Monday, January 31, 2005

Movie: Captain Newman, M.D. (1963)

The strangest moment in Kevin Spacey’s bizarrely entertaining Bobby Darin biopic BEYOND THE SEA recreates a scene from this movie. When TCM aired it over the weekend, I had to check it out.

Darin received a best supporting actor Oscar nomination for his performance as a WWII pilot suffering from post-traumatic stress. He’s put under sedation by Army psychiatrist Gregory Peck and relives the crash that triggered his collapse. It’s one of those bravura acting moments that the Academy loves.

Spacey seems to be channeling Dean Martin when he reenacts the sequence. It doesn’t help that the dialogue has been compressed, so that Darin goes from talking about “balloon smugglers” to screaming incoherently in the space of 45 seconds. The scene makes Darin look like a bad actor, when in CAPTAIN NEWMAN he’s actually quite good.

As for the rest of the movie ... eh. The seriocomic tone never gels, and whatever impact the psychiatry scenes might have had has been diminished by every episode of M*A*S*H featuring Allan Arbus’ Major Sidney Freedman.

Book: Black Money, by Ross MacDonald (1965)

Shamefaced admission time. I’ve never read any of MacDonald’s Lew Archer novels. When Rara Avis, the hardboiled fiction list, chose this title as their January book, I was happy to remedy that.

MONEY may not have been the best introduction – I’ve been told THE CHILL and THE ZEBRA-STRIPED HEARSE are his finest – but I certainly intend to read more of MacDonald’s work. Archer is a wryly dispassionate observer of class differences and family struggles. And there are plenty of nice turns of phrase.

Miscellaneous: Links

Mark Evanier links to this article explaining why the lawsuit claiming that MGM defrauded DVD buyers is wrong. The pictures helped a lot. Mark also brings the sad news that producer Philip De Guere has died. De Guere was responsible for the late ‘80s CBS revival of THE TWILIGHT ZONE, which featured fine episodes like ‘Her Pilgrim Soul’ and Harlan Ellison’s award-winning ‘Paladin of the Lost Hour.’

Two good pieces in today’s New York Times. Caryn James compares the revival of David Rabe’s HURLYBURLY to the 1998 film version. And a look at a company that teaches leadership skills from Shakespeare to the military. My favorite quote:

We once got Rumsfeld to wear a robe and crown. Then it took us two days to get it off him.”

Sunday, January 30, 2005

Website Update: Traffic Report

I knew that plugging the site on IFC’s Ultimate Film Fanatic would have some impact. But I kept my expectations modest. We’re talking digital cable here. A few extra visitors, I figured.

In the ten days since the show aired, traffic has more than tripled. I’m flabbergasted. I even got a shout-out from the Cinetrix. Praise from Caesar indeed. The moral of the story, kids: TV works, and don’t let anyone tell you different.

So to those of you who found the site because of my nationally televised flameout, let me officially say welcome. I hope you like what you see, and feel free to come on back.

And to those regulars who stumbled onto the site before that, whether through blind luck or chronic insomnia, I’d like to say thank you. Your feedback has kept me going.

Website Update: Links

I’ve added a few illustrious names to the blogroll, which you can find here. As for the theory page, I know I haven’t updated it in a while. But I will. Someday. Eventually.

Miscellaneous: Links

Let me turn over the reins to Tony Kay, the staunch cineaste who bested me on UFF. Here’s his reminiscence of meeting legendary Japanese director Seijun Suzuki.

He’s also written an appreciation of the Mexican film SANTA CLAUS, which appears on a website devoted the oeuvre of producer K. Gordon Murray. (Thus marking the first time the words oeuvre and K. Gordon Murray have appeared in the same sentence.) Tony described SANTA CLAUS on the show – the jolly old elf scores wacky dust from Merlin the Magician and sets out to do battle with Satan – and was kind enough to give all of his fellow contestants a copy of the film for Christmas. It damn near ruined my holiday.

Friday, January 28, 2005

DVD: Tightrope (1984)

Watching this movie when I was a teenager made me feel so ... mature. Clint Eastwood plays a kinky variation on his Dirty Harry persona as a New Orleans detective on the trail of a serial killer. It turns out Eastwood’s character frequents the same seedy French Quarter establishments as his quarry.

Every thriller now features some version of the “we’re not so different, you and I” scene between hero and villain. But in 1984 it was still fresh, and TIGHTROPE earned its share of respectful reviews like this rave from Roger Ebert.

