Tuesday, November 30, 2004

Music: “Help Yourself,” by Tom Jones

I’ve always liked this song. It’s got a great cha-cha backbeat and silly lyrics that TJ has fun with.

It was still something of a surprise to learn that this was the selection for the mother/son dance at my brother’s wedding over the weekend – chosen, I might add, by my mother. The Jones jones runs in the family. There’s not supposed to be a dry eye in the house when this moment in the festivities is over. Leave it to the Keenans to turn it into Sigmund Freud’s Dance Party.

I was not at all surprised, though, that the familial rug-cutting turned out to be one of the highpoints of a fantastic evening. I’ll never hear the song the same way again.

Miscellaneous: Holiday Magic

Today’s mail brought the first Christmas card of the season. For reasons too complicated to explain, it’s from screenwriter-turned-gadfly-extraordinaire Joe Eszterhas. Life is good.

Movie: The Outfit (1974)

This adaptation of a Richard Stark novel from the same series that inspired POINT BLANK has never been widely available on video. So I was happy to catch up with it on Turner Classic Movies, even though they aired a scratchy, slightly edited TV print.

Director John Flynn, who also made the ‘80s B classic BEST SELLER, doesn’t bother with the stylistic flourishes that John Boorman brought to POINT BLANK. His lean and mean take on Stark is a faithful echo of the author’s style. Flynn fills out his cast with faces from the glory days of noir: Timothy Carey, Elisha Cook, Jr., Jane Greer, Marie Windsor, Robert Ryan. Robert Duvall is near-perfect in the lead role, combining grim determination with ruthless competence. I just never pictured Stark’s thief as bald.

I’ve asked this question before, and I will ask it again: why didn’t Joanna Cassidy become a huge star?

Miscellaneous: Link

A great article from the L.A. Times on the fate of the modern character actor.

Wednesday, November 24, 2004

Remake Rematch: The Stepford Wives (1975 vs. 2004)

In Ira Levin’s ROSEMARY’S BABY, a husband offers up his wife as the devil’s consort. In DEATHTRAP, a husband conspires with his male lover to kill his spouse. And in STEPFORD, an entire Connecticut town full of husbands replaces their better halves with sexually compliant robots. To paraphrase a cartoon seen in KINSEY: is there a Mrs. Levin?

Welcome to another occasional feature, in which a remake squares off against the original in a battle to the death. Or to the point of boredom. Whichever.

The 1975 film is no classic, but it’s often treated as one because it introduced the title phrase to a wide audience. Bryan Forbes’ movie isn’t particularly suspenseful, and not simply because the payoff is common knowledge. Time has blunted its satirical edge, but at least its intent is clear. Levin set out to mock male fears of feminism, and the film makes a genuine if muddled attempt to engage the issue.

Katherine Ross may be the lead, but Paula Prentiss is the real star as her best friend. Funny, sexy, vibrant. I’ve developed a retroactive crush on her. When she goes Stepford, the loss is palpable. And the movie never recovers.

All I knew about this version before watching it was what I’d read in William Goldman’s ADVENTURES IN THE SCREEN TRADE. Goldman wrote the movie but considered it “doomed” because Forbes cast his wife Nanette Newman as one of the robots. She’s a fine actress, but no sex goddess. As Goldman says, “You don’t commit murder and make a new creation to have it look like Nanette Newman.” As a result of her casting, the entire look of the movie changed. No miniskirts, no sexy tennis outfits. Just floor-length sundresses and floppy hats. For what it’s worth, I think Goldman was right.

Aside: The new making-of doc on the DVD is one of the best I’ve seen, in part because it addresses Goldman’s comments. He’s not in the piece, but his friend (and STEPFORD co-star) Peter Masterson ably makes his case, while Forbes gets to defend his wife’s honor. Names are named: the original director, actors fired from the cast. And Prentiss remains as feisty as ever.

Paul Rudnick wrote this year’s remake, which is the start of its problems. Rudnick can always be counted for a few good bitchy lines, but he has never shown any interest in creating a plausible movie world. (Consider his script for 1997’s IN & OUT. Funny? You bet. But he’s got the Oscars, a wedding, and a high school graduation all occurring in the same week.) Not the best choice for a story that, as Goldman observes, is “only precariously real to begin with.”

Rudnick and director Frank Oz push the film toward comedy. Levin’s story gives them plenty to work with: the flight to the suburbs, the battle of the sexes as it’s being fought today. Instead, Rudnick and Oz settle for sending up the look of the first movie. Which, as we now know, was an accident of casting. Their ending is a flat-out disgrace that manages to be both toothless and nonsensical. In that sense, it’s a real achievement.

Of course, part of the problem is that it’s difficult to make a silly, feel-good comedy about a town full of cowardly men who murder their wives.

Winner, by default: the 1975 version.

One other thought: it’s a sign of the overall paucity of the culture that we don’t seem to have popular novelists like Ira Levin any more, who explore the key issues of the day in a lively, entertaining fashion.

Newspaper: The New York Times

Somebody needs to check the water in the Arts & Leisure section. We may have a case of seasonal distemper circulating. First, Manohla Dargis compares Santa’s sack full of toys in THE POLAR EXPRESS to “an airborne scrotum.” Now, the usually bland Stephen Holden weighs in with this bon mot on CHRISTMAS WITH THE KRANKS:

“(Jamie Lee) Curtis, wearing one of the ugliest haircuts I’ve ever seen, her upper lip weirdly curled-in, resembles a transvestite chimpanzee.”

