Friday, July 30, 2004

Movie: I, Robot (2004)

A few too many 85-degree days in a row will drive a man to do odd things. Like see a movie he has no real interest in just to get out of the sun for a while.

I could tell from the previews that this film had little connection with the source material. (According to the credits, it was ‘suggested’ by Isaac Asimov’s book.) As my nephew Luke astutely put it, if this movie were really based on Asimov, Will Smith would be the villain. The author’s Lije Bailey novels, about a detective paired with a robot partner, are crying out to be adapted for the movies. Instead, his classic short story collection gets contorted into a futuristic cop thriller. It goes to show the power of a good title. I, ROBOT is much catchier than THE CAVES OF STEEL.

It’s not a bad movie, just a boring one. It’s not imaginatively written. Will Smith does cop stuff straight out of THE NAKED GUN. It’s not imaginatively directed by Alex Proyas, whose DARK CITY remains a haunting film. It’s not even imaginatively cast. I’ve seen Bruce Greenwood, Chi McBride and James Cromwell in their respective roles too many times before. Bridget Moynahan tries to shade Susan Calvin (why did they have to keep Asimov’s names?) with some complexity, including the sense that the character is far more at ease around robots than humans, but the movie essentially ignores her. Shia LeBeouf turns up for reasons as yet undetermined.

To my surprise, the writers do come up with an explanation for the robot mayhem that’s at least somewhat consistent with Asimov’s three laws of robotics. Too bad it’s not interesting as well. Still, the robots are cool, and there are plenty of dandy gewgaws stuffed into the corners of the frame. And it’s two hours of uninterrupted air conditioning. You could do worse.

This project has been kicking around Hollywood for ages. Harlan Ellison wrote a screenplay based on Asimov’s book in the late ‘70s that has taken on legendary status. It was published in book form in 1994, featuring remarkable illustrations by artist Mark Zug.

Other than Ellison’s opening, in which Asimov’s three laws bubble up on screen as if viewed through water, none of his work made it into the finished film. From what I know about Harlan, I’m sure he’s happy about that. I don’t think his script is entirely successful; the framing device cribbed from CITIZEN KANE isn’t that involving, and the ending is abstruse enough to make THE MATRIX look like a Three Stooges short. But Ellison has an intuitive understanding of Asimov’s work. He weaves the plot around four of the Susan Calvin stories, including ‘Liar!’ and ‘Robbie,’ dramatizing them in a way that maintains the essence of Asimov’s voice. Maybe they can make this movie and call it something else.

TV: The Daily Show

It’s always mandatory viewing, but never more so than during the Democratic National Convention. Jon Stewart's segment on the cable news networks’ coverage of the event, specifically MSNBC’s handling of Al Sharpton’s speech, was shocking as well as funny.

Wednesday, July 28, 2004

Book: The Butcher’s Boy, by Thomas Perry (1982)

On his website, Perry voices concern that his Edgar-award winning debut “would seem confusing, or even quaint” upon being reissued in 2003. He needn’t have worried. This thriller, about a methodical hit man and the FBI agent on his trail who’s not even sure her quarry exists, remains a lethal piece of work. The reprint includes an excellent introduction by Michael Connelly, who offers as good an explanation of the mechanics of suspense as I’ve ever read. And he ought to know.

Book: Shoot to Kill, by Wade Miller (1951)

A Mystery*File interview with Robert Wade, one half of this writing team (along with Bill Miller), led me to pick up this book. It’s the last in the Max Thursday series, and one that plays with the P.I. archetype in some fascinating ways. Plenty of twists packed into 179 lean pages.

The edition I have is a Harper Perennial reprint from 1993 featuring some truly lame blurbs. “Eminently satisfactory,” says the New York Times. The Herald Tribune calls it “steadily absorbing,” while the Saturday Review of Literature praises it as an “honest job.” I’ll bet they could have found someone to describe it as “bracingly adequate” if they’d looked hard enough.

Book: A Ghost of a Chance, by Bill Crider (2000)

You won’t find better company on a transcontinental flight than Bill’s Sheriff Dan Rhodes. And great atmosphere to boot.

Miscellaneous: Links

Amazon encourages its reviewers to end their anonymity. Slate explains how Jane Smiley gets so many letters to the New York Times published. She should be happy with one, like I am. (It appeared December 15, 2003, if you’re playing along at home.) And here’s a beautiful website that has prompted me to use the word ‘conquistador’ more often.

Tuesday, July 27, 2004

Movie: La Dolce Vita (1960)

It was the perfect way to end our trip to New York: watching a pristine 35mm print of Fellini’s epic picaresque with a sellout crowd at the Film Forum, and following it up with cappuccino and cannoli at Pasticceria Bruno on Bleeker. (Mention my name if you go there. It won’t help you any, but it’ll do wonders for my reputation.) We would have preferred going to Saturday’s late show, when a dancer who appeared in the film would be in attendance, but there was no way we could have done that and caught our flight home.

There’s little I can add to what’s been said about this movie, rightfully regarded as one of the classics of world cinema. Fellini had the uncanny foresight to capture the moment when society went to hell, when public and private life collapsed into one continuous sideshow, when every event from the arrival of a film star to a possible miracle became fodder for the sensation machine. He foresaw the rise of Paris Hilton and 24-hour cable news 45 years ago. Yet Fellini’s characteristic humanism remains intact; he sees beauty in the shallows and holds out the hope that we’ll turn it all around.

Marcello Mastroianni’s performance as the once-serious writer who may no longer be a serious person never fails to astonish. He’s a purely reactive presence who anchors the movie by communicating a complex inner life. He’s acutely aware of how trivial he has become, but he can’t fathom how to change. It’s heartbreaking.

The sequence with Anita Ekberg as the visiting film star is justly celebrated. It perfectly captures what I always thought it would feel like to be drawn into a celebrity’s orbit: the thoughtless flirtation, the sense of being subsumed in an energy that’s all heat and no light. And as for Ekberg frolicking in that fountain ... mother of God. Rosemarie called her a force of nature. But words fail me.

It was great seeing the American International Pictures logo at the start of the film. From Dr. Phibes to Federico Fellini. High culture and low, brought to you by the same people. Miramax continues in a proud tradition.

Attraction: The American Folk Art Museum

New York’s best kept secret. The vest-pocket sized space is cunningly used, thanks to a design by architect Tod Williams (father of the director of THE DOOR IN THE FLOOR). The current exhibits on quilts and the work of Sister Gertrude Morgan are compelling explorations of the creative impulse.

Magazine: Entertainment Weekly

Having read two issues back-to-back, I can now tell you how to get your letter to the editor published. You can:

1. Gush over the cover, including a reference to how the photograph made you drool or otherwise lose temporary control over your bodily functions, or;
2. Criticize the cover, offering a worthier subject from deep within the recesses of the issue in question.