I revisited the movie, and within three minutes I knew my positive memories were suspect. It opens with a chase scene consisting of close-ups of feet. As suspense clichés go, that’s right up there with having a character surprised by a cat.

The forensics material runs too long, the scenes of Eastwood coping with single father status are flat, and the exploration of his darker aspects seems superficial. But to a high school kid watching the movie on late-night cable, it felt like the height of sophistication.

The film does get better as it goes along, thanks in large part to Genevieve Bujold. She’s part of a tradition of strong women appearing in Eastwood films.

Current Obsession: Monkey to Man

I can’t get enough of the video for Elvis Costello’s Grammy-nominated song, which you can view at his website. Jugglers, gorillas, and a bevy of beach party babes cutting vintage moves. It’s the wildest green room party ever.

Noticed: Bad Example

Former New York Giants linebacker Harry Carson has asked to withdraw his name from consideration for induction into the Football Hall of Fame. He’s understandably tired of being passed over. In his argument, he cites the fact that Rod Stewart has never won a Grammy.

Trust me, Mr. Carson. That’s not your best case. Hitchcock never won an Oscar. Use that.

TV: Laugh-In

Here’s a phrase I’m determined to bring into popular usage: “Let’s go. The kids are in the joke wall.

Miscellaneous: Link

Apparently, the studios are no longer in the Oscar business. Thanks to

Thursday, January 27, 2005

DVD: Mr. Blandings Builds His Dream House (1948)

It’s no classic, just a well-crafted studio comedy of its era. But there’s still plenty to recommend.

- It hasn’t really dated. The plot, about New Yorkers shucking the city for suburban splendor, is a comic staple, and this version holds up better than more recent treatments (THE MONEY PIT, FUNNY FARM). Even the specifics – like Manhattanites striving to get their kids into the right schools only to feel vaguely threatened by what they learn there – have resonance.

- Cary Grant is so skilled an actor that he can score laughs by not saying something, or by holding a glance at Myrna Loy a beat longer than you expect. He’s particularly fine in the near-wordless opening sequence, struggling to get dressed in the family’s too-cramped digs.

- Melvyn Douglas’ wry voiceover is reminiscent of a Robert Benchley short.

- The closing scene, in which the movie abruptly gets all meta on the viewer’s ass, blew my mind as a kid. It still comes as a surprise.

Book: Killy, by Donald E. Westlake (1963)

I try not to read two books by the same author in a row. But I think of Westlake and Richard Stark as different people anyway.

This is the fourth novel published under Westlake’s own name, according to his bibliography. I wanted to see how my spiritual uncle (the position of spiritual father is already taken by Lawrence Block) started out.

A young college student interns at a national labor union. He and the title character head for a New York mill town to follow up on a worker’s request to start a local. When the worker is found dead, the outsiders are framed for his murder.

There are a few youthful excesses. At times Westlake pushes his protagonist’s naïveté. But so many of the master’s gifts are already in evidence: the sense of place, the ability to reveal unsuspected and unsavory depths in his characters.

The book I read was a U.K. edition, so people in upstate New York were doing favours and holding lifts.

As if I wasn’t a big enough Westlake fan already, it turns out he wrote the pilot episode of SUPERTRAIN, the series that almost killed NBC in the ‘70s. There’s got to be a book in that.

Wednesday, January 26, 2005

TV: Gamewatch

Behold a miracle of the push-button age: On Demand. This cable feature allows for so much more than the ability to watch the entire first season of ENTOURAGE in an all-night binge. You can also avail yourself of exclusive original programming. Like Modern Manners, a series of short films on the appropriate etiquette for trailer parks (no wind chimes, easy on the garden gnomes) and bachelor parties (ditto).

Gamewatch is a personal favorite. It’s a cheesy how-to series on casino gambling that doesn’t just explain table games, but gives guided tours of the latest slot machines. New ones are released every week, and Gamewatch is there to provide the lowdown.

The problem is that all slot machines operate on the same basic principles. Only the pictures and host Jeff Colt’s inane patter changes. But that’s enough to keep me watching. Licensing is a huge part of the gambling industry, so I tune in to see how the LAVERNE & SHIRLEY game capitalizes on the TV show, or how the bonus features on the HOLLYWOOD SQUARES machine pay off. Jeff’s advice never varies: always bet the maximum. I also appreciate the problem gambling PSA that opens each installment.