You’re a class act, Steve. Somebody deserves a lump of coal in his stocking.

Miscellaneous: Link

I’m taking the holiday weekend off, so here’s something to keep you occupied. The latest issue of Allan Guthrie’s Noir Originals features interviews with Ken Bruen and Terrill Lee Lankford, authors of two of my favorite novels of the year, as well as Max Allan Collins, whose TWO FOR THE MONEY I’ll be reading shortly.

Happy Thanksgiving. See you next week. Bring leftovers.

Tuesday, November 23, 2004

Movie: Kinsey (2004)

Bill Condon, you’re one sly devil. Your textbook Oscar-bait biopic is cut straight from A BEAUTIFUL MIND’s cloth. All the elements are there: the towering lead performance, the uplifting story, the tasteful raising of social issues. But your movie is about one of the most divisive figures of the late 20th century. It’s a clever piece of sleight of hand – or at least it would be, if you’d given the movie a different title. A generic one that would get people with a bias against sex researcher Dr. Alfred Kinsey into theaters. MATTER OF THE HEART, REPORT ON LOVE, something like that. Oh, well. Too late now.

Liam Neeson may seem an odd choice to play Kinsey. He’s a physically large presence, for one thing. But Neeson uses his size to his advantage, making the doctor seem ungainly and a touch uncomfortable in his own body. He also captures Kinsey’s boyish enthusiasm for all things scientific, which carries over into his sex research. Neeson is well-matched with Laura Linney as Kinsey’s wife and collaborator. Condon’s razor-sharp screenplay lays out the context and the social ramifications of Kinsey’s work with wit and economy. He’s made a smart, fleet movie.

And yet ...

It seems churlish to knock a film for underplaying in this age of hype, but KINSEY never quite develops the head of steam you think it’s going to. There’s no contrived third-act crisis, no make-or-break presentation Kinsey has to deliver. What Condon shows instead is no doubt closer to the truth: Kinsey struggles for funding and begins to wonder if his work will have any impact. It feels real and is quite moving. But a little ‘zazz wouldn’t have hurt. Other than Linney’s Mac, the supporting characters aren’t well-delineated in spite of a wonderful cast (Oliver Platt, Peter Sarsgaard, Tim Curry).

I wanted to love KINSEY. But I did enjoy our time together. And I respected it in the morning.

Hey, you’ve got to give me at least one sex joke.

Miscellaneous: Link

Deepak Chopra, belted by gamma rays ...

It scans, anyway. He’s going to need a theme song now that he’s bringing superheroes to India.

Monday, November 22, 2004

DVD: Dogville (2004)

Prologue: In which the author expresses some general thoughts on director/egomaniac Lars von Trier

I put off seeing this movie because I’m not a fan of von Trier’s work. My reactions to his earlier films have been identical. There’s an initial emotional impact (stun, v., to make senseless as if by a blow) that gives way to “Hey-wait-a-minute” by the time I’m passing the concession stand. von Trier specializes in crass emotional manipulation masked with Scandinavian hauteur. But I can still feel his grubby hands pawing my heartstrings. And I don’t like it.

Chapter 1: Charges of anti-Americanism are addressed

The accusation has been leveled by several prominent critics including Roger Ebert. Bushwah, as they used to say and should start saying again. It’s obvious that von Trier doesn’t like America very much, but he doesn’t like anywhere very much. He won’t even go to Cannes to accept an award, for Christ’s sake.

Chapter 2: The film’s central conceit is exposed as wafer-thin

But his critique of America – which is not the same as being anti-American – is glib and superficial. He raises some interesting points about what he sees as the American way of life, but delivers them in the kind of puerile allegory I’d expect from a neurasthenic teenage girl. “Dear Diary, People are SO MEAN!! I’d like to show them what would happen if they took their actions to their logical conclusions!! Then they’d learn!!” Followed by a bunch of crap about unicorns.

The issues he brings up are worthy of discussion, and they can be dramatized. But the path he chooses demands that they be dealt with in the most simplistic of terms.

Chapter 3: The casting proves to be a problem

von Trier got away with his nonsense before because he was smart enough to cast actresses who were essentially unknown commodities (Bj√∂rk and the debuting Emily Watson) as his preyed-upon waifs. We didn’t know these women, so it was easy for him to play the savage puppet master. With Nicole Kidman as his lead, he can’t hide the strings. Her presence reveals the contrivance of the enterprise.

Plus, she’s too old for the part.

Chapter 4: Some good is found in the production

I did like the theatricality of the film. (It was shot on a soundstage with no set.) von Trier knows that pushing the movie in that direction will make it easier to swallow; at least it kept me distracted for a while. And John Hurt’s curdled narration works wonderfully well. It achieves what von Trier wants, which is to make the movie feel like a fable complete with moral.

Chapter 5: The last stone is cast, and the post ends

But fables aren’t THREE HOURS long. What makes it worse is knowing exactly where it’s going every single minute. Lars only has two endings in him: either his long-suffering heroine finally kicks, or everyone else does. It’s not hard to divine which one would prevail in this outing. Especially when the sequel was announced long before this gloomfest ever screened.

Sunday, November 21, 2004

Movie: House of Flying Daggers (2004)

Zhang Yimou’s second movie to be released this year, after the surprising success of HERO. Three characters collide in 9th century China: a blind “top showgirl” who is actually a spy for the resistance, the government agent pretending to be her savior, and the agent’s superior and friend, determined to protect his charge’s identity.

