Wednesday, June 30, 2004

Movie: Dodgeball (2004)

After seeing this movie, there’s no way I can vote for George W. Bush.

Wait a minute. Sorry. I got confused.

This is the latest from the Stiller/Wilson/Ferrell/Vaughn/ Jack Black comedy cabal that’s taken Hollywood by indifferent storm. They work together in varying combinations, the way villains on the old BATMAN TV series would sometimes join forces.

The movie is amiable enough. But it’s also, to use a pet phrase of my mother’s that still sends chills down my spine, the very essence of laziness. Much of the humor depends on the audience’s familiarity with the tropes of sports movies. That approach can work, but it’s better when there’s a specific target, the way the Farrelly Brothers’ KINGPIN riffed on THE COLOR OF MONEY. It’s clear now that Vince Vaughn is attempting to be the new Bill Murray. Which isn’t bad as far as goals go. But he’s under the impression that Murray succeeded by doing nothing, when in fact he was being Bill Murray. Ben Stiller’s collection of tics and backstory never coalesces into a character, but at least he tries.

The movie does get better as it goes along. The final dodgeball tournament is covered on ESPN8 (“the Ocho”) by Gary Cole, the most reliable comic actor in movies today, and Jason Bateman as an extreme sports athlete turned commentator. A few years ago, Bateman was a forgotten child star. Now he’s stealing movies from his highly paid costars and anchoring one of the only shows on network TV (ARRESTED DEVELOPMENT) worth a damn. Welcome back, buddy.

Movie: A Guide For The Married Man (1967)

Whatever happened to the sex comedy? Sure, they still crank out flicks for teenagers about “getting some” (See: the AMERICAN PIE series). But Hollywood movies used to acknowledge that adults were every bit as obsessed with and flummoxed by sex. Movies that stemmed from the noble tradition of Restoration comedy. Robert Towne has said that SHAMPOO was inspired by William Wycherly’s play THE COUNTRY WIFE, in which a man who is perceived as no threat to women is in fact a libertine. Another example is Billy Wilder’s still controversial KISS ME, STUPID (1964), featuring a performance by Dean Martin that remains the most shocking self-caricature in film history. Would-be songwriter Ray Walston knows that ‘Dino’ is going to hit on his wife, so he asks waitress Kim Novak to fill in for her. They both end up playing their roles a little too well.

Such forthrightness about unseemly urges is a thing of the past. About the only recent film I can think of that fits this mold is David O. Russell’s FLIRTING WITH DISASTER, and that was eight years ago.

As for the movie that prompted this blather, it’s a trifle directed by Gene Kelly. But I can never turn off Walter Matthau. Lessons in committing adultery are acted out by guest stars like Jack Benny and Sid Caesar. It’s a feature-length episode of THE BENNY HILL SHOW, all salacious jokes and fast motion. Robert Morse is memorably sleazy as the friend with all the answers.

TV: Your Face Or Mine

This MTV show (which seems to be based on a UK original) is the latest attempt to bring the HotOrNot phenomenon to the tube. Contestants guess how the audience will rate their looks compared to photographs, in-studio guests ...

And holograms.

This seems like an abuse of technology to me. Holograms should be made available to distract gunmen a la TOTAL RECALL or convince my boss that I’m actually at my desk before they’re used on a game show. Who do I write to about this?

Miscellaneous: Links

Ed Gorman offers up a terrific primer on noir fiction from George Tuttle. Courtesy of Arts & Letters Daily, a look at how academics are being forced to make TV appearances. And Michael Musto reveals that once you’re on TV, they don’t pay you.

Tuesday, June 29, 2004

Movie: The Terminal (2004)

It’s gotten mixed reviews, and even the critics who liked it went out of their way to call it a lesser effort. I thought that Spielberg’s last ‘light’ movie, CATCH ME IF YOU CAN, was overrated. I’m not saying that lowered expectations help. I am saying that I think THE TERMINAL is a treat.

It becomes obvious early on that Spielberg’s model for the film is the work of Charlie Chaplin, specifically MODERN TIMES. He’s making a gentle satire about a little man befuddled by the system, and his odd, small-scaled triumph against it. That might explain the movie’s lukewarm reception; perhaps that comic model doesn’t have much currency with critics and audiences any more.

Tom Hanks certainly gets into the spirit. His waddle in this movie recalls the Tramp. Because his character’s English is a little shaky at first, whole sections of the film play out in near silence. A sequence where Hanks tries to build a bed in an unused section of the terminal would have been every bit as funny eighty years ago. And there’s also Chaplinesque pathos, which Spielberg wisely soft-pedals. Hanks’ character learns of the revolution in his homeland from the airport’s silent TVs. He sprints from one screen to another, desperate to find the volume. When he does locate a TV with sound, it’s in a ‘red carpet lounge’ from which he is quickly ejected. Heartbreaking stuff that again uses little dialogue.

Stanley Tucci plays what passes for the film’s villain, JFK’s officious head of customs. His pettiness is occasionally over the top, but he perfectly captures a bureaucrat’s attitude: he doesn’t want to do anything wrong, but he doesn’t particularly care if anything goes right.

The movie’s opening weekend grosses were disappointing, but it held up fairly well in week two. Maybe it’s gaining traction.

Video: Street of No Return (1989)

It sounds like a perfect combination. B-movie legend Samuel Fuller and novelist David Goodis, whose noir novels are tinged pitch black. Fuller and Goodis had been friends back in the days when the director was a tabloid reporter.

But the movie is what’s known in the trade as “Euro-pudding.” Cast, crew and money from all points of the Continent, with the shooting location (in this case, Lisbon) to be determined by tax breaks and the distance from the producers’ villas. The low budget hobbles the movie. So does the music. Fuller’s customary vigor occasionally shines through. Name another movie where the opening shot is a guy getting smacked in the face with a hammer. And you can never go wrong with a naked chick on a horse. If you’ve always wanted to know what an episode of MIAMI VICE directed by Alain Resnais would look like, this is the movie for you. It’s worth renting for the half-hour making-of doc that largely consists of Fuller pontificating. Nobody talked like Sam Fuller. Nobody made movies like him, either.

Movie: Emperor of the North (1973)

The modern-day miracle that is video-on-demand allowed me to catch up with this seldom-screened Robert Aldrich film set during the Depression. It has a repetitious script, considering the simple story (brutal conductor Ernest Borgnine will kill any hobo who tries to hitch a ride on his train, but Lee Marvin vows to do it anyway), and a grating faux-Copland score by Frank DeVol, who gave us THE BRADY BUNCH theme. But the physical action – particularly the last fight – is matchless. It’s one of those odd ‘70s movies that I know is an allegory for something. I’m just not sure what.

Sunday, June 27, 2004

TV: Jeopardy

Ken Jennings has won 18 straight games and over $600K. An impressive run, but it’s taking the fun out of the show. He’s usually so far ahead of his competitors that the Double Jeopardy round turns into a conversation between him and Alex Trebek. It’s like watching a version of THE ODD COUPLE with two Felixes.

TV: Oprah After The Show

This Oxygen show consists of footage of Oprah and her guests interacting after the taping has ended. It offers the occasional unguarded glimpse of celebrities, as on a recent episode featuring the cast of SHREK 2 before they jetted off to Cannes. Mike Myers said goodbye to his hostess, who responded:

“Are you going to France, too? Have some croissants in the morning for me! Bonjour!”

This exchange depressed me no end. These people are world-famous, for Christ’s sake. Where’s the juicy stuff? "This is the location of the Louis Vuitton testing facility, where the latest items will be made available to you gratis. Here’s the password to get you into the secret wing of the Louvre. And this is the number of a retired foreign ministry officer now living on the Rue McClanahan who will be happy to serve as bag man should you need to squelch any unsavory rumors about your personal life." That’s what I want to hear. And instead, Oprah spouts the same inane crap you’d expect from Brenda in Purchasing?

I know that celebrities share my two-step approach to donning slacks, and that they’re just people. But I don’t want them to prove it to me.

Movie: Extreme Measures (1996)

Considering how many medical thrillers turn up on best-seller lists, you’d think there would be more movies of that type. This underrated film written by Tony Gilroy is one of the only recent examples. Two memorable bits: a sequence involving a fly in a paralytic ward worthy of Hitchcock, and Hugh Grant’s plummy pronunciation of the phrase ‘metabolic meltdown.’

Movie: Rancho Notorious (1952)

If you have to make a movie about Marlene Dietrich, why cast Gwyneth Paltrow when Uma Thurman looks just like her?