I’m hoping Jeff gets around to some of these movie-themed games. I want to see them in action. A FISTFUL OF DOLLARS machine? One that pays off with a clip from CREATURE FROM THE BLACK LAGOON?

Come to think of it, I’m due for a trip to Las Vegas.

DVD: The Letter (1940)

Turner Classic Movies runs an annual viewers’ choice contest to determine which titles from the vault will be released on video. This year’s winners tend toward entertaining hooey like ICE STATION ZEBRA and IVANHOE, but they come at the expense of some worthy alternatives: the classic I AM A FUGITIVE FROM A CHAIN GANG, the union corruption drama EDGE OF THE CITY, and Raquel Welch in KANSAS CITY BOMBER.

It’s the last one that really hurts.

William Wyler’s production is the class of the lot. This adaptation of Somerset Maugham unfolds in a handful of extended scenes. Bette Davis kills a man and claims self-defense. Then word of the titular missive surfaces, threatening her case.

It’s a lush, entertaining film. But one aspect of the storytelling made it seem like a relic: no flashbacks. When a man dies in the opening scene, I figure we’ll get to meet him in flashbacks. I’ve come to expect it. But that doesn’t happen here. In fact, we never even see the dead man’s face.

Tuesday, January 25, 2005

Noticed: Oscar Nominations

They’re out. I called all five Best Picture nominees. Not that it was hard. THE AVIATOR, MILLION DOLLAR BABY and SIDEWAYS were locks. I just assumed that the Academy would make conservative choices.

Ignoring Paul Giamatti is the most glaring oversight in recent Oscar history. SIDEWAYS, represented in so many other key categories, revolves around his performance. The omission could mean that support for the movie isn’t that deep. It’s entirely possible that it could go home empty-handed, which would be a shame.

I love the post-nomination analysis that says Clint Eastwood “got” Giamatti’s slot. As if anybody can parse the Academy’s arcane voting system. And why treat the nomination of a major star who anchors a Best Picture candidate as unexpected?

Alan Alda’s supporting nod for THE AVIATOR was a pleasant surprise. He’s in the movie’s best non-Cate Blanchett scenes as a senator so accustomed to power that he doesn’t realize how transparent his caginess is. (“On the committee? Or chairman of the committee?”) Alda has a shelf full of Emmys, but he’s still underrated as an actor.

The writers’ branch distinguished themselves with nods for THE INCREDIBLES and BEFORE SUNSET. I never thought of the latter as an adaptation, but I’ll allow it. I would have liked to have seen nominations for Patrick Marber’s CLOSER script and the landmark digital video cinematography of Dion Beebe and Paul Cameron in COLLATERAL. They’ll just have to settle for being historically significant.

Any bets that we’ll hear some conservative complain that THE PASSION OF THE CHRIST was only nominated for tech honors while the “pro-choice” VERA DRAKE scored in three major categories?

Overall, it’s a dull list. Chris Rock has his work cut out for him.

Classics I Somehow Missed: Peyton Place (1957)

Is this considered a classic? Probably, because the title has entered the lexicon. As Rosemarie said in the middle of the movie, “This town’s so crazy with the secrets it’s like ... well, Peyton Place.”

I turned it on as a lark, expecting a dated soap opera. Instead, I found myself riveted for the full 162 minutes. More than a few scenes are genuinely shocking. Credit a strong script by frequent Hitchcock collaborator John Michael Hayes. He weaves the many threads in Grace Metalious’ novel together beautifully. Although the climactic speech is a little much.

For me, the film’s biggest surprise was the performance of Russ Tamblyn. His character starts out as a bookish kid dominated by his mother. After Pearl Harbor, he enlists in the paratrooper corps, the most dangerous duty available. When we next see him, he’s relaxed, confident, and – hell, I’ll say it – sexy. Tamblyn conveys a complete transformation with a few well-chosen gestures. He was deservedly nominated for an Oscar.

Monday, January 24, 2005

R.I.P. Johnny Carson

On Saturday, the day before Johnny passed away, I opened a piece of junk mail as Karnak the Magnificent for what must be the thousandth time.

Macintosh, a Ford Pinto, and Dolly Parton.”
Name an apple, a lemon, and a pear.”

I know. The gag works better aloud.