The story proves to be intimate and straightforward, not epic (as in HERO) or complexly-structured (CROUCHING TIGER), so at times Yimou’s lush visual style threatens to overwhelm the narrative. But the star troika of Zhang Ziyi, Takeshi Kaneshiro and Andy Lau keeps the film grounded. I didn’t swoon. But I thought about it.

It goes without saying that the movie is extraordinary to behold, with action sequences that are literally breathtaking. Like the “echo game,” combining dance and martial arts, and an ambush in an emerald forest of bamboo.

Book: The Scarecrow Video Movie Guide (2004)

The sneak peek at Zhang’s latest was part of the launch party for this book from Seattle’s legendary video store. It’s home to 80,000 titles and has been called “the best video store in the world” by no less an authority than Bernardo Bertolucci.

Ain’t It Cool News guru Harry Knowles wrote the intro to the book and signed copies after the screening. (In mine, he encouraged me to watch 5 Mickey Rooney films starting with QUICKSAND. Consider it done.)

The book contains reviews of 4,000 movies, almost all of them positive. They were written by the store’s entire staff, which makes the book somewhat uneven. But name another volume that takes the time to cover eight films by France’s master of erotic horror, Jean Rollin. For film buffs, it’s a must-have.

Friday, November 19, 2004

DVD: The Greatest ‘70s Cop Shows

Kim Morgan reviewed this disc of pilot episodes at her blog Sunset Gun. I knew I had to see it for myself. If I echo a lot of her thoughts, well, too bad. There’s only so much that can be said about processed cheese.

S.W.A.T. – The Catholic Church condemned this series for its violence, so my parents declared it off limits. It put me at a disadvantage when my friends and I would play S.W.A.T. in the alley behind the Morton house. “I wanna be Hondo!” “I call Street!” “I’m T.J. McCabe!” They’d look at me with pity and say, “You can be Luca.” Luca’s the Serpico knockoff whose jokes fall flat. I can see why they’d stick me with him.

The pilot is all set-up, complete with training montage. Geoffrey Lewis is great as a hillbilly cop killer with a cloudy motive who dances a jig over his victims’ bodies. We don’t see him do this. We just hear Steve Forrest say it through his permanently clenched jaw. Which is somehow worse.

THE ROOKIES – This thing ran for four years? I don’t know if that means people took too many drugs in the ‘70s or nowhere near enough.

CHARLIE’S ANGELS – The dullest episode of the bunch. Way too much plot. I didn’t watch during the Farrah years. (It took me a while to wear down my parents’ resistance to jiggle TV, which the church wasn’t too fond of either.) She’s no Cheryl Ladd. But I was always a Sabrina man.

STARSKY & HUTCH – A slo-mo SPEED about a bomb in a stolen car. The chemistry between Glaser & Soul makes it bearable, and Suzanne Somers turns up as a go-go dancer.

POLICE WOMAN – Easily the class of the lot. This episode, about an SLA-style gang of bank robbers, still packs a wallop. The cop banter is funny, and there’s some semblance of actual police work. Pepper Anderson is a real character, nipping from a bottle stashed in the office when the violence gets to be too much. Angie Dickinson was always underrated as an actress. She’s one of those smart, earthy women like Janet Leigh that Hollywood didn’t know what to do with.

Oddity alert: both THE ROOKIES and STARSKY & HUTCH include cop-on-punk basketball games scored to “Sweet Georgia Brown.” You see, kids, the Harlem Globetrotters used to be popular. And standards were lax at the ol’ Aaron Spelling factory.

Three of these shows have been turned into movies, none of them winners. It’s worth noting that the only one to play the material straight (S.W.A.T.) is the worst of them. While POLICE WOMAN goes begging for big-screen treatment.

But for the love of God, Hollywood, stay away from THE ROOKIES.

Thursday, November 18, 2004

TV: Monday Night Football

I’ve been asked why I haven’t weighed in on this week’s fiasco involving Terrell Owens and his DESPERATE HOUSEWIVES. I was hoping this tempest in a teacup would blow over; frankly, I’m far more annoyed with ABC over their handling of the SAVING PRIVATE RYAN imbroglio. And much of what I would say has been better expressed by others, such as Alessandra Stanley. I’m just happy DH got a little publicity. I’ve heard the show is struggling. And how much overlap is there between that audience and the MONDAY NIGHT FOOTBALL crowd, anyway?

But the truth is I never miss the opening of MNF. I always want to see which celebrity has been dragooned into introducing the game. Earlier this season, John Travolta talked up Ray Lewis and the Ravens the week that the Baltimore-filmed LADDER 49 opened. Billy Bob Thornton did a bit on coaches that happened to coincide with the release of FRIDAY NIGHT LIGHTS.

Occasionally the intros don’t plug anything. When the Cincinnati Bengals made their first home MNF appearance in 20 years, Leslie Nielsen dusted off his Frank Drebin character from POLICE SQUAD. (Which, come to think of it, was an ABC show.) The season opener had Dennis Hopper in EASY RIDER mode for no discernable reason.

And the cross-promotion doesn’t stop at the intro. During this week’s Eagles-Cowboys match-up, ABC sitcom star George Lopez turned up in the booth with Al and John. Jim Belushi seems to be there every other month. The week of ABC’s first airing of PRIVATE RYAN, Oakland boy Tom Hanks called part of the Raiders game. (Raising the question: is the network in cahoots with the league schedulers or just lucky?)

ABC has essentially turned MNF into one big promotional opportunity. Someone should take them to task for that, instead of complaining about the kind of nudity that’s common in soap commercials.

