Thursday, June 17, 2004

TV: Into Character

The ads for this new AMC series made it out to be a big-budget version of Movieoke. Rosemarie and I were ready to sign up for the couples edition. We were going to recreate a few scenes from GILDA, with a ringer brought in to play the George Macready role. Say Jeremy Northam.

But the show has a more grandiose vision of itself. It’s not about reenacting favorite movie moments. It’s about living out your film fantasy. You actually become the character. A ROCKY fan doesn’t just get fight training. He’s sent to a relationship counselor so he can meet his Adrian, and dispatched to South Philly to hang with neighborhood experts. In other words, it’s another damn makeover show, only this time with a movie theme. At least the recreated scenes are shot in 35mm. The video makes a lovely parting gift for our contestants.

Video: Used Cars (1980)

This Robert Zemeckis comedy had the misfortune of opening a few weeks after AIRPLANE!, so it never had a chance on its initial release. Over the years it’s acquired a cult following. It’s a funny movie, uniquely American and genially crass; Zemeckis has said it’s a Frank Capra film where everyone is corrupt. Kurt Russell stars as a sleazy car salesman trying to raise $10,000 to buy a state senate seat. As he puts it in a casually tossed-off line, “The machine is looking for a fresh face with no axes to grind.” The movie’s idea of a happy ending is having the only decent character hoodwink an old lady.

Robert Towne called Russell the best-kept secret in Hollywood. The actor is in the midst of a comeback, giving a career-best performance in last year’s DARK BLUE and scoring a solid hit in MIRACLE. But the DVD commentary track is where he’s at his best. I’m slowly making my way through every one he’s recorded. He’s a hugely engaging presence with a great laugh. His sessions with frequent collaborator John Carpenter are riotous. On the BIG TROUBLE IN LITTLE CHINA disc, they stop discussing the film entirely and compare their kids’ experiences in little league. The USED CARS track does not disappoint. Russell begins by telling Zemeckis and co-writer/producer Bob Gale that they should have hired Bill Murray for the part (although it’s Russell’s can-do energy that makes the movie work). He’s also convinced the film is an unofficial record of Bill Clinton’s lost years.

Russell should do Kate Hudson and Goldie Hawn a favor and start recording tracks for their movies. If Goldie’s still making movies.

Book: Death on the Cheap: The Lost B Movies of Film Noir, by Arthur Lyons (2000)

An exclamation point appears after ‘noir’ on the cover, which seems wrong to me. Noir is not an exclamation point genre.

The book opens with a brief, fairly dry history of the B-movie, but the bulk of it is devoted to Lyons’ terrific, meticulous reviews of dozens of low-budget crime dramas. He’s not kidding about the lost part; many of these films are almost impossible to see. Lyons has me chomping at the bit to track down DECOY (1947), long written off as missing and featuring British actress Jean Gillie as “the ultimate sadistic femme fatale,” and any of the films from THE WHISTLER series starring Richard Dix. Lyons is brief when he needs to be; his full review of 1947’s ROAD TO THE BIG HOUSE is, “This film is extremely depressing.” And he knows the power of a single tantalizing detail. He says that the only reason to watch the 1954 film BAIT is “the precredit prologue by Sir Cedric Hardwicke as Satan.”

My favorite story in the book involves THE WHIP HAND, a 1951 anti-Communist thriller produced by RKO when Howard Hughes ran the studio. It’s one of the few movies in the book that I’ve seen; it shows up on TCM occasionally. Originally the film was about a reporter finding Adolf Hitler alive and well in a small American town. Before its release, Hughes decided that Reds were scarier than Nazis and ordered the entire film reshot. It still ended up costing only $376,000. But every penny is on the screen.