Stage: Kiki & Herb

The New Yorker ran a rapturous profile of this duo a few years back, they just wrapped up a successful stint in London, and a Carnegie Hall debut is on tap for the fall. When they arrived in our neck of the woods for a brief run, Rosemarie and I made it a point to go on opening night. And left transformed.

Kiki Derain (actually the Obie-award winning Justin Bond) is a 66-year-old dipsomaniacal lounge singer. Herb (the great Kenny Mellman) is her blithering man-child accompanist. They met years ago in a Pennsylvania mental institution and the world hasn’t been the same since. The show starts out like a send-up of cabaret acts. Kiki, unable to edit herself even when she’s sober, walks us through her unbelievable life story. She punctuates her tales of Billie Holliday and Princess Grace with songs far from the usual repertoire. (PJ Harvey, anyone?) Gradually, things take a darker turn, as the failures and tragedies that Kiki glosses over erupt in the songs themselves. What was breathtakingly funny becomes moving and at times terrifying. It is never less than transfixing.

The performances are at a virtuoso level. Kiki’s rendition of ‘The Windmills of Your Mind’ turns the song into an auditory psychedelic roller-coaster. And these two know how to unleash the awesome power of the medley. ‘The Rainbow Connection’ from THE MUPPET MOVIE segues into the Hitler Youth anthem from CABARET; ‘Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer’ effortlessly morphs into ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit.’ And I haven’t even mentioned the wonders of their spoken word hit, ‘Whitey’s on the Moon.’

I have no idea what a revival meeting feels like; I was raised Catholic, and we gave up any sense of showmanship when we mothballed the Latin Mass. But by the time this show ended, I was ready to pledge my soul to Kiki.

Miscellaneous: Link

The Onion provides a roundup of celebrity blogs. No more wondering how Blair from THE FACTS OF LIFE is spending her days. Now you can know for sure.

Thursday, June 24, 2004

Video: Paycheck (2003)

The further we get into the new millennium, the more it seems like Philip K. Dick is scripting it. His paranoid worldview, based on the notion that reality is malleable and that your brain might be in on the scam, is pervasive. So many movies traffic in his ideas that they might as well give him a credit: THE MATRIX films, THE TRUMAN SHOW, MEMENTO, ETERNAL SUNSHINE OF THE SPOTLESS MIND.

John Woo’s PAYCHECK is an adaptation of a Dick short story, one with the kind of lethal hook that demonstrates why filmmakers are drawn to his work. Ben Affleck plays an engineer who undertakes top secret design jobs for big money. In exchange, he has his memory wiped once his task is completed. He scores his biggest payday only to discover that he’s forfeited his riches in return for a collection of everyday objects: a matchbook, a paper clip. When mysterious forces come gunning for him, these items suddenly prove invaluable.

Woo and his collaborators make an error that’s common when translating Dick’s work to the screen. They set up the premise, then use it to frame a man-on-the-run thriller. Even Steven Spielberg’s hugely enjoyable MINORITY REPORT fell prey to this approach. The movie never engages the fundamental questions raised by the story: how much of identity is derived from memory? If you will yourself to forget, are you living at all? Affleck’s casting doesn’t help. I’m not a hater when it comes to Ben. He can be extremely effective in the right roles. But here he employs such blank facial expressions that he seems to be forgetting the movie as it happens without the aid of any neurological advances. The other characters are blond stick figures. Aaron Eckhart’s villain apparently styles his hair using the Paul Wolfowitz method on display in FAHRENHEIT 9/11: a comb and lots of saliva.

What we’re left with is a combination of MacGYVER and BILL & TED’S EXCELLENT ADVENTURE, but without their rigorous logic and character development. Suspense comes from seeing how Affleck will use each item in his magic envelope; the presence of an unfinished crossword puzzle pretty much guaranteed that I’d stick with the movie through the end. Woo’s action sequences are surprisingly muted. He does find a way to get a bird in there.

The DVD’s deleted scenes are revealing. They patch up several plot holes and include a few character details that would have been welcome in the finished film. The alternate ending also has more personality. The filmmakers were apparently determined to shave away any trace of idiosyncrasy. The end result is a movie that’s a lot like the sleek metal case Uma Thurman gives to Affleck that turns out to be a photo album. It’s impressively designed but utterly ordinary.

PAYCHECK is rated PG-13 for reasons that include “brief language.” Either a word is missing from that description, or monosyllables have become objectionable.

Miscellaneous: Links

Gov. Schwarzenegger actually describes his leadership style to the New York Times thusly: “Crush your enemies, see them driven before you, and hear the lamentations of their women.” Demonstrating considerably less pop culture savvy, the Kerry campaign rewrites the words to ‘Who Let The Dogs Out?’ I can’t call them lyrics. I just can’t.

Wednesday, June 23, 2004

Movie: Maryjane (1968)

Let me get this straight. There’s a 1960s take on REEFER MADNESS co-written by HOLLYWOOD SQUARES host Peter Marshall and Dick Gautier, who played Hymie the CONTROL robot on GET SMART? And the role of the hip art teacher who knows how to rap with the kids is played by then-has-been rocker Fabian, filming on days when he could borrow Bill Bixby’s hair from THE COURTSHIP OF EDDIE’S FATHER? And the cinematography demonstrates a pothead’s understanding of the technical term ‘day for night’? And Garry Marshall is in it? Why isn’t this thing a cult classic?

Because it sucks, that’s why. Jack Webb could tell the same story on DRAGNET in a quarter of the time and not lose any of the laughs.

TV: AFI Tribute to Meryl Streep

Whoever receives this award should be informed in enough time to set up a movie with Jim Carrey so he can appear on the show. It never hurts to kick these fetes off with a little energy.

Meryl deserves the prize just for her amazing late career renaissance, beginning with ADAPTATION. She’s better now than in her early-‘80s heyday. The highest compliment I can pay her is that she has made me abandon my decision to blow off the remake of one of my favorite movies, THE MANCHURIAN CANDIDATE. Meryl steps into the Angela Lansbury role, and her scenes in the preview are utterly terrifying. She’s scarier than Doc Ock and an army of homicidal robots put together.

The look back at her career was depressing in one respect. By the time Meryl was 35, she had already appeared in THE DEER HUNTER, KRAMER VS. KRAMER, SOPHIE’S CHOICE, SILKWOOD, and had wrapped OUT OF AFRICA. An amazing run, if you leave aside the question of how well these award-winning movies have held up. (I’ve never seen a minute of KRAMER, and have failed on multiple occasions to make it through OUT OF AFRICA.) No contemporary actress of that age can boast of such a streak. Kate Winslet maybe comes closest. The making of Oscar-bait movies and the management of young careers has changed too much. If Meryl were starting out now, there would be a lot more theater in her future.

TV: AFI’s 100 Years ... 100 Songs

2. The phrase ‘Sponsored by Napster’ still sounds very, very wrong to me.
3. AFI is flogging a dead horse with these specials. At least this theme is more accessible than the last two, devoted to ‘thrills’ and ‘passions.’ What’s left? 100 Years ... 100 Wipes? Great Moments in Product Placement?

Tuesday, June 22, 2004

Movie: The Saddest Music In The World (2004)

Guy Maddin’s THE HEART OF THE WORLD (2000) is one of the most amazing films of recent years. A joyous celebration of cinema itself, it recasts the birth of the medium in both mythic and political terms and lovingly employs every visual trope from the earliest days of the movies.

It’s also a silent film. And it’s only six minutes long.

Applying this approach to a feature yields considerably diminished returns. SADDEST MUSIC looks extraordinary, unlike any film I’ve ever seen. Except, of course, for Guy Maddin’s. Again he uses the visual language of the silent era – filters, irises, stylized sets – along with artfully added print scratches to give the impression that you’re watching a recovered artifact, an insanely ambitious epic from a film pioneer. As a recreation, it can’t be faulted.

As a movie, it barely hangs together. The script is co-written by Maddin, based on an original screenplay by novelist Kazuo Ishiguro. (Beware the complicated writing credit.) At the height of the Great Depression, Winnipeg has been named “world capital of sorrow” four years running. Legless beer baron Isabella Rossellini decides to hold a contest to determine which country’s native ditties are tops in lachrymosity. Sorry about that. I lapsed into the language of Rossellini’s former lover, a down-at-the-heels Broadway producer (Mark McKinney) who offers to lead the American effort. He gets staunch competition from his own father, representing Canada, and brother, a vagabond who has reinvented himself as the vessel for all of Serbia’s remorse for starting the Great War.