Miscellaneous: Link

Thanks to Jaime Weinman for linking to this piece by Bruce Bawer on cultural life in the early 1960s.

Wednesday, November 17, 2004

DVD: The Clearing (2004)

The directorial debut of veteran producer Pieter Jan Brugge sank like a stone earlier this summer. It’s the kind of film that requires critical support, which it clearly didn’t get. So I’ll get the ball rolling. THE CLEARING is one of the most intelligent and involving movies I’ve seen this year.

Robert Redford plays a wealthy Pittsburgh businessman who heads out to work one morning only to be kidnapped by his polar opposite (Willem Dafoe), a down-and-outer struggling to get by. The story then splits in two, cutting between Redford and Dafoe as they hike through the woods to meet the people who have ordered the kidnapping, and Redford’s wife Helen Mirren, waiting for some sign that her husband is still alive. The Redford/Dafoe scenes unfold over the course of a few hours, while Mirren’s stretch out for days. Justin Haythe’s script does a wonderful job of using the time differential to build suspense.

But the film isn’t really a thriller. It simply uses the form to meditate on larger questions. Only the final scene falters, taking the subtext and making it literal.

Redford and Dafoe are well-cast, but it’s Mirren who truly shines. Only as the film progresses do we realize that the story is all about her character. In a way, it’s no surprise that THE CLEARING failed to connect commercially. It makes no attempt to pander to the youth audience. From the theme to the casting, it’s about people of a certain age coming to grips with the totality of their lives. You’re not going to sell much popcorn doing that.

Tuesday, November 16, 2004

Movie: The Incredibles (2004)

It’s basically Alan Moore’s WATCHMEN retooled as a family comedy. And damned if it doesn’t work like a charm. I’m glad Brad Bird recognized that Elizabeth Pena has one of the sexiest voices around.

The critical reaction to this movie smacks of a mild Pixar backlash. Slate’s David Edelstein triggered a firestorm when he challenged the film’s take on modern educational philosophy, while some on the left see a more insidious agenda. Personally, I figure that whatever movie opened in the top spot in the wake of the election would be subject to this kind of scrutiny. I’m sure Frank Rich will attach far too much significance to it shortly.

Pixar’s films have been lauded for their storytelling. The Oscar-nominated script for TOY STORY (co-written by Joss Whedon) is as perfectly structured a screenplay as you’ll find. But the action sequences in THE INCREDIBLES also astound; they put anything in the latest Jerry Bruckheimer movie to shame. And in an era when Hollywood has lost the ability to make adventure films with characters, I’m not so sure that’s a bad thing. In recent CGI-heavy films like VAN HELSING and THE DAY AFTER TOMORROW, the actors seemed to be an afterthought. Animated films serve up the spectacle while allowing actors to deliver the goods – plus they only have to work for a couple of days. A week at the outside.

Monday, November 15, 2004

Miscellaneous: Quote of the Day

From THE SIMPSONS: “That’s so ‘90s! Let’s all move to Seattle and use slow modems!”

Yeah, what’s your point?

Book: Destination: Morgue!, by James Ellroy (2004)

Reading this collection of essays and short fiction was one of the more disturbing experiences I’ve had lately. And not entirely in a good way.

Ellroy’s tragic history – the murder of his mother when he was 10 and his subsequent tailspin into petty criminal behavior – has always informed his fiction, and he wrote about it directly in his 1996 memoir MY DARK PLACES. But since then, he’s basically stopped dissembling. There’s no longer any filter between fact and fiction.

For instance, the investigative piece ‘Stephanie’ follows three cold case detectives as they reexamine the 1965 murder of Stephanie Lynn Gorman. The same detectives, barely fictionalized, turn up in the trio of linked novellas that close the book, where they’re still on the hunt for Stephanie’s killer. Ellroy rehashes some of MY DARK PLACES in essays about the crimes that haunted his dreams as a child, and at the end of the book those very crimes inspire his fictional killers. We’re deep into his personal obsessions here, but without the artistry and distance that gave his breakthrough book THE BLACK DAHLIA its power. At times, the proximity to Ellroy’s secret self becomes uncomfortable.

The non-fiction is hit-and-miss. I agreed with his take on the Robert Blake case. I hope at some point Ellroy writes about Phil Spector. That sordid L.A. tale contains everything that interests him – celebrity, cruelty, and a good woman forgotten by the world.

This recent Guardian profile explains the Ellroy mystique. He gave me the thrill of swearing at me when I went to his last book signing. He shook my hand, then said, “Just let me get a bite of my fucking sandwich.” I’ll never wash my ears again.

Miscellaneous: Links

I can’t link to the Variety article about Ben Affleck’s latest ignominy. SURVIVING CHRISTMAS will be released on video on December 21 – a mere eight and a half weeks after it debuted in theaters. A new record. But I can link to this article about novelist Donald E. Westlake and his great success at the movies – in France.

Sunday, November 14, 2004

DVD: Black Angel (1946)

Following the Hollywood dictum “Anything you can do, I can do ... also,” Universal released a film noir collection at the same time that Warner Brothers did. The titles aren’t as well known, but that may work to the films’ advantage. They’re ripe for rediscovery.

BLACK ANGEL, the genuine sleeper of the four, has such a great premise that I’m shocked it’s the only one that hasn’t been remade. June Vincent’s husband is on death row for killing his mistress. She sets out to clear him with an unlikely ally: the mistress’ husband (Dan Duryea).

