Tuesday, August 31, 2004

DVD: Gun Crazy (1949)

More from Warner’s new film noir collection. Joseph H. Lewis’ lethal, low-budget gem has never looked better. It’s often cited as a forerunner to BONNIE AND CLYDE. As powerful as that film is, I think I prefer this one. It has a simplicity that cuts closer to the bone.

Maybe I’m getting ornery in my dotage, but I find myself drawn more and more to movies made before the onset of Method acting and the cult of the director brought about by the nouvelle vague. Those developments put a greater emphasis on stylistic flourishes in front of and behind the camera. Movies of the ‘40s and ‘50s generally place the focus on the story. (And, by extension, on the screenwriter, but I’m sure that has nothing to do with my feelings.) Of course, I have been watching a lot of older movies lately. Park me in front of THE CONVERSATION and watch me change my tune.

The commentary track by Glenn Erickson, aka the DVD Savant, is packed with information – almost too much – and has been synchronized to the second. He is one prepared individual.

Book: Island, by Thomas Perry (1987)

A husband-and-wife con artist team cook up the greatest scam of them all: they’re going to build their own island in the Caribbean and go into business as a country. Before long, they’ve attracted the attention of the CIA, the Mafia, and big business. What they don’t expect is that soon even their partners in crime will start viewing the island as an actual, honest-to-God nation.

This sadly out of print book is a treat, suspenseful and hilarious all at once. It put me in mind of the work of Ross Thomas, who looked at the intersection of industry, politics and espionage with a jaundiced eye. St. Martin’s Press is in the process of reissuing all of Thomas’ books, but sometimes that’s not enough. I can only imagine what Thomas would do with what’s going on in the world right now. We need someone to don his mantle. Maybe Perry is that writer.

Monday, August 30, 2004

Movie: Hero (2004)

Who’d have thought that one of last year’s Oscar nominees – which you can already find on DVD – would top the box office? Miramax deserves plenty of credit for releasing Zhang Yimou’s historical martial arts epic theatrically, because this movie demands to be seen on the big screen.

The plot unfolds RASHOMON-style, as nameless warrior Jet Li presents himself to the king of one of the ancient kingdoms of China to explain how he single-handedly dispatched three ruthless assassins. The king’s questions force Li to revise his story, with each version bringing us closer to the truth. Plenty of movies use this multiform technique to cheat, concealing information as a way of amping up suspense (Exhibit A: John Travolta’s BASIC). Here it’s employed for a specific reason that doesn’t become apparent until Li’s final tale is told. Ultimately, the film conveys a complicated message about politics and history in a dynamic, visual way.

Maggie Cheung, Tony Leung, and CROUCHING TIGER’s Zhang Ziyi also star; I can’t remember the last movie I saw with such an attractive cast. Cinematographer Christopher Doyle is the film’s real hero, crafting a beautiful color scheme for each variation of Li’s story.

TV: Seinfeld

No matter how many times I hear it, the outgoing message on George’s answering machine, sung to the theme from THE GREATEST AMERICAN HERO, cracks me up:

“Where could I be?/Believe it or not, I’m not home.”

Miscellaneous: Links

Kevin Smith is making a sequel to CLERKS. I know JERSEY GIRL tanked pretty hard, dude, but come on.

A big shock this weekend was hearing Roger Ebert give thumbs up to the new version of Vincent Gallo’s film THE BROWN BUNNY. This after Ebert called the earlier cut the worst film ever to appear in competition at Cannes, which prompted Gallo to place a curse on Ebert’s prostate. Now all is forgiven. Come feel the love.

Sunday, August 29, 2004

Cable Catch-Up: Buffalo Soldiers (2003)

You’d think cable networks would be eager to seize on new titles to fill the hours. But Starz and its sister stations continue to roll out lesser-known movies outside of prime time. MASKED AND ANONYMOUS, the Bob Dylan political allegory that died on the festival circuit only to rally a staunch band of supporters like Salon’s Stephanie Zacharek, made its TV debut at 10:30 on a weekday morning. Everything about the preview for THE RETURNER, a 2002 Japanese kung-fu/time-travel epic, looked lame – except for the hovering 747 that transformed into a giant robot, which landed it on my ‘wanna-see-it-but-won’t-leave-the-house’ list. Little did I know it would surface on the Action Channel at 4:30 in the afternoon. I still haven’t caught up with either movie.

Then there’s this adaptation of Robert O’Connor’s novel, which I happened to notice in the On Demand listings. It was barely released to begin with; in the wake of 9/11, Miramax’s thinking was that few people wanted to see a black comedy about bored U.S. soldiers on a West German military base in 1989. It reached theaters after numerous delays only to sink without a trace. Now even its TV appearance has been muted.

This is where I’m supposed to say the movie is a lost gem, but I can’t. It has an intriguing premise but an erratic tone that more often than not shades into unpleasantness. It’s like watching an episode of SGT. BILKO where, thanks to the Sarge’s shenanigans, half the squad ends up dead.

I stayed with it, though, because of several fine performances. Joaquin Phoenix almost makes the movie work, Anna Paquin is better here than she is playing a similar character in 25th HOUR, and Elizabeth McGovern has her best role in years. Best of all is Ed Harris. It’s shockingly funny to see this powerful, masculine actor playing the befuddled base commander who can’t see that his wife is cheating on him.

Miscellaneous: Links

I’m going link-happy today. What the hell.

First up is Ed Gorman’s blog, which is an essential stop. I may permanently bookmark yesterday’s post on a life spent reading and writing. Powerful, inspirational stuff.

Ed also steered me toward this list of cross-genre noir books, which came to him courtesy of BOX NINE author Jack O’Connell. Who mentions that the Theodore Roszak book on the list, FLICKER, is tough to come by. I keep my copy locked in a safe-deposit box in a Cayman Islands bank. It’s a magnificent, bruising thriller about film history, filled with images that haunt me to this day. It may be time to read it again. Better get my passport in order.

GreenCine Daily offers its usual excellent round-up of the English papers. Worth reading are this article by DM Thomas on THE WHITE HOTEL’s ongoing slog through development hell, and a profile of Tim Robbins. Mainly for its opening paragraph, which says far too much about life in 21st-century America. Where the airport customs official who warns a reporter about Robbins’ politics also keeps abreast of the actor’s current projects.

There’s a veritable bonanza in the New York Times’ Sunday Arts section, for once. Here’s a look at the developing niche for porn films made by and for women, and a piece on a fundamentalist Christian ‘hell house’ turned performance art piece in Hollywood. Plus, Marcelle Clements on the cinema of Simenon.

Friday, August 27, 2004

Classics I Somehow Missed: The Seven-Year Itch (1955)

I want to say I don’t know this one got past me. I’m a huge fan of both Billy Wilder and George Axelrod, who co-wrote this adaptation of his play.

But I do know how it got past me. It stars Marilyn Monroe, in a role designed to flaunt her desirability. I may as well just spill it: I’m not a Monroe fan. She could be enormously effective, especially when she got to do musical numbers as in Wilder’s SOME LIKE IT HOT. But I never sparked to her as an actress. And all that ‘Candle in the Wind’ mythologizing doesn’t help. Some gentlemen prefer brunettes.

It won’t come as a surprise, then, when I say I didn’t care for this movie. Marilyn is quite good in it, but her presence throws the film off-balance; the story’s not supposed to be about her, but her allure overwhelms it. The charisma-deficient Tom Ewell isn’t up to the challenge of sharing the screen with her. (The DVD includes test footage of the then-unknown Walter Matthau auditioning for Ewell’s role. Matthau, a future collaborator with both Wilder and Axelrod, would have been ideal.)

The Production Code then in place made matters worse. It barred any humorous references to adultery, so a farce about a man’s guilt at cheating on his wife became a farce about a man’s guilt at not cheating on his wife. But thinking about it very hard.

There are laughs to be sure, but ultimately the material proves thin. It’s a male fantasy piece about a gorgeous girl who’s oblivious to the effect she has on men, and the schmuck she gets involved with simply because he lives downstairs. Axelrod deals with similar themes far more effectively in his play WILL SUCCESS SPOIL ROCK HUNTER? So does Wilder in KISS ME, STUPID. But that movie’s almost universally reviled while this one is in ‘The Diamond Collection,’ so what do I know?

Miscellaneous: Link

Republican writer/producer Rob Long measures the wattage of the stars who will appear at next week’s RNC.

