Friday, April 30, 2004

Miscellaneous: Links

The New Republic goes stargazing at L.A.'s Kabbalah Centre. And don’t let anyone tell you that comedy is not a weapon. Make sure you look at the photos; the mullah in question (didn't Wodehouse write that?) would like them destroyed.

Video: Real Life (1979)

Albert Brooks’ first feature-length film. For some reason, it’s never on TV. I’m surprised it’s not better known considering Brooks’ reputation (MODERN ROMANCE and LOST IN AMERICA are among the only high points of 1980s movie comedy) and its subject matter (a send-up of PBS’ ‘An American Family,’ making this an early satire of reality television).

Brooks plays himself in the movie – or as he puts it, the character of ‘comedian Albert Brooks’ – and it’s a fearless performance. His attempts to document the lives of a typical American family headed by Charles Grodin collapse under his own neuroses; he’s on screen more than they are. There are plenty of great gags, a number of them involving the cutting-edge technology used in making the film. (“Only six of these cameras were ever made. Only five of them ever worked. We had four of those.”)

The subject may be topical, but the approach is practically quaint. Brooks’ subject family slowly cracks under the strain of appearing on camera. That would never happen now. Most Americans expect to have some portion of their lives captured for posterity. In that sense, REAL LIFE was startlingly prescient; it knew 25 years ago that someday everyone in the country would act like comedian Albert Brooks.

The movie’s trailer is sheer genius. It’s a three-and-a-half minute short that Brooks insists is in 3-D, and it contains no clips from the movie. It should be required viewing for anyone in studio marketing departments.

TV: Thursdays at 9PM

Or, where quality TV goes to die. As if airing a show in network television’s most-watched hour is a sign of faith. This is where Fox banished WONDERFALLS before it went to the big timeslot in the sky. Currently, ABC is burning off the run of STEPHEN KING’S KINGDOM HOSPITAL here.

Not that I helped the situation. I saw ten minutes of one episode of WONDERFALLS, and I was intrigued by the opening of last night’s KINGDOM but flipped away. I told Rosemarie that I’d watch both shows if I had TiVo, and she quite rightly called me a liar. If I had TiVo, not only would I not watch these shows, I’d never use the equipment.

Part of the reason I migrated away from network TV (Number of non-animated broadcast series I currently watch: zero) is that with cable’s multiple airings you can usually catch shows at your convenience. But once liberated from the tyranny of the programming schedule, it’s amazing how little TV you actually watch. On Demand has only made it worse; now that can I order up the latest episode of DEADWOOD free of charge any time I like, I’m running two shows behind with no real incentive to catch up. The technology isn’t in broad use yet. Once it is, the broadcast networks will be unable to resist it. At that point, the business model of television will change forever. The industry will be in the same straits that the music business is now. But what do I know? I’ve never made it through an episode of FRIENDS.

What did I watch in this timeslot last night? Spike TV’s MOST EXTREME ELIMINATION CHALLENGE. A Japanese game show hosted by ‘Beat’ Takeshi, redubbed by comedians. Tragic, I know, with KINGDOM HOSPITAL going begging for viewers. But any show that can make Rosemarie cry out “Aw, dude!” can’t be bad.

Music: Nintendo Cover Band

Ever wish you’d thought of an idea that also scares you? Happens to me a lot.

Thursday, April 29, 2004

TV: The Saint (1967)

Roger Moore always seemed more at ease in this series, now being rerun on BBC America, than he did in the role of James Bond. The plot of yesterday’s episode, Simon Templar versus the Loch Ness Monster, had a certain SCOOBY DOO quality (“And I would have gotten away with it if it weren’t for that meddling international playboy”), but it was still more plausible than MOONRAKER.

The show is so old-fashioned that it seems cutting edge; nothing but character actors and not a CSI tech in sight. It reminded me of an article I read through Lee Goldberg’s website about the changing nature of TV crime dramas that’s worth checking out.

TV: Boohbah

I can only hope that my future cardiologist is not watching this show.

TV Commercial: Godsend, starring Robert DeNiro

“You think you can just open Pandora’s box and then just close it again?” I just decided to skip this movie just because of that line of dialogue.

TV: TV Land Moguls

Quinn Martin was one person? Whenever I heard that name during the credits of THE STREETS OF SAN FRANCISCO, I assumed it was two guys. I suppose the next thing this show will try to tell me is that Efram Zimbalist Junior is one person.

Book: The Big Book of Talking Dirty (2003)

Life may have been rougher back in the mid-sixteenth century, but they certainly knew how to use the language. A hanging was known as “blessing the world with one’s heels.” Here’s a late eighteenth century toast I’m trying to bring back: “Both ends of the busk!” A busk is a corset, so its upper end is at the breasts while its lower end ... is not.

I’d share a few more entries, but this book is positively filthy. You should see the cartoons.

Miscellaneous: Links

The preceding strikes even me as a tad superficial, so let me steer you toward the indispensable Arts & Letters Daily. Plenty to read there, including Mother Jones bagging on bloggers. Also, here’s Lawrence Block’s controversial essay on book signings. It’s irritating a lot of people, which can only be a good thing.

Wednesday, April 28, 2004

TV: Staccato (1959)

Aka JOHNNY STACCATO. Trio is airing episodes of this show as part of its ‘Brilliant But Cancelled’ series. I’ll give them the latter part; I suppose ‘Engaging But Cancelled’ doesn’t have the same zip.

John Cassavetes plays the title role, a New York jazz pianist who moonlights, or daylights, as a private eye. Elmer Bernstein provides the score. Last night’s episode also featured a young Gena Rowlands. Cassavetes’ accomplishments as a director tend to overshadow his work as an actor; he conveyed a certain kind of New York energy better than almost anyone. His performance in ROSEMARY’S BABY, as an actor more concerned with his career than his wife’s pregnancy, is a highlight of the film.