I started watching late night TV near the end of Johnny’s reign, and initially I had a punk kid’s attitude toward him. I was firmly in David Letterman’s camp. But then so was Johnny; his company produced Dave’s 12:30 show on NBC. (It also made THE BIG CHILL.)

In a 1991 episode of THE SIMPSONS, Bart and Lisa are watching THE TONIGHT SHOW. Johnny (voiced by Harry Shearer) jokes that Milli Vanilli was arrested for impersonating a McNugget. Bart turns to Lisa and says, “It’s still fun to be up late.” Two years later, Johnny appeared as himself on the episode ‘Krusty Gets Kancelled,’ which ends with Bart calling Johnny the greatest entertainer on television. My appreciation of him underwent a similar transformation.

By the end of his run, I came to hugely admire his pinpoint timing, his skill at reading an audience, his ability to salvage a flopped joke or a soft interview. After his retirement, I admired him even more. It takes guts to go out on top and stay out. That sense of restraint seems positively quaint in the reality TV era. To find out that in the last months of his life he was quietly contributing jokes to Letterman’s monologues only adds to his image.

Johnny started on television in a time when the pop culture universe wasn’t so fragmented. No doubt that contributed to Johnny’s status in TV history, heights to which no performer will ever ascend again. But it was his talent and personality, a kind of forceful modesty, that made the climb possible. He was truly one of the greats.

Book: Nobody Runs Forever, by Richard Stark (2004)

Nobody gets me back in the crime fiction swing like Stark, aka Donald E. Westlake. His series about Parker, an icy professional thief, has been around for almost 40 years. This latest entry is as sharp and lean as fans have come to expect.

The books hew to a rigorous structure. They’re broken into four parts, with three told from Parker’s point of view and the other by characters whose actions will affect Parker’s heist. (Here, it’s a complicated armored car robbery.) The format doesn’t prevent Stark from subtly acknowledging Parker’s age in this outing, which only adds to its impact.

Miscellaneous: Link

Get yer Razzies while they’re hot!

Sunday, January 23, 2005

TV: Ultimate Film Fanatic

If you didn’t watch my appearance on IFC’s game show ... what’s the matter with you? It airs again Tuesday night at 10:30 PM Eastern, 7:30 and 10:30 Pacific.

I said in the comments below that I’d write about it after the repeat aired. There are game show police, after all, and I don’t want to tick them off. Then I figured what the hell. The best way to hang on to new readers is with fresh material. Let’s see if I can do this without getting on anyone’s bad side.

Bearing in mind that I have no objectivity on this score, this episode of UFF was the best one I’ve seen. The trivia rounds were hard fought, with some difficult questions. A few of them went to me. (BRIDE OF CHUCKY? My longtime crush on Jennifer Tilly finally pays off.) I squared off against the estimable Tom Tangney, film critic for Seattle’s KIRO radio. The man hides devastating cinematic knowledge behind a devil-may-care grin. His fine reviews can be enjoyed here.

The debates were also solid, because they were actual debates. Having each contestant offer their choice for best sex scene (RISKY BUSINESS vs. DESPERADO), which happened in the previous show, is a disagreement. A debate is one issue, pro vs. con. And for the record, the best sex scene is in DON’T LOOK NOW, closely followed by BOUND. Jennifer Tilly again.

I’ve been asked more than once about what my final obsession item in the last round would have been. Here’s your answer: a replica of the statue from THE MALTESE FALCON which Rosemarie gave me the morning we got married. It was the only gift I received that day, and she chose it because it was our love for old movies and Bogart films in particular that brought us together.

Cute story, isn’t it? In a rehearsal for the producers, I made two production assistants tear up. Celebrity judge Tatum O’Neal would have loved it.

Tony Kay, my indomitable opponent, would have presented a publicity still from 1975’s THE DEVIL’S RAIN. In the photo, a nearly naked William Shatner is lashed to a table.

The photo is autographed. By Shatner. To Tony and his wife Rita.

The tale of Shatner’s reaction to the photo and his decision to sign it – delivered with Tony’s flawless Shatner imitation – would have trumped the Falcon any day of the week. Even with Tatum on my side.

On the whole, I’m thrilled with how the show came out. I went down swinging, I got to plug the website on national TV, and by all accounts my hair looked sharp, which in the end is all that matters.