Thursday, August 26, 2004

Miscellaneous: Quote of the Day

From this New York Times article on Northwest Airlines’ plan to charge its customers extra for buying tickets in person or over the phone, here’s industry analyst Terry L. Trippler:

“I’m not often speechless, but when I saw this, I sat back and said, ‘What?’”

Book: Loose Lips, by Claire Berlinski (2003)

I’m not 100% on this, but I think I just read my first chick-lit book. And it wasn’t half-bad.

It’s about a woman training to be a CIA officer. All I know about the subject is what I learned from the Colin Farrell/Al Pacino movie THE RECRUIT. What sold me on the book was the blurb from Robert Baer, the former agency man who wrote the excellent SEE NO EVIL. He said LOOSE LIPS “looks like an insider’s account ... it’s an honest book.” Enough for me.

The story ends when the lead character’s training is over. The problem is the book goes on for another 90 pages. Still, the process is laid out in detail. It turns out THE RECRUIT was fairly accurate.

Movie: Johnny English (2003)

The fact that this Bond spoof was co-written by Neal Purvis and Robert Wade, who also penned the last two 007 outings, raised my suspicions. Can you parody your own work?

Turns out you can. It’s a goofily entertaining movie – but bear in mind that I consider Benny Hill to be a comic genius. It’s worth seeing for two reasons: Robbie Williams’ infectious faux-Bond title song, and a hilarious performance by John Malkovich as the villain, complete with cheesy French accent. “Meestair English! I am gob-smacked!” His best line was cut from the film, but it’s included on the DVD. (Yes, I’ve seen the movie more than once.) “England! Lend me your brain! I’m building an idiot!”

DVD: Max Fleischer’s Superman

In preparation for SKY CAPTAIN AND THE WORLD OF TOMORROW, I watched this collection of cartoons which director Kerry Conran has cited as a major influence. The 17 shorts were made for Paramount from 1941-43, although Fleischer left the project after the first nine. It’s in these cartoons that the now-famous phrases “Look, up in the sky!” and “Faster than a speeding bullet” were born.

They’re beautifully drawn, especially the art deco depictions of machinery, and fun to watch. Lois Lane stows away in one vehicle or another in almost every episode. Superman doesn’t do battle with any of his usual archenemies. In some of the later installments, he gets actively involved in the war effort, taking on spies and saboteurs.

The mad scientist villain in ‘Electric Earthquake’ is a Native American who threatens to destroy Manhattan if it’s not returned to his people. That’s Manhattan, not Metropolis. Did anyone ever buy that Metropolis guff in the first place? I stopped believing when I saw that Rex Reed worked for the Daily Planet. As if Rex Reed would ever leave New York.

Miscellaneous: Link

Courtesy of Gawker, watch as a fake talent booker tries to land celebrities for the Republican National Convention.

Wednesday, August 25, 2004

Book: Neon Noir, by Woody Haut (1999)

Haut’s survey of contemporary crime fiction places far too much emphasis on politics. I don’t think it adds to my understanding of a novel to know it was published the week before the U.S. bombed Libya. Our tastes differ considerably; he speaks ill of my man Lawrence Block (“though continuing to produce entertaining fiction, (he) seems to have become, and perhaps always was, too slick for his own good”), and he dislikes the film adaptation of James Ellroy’s L.A. CONFIDENTIAL because it doesn’t capture every nuance of a 496 page book. But Haut’s knowledge of the genre is thorough, allowing him to make some fascinating connections. I don’t agree with much in this book, but I’m glad I read it.

Movie: The Naked Spur (1953)

One of Anthony Mann’s taut psychological Westerns. It’s a chamber piece that unfolds in the great outdoors, with each of the five characters playing mind games on the others. Bracing stuff, with Jimmy Stewart at his peak. No talking rabbits here. Mann directed several terrific crime dramas like RAW DEAL, and his cast here is peopled with actors equally at home in the shadows. Ralph Meeker is memorably chilling as a cavalry officer discharged for being morally unsound.

Good Scene, Bad Movie: Outbreak (1995)

Dustin Hoffman obviously had his own writer; you can tell by the way his quirky character details are larded on. In the midst of the hokum, the late, great J.T. Walsh appears unbilled as the President’s chief of staff. He struts around a conference table, shouting at the assembled generals and cabinet members that if they vaporize this small, plague-plagued town, they’d better be prepared for the consequences. He ends the harangue by tossing photos of the townspeople onto the table. And for one moment, this movie crackles.

Mystery Solved: Mindhunters

The fate of this movie, which I’ve written about before, has been revealed. Miramax announces that Renny Harlin’s film will go straight to video the very week that Harlin’s EXORCIST prequel tops the box office.

Tuesday, August 24, 2004

TV: Entourage

I can understand how people at the networks might have it in for HBO. But there’s no reason for them to take out their frustration on the talent. They’ve ignored THE WIRE, and they’ve already seen fit to deny Ian McShane his much deserved Emmy glory for DEADWOOD. But if ENTOURAGE’S Jeremy Piven isn’t up on that stage next year picking up a statuette, I’m going to make like a Russian gymnast and call the whole thing fixed.

Monday, August 23, 2004

DVD: Slapstick Symposium: The Charley Chase Collection

Chase was an essential figure in silent film comedy, a hugely popular performer who also directed under his real name, Charles Jarrott. But his work never received the critical attention of contemporaries like Chaplin and Harold Lloyd. If he was remembered at all, it was for his supporting role in the Laurel & Hardy feature SONS OF THE DESERT.

Kino’s new collection should change that. The six shorts on this disc, many directed by future Academy Award winner Leo McCarey, showcase Chase’s flair for what’s now known as situation comedy. There’s ‘Mum’s The Word,’ in which for complicated reasons Charley must pretend to be his new stepfather’s valet. And ‘Long Fliv The King,’ wherein the soon-to-be executed Charley finds himself the monarch of a small country. Chase basically perfected the high-concept comedy. Jim Carrey and Adam Sandler owe him a huge debt. No doubt their people are poring over this DVD right now, hunting for future projects.

The high point of the collection is ‘Mighty Like A Moose,’ a riotous marital comedy with shades of O. Henry’s ‘The Gift of the Magi.’ Chase appeared in more than 200 films, so with any luck more of his work will soon be available for public consumption.

In two of these shorts, Chase plays a character named Jimmy Jump, a role that would later be assumed by Laurence Fishburne in KING OF NEW YORK. (I wanted to be the first person to make the connection between the oeuvres of Chase and Abel Ferrara.) For another take on this DVD, swing by the always-terrific Thrilling Days of Yesteryear.

Magazine: The New Yorker, 8/23 issue

And thus, in Alex Ross’ profile of a certain Icelandic singer, is a new adjective born: Björkian. Lord knows the woman deserves it. She’s a singular talent. And Ross doesn’t even mention her contributions to the art of the music video, particularly the staggering ‘Bachelorette’ directed by Michel Gondry.

I managed to miss Björk’s appearance during the Olympic opening ceremonies, although judging from Matt’s recap at Scrubbles.net, maybe that’s for the best.

Two favorite excerpts from Ross’ article:

“What’s most precious in her work is the glimpse that it affords ... of a future world in which ... (music) is restored to its original bliss, free both of the fear of pretension that limits popular music and of the fear of vulgarity that limits classical music.”

“Björk sang along to Madonna’s ‘Like a Prayer’ on the radio and talked again about ‘The Master and Margarita,’ which Johann, her Pilates instructor, had just read.”

See? She is large, she contains multitudes.

Website Update: Links

And the blog roll continues to grow. Three new sites have been added, all deserving of your attention: the aforementioned Thrilling Days of Yesteryear, Bill Crider’s blog, and Jaime Weinman’s thoughts on popular and unpopular culture.

Sunday, August 22, 2004

Movie: In A Lonely Place (1950)

Movies may have the freedom to engage directly with adult themes now, and thanks to the revised ratings system, you’ll even know when they do going in. But few films of recent vintage match the disturbing impact of this Nicholas Ray drama. It’s often categorized as film noir when it’s actually a psychological portrait etched in acid.

Humphrey Bogart plays Dixon Steele, a fading screenwriter who becomes a suspect in a murder investigation. Bogart’s performance is one of the most daring ever given by a major star; he completely inverts his persona. Superficially he’s the wisecracking, confident Bogie we know and love. But here the glibness stems from the fact that Steele genuinely doesn’t care about anyone other than himself, and his brash self-assurance masks a welter of neuroses. He’s paranoid, self-sabotaging, prone to fits of rage and despair.