If you’re christened Johnny Staccato (and I have to assume that’s the case; nobody who took that as a stage name would get within a mile of Greenwich Village), aren’t you fated to become a jazz pianist/private eye? Someone with that handle is unlikely to go into plumbing or neurosurgery.

Video: The Last of Sheila (1973)

The manager of the theater where I worked in high school talked this movie up constantly. It had fallen out of circulation on video, but he had a copy that he’d taped off TV in the dead of night. When I asked to borrow it, he said no and never mentioned it again. Over the years I would run into others who numbered it among their favorites, and I was convinced they were doing so only to annoy me. A mystery written by Stephen Sondheim and Anthony Perkins and I couldn’t see it? Was there no justice? But at long last, SHEILA has finally debuted on DVD.

James Coburn is a wealthy movie producer who invites a coterie of friends to join him on a Mediterranean cruise. A desperate screenwriter and his wife, a has-been director, a brittle superagent, a vacuous starlet and her boy toy. Coburn promises a trip full of games, and he’s not kidding. He believes one of his guests is responsible for the death of Sheila, a call girl turned gossip columnist. And he’s willing to reveal the secrets he’s ferreted out about all of them in order to expose the killer. Think of it as THE MOLE meets THE BAD AND THE BEAUTIFUL.

The plot mechanics are solid, on par with a good episode of COLUMBO. But what makes the movie work is its thick aura of decadence. Every character is rich and despicable, but some are more despicable than others. You’re rooting for comeuppances all around. The disc features a commentary track with costars Richard Benjamin, Dyan Cannon and Raquel Welch, but I’m afraid to listen to it.

I suspect that the movie will remain a cult favorite even though it’s now readily available; the bitter taste is only for certain palates. Which should make my old boss very happy. Sometimes you want a movie not to fail, but to miss the mainstream by a considerable margin. That way, you can call it your own.

Newspapers: Variety and The Hollywood Reporter

Some days it’s tough to read the trades. Today’s papers include articles about remakes of THE POSEIDON ADVENTURE, BEYOND A REASONABLE DOUBT (Fritz Lang’s last American film), SWISS FAMILY ROBINSON (again), and LAST HOLIDAY (with Queen Latifah in the Alec Guinness role). About all that makes it worthwhile are sentences like the following, from a story about the hunt for Tom Cruise’s co-star in MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE 3.

“Casting for the part had generated extensive submissions of ingénue types from Hollywood tenpercenteries.”

The role, by the way, went to Scarlett Johansson.

Movie: Beyond The Valley Of The Dolls (1970)

IFC has been showing the Russ Meyer/Roger Ebert opus now that its original X rating has been downgraded to NC-17. I caught the ending again last night.

Jesus, is this movie nuts.

Tuesday, April 27, 2004

TV Commercial:

The latest advertisement for an online store to feature a vast white space filling with durable goods available for purchase. Screw bullet time and wire work, this is the real legacy of the MATRIX movies: they’ve provided a visual metaphor for the Internet as engine of commerce.

Magazine: Entertainment Weekly #762/763

Lindsey West offers a quiz on potential titles for remixes of Jay-Z’s ‘The Black Album.’ The answer to the question ‘Jay-Z + The Three Stooges = ?’ is ‘The Nyack Nyack Nyack Album.’ It’s my understanding that the accepted spelling of Curly’s immortal chuckle is ‘Nyuk Nyuk Nyuk.’ Nyack is the New York town where Rosie O’Donnell used to live. It’s a subtle but key distinction.

TV Movie: Stealing Sinatra (2004)

On more than one occasion, I’ve watched a movie and thought, “That should have been a documentary.” My reaction to this Showtime film about the kidnapping of Frank Sinatra, Jr. was, “That would’ve made a great VANITY FAIR article.” For all I know, it already has. There’s a solid foundation to build on: the parallels between Barry Keenan (again, no relation), whose sense of self has been warped by attending high school in Los Angeles with the children of celebrities, and Frank Jr., trying to establish his own identity while trading on his name. But the movie’s tone is too erratic. It doesn’t settle into a consistent rhythm until the very end.

There’s a surprisingly affectionate portrait of Frank Jr., whose career derailed amidst allegations that he’d staged the kidnapping to generate publicity. And William H. Macy continues to wring endless variations from his sad sack persona. Here he plays a man who has grudgingly accepted the fact that he has made so many wrong turns in his life that no one will take his advice even when he’s right. He has a great moment when he hangs up the phone after Sinatra has cursed at him during one of the ransom calls. “Lotta bad language today,” he says sadly.

Character actor Sam McMurray (RAISING ARIZONA, THE TRACEY ULLMAN SHOW) has a small role as the FBI agent leading the investigation. If John Kerry is elected president come November, Sam has at least four years of solid work ahead of him. He’s a dead ringer for the Senator. I can’t find a current picture of him on the Web, so you’ll have to trust me on this.

TV: Larry King Live, 4/26

The caption during the show read, “Ann-Margret and Andy Williams: Together Again After 42 Years!” Good news, to be sure, but I’m not certain that exclamation point is warranted.

Larry’s been doing a lot of these shows lately (“Miss Kim Novak for the hour”), which is better than yet another panel of screaming lawyers rehashing the Kobe Bryant or Laci Peterson cases. But CNN shouldn’t be surprised that Fox News is kicking its ass in the ratings when the heart of its prime-time line-up is a big-name version of ‘The Joe Franklin Show.’