Best of all, I had the opportunity to meet my fellow contestants, all of whom love movies as much as I do. The film references flowed during those days. I came home feeling drunk. As Bob B., one of the Seattle Six, said as we parted company in the airport, “Usually you get beaten up for talking like this.” Instead, we got paid, and made new friends into the bargain. What could be better?

Thursday, January 20, 2005

Operation Travolta: Rutger Hauer

I’ve seen things you people wouldn’t believe. Attack ships on fire off the shoulder of Orion. I watched C-beams glitter in the dark near the Tannhauser gate. All those moments will be lost in time, like tears in rain. Time to die.”

Rutger Hauer delivered those lines in 1982’s BLADE RUNNER, playing the fugitive replicant Roy Batty. His performance elevates the film from design masterpiece to stirring exploration of what it means to be human.

Hauer hasn’t had a role that powerful since. Some enterprising filmmaker should give him one.

He first came to the world’s attention in the films of Paul Verhoeven. My favorite of their collaborations is SOLDIER OF ORANGE (1979), a gripping saga of the Dutch resistance during WWII. I had the opportunity to see it on the big screen a few years ago. It deserves to be better known.

Like most European actors in Hollywood, Hauer was initially cast as a villain. The appearances are memorable: the angelic terrorist Wulfgar in one of Sylvester Stallone’s few good films, NIGHTHAWKS (1981), Batty in BLADE RUNNER, the title role in 1986’s THE HITCHER. Occasionally he got the opportunity to shine in heroic roles, as in LADYHAWKE. 1989’s BLIND FURY was an attempt to Americanize Japan’s long-running Zatoichi series. The film doesn’t work, but Hauer is magnetic in the lead.

After that, he drifted into low-budget action fare. Some of these movies aren’t bad. I confess a small degree of affection for the 1991 sci-fi drama DEADLOCK (aka WEDLOCK), in which Hauer and Joan Chen play prisoners linked by explosive collars. If either tries to escape, both collars detonate. His best work in the ‘90s came on HBO, where he starred in an adaptation of Robert Harris’ what-if-the-Nazis-won thriller FATHERLAND and the submarine drama HOSTILE WATERS.

After that, not much. Here are a few of his recent titles: FLYING VIRUS. JUNGLE JUICE. SCORCHER. At least he got to play the President in that one.

Then, in 2002, signs of a comeback. Hauer was cast as a dissipated East German spy in CONFESSIONS OF A DANGEROUS MIND. It was a small but meaty role, and Hauer made the most of it.

Christopher Nolan put him to work in BATMAN BEGINS, and he’s also in the adaptation of Frank Miller’s SIN CITY, which, if the trailer is any indication, is one of the must-see films of 2005.

But Hauer, who will be 61 on Sunday (and has his own website here), has more to offer than turns in comic book movies. Imagine him as an arms dealer, a relief worker, a jaded European living a Graham Greene life in a third world country.

Of course, Hollywood would have to be making movies about what’s happening right now in order to get him those parts. But a man can dream, can’t he?

Tuesday, January 18, 2005

DVD: Goodfellas (1990)

The two-disc edition of this movie was one of the only things I wanted for Christmas. In a supplemental feature, actor/director Jon Favreau says that if you stumble onto GOODFELLAS while you’re flipping channels, you leave it on until it’s over.

That’s always been the case with me. Every time I watch it, I’m struck by the fact that it isn’t a film so much as a simulation. The director John Boorman wrote that it “was not about what happens to gangster characters, it was about what it is like to be a gangster.” All the skill in this movie – Scorsese’s flair behind the camera, Thelma Schoonmaker’s fluid editing – isn’t in service of a story but a mood. This is what it feels like to swagger into a room and own it. It remains a staggering achievement.

It’s also one of those movies I’ve developed a personal relationship with, and not just from seeing it so many times. I read the books written by Henry Hill and his children that relay events a little differently, and tell you what happened after the film’s story ended. After I read them, I found out that a friend of mine had been in a local art show with Henry. Who has taken up watercolors since leaving Witness Protection, and by all accounts is a nice guy.

Much of the film’s criminal action is set in and around New York’s Kennedy Airport. My father worked there during that time, and back in 1990 I asked him about it. He said that he often went to the diner where Ray Liotta and Robert DeNiro have their sitdowns, and then told a few stories about some guys he knew, one of whom was eventually murdered.