Bogart holds nothing back; at times his performance is difficult to watch. For all the praise heaped on Marlon Brando for his revelatory work in LAST TANGO IN PARIS, there’s a showy aspect to his work in that film. Bogart achieves the same ends here simply by delving deeper into our image of him. He’s matched beat for beat by Gloria Grahame as Dix’s last chance for happiness. The ending is heartbreaking. So is the knowledge that this story would never be told in today’s Hollywood. Dix would be put on Paxil, embrace his status as a hack, and become a bore at parties.

Concert: Liza Minnelli

Rosemarie won tickets to this show, along with V.I.P. wristbands. We didn’t feel V.I., because everybody in the joint seemed to have them.

Not that it dampened our enthusiasm. It was a beautiful night for an outdoor concert, especially one featuring a legendary performer. Liza may not have the voice she used to, but she knows how to work what she’s got. She did what I think of as a Foxwoods set: 75 minutes of hits and then everybody back out to the tables. The high point was ‘So What,’ a non-Sally Bowles number cut from the film version of CABARET.

I wanted Liza to mention Seattle by name during her patter; the show is such a well-oiled machine, right down to the ‘impromptu’ a cappella encore of ‘I’ll Be Seeing You,’ that I was convinced she didn’t actually know where she was. (I crave those Spinal Tap-meets-the-Simpsons, “Good evening, Springfield” moments.) But I got something even better. She had just started a song when Seattle’s waterfront streetcar rolled past, blowing its horn. Liza segued into ‘The Trolley Song,’ then lost her place and decided to break for her costume change early. It was a wonderful burst of spontaneity that made the set’s polish gleam more brightly. Liza is among the last of those veteran entertainers who understand showmanship, who can make a large venue feel intimate. I’m glad I had the chance to see her perform live.

Miscellaneous: Link

Newspapers across the country consider the fate of the daily comic strip.

Thursday, August 19, 2004

DVD: Out of the Past (1947)

Most movies are eminently forgettable. A few are pleasant ways to pass a couple of hours. An even smaller number become fixtures in your life. You revisit them, quote from them, judge people on whether they like them.

And then there are the handful that go even deeper. You don’t merely live with these movies. You live by them.

“It was the bottom of the barrel, and I scraped it. But I didn’t care. I had her.”

“That isn’t the way to play.”
“Why not?”
“Because it isn’t the way to win.”
“Is there a way?”
“There’s a way to lose more slowly.”

“You look like you’re in trouble.”
“Because you don’t act like it.”

“We seemed to live by night. What was left of the day went away like a pack of cigarettes you smoked.”

“You can never help anything, can you? You’re like a leaf that the wind blows from one gutter to another.”

“I don’t want to die.”
“Neither do I, baby. But if I have to, I’m gonna die last.”

I can now listen to that dialogue anytime I want, because OUT OF THE PAST is finally on DVD. The essential film noir. Romance curdling into obsession, everybody cracking wise until somebody dies. Because, hell, everybody dies.

Jane Greer was only 22 – 22! – when she played the ultimate femme fatale. Kirk Douglas is electrifying in his second screen appearance. And then there’s Mitchum. Delivering most of the dialogue quoted above in a style all his own.

The DVD transfer looks terrific. Noir expert James Ursini delivers an informative commentary. My only wish: that Warner Brothers had been able to get the rights to the track David Thomson recorded for the laser disc release around 13 years ago. I’ve never heard it, but I’ll bet it’s something. Thomson is one of our finest critics. I was at a screening where he delivered a rousing introduction to Altman’s THE LONG GOODBYE a few years ago, and he doesn’t even like the movie. I’d love to hear him rhapsodize about the film he calls “a lasting joy,” and one I will watch until I am very, very old.

TV: Living in TV Land With Dick Van Patten

With all the poker that’s on TV, I demand to know why this event was not televised in its entirety.

Miscellaneous: Link

Written By, the magazine of the Writers Guild of America, offers unproduced teleplays from names like Charlie Kaufman and William Link.

Miscellaneous: Overheard

“Omigod! He looks like a little Ewok!”
“Really? I thought he looked like a Gremlin.”

Were they talking about a toddler or a dog? Your guess is as good as mine.

Wednesday, August 18, 2004

Movie: Open Water (2004)

So now scuba diving’s off my to-do list. Not that it was all that high up to begin with.

There isn’t much I can say about this movie. Partly because I don’t want to give anything away, and partly because there’s not much to it. A vacationing couple gets left behind when they go scuba diving. They drift out to sea. They are menaced by sharks. That’s it. The movie is as stripped down as they come in terms of budget, cast, and theme. Which has pluses and minuses.

Filmmakers Chris Kentis and Laura Lau know how to work quickly; the movie is only 80 minutes long. They sketch out the hectic lives of Daniel and Susan (Daniel Travis and Blanchard Ryan) in an opening scene that’s uncomfortably familiar: last-minute phone calls to the office, a debate about whether to bring a laptop. Arriving in the Caribbean brings a whole new set of pressures, summed up by Daniel’s attempt to cajole Susan into a little vacation sex. (It’s good to see a movie with actors who are attractive in a non-Hollywood way. As for Ryan’s nude scene ... yowza.)

Then they get on the boat. Kentis and Lau ratchet up the suspense, showing us the commonplace seeds of tragedy: a forgotten dive mask, a botched head count. They’re better at exploring the physical toll on the couple (Susan’s Dramamine wears off, dehydration sets in) than the emotional one, which they wisely contain to a single argument in which each blames the other for their fate. Then the couple get stung by jellyfish. Everyone at the resort gets drunk. A thunderstorm rolls in. Sharks start circling.

Which brings me to OPEN WATER’s biggest problem: there’s no story. The only question is will this nice, harried couple be rescued. It’s not a movie so much as a dramatized vignette from a diving magazine. 1997’s THE EDGE is a similar tale of people trapped in the wild, with a bear substituted for sharks. In that film, writer David Mamet sets up a complex dynamic between the characters, and how that is resolved matters almost as much as whether they live. There are other issues at stake aside from mere survival. Here, it’s the whole show.

On those terms, OPEN WATER is a success. A primal terror – not of sharks, but of being forgotten by the world – is explored with a minimum of fuss. If anything, the low budget enhances the sense of danger; the actors are clearly thisclose to live sharks. And the ending packs a wallop. It’s an awe-inspiring display of the highest kind of grace under the most intense pressure.

Miscellaneous: Link

Jeffrey Wells inaugurates the new home of ‘Hollywood Elsewhere’ with a column about movies that should be on DVD. It’s a good one, although considering that THE BATTLE OF ALGIERS will be out later this year, I’d pull that in favor of THE FRIENDS OF EDDIE COYLE.

Tuesday, August 17, 2004

TV: The Best TV Shows That Never Were

Lee Goldberg did a bang-up job on this look at busted pilots. The network ought to go to series on it. There’s enough interest - and bad shows - to go around.

Who knew there was an American version of RED DWARF with Jane Leeves and THE LONG KISS GOODNIGHT’S Craig Bierko? And I actually laughed – twice – at ACTING SHERIFF with Robert Goulet. He hasn’t been this funny since he guest starred on ALICE.

Movie: Daredevil (2003)

This movie seems to be running on one HBO network or another at all times. The real mystery is why I keep leaving it on. I’m not the only one who feels affection for it. Check out James Reasoner’s fine blog if you don’t believe me.

The thing is, I know DAREDEVIL isn’t any good. Ben Affleck’s leatherette suit looks like it was made with upholstery stripped off the stools from a singles bar circa 1973. The plot is inconsequential. And the ending is a letdown in that all the characters essentially end up where they started.

But still, I like the damn thing. Having Jennifer Garner in it helps enormously. So does Colin Farrell’s gleeful performance as Bullseye. Partly it’s personal; DAREDEVIL was my favorite comic book growing up, the only one I read on anything close to a regular basis.

It’s obvious that writer/director Mark Steven Johnson feels that same enthusiasm for Matt Murdock. There’s a boy’s own adventure feel to this movie; yes, it draws heavily on Frank Miller’s dark stories about the character, but on the whole it doesn’t take itself too seriously. It may not be as perfectly balanced as SPIDER-MAN 2, but it’s nowhere near as ponderous as some other comic book adaptations.