The movie’s look demands a suitably operatic story, but Maddin gives us one that is simultaneously half-baked and overcooked. It’s bad enough that all of the characters already know each other. But to have three contestants in an international competition be members of the same family? The same Winnipeg family? And a lot more groundwork has to be laid before I’ll buy into glass prosthetic legs filled with beer, much as I like the idea.

The actors flail around for a style to match the visual flourishes with limited success. McKinney ends up resorting to a caricature better suited to his KIDS IN THE HALL days. Only Maria de Medeiros (PULP FICTION) comes close to pulling it off, but she has a luminous face made for silent pictures.

Maddin seems to be going for some barbed political commentary in having McKinney add each losing country’s entry to the American number, but if he is, his message is hopelessly muddled. I doubt the intended effect is the swell of patriotism it engendered in me; give us your brass, your woodwinds, your percussion, and we’ll make ‘em part of the biggest show on earth! But the musical numbers on the whole are affecting. I’ve gained a whole new appreciation for Jerome Kern’s ‘The Song Is You.’

TV: American Movie Classics

I remember a time when a double bill of D.O.A. and A KISS BEFORE DYING on this network meant the originals and not the lousy remakes.

Miscellaneous: Link

The FAHRENHEIT 9/11 frenzy continues to build. Courtesy of the indispensable GreenCine Daily, here’s Armond White’s scorching take. Blaming Quentin Tarantino and the rest of his Cannes jury for Abu Ghraib is excessive, but his point about Jean-Luc Godard’s reaction to the Michael Moore film – and the lack of coverage it received in the American press – deserves attention.

Monday, June 21, 2004

Video: Intolerable Cruelty (2003)

The UK release of THE LADYKILLERS has David Thomson and John Patterson asking the same question: whither the Coen Brothers? They both hail THE BIG LEBOWSKI as one of the great cult films, but feel the brothers’ last few projects have been beneath them. The argument prompted me to revisit this effort, which I’d come to think of as my least favorite of their films.

Not that it didn’t have its admirers. Elvis Mitchell, late of the New York Times, called it a minor classic. On second viewing, I can see why he felt that way. George Clooney plays L.A.’s most successful divorce attorney, lost in the throes of a midlife crisis. After thwarting the carefully laid plans of gold digger Catherine Zeta-Jones, he becomes obsessed with her. It’s a dynamic worthy of Preston Sturges and the brothers know it, filling the screen with the kind of loony supporting players the master specialized in: a dimwitted Texas oil baron played by Billy Bob Thornton, Cedric the Entertainer’s sleazy private eye.

The project began as a rewrite gig for the boys, which may explain its half-formed quality; it’s as if whole chunks of the earlier scripts lie undigested in theirs, and the third act feels rushed. It makes it difficult to appreciate the precision of the movie’s plot, which is rather ingenious. Another draft and this could have been the commercial breakthrough for the Coens that executive producer Brian Grazer obviously wanted it to be.

I’m so attuned to the Coens’ wavelength that a slight film like this still strikes me as funny, even when the humor veers away from character and into silliness. Clooney gives the great lost performance of 2003. He’s devised a whole new approach to playing the romantic comedy lead, firmly in control and yet desperately hoping to be swept up by forces he can’t understand. Zeta-Jones is able to do the showstopping walk through a casino that Julia Roberts failed to carry off in that other Clooney vehicle partially set in Las Vegas, OCEAN’S ELEVEN.

CRUELTY makes it plain that the Coens love talk. Obtuse self-justification and jargon abound here as in so many of their other movies. But my favorite of their films are the ones where the protagonist says very little (MILLER’S CROSSING, THE MAN WHO WASN’T THERE). They’ve done two films in a row now with garrulous leads. Maybe they should enjoy the silence next time out.

Don’t miss the DVD extra Paul Adelstein in ‘Everybody Eats Berries.’ This series of alternate takes of a single line reading reaches dizzying heights of absurdity only to transcend them and become strangely beautiful, like a piece of atonal music.

Movie: Hootenanny Hoot (1963)

TCM blows the dust off this oddity from producer Sam Katzman, who cranked out low-budgeters based on whatever the kids were digging at the time. Thus explaining the title of another Katzman classic, DON’T KNOCK THE TWIST. He went on to make the ill-advised attempt to turn Roy Orbison into an Elvis-style movie star in THE FASTEST GUITAR ALIVE (1968), which is actually a spy drama set during the Civil War. Sam, you are missed.

Ur-Baldwin Peter Breck, star of Sam Fuller’s SHOCK CORRIDOR, plays a TV producer who quits the rat race and heads for the ends of the earth only to get as far as Missouri. He stumbles onto the happenin’ folk music scene and decides to mount a show. One that’s about America, that has “none of that coffeehouse jazz with a lot of beatniks flopping around.” Ultimately he produces the most successful 17-minute special in network history. You couldn’t have watched this movie straight in 1963, but after A MIGHTY WIND it’s impossible. We get multiple numbers from The Brothers Four and Sheb Wooley but only one from Johnny Cash. And the music isn’t particularly well-staged; Judy Henske powers through a murder ballad while wearing a two-piece bathing suit and sitting on a picnic table. For some reason Breck smokes a pipe throughout, which he handles like a loaded gun.

Sunday, June 20, 2004

TV: Slasher

It was something of a shock to realize that John Landis, one of the most successful directors of the 1980s, hasn’t had a film in theatrical release since BLUES BROTHERS 2000 six years ago. His follow-up, the dark comedy SUSAN’S PLAN, drifted in limbo before debuting on cable. His last good movie was 1992’s vampire-vs.-wiseguys guilty pleasure INNOCENT BLOOD. OK, so I thought it was good. Any movie that features Anne Parillaud in a frequent state of undress and Don Rickles as a Mob lawyer-turned-bloodsucker will likely win favor in this corner, just so you know.

Landis is back behind the camera for this IFC original documentary, and the change of pace suits him. It helps that he has an engaging subject. Michael Bennett is the slasher of the title, a used car salesman who jets into troubled dealerships with his own personal DJ to conduct massive, carnival-like sales meant to move inventory in a hurry. The film follows Bennett as he takes over a Memphis car lot for a three-day extravaganza in which he has promised to unload 40 cars, the same number the regular staff sold the previous month.

The Nick Nolte-voiced Bennett was born to star in a movie. He hangs out in strip clubs but can’t stop talking about his wife, and even though he’s never more than six inches away from a beer at all times he runs a tight ship. Bennett and his team prove to be efficient salesmen, able to offer one potential buyer life insurance when she admits that concern over her husband’s health is the main obstacle to her buying a truck.

Landis’ affection for Bennett and his disreputable crew is evident in every frame. The director is also able to convey a sense of Memphis solely through music (which he has always used well) and his interviews with customers who come out to the lot, many intent on finding the $88 car that is the centerpiece of every Bennett spectacular. Finding out which lucky buyer will stumble onto that chosen vehicle – and then seeing if even $88 was too much to pay for it – is one of the treats of this loose but energetic movie.

Book: Havana World Series, by Jose Latour (2004)

In 1958, a team of criminals bankrolled by New York mob boss Joe Bonnano sets out to rob the Casino de Capri, glittering jewel of Havana nightlife and home base for gangster Meyer Lansky. Latour’s book works better as a travelogue than a crime drama – the heist itself is fairly routine, the ending anticlimactic – but with details this rich and an atmosphere this intoxicating, that’s not much of a problem.

Music: Britney Spears

The New York Times article on the cancellation of Britney’s Onyx Hotel tour contains several sentences worthy of analysis. Such as:

“... while many other singers could probably retool a show with no dancing and maybe a tall stool and spotlight for the main attraction, Ms. Spears did not have that option.”

Or noting that the entertainment director of Summerfest in Milwaukee “managed to sign up the Steve Miller Band and the Bodeans as a last-minute replacement.” Thus qualifying as the funniest use of the word managed in some time.

Miscellaneous: Link

The Sunday New York Times has a terrific article by Jesse McKinley on how young American playwrights are being workshopped to death.

Friday, June 18, 2004

TV: Deadwood

The freshman season of HBO’s western came to a close with one of the finest hours of television I’ve ever seen. And the show pulled numbers that makes the network think it’s found a successor to THE SOPRANOS.

Never has a TV series done such a remarkable job of recreating the period. Not only in terms of production design, but also the faces of its actors. Even the smallest roles are impeccably cast. Some shots look like animated tintypes. The show’s dialogue is equally fine. Dense, earthy, frequently hilarious.