I was flabbergasted. He’d never spun any colorful tales before. Of course, I’d never thought to ask. He topped himself two years later when HOFFA came out. I asked my father, a staunch member of the Machinists union, what he thought of the film. He told me that whenever Hoffa was taking a flight he’d make a point of talking to the airline workers. Hoffa had shaken his hand twice.

He saw Howard Hughes and met Jimmy Hoffa. It’s amazing the things you learn about your parents when you start thinking of them as people.

Miscellaneous: Link

Meet Edith and Joseph Jefferson. She was Judy Garland’s stunt double. He played a heavy on SPACE PATROL. Now they’re taking show business by storm ... again.

Monday, January 17, 2005

TV: Ultimate Film Fanatic

The second season of the Independent Film Channel’s game show kicked off two weeks ago. I wrote about the first run of the series here. My misgivings didn’t prevent me from watching the rest of the season.

Or from auditioning to be a contestant on season two.

Imagine my surprise when they picked me.

My episode of the show – the battle to crown the Ultimate Film Fanatic of the Pacific Northwest – airs this Friday, January 21 at 10:30 PM Eastern, 7:30 and 10:30 PM Pacific. Many questions will be answered. Will the TV lights make me sweat like Nixon? Will my abundant natural charisma translate on camera? Will I humiliate myself? And, most important of all, what do I look like? Tune in this Friday to find out.

As for Rosemarie’s first (?) JEOPARDY! appearance, that’s been pushed from February to June. Blame the impending super-tournament, which is just an excuse to bring Ken Jennings back. I’ll post a reminder as the show date nears.

Magazine: The New Yorker, 1/17 issue

Margaret Talbot profiles Hayao Miyazaki, director of such classic animated films as MY NEIGHBOR TOTORO and SPIRITED AWAY. My favorite passage:

Although much of Japan’s kid-oriented anime has been exported to the U.S., a great deal more – such as ‘Anpan-man,’ a hugely popular series about a bean-paste-stuffed roll – has not. (A fan Web site notes, ‘To a non-Japanese person, the concept of a living bread superman who fights giant germs and feeds the hungry with pieces of his head may seem bizarre.’)

Not to me. Bring him on.

Sunday, January 16, 2005

DVD: Another Country (1984)

The 20th anniversary edition of this movie is the ideal occasion to bring in a guest blogger who has a history with the film. Take it away, sweetheart.

Rosemarie: I was 21 the year I went to see ANOTHER COUNTRY four times. The second time I brought some friends with me. That was a mistake. For some reason they didn’t fall under the spell of long days and first loves. I ended up listening to jokes about my crush on Rupert Everett for months afterward. So the next two times it was just me, Rupert, and fields of creamy white cardigans.

It wasn’t just a crush, though. Or if it was, it was one of those crushes where you want to be the person you're obsessed with. Rupert played Guy Bennett, a young man going into his last year at an English boarding school in the ‘30s, on his way to becoming a spy for Russia in the ‘50s. Guy – tall, gorgeous, a vision of casual elegance. Brooding and lovelorn. Mordantly witty. Misunderstood and more sinned against than sinning. Rupert as Guy was so morose he made Morrisey look like Benny Hill. For a year I would stand next to windows and look out yearningly just like Rupert pining for Cary “I’ve come to get my chafing dish” Elwes. What I was yearning for, I had no idea. Maybe for a vision of myself that could actually come true. You know – one that wouldn’t involve a sex change, time travel and membership in the Communist party.

So seeing ANOTHER COUNTRY again was a bit scary. It turns out the movie’s not bad. I don’t know if I completely buy its premise that Guy, outcast (or at least denied the highest rank in the public school he’s attending) because he’s gay, decided right then and there to spy for Russia. On the other hand, the school is brilliantly shown as an unappealing combination of the pastoral and the squalid, a place of lush grounds and underclassmen who scrub whatever’s put in front of them.

Rupert has had other good roles in DANCE WITH A STRANGER and MY BEST FRIEND’S WEDDING. But none as powerful as Guy Bennett. Maybe if he finally makes that gay secret agent movie that’s been talked about for years he’ll have come full circle and brought Guy back into Her Majesty’s good graces.