There are a few shots in the movie that echo the effect of graphic novels, conveying tremendous energy in a static frame. (A few of them are recreations of panels from DAREDEVIL books.) For all the hype about how Ang Lee was going to utilize comic art techniques in HULK, Johnson does a better job.

Incidentally, one of the pilots featured in Lee Goldberg’s show was a version of DAREDEVIL starring, if I’m not mistaken, ‘80s heartthrob Rex Smith. And I thought Affleck’s get-up was bad ...

TV: The Surreal Life

I had no plans to watch the third season of this reality series, which has migrated from the WB to VH-1. Even when I heard that two of the has-beens who’d be living together this year would be Charo and FULL HOUSE’s Dave Coulier, I held fast.

Then I stumbled onto a promo for the show. In which it is revealed that, for the first time, romance blooms in the house.

Between former action Valkyrie Brigitte Nielsen and Public Enemy’s Flavor Flav.

Four hours of my life, gone like that. Plus you have to factor in shower time, because I know I’m going to feel unclean when each episode is over.

Miscellaneous: Links

Jon Margolis on how, Michael Moore’s claims to the contrary, movies have never made much of an impact on elections. And New Line announces a new project: Freddy vs. Jason vs. Ash from the EVIL DEAD movies. Vegas already has Bruce Campbell as the prohibitive favorite.

Monday, August 16, 2004

Book: The Killing of the Tinkers, by Ken Bruen (2004)

Reading this novel is like grabbing hold of a live wire while ripped to the gills on Guinness. You’re instantly swept up by the Gael force of Jack Taylor’s personality. I wouldn’t mind if Jack took a drop of Powers every now and then instead of Jameson’s, but otherwise I have no complaints. (Well, one. George Pelecanos’ name is misspelled. In two different ways.)

Bruen uses pop culture references better than any contemporary writer who is not Nick Hornby. His crime fiction allusions are particularly sharp. I’ve read too many mysteries that drop names as a ham-fisted way of acknowledging the author’s influences, which are generally all too evident to start with. But Taylor’s riffs on Ed McBain or Lawrence Block give us insight into his personality. When I finish a Bruen book I not only want to read another one, but every title he’s mentioned as well. The bastard.

DVD: Lara Croft, Tomb Raider: The Cradle of Life (2003)

From Charles Taylor’s recent Salon piece on the cinema of dislocation (subscription or day pass required):

“There is plenty to distinguish CRADLE OF LIFE from the mainstream dross around it: the plot actually makes sense, and the action sequences are shot so that you can tell what’s going on in them ... (The movie) wrests fun from the very rootlessness that is so anxiety-provoking to contemporary sensibilities ... The plot may globe-hop, but it does so at a pace that makes us feel as if we’re on a quest proceeding by train or horseback rather than high-speed jets.”

Sorry, Charlie. This movie’s a mess. Why he mentions it in the same breath as LOST IN TRANSLATION and the entire output of Wong Kar-Wai is a mystery.

I’ll give you that it’s better than the first film, which is saying almost nothing. The plot is standard action movie hooey that may scan from one scene to the next but falls apart as a whole. On top of that, I’ve seen it before. (Ransoming a contagious disease? That’s, like, so M:I 2.) It’s no worse – but no better – than your typical summer extravaganza. It certainly didn’t tap into any zeitgeisty feelings of ennui. Although it did create them.

BTW, the punctuation in the title is pure guesswork. For all I know, there are semicolons and hyphens in there.

Movie: Alien Vs. Predator (2004)

No, I haven’t seen it. Yet. I’m a completist like Slate’s David Edelstein. I’ve seen both Predator movies and all four Alien films, as well as the short-lived Fox Kids cartoon, “Li’l Aliens.” (OK, I made that last bit up.) I even confess to liking director Paul W. S. “For the last friggin’ time, I am NOT the guy who made BOOGIE NIGHTS” Anderson’s earlier SF efforts EVENT HORIZON and SOLDIER.

But I’ve got concerns. Chief among them is that this movie screws with the continuity of the Alien series. AVP is set now, in Antarctica. If chest-bursters were on Earth in 2004, how come nobody in ALIEN recognizes them? Huh? Tell me that.

Actually, the filmmakers may have a ready answer. According to AVP reviews, Lance Henriksen plays billionaire Charles Bishop Weyland. It’s a nice nod to Henriksen’s performance as the android Bishop in ALIENS. But the company that employs the crew of the Nostromo in the first film and funds the expedition in the second is named Weyland-Yutani. Which raises the possibility that the firm has been hunting the aliens ever since their founder uncovered them decades before. It’s an intriguing notion.

And I am such a geek.

Miscellaneous: Link

From Movie City News: even celebrities have garage sales.

Sunday, August 15, 2004

Movie: Zatoichi (2004)

For a while, it seemed as if Takeshi Kitano (aka ‘Beat’ Takeshi) would take over the world the way he’d conquered Japanese TV. His crime dramas HANA-BI (FIREWORKS) and SONATINE were released to great acclaim; both deservedly turn up on the Online Film Critics Society list of Overlooked Films of the 1990s. Their combination of formal discipline, graphically minimalist violence and deadpan comic sensibility seemed to herald a new style in filmmaking.

But Kitano’s American debut BROTHER never really took flight, while KIKUJIRO saddled him with a kid. A TV vet should have recognized that as one of the telltale signs of shark-jumping. He’s probably best known now as one of the dubbed hosts on Spike TV’s MOST EXTREME CHALLENGE. Which, admittedly, is not the worst thing in the world to be known for.

His latest film isn’t a complete success, but it does represent several steps in the right direction. The blind wandering swordsman Zatoichi is a legendary figure in Japanese pop culture, appearing in some 20 films. Kitano plays him as a man of few words but shockingly blond hair. There’s certainly enough story to play with: rival gangs, a ronin with a dying wife, siblings close to achieving long-sought revenge. But the movie is indifferently plotted. Elegantly composed but languid scenes are punctuated by the director’s trademark pokerfaced comedy, along with weirdly beautiful mayhem. (All of the bloodletting is rendered digitally, so the fight scenes look like image captures from a video game recreated on rice paper.) The movie exerts a peculiar fascination without kicking into high gear.

And then, with forty minutes to spare, you can feel Kitano take the reins and say, “OK, enough screwing around.” The various plot lines coalesce, the action comes fast and satisfyingly furious, and everything ends with a full cast tap-dance number. ZATOICHI may lack the control or elegiac beauty of Kitano’s ‘90s films. But it shares their unique spirit. And it’s unlike any samurai movie you’ve seen before.

Miscellaneous: Overlooked Movies of the Past Five Years

Speaking of the OFCS list, we might as well stay on top of the current decade (what are we calling it again? The aughts?) and name a few movies that have already slipped under the radar. Let me start with two from 2001: the Australian drama LANTANA, with a top-flight ensemble cast including Anthony LaPaglia and Geoffrey Rush, and Fred Schepisi’s adaptation of the Graham Swift novel LAST ORDERS. David Hemmings is marvelous in one of his final performances, fully embracing the blustery lion character actor phase of his career. You can also see how much son Nolan, playing his father in flashback, resembles Dad in his BLOW UP glory days. Both of these films were victims of the year-end awards hype folly; they were held back by their respective studios in hopes of Oscar attention that never came, and as a result went through theaters quickly. Now is the time to catch up with them.

Friday, August 13, 2004

DVD: Schoolhouse Rock! 30th Anniversary Edition

All 46 animated shorts are here: ‘Conjunction Junction,’ ‘I’m Just a Bill,’ ‘Interplanet Janet.’ Plus a new one on the workings of the electoral college that would have come in handy four years ago.

The words to all of them have been rattling around my head for years. It helps that they’re set to catchy music that at times is worthy of Sondheim. Let’s see him find a melody for this lyric:

“Interjections show excitement or emotion. They’re generally set apart from a sentence by an exclamation point or by a comma when the feeling’s not as strong.”

I was reluctant to watch one called ‘Figure Eight’ because it had an odd affect on me as a child. It features a more wistful song than the others, one that evoked a powerful feeling in me which I was too young to identify as melancholy. I was always a morbid kid, but it had to unnerve my parents seeing their six-year-old staring gloomily out the window when he was supposed to be hopped up on Frosted Flakes and watching SUPERFRIENDS. Rosemarie had never seen ‘Figure Eight.’ When it ended she said, “No wonder it freaked you out. That woman sounds like Blossom Dearie.” Turns out it is Blossom Dearie. They’d probably slap a parental advisory on it now.