Monday, April 26, 2004

Website Update: Practice

In the Frame, my column of book and DVD reviews from Mystery*File, is now available. Check it out.

Video: Dr. Seuss’ The Cat In The Hat (2003)

It may be unfair to deem a movie unwatchable after sampling only twenty minutes of it. Particularly when that sampling takes place a.) on a moving train, b.) without sound, and c.) on a TV with the words ‘Amtrak Cascades’ permanently burned into the screen. But I’m comfortable with my decision.

Store: Powell’s City of Books, Portland, Oregon

A dusty cathedral dedicated to the glory of the written word. A host of angels sang in my head as I entered. They kept singing as I purchased a copy of Dan J. Marlowe’s THE NAME OF THE GAME IS DEATH and several of Richard S. Prather’s Shell Scott paperbacks, but they weren’t happy about it.

Movie: Bon Voyage (2004)

A comic CASABLANCA, an Alan Furst novel played for laughs. As the Germans roll into Paris in 1940, all of le beau monde converges on a hotel in Bordeaux. Among the refugees are France’s greatest film star (Isabelle Adjani), whose flighty demeanor masks a ruthless ability to bend men to her will, and the swains helplessly in her thrall: a minister in the embattled government (Gerard Depardieu), an English journalist covering the war (Peter Coyote), and a callow writer (Gregori Derangere) who had been in jail for a crime his lover committed. The film’s action unfolds primarily on the night that Marshal Pétain becomes premier and capitulates to the Nazis. The three men battle for Adjani’s affections and for France’s supply of heavy water, guarded in part by the always-luminous Virginie Ledoyen and a criminal rogue played by Yvan Attal as the personification of élan.

There is something not just uplifting but life-affirming about watching people dither over lovers and clothes at the very moment that the world is about to slip perhaps permanently into shadow. An American movie about these events would be ponderous. BON VOYAGE is lighter than air and all the more moving because of it. The French have gotten a bad rap lately, but you have to say this for them: they know that desserts can have sophisticated tastes, and that they are often the most memorable part of the meal.

Play: Fully Committed, by Becky Mode (1999), Portland Center Stage Theater

A one-man show that deftly avoids the many pitfalls of the form. Mark Setlock, on whose experiences the play is based, directs and stars. COMMITTED is set in the seedy basement of the white-hot New York restaurant of the moment, where the title is a euphemism for ‘booked up.’ Setlock plays Sam, the struggling actor who mans the reservations desk, as well as everyone who calls in: nattering socialites, clueless out-of-towners, harried coworkers. The piece has a real structure to it but gives Setlock plenty of room to showcase his gift for mimicry. Special credit to Mode for funniest use of the word ‘bitter.’

Video: The Young Black Stallion (2003)

Wasn’t this an IMAX movie? That would explain the extra headroom in some of the shots. Otherwise it looked fine on TV – except for the words ‘Amtrak Cascades’ permanently burned into the screen.

Friday, April 23, 2004

Video: In the Cut (2003)

Once I would rush out to see whatever movie had the hoi polloi in an uproar. Then I realized that most of these films are exercises in provocation that seldom live up to the hype. So now I usually catch ‘em on video. Come back in six months and watch me get het up about THE PASSION OF THE CHRIST and DOGVILLE long after everyone else has forgotten them. I’m running one scandal behind.

Jane Campion’s erotic thriller is based on Susanna Moore’s novel. As a thriller, it’s a disaster. Campion can’t be bothered with basics like conveying the passage of time, so we never know how many hours or days have passed between scenes. Teacher Meg Ryan has sex with detective Mark Ruffalo while trying to make up her mind about whether he’s the killer he claims to be pursuing, and that’s the extent of the suspense. When Joe Eszterhas cranked out screenplays with that set-up nobody mistook them for art, and occasionally they were good, sleazy fun. Not here. Campion’s one of those directors who uses the thriller form because its flexibility allows her to plumb other issues. But she doesn’t follow the form’s rules. I doubt she even took the trouble to learn them.

You’re left, then, with the eroticism, and here the movie fails, too. There are eight million stories in the nearly naked city but Campion focuses on a hermetically-sealed group of five people, all of whom need serious face time with a therapist. The movie has an instinctive feel for New York: the oppressive summer heat, the ever-present scrim of ugliness punctuated by unlikely beauty. Campion, abetted by cinematographer Dion Beebe, crafts a marvelous look. Out of focus shots framed as if we’re peering at something we’re not supposed to see, arty flashbacks galore. But technique can’t fill in the blanks. Campion has worked out exactly how to say something before figuring out what she wants to say.

In just a few years, Mark Ruffalo has gone from obscurity to being the best thing about whatever movie he’s in. Fans of TOUGH CROWD WITH COLIN QUINN are in for a shock when they see regular Patrice O’Neal. Meg Ryan undeservedly took a lot of heat for her performance. The character of Frannie is never more than a vehicle to explore half-formed notions about sexual awakening. Nicole Kidman, who was to play the role and is credited here as producer, would have been a better choice. She has an uncanny ability to play directorial fantasias, giving human dimension to parts that are emblematic (as in EYES WIDE SHUT or MOULIN ROUGE). Ryan is a more grounded actress (you have to be in romantic comedy), and it’s in trying to fix Frannie in reality that she stumbles. Mumbling poetry in the subway, behaving inappropriately with her students; Ryan tries to weave these disparate threads together and only comes up with enough rope to hang herself. It doesn’t help that she employs the voice she used in another, far better movie, JOE VERSUS THE VOLCANO.

As for the much-ballyhooed nude scenes, all I could think was: that’s one well-toned public school teacher. Celebrities in the buff are like the concept cars at an auto show; they look like the heaps you’re used to, but it’s obvious that a lot more time and money has gone into them.