Vince again: I was seeing the film for the first time. There’s some bad old age make-up and far too much floppy hair, but I liked it. Some may fault this fictionalized gloss on the Guy Burgess spy case for reducing his motives to a bad experience at school. But those years are when so much of one’s character is forged. I was reminded of that scene in Oliver Stone’s NIXON, when John Ehrlichman says that the Constitution is hanging by a thread because “the old man went to Whittier instead of Yale.”

DVD: North by Northwest (1959)

It’s basically a perfect movie. We all know that. So a word about the advertising. The DVD includes a trailer hosted by Alfred Hitchcock, a second theatrical preview, and a TV commercial. And the crop-dusting plane doesn’t appear in any of them, so that legendary sequence came as a complete surprise. If the movie were coming out now, it would be the centerpiece of the campaign.

Miscellaneous: Links

In lobbying Ron Howard to drop the albino assassin from his film adaptation of Dan Brown’s THE DaVINCI CODE, the National Organization of Albinism and Hypopigmentation (NOAH) notes that 2004 is only the second year in two decades that didn’t have an evil movie albino. Other than the twins in the MATRIX sequels, I couldn’t think of any of them. But the dermatology in the movies website has prepared a handy list that even notes each albino character’s moral nature for easy reference.

Two good pieces from the New York Times. First, an article on how HBO’s THE WIRE served as a manual for a Queens drug gang. And a lovely obituary for nightclub comic Gene Baylos. I wish I’d had the chance to see him perform.

Friday, January 14, 2005

Movie: The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou (2004)

Wes Anderson’s films always take me back to my childhood. The emphasis on lists and labels, as if giving names to things will somehow make them more real, or more yours. The fixation on logos and uniforms. When I was a kid, I filled countless notebooks with insignias for organizations that only existed in my head, followed by extensive notes on the membership and its accomplishments. That’s what you have to do, I thought, if you want to be a writer. Create details. Lavish attention on them.

This obsession with particulars defines Anderson as a filmmaker. Critics who don’t like his work call him a ‘miniaturist,’ while those who do call him a ‘gifted miniaturist.’ The ‘m’ word will always be in there somewhere.

Another reason why Anderson’s films hark back to childhood is their intensity. He develops his fictional worlds so fully that you sense that you’re only seeing a fragment of them. If you wandered away from the tour, you’d find daft inventions and characters that have nothing to do with the story being told. They’re simply ... there.

THE LIFE AQUATIC features Anderson’s most extensive universe to date. It’s so fancifully dense that it threatens to overwhelm the people who inhabit it. Specifically Steve Zissou (Bill Murray), a hapless undersea explorer and documentary filmmaker struggling to save his reputation while he gets to know the man who may be his son (Owen Wilson).

But there’s plenty of emotion tucked into the film’s nooks and crannies. You just have to know where to look for it. Murray, so simpatico with Anderson after three collaborations that he’s become the embodiment of the director’s tone, subtly steers the movie away from shoals of sentiment. AQUATIC may not be as emotionally satisfying as THE ROYAL TENENBAUMS, but its message is more complex. And as always, the world Anderson creates is so complete that it’s a treat to spend time there – and a sadness to leave it.

Besides, I’ll never say a harsh word about any movie ending with a credit sequence that’s a tribute to the one in BUCKAROO BANZAI. Hell, even Jeff Goldblum is there.

Thursday, January 13, 2005

DVD: Mikey & Nicky (1976)

Years of lobbying on the part of its admirers have paid off with the release of Elaine May’s movie on DVD. I always wonder how fans will react when they get another look at a film they remember with such fondness. Will it hold up, or will they wonder what they saw in it in the first place?

I came to the movie fresh. Or as fresh as you can be while still knowing the lore: that May exposed a million feet of film while making this quasi-improvised story about two close friends over one long night, and that she spent years tinkering with it in the editing room.

I can understand why the movie has an ardent following. I’m just not part of it. The movie feels like Elaine May absorbed all of John Cassavetes’ early films and made a studied imitation of them, right down to using Cassavetes and his frequent collaborator Peter Falk as her leads. The result has all the flaws of Cassavetes’ work but little of its chaotic energy. Interminable scenes, such as the boys’ visit to a kinda-sorta prostitute, are followed by strong moments like an argument between the two in the street that brings every remembered slight to the surface.

May wisely gives the movie a solid spine; Cassavetes is a low-level hood convinced that a contract is out on him, and Falk may or may not be fingering him for the Mob. The two leads give tremendous performances. Cassavetes may be too good; he