Movie: Yu-Gi-Oh! (2004)

There’s a character in this game-turned-TV-show-turned-movie named Obnoxious Celtic Guardian? Have I been missing out on a good thing?

TV: Late Night Line-Up

Craig Kilborn threw the schedule in an uproar when he pulled the plug on his own show. I kind of enjoyed Kilby’s program, even though it was packed with B-listers and coasted on a lazy hipster vibe. Craiggers didn’t have any illusions about his place in the Hollywood food chain. And watching him hit on the latest SI cover model had a certain oleaginous charm.

The theory is that CBS will wait for Conan O’Brien’s NBC contract to expire, then get him to jump ship with the understanding that he’ll move to 11:30 when David Letterman retires. It’s not the worst idea I’ve heard. My only fear is that the earlier time slot would take the edge off Conan’s show. (Watch ‘Classic Dave’ on Trio to see what a difference an hour makes.) Conan certainly couldn’t engage in bizarre experiments like last night’s show. The entire hour was an infomercial for the newly-released LATE NIGHT DVDs. Conan wore a series of progressively uglier sweaters. Bruce Jenner co-hosted. Such hijinks won’t fly at 11:30.

Miscellaneous: Links

Stuart Klawans can’t get Jonathan Demme’s THE MANCHURIAN CANDIDATE out of his head. Neither can I, only I mean it in a bad way. It remains, for me, the missed opportunity of the summer. I’ve realized that the movie is not just a redo of the 1962 original. Think about it. Veterans of a foreign war plagued by night sweats and the vague sense that someone, possibly their own side, has done something to them. Creepy New York locations. A woman who may not be what she appears. It’s also a remake of JACOB’S LADDER. It’s two, two, TWO remakes in one. And still no bargain.

Critical hosannas for COLLATERAL be damned. Dave Kehr says the ultimate L.A. noir is and always will be KISS ME DEADLY.

Thursday, August 12, 2004

Book: Hand To Mouth, by Paul Auster (1997)

We’re all friends here, right? I picked up this book, subtitled A Chronicle of Early Failure, to feel better about myself. It never hurts to read about the struggles of a writer you admire. I also assumed Auster’s background would reassure me about my own. A New Yorker who writes literary fiction? No Hemingwayesque exploits for him, I figured.

Then I get to the section where Auster ships out on a freighter. Later he’s hired to translate the North Vietnamese constitution. Damn it. There must be some way I can spin my common straw into gold. Don’t let anybody kid you; being a movie theater usher is hard work. And I wrote phone sex ads for a while, too. I could tell you some stories. Not that you’d want to hear them.

Auster boldly deals with the question of money, dropping precise figures. How much he has, how much he needs, how much he’ll settle for. But the original hardcover edition of the book is even more daring, in that it includes samples of his work from the period. (The 2003 paperback is only the opening memoir.) There are three plays in the style of Samuel Beckett that frankly didn’t do anything for me. And yet within them are the seeds of the ideas that Auster would explore more fully in his New York Trilogy as well as THE MUSIC OF CHANCE.

Also here is SQUEEZE PLAY, a 1978 mystery novel published under the name Paul Benjamin. It’s a pastiche, but an engaging one; Auster’s a sure hand with a wisecrack. The plot turns around a clever twist that Auster gives away in his memoir, which takes some of the fun out of it. Not that more ammunition is required in this particular battle, but here’s Auster on novelists of the American hard-boiled school:

“I had developed an admiration for some of the practitioners of the genre. The best ones were humble, no-nonsense writers who not only had more to say about American life than most so-called serious writers, but often seemed to write smarter, crisper sentences as well.”

The third appendix is the most fascinating. At his lowest ebb, Auster became obsessed with selling a card game he’d invented called ‘Action Baseball’ to toy manufacturers. He’s ruthless in detailing this episode of his life; he knows that his chances are slim, but that only drives his desperation. Included in the book are the game’s rules and a sample deck of cards. I don’t know why it didn’t sell. It looks like fun.

Music: Ultimate Manilow

We’re all still friends here, right? Rosemarie got me this CD because I have an unfortunate tendency to belt out Barry’s ‘Ready to Take a Chance Again.’ The sad truth is if you say ‘The Last Waltz’ to me, my first thought will not be The Band but Engelbert Humperdinck. I’d call myself a lounge lizard, but you have to go out more than I do to qualify.

Not every track on the disc is a winner. I still think ‘I Write the Songs’ sounds like it was composed for the opening ceremonies of the Goodwill Games. But Manilow is an accomplished craftsman who’s not afraid of key changes and genuine emotion. Even the hard-hearted Joe Queenan found love for Barry in his book about the worst in American pop culture, RED LOBSTER, WHITE TRASH & THE BLUE LAGOON. Yes, ‘Could It Be Magic?’ and ‘Weekend in New England’ are pure, uncut schmaltz. But if you don’t feel something stirring within you when Barry goes deep, you’re dead inside.

Miscellaneous: Overheard

“With Halliburton and all those companies owning everything, we’re getting closer and closer to that movie ROLLERBALL.”

Wednesday, August 11, 2004

Video: The Late Show (1977)

Character actor Eugene Roche passed away last month. Most of his obituaries focused on his lengthy television career, including a stint as the Ajax man in a series of commercials. For me, his work in this Robert Benton film stands out as a highlight.

Art Carney stars as Ira Wells, a retired Los Angeles private eye. His ex-partner turns up dead on his doorstep one night, plunging Ira into a case that starts with a ransomed pet cat and leads to blackmail and murder. The mayhem revolves around the wealthy fence played by Roche, a man who’s the best salesman of whatever swag he has lying around. MAUDE’s Bill Macy makes a memorably sleazy impression as a man with his fingers in any number of half-baked pies. The cast also includes Joanna Cassidy, who in a just universe would have been a huge star.

Lily Tomlin plays the flaky woman who wants her cat back. Her SoCal shtick gets tired quickly, but then I’ve never warmed to Tomlin as a performer. The DVD’s sole extra is a clip of Tomlin appearing on the Dinah Shore show with some portion of the Doobie Brothers. (I don’t know how many Brothers there were, so I can’t tell if it’s all of them.) In the clip she refers to the film as a ‘spoof,’ which brings up my only problem with it. As enjoyable as THE LATE SHOW is, at times there’s an unmistakable whiff of parody about the proceedings. I get the same feeling watching 1973’s THE LONG GOODBYE, which was directed by this film’s producer Robert Altman. There’s a nagging sense that the filmmakers think of the genre as somewhat beneath them, that they heap on twist after twist more to satirize Raymond Chandler’s knotty storytelling than to keep the audience guessing. Which is unfortunate, because THE LATE SHOW’s plot ultimately resolves itself nicely.

It’s hard to imagine a movie like this being made in today’s youth-obsessed Hollywood, although Benton pulled it off with 1998’s TWILIGHT. Despite the presence of Paul Newman, Gene Hackman and an all-around stellar cast, that movie flopped at the box office. It has its moments, but it doesn’t crackle the way THE LATE SHOW does. Watch it to enjoy Art Carney in top form, and to pay tribute to Eugene Roche, an actor who improved everything he appeared in.

Tuesday, August 10, 2004

Video: The Point (1971)

When I was growing up, I must have watched this animated special every time it aired. It debuted on DVD a few months ago, and I realized I didn’t remember anything about it.

Other than the premise, which is admittedly hard to forget. In a village where everything has a point – including the heads of the villagers – a boy (voiced by Bobby Brady himself, Mike Lookinland) born with a normal head is ostracized and eventually banished because of it. Heavy stuff for a seven-year-old.

The show is definitely a product of its era, filled with counterculture thinking that dates it somewhat. It’s billed as a fable, but even on those terms it’s obvious and a bit repetitive. It would be tough getting a kid to sit through this today. And the ending doesn’t exactly make sense. Young Oblio returns to the village with the understanding that everything in life has a point. (I said it was obvious.) The evil Count removes Oblio’s hat and is shocked to see that now Oblio, too, has a point. Great. I’m with you so far. Then all the points in the village disappear, including the ones atop the people’s heads ... except for Oblio’s. I guess the poor little bastard is destined to be a freak no matter what.

I was at a loss to explain what I responded to in the show until the sequence with the giggling fat women dancing in the buff. Then it all came back to me. Nope, nothing inappropriately sexual here.