Other than some questionable police work by Broderick Crawford, what’s not to love? You’ve got Duryea playing a lout, Peter Lorre simpering gloriously, and a lulu of an ending courtesy of Cornell Woolrich. This was the last film by Roy William Neill, who directed many of the Rathbone/Bruce Sherlock Holmes series. It’s a fitting tribute.

DVD: This Gun For Hire (1942)

Does every film noir have to feature what Variety would call a chantoosie? June Vincent becomes one in BLACK ANGEL, and Veronica Lake plays one here.

This adaptation of Graham Greene’s novel proved something of a disappointment, with a plot stitched together by coincidence. But Alan Ladd is fierce as Raven, the hired killer on the run. And I relish any chance to watch Laird Cregar work his peculiar dark magic. He should be mentioned in the same breath as other character actors from the period, like Lorre and Greenstreet. But he acted for only five years before dying at age 28. I watched I WAKE UP SCREAMING a few months ago because I loved the title, but I’ll never forget Cregar’s performance as an implacable detective.

Lake wears a fishing outfit for one of her musical numbers. Black vinyl hip waders with a matching hat. I demand to know why Kim Basinger doesn’t wear one in L.A. CONFIDENTIAL.

Miscellaneous: Links

It’s the annual movie issue of the New York Times magazine. So naturally all of the interesting articles are in other sections of the paper. Here’s a glimpse at some of the academic papers presented at a recent symposium on Godzilla. A.O. Scott offers an appreciation of Sam Fuller and THE BIG RED ONE. And a sitcom set in the world of Halo and Halo 2.

Friday, November 12, 2004

Miscellaneous: Links

Two lists from They Shoot Pictures, Don't They? to get you through the weekend, courtesy of GreenCine Daily. The first is the 1,000 Greatest Films Ever Made, according to surveys of various filmmakers and critics. It's a bracing corrective to the IMDb list. I mean, I like THE SHAWSHANK REDEMPTION, too, but come on.

The second list is far more interesting. It cites 100 movies that came up in the survey of filmmakers and critics - but only once. Call them lost soul movies. Then fire up the Netflix queue.

Thursday, November 11, 2004

Miscellaneous: Bad Night Out

We recently landed free tickets to one of those dinner-and-a-show extravaganzas. A five-course meal punctuated by circus acts, the kind of night meant to make every clock-puncher feel like a potentate along the lines of Genghis Khan or Steve Wynn. I generally don’t believe in mixing soup and acrobats. But the show had gotten good reviews, and it unfolds in a rare jewel box theater imported from Belgium. I wanted a look inside.

But first, I scoured those reviews for the two most dreaded words in the English language: audience participation.

It’s not that I have a problem with making a fool of myself in public. I’ve done it before and will shortly do so again, in front of my biggest audience yet. But it’s my decision to do so. I don’t want to be compelled into humiliation. Hands off, Tati. No ‘professional’ is needed to help me have a good time. I’m a mirth generator, thank you very much.

The reviews give no sign, but I should have known better. There’s always audience participation at a show like this. The first bit isn’t too bad – a poor schmoe pulled out of his chair for some awkward jitterbugging. But the second guy ends up shirtless. The audience is howling throughout. It’s part relief, part encouragement, and all unpleasant. I thought of Baudelaire: “When I hear laughter, I hear the roar of the wild beast.”

The next victim was the most obviously reluctant, which made his transformation into a drag queen even funnier to the crowd. I made my excuses and left before the main course was served. Maybe I’m a spoilsport, but I can’t stand that stuff. It’s the lowest rung on the show business ladder.

For what it’s worth, the theater was lovely.

Cable Catch-Up: DiG!

Ondi Timoner’s award-winning documentary debuts on the Sundance Channel while still in theatrical release. It’s worth seeing however you catch up with it.

The film profiles two up-and-coming West Coast rock bands in the midst of a friendly rivalry. The Dandy Warhols have one minor U.S. hit (“Not If You Were The Last Junkie On Earth”) which leads to a massive career in Europe. By the end of the film, they’re headlining in front of 100,000 people. Meanwhile, the Brian Jonestown Massacre are destined for greatness. Just ask front man Anton Newcombe. He’s a real-life version of Jack Black’s character from SCHOOL OF ROCK, always talking revolution and how it’s all about the music. He’d be amusing if it weren’t for his chronic drug addiction and a family history of mental illness. In concert, he not only picks fights with fellow band members but his own fans. He’s a case study in self-destruction, yet he’s still out there performing. Maybe because he can’t do anything else.

A&R reps are quick to tout Newcombe as a genius, and his sound does presage the rise of the garage rock movement spearheaded by the White Stripes. But I have to say I like the Dandys better. Bear in mind I’m a total sellout.

Wednesday, November 10, 2004

DVD: The Bird With The Crystal Plumage (1969)

It sounds better in Italian. L’UCCELLO DALLE PIUME DI CRISTALLO. I’ll take that over the American reissue title, THE PHANTOM OF TERROR.

Dario Argento has made some riveting horror movies, most notably SUSPIRIA. But his straight thrillers leave me cold. This one plays like a rip-off of BLOW-UP. (So does DEEP RED, which goes so far as to use BLOW-UP’s star David Hemmings.) The dream logic that adds to Argento’s supernatural films works against the plot here, and the set-pieces are so stylized that they’re drained of any suspense. The movie pulled off the unique trick of making me appreciate Brian DePalma’s sense of story and characterization.

The plot summary on the envelope from Netflix noted that the film starred Tony Musante from TOMA. I wasn’t sure that series was a selling point until I mentioned the actor’s name to Rosemarie and she said, “From TOMA?”