Coming in a future installment: how to break into the pages of IN STYLE by praising a celebrity’s courage and/or taste in floral wall coverings.

Monday, July 26, 2004

Movie: The Italian Job (2003)

I caught this for the second time on cable last night, and it held up nicely. (So now that Mark Wahlberg has finally gotten a ‘60s remake right – after PLANET OF THE APES and THE TRUTH ABOUT CHARLIE, aka CHARADE 2.0 – will he promise to leave that decade’s films alone?) The movie’s no classic, but then neither is the original. This new version is simply solid entertainment, served up with a surprisingly light touch.

This is the movie that Edward Norton did under threat of legal action, and his evident dislike at being involved actually improves his characterization. OK, it is his characterization, but it works. It’s strange to see Donald Sutherland roaming the canals of Venice again after DON’T LOOK NOW.

What’s needed in a film like this is a cast with charismatic, quirky appeal that performs with precision. On that score, the Mini Coopers deliver. As for the human actors, they’re all ridiculously attractive. I can barely believe that Charlize Theron is a member of my species, much less an ace safecracker. I wouldn’t mind seeing people who look like Sterling Hayden show up on heist crews every once in a while.

TV: Entourage

Mark Wahlberg’s first foray into television is HBO’s latest must-see series. It’s a comedy based on Wahlberg’s own life, about a kid from Queens who becomes a movie star and the friends from the ‘hood who migrate to L.A. to coast on his fame. The show is brutally honest about the show biz pecking order, and if it exaggerates life in Hollywood, it’s only by a matter of degrees.

Adrian Grenier makes a believable superhunk. (That’s an official industry term. I looked it up.) The most interesting dynamic is between Grenier’s closest friend/quasi-manager, who’s in way over his head, and his agent Ari, who as a professional can’t believe he’s got to put up with this nonsense but will do whatever it takes to please his client. Jeremy Piven finally gets the breakout role he’s been waiting for as Ari. The rap he lays on Jessica Alba, telling her she’s an amazing “self-empowered” young woman of the millennium whose “unique energy” needs to be showcased, is mesmerizing. Particularly because Alba, playing herself, utterly fails to register onscreen. Piven goes after her like she’s, well, Charlize Theron. If he can make me believe that, he can make me believe anything.

Sunday, July 25, 2004

Website Update: Practice

My latest ‘In the Frame’ column from Mystery*File is now available. Extended reviews of books by Rupert Holmes and Scott Phillips, a look at Humphrey Bogart on DVD, and more. Read it here.

Miscellaneous: Air Travel

Delta showed a rerun of THE FRESH PRINCE OF BEL-AIR on my flight back from New York. I guess they really are in dire financial straits.

A pictogram in the airplane bathroom showed a hand dropping a variety of objects into a toilet, with a large X going through the collection. The items included a cup, a razor blade, a diaper and a sanitary napkin. Does this mean that I can’t throw any of these things into the toilet? Or that I just can’t throw them in all at once?

Movie: The Door In The Floor (2004)

Writer/director Tod Williams came up with an ingenious solution for adapting John Irving’s sprawling novel A WIDOW FOR ONE YEAR: he only filmed with the opening section. Instead of unfolding over the course of 37 years, the story takes place in a single summer. The book’s protagonist, Ruth Cole, is only a child here, conceived in the aftermath of a horrible accident that killed her brothers. The film focuses on her parents and their attempts to come to terms with their grief. Ted (Jeff Bridges), a revered children’s book author, disappears further into his bohemian artist persona, drinking to excess and sketching nudes of local society women. Marion (Kim Basinger) is on the verge of simply disappearing, until her husband’s young assistant, well-played by Jon Foster, arrives for the season.

Williams does a marvelous job of capturing the woozy feeling of summer in the Hamptons. But the tone of the material defeats him. Other than an extended section about two-thirds of the way through the film when Williams intercuts between the characters beautifully, the mood is excessively somber. He avoids the pathos other adaptors of Irving have fallen prey to, but he sidesteps the humor as well.

Bridges gives a galvanic performance, investing what could have been a clichéd character with tremendous life, but the movie undercuts his effort by being more judgmental about Ted’s behavior than Marion’s. That recessive role would be a difficult one for any actress other than Julianne Moore to play. Despite a game effort, Basinger isn’t up to the task. Credit to Williams for an arresting closing shot that almost elevates the entire film.

From the I-wouldn’t-have-noticed-this-had-I-liked-the-movie department: this section of Irving’s book is set in 1958, but Williams has updated it to the present. Which makes it hard to accept that the young assistant wouldn’t know the nature of the accident that killed the Coles’ sons. A writer as famous as Ted Cole would have websites devoted to his work, and some of them would dwell on the tragedy excessively. I’m just saying.

To my knowledge, this marks the second time that the great New York theater actor Larry Pine has played a surrogate Charlie Rose. The first was in THE ROYAL TENNENBAUMS. Seems like nice gig.

Friday, July 23, 2004

Miscellaneous: Theater

No trip to NYC is complete without taking in some live performances. I mean the professional kind, not just the street theater that’s constantly erupting in front of you on the subway. Here’s a quick recap of what we’ve seen on this trip:

The Musical of Musicals: The Musical! The writers of this spoof take one simple, melodramatic premise (the old “You must pay the rent!/I can’t pay the rent!” chestnut that I still perform to this day using only a folded sheet of paper as a prop) and offer five interpretations in the styles of different composers. Rodgers & Hammerstein, Steven Sondheim, Jerry Herman, Andrew Lloyd Webber and Kander & Ebb all take their lumps. There’s some deft parody here, as well as some gleefully awful puns (“A funny thing happened on the way to decorum”) that add to the merriment. A show that actually gets funnier as it goes along.

Bug. One review calls Tracy Letts’ award-winning play “a sensational noir thriller.” The play’s website touts it as “sci-fi mix(ed) with a touch of terror and a dash of comedy.” Neither description works for me. All I can say is that this play has literally haunted my dreams since I saw it. In a dingy Oklahoma City motel room, a crack-smoking waitress with a husband due out of jail takes up with a spooky drifter. Their relationship progresses into Sam Shepard terrain, then takes a hairpin turn into conspiracy theory and paranoia. The result is an intense, harrowing experience. The two lead performances by Paul Sparks and especially Shannon Cochran (so memorable as the little girl’s mother in THE RING) are astonishing. Hands down the highlight of this trip. Unless you count seeing a phalanx of NYPD officers drag a guy out of the Times Square subway station in handcuffs.

