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.