Music: Music Choice

A partial list of albums featured on my cable company’s “Light Classical” station:

Play Bach!; Build Your Baby’s Brain 5; Music For My Little Friends; Night Moods, Piano Dreams; Encore!; Werke Fur Gitarre; Build Your Baby’s Brain 3; Mad About Guitars; Railway Train Music, Volume 2.

Thursday, April 22, 2004

Book: The Turning, by Justin Scott (1978)

Scott’s epic thriller THE SHIP KILLER should have been turned into a movie ages ago; I’m afraid the chances of that happening now, in light of its subject matter, are slim. THE TURNING is about a religious cult’s takeover of a dying upstate New York town, and it reads like the best novel Stephen King never wrote. Great atmosphere, chilling ending, all written with a precision and concision that many contemporary best-selling authors could learn from.

But that’s not why I bring it up.

There are ads in the book. Actual cardboard inserts bound in along with the pages. One of them is for Kent Golden Light cigarettes, your low-tar choice. I’d forgotten that this used to be a common publishing practice. And I think it’s high time it was brought back. As a way of keeping costs down, it’s preferable to the new trend of authors striking product placement deals. If you don’t want to know about your low-tar options, you can simply turn the page.

Do they still make Kent Golden Lights? Brands never seem to disappear any more. Rosemarie was shocked to see Nicolas Cage buying fistfuls of Tareytons in MATCHSTICK MEN. She’d thought they’d gone out of business around the time her mother stopped smoking.

TV: Penn & Teller

The full title of this Showtime series is PENN & TELLER: BULLSHIT! It’s not in bold type because some of you might be reading this at work. Don’t say I never did anything for you.

The Vegas magicians debunk various subjects in 30 minutes or less. They tend to cast a wide net; in the episode focusing on safety, they tackled 9/11 paranoia, mad cow disease, school violence, cell phone anxiety and the futility of using paper toilet seat covers. I guess they have no fear of running out of material.

The best quality of the show is its sheer orneriness. With every media outlet treating alleged experts with kid gloves, it’s refreshing to watch them held up to ridicule. Raw footage shows relationship guru John Gray forcing his tortured Mars/Venus analogy into every single sentence, and catches THE RULES co-author Sherrie Schneider dispensing wisdom to clients over the phone (“Just pretend he’s dead”). Everything is scrupulously researched, then presented with a torrent of profanity.

Something this entertaining should be better known. I think I know why it’s not. The boys are libertarians with a profound hatred of junk science and a belief in nothing other than showmanship. They refuse to be pegged at either end of the political spectrum. They’ve gone after creationists and PETA, draconian drug laws and the environmental movement. Put another way, they’ve used both Ted Nugent and the ACLU as the voice of reason. That pretty much guarantees you a cult audience.

Music Video: Britney Spears, ‘Everytime’

Britney drowns in the bathtub and is reborn as a baby. I think. The sequence of events is a little murky. It turns out to have been a dream anyway. Stephen Dorff plays the abusive boyfriend who gives their room a Johnny Depp makeover. Sadly, I can’t tell if this marks a step up or a step down from his appearance in COLD CREEK MANOR.

Wednesday, April 21, 2004

TV: Jimmy Kimmel Live, 4/21

Ostensibly directed by Quentin Tarantino. Cue the self-congratulatory jokes and cartoonish violence. The ending was weirdly unsettling: Tarantino clapping by himself onstage, surrounded by a dead audience. (Not that I’m reading anything into that.) In the midst of the mayhem, there was a striking cutaway to a camera placed behind Jimmy’s desk, revealing the enormous monitor that dominates his view of the audience. It was a shot I’d never seen before, one that both lays bare the mechanics of a talk show and points out how staid the format is. Maybe they should bring QT back. As always, you can count on the old pros to deliver the goods:

Jimmy: So what are you working on now?
Steven Wright: I’m making a documentary about Ken Burns.

Music: ‘We Built This City,’ Starship (1985)

Blender magazine has crowned this the worst song ever recorded. I don’t know where to begin picking that decision apart. There are far worthier candidates in their 10 worst list (‘Don’t Worry, Be Happy,’ Eddie Murphy’s legendary ‘Party All The Time’), which doesn’t even tap the Michael Bolton discography. Besides, a DARPA project recently proved scientifically that the worst song ever recorded is ‘Shiny Shiny’ by Hayzee Fantayzee. I don’t even think ‘City’ is the worst song recorded by Starship. That would be ‘Nothing’s Gonna Stop Us Now’ from the movie MANNEQUIN.

TV Commercial: California Tourism (Find Yourself Here)

This ad campaign has been brought back with new shots of Governor Schwarzenegger and his wife. I still say they should have gone with my slogan:

California. America’s Best-Kept Secret.

Tuesday, April 20, 2004

Book: Dark City Dames, by Eddie Muller (2001)

Dames. Good word. And the right one for this excellent book. Muller profiles six actresses best known for their work in film noir: Coleen Gray, Jane Greer, Evelyn Keyes, Ann Savage, Audrey Totter and, be still my beating heart, Marie Windsor. The first half of the book focuses on the actresses during their heyday. Later, Muller catches up with them in fin de siècle Hollywood and reveals how their lives turned out.

A line from the book had personal resonance for me. “But the rules of Hollywood casting ... were maddeningly simple: woman + dark hair + too tall = villain.” My relationship with Rosemarie suddenly makes a great deal more sense.