The Rejection Show. A monthly showcase of SATURDAY NIGHT LIVE sketches, TV pilots and New Yorker cartoons that, for one reason or another, were passed on by the powers that be. Most of them are as funny as what did make the grade, and you can see them all for only five bucks.

Wednesday, July 21, 2004

Attraction: Museum of Television & Radio

The staff at this museum tells you as you buy your ticket that all you’ll be doing is watching TV. On a day with near-100% humidity, I can’t think of a finer cultural experience. You’re allowed to select up to 4 programs from the museum’s library, and you have 2 hours to watch them.

I was amazed by the number of people who requested episodes of FRIENDS. Isn’t this show on six times a day everywhere in the country? I had a list of programs at the ready:

- MORTON & HAYES, which I’ve written about before;
- NO SOAP RADIO, an absurd 1982 limited-run sitcom starring Bill Dana and Steve Guttenberg that struck me as hilarious;
- An episode of THE HARDY BOYS featuring the singer David Gates (‘If’).

Maybe I should explain that last one. This particular show was about a Russian woman who wanted to defect. The signal to proceed would be a song that Gates would sing at a certain point in his concert; if she heard it, she was to go to agents positioned in the crowd. If she didn’t, she was to return to her Soviet minders. Word comes down to Frank and Joe: the plan is off. They signal Gates, who starts performing a different tune. The woman, in tears, begins heading for the exit. Then the Hardys realize there’s a mole in the operation, and that if the woman goes back to the embassy she’ll be killed. They wave frantically to Gates, who in the middle of his song stops and switches to the one that means the coast is clear. To an 11-year-old, this was the height of drama, and I’m embarrassed to admit that I still get chills when I think about it. I wanted to watch the show again to see how it held up – and to eliminate the positive feelings it engendered toward David Gates.

Needless to say, the museum had none of my selections.

They did have Rosemarie’s first choice, an episode of THE DAVI D SUSSKIND SHOW about being a Jewish son featuring Mel Brooks, George Segal, David Steinberg and Dan Greenburg that she remembered as the funniest program she’d ever seen. It held up rather well. We came up with a few alternates that weren’t available, like the Oscar ceremony featuring Rob Lowe dueting with Snow White (apparently, all copies of that telecast have been destroyed, the remains placed in earth which was then salted so that nothing would ever grow there again). But we were able to fill out our card with some other goodies:

- The final TOMORROW show, with Chevy Chase and Peter Allen joining Tom Snyder;
- The Thanksgiving episode of WKRP IN CINCINNATI, which ends with Gordon Jump’s immortal line, “As God is my witness, I thought turkeys could fly”;
- A 1981 Doug Henning magic special in which all the strings are clearly visible.

What did you expect me to request, the moon landing? I know how that ends.

The radio part of the museum is also impressive. This week’s offerings included an Orson Welles tirade against Thomas E. Dewey, an installment of BUCK ROGERS, and a Mercury Summer Theater broadcast of AROUND THE WORLD IN 80 DAYS.

Miscellaneous: Outdoor Advertising

Any doubts I had about the mainstreaming of porn were banished during a trip to the TKTS booth in Times Square. The billboard promoting Jenna Jameson’s latest home video – filmed in 35MM – was as large and as prominently placed as the one plugging I, ROBOT.

Sunday, July 18, 2004

Movie: Point Blank (1967)

OK, maybe I have been watching a little too much TCM lately. Perhaps it’s for the best that I had to go to New York during their ‘Crime Wave’ festival. Otherwise, I wouldn’t have left the house for a week.

John Boorman’s film version of the Richard Stark (Donald E. Westlake) novel has countless admirers, and I’m one of them. But the first half-hour or so is rough sledding. All of the nouvelle vague influences – the editing style, the looping structure, the use of sound – seem forced, as if Boorman feels he has to justify his involvement with such lowbrow material. Boorman has written that he took a “pulp thriller … (and) tortured it into an existential dreamscape,” crafting a meditation on both Lee Marvin and America, “a man, a nation, in violent and hopeless pursuit of their destiny.” Which is all well and good, but Stark’s novel was a damn fine crime drama to begin with. That becomes apparent soon enough as sheer narrative momentum takes over and Boorman’s flourishes have no choice but to serve the story. TCM followed this with Antonioni’s BLOW-UP (1966), a film where similar stylistic decisions feel like part of an organic whole throughout. (I didn’t watch that screening, though. I’d rather check out the recent DVD.)

I once read an interview with Boorman where he said he didn’t like working with a good script because it meant there was less for him to do. That’s some attitude, mister. Still, his films are always worth seeing. ZARDOZ (1974), an SF film he wrote and directed, is a pretentious and stupefying mess with a truly disturbing ending. His most recent film THE TAILOR OF PANAMA is a terrific adaptation of LeCarre that hasn’t been seen by enough people.

Movie: I’ll Sleep When I’m Dead (2004)

I did leave my digs in New York to check out this movie, reuniting CROUPIER star Clive Owen with director Mike Hodges. It’s essentially a riff on an earlier Hodges film, the spellbinding GET CARTER. Owen plays Will Graham (no apparent relation to RED DRAGON’s FBI agent), a one-time London gangster who “had a breakdown” and now roams the countryside in a caravan. Bearded, solitary, and working off the books, he tells himself he’s renounced his old life. Then his younger brother (Jonathan Rhys Meyers) commits suicide, and Will returns to find out why. His mere presence sets the underworld in an uproar, despite his insistence that he’s only back to resolve the question of his brother’s death.

SLEEP is a deliberately low-key work, concerned primarily with character and mood. It’s fascinating how Hodges and writer Trevor Preston are able to delay key pieces of exposition in this simple story until very late in the film. The ending is somewhat enigmatic, but considering the movie’s overall gloomy tone it’s clear what ultimately happens. Or at least I think it is.

Owen, as usual, gives a terrific performance. He was so good in his single scene with Matt Damon in THE BOURNE IDENTITY, hinting at a complex history in only a few words, that he ruined the movie for me. I don’t want to spend time with a punk kid like Damon when Owen is at large. The actor’s name is often bruited about as the next James Bond, and with good reason. There’s a scene in SLEEP after his character has cleaned himself up when he embodies the essence of Bond as Ian Fleming described him: a handsome man whose looks have an edge of cruelty. I can see why people would like him to make the part his own. But I hope he passes on the role if it’s offered and sticks to the path he’s on.

Saturday, July 17, 2004

Miscellaneous: In-Flight Announcement

Flight Attendant: We are about to land into John F. Kennedy International Airport. All cell phones must be discontinued.

The first sentence is just poorly phrased. The second may have been a call to revolution. But as the airlines don’t feed you anymore, I was too tired to act on it.

