, May 09, 2004

TV: 100 Hottest Hotties

Hottie #4 Britney Spears was introduced along these lines: “No one else has made so many men look up the statutory rape laws in their state.” It almost made me put the parental lock on VH-1 for my own protection.

TV: State of Play

I’ve decided to wait for the DVD. There are so many commercial interruptions during this political thriller that BBC America runs a recap every time they come back from break. This is not how you build suspense.

TV: A&E’s Blondie Live By Request

Has anyone ever called one of these shows and said, “I’d like to hear something off the new album?”

Friday, May 07, 2004

Website Update: Theory

I’ve finally gotten around to posting a few of my theories. See me struggle to explain it all here.

Movie: Man on Fire (2004)

A.J. Quinnell’s 1980 novel has been filmed twice, putting it well ahead of THE DAY OF THE LOCUST. Its popularity is easy to fathom. The stripped-down tale is ready-made for Hollywood. Burned out military man becomes bodyguard. He bonds with his young charge. She gets kidnapped, he raises hell. Cue music.

The story has a primal kick, but name a revenge movie that doesn’t. The genre’s rules are so rigorously defined that the only means of personal expression comes in the choice of weaponry. In KILL BILL, we got Hattori Hanzo swords; here it’s exploding suppositories. It’s enough to make you long for the days when a simple handgun was enough for Charles Bronson. The filmmakers have cagily updated the novel’s setting to Mexico City, where kidnappings are a daily occurrence and the police are often implicated. In a system so corrupt, the movie insists, vigilante justice may be the only recourse.

Denzel Washington’s tendency to hold himself in reserve works against the movie here. He’s not enjoying himself, so neither can we. I suppose we should thank him for that. We can enjoy his performance, though, which is a model of economy and precision. He conveys his character’s alcoholism in the way he clutches his glass. Brian Helgeland’s screenplay has been salted with obvious dialogue that reeks of studio input. At one point, Denzel cites the best temperature at which to serve revenge, and he goes out of his way to give the line a flat reading. The man knows crap when he's delivering it.

The physical contrast between Washington and Dakota Fanning as the young girl he’s protecting is used to almost comic effect. Fanning holds her own against Washington’s brooding strength better than Ethan Hawke does in TRAINING DAY. Christopher Walken has a high time as an American pasha with a food fetish who would lick his fingers after eating a saltine. His scene with Giancarlo Giannini as a sympathetic police inspector is a gleeful hambone duet. Mickey Rourke does a small turn as a shady lawyer. Age and plastic surgery have turned this once-sleek actor into a dead ringer for Cameron Mitchell.

Tony Scott directs in a hypersaturated style that cries out, “I’ve seen AMORES PERROS!” In only three years, the dense cinematography employed on that film by Alejandro Gonzalez Innaritu has become a cliché, to the extent that it seemed like Innaritu himself was ripping it off in 21 GRAMS. I did like Scott’s use of subtitles, rolling them across the screen, changing their size and position when someone shouted. But then again, I’m a sucker for fonts.

TV: Friends

Ten years and I didn’t see a single episode. What do I win?

TV Commercial: Van Helsing

Judging from Kate Beckinsale’s monster-whupping ensemble, SHREK 2 is not the only movie this year to feature Puss-in-Boots. I know her character has a name, but to me she’ll always be Saucy Kate.

Miscellaneous: Links

Major League Baseball does what Willem Dafoe could not and escapes from the clutches of Spiderman. Maybe the steroids helped. The Chronicle of Higher Education advises commencement speakers to update their pop culture references. Courtesy of Lee Goldberg, here’s his brother Tod at the L.A. Times Festival of Books living out every writer’s dream: being interviewed by Byron Allen. And BBC radio listeners say that Warren Zevon’s ‘Werewolves of London’ has the best opening lines ever. Paul Herzberg agrees with the artist but not the song and offers a few worthy alternatives.

Thursday, May 06, 2004

Magazine: Movieline’s Hollywood Life, May issue

MOVIELINE used to be a fun rag. Gossipy, full of blind items and celebrity interviews that would occasionally go off the rails. No other magazine would have run Joe Queenan’s ‘Mickey Rourke For A Day’ piece.

Over time, the magazine’s focus drifted to younger actors, interchangeable faces I couldn’t remember long enough to forget. But I kept up my subscription because the magazine was ridiculously cheap. For a brief period, I think they were paying me to read it.

Last year, a glossy called MOVIELINE’S HOLLYWOOD LIFE appeared in my mailbox. It had been remade completely. The contents page reads that it’s now “published monthly except bi-monthly March/April, July/August and December/January.” That’s what, nine times a year? Is there a word for that? (Yes, there is: erratic.) Each issue is stuffed with 12-page fashion spreads and photos of boîtes on Sunset. I can make it through the written content in seven minutes. I timed it. And now that the publishing schedule has changed, my subscription has been extended far into the foreseeable future. I’d cancel it, but I get more satisfaction tossing the magazine into the trash than I would from forcing some beleaguered operator into sending my $1.87 back.