Noticed: About Schmidt (2002)

Look fast in this Alexander Payne movie and you’ll see Jack Nicholson’s motor home roll past a theater marquee advertising SIDEWAYS.

Miscellaneous: Link

The New York Times ventures to the Screenwriting Expo’s pitch-a-thon. Here’s a perfect example of “helpful” Hollywood thinking. A computer geek from Texas pitches his sci-fi epic to a pair of producers. They pass, then say:

“Why don’t you fire another one at us? ... Pick your best.”

Considering that the guy paid over eighty bucks to get in, I’d assume that was his best.

Miscellaneous: Huh?

Spotted this on one of those music kiosks now taking up space at Starbucks everywhere, in reference to the album LARGO by Brad Mehldau:

“The counter-melody propels the lyric, sending the listener into a glistening sea of contemplation.”

Incidentally, the song being played was an instrumental.

Tuesday, November 09, 2004

Movie: Sideways (2004)

Alexander Payne scores again with one of the year’s best films. He somehow got me to empathize with a would-be writer in his 30s amassing an impressive collection of near-miss rejection letters. Amazing.

Unlike many of his contemporaries, Payne steers away from the fanciful and grounds his films in keen observation of human interaction. Maybe it’s because he’s spent much of his life in Omaha, outside the L.A./New York showbiz nexus. Or it could be that, with the exception of CITIZEN RUTH, his films have all been adaptations. He’s able to get outside of his own head and into the world.

His films focus on people whose lives haven’t quite fulfilled their expectations. Payne has the daring to cast this movie accordingly. Thomas Haden Church, a skilled TV actor who never quite broke through, plays a skilled TV actor who never quite broke through. Virginia Madsen was once touted as the next big thing, only to end up as a straight-to-cable starlet. She’s luminous here as a woman who has accepted her lot but is still looking for opportunities to shine.

With his performances here and in AMERICAN SPLENDOR, Paul Giamatti has become the male counterpart to Julianne Moore. Both specialize in characters convinced that the world isn’t listening to what they have to say. The only difference is that Moore’s characters are described by critics as martyrs, or victims of an unfeeling patriarchy. They aren’t dismissed as losers. Just saying.

The movie unfolds during the course of a weeklong wine binge – sorry, tasting tour – in Santa Barbara. I’m no oenophile, so I can’t speak to the accuracy of the wine material. I can tell you that a guy sitting two rows behind me moaned appreciatively at the mention of several vintages, so I’m willing to bet that the movie got it right.

Miscellaneous: Link

It’s the website of the moment, and with good reason. Publishing insider Mad Max Perkins vents his spleen at Book Angst. And Slate offers an appreciation of the 9/11 Commission report as narrative journalism.

Monday, November 08, 2004

Book: A Third Face, by Samuel Fuller (2002)

This memoir by the filmmaker would be considerably shorter if all references to the testicles were removed. Fuller is forever working on one of his “ballsy yarns,” each of which has a “grab-‘em-by-the-balls opening.” Those descriptions are accurate. The book is written the way Fuller talked, which is one of the reasons why I loved it.

Fuller was a master of the B-movie, pushing the form to its limits. Anyone who’s seen PICKUP ON SOUTH STREET, THE NAKED KISS or SHOCK CORRIDOR will vouch for that. He also led an extraordinary life, as reporter, soldier, filmmaker, and human being. His book is studded with memorable encounters with the likes of Jim Morrison, Marlene Dietrich, Hitchcock, Fassbinder. Reading it has only stoked my anticipation for the restored version of his 1980 WWII epic THE BIG RED ONE, slowly making its way around the country before its DVD release.

Conventional wisdom says that a B-movie sensibility has permeated Hollywood. Looking at any Fuller movie, you realize how untrue that is. His films contained shocking plot developments that provoked the audience into thought. (No less a B-movie authority than Roger Corman said that some trace of political awareness was a key ingredient in making a successful picture.) Big-budget films kept the twists without connecting them to the real world. They’re used as fashion statements, not personal or political ones. They don’t challenge any preconceived notions.

As for indie filmmakers, as much as I enjoy this current flowering of their work, they’ve retreated in the other direction. Too many of them make films that come out of their own heads – or other movies – and not life on the ground around us. We desperately need someone like Fuller right now, someone who will merge life and art into a heightened reality. Who’ll make a picture that tells you something about the world while grabbing you by the short hairs, goddamn it!

Sorry. Read 559 pages and it’s bound to rub off on you.

TV: The Surreal Life

I’ll admit it. I watched the entire third season. I’m not proud of it. But no experience is wasted. Here’s what I learned:

- Brigitte Nielsen is terrifying.
- Flavor Flav can be annoying.
- Dave Coulier is a nice, if dull, guy.
- Charo is actually kind of cool.
- AMERICAN IDOL contestants like Ryan Starr have an inflated sense of their own importance.
- Jordan Knight was apparently in New Kids on the Block.

On second thought, I didn’t learn anything.

Sunday, November 07, 2004

Movie: Ray (2004)

Going into a biopic, you generally know what to expect: a towering lead performance that threatens to overwhelm the movie, a script with a complex structure meant to mask volumes of exposition, newspaper articles griping about the short shrift given to others in the main character’s life.

‘Twas ever thus, until the writing/producing team of Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski monkeyed with the formula. They chose unconventional subjects like Ed Wood, Larry Flynt and Andy Kaufman. And they dispensed with the “sweep of a man’s life” approach, limiting their focus to a few critical years. For a while, the genre seemed fresh again.