Ian McShane has garnered the lion’s share of the praise, and deservedly so; his Al Swearengen is a villain for the ages. But Timothy Olyphant has been a revelation. He’s been appealing but not particularly memorable in films like GO and SCREAM 2, and in the early episodes of DEADWOOD he came across as callow. But by season’s end he’d gained a gravity unparalleled in actors of his age; watching the finale, you saw a star being born before your eyes. And Brad Dourif as Doc Cochran is the heart of the show. It’s great to see him in a role worthy of his talents at this stage of his career.

Much as I hate to give credit to advertising, the network’s oft-mocked slogan (“It’s not TV, it’s HBO”) is true. If you don’t have HBO, you’re missing one of the driving forces of popular culture. It’s taken on the role Miramax held 15 years ago. Not everything it touches turns to gold; K STREET and CARNIVALE were misfires, CURB YOUR ENTHUSIASM went downhill fast, and I’ve never warmed to SIX FEET UNDER. But even those shows are daring in a way nothing else on the entertainment landscape is.

Part of the reason for the success of its series is the willingness of their creators to allow others to play in the sandbox. Each show is the product of a single artistic vision, buttressed by a stable core of writers and directors. But SEX AND THE CITY also made room for talented women who came out of indie film (Allison Anders, Nicole Holofcener, Alison Maclean). THE SOPRANOS has been directed by top-tier talent like Mike Figgis and Lee Tamahori. Crime novelist George Pelecanos has written several episodes of my favorite HBO series, THE WIRE, and according to reports will be joined this season by Dennis Lehane. Having Madonna guest star on WILL & GRACE doesn’t quite pack the same punch.

Commercial: Diet Coke

Kate Beckinsale is only called upon to look lovely in this ad, which she’s able to do with ease. A few years ago this would have been seen as a bad career move for an actor on the rise, but the stigma attached to appearing in commercials is fading. And the pay’s better than in live theater. Soon big stars won’t have to go overseas to do these gigs, as in LOST IN TRANSLATION. Oddly enough, that film’s writer/director Sofia Coppola is currently appearing in a commercial for wine-in-a-can that’s airing in Europe. I hope that while filming it she whispered sage advice to an older man at a loose end. At least the product she’s pitching is named after her.

Miscellaneous: Survey Says

My years of complaining that I’ve never participated in a poll are over. I was finally chosen to answer a series of questions about the vital political issues of the day.

One of them struck me as odd: If there were another war next year, which President would you most want to have leading the country? The choices were Abe Lincoln, Woodrow Wilson, FDR, Harry Truman, LBJ, Bush I or Bush II. As James K. Polk was not an option, I went with Truman.

Then I read in the paper that scientists have figured out how to teleport atoms. Future wars, past presidents, and now teleportation. Is something going on that I don’t know about?

Miscellaneous: Links

Slate explains where bestsellers come from. And a Chinese beauty queen fights the lonely battle for self-improvement through plastic surgery.

Thursday, June 17, 2004

TV: Into Character

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

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

Video: Used Cars (1980)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, June 16, 2004

Movie: Howard the Duck (1986)

Most infamous movie bombs aren’t as bad as you’ve been led to believe, but this one is actually worse. I feel bad for Lea Thompson every time it comes on. She’s as cute as a button in her quasi-punk outfits, and she labors mightily to give the movie some fizz. But the damn thing just lays there, inert.

I interviewed Clive Barker for the Boston University newspaper when HELLRAISER was released, and he said that even though he knew HOWARD was a terrible movie, he couldn’t bring himself to hate it because it has a really good monster. And he’s right. It’s part jumbo shrimp/part scorpion, several dozen feet tall with an enormous mouth. And tentacles. It’s not Ray Harryhausen good, but it is impressive. Best of all, it only appears in the last ten minutes, so you don’t have to sit through the whole turgid mess to get a glimpse of him.

By the way, the Barker story is the extent of my name-dropping. I don’t come off well in my other encounters with the great and near-great. I spilled coffee on myself while interviewing Terry Gilliam, and Oliver Stone once pointed at me across his office lobby and asked, “Who the hell is that?” See what I mean?

TV: Queer Eye for the Straight Guy

Yet another sign of the apocalypse: last night’s straight guy was introduced to a stylist who is “the only person on the planet to incorporate feng shui into hair.” His approach? “I bend the hair and it tells me how short it should be.” Needless to say, the grooming guru had to be imported from California. I’m trying to start a rumor that he’s responsible for Vin Diesel’s look.

Magazine: The New Yorker, June 14/21 issue

I’m not sure if this counts as a new word or a repurposed one, but either way I like it. TV critic Nancy Franklin, in her positive review of the WB’s SUMMERLAND, calls it the latest melodrama from Aaron Spelling’s “schlitz brewery (that’s schlock + glitz).”

Tuesday, June 15, 2004

Book: The Screenwriter Looks at the Screenwriter, by William Froug (1972)

I was pruning my library and Froug’s book didn’t make the cut. As the title indicates, he’s a screenwriter, not a journalist, which sadly comes through in his interviews. They aren’t as sharp as those collected in other books like Patrick McGilligan’s BACKSTORY series. Plus the book is very much a product of its time. Froug introduces Stirling Silliphant thusly: “He is, in the current vernacular, ‘out front’ ... (He) is neither Glick nor Gandhi. He is a brilliant, determined, ambitious man moving at all deliberate speed toward his own private destination.”

Silliphant won an Oscar for IN THE HEAT OF THE NIGHT before becoming Irwin Allen’s go-to disaster scribe, writing THE POSEIDON ADVENTURE, THE TOWERING INFERNO and THE SWARM. One of his last credits was the Sylvester Stallone arm-wrestling epic OVER THE TOP. In his interview, he tells Froug that he’s tired of the standard screenplay format (INT. OVAL OFFICE – DAY) and is trying to use a style that’s more like prose. He then reads an example from a script he developed “with Jimmy Coburn and a young Chinese cat named Bruce Lee.” It’s a bunch of mystical hooey called THE SILENT FLUTE, eventually released as CIRCLE OF IRON (1978). The first line of description as I remembered it was:

“The dawn has brought no relief from the heat.”

Silliphant describes his response to producers trying to break down his trend-setting script for budget purposes:

“You don’t break it down. You know it’s dawn and you know it’s hot and therefore the character has got to be sweating, because he’s also running down a dusty mountain, right?”

Um, wrong. Where’d the mountain come from?

A few years after I read this interview, I came across a copy of Ingmar Bergman’s screenplay for THE SEVENTH SEAL. Here’s the first line:

“The night had brought little relief from the heat.”

Which only made me admire Silliphant. I hold to the dictum that when you steal, you should steal from the best.

Last night I reread the interview. Turns out I was wrong. This is the line from THE SILENT FLUTE: “The dawn has brought no relief from night.” I’d misread it because of that business with the sweaty guy on the mountain. So not only does Silliphant’s line borrow from Bergman, it doesn’t make any sense.

As long as I’m rehashing old movie business nobody else cares about ... in SWIMMING WITH SHARKS, Frank Whaley comments on Gabe Kaplan’s hair in THE FISH THAT SAVED PIITSBURGH. Kaplan is not in that movie. He does appear in FAST BREAK, another basketball comedy that was also released in 1979.

Whew. I feel much better.

TV: Superstar USA

There must be a word in German that means “shame only slightly leavened with pride.” That’s how I feel when admitting that I watched the entire run of the WB’s bogus talent contest. I was disappointed than none of the contestants who referred to themselves in the third person by their alter egos (JoJo and Nina Diva) made the finals. Busty, tone-deaf Jamie was deservedly crowned the winner. Not just because she brimmed with baseless self-confidence, but because she was convinced that no one noticed her reading the song lyrics written in thick black ink on her hand.

Host Brian McFayden actually used the phrase “lousy singing voice” when revealing to Jamie that the contest was a hoax. He also delivered the line from the show’s teaser clip, although without the PRIDE OF THE YANKEES reverb. (“We lied-ied-ied when we said you were a good singer-inger-inger.”) He then goaded the crowd into applauding Jamie before she could freak out. Her perky little brow furrowed, but when she realized that she did in fact win a recording contract and $50,000 she recovered nicely. I’m still not sure she understands the show’s premise.

Cameras went backstage as the other finalists were told that they’d been fooled. Both of them took the news (and their $10,000 novelty checks) with aplomb, saying the experience was proof that everyone can live their dreams. I think it’s proof that everyone under the age of 30 is on mood elevators. Where are the hysterical meltdowns I’ve been waiting for? Apparently the only person taken in by this show was me.