The May issue, though, is pushing it. There’s a list of ‘Young Hollywood Whatever-Happened-Tos’ like Wes Bentley and Rachael Leigh Cook, people who once were regular fixtures in the magazine. The cover story is on Alicia Silverstone, and in a violation of every rule of show business, she’s not promoting anything. Her TV series MISS MATCH has been cancelled, and her movie SCOOBY DOO 2, in which she only had a supporting role, opened weeks ago. Shouldn’t she have been on the ‘whatever-happened-to’ list? Hedda Hopper is spinning in her grave.

Music: Norah Jones

I’m used to hearing Norah Jones at the gym and in Starbucks. But on Country Music Television? Does she have to be everywhere now? I think I’ve stumbled onto a little-known provision of the Patriot Act.

Miscellaneous: Links

Dennis Lehane talks about life after MYSTIC RIVER and his new short story in the Atlantic Monthly. (From Sarah Weinman.) Proof that broad, uplifting comedies are popular everywhere, even in Iran. And thanks to the efforts of the New York State Attorney General’s office, the recording industry now owes the late Don Ameche the princely sum of $203.

Wednesday, May 05, 2004

Movie: Owning Mahowny (2003)

There’s such a glut of independent movies that a few are bound to fall through the cracks. If they don’t hit, they disappear quickly, even from film-friendly markets like Seattle. Every once in a while I catch up with one that I wish I’d seen on the big screen. Not because its look demands it, but because I would have liked to have added a few more bucks to the till.

Herewith, I apologize to OWNING MAHOWNY. I should have been there for you, man.

Richard Kwietniowski made one of the great indies of the ‘90s in LOVE AND DEATH ON LONG ISLAND. Few things are funnier than hearing John Hurt utter the deathless words ‘Hotpants College 2.’ And the subject matter of his follow-up film is fascinating. Dan Mahowny was a meek Toronto bank clerk who embezzled millions of dollars to feed his gambling habit. (Although it is Canadian money, so you have to factor in the exchange rate.)

The movie plays like the blackest comedy, because it’s set long after the point when most addiction movies end. Philip Seymour Hoffman plays Mahowny as someone incapable of feeling highs or lows. At the casino where he blows most of ‘his’ money, he’s dubbed the Iceman. In the words of the Mephistophelean manager (Hurt), he’s a purist who only cares about the next hand.

Mahowny gets away with stealing money because he appears so blandly competent. Such a recessive smudge of a man can tell any lie to auditors and superiors and be believed. The casting of Hoffman is an uncanny choice. He’s extraordinary here, as is Hurt and Maury Chaykin as Mahowny’s oddly solicitous bookie.

As recently as fifteen years ago, a filmmaker like Kwietniowski would have been swept up into the arms of the studio system. Now directors are largely left to their own devices. It was six years between films for Kwietniowski. Let’s hope we don’t have to wait six more. Even if we do, I promise to show up next time.

TV: On The Air With Ryan Seacrest

Without a sparring partner, Seacrest is the Oakland of talk show hosts: there’s no there there. He needs Simon Cowell, or the twenty-something version of Kelly Ripa. Maybe he should just bring back Dunkleman.

He referred to VAN HELSING as ‘the new monster drama.’ So if you spend more than $75 million it’s no longer a horror movie?

Miscellaneous: Links

A look at science in the movies and the remarkable true story of screen siren Hedy Lamarr. January magazine has a great, long interview with Lawrence Block. And Major League Baseball and Sony Pictures finally go too far. The press release is a little coy, so I'll spell it out. ‘On-field ... signage’ means that first, second and third base as well as the on-deck circle will feature the Spiderman logo.

We're through the looking glass here, people.

Tuesday, May 04, 2004

Website: Defamer

The twisted folks at Gawker give their New York treatment to Los Angeles.

Miscellaneous: Links

This interview with Julianne Moore describes a skit on SESAME STREET that sounds funnier than anything I’ve seen on SATURDAY NIGHT LIVE lately. And courtesy of Sarah Weinman courtesy of Gawker, here’s the funniest article yet on BERGDORF BLONDES author Plum Sykes.

Movie: Starship Troopers 2

Let’s be honest. Going direct to cable is never a good sign. But I had hopes for this sequel. Screenwriter Edward Neumeier penned the original movie, and FX guru Phil Tippett is also back, this time as director. Unfortunately, they believe that the audience wants nothing but bug battles. There’s none of the barbed social satire that made Paul Verhoeven’s film a deranged fascist masterpiece. The FX are good, especially in light of the low budget. But the rest of the movie is a pale imitation of ALIENS. Except for the scenes when it’s ripping off ASSAULT ON PRECINCT 13. Or SPECIES. Or THE HIDDEN. Or THE THING. You’d be better off watching the CGI TV series, which is more faithful to Robert A. Heinlein’s novel.

TV Commercial: Van Helsing, starring Hugh Jackman

Halfway through the ad for this movie, I realized it was an ad for the game.