Movie: The Taking of Pelham One Two Three (1974)

I prepped for my trip by watching the New Yorkiest movie ever made. Robert Shaw leads a cabal of criminals holding a subway train full of passengers for ransom. Walter Matthau (with an assist from Jerry Stiller) is the transit cop on the case. A perfect snapshot of the city in the ‘70s, the film bristles with attitude and excitement. It’s ridiculously entertaining. Featuring a note-perfect ending and great music by David Shire.

This movie and another by director Joseph Sargent, the bleak SF thriller COLOSSUS: THE FORBIN PROJECT (1970), were regular TV staples when I was a kid. Sargent went on to a storied career directing prestige TV movies for ‘Hallmark Hall of Fame’ and HBO, like MISS ROSE WHITE and the recent SOMETHING THE LORD MADE. These productions may rack up Emmys, but they have none of the juice of Sargent’s early features.

Then again, he also directed JAWS IV: THE REVENGE.

Movie: Madigan (1968)

I’d bet if you pitched this movie, an engrossing potboiler tracking New York detective Richard Widmark and police commissioner Henry Fonda over a weekend, to a studio now, you’d get no takers. Too much like LAW & ORDER, they’d say. People can see this stuff for free at home. That’s exactly why I’d also bet that it would make a fortune.

In 2002, when Tom Hanks was named the recipient of the AFI Lifetime Achievement Award, a movement sprang up pushing for Widmark to receive the honor. Why hand trophies for career achievement to whelps like Hanks, the argument went, when there are plenty of older performers who should be acknowledged while they are still with us? Widmark, who will be 90 this year, deserves the honor for his debut as KISS OF DEATH’s giggling psycho Tommy Udo alone. So far, the AFI has resisted the pressure. They’d rather toss the award to a big name in the hopes of driving up the ratings for their basic-cable kudocast. I hear Heath Ledger will be next year’s honoree. If the push for Widmark begins anew, I’m ready to enlist.

Movie: The Girl Hunters (1963)

It’s risky enough hiring an author to adapt his own work. But to let him play the lead, too? Mickey Spillane is Mike Hammer in this low-budget effort from Roy Rowland, who directed many of Robert Benchley’s classic short films of the late 1930s and ‘40s. Spillane may look the part, but his voice sinks him. He sounds too much like Tony Bennett. Shirley Eaton, who would later be painted to death in GOLDFINGER, is the grieving widow who plays all of her scenes in bikinis. The movie uncannily recreates the feel of a Spillane novel, in that halfway through I had no idea what the hell was happening and no interest in finding out.

You don’t see many authors-turned-actors anymore. Stephen King hammed it up in CREEPSHOW and Richard Price occasionally turns up in bit parts, but it seems more an affectation among tough guy writers like Spillane and Norman Mailer. I’d like to see it come back. Where’s John Grisham as a genteel Southern attorney, or Tom Clancy as the gung-ho Secretary of Defense?

Tuesday, July 13, 2004

Website Update: Home

I'll be in New York for the next few days, but I'll try to update the blog from the road. Posting will be sporadic and possibly more cosmopolitan.

Movie: Fahrenheit 9/11 (2004)

I know. I’m late to the party. But I gave up being Mr. First Nighter years ago. Fanboys get on my nerves. And that includes crunchy granola, NPR-tote-bag-clutching fanboys. I’ll try to be brief. Wish me luck.

It’s gotten so you can’t shoot your mouth off about certain movies without making a 12-step-style qualification first. (“Hi, I’m Vince, I’m a lapsed Catholic and I thought the violence in THE PASSION OF THE CHRIST overrode whatever spiritual message it had.”) Even admitting that you’ve seen said movies invites preconceived notions, behavior I’m guilty of myself. It was almost enough to make me buy a ticket to ANCHORMAN and then scuttle into Michael Moore’s movie instead. If people are going to judge me on the basis of my ticket stub, I want them to think: he’s an American. If, like me, you’d like to keep politics to a minimum around here, feel free to skip the next paragraph.

On Michael Moore: I loved ROGER & ME and his early TV stuff, but found his public persona obnoxious. I didn’t see BOWLING FOR COLUMBINE in the theater because I expected a one-note anti-gun screed. What I eventually got was a thoughtful, nuanced look at a far more pressing problem, America’s culture of fear. It deserved to win the Oscar, but Moore’s acceptance speech irked me. Especially because he’d delivered it verbatim at the Independent Spirit Awards the day before. (Hire a writer if you’re so busy. I’m available.) On George W. Bush: I didn’t vote for him, but I wasn’t thrilled about the guy I did vote for. And I’m not talking about Ralph Nader.

Whew. And now that that’s out of the way: the movie’s a bust.

As a polemic it’s scattershot, hopping from the Florida recount to Bush’s finances to a ground-level look at the war in Iraq. Its argument never coheres and consists of ancient left-wing shibboleths. A few still have currency: a volunteer army that draws primarily from the lower class does have a real societal impact. But most are simply embarrassing. The fact that everyone in the oil bidness knows everyone else, and that they all have links to various governments, does not constitute a conspiracy. And the notion that, as a result of these relationships, President Bush is more beholden to these interests than the American people is insulting. Moore’s logic isn’t consistent from film to film. It’s disingenuous to make a movie dissecting media manipulation only to follow it up with one that elbows the audience in the ribs and says, “Hey! You’re being manipulated!”

As a movie, it’s boring. Moore knows how to make the most of found footage, and there’s some clever use of music. But anyone who’s been paying attention to current events will soon find their mind wandering. Perhaps, like mine, it will take up the question of the movie’s Palme d’Or win at Cannes. Jury head Quentin Tarantino says the decision was not political, that FAHRENHEIT won because it was the best film in competition. Nonsense. I’ve sat through plenty of festival crap in my time, and I find it impossible to believe that there wasn’t one movie about gay cowboys eating pudding, to quote Eric Cartman, that made better use of the medium than Moore’s jumbled agitprop. I have no problem with the Cannes jury honoring the film. But they should have had the balls to admit why they did it.

Will the movie affect the November election? Considering that attention spans are so limited that we’re already nostalgic for the ‘90s, I’d say the odds are against it. But I admire Moore for raising tough questions, especially when the media has abdicated that responsibility. They are the true villains of this film. (Why did it take three years for the infamous footage of Bush on the morning of 9/11 to surface? And when it did, how did it end up in a documentary? By what definition is the President’s reaction to a breaking crisis not news?) Say what you will about Michael Moore, but in an age when people hide behind bottom-line concerns and Internet pseudonyms, he’s putting his name and reputation on the line for matters he believes in. Which makes him an asset to the country.

Even when his movies aren’t good.