Monday, June 14, 2004

TV: Final Cut

Trio continues its month-long look at flops with this sharp original documentary about the granddaddy of all Hollywood failures, Michael Cimino’s HEAVEN’S GATE (1980), better known as the movie that brought down United Artists. All of the principals save Cimino are present: UA execs David Field and Steven Bach (on whose book the film is based), cinematographer Vilmos Zsigmond and other crew members, actors Jeff Bridges, Brad Dourif and Kris Kristofferson. Willem Dafoe, who also appeared in the film, narrates.

The doc takes an even-handed approach, which is only fair as there’s plenty of blame to go around. UA’s then-new team of executives, desperate to prove the studio’s viability, handed over the store to Cimino after seeing a rough cut of THE DEER HUNTER. Cimino hied off to Montana to film his epic western about the Johnson County Wars and gave free rein to his perfectionism. The doc is weighted slightly in Cimino’s favor, which is understandable if wrong-headed. (Come on, 52 takes of a single master shot? A location that required a three-hour commute each way? A first assembly that was 5½ hours long?)

The film is cleverly edited and includes a great musical TV commercial that Cimino made for United Airlines in the 1960s. It also makes use of the animated photo technique pioneered by THE KID STAYS IN THE PICTURE. Funny how that’s become a staple in only two years. By next year it’ll be a cliché.

Cimino’s career since HEAVEN’S GATE has been gruesome. He made YEAR OF THE DRAGON in 1985, which does at least feature a great closing shootout between Mickey Rourke and John Lone. Quentin Tarantino recently named it one of his favorite action scenes. THE SICILIAN (1987) scored the most walkouts of any movie that played in the theater where I worked as an usher except for Godfrey Reggio’s POWAQQATSI, which is non-narrative and therefore shouldn’t count. The less said about Cimino’s 1990 remake of THE DESPERATE HOURS the better. 1996’s THE SUNCHASER went straight to video.

Trio is airing the 3½-hour cut of HEAVEN’S GATE throughout June. They’re also running other notable bombs like DUNE, HOWARD THE DUCK, and Gus van Sant’s art-school recreation of PSYCHO. Should any of these movies become unbearable, you can always go to the network’s website and find out how it ends.

Book: The Name of the Game Is Death, by Dan J. Marlowe (1962)

There’s nothing like a Fawcett Gold Medal paperback. Fast pace, spare prose. Some of the writers in this stable had a craftsmanship that puts today’s best to shame.

Marlowe wrote several books about Drake, The Man With Nobody’s Face. This is one of the best, a brutal tale that pulls no punches. (And from what I understand, I’ve read the cleaned-up version.) It’s something of an origin story, cutting between Drake’s efforts to find out who killed his partner on a Phoenix bank job and scenes from the character’s early life. What makes Drake so chilling is the ordinariness of his background. He comes from a good family, with parents who cared about him. He’s just a guy who “quit the human race” because he has “the hate of the world in (his) heart.”

I’d started one of the later Drake titles but didn’t care for it. Ed Gorman, who along with his able band of correspondents has forgotten more about old paperbacks than I’ll ever learn, has said that Marlowe suffered a stroke and lost his memory for several years. When he resumed writing he turned the Drake series on its ear, transforming the cold-blooded thief into a government operative. Just in time for Watergate.

Sunday, June 13, 2004

Video: Mildred Pierce (1945)

In a just world, this adaptation of James M. Cain’s novel would be revered as a classic. It’s a meticulous examination of the effects of money in American life. You won’t find a better movie about social climbing, or the buried emotional costs of childrearing. All of it served up in a propulsive story that moves with the zing of the best pulp fiction. It’s a truly great film. But in the wake of MOMMIE DEAREST (the Faye Dunaway movie more than the book), anything starring Joan Crawford has been reduced to camp. It’s our loss. She’s extraordinary here. The most recent DVD includes a solid Turner Classics documentary on the actress that makes the story’s parallels to her own life abundantly clear.

Book: Hollywood Interrupted, by Andrew Breitbart & Mark Ebner (2004)

Here’s how shallow I am: given access to a time machine, the first history-warping errand on my list would be preventing the birth of SPY magazine. Yes, I know that the jaded attitude it represented was in the air back in the halcyon days of the ‘80s and would have coalesced around some other rag if SPY didn’t exist. But I still believe that if that early vessel had been snuffed out – if someone had bought the book proposal that Graydon Carter had to be pushing back then, if Kurt Andersen had been hired to draft ad copy for the Connecticut Tourism Board – the tone it established would not be the default voice for all entertainment reporting today. Jokey without actually being funny, simultaneously in-the-know and vague about details.

This style of writing is only part of the problem with this exposé of celebrity misbehavior by Drudge Report researcher Breitbart and journalist (and SPY veteran) Ebner. It’s sloppily organized but with a footnote fetish. It’s selective in its examples; saying that Hollywood has “declared war on the American family,” it offers as evidence AMERICAN BEAUTY, SIX FEET UNDER, SEX AND THE CITY and the Jessica Lange TV movie NORMAL. Two of the four projects are from one writer (Alan Ball), and three are from HBO, which markets itself as an alternative to network TV. Breitbart and Ebner conveniently overlook the fact that most Hollywood product focuses relentlessly on happy endings and happy families.

There’s some good gossip buried in here, and once again the SOUTH PARK boys come across as bastions of common sense. But the book ultimately lost me by putting a political spin on its argument, something I should have figured out when I read the pullquotes from Ann Coulter and Jonah Goldberg on the jacket. Hollywood sucks, they say, because it’s full of permissive liberals stuck in an outdated ‘60s mindset. As it happens, I think there’s plenty of truth to this case. I’m the first to blame hippies for society’s woes (read the top theory here if you don’t believe me). I don’t even like AMERICAN BEAUTY, the most overrated movie of the last 20 years. That’s why I’m looking for a book that takes on the mechanics of celebrity, the system that builds people up and forces them down our throats before we – or they - know who they are. That lays out a rational, non-partisan argument for what we all know to be true: celebrities are a danger to themselves and others, and must be stopped. Sadly, this is not that book.

Magazine: Premiere, July/August 2004 issue

Asked to name a favorite performance, Christopher Walken cites the little-seen 1988 film PUSS IN BOOTS:

“I play the cat, and I’m very convincing ... I did a lot of, you know, cat things. I thought I was really good in it.”

I’ll take his word for it. The movie is part of the Cannon Movie Tales, a series of low-budget musical(!) adaptations of classic children’s stories made by legendary B-movie hack Menahem Golan. I once caught a few minutes of RUMPELSTILTSKIN starring Billy Barty and Amy Irving and never fully recovered. Other entries include THE EMPORER’S NEW CLOTHES with Sid Caesar and Art Carney, and a version of SLEEPING BEAUTY starring Old Navy pitchwoman Morgan Fairchild and Jane Wiedlin from the Go-Gos. (For more on Cannon Films, check out their appreciation society, which I learned about from Jaime Weinman.)

The magazine also says that ‘wheelhouse’ is the new power buzzword. As in: slapstick is in Ben Stiller’s wheelhouse. Great. Another perfectly good word ruined.

Miscellaneous: Links

Defamer reports from Meryl Streep’s AFI ceremony, keeping the focus on the bits that will be cut from the telecast. Slate says the National Enquirer is more accurate than you think. And courtesy of the Cinetrix, here’s the Four Word Film Review.

Website Update: Links

Some new, some updated. Check ‘em out.

Friday, June 11, 2004

Movie: Bullitt (1968)

TROY director Wolfgang Petersen will remake the Steve McQueen crime drama. But not really. The new film will have a completely different storyline. Petersen explains:

“BULLITT is not about remaking a film or repeating a plot, it is about revisiting a great character. Frank Bullitt is a cool, no-nonsense man who doesn’t compromise. Bullitt walks his own path and his pursuit of the truth is unrelenting.”

A cop who plays by his own rules? Jesus, Wolfie, we haven’t seen a character like this in 35 years! I don’t want to pressure you or anything, but in the sequel – I think we all know there’s gonna be one – could we push Bullitt in a new and unexpected direction? Maybe give him a mismatched partner?