The animation by Fred Wolf, who would later work on the landmark TV special FREE TO BE ... YOU & ME, is witty and engaging. You can see the influence his style had on later artists like Bill Plympton. The redoubtable Paul Frees contributes wonderful voice work. But the music by Harry Nilsson holds the entire enterprise together. The DVD has an option that allows you to skip directly to each song. I should have taken advantage of it.

Dustin Hoffman narrated the original; in the home video release it’s Ringo Starr. According to the IMDb, one version featured narration by Alan Thicke. I’ll bet his take worked very well. Believe it or not, Thicke can be very funny. I have fond memories of his work as deluded local talk show host Dennis Dupree on the short-lived sitcom HOPE & GLORIA with Cynthia Stevenson.

Miscellaneous: Links

Salon’s Charles Taylor is an interesting film critic, even though I seldom agree with him. You’ll need a Salon day pass to read his latest piece on the budding cinema of dislocation, but it’s worth it. The essay convinced me to take a look at LARA CROFT: THE CRADLE OF LIFE, “the only adventure movie since THE MASK OF ZORRO that can be called romantic.” As if I need an excuse to watch Angelina Jolie.

Elsewhere, Dan Chiasson reviews the first wave of lad lit. TV Barn fears for the future of Trio. (Courtesy of GreenCine Daily.) And from Sarah Weinman, a great, far-ranging interview with espionage novelist Charles McCarry.

Monday, August 09, 2004

Video: Murder, My Sweet (1944)

At long last, my copy of Warner’s film noir collection has arrived. Expect me to wax rhapsodic about it over the coming weeks.

MURDER, MY SWEET is often cited as the movie that changed the perception of Dick Powell from song and dance man to dramatic actor. I can’t speak to that transformation, because I pretty much only know the latter incarnation. Particularly his performance as the writer convinced he can resist the charms of producer Kirk Douglas in THE BAD AND THE BEAUTIFUL. Seeing Powell burst into song, now that would throw me off. Powell later claimed to be the person who convinced Ronald Reagan to become a Republican. If that’s true, it’s his most lasting contribution to history.

He makes a splendid Philip Marlowe in this adaptation of Raymond Chandler’s FAREWELL, MY LOVELY. He handles voiceover and world-weary quips with aplomb, although he’s helped along with great dialogue courtesy of Chandler and screenwriter John Paxton. Marlowe is no iconic character here, but a man trying to earn a living. Money is his primary motivation; as Marlowe says, he’s “a small businessman in a dirty business.”

1944 was a critical year for film noir; DOUBLE INDEMNITY and LAURA were also in theaters. Director Edward Dmytryk seems to be drafting the noir playbook as he goes. Many of the trademarks are already in place with this film: the high contrast cinematography, the paranoid sense that the protagonist is and always will be several steps behind his enemies. Dmytryk uses a few arresting visual tricks to convey Marlowe’s state of mind. Cobwebs obscuring the image, black pools bubbling up to drown the world in darkness.

For those keeping score, Marlowe is hit on the head twice and passes out a third time. Another noir staple. Maybe I’ll keep a running tab on blackouts for the whole collection and post the results here.

Graphic Novel: Hench, by Adam Beechen and Manny Bello (2004)

Comic book stores always provoke an odd reticence in me. So do shops that specialize in classical music or jazz, for that matter. I’m always convinced that I’ll be found wanting by the staff and the handful of devoted customers forever milling around the counter, swapping opinions. These stores come across as the province of experts, who speak in a language all their own, clotted with references I don’t understand.

It’s a foolish notion, I know. Who cares if you’re shown up in front of a bunch of geeks? On top of that, it almost never happens. Yes, you occasionally run into a clerk who’s like Jack Black in HIGH FIDELITY. But for the most part, they’re like Todd Louiso in HIGH FIDELITY. Enthusiastic. Eager to share their knowledge. Bald.

It helps when you have something specific to look for. The idea behind HENCH is so simple and so brilliant, I’m amazed it hasn’t been done before: a superhero story told from the point of view of a supervillain’s henchman, one of those masked nobodies who gets roughed up as a prelude to the big showdown. “A regular guy in funny pants.” Like Mike Fulton, a former college football star with a bum knee who starts henching as a way to pay the bills. The book includes amazing full-page panels done in the style of various comic art legends, like Steve Ditko and Joe Shuster.

Funny how in all the recent Marvel superhero movies (SPIDER-MAN, DAREDEVIL) there haven’t been any henchmen. Union troubles, maybe. In the BATMAN movies, the heavies always had a few goons around. And Ned Beatty played the most famous of henchmen, Lex Luthor’s Otis, in the SUPERMAN films. Could be henchmen are more of a D.C. Comics thing.

Sunday, August 08, 2004

Movie: Collateral (2004)

Michael Mann has done the impossible: he’s made an entire movie set in Los Angeles where the primary modes of transportation are a taxi and the subway. This film may do more to improve smog conditions than the Prius.

Mann is an Oscar-nominated, world-class director, but he made his bones on the crime beat: MIAMI VICE, THIEF, RED DRAGON. (Call it MANHUNTER if you want, but we all know it deserves Thomas Harris’ title.) It’s good to have him back. COLLATERAL is a fleet, supple and alluring thriller. For Mann, it practically qualifies as a romp. He doesn’t strain for significance here, as he occasionally did in 1995’s epic cops-and-robbers drama HEAT. He simply takes a crackerjack premise – a hit man in town for one night forces a cab driver to become his accomplice – and pushes it as far as it can go.

The director’s unerring eye for casting makes it easier. Tom Cruise’s greatest strength as an actor has always been his self-awareness. He knows he can’t camouflage his own intensity, so he often chooses roles where it becomes integral to the character (MAGNOLIA, JERRY MAGUIRE). Leave it to Mann to realize that Cruise’s superhuman drive would make him a truly merciless sociopath. Cruise is up to the challenge. Instead of turning off his legendary smile, he employs it to chilling effect, wielding it like a samurai sword.

Jamie Foxx has a far more difficult task: to make a man whose sole defining quality is his innate decency compelling. He pulls it off without seeming to break a sweat. Foxx was terrific in ANY GIVEN SUNDAY and ALI, and on the basis of the trailer alone, I’m ready to give him the Oscar for his work as Ray Charles in Taylor Hackford’s biopic.

Mann directs like a master jazz man, allowing plenty of other great actors – Mark Ruffalo, Javier Bardem, Irma P. Hall – to jam for a while, going off on crazy riffs that bring you back to the melody in surprising ways. It goes without saying that the movie is a treat to look at; Mann’s stylishness is on full, glorious display here, Cruise’s monochromatically gray appearance being only the most obvious example. He filmed 80% of the movie on high-definition digital video, on the theory that those cameras “see better” in the dark. The results are up on the screen. The night itself is alive under Mann’s gaze. Watching this movie, you’re getting a glimpse of the future of the medium.

Miscellaneous: Links

The people behind Trivial Pursuit have declared my adopted hometown of Seattle the quintessential city of the ‘90s. It’s official: I’m living in the past. When an honor is bestowed on you by Kato Kaelin, you know it’s going to stick. I walked past the Trivial Pursuit time capsule yesterday. I didn’t see Kato or Nancy Kerrigan, but I did encounter a Bono lookalike. And a guy dressed as Austin Powers screamed “Shagadelic!” into my face.

Meanwhile, my actual hometown of New York City has a bigger show than the Republican National Convention to deal with as Lebowski Fest rolls into town.

Miscellaneous: Meaningless Milestone

This is my 100th post. Free coffee and donuts in the back of the hall.

Friday, August 06, 2004

Movie: Grosse Pointe Blank (1997)

Here’s one that should be on that underrated list. (For that matter, so should another movie directed by George Armitage, MIAMI BLUES.) When I first saw this gleaming black comedy about a hit man attending his high school reunion, I shrugged it off as “pretty good” rather than admitting how close to home it struck. Every time I see it, it cuts a little deeper.

Part of the reason is the presence of John Cusack, whom I have long regarded as my cinematic doppelganger. Some guys think they’re Steve McQueen, I think I’m Cusack. We’re so much alike that it’s uncanny. Honest. One Christmas Joan sent me a sweater by mistake. It was awkward.

It doesn’t help that Cusack’s character Martin Blank is exactly my age. We’re both members of the Class of ’86, so his issues were very much my own at the time. The soundtrack conjures up uncommonly vivid memories, which is probably why I never bought it.