But Ray Charles simply looms too large as a cultural figure for that method to work. Taylor Hackford’s film goes the old-fashioned route, to largely positive effect. The movie occasionally falls into the biopic trap of seeming like an artifact from the era it’s depicting – the sequence showing Charles’ withdrawal from heroin addiction is right out of a ‘50s melodrama – but on the whole it’s solid big-studio filmmaking.

Jamie Foxx is every bit as good as early word indicated, nailing Charles’ reticent speech and ungainly walk, communicating volumes without using his eyes. The script by James L. White doesn’t shy away from the man’s selfish, domineering side. Charles’ music is the movie’s trump card, providing a joyous buzz that propels the film through its dull patches.

RAY runs out of air just past the two-hour mark, when it introduces a key character (Harry Lennix as Charles’ new right-hand man) at the exact moment it should start winding down. The concluding rehab sequence feels rushed, and glib psychology abounds. But overall it celebrates the man and his music in a respectful way.

The same day I saw the movie I happened to catch a few minutes of the 2003 documentary TOM DOWD AND THE LANGUAGE OF MUSIC on the Sundance Channel. Dowd, one of the premier recording engineers and producers, is depicted in RAY by actor Rick Gomez as the bright young man in the control booth solving everyone’s problems. The doc features interviews with Charles as well as Atlantic Records moguls Ahmet Ertegun and Jerry Wexler. Actors Curtis Armstrong and Richard Schiff did them proud.

Friday, November 05, 2004

Cable Catch-Up: Dracula, Pages From A Virgin’s Diary (2002)

Guy Maddin pays no attention to calendars. His movies address modern themes using silent film techniques. Sometimes they work, and sometimes they really don’t.

But in DRACULA, technique and subject matter blend perfectly. The Royal Winnipeg Ballet’s production of the Bram Stoker novel, choreographed by Mark Godden, is brought to the screen in mesmerizing fashion. It’s in black and white, with startling tints of color. There’s no dialogue, but Maddin employs sound innovatively, weaving it into the music by Gustav Mahler.

Zhang Wei-Qiang makes a seductive, irresistible Count. By telling the story solely through dance, the film does a miraculous job of retaining the erotic charge of Stoker’s tale. In many ways, it’s the strongest adaptation of the novel I’ve ever seen.

Book: The Handbook of Practical Spying (2004)

This silly little book from Washington D.C.’s International Spy Museum is by Jack Barth, although his name doesn’t appear on the cover. It’s written with what Rosemarie calls “a tone.” For instance, Barth refers to the knighthood received by Cambridge spy Anthony Blunt as “the most embarrassing royal honor bestowed on any Brit until Phil Collins.” Still, the book does a surprisingly good job of laying out basic espionage techniques and adapting them for everyday use. Barth suggests an innovative way to keep people from swiping your lunch out of the office refrigerator.

I visited the Spy Museum on my last visit to D.C. and heartily recommend it. You can actually crawl through a vent in the building, like a secret agent in countless movies and TV shows. That alone made it worth the trip.

Thursday, November 04, 2004

TV: The Wire

Yesterday was a strange day. Everyone seemed to be drawn inward, weighing the results of the election, contemplating the future. I was in a good solid funk myself.

Then I turned on this week’s episode of THE WIRE. An hour later, the fog had lifted. Spending time in the company of characters I’ve come to know so well was all I needed to right my equilibrium. It demonstrates the power of narrative, which Jack O’Connell describes so movingly in this piece.

Book: The Box, by Peter Rabe (1962)

The best way to get back in the crime fiction swing is to turn to older material. This novel makes up half of a Stark House Noir reprint. It’s got a crackerjack premise. A crate is opened in a dusty North African town. Inside is Quinn, a one-time Mafia lawyer being shipped around the world for his sins. Quinn seizes the opportunity to set up a new racket, only to realize that one way or another, he’s always going to be trapped in that box. Donald Westlake cites Rabe as a major influence, and you can clearly see why. Lean writing, with nary a wasted word.

The other day I was browsing in a used book store and found a novel based on the TV series MANNIX by J.T. MacCargo. It turns out that MacCargo was actually Peter Rabe. If I’d known that, I’d have bought it.

DVD: Laserblast (1978)

I saw this at the Astoria Quad, double-billed with Christopher Lee in THE END OF THE WORLD. A teenage outcast with the chronic inability to button his shirt finds an alien ray gun. He uses it to smite his enemies, unaware that the aliens are hunting for the weapon – and that every time he fires it, he mutates a little more.

This played a lot better when I was ten. But David Allen’s stop-motion aliens look as cool as I remembered.

Wednesday, November 03, 2004

DVD: Dawn of the Dead (2004)

So many of the blogs I read regularly have either gone silent or focus exclusively on the election results. I’ve decided to riff on some horror movies I watched over the weekend. Whether that’s a contrarian impulse or a political statement is up to you.

This remake of George Romero’s 1978 landmark has a few effective moments and a strong cast, but when it was over I was more than disappointed. I was irritated. It’s nowhere near as scary as the original and has none of its pungent social commentary. I blame the fast zombies.

The deliberate pace of Romero’s film gave us time to appreciate the full horror of what had befallen the world. It also made the suspense almost unendurable. With zombies as fast as Carl Lewis, the remake becomes an action movie. A particularly dumb one, with characters behaving idiotically.