DAMES is loaded with gossip on the likes of Howard Hughes and Oscar Levant, and it celebrates the brutal ingenuity of filmmakers like Edgar G. Ulmer. Mainly, it’s a chronicle of the remarkable journeys taken by these women. Jane Greer plays the mother of her character in a remake of OUT OF THE PAST; Coleen Gray goes from the criminally bleak NIGHTMARE ALLEY to the prison ministry of Watergate’s own Charles Colson. Ann Savage spends thirty years working in anonymity as a legal secretary, only to regain a kind of stardom when her incendiary performance in Ulmer’s DETOUR is rediscovered. She and Muller now make frequent appearances around the country, screening a pristine print of the film. It’s a genuine happy ending in a genre not known for them.

One theme running through the book is that the actresses often regretted being typecast in low-budget crime dramas. I can see their point. But I also can’t help thinking of the legions of talented actresses since who didn’t have the careers they deserved and would have flourished under such restraints. Marie Windsor worried that the 1952 version of THE NARROW MARGIN would be forgotten when it was remade, but as Muller observes, “there won’t be a golden anniversary screening of the second NARROW MARGIN in 2040.” I wonder which one Anne Archer wishes she had starred in.

TV: Hollywood Squares

I can’t watch this show. I have too many fond memories of the old version, which taught me all I know about smarm. One of my prized possessions is a copy of Peter Marshall’s book BACKSTAGE WITH THE ORIGINAL HOLLYWOOD SQUARE, complete with CD of zingers from the show. (What I learned from the book: Peter Marshall only took the hosting gig to screw Dan Rowan of LAUGH-IN fame out of a job. And the bottom center square, where boring celebrities were placed, was known as the Carol Lynley box.)

But I watch the opening every week just to see who’s on. The show has either the most diverse demographic in television or a team of schizophrenic bookers; it’s the only place you can catch both Master P and Hal Linden. Also, the celebrities are encouraged to dance over the theme song.

Man, can O.J. Simpson prosecutor Marcia Clark cut a rug. (Former California gubernatorial candidate Arianna Huffington, by comparison, opts for a stately Eleanor Roosevelt nod.) You lose the biggest and most public case of your career, and years later you’re invited to flail around to set musician techno. Further proof that F. Scott Fitzgerald didn’t know what he was talking about: there are plenty of second acts in American lives.

Elsewhere in the world, evidence that the game show format is far more malleable than previously believed can be found here.

Monday, April 19, 2004

TV: Sunday at 9PM

Here’s what was on in this time slot on April 18. HBO’s double bill of THE SOPRANOS and DEADWOOD. Part 1 of PRIME SUSPECT 6 on PBS. And the first episode of BBC America’s critically-acclaimed political thriller STATE OF PLAY. (All right, and VH-1’s DIVAS LIVE. Happy?) Next week you can add the premiere of the Showtime movie STEALING SINATRA, starring William H. Macy, based on the true story of a nimrod named Barry Keenan (no relation, honest) and his plan to kidnap Frank Jr.

The only shows I’m interested in watching this week, all airing at the same time. I demand to know who’s responsible for this. TiVo, I’m looking at you. Granted, most of these shows are on cable so they’ll be repeated ad infinitum. But not everything; last week I had to miss the Nick and Jessica Variety Special on ABC. When’s the last time there was a variety special on TV?

I caught bits and pieces of the shows while getting the website up and running. Bill Nighy can play anything: jaded newspaper editor in STATE OF PLAY, dissolute rock star in LOVE, ACTUALLY, grumpy lord of the undead in UNDERWORLD. Any episode of THE SOPRANOS written by Terence Winter cannot be missed. And it looks like next week on DEADWOOD people will be outside, during the day, riding horses. You know, like a western.

Movie: Kill Bill Vol. 2 (2004)

Long story short: I didn’t like it. But you should see it anyway.

Long story long: I loved Volume 1. Saw it twice on the big screen, which I hadn’t done since L.A. CONFIDENTIAL. Yes, it features sketchy characters and the barest bones of a plot, and is essentially a hodgepodge of references to other, mostly obscure movies. It’s also unassailably cool, and burns with a fierce, crazy energy that at times threatens to burst free of the frame. Tarantino, with a huge assist from cinematographer Robert Richardson, throws everything he’s ever loved about cinema into the mix. The result is a singular work that represents a new way of both making and watching movies.

Volume 1 is all about synthesis, combining existing forms to forge something unique. In Volume 2, Tarantino is content with imitation. He recreates movie moments that he loves – full-frame Sergio Leone close-ups, the shaky zoom from so many martial arts epics – without commenting on them or adding a spin of his own.

I missed the loopy structure of the first movie. This installment is almost conventional in its storytelling, which only brings its flaws to the fore. All of the fight scenes are mano a mano; there’s nothing on a par with Volume 1’s mammoth battle between the Bride and the Crazy 88’s. The dialogue, Tarantino’s strong suit, here falls flat, largely because the characters have been such badasses for so long that they’ve gotten used to the fact that people are afraid to interrupt them. Which means they tend to ramble a bit. David Carradine is game, but he’s saddled with the worst of the speeches.

Having the Bride’s quest ultimately be about her maternal instincts (the queen of the jungle reunited with her cub, as the end card puts it) seems reductive and possibly even sexist. Isn’t being shot in the head and left for dead enough motivation to get a little getback? Can’t a woman just be royally pissed in a movie without bringing motherhood into it? They wouldn't foist a kid on Robert Mitchum.

Maybe when I watch both halves as a single grind house extravaganza I’ll feel differently. I have to wonder how they’ll fit together. I’m afraid I’ll always think of Volume 1 as the legend, and Volume 2 as just the facts.