Magazine: The New Yorker, 5/3 issue

So it turns out that legendary songwriter Doc Pomus (“This Magic Moment,” “Save The Last Dance For Me,” “Viva Las Vegas” and my personal favorite, Andy Williams’ “Can’t Get Used To Losing You”) is the brother of legendary divorce attorney Raoul Felder, currently representing David Gest. Doc’s not with us anymore, but I hope his gifts run in the family. You can’t tell me there’s not a musical in the Gest/Minnelli divorce proceedings.

Stupefying fact: Felder and his wife live on Sutton Place in New York, but they also own “another luxury residence, above the Museum of Modern Art, which Felder uses primarily to store his out-of-season suits.” I never should have left law school. But the Peace Corps dentistry program called to me.

Monday, May 03, 2004

Book: The Narrows, by Michael Connelly (2004)

I haven’t read this book, although I plan to. I enjoy Connelly’s stuff. What I have read is Janet Maslin’s review, wherein she calls the book Connelly’s “best crime novel since CITY OF BONES.” Which came out in April 2002. So it’s his best work in two years. Strong praise indeed.

To be fair, Connelly does keep busy. He’s published two novels in the interim. I liked LOST LIGHT quite a bit. (It was nominated for the Best Novel Edgar until Connelly graciously removed it from consideration because he’s the head of the awarding organization this year.) But CHASING THE DIME is as bad a novel by a writer of his reputation as I’ve ever read.

TV: King of the Hill

Bobby earns the wrath of his friends when he confuses Dylan McDermott and Dermot Mulroney. This is a fear that keeps me up nights.

Miscellaneous: Links

The backlash against Lynne Truss’ EATS, SHOOTS & LEAVES begins.

TV: 10.5

Thanks to the magic of special effects, the Space Needle topples. And lands in downtown Vancouver.

TV: The Sopranos

After a few meandering episodes, we get a brilliant show that pulls every plot thread together. An out-of-left-field twist involving a minor character sets up the rest of the season. Meadow’s 4AM argument with her boyfriend could practically stand on its own as a short play. Gandolfini’s work in his closing scene in Dr. Melfi’s office was a bravura piece of sustained acting. No word at post time from the Mafia experts at Slate if a guy’s nickname ever ended up on his headstone by mistake.

Book: Redemption Street, by Reed Farrel Coleman (2004)

The second in a series about Moe Prager, an ex-NYPD cop turned sort-of P.I. In this story, set in 1981, Moe investigates a 1965 fire in a Catskills hotel that claimed the lives of seventeen people, including Moe’s first crush. Moe is a great character, and this outing is a solid, low-key effort with a last page that strikes a perfect, heartbreaking note of melancholy.

Video: Detour (1945)

I watched this again in tribute to Eddie Muller’s DARK CITY DAMES. Sixty-eight minutes of pure nightmare. The shabby quality of the print only adds to the overall sense of doom, and the ending is more of a fervent wish than a resolution. Edgar Ulmer made this movie in six days. Ann Savage only worked on it for thirty hours. But in that short span of time they touched something primal. Something that refuses to die.

Sunday, May 02, 2004

Movie: Hollywood Homicide (2003)

I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: I like this movie. A lot. And I have said it before; here I am making a case for it in Slate’s Movie Club. Scroll down. Way down.

Movie: Charlie’s Angels: Full Throttle (2003)

Fourteen minutes. That’s all I could stand.

Video: The Statement (2003)

Another muddled thriller than squanders a great premise. Michael Caine plays an aging Nazi sympathizer on the run from the authorities and a mysterious group of Jewish commandos. He’s aided by officials from the Catholic Church and the French government. There’s precious little suspense, but what surprises is that the movie can’t work up a decent froth of righteous anger. A disappointment, considering its pedigree (based on a novel by the great Brian Moore and adapted by Oscar-winner Ronald Harwood). Caine’s performance almost salvages the movie. The man has no vanity; there's not even a token effort to make his character likeable. Too bad the script doesn't give him material to run with. Only a scene with his estranged wife (Charlotte Rampling) has any real juice.

TV: Dinner for Five

This week’s guests are all actors with serious Chicago time on their résumés, like Jeff Garlin and Joe Mantegna. Host Jon Favreau is savvy about the balance at the table, often including older actors who not only have stories to tell but know how to tell them (like Burt Reynolds or James Caan in previous shows).

It’s funny how every week Favreau begins a sentence with “Back when we were making SWINGERS ...” as if the movie were some kind of indie-film touchstone. Sadly, I think it might be. Sadder still is how profane many of his guests are. That Gina Gershon has some mouth on her. In every sense of the phrase.

Music: The Best of Bond ... James Bond

A collection of music from 007 movies that omits the best such song since Shirley Bassey’s heyday: “Surrender,” from the end credits of TOMORROW NEVER DIES. It’s sung by k.d. lang, who was born to do Bond music. And if bombast can be said to be sly, that’s what this arrangement is. On the plus side, the album came out too early to have Madonna’s ‘Die Another Day’ on it.