Monday, July 12, 2004

Movie: Spider-Man 2 (2004)

Saying that I prefer this one to its predecessor is damning it with faint praise. The first installment was dull, and not just because it was saddled with recounting Spidey’s origins. The movie was so determined not to botch the franchise that it took no chances. The result was competent and uninspired.

It’s amazing how a $400 million gross can help everybody cut loose.

From the opening credits, which recount the plot of the first film in bold comic panels, to Michael Buble’s hipster cover of the old cartoon theme over the end, the film courses with energy. The script by Alvin Sargent is clean and focused. (Sargent turns 73 this year. I know he’s married to the film’s producer Laura Ziskin, but still. 73? Attaboy!) Alfred Molina makes Doc Ock a memorable villain, largely because we can see his face. What was the point in casting an actor as gauntly expressive as Willem Dafoe in the first film only to put him in a mask?

Director Sam Raimi knows the limitations of the superhero genre. Why else would he push for Tobey Maguire, whose distinctive voice allows us to identify with the character even when in full costume? Maguire plays some of his Spidey scenes sans mask here, a gambit that does more to heighten the movie’s reality than the New York location work. (The first SUPERMAN remains for me, in spite of its bloat, the best of all comic book films, because we can watch Christopher Reeve and Gene Hackman throughout. No make-up, no masks. Just actors. Raimi has learned the lesson well.)

It’s miracle enough that the amiable goofball who masterminded EVIL DEAD has developed into an accomplished filmmaker. Raimi’s adaptation of A SIMPLE PLAN proved that. But to infuse so much joy and personality into a blockbuster of this magnitude is nothing short of astounding. Raimi gives good comic book. He films the accident that gives birth to Doc Ock in a series of arresting images that build in power; the effect mirrors that created by a great graphic novel. He then immediately tops himself in the hospital scene where Molina realizes that his new appendages have a mind of their own. Raimi doesn’t shy away from the horror of the sequence, or from its perverse beauty.

He also injects his trademark silliness in a way that adds to the film’s impact. And to end the movie the way he does – to give us the traditional shot of the lone hero swooping into the hard heart of the city, and then to loop back and close on the silent-movie planes of Kirsten Dunst’s face, allowing us to comprehend the scope of her sacrifice – takes genuine nerve.

Johnny Depp deserved the praise heaped on him for PIRATES OF THE CARIBBEAN. But nothing else in that movie came close to matching his performance, and as a result the entire enterprise felt out of whack. You could feel the rest of the film scrambling to catch up with him. Raimi’s work here is the directorial equivalent of Depp’s acting. But his sheer delight at doing his job and doing it well graces every aspect of SPIDER-MAN 2. I was ready to stay in my seat and watch it all over again.

Website: About Last Night

Terry Teachout’s blog is one of the best around. Teachout is the Wall Street Journal’s drama critic, and last week he was nominated by President Bush to sit on the National Council of the Arts. Today’s entry is about the new Warner’s film noir DVD set, and about noir in general. I like his definition of the genre: “the porn of pessimists.”

But last week he unintentionally tapped into the Web’s idiotic side. He posted the Teachout Cultural Concurrence Index, a list of 100 choices along the lines of: Letterman or Leno? The Who or The Rolling Stones? Johnny Mercer or Cole Porter? As Teachout explained, the quiz was “thrown together to amuse and edify,” and “measures the extent to which your taste resembles mine – but that’s all.” I looked it over, found it interesting, and promptly forgot about it. I didn’t even bother to figure out my score.

Within days it was all over the Web. I found the link on other sites. Several people forwarded it to me. It was even featured in USA Today, fer Chrissakes. What I don’t understand is why. All it tells you is how well you’d fare over a beer with Mr. Teachout. It’s the pseudo-intellectual version of a Cosmo sex quiz. But for a while, I couldn’t get away from it.

And I still haven’t tallied up my score.

Sunday, July 11, 2004

Video: The Day of the Dolphin (1973)

Some great movies have been made when A-list talent tackles a high-concept idea: THE MANCHURIAN CANDIDATE, ROSEMARY’S BABY. Plenty of crap results, as well. But when I was a kid, in the days before ENTERTAINMENT TONIGHT, the lousy films still attained a strange kind of respectability, as if no one wanted to admit that big names could be responsible for such stinkers. I remember THE BOYS FROM BRAZIL being hugely popular among my parents and their friends, even though aside from its great if crazy Ira Levin premise the movie has nothing going for it. Look at all the Oscar winners involved with this thing; it can’t be as bad as it seems to be.

Every adult I knew loved this movie, too. It’s about a talking dolphin who is used in a plot to assassinate the President. Concepts don’t come much higher. But you can’t laugh a movie off the screen when it comes from GRADUATE golden boys Mike Nichols and Buck Henry and stars Patton himself, George C. Scott. That would be rude. Or maybe the talking dolphin (voiced by Henry) won everybody over. I’m at a loss to explain its popularity otherwise. The movie is tedious and full of the knee-jerk anti-establishment paranoia of the era.

Maybe it still has an audience; the well-produced DVD only came out last year. It includes an interview with Henry, who says that Nichols made the film only to get out of a contract. He admits that the movie’s a stiff, but says the best-selling novel on which it’s based is even worse. From his description, I believe him.

I’m surprised there hasn’t been a remake. They could get someone more laid-back to play the scientist. Owen Wilson, say. And this time the dolphin could speak perfect conversational English. A big star could do the part. Sean Penn, maybe, using the Spicoli voice from FAST TIMES AT RIDGEMONT HIGH. It would be more of a buddy movie, sort of a FINDING NEMO meets LETHAL WEAPON.

Excuse me. I have to call my agent.

TV: Ultimate Film Fanatic

Comedy Central’s late, lamented BEAT THE GEEKS asked harder movie questions than this IFC game show, which doesn’t even have a lightning round. Instead, there are lame debate and show-and-tell segments featuring celebrity judges.

On the plus side, those celebrities included Richard Roundtree. I love the surly usherette who serves as hostess, and the fact that the category ‘Hollywood Loves Hookers’ was all about Best Actress nominees who played prostitutes. And any game show that quotes Tom Cruise’s raunchiest line from MAGNOLIA uncensored in a question can’t be all bad.

Friday, July 09, 2004

Video: The Man With Two Brains (1983)

The diversions of one’s youth always seem better than whatever crap the kids are into now. This is true even of dopey comedies; there’s a reason why the Bowery Boys still show up on TV. But I find it hard to believe that any selection from the oeuvre d’ Adam Sandler will hold up as well as this Steve Martin film does two decades on. Bear in mind that I did waste a good chunk of my high school years watching it endlessly on cable.