Sunday, April 18, 2004

Magazine: The New Yorker, 4/19 issue

The Spring Humor Issue. The Harold Ramis profile by Tad Friend is interesting. Numerous writers and directors cite the Ramis films that changed their lives. Producer Brian Grazer says: “The ideas behind most comedies now ... are all Harold’s. He is the father of modern Hollywood comedy.” Ramis might want to question the paternity. Not that he’s to blame. At least a number of his movies are funny.

Here’s writer Dennis Klein: “Sloppiness is a key part of improv. And Harold brought that to Hollywood, rescuing comedies from their smooth, polite perfection.” First, again, this improv-based style has become the default mode for movie comedy. This is a bad thing. Second, improv is a hugely overrated arrow in the comedy quiver. Not all of it is funny, and most comics are not very good at it. And third, what’s the matter with perfection?

In the article, we track Ramis’ efforts to cast his next movie, an adaptation of the Scott Phillips novel THE ICE HARVEST. If you haven’t read it, do so now, before the movie comes out. Then do yourself a favor and read Phillips’ latest, COTTONWOOD, one of the best novels I’ve read this year. The good news is that Ramis has cast John Cusack as HARVEST’s crooked lawyer Charlie Arglist. The bad news is that Cusack wants to change the ending (which the article gives away, so be forewarned). And Ramis is inclined to agree with him.

Another article focuses on the Farrelly Brothers’ attempt to bring back the Three Stooges with ‘real’ actors in the roles. Their choice for Moe is Russell Crowe, who’s apparently considering it. Their back-up is Benicio del Toro. I guess they don’t want actors who can play angry but actually ARE angry. They even float Sean Penn’s name to play Larry.

Nowhere in the article is there a reference to the 1992 movie BRAIN DONORS, which just reinforces my belief that I’m the only person who’s ever seen it. Pat Proft, who had a hand in writing the NAKED GUN series, set out to make a modern Marx Brothers-style movie with comic Bob Nelson as Harpo, Mel Smith as Chico, and, believe it or not, John Turturro as Groucho. They even got Nancy Marchand to take over the Margaret Dumont role. Everybody gives it their all; Turturro attacks his jokes with a gusto bordering on maniacal. But the movie is an almost complete failure. (Except for Turturro’s clothes. At one point he wears a maroon pinstripe suit that I have coveted ever since.) Somebody needs to bring this movie to the Farrellys’ attention before they proceed any further.

TV: Rock’d with Gina Gershon, 4/16

If your personal assistant can’t locate a sex toy store in San Francisco, it’s time to get a new personal assistant.

Video: National Lampoon’s Animal House (1978)

Several factors made me want to revisit this movie. A recent repeat of a SIMPSONS episode where Homer sings the closing song. The new Mountain Dew ads featuring Elmer Bernstein’s music and a voiceover from Dean Wormer (John Vernon) himself. And an article in the New Yorker’s current humor issue, which I haven’t yet read, positing that Harold Ramis, through his work as a writer or director beginning with this film, codified the rules for a new school of American comedy.

My first reaction: I’d never seen this movie uncut before. All the handjob jokes? New to me. Sad, I know. But the movie was quite controversial in its day. When the Catholic Church came out against it, my parents wouldn’t even let me read the MAD magazine parody of it. My parents always had problems with the magazine anyway. (I could have said they had issues with the magazine, but I didn’t. No need to thank me.) One of my most vivid childhood memories is of walking down the hall of our building to throw my copy of MORE SNAPPY ANSWERS TO STUPID QUESTIONS into the incinerator while my mother watched from the apartment doorway. Fortunately, this moment had little effect on me.

Hang on. I need a minute.

My second reaction: I’d forgotten how influential this movie is. It contains so many lines and bits of business that have entered everyday usage (especially among guys, go figure) that looking at the film now is like unearthing the Rosetta Stone of comedy. It has even more of an impact, though, in terms of style. The movie is sarcastic and kind of lazy; not a whole lot happens. The good guys are better than the jerks (it’s giving the movie way too much credit to call them bad guys), but not by much. The main difference is that their jokes are funnier, their pranks more appealing. In essence this is the first big comedy not of manners, character or situation, but of mood. The movie’s not actually all that funny, but it’s still entertaining because you enjoy hanging out with the Deltas. Hell, you could even BE one of them. That’s what ANIMAL HOUSE is: the first hangout comedy.

It has had an outsized effect; most comedies have appropriated its hazy rhythms. Sometimes the filmmakers remember to include the pleasant buzz; I offer as Exhibit A the Broken Lizard troupe’s 2002 movie SUPER TROOPERS, which I’ve seen more times than I can count. But most of the imitators simply cop the attitude without backing it up. Witness 2003’s OLD SCHOOL, which treats its characters shabbily and can’t be bothered to cook up a plot as half-assed as the one in ANIMAL HOUSE.

I wouldn’t mind it so much if we got the occasional comedy made in some other mode, but lately they seem few and far between. There was a nice flurry in the late ‘90s with movies like ELECTION and FLIRTING WITH DISASTER, but the movement never quite got off the ground. And I’m unwilling to put any additional pressure on Charlie Kaufman.

TV: The Apprentice, 4/15

Another reality show I was sort of paying attention to. Thanks to the Internet and West Coast living, I didn’t have to watch a minute of the finale. I just logged on to the web once the live telecast ended and found out that Bill has to listen to Trump for another year. This is a prize?

Book: Zeppelins West, by Joe R. Lansdale (2001)

An utterly demented pastiche of Old West history and popular fiction. Wild Bill Hickok, Annie Oakley and Sitting Bull head to Japan on zeppelins to put on a Wild West show. Buffalo Bill Cody is there, too, but he’s just a head in a Mason jar filled with charged pig urine. They’re intercepted by Captain Bemo, skipper of the submarine the Naughty Lass, who takes them to the Island of Dr. Momo. (I prefer Lansdale’s solution to copyright problems over the one used by the makers of the movie THE LEAGUE OF EXTRAORDINARY GENTLEMEN. “How about this? He’s not The Invisible Man. He’s an invisible man.” “Great! Let’s go to lunch.”)