I believe in judging remakes on their own terms. But when you invoke a classic title, that history must be acknowledged. The original film is the one of the most disturbing and powerful I’ve ever seen. Nothing in this version compares. OK, there’s a zombie baby. But there’s a difference between a cheap shock and a profoundly challenging idea.

The ending is a dismal cheat, one that negates all that’s gone before. And the extras – 20 minutes of bogus news footage and a video diary by a minor character – only add to the unpleasantness. Romero has a new zombie film in the works. I hope it washes the taste of this one away.

Movie: Bay of Blood (1971)

Also known as BLOODBATH, CARNAGE, LAST HOUSE ON THE LEFT II, and TWITCH OF THE DEATH NERVE. Now those are titles!

IFC aired this as part of their tribute to Mario Bava. A group of people at an isolated house are killed off one by one in unbelievably brutal ways. Bava serves up the mayhem with his typical bravura style, and when the admittedly paper-thin story is resolved, it turns out a perverse moral order has been at work all along. (The twist ending is phenomenal.) In the countless American rip-offs – most notably the FRIDAY THE 13th series – there’s none of that. We only get the gore. Typical.

Miscellaneous: Link

Time for a little blatant self-promotion. My extended review of Criterion’s EYES WITHOUT A FACE DVD is now up at Jeff Wells’ Hollywood Elsewhere.

Tuesday, November 02, 2004

Miscellaneous: Report From The Polls

No lines to speak of when I showed up at an off-peak hour. Just a steady influx of voters. A few turned in their absentee ballots in person. Which begs the question: why did you need an absentee ballot if you’re here? I know some people like to vote in the privacy of their own homes. The neighboring state of Oregon now does all of their voting by mail. But I enjoy the ritual of going to the polling place. It underscores the gravity of the task.

I thought about taking the day off from the site, but who am I kidding? I need to keep myself occupied. So herewith, a few posts continuing the day’s theme ...

TV: Soldiers Pay

David O. Russell made this documentary to accompany a planned special edition DVD of his Desert Storm drama THREE KINGS. When Warner Brothers balked, IFC stepped in, scheduling the film for the night before the election.

Russell bites off more than he can chew in 35 minutes. There are two potentially compelling storylines: revisiting the Iraqi-American actors who appeared in THREE KINGS, and reconstructing the theft of Saddam Hussein’s money by U.S. soldiers in a real-life echo of the earlier film’s plot. Both get short shrift so that Russell has room for an unfocused critique of the war. Much as I hate to agree with The Man, Warners was right to drop this movie and let Russell screen it on its own.

DVD: Secret Honor (1984)

Philip Baker Hall’s searing performance in this one-man show about Richard M. Nixon gave him an underground fame long before Paul Thomas Anderson made him one of our premier character actors. Robert Altman brought it to the screen in an ultra-low-budget 16mm production crewed by grad students. Criterion’s DVD gives new life to what critic Michael Wilmington calls “perhaps the least seen and appreciated of all the great American films of the 1980s.”

Nixon, fueled by Chivas Regal and bitterness in the wake of his resignation, rants into a tape recorder about his life. His ravings about the corruption of the system – you mean rich people try to influence politics? – aren’t as interesting as his attacks on Eisenhower and that “whoremonger” Henry Kissinger. Nixon may have been vilified by the left and disowned by everyone on the right except Gov. Schwarzenegger. But he remains a figure of Shakespearean depths, and Hall makes the most of it.

The extras include 81 minutes of archival footage. All of Tricky Dick’s greatest hits are here: the ‘Checkers’ speech, his farewell to the White House staff. Seeing the genuine article only adds to the impact of Hall’s performance.

Monday, November 01, 2004

Movie: Tron (1982)

The failure of this movie, the TRS-80 version of THE MATRIX, ushered in the Eisner/Katzenberg era at Disney. At the time of its release, SF fans didn’t show it much respect. I was at a convention when a roll of 20 TRON lobby posters were put on the auction block as a joke. A friend of mine bid a quarter. There were no other offers. My friend was roundly booed as he went up to collect his prize.

That investment may have paid off handily, because TRON has gone on to develop a sizeable cult following. I had the opportunity to see the movie on the big screen again for the first time in 22 years at Seattle’s Science Fiction Museum and Hall of Fame. The usher who took my ticket referred to the movie by its hip-hop name, T-Ron. Tell me that’s not a sign of street cred.

Hugo- and Nebula-winning author Greg Bear made a terrific host. He pointed out what a spectacular gamble the movie was, because it was attempting to convey cinematically concepts that the audience was then largely unfamiliar with. William Gibson had yet to coin the word ‘cyberspace,’ most people hadn’t used computers, and the internet was still in its nascent form. He also singled out the simplicity and elegance of the movie’s design. Director/co-writer Steven Lisberger knew exactly what the technology was capable of and built the visuals around those limitations. As a result, the film still holds up.

TRON remains a treat to look at, but it’s not exactly a classic in terms of storytelling. There’s a lot of ham-handed religious symbolism, and the script unwisely splits its focus between Flynn (Jeff Bridges), a real-world programmer who gets sucked inside a computer, and Bruce Boxleitner’s titular piece of code. Still, the play of ideas is intriguing, and David Warner plays multiple hissable roles.

The ending is essentially an endorsement of open source software. Which seemed odd, considering we were a stone’s throw from Microsoft HQ. If there were employees in the audience, they wisely held their tongues.

Miscellaneous: Links

Speaking of the internet, an archive of dotcom business plans is in the works. David Casstevens writes a wonderful article on the slow demise of the freak show. And courtesy of Liz Penn, here’s Bill Murray at his finest.