It riffs on the mad scientist genre and DONOVAN’S BRAIN in particular (a clip from that movie appears on Martin’s TV), but unlike most contemporary comedy you don’t have to know the source material to get the jokes. Martin and director Carl Reiner also include a wide range of humor: wordplay, slapstick, absurdity, sex farce. It helps to have actors who could play this story straight, like David Warner and Whit Bissell. (RE-ANIMATOR was two years away, so casting Jeffrey Combs as a creepy intern is funny only in retrospect.) Plus it features my all-time favorite cameo appearance.

The jokes are in service of a serious idea, one that runs through much of Martin’s work: what is that draws us to another human being? You can actually see how his Dr. Michael Hfuhruhurr could fall in love with a disembodied brain voiced by Sissy Spacek. By the way, typing in that name just made my spell check short-circuit.

And then there’s Kathleen Turner, managing to be drop-dead sexy and hilarious all at once. She’d debuted in BODY HEAT only two years earlier, and there seemed no limit to how far she would go. Yet her career, like her BODY HEAT costar William Hurt’s, basically ended with the 1980s. Her last good movie was 1989’s THE WAR OF THE ROSES, her last decent part in John Waters’ SERIAL MOM. She’s probably best known now for playing Chandler’s transsexual father on FRIENDS, which seems like a particularly cruel joke. Once upon a time Hollywood knew what to do with actresses who were smart, sexy and took no prisoners. If Turner had been around in the ‘40s, she’d be a legend now.

Thursday, July 08, 2004

Movie: Anything Else (2003)

Woody Allen arrests his recent slide somewhat with this movie. It’s a mess, but at least it’s got something on its mind, even if that something can be summed up in three words: dames is grief. Jason Biggs makes an appealing Allen stand-in and Christina Ricci taps into her abundant natural charm, but he’s a doormat and she’s been saddled with too many psychotic quirks to make their romance plausible. Woody himself plays the most interesting character, a would-be comedy writer crippled with rage. And Danny DeVito scores the biggest laughs as an agent who’s too much of a mensch. As an actor, DeVito’s been on a tear lately, offering up one finely-tuned character performance after another. Allen can still crank out hilarious lines when he feels like it:

Psychiatrist: Tell me about your dream. You dreamt the Cleveland Indians all got jobs at Toys ‘R Us?

Video: Deep Blue Sea (1999)

It’s that old, primal story, man versus genetically-modified supershark. This is good, dumb fun, featuring one of the great death scenes of recent years. And it comes up with a perfectly credible reason for Saffron Burrows to strip down to her skivvies. That’s just good writing.

You can say this for Renny Harlin: he makes popcorn movies without a shred of pretense. No DAY AFTER TOMORROW pontificating for him. Some of his films are dopily entertaining, like this one and THE LONG KISS GOODNIGHT. Some are not, like CUTTHROAT ISLAND. The film-going public needs to file a restraining order to keep Harlin away from Sylvester Stallone at all times, lest we get another CLIFFHANGER. Or worse, a sequel to DRIVEN.

I saw a trailer for Harlin’s phantom project MINDHUNTERS earlier this year. There’s still no sign of the film itself. Somebody may need to call Dimension and remind them that it’s ready for release. It has a typically overheated Harlin premise (one of the FBI’s Behavioral Science psycho experts turns out to be ... a psycho), with a script by THE COOLER’s Wayne Kramer and the prospect of another loopy Val Kilmer performance. The movie’s been wrapped for so long that Harlin has had time to reshoot Paul Schrader’s EXORCIST prequel in its entirety. MINDHUNTERS’ original release date was April 2003. According to the IMDb, it’s now slated for 2005. In the U.S., at any rate. Filmgoers in Harlin’s native Finland as well as the United Arab Emirates have already had their chance to check it out. It apparently opens in the Netherlands today. So to any readers in Amsterdam:

Ga naar de bioscoop! Geniet van! (Translation by Babel Fish. Blame them for any and all syntax errors.)

Newspaper: Daily Variety

I’d link to this if I could, but it’s subscription only. Variety connects its content to its ‘Slanguage’ dictionary. In its positive review of KING ARTHUR, the phrase ‘A.D.’ (as in 60 A.D.) is highlighted. Clicking the text brings you to this helpful definition:

a.d.: assistant director. ‘Alan Smithee’s career began as the a.d. on Warner’s GYPSY’

Wednesday, July 07, 2004

Movie: De-Lovely (2004)

Exposition is a bear that every movie’s got to cross, but in a biopic it’s murder. Stanley Kubrick told William Goldman that in his planned film about Napoleon he “wanted to do the whole sweep of a man’s life” even though, as Goldman observed, film doesn’t do that very well. Goldman went on to work on CHAPLIN, which attempted it anyway. His solution was the inelegant addition of Anthony Hopkins’ character, the editor who cleared up a few points in Chaplin’s autobiography by asking obvious questions that made you wonder what the original manuscript read like. (The entry on Goldman in David Thomson’s BIOGRAPHICAL DICTIONARY OF FILM ends: ‘One doubts that he was present or conscious when the device of the publisher/interlocutor was conceived,’ but in WHICH LIE DID I TELL? Goldman says it was his contribution. Can we get these two together for lunch? I’ll pay.)

This film about songwriter Cole Porter cribs Goldman’s technique, but with a theatrical panache that raises your hopes. Porter’s ethereal guide in his last moments (Jonathan Pryce) has arranged for his life to be staged as a musical, with Porter as director. It’s a clever piece of writing by Jay Cocks, not only acknowledging the artificiality of the structure but embracing it. Sadly, the storytelling turns rote soon after it’s introduced.

DE-LOVELY is a toothless version of what Todd Haynes attempted with FAR FROM HEAVEN, asking the musical question: what if MGM had made NIGHT AND DAY, their 1946 bio of Porter, without constraints? The answer is a movie in which the subject of Porter’s homosexuality is glossed over in decorous fashion.

Some critics are reevaluating the earlier film in the wake of this one. Let me say that NIGHT AND DAY is one of the most criminally boring films I’ve ever seen. I didn’t think Cary Grant could be bad in anything until I saw it on TCM last week. I didn’t even believe Monty Woolley as Monty Woolley. Especially when he started ogling chorus girls.

A few of Porter’s songs are staged as musical numbers which are uniformly dreadful. (Louis B. Mayer singing ‘Be A Clown’?) They serve as a reminder that above all genres, musicals require directors with a cohesive style. Irwin Winkler is one of the great producers: THE RIGHT STUFF, GOODFELLAS, ROCKY. As a director (AT FIRST SIGHT, NIGHT AND THE CITY), style is not an arrow in his quiver. I’m not sure he has a quiver.