Ultimately, the movie works because it’s truly funny, blending rat-a-tat Preston Sturges-style dialogue with a gonzo sensibility. It’s one of the only films to make good use of Dan Aykroyd, here playing an assassin who wants to start a union. Cusack’s frequent costar Jeremy Piven shines, but it helps that he’s given great lines. He calls the reunion the “‘I’ve-peaked-and-I’m-kidding-myself’ party,” and greets Cusack thusly: “You look good, man. You look Tony Robbins good.” Cusack’s relationship with his psychiatrist (a perfectly cast Alan Arkin) predates THE SOPRANOS and is also depicted more realistically, in that the doctor lives in constant fear of his patient. And the movie was filmed during that brief window when Minnie Driver was at her most crushworthy.

I was in high school when John Hughes was cranking out the movies that are now oddly venerated. (Shortly before leaving the New York Times, Elvis Mitchell called Hughes the one genuine auteur of ‘80s cinema. I’m sure his departure from the paper was in no way related to that statement.) I wasn’t really a Hughes fan, probably because I couldn’t wait to get out of high school. I can still remember attending a party at a friend’s house to watch the just-released videotape of THE BREAKFAST CLUB. I was the only person there who hadn’t seen it. I thought it was an amusing if obvious piece of fluff. I certainly didn’t swoon over it, the way everyone else did. Although I pretended to, because there were girls there.

Watching this movie again, I finally understand that reaction, the sense that someone has taken your own thoughts and emotions and explained them to you. GROSSE POINTE BLANK is my SIXTEEN CANDLES, released a decade late.

Miscellaneous: Link

My dream job, available at last.

Thursday, August 05, 2004

Book: Sunset and Sawdust, by Joe R. Lansdale (2004)

The champion mojo storyteller’s latest is a corker, set in a Depression-era East Texas lumber camp. The beautiful Sunset Jones shoots her no-good husband in the head with his own gun during a cyclone, then inherits his job as constable. Things get a mite twisted from there.

If the plot synopsis isn’t enough to pique your interest, I’ll let Joe’s words do the job. A spider walks across water “as if imitating Jesus in a hurry,” and one of the characters is “big enough to go alligator hunting with strong language.” I’d cite a few other examples, but they’re a tad, um, earthy.

TV Movie: Bet Your Life

Billy Zane has one of the stranger résumés in Hollywood. He’s the secondary villain in TITANIC, after the iceberg. (Talk about sad ends to careers. Somebody should have told that ‘berg that a dip in the grotto at Hef’s pad isn’t always a good idea.) And now Zane is appearing in a TV movie with contest winners.

This umpteenth variation on ‘The Most Dangerous Game’ is the culmination of NBC’s NEXT ACTION STAR, a series I did not see one minute of. My policy on reality TV: finales only. I saw everyone get fired on THE APPRENTICE, but I have no idea if it was for cause. Joel Silver produced ACTION STAR as a way to bring back the halcyon days of the ‘80s, when he-men heroes like Van Damme and Seagal were a separate and inexpensive breed.

The male winner, Sean Carrigan, does not understand the concept of eye contact. The female winner looks like a fembot version of Tori Spelling, as redundant/terrifying/intoxicating as that may sound. She has been blessed with the name Corinne van Ryck de Groot. Which is even fun to type. Corinne van Ryck de Groot. I want her to become famous so I can continue saying it. I want to spend the next several years baffling video store clerks with the query, “Do you have the latest Corinne van Ryck de Groot movie?”

Zane fares well here, but so would any pro acting opposite amateurs. I always thought his performance in TITANIC was amusing. He was asked to do a Snidely Whiplash-style caricature, and he delivered. (His valet was David Warner, for God’s sake. How many hints do you need?) I may be the only person who enjoyed the 1996 movie THE PHANTOM, with Zane as Lee Falk’s costumed hero.

Here’s a free tip for NBC executives: switch the prizes on your reality shows. The winner of LAST COMIC STANDING has to outrun fireballs in a slapdash TV movie about a stolen microchip, while the beefcake crowned NEXT ACTION STAR must do five minutes of observational humor. The one who fares worst has to marry my dad.

Miscellaneous: Titles

Thanks to Michael Mann’s latest, I can now program a second night in my Interlocking Titles Film Festival.

Night #1: Basic, Instinct, Basic Instinct
Night #2: Collateral, Damage, Collateral Damage

Let me know if there are any I’ve overlooked.

Wednesday, August 04, 2004

Video: Arlington Road (1999)

This movie didn’t impress when I saw it on its initial release, but I revisited it for two reasons. The great Eddie Muller, in the film noir primer he wrote for GreenCine Daily, names it a favorite recent example of the form. He calls it “timely and timeless, an insightful thriller that didn’t cop out at the end.” It’s also one of the few studio films about terrorism made in the wake of the Oklahoma City bombing. I wanted to see how it held up after 9/11.

The answer is: not very well, for the same reasons I didn’t like the film the first time. Jeff Bridges plays a widowed college professor and single dad who slowly becomes suspicious of his new neighbors (Tim Robbins, Joan Cusack). The script demands that one character be able to predict how another will react at every turn. Credibility goes out the window in a hurry. Plus Bridges’ character is too unstable from the get-go, ranting to his students about government excesses, taking them on a field trip to the site where his FBI agent wife was killed in a Ruby Ridge-style standoff. Working your spouse’s death into the curriculum is not the way to stay on the tenure track.

Eddie’s right about the ending. It’s bleak and uncompromising. But the movie’s length blunts its impact. You’ve got so much time to think about what’s going on that you can see the twist coming a mile off. And as much as I hate to disagree with an expert I revere, I’m not even sure that I’d classify the movie as noir.

Considering how upfront Robbins has always been about his politics, is casting him as a potential right-wing extremist intended as some kind of statement? Or a joke?

Director Mark Pellington does conjure up quite an atmosphere of dread, a feat he repeated in his follow-up movie, 2002’s THE MOTHMAN PROPHECIES. With the right script, he could scare the bejesus out of everyone. Although arguably he already did that in the video he shot for Pearl Jam’s “Jeremy.”

Movie Preview: Suspect Zero

More serial killer hooey, although with a solid cast (Ben Kingsley, Aaron Eckhart) directed by E. Elias Merhige, who made the ubercreepy SHADOW OF THE VAMPIRE. But the movie indulges in one of my cinematic bête noires: the on-the-nose code name. According to the trailer, SUSPECT ZERO’s plot touches on a top-secret remote viewing experiment known as ... Project Icarus. A partial transcript from a staff meeting follows:

Official #1: What are we going to call this program to push human experience to its very limits?
Official #2: How about we name it after the mythological figure who flew too close to the sun and plunged to his death?
Official #1: Done! Next on the agenda, copying costs.

The worst example of this occurs in the movie version of JUDGE DREDD. (I was a fan of the comic book, all right?) Eggheads set up a cloning protocol called ... the Janus Project. And are then surprised when it produces twins, one good, one evil. I told myself that they changed the project name retroactively so they could pretend they saw it coming.

This Slate article explains the procedure the military uses to come up with code names. Sometimes the results can be confusing. I initially thought Operation Nimrod Dancer (Panama, 1989) was a reference to Deney Terrio.

Miscellaneous: Links

In the Atlantic, Eric Alterman explores Hollywood’s connection to the Democratic party. The Don Rickles fan site thehockeypuck.com says that the videotape I mentioned yesterday is on file at the Museum of Television and Radio. I was just there two weeks ago. Had I but known.

Tuesday, August 03, 2004

Website: Overlooked Films of the 1990s

Prepare to waste some time. The list of 100 movies, assembled by the Online Film Critics Society, can be found here. (All praise to GreenCine Daily for the link.)

There are a few titles that I’ll be adding to my Netflix queue, but it no doubt says something about my taste that I’ve seen most of these movies. Many of them more than once.

The Coen Brothers’ MILLER’S CROSSING deservedly tops the roster. #2 is Todd Haynes’ gut-wrenching drama SAFE. I still can’t fathom that Julianne Moore was not nominated for an Oscar for her performance. Atom Egoyan’s THE SWEET HEREAFTER is #3.