The book is a brief 168 pages, some of them taken up by Mark A. Nelson’s striking illustrations. It’s more of a concept than an actual novel, but still fun to read. Nobody does description like Lansdale; one of Dr. Momo’s half-man, half-monkey experiments “seemed nervous, as if ants had taken to his rectum.” And nobody does dialogue like Lansdale. Dr. Momo explaining himself: “And these friends of yours (like Charles Darwin and Samuel Morse) ... Good minds compared to yourself and the average moron, but compared to mine, their brains are doo-doo.”

It would make a hell of a movie. Except for that part where Frankenstein’s monster has sex with the Tin Man. There might be clearance issues there. And I don’t think people want to know what actually happened to Dorothy when she tried to leave Oz. I mean they really don’t.

TV: South Park, 4/14

Cartman disguised as a robot to fool Butters. A lesser effort from Matt & Trey in a season that’s been a bracing return to form. Oh, well. They can’t all be ‘The Passion of the Jew.’ I enjoyed it because it’s one of those episodes where Cartman gets what’s coming to him. He’s such an evil little kid that I think he’s the most realistic character on television. He makes Tony Soprano look like Agarn on F-TROOP.

Video: Yeah, Right! (2003)

A compilation of skateboarding footage co-directed by Spike Jonze. Spike was one of the producers of MTV’s JACKASS; there’s obviously a side of him that’s fascinated by bored kids daring each other. The video proved fun to watch. Beautifully shot, good choice in music. There’s a sequence where all of the skateboards are removed, so that these surly punks appear to be floating on air. It conveys a sense of the physical skill and the artistry demanded in skateboarding.

The locations where the kids skate are all prosaic. Loading docks, college campuses, barren municipal plazas. And somehow in these drab settings they’re able to challenge themselves. It reminded me in an odd way of the Hong Kong aesthetic in action films: this is where the fight is going to be, use what’s at hand to survive. There’s something noble about that approach to life. That said, I’m still going to curse the little bastards when they cut too close to me on the street.

TV: American Idol, 4/14

I haven’t been watching this season, although technically I’ve never really watched the show. My lovely wife Rosemarie pointed out long ago that reality TV adheres to the same rules as basketball; if you watch the last three minutes, you’ll see everything you need to see. So that’s been my experience of the first two seasons of Idol. The frenzied recap at the end of Tuesday’s action, and the bogus suspense of late Wednesday. (Or Wednesday and Thursday, in the case of this week.) Nobody actually watches for the singing, do they?

I tuned in tonight because Quentin Tarantino was this week’s celebrity judge. That’s always been my favorite part of the show. The judges have no say once the final batch of contestants are picked, so trucking in one of yesterday’s luminaries is pointless. Doubly so, because they’re not bringing in names that will get people to tune in. (Neil Sedaka, anyone?) Quentin said that he wasn’t going to be a pushover like his predecessors, so I figured it was worth a look-see.

The theme of the show is movie songs. Hence, Quentin Tarantino. The first singer butchers Phil Collins’ ‘Against All Odds.’ The regular panel of judges slams the kid for picking a song that doesn’t showcase his talents. (When the kid – and I mean kid, because everybody on the show this year looks like they’re still in high school – is asked why he chose it, he said it spoke to his experience of being on the show. Um, no, it doesn’t. The title may speak to that, but the rest of the song is about a dude who’s been done wrong and is ready to go back for more.) QT tells the young man that his performance was so good it made him forget that he hates the song. The next contestant gets medieval on a Whitney Houston song and QT proceeds to out-Paula Paula. My cue to bail.

Maybe Quentin’s one of the first of the ‘it’s all good’ generation. Trio is rerunning a week of his movie picks in conjunction with the release of KILL BILL Vol. 2, and I’m stunned at how lousy they are. (I was also stunned by the fact that I’d seen several of them before. That would happen every once in a while with Mystery Science Theater 3000. “Wait, I’ve seen this.”) It makes for a marked contrast with Martin Scorsese, with whom he’s often compared. Scorsese’s a film historian, pointing out good films others have overlooked, willing to criticize the work of others. (He provided some terrific commentary in Kevin Brownlow’s recent documentary about Cecil B. DeMille on TCM, especially when comparing DeMille’s role in film history to D. W. Griffith’s.) Quentin’s a film fan. He’ll watch anything and find something to like in it. The most striking image in Peter Biskind’s generally lousy book DOWN AND DIRTY PICTURES came from a friend of Quentin’s, who described watching Quentin watch movies on TV. He said that it calmed him, acted as a pacifier, made him happy. No matter what the movie was. That kind of attitude in no way impedes him as a filmmaker – I’ve got my tickets for KILL BILL Vol. 2 already – but it makes him a lousy judge.

TV Commercial: Saturn

A couple stands in their driveway, admiring their sporty new bright red roadster. A bird appears overhead. I expect the hubby to make a diving leap for the hood to prevent undue spattering; this is how ingrained the new gross-out style of commercial humor has become. But no! The bird is a stork, and it lands on the driveway, sets down a bundle of joy, and wanders over to admire the car. The couple glance down at the squirming bundle on the concrete, then look at each other. Next thing you know, they’ve traded in their sporty new bright red roadster for an SUV. Because, as the voiceover informs us, life changes quickly, and Saturn is the only major car dealer that will allow you trade in your new vehicle within 30 days of purchase.