Most of the songs are sung by what K-Tel calls ‘contemporary artists.’ Robbie Williams tosses off the title tune with such élan that I’m embarrassed he’s not a huge star in America. Elvis Costello does just fine by “Let’s Misbehave,” but the man still doesn’t know what to do with his hands. For some reason, his wife Diana Krall is made up to look like a film noir hash-house waitress. The less said about Sheryl Crow and Alanis Morrissette the better.

But Porter’s music beguiles even under this treatment. ‘Night and Day’ remains one of the great achievements of the 20th century. And Kevin Kline gives a titanic performance as Porter. Even when he’s playing opposite Ashley Judd, who mistakes hauteur for elegance. Even in old age prosthetics that indicate the research department consulted the wrong book, because he looks more like Noel Coward. He carries off the most difficult trick you can ask of an actor: he makes you believe he’s a genius, and a world-famous one to boot. DE-LOVELY is not a successful movie. It’s not even a good one. But God help me, I kind of enjoyed it.

Miscellaneous: Links

Sarah Weinman offers up thoughts on (and the full text of) Jim Fusilli’s Wall Street Journal piece on the perils of being a book critic. And courtesy of GreenCine, Bruce Feirstein explains what’s wrong with Hollywood.

Tuesday, July 06, 2004

Movie: Before Sunset (2004)

Generally, it’s a bad sign when your own thoughts knock you out of a movie. If some stray notion passing through your head commands your attention more than what’s onscreen, that usually means the movie isn’t doing its job. But every once in a while, it’s an indication of the opposite. Your reaction to what you’re seeing simply overwhelms you. That happened here, during an intense scene in the back of a car between Celine (Julie Delpy) and Jesse (Ethan Hawke). The two were just talking – that’s pretty much all they do – but I became acutely aware of how suspenseful SUNSET is, how it turns the screws tighter than most thrillers. How long before one of these two says something that they cannot take back – or something that they’ll have to act on?

The characters were introduced in 1995’s BEFORE SUNRISE, the unlikeliest film to spawn a sequel and, as director Richard Linklater is fond of pointing out, the lowest-grossing one. Celine and Jesse meet on a train in Vienna and spontaneously decide to spend Jesse’s last night in Europe together. The film is all about romantic impulse, about being at an age when you’ve stopped expecting magic but still acknowledge its existence. The rambling, self-conscious dialogue between the two is like an incantation, willing that magic to life.

But their reunion did not come off as planned. The characters are older now, their choices no longer charged with possibility. They find themselves in Paris with little more than an hour before Jesse again returns to America. What follows is a flirtation that unfolds in real time, one with stakes so high as to be almost unbearable.

The film’s emotions reach a dizzying high point when Celine reaches out to caress Jesse’s head only to pull away before he notices her. It’s obviously a gesture she’s rehearsed countless times in the nine years since she last saw him, but those nine years have brought enough fear and doubt to hold her back. The blithe spirit who once spent a night in a stranger’s company cannot touch a friend’s skin now.

Linklater and his actors (who contributed to the script) raise the tantalizing prospect of hope conquering regret. They’ve come up with the most perfectly realized ending of the last few years. Even the Paris sunlight seems to be collaborating with them.

Miscellaneous: Link

Rick Moranis and Dave Thomas cook up a DVD commentary track worth listening to ... for Disney?

Monday, July 05, 2004

Movie: Godzilla (1954)

To mark the big green guy’s 50th anniversary, Rialto Pictures is releasing the uncut Japanese version of his debut in the United States for the first time. Which means no Raymond Burr as reporter ‘Steve Martin.’ Rosemarie wanted to stage a protest outside the theater as Burr fans demanding that his scenes be restored just to see if we’d make the local news. I think it would have worked.

The structure of this version is the same as the one I spent far too many Saturday afternoons watching. The beats have been cannibalized for every disaster film since – an escalating series of odd events in a remote location is given a fantastic explanation, which then lays waste to a more populous area – but there’s a primal kick in seeing the originator and not the imitators.

Still, this cut plays like an entirely different film. World War II isn’t merely a subtext here but the movie’s raison d’etre. The ingénue points to a headline about Godzilla and says, “The contaminated tuna, the black rain, and now this,” then makes a casual reference to having survived the bombing of Nagasaki. A Geiger counter erupts when waved over a child in the aftermath of Godzilla’s attack. A scientist has discovered a weapon that might destroy Godzilla, but he doesn’t want to reveal its existence out of fear that his project will simply become the next H-bomb. It’s little wonder this version wasn’t made available to American audiences.

As for the special effects, there’s more character in these miniatures and the baggy lizard suit than in most CGI sequences.

Video: Lord Love A Duck (1966)

This post by Filmbrain as well as my own recent ramblings about sex comedy led me to check out George Axelrod’s pitch-black satire about ... well, everything. Axelrod wrote the screenplay for THE MANCHURIAN CANDIDATE and the stage version of WILL SUCCESS SPOIL ROCK HUNTER?, and his directorial debut has a hardcore legion of fans. Would that I could be included in their number.

The movie’s impetus seems to be the era’s beach party films, with their sanitized anarchy. Axelrod adds a genuine anarchic spirit to the mix, a student at a progressive SoCal high school (Roddy McDowall) who seems more like the trickster figure from folklore. McDowell devotes himself to making the dreams of fellow student Tuesday Weld come true, no matter the cost.

Axelrod takes aim at all the sacred cows of the period, and this scattershot approach is part of the problem. Watching this movie is like talking to a misanthrope with attention deficit disorder. It’s also too arch, a failing common to many comedies of the mid-‘60s (like THE LOVED ONE, released the previous year). The movie would play better if its excesses were either toned down or amped up. The performances, though, are uniformly strong, especially Weld’s. McDowall may be too old to play a high school student, but he came across as 40 even in HOW GREEN WAS MY VALLEY.

Filmbrain isn’t kidding about the scene with Weld and her father being among the most disturbing of the 1960s. I had to go down to the lab for some eyewash when it was over. Here’s another disquieting thought: based on her recent appearances, I think Carrie Fisher is turning into Ruth Gordon.

Miscellaneous: Links

From GreenCine, a great 2002 Rolling Stone article about life with Brando. Also, Vertigo then and now.

Sunday, July 04, 2004

Video: Bubba Ho-Tep (2003)

Keenan’s Rule #1: Any story can be improved by the addition of a dead body or, at the very least, a bagful of cash gone missing.

I know. Plenty of tales command attention without resorting to cheap thrills. Most legitimate theater is, in the words of Marge Simpson, “about people coming to terms with things.” But I read John Brady’s THE CRAFT OF THE SCREENWRITER at an impressionable age, in which Robert Towne explains that he wrote CHINATOWN as a mystery so that people who were bored by his exploration of Los Angeles history would stick around to find out who killed Hollis Mulwray. What’s good enough for Towne is good enough for everybody. Consider THE HOURS. It has many powerful things to say about alienation and the changing role of women in society. But don’t tell me that the movie wouldn’t have been better if Nicole Kidman, Julianne Moore and Meryl Streep had joined forces in their different eras to solve a murder. A distaff FREQUENCY. Nicole might not have won an Oscar, but she’d have a franchise.