TV: The MTV Movie Awards

Hands down the most visually unpleasant awards show in recent memory. An ugly set, graphics with a chainsaw motif, and video game-style interstitials set in a mental institution. The trophies were handed out by a dwarf in freaky make-up imprisoned in the podium. I thought vacuous nihilism went out of fashion around the time Trent Reznor’s career dried up. Even the putatively anti-Hollywood bits, like Vince Vaughn and Ben Stiller as sleazy producers trying to sell Peter Jackson on more LORD OF THE RINGS movies, fell flat. (It didn’t help that Jackson’s scenes were obviously filmed separately.) MTV’s award shows used to be welcome antidotes to the stuffiness of the Oscars and the Grammies. Now watching them is an ordeal, like being trapped next to the fat sarcastic kid in the back of the class who’s nowhere near as funny as he thinks he is.

By the way, apparently Lindsay Lohan isn’t eighteen yet. It took ten jokes for that message to sink in.

TV: 5ive Days To Midnight

This Sci-Fi Channel miniseries was a pleasant surprise. Timothy Hutton plays an unassuming physics professor who receives a briefcase containing the file on his own murder, which will take place in five days’ time. It’s a fun mix of mystery and science fiction, where the central question is which version of TERMINATOR time-travel logic will turn out to be a true: open (T2) or closed (T3)?

Angus MacFadyen, who imbued Peter Lawford with a soul in the great HBO film THE RAT PACK, may make an unlikely Chicago mob boss, but he plays the role with smooth menace. Gage Golightly, a dead ringer for the FIRESTARTER-era Drew Barrymore, shines as Hutton’s ingenious daughter. The show’s greatest creation is Carl (Hamish Linklater), a brilliant if quirky grad student. He starts out as a good guy; Hutton enlists his aid in figuring out his options. But by episode 2 he’s decided that if Hutton doesn’t die in exactly the manner laid out in the file, it will create a rip in the fabric of space and time. So he sets out to undo every step Hutton takes to avoid his fate. The conclusion isn’t as clever as the set-up, but the show is engaging throughout. It will rerun in its entirety on Sunday.

I can’t remember the last time I watched a mini-series. The format offers a pleasure rare on television: a definite ending. When you don’t have to worry about sweeps or setting up next season, it’s a lot easier to tell the story.

Thursday, June 10, 2004


I gave up on cable news when CNN dumbed down its Headline News channel. Or maybe it was the fact that Lynne Russell left the network. But this past week’s extensive coverage of President Reagan’s funeral has been particularly egregious. The week-long attempt to put his legacy in historical context smacks of spin, especially with the White House in the balance this November. Jim Jordan, John Kerry’s former campaign manager, told the New York Times that he has “been dreading (Reagan’s death) every election year for three cycles.”

Which is why C-SPAN’s coverage of the funeral has been an oasis amidst the partisan jockeying. Their focus is squarely on marking the passing of a man who devoted much of his life to public service. No matter how you feel about his politics, respect must be paid.

I tuned in at 3:30 AM Eastern time and saw a live shot from the Capitol dome. A surprising number of people were there at that late hour, and it was moving to watch each of them honor the President in their own way. Some bowed their heads or blessed themselves, soldiers saluted. I also saw the changing of the honor guard, which occurs every half hour. Another stirring display of pageantry, presented without commentary, with no sound at all other than the ambient noise in the chamber. Skip the talking heads on Fox News and turn on C-SPAN instead.

I want to keep politics to a minimum around here, but let me say this: If Alexander Hamilton is taken off the ten dollar bill in favor of Reagan, I’m moving to Canada. Along with a Baldwin to be named later.

TV: Late Night Recap

Steve Coogan does a pretty good Arnold Schwarzenegger, who should have been on yesterday’s list of imitable actors. But on Conan O’Brien’s show he also did a pitch-perfect Michael Caine. He can even do Caine when he’s shouting, which is key. Because nobody shouts like Michael Caine.

My favorite exchange from Letterman’s interview with Christopher Walken:

Walken: I wear a girdle in THE STEPFORD WIVES.
Dave: Why?
Walken: I don’t know. I think it’s a kind of Victor Mature thing.

TV: Flops!

Trio devotes the month of June to great showbiz failures. It’s a perverse programming strategy. Who would want to watch shows that don’t work? Well, me. SHOWGIRLS was one of my first DVD purchases, and I am proud to say that I saw every episode of ‘The Chevy Chase Show.’ I knew the night it premiered that I was looking at one of the great train wrecks, and I didn’t want to miss a minute of it.

The centerpiece of Trio’s coverage is the documentary ‘Flops 101: Lessons from the Biz.’ Which turns out to be something of a flop in its own right. It’s structured around a lame classroom conceit and some obvious examples; is there more that needs to be said about ISHTAR and WATERWORLD? The lessons drawn from said examples aren’t particularly enlightening: don’t let buzz get out of hand, and the end products often aren’t as bad as they’re made out to be. Which is true. I maintain that the first 20 minutes of ISHTAR are as funny as any comedy made in the 1980s.

The overall tone of the show is snide, and there’s not much context. The most interesting idea, that failure is necessary for an artist to grow, is dealt with haphazardly in a segment on Darren Star’s CENTRAL PARK WEST, which may or may not have influenced SEX AND THE CITY.

The network is also showing episodes of the stupefying variety series PINK LADY AND JEFF and the Jerry Van Dyke sitcom MY MOTHER THE CAR, both of which they’ve aired before. The big addition this month is Steven Bochco’s musical crime drama COP ROCK. That the show is a complete misfire is apparent from the opening credits. Randy Newman sings the catchy theme song in a studio, surrounded by an appreciative cast. The musical is an inherently artificial format; to acknowledge that upfront only makes it harder to buy into. The songs in the episode that I watched weren’t very good, although I liked the idea of a governor turning his fundraising pitch into a literal song and dance. Mainly the numbers seemed shoehorned in, getting in the way of Bochco’s typically brisk and involving storytelling. The show would have worked just as well without the songs, which is the working definition of a bad musical.

Wednesday, June 09, 2004

TV: Dinner For Five

Charles Nelson Reilly made an interesting point the other day. (There’s a sentence I haven’t written before.) He noted that impersonators used to be staples of any nightclub bill. At some point, a guy would come out and do the voices of Clark Gable, Cary Grant, Bette Davis or other luminaries. But why aren’t comics today imitating Keanu Reeves and Leonardo DiCaprio, or Sharon Stone and Nicole Kidman? Because it would be a short set, Reilly said, and you wouldn’t be able to tell anyone apart. He posed the question to the other guests at the table: why is it impossible to mimic contemporary actors?

Reilly’s answer was that most of them have little or no stage training. When you act solely for the camera, as he put it, you don’t have the chance to figure out which of your own characteristics you can use to build a performance. It seems like as good an explanation as any. Most of the actors I like not only come out of the theater but return to it on a regular basis. Kevin Spacey, for instance, before he moved away from the dark side. (It’s worth pointing out that Spacey himself is an accomplished mimic.) Or Laura Linney. Only someone with classical training could carry off the startling shift demanded of her character in MYSTIC RIVER. And just look at what happened when these two combined their chops in THE LIFE OF DAVID GALE.

That’s a joke.

Most comics who do impressions still trot out old reliables like Jimmy Stewart and stick to the big three of recognizable contemporary actors: Nicholson, Shatner and Walken. Ben Stiller used to do an uncanny Tom Cruise on his old TV show. But the bit wouldn’t work on stage, because it was all about the eyes and the smile. The camera had to get in close in order for the impression to register. Otherwise, Stiller would come across as weirdly intense. Sort of like he always does.

Consider this year’s Academy Award winners. I imagine the Oscars used to be a big deal for impersonators: whose voice do I have to work up now? But you could do a flawless rendition of Sean Penn, Tim Robbins, or Charlize Theron and odds are I’d assume that was how you normally spoke. I might be able to figure out Renee Zellweger if you scrunched up your face and threw in a little Texas twang. But I might not.

I’m not saying that the actors of today can’t hold a candle to the stars of yesteryear. I don’t buy that. But I wouldn’t mind it if we got a little personality along with technique. Just for variety’s sake.

Other tidbits from the show: Reilly talked about the hell of working on Sid & Marty Krofft shows like LIDSVILLE. The producers had such limited budgets that they would shoot an entire season’s episodes at once. Every scene set around the Great Hoodoo’s fireplace would be filmed on the same day, making it impossible for the actors to keep the stories straight. (People are so quick to blame drugs when it always comes down to money.) He also said that he shouted all of his dialogue because it was the only way the children would listen. And it turns out Charles Durning and Jack Warden fought on the same card at Madison Square Garden. Who knew?