My top two choices, ZERO EFFECT and Neil Jordan’s adaptation of the Pat McCabe novel THE BUTCHER BOY, come in at #19 and 20, respectively. Other personal favorites stud the list: JOE VS. THE VOLCANO, MATINEE, QUICK CHANGE, TOPSY-TURVY. I do have to quibble with the inclusion of GLENGARRY GLEN ROSS. Don’t get me wrong, I love the movie. But I don’t see how you can consider it overlooked when every male under the age of 35 can quote the script verbatim. Will you go to lunch?

Book: The Middle of Nowhere, by Bob Sloan (2003)

This was my first book by Sloan, and I enjoyed it. Lenny Bliss and his family are great characters. The plot revolves around the ruthlessness of upper-crust New York teenagers, a subject Sloan handles with skill.

But it’s also the latest book I’ve read that badly needed a copy editor. There were enough dropped words, incorrect pronouns and switched character names to prove distracting. Then there’s the error that may not be an error. One of the characters compares his life to “Lennigan versus the ants,” a reference to the classic Carl Stephenson story ‘Leiningen versus the Ants.’ We haven’t spent much time with the character at this point, but we get the sense that he’s a buffoon. Maybe his getting the title wrong is another hint. But I’m not entirely sure.

I remember being assigned Stephenson’s story in school and thinking, “A guy fighting a relentless army of insects? This is homework?” Later that year we read Richard Connell’s ‘The Most Dangerous Game.’ Obviously, that class was an academic high point. ‘Leiningen’ was filmed as THE NAKED JUNGLE (1954), one of the many movies in which Charlton Heston wears a neckerchief. All I remember about it, aside from the neckerchief, are the ants.

Magazine: The New Yorker, 8/2 issue

From Zoë Heller’s profile of comedian Don Rickles:

“A video that he released in 1975 called ‘Buy This Tape, You Hockey Puck’ gives a poignant glimpse of his frustrated thespian aspirations. In among excerpts from his Vegas act, various comic skits, and a big musical number with Michele Lee, there is a jarringly sober ten-minute scene from ‘Inherit the Wind,’ with Rickles playing the impassioned William Jennings Bryan character and Jack Klugman playing the Clarence Darrow character.”

I have a new mission in life.

Miscellaneous: Link

At Out of Focus, Aaron writes a love letter to Turner Classic Movies’ August schedule. Which means I don’t have to.

Monday, August 02, 2004

Movie: The Bourne Supremacy (2004)

Does that title actually mean anything?

Fun movie, though. It’s a marked improvement over the original. It still has the same problem THE BOURNE IDENTITY had, which is that the stakes aren’t high enough. If Matt Damon fails in his mission, then the worst that will happen is ... he’ll be killed. The forces of evil won’t prevail, they’ll just get a little richer. In a spy thriller, I expect something more to be hanging in the balance.

Matt Damon continues to impress in the role, but the real star here is director Paul Greengrass. His 2002 film BLOODY SUNDAY may be the best I’ve seen in this still-young decade. The techniques he used to create a savage immediacy in that movie are employed here to great effect, recreating Bourne’s thought processes. Everything comes to him in flashes and shards of memory. Unlike many of today’s ADD-afflicted action directors, Greengrass makes his edits as part of a design rather than a way to keep the audience awake. The movie wraps up with a kick-ass car chase through the streets and tunnels of Moscow that goes on the list of greats.

TV: American Candidate

This Showtime series is a political version of SURVIVOR. Ten people who want to run for President compete in weekly competitions. The winner receives $200,000 and a chance to ‘address the nation.’ I assume that means you get 20 minutes right before the season premiere of THE L WORD.

I mention the show only because it turns out I went to high school with one of the ten finalists, activist Keith Boykin. Oddly enough, this is the second time a former classmate has turned up on a reality TV show. During the L.A. season of MTV’s THE REAL WORLD, I saw an old college friend answering phones in Roger Corman’s office. Rosemarie wants to know how I could end up seeing two of my classmates on TV when she went to school four years more than I did and has yet to see even one. What can I say? I ran with a flamboyant (read: needy) crowd.

Miscellaneous: Links

Silly me. I should have known that Harlan Ellison would have weighed in on I, ROBOT. He does so here. And Michael Chabon finally says what he thinks about SPIDER-MAN 2, for which he received story credit. Surfergirl, aka Liz Penn, aka Dana Stevens, recounts a Ted Koppel/Jon Stewart smackdown I wish I’d seen. And it turns out that the brainwashing method used in the original MANCHURIAN CANDIDATE actually was The Method.

Sunday, August 01, 2004

Movie: The Manchurian Candidate (2004)

John Huston didn’t see the point of remaking of good movies when there are bad ones waiting to be improved. Sound advice from the man who had the third crack at THE MALTESE FALCON. But Hollywood is first and foremost a business. A little pre-sell never hurts.

I came to terms with the idea of a new CANDIDATE for two reasons. First, the 1962 version, directed by John Frankheimer and adapted from Richard Condon’s novel by George Axelrod, is so peerless that comparing any movie to it is inherently unfair. And second, God knows there’s enough going on in the world to give the story relevance.

So it’s purely on its own terms that Jonathan Demme’s remake is an utter failure.

As the lights went down, I realized that I hadn’t seen one of Demme’s movies in the theater since PHILADELPHIA over ten years ago. It’s as if the impact THE SILENCE OF THE LAMBS had on audiences frightened him. That film’s writer Ted Tally has said that he turned to Demme after an early screening and asked why all that power and craft couldn’t be put in service of, say, IT’S A WONDERFUL LIFE. Demme seems to have taken the question to heart. Every movie since has been crippled by the director’s oppressive good will. (A deleted scene included on the DVD of THE TRUTH ABOUT CHARLIE proves the point. One of that film’s poorly defined villains gets shot – by accident, natch – and we see her dying vision of her mother waking her up. Any filmmaker who would even consider using this moment has no business directing suspense, even of the romantic comedy variety.)

There’s a new heavy in the 2004 CANDIDATE. The brainwashing is now being done by the evil conglomerate Manchurian Global. It’s a hackneyed idea, for starters; as Jamie Weinman points out on his blog, corporations are the standard villain in most Hollywood movies now, primarily because Hollywood movies are made by them. It’s an easy way to avoid offending any segment of the public. What’s worse is this plot twist is completely nonsensical. Manchurian Global, we’re repeatedly told, already has the ear of those in charge. Why muck about with implantable microchips and assassinations when you’re landing every government contract? Why own the presidency when it’s cheaper to lease?

Manchurian Global’s muddled plan also drains the movie of suspense. It’s hard to get worked up over a conspiracy that can be unraveled via Google.

WARNING: political rant approaching.

Having a corporation be the villain is just another example of the movie’s lazy, left-wing bias. Casting Al Franken as a TV reporter is not only not funny, it’s a way of tacitly telling half of the potential audience, “You’re not welcome here.” Other prominent liberals turn up as pundits. The film’s idea of being inclusive is having Meryl Streep play a Gorgonized version of Hillary Clinton; it’s funny, the movie says as it elbows us in the ribs, because we all know our Hil isn’t really like that.

I want to avoid comparisons to the original, but the 1962 version had a darkly comic take on politics that was only slightly exaggerated from the era’s Cold War hysteria. Demme’s version is tone-deaf when it comes to the subject. Tossing in references to faulty touch screens and the American incursion in Indonesia does not mean you are engaging with the vital issues of the day. Even the little things are wrong; no Presidential candidate, not even Reagan, would sign off on a poster that has his face appearing on Mount Rushmore. (If it’s intended as satirical, it’s too little, too late.) And the idea that Raymond Shaw (Liev Schrieber) would be named running mate is totally implausible. A two-term Congressman? Representing New York City? Who hasn’t had a long-term relationship in his adult life? And you thought Dan Quayle was an easy target.

For the most part, the new CANDIDATE has gotten positive reviews. It currently has an 83% approval rating on Rotten Tomatoes. (I know, it’s far from scientific. But I work with what I have.) Maybe the critical establishment is giving Demme’s film a pass because they genuinely like it. Maybe they want movies to matter the way they did in the ‘70s, when pulp thrillers like CHINATOWN and THE CONVERSATION spoke to the tenor of the times. Or maybe Demme’s movie plays to their own politics enough to blind them to its evident flaws. (Jesus. I sound like Bill O’Reilly.) I have my staunchly-held beliefs, too. I’d like to think that they wouldn’t prevent me from doing my job, whether that’s making a thriller that includes a few thrills or calling out a once-favored director when he doesn’t.