Undead soul-suckers are now on the Rule #1 list. Yes, you can call HO-TEP the movie in which Elvis Presley, who is not dead but is in fact a patient at an East Texas rest home, battles a mummy. But only if you want to be reductive. HO-TEP is actually a serious film about the indignities of old age and the power of seeing your heroes go out the right way: full of passion, soul intact. If anything, the horror stuff is the least satisfying aspect of the movie.

Writer/director Don Coscarelli does a terrific job of preserving Joe R. Lansdale’s voice in his adaptation. And Bruce Campbell makes a kick-ass Elvis. He even does a complete DVD commentary track in character, in which the King blasts the movie’s frequent profanity and offers nuggets of praise. (“He’s sticking up for his buddy here. Hal Wallis would’ve appreciated that.”) I love the idea that Elvis can tell his movies apart: of all his films, he says, “TICKLE ME, more’n anything, was pretty much holiday-geared.”

Book: Earthquake Weather, by Terrill Lee Lankford (2004)

Another case of Rule #1 in action, as Ed Gorman points out. This novel is being marketed as a mystery, but it’s actually a searing look at the business of Hollywood. The protagonist is a ‘creative executive’ for a Joel Silver-like producer who finds himself embroiled in a murder case. He’s beginning to suspect that he’ll never have the high-powered career he craves yet he’s still selling his soul piecemeal, knowing full well that it’s not going for market value. The uncompromising ending is more reminiscent of THE DAY OF THE LOCUST than any crime novel.

TV: Larry King Live

Within hours of Marlon Brando’s death, Larry had assembled an impressive array of guests to honor him: Robert Duvall, Matthew Broderick, Karl Malden, Eva Marie Saint. This has become standard procedure every time someone of significance passes away, but I find these insta-wakes unsettling. Don’t these friends and colleagues need a day or so to mourn privately first? I feel as if I’m intruding on their grief even as they’re asking me to participate in it. I’ll wait for the Turner Classic Movies tribute to Brando on July 10. More proof that TCM is the best network on cable.

Miscellaneous: Link

... although with this new Friday line-up as well as THE OFFICE, BBC America is running a solid second.

Friday, July 02, 2004

Video: The Station Agent (2003)

This movie is the one of those indie success stories that I managed to miss in theatrical release. I was pretty sure that I’d like it. And I did. I was equally sure that it would play just as well on video. And it does.

I enjoyed hanging out with these characters as they hung out with each other. Which is essentially all that happens in the movie, so casting is critical. Writer/director Tom McCarthy comes up with a near-perfect mix. He’s created a role for Peter Dinklage that taps into the steely star power the actor displayed in LIVING IN OBLIVION. (“Have you ever had a dream with a dwarf in it? ... I don’t even have dreams with dwarves in them!”) And Bobby Cannavale is a real discovery.

But questions kept bubbling up that prevented me from going with the movie completely. Don’t these people have to work? How come I can’t attract a gang of lively misfits and while away my days walking the railroad right of way in one of the quainter patches of New Jersey? Does God hate me?

It probably says something about me that these issues came up. Or maybe it says something about the movie. I finally made my peace with the fact that this is the indie-film version of time porn. Like FRIENDS, only quirkier. And you don’t have to watch it every week.

Thursday, July 01, 2004

Miscellaneous: Half-Done Is Well-Begun

183 days down, 183 to go. Time to assess the year to date. I’ll focus on what’s been released in the past six months, so I won’t wax rhapsodic about older films I’ve finally gotten around to watching, or the Ross Thomas reissues I’ve read, or the Gold Medal paperbacks I’ve been acquiring since I started taking pointers from experts like Bill Crider and Ed Gorman. I’ll try to roll with the new.

Best Movie: SPARTAN. A gripping political thriller from David Mamet, where the biggest shocks come from startling displays of emotion. Val Kilmer has never been better. The bad news is this died a horrible box office death. The good news is it’s already out on video. Get it now and improve your 4th of July weekend.

Other winners in no particular order:

ETERNAL SUNSHINE OF THE SPOTLESS MIND. Charlie Kaufman’s most fully-realized script and Jim Carrey at his career best.

INTERMISSION. A terrific Irish film, with many plot threads weaving together into a funny, off-kilter whole. Colin Farrell finally delivers on the hype. Featuring my favorite line of the half-year, when Farrell tries tea that’s been doctored with steak sauce: “That’s fookin’ delish.”

BON VOYAGE. A comic version of an Alan Furst novel. Lush and romantic.

HELLBOY. The best summer movie so far, and it came out in the spring.

SUPER SIZE ME. If I still ate at McDonald’s, I’d have stopped eating at McDonald’s.

I’M NOT SCARED. A low-key Italian thriller that perfectly captures the feeling of childhood summers.

The Steve Coogan/Alfred Molina segment of COFFEE & CIGARETTES.

THE LADYKILLERS and THE TERMINAL. Tom Hanks racks up a string of box-office bonanzas that I can take or leave. He makes two movies that are perceived as failures and I enjoy them both. Go figure. Forget FORREST GUMP. If I run into Hanks at a party, all I’ll want to talk about are DRAGNET and JOE VERSUS THE VOLCANO.

Best Book: BLUE BLOOD, by Edward Conlon. This epic memoir of life on the NYPD is one book I know I’ll return to again and again. It’s all here: the politics, the history, the boredom, the occasional triumphs that make the Job worthwhile. Conlon can toss off details like the different types of addict walks and the wisdom found in THE THIN MAN. Plus he writes like a dream.

And don’t forget:

COTTONWOOD, by Scott Phillips.
HARD REVOLUTION, by George Pelecanos.
THE BURGLAR ON THE PROWL, by Lawrence Block.
THIEVES’ DOZEN, by Donald E. Westlake.
THE 37th HOUR, by Jodi Compton.
WHERE THE TRUTH LIES, by Rupert Holmes.

OK, that last one’s a ringer. It came out in 2003. But it’s the most entertaining novel I’ve read in ages, and the new trade paperback is dated this year. I review it in the current issue of Mystery*File. Look for that column here soon.

Best TV Show: HBO’s DEADWOOD. Nothing else is worth mentioning.

I’m not going to do a worst list (TAKING LIVES). I will say that the biggest disappointment of 2004 thus far is KILL BILL, Volume 2. Maybe when I watch both movies together I’ll change my tune. Bring on the rest of the year.