TV: Last Comic Standing

Will Durst is a contestant this year. Will Durst is also famous. Isn’t this like putting Michael Jordan on the Olympic basketball team? And whatever happened to last year’s winner, Dat Phan?

Tuesday, June 08, 2004

Video: Hickey & Boggs (1972)

This downbeat crime drama starring Bill Cosby and Robert Culp was named the “revelation” of a series of films screened in Berkeley that feature Los Angeles playing itself. I can only hope they found a better print than the one that recently surfaced on video. It looked like it was taped off late-night TV, with all of the ads for debt consolidation services edited out. I don’t know when my DVD player will forgive me. I don’t even know if it should.

It says something about the movie that I stayed with it in spite of the picture quality. Cosby and Culp play characters far removed from the jovial world of I SPY. They’re ex-LAPD cops struggling to keep their PI business afloat; in their first scene, Cosby says they only have enough money on hand to pay the phone company or the answering service but not both. Deliverance comes in the form of a missing persons case that, as such cases always do, turns ugly and complicated. So does the storytelling. The script by Walter Hill attempts to create mystery by throwing us into the middle of events, but more often than not generates confusion. A choppy editing style only makes matters worse.

Still, the film holds your attention. Culp, directing his first and only feature, makes great use of seedy L.A. locations. He also fills out the cast with terrific actors just beginning long careers (Vincent Gardenia, Michael Moriarty, and a very young James Woods) and underplays nicely himself. It may be strange to see Cos wielding a Dirty Harry pistol, but he carries it off. The elastic face that has moved an ungodly amount of gelatin (it’s made from hooves, you know) can also convey many levels of disdain. The film plays like a companion piece to Robert Altman’s 1973 adaptation of THE LONG GOODBYE in more ways than one, sharing its scornful attitude toward the notion of a white knight traversing mean streets alone. As Cosby says more than once, “the job isn’t about anything any more.”

The script was an early effort from Walter Hill, one of the masters of tough-guy cinema best known for THE WARRIORS and 48 HOURS. He’s directed his share of dogs like LAST MAN STANDING, a half-assed gangster remake of YOJIMBO. But he’s also responsible for plenty of underrated films like the noir thriller JOHNNY HANDSOME and 2002’s guilty pleasure UNDISPUTED. I’ll always have a soft spot in my heart for his “rock and roll fable” STREETS OF FIRE (aaah, Diane Lane). Currently he’s working on HBO’s western DEADWOOD, which is only fitting; his WILD BILL is one of the better takes on the Hickok legend.

TV: The Tony Awards

Hugh Jackman hosts a three-hour telecast that gives him two (2) production numbers, one featuring several ad libs. And I don’t get one VAN HELSING joke? Color me disappointed. Two of his X-MEN costars turned up as presenters. Why not go all out? I’m sure Halle Berry has some tenuous connection to the theater. And I know for a fact that James Marsden wasn’t busy. Jackman did deserve his award, though. I saw him in THE BOY FROM OZ and he was nothing short of astounding. The show’s a lox, but he’s great.

Hearing LL Cool J and Carol Channing rap together gave me a sense of the old ‘60s term ‘happening.’ As in, “Sweet Jesus, I can’t believe this is happening.” Jackman then had to follow up with a joke about Carol getting arrested for a drive-by. That Bruce Vilanch. What a caution.

Miscellaneous: Links

One of my summer movie questions is answered: Michael Moore did not consult with Ray Bradbury before appropriating the title FAHRENHEIT 451. And according to newly opened Politburo files, Josef Stalin had a considerable Sam Goldwyn streak in him. More proof that everybody really wants to be in show biz.

Sunday, June 06, 2004

Movie: The Day After Tomorrow (2004)

An amazing cinematic experience. Not because it’s good. God, no. And not because it’s bad. I’ve seen plenty of worse movies, including every previous Roland Emmerich epic (STARGATE, INDEPENDENCE DAY, GODZILLA). But because it somehow manages to be both, and in two discrete chunks.

The first half of this movie is, to invert the phrase, entertainingly ridiculous. Maybe the delusion that this environmental horror show is actually about something allowed Emmerich to accept his inner schlockmeister at last. His movies have always been ungainly hybrids of ‘50s talking-head sci-fi (“Atomic energy is measured in units called Roentgens”) and ‘70s disaster flicks, the clichés from both genres pumped up with a secondhand suburban realism cribbed from Spielberg. But at least in the opening half of TOMORROW, Emmerich doesn’t try to gussy up what he’s doing. He establishes every chestnut with loving care then sells it for all it’s worth. And for a while, the movie has a surprisingly spry energy. Emmerich gives good gobbledygook, which sounds even better coming from actors like Dennis Quaid and Ian Holm. Holm’s scenes in particular are a treat; he’s constantly saying something profound just before a vital piece of technology fails. You’d think his coworkers would gag him so they’d have a chance of living a while longer. And the catastrophe set pieces, especially the twister barrage that erases L.A., are done with verve.

But then, about 70 minutes in, something happens. It’s as if the movie has been caught in the superstorm it’s trying to get us worked up about. The air goes out of the theater, the pressure shifts, and suddenly the forecast includes a 100% chance of the movie sucking. All of the stupidity that Emmerich has done a semi-decent job of holding in abeyance begins erupting everywhere. The laws of nature change on a dime and the occasional idiocy of the characters begins to run rampant. The wolves are at the door and the gloves are off – literally. Frankly, I’d love to know how Emmerich did it. It’s not like he shot the movie in sequence, one day throwing his hands up and saying, “To hell with this. I give up.” A good deal of the blame has to lie with the spectacular miscalculation to have the climactic climatic villain be bitter cold. Hypothermia doesn’t exactly lend itself to strong visuals. During the movie’s last hour I was reminded of Homer Simpson’s first Mr. Plow ad, in which he dispatches Old Man Winter with the immortal line, “Take that, you lousy ... season!” You’d think Emmerich would know that the audience can’t leave humming the snowstorm.

As for the controversy generated by the movie, I can only chalk that up to the fact that it’s summer and we’re none of us thinking clearly. Some critics have taken Emmerich to task for playing fast and loose with science and having the new ice age paralyze the globe in a matter of weeks. I’m sorry, but I just don’t think there’s much of an audience for a film depicting the alteration of weather patterns over the course of centuries and the resulting slow, inexorable death of most species on the planet, even if it starred Brad and Angelina and featured plenty of igloo love scenes. Others have said that the film cheapens the perceived threat of global warming. If there is such fallout, Al Gore and other environmentalists only have themselves to blame for piggybacking on the movie’s gargantuan publicity budget. Nobody claimed this was a documentary. As for the none-too-subtle digs at Bush/Cheney, it’s interesting that they’re in a Fox production that showcases the company’s conservative news network prominently. I’m just happy to see Perry King, who plays the President. It’s been a while since RIPTIDE.

Even in big-budget crap like this, there are occasional isolated moments that seem genuine. You have to savor those. New York is flooding and the camera falls on a businessman muttering, “I won’t have it. I won’t have it.” He pounds on the door of an out-of-service bus and presses $200 on the driver to let him and his friends aboard. As they walk toward the back he says, “I love buses. This’ll be great.” The sarcasm is a brief, authentic taste of New York. Naturally, the character has no more lines and gets killed soon after.

Movie: Bruce Almighty (2003)

Forget Jim Carrey. Steve Carell is God.

Friday, June 04, 2004

Video: Shoot the Piano Player (1960)

Where you see a movie shouldn’t dictate your response to it. The big screen at Radio City Music Hall won’t make VAN HELSING play any better, and watching CITIZEN KANE on a black-and-white TV in an Omaha motel might diminish its power but not erase it.

But sometimes you have to make exceptions. I first saw Francois Truffaut’s film projected on the wall of a back room in Boston University’s AV library. The wall wasn’t clean. The projector was noisy. So was the air vent directly over my head. I assumed the circumstances of the screening were the reason why the film didn’t leave much of an impression.

In the intervening eighteen years, I’ve seen more Truffaut. I’ve also read some David Goodis, including DOWN THERE, the 1956 novel on which PIANO PLAYER is based. Goodis is among the most disquieting of hardboiled writers because of the sense of blessed relief that courses through his books. His characters don’t simply rush toward their cruel fates, they almost embrace them, if only to be secure in the knowledge that they cannot sink any lower. (I review the new DVD of the 1947 adaptation of Goodis’ DARK PASSAGE, with Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall, in the next issue of Mystery*File. Look for it here soon.)