I find this ad creepy. Does anybody get the stork reference anymore? And doesn’t the stork work exclusively for Vlasic Pickle now anyway?

Book: Thieves’ Dozen, by Donald E. Westlake (2004)

A collection of short fiction about hapless thief John Dortmunder. (As the title implies, there are eleven stories.) I’m an unabashed fan of Westlake and of Dortmunder in particular, so it won’t come as a surprise to say that I loved the book. There’s not a dud in the bunch. “Too Many Crooks” is a personal favorite, and the final story “Fugue for Felons,” which is and isn’t a Dortmunder story (at one point Westlake thought he was going to lose the rights to the name to Hollywood, so he cooked up an alias for the character and wrote a story about him), makes for a fascinating exercise. Many of the stories contain perverse tributes to the New York City subway system, and a few are hymns to the glories of the borough of Queens, land of my birth. Plus, Westlake brings back my favorite greeting: “Harya.”

TV: Deadwood, 4/11

We have our first contender for line of the year. And there’s no profanity in it. Considering the show that it comes from, that’s a remarkable achievement.

Calamity Jane: “Wait in your room. It’ll take him a while to get the phlegm situated.”

Video: Matchstick Men (2003)

It’s great to have Nicolas Cage back acting again. Alison Lohman is going to have a long career. Ridley Scott directs with a light touch, and L.A. has never looked lovelier. Still, there’s an air of contrivance about the movie that sank it for me.

I dipped into the special features and learned that the screenwriters, Ted and Nicholas Griffin, originally stripped out the final plot twist because they didn’t want the audience to get angry with them. But without that twist, there’s no movie. The suits made the right call for once.

Movie: Hellboy (2004)

What struck me most about this movie was how visually beautiful it was. Tentacles descending from the sky at the apocalypse, lovers enshrouded by flame; it’s packed with arresting images.

Guillermo del Toro successfully conveys the rhythm and energy of a graphic novel, a task at which many others have failed. (The further away I get from Ang Lee’s THE HULK, the more I detest it. I actually had to get away from it while it was still unspooling in the theater.) The movie has its problems: the plot’s clunky and repetitive, Rasputin isn’t that interesting a villain, and I don’t need to see another superhero film about the tragedy of being a freak. But the Clockwork Nazi more than makes up for that.

Video: Joint Security Area (2002)

A terrific South Korean military drama. There are a few scenes in English that are awful. Try to look past them. (And make sure you have the subtitles on when the movie starts, so you don’t have to double back like I did.) A Korean-born Swiss military attorney investigates a brewing international incident involving a South Korean soldier who may or may not have been kidnapped and dragged into the demilitarized zone by North Korean forces. The closing shot is extraordinary.

Video: Dirty Pretty Things (2003)

Watched this for the second time. It got a well-deserved Oscar nomination for Steven Knight’s original screenplay. Chiwetel Ejiofor’s performance is nothing short of miraculous; he takes a character whose every action renders him a saint and makes you believe him as a man. If you want a noir universe in the here-and-now, this is it. Every character in this movie is at the whim of fate every second of the day.

Book: Hard Revolution, by George Pelecanos (2004)

I’m sure I’m alone in this, but Pelecanos’ music references get on my nerves. They tell me more about him than his characters. Whole chunks of his books read like they were written by Lester Bangs. But that’s just me, and just a minor complaint.

Pelecanos brings the historical sweep of his D.C. Quartet to bear on Derek Strange, one of the protagonists of his last cycle of novels. The book opens with a lengthy prologue in 1959 with Derek as a young man, then picks up the story in the spring of 1968. Derek is a rookie cop, Martin Luther King is days away from being assassinated, and D.C. is about to explode.

The book takes its time getting started, but there’s a reason for every detail that Pelecanos carefully layers in. The slow build-up soon gives way to masterful editing; even for Pelecanos, the book is blisteringly cinematic. His writing is simple. Sometimes it feels like he’s dotting every ‘i’: “Derek and Billy lived a few short miles apart, but the difference in their lives and prospects was striking.” Other times it reads like brutal poetry, as when a man is shot during a robbery: “He saw fire and his mother and nothing at all.”

To me, Terry Quinn was the more interesting character in the last few books. He was deeply conflicted, while Strange had his act together. (OK, he had trouble committing to one woman, but that’s not the same thing as cruising D.C. looking to be disrespected.) But I can see now that in the earlier works, Pelecanos was playing the silences of Strange’s character while here he plays the notes. Together, they form the full measure of a man.

Great. Now he’s got me making musical references, too.

Movie: Taking Lives (2004)

Hoo-boy, does David Fincher have a lot to answer for. The credit sequence, the mood, and some of the plot mechanics for this movie were lifted wholesale from his movie SE7EN. It exists so completely in Fincher’s shadow that it should have been called EIGHT. (Or would that be EI8HT?) From what I understand, the movie has absolutely nothing to do with the Michael Pye novel it’s based on other than the serial-killer-as-hermit-crab business. Angelina Jolie plays the American special agent brought in to show the Montreal police the mistakes they haven’t thought of themselves. Kiefer Sutherland apparently knocked out all of his scenes in a long afternoon. The ending is so ludicrous that I’m tempted to recommend the movie on that basis alone. Nice to see Canadian locations playing themselves, though. And Ethan Hawke gives a strong performance. It must kill him that he’s better in big studio films like this and TRAINING DAY than he is in those shaky-cam indies that seem so dear to his heart.

Magazine: Entertainment Weekly #759

I scored a 122 on their Pop Culture Quiz. I offer this solely as an indication of my baseline level of competence when it comes to this kind of stuff.