A case can be made for the marriage of the nouvelle vague and noir beyond the fact that the budding filmmakers haunting the Cinémathèque Française loved the genre. Both forms are about stylization. The New Wave reveled in the sheer movieness of movies, while noir dwelled on the darker end of the emotional spectrum. Jean-Pierre Melville, long regarded as an ancestor of the New Wave, certainly knew how to blend the forms into a galvanizing whole. But every Francois Truffaut movie touches on his eternal romance with the cinema. The only thing Goodis’ characters were in love with was death.

It’s a scrupulously faithful adaptation. Charlie (Charles Aznavour) bangs out dance music in a seedy club. One night his brother scoots in, trying to avoid two crooks he’s double-crossed. Charlie helps him escape, which attracts the attention of waitress Lena. She knows Charlie’s history; he’s actually Edward Saroyan, who abandoned his criminal family to become a concert pianist only to have his career end tragically. She’s convinced she can restore him to his former glory. Charlie’s nowhere near as sure, but he’s willing to give it a shot. Aznavour is not really an actor, which actually enhances his performance. His blankness befits a man who has willed himself to forget who he was – twice. (Aznavour also plays a character named Edward Saroyan in Atom Egoyan’s ARARAT, which I haven’t seen.)

Truffaut tries hard, but the beguiling buoyancy that infects his movies works against the story. Every scene crackles with a joie de vivre that seems contrary to what has happened and is happening to Charlie. There’s engaging filmmaking throughout that results in a failed film.

My first reaction to the movie eighteen years ago was a Gallic shrug. I’d feel the same way even if I hadn’t read the source material. But now that I have, the movie seems like a disappointing gloss on an underrated writer. It’s true in form but not in spirit to David Goodis. Which may be just as well. I’m not sure if I could stomach the real thing on a movie screen, no matter what the size.

Miscellaneous: Links

Marc Jacobs breaks “the shopping karma” by putting a political display in his store window. And Stephen Merchant, co-creator of THE OFFICE, offers an appreciation of the Marx Brothers.

Thursday, June 03, 2004

Video: North Dallas Forty (1979)

The adaptation of Peter Gent’s no-holds-barred novel about life in the National Football League is ranked #16 on Sports Illustrated’s list of the 50 best sports movies. The only gridiron film ranked higher is Harold Lloyd’s THE FRESHMAN, which proves that the magazine’s editors and not its readership put this roster together.

ND40 was the first movie to treat sports like a business, and by extension the audience as adults. The opening scene establishes the tone: wide receiver Phil Elliott (Nick Nolte), a Frankenstein’s monster held together by surgical tape, drags himself out of bed and into the tub on Monday morning, his body remembering every hit from the previous day’s game. Gent played for the Dallas Cowboys during the Tom Landry era, when the team introduced computer modeling to the sport and the fun began to leach out of the game. The film’s Landry stand-in (G.D. Spradlin) has slightly less warmth than the then-cutting edge terminal on his desk. Assistant coach Charles Durning tells a player that he’ll have to learn the difference between pain and injury. But the true villains are the team’s owners, constantly touting the bottom line but using their connection to football as a macho ego boost.

Elliott makes an ideal guide to this world, smart enough to know that the league’s rules are against him but certain that he can beat the system. He’s the kind of guy who cracks wise as he steals painkillers and allows himself to be shot up with tranquilizers in the hope of getting some playing time. Nolte is completely believable as an athlete, as is Mac Davis as a character based on Dandy Don Meredith.

The movie’s not perfect. Elliott’s relationship with a socialite seems calculated to make him interesting without actually making him interesting, and a few of the big speeches are too on-the-nose. But one of them is delivered by NFL great John Matuszak, who would go on to greater fame as Sloth in THE GOONIES, providing inspiration to many like my friend Tara Thomas.

ND40 is easily the best film by director/co-writer Ted Kotcheff. He first became known for the adaptation of Mordecai Richler’s THE APPRENTICESHIP OF DUDDY KRAVITZ and went on to a career more characteristic of directors of the studio era. His other credits include films as diverse as John Rambo’s debut FIRST BLOOD and WEEKEND AT BERNIE’S. He’s been directing episodes of LAW & ORDER: SVU recently, but has also turned to acting. He’s extraordinarily effective in his few scenes as New Republic publisher Marty Peretz in last year’s SHATTERED GLASS.

TV: The Miss Universe Pageant

Miss Australia took the tiara, although I don’t see how with Miss Trinidad & Tobago in contention. Then again, I’m not a judge. And neither is APPRENTICE runner-up Kwame Jackson, who was cut days before the show for waving to contestants in a hotel lobby. Bill Rancic, the actual Apprentice, did serve as a judge. Were both Kwame and Bill supposed to be on the panel? (The pageant is owned, after all, by Donald Trump.) Or did Trump pull Bill out of a critical meeting and give him his marching orders? “Ecuador. Now. Pack light.” One you’re in a show like that, you’re never out. Letterman’s right: reality TV is the new Mafia.

Pageant organizers did say that they’ve asked Kwame to be a judge next year. As if anyone will remember who he is by then.

Miscellaneous: Links

Two pieces from the Guardian. One cites the best and worst movie cameos. The other, courtesy of Paul Herzberg, looks at Hollywood’s chronic ‘whatever happened to?’ syndrome and the curse of the VANITY FAIR cover. Poor Gretchen Mol. I think she was only given a career so it could serve as an object lesson. In the Times, Alessandra Stanley asks when it became safe to be a stupid slut on television. And the publishing business refuses to let a little thing like death stand in the way of a successful career.

Tuesday, June 01, 2004

Movie: Coffee & Cigarettes (2004)

I hope that the latest effort from Jim Jarmusch provoked some irritated phone calls from Howard Schultz’s office. “Let me get this straight. Ten short films about people hanging out drinking coffee and not one of them is set in a Starbucks? Fire the product placement division. I don’t understand. This could have been a win-win. We had such a nice deal with Nora Ephron on YOU’VE GOT MAIL. Didn’t this Jarmusch guy see it?”

The short form has always showcased Jarmusch at his best; he’s a master at conveying mood in a pause or a glance held a beat too long. His feature-length films like GHOST DOG have their rewarding moments but seem enervated. You can feel him growing antsy and craving a smoke. That’s never an issue here; a few times we leave the company of various characters too soon.

A palpable subtext about the inability to communicate runs through these stories. People have lost the capacity to hang out, in spite of the fact that empires have been built providing space to do just that. Isaach de Bankolé can’t believe his friend simply wants to spend time with him, so he hounds him to deliver some bad news. Even hipsters aren’t immune; Iggy Pop and Tom Waits, playing themselves, get together only to have their conversation devolve into misunderstandings and one-upmanship.

Jarmusch, the quintessential downtown New York artist, proves to be an uncommonly skilled satirist of Hollywood. Cate Blanchett’s segment, in which the actress plays herself and a spiteful cousin trying to make nice, lays out the effects fame has on family in a lean eight minutes. The high point of the film – and of the cinematic year so far – is the disastrous meeting between actors Alfred Molina and Steve Coogan. It takes place in a Los Angeles teahouse, which is the start of the problems right there: no coffee. Coogan’s in town to take meetings building off the heat from his performance in 24 HOUR PARTY PEOPLE. Molina only wants to introduce himself and share a piece of genealogical history he’s discovered. Coogan is incapable of seeing the man across the table as a fellow human being looking for a moment of connection until it’s too late. There’s as much venom and astute show biz anthropology in this segment’s brief running time as there is in all of THE PLAYER. Both men are brilliant, but Coogan’s self-parody is unflinching.

Several years ago BBC America aired Coogan’s series KNOWING ME, KNOWING YOU. He played Alan Partridge, a radio DJ who had somehow convinced the Beeb to give him a ‘chat show.’ The talentless, self-absorbed Partridge was uniquely ill-suited to the task, and in short order he was opening each show with complaints about his competitors and his lousy reviews. In the final episode he announced that he’d been cancelled and then accidentally killed one of his guests on live television. Coogan’s masterstroke was to bring the character back in I’M ALAN PARTRIDGE. Alan’s resumed his gig on morning radio in Norwich, doing appearances at local fairs and plotting his return to the big time. It was blistering television that made Larry David look like Ray Romano. Perhaps the show went too far; BBC America hasn’t repeated it in ages, and there’s a second season of PARTRIDGE that they never bothered to run at all. Until the Region 1 DVD comes out I’ll settle for whatever Steve Coogan I can get, even if it means seeing him play opposite Jackie Chan in the remake of AROUND THE WORLD IN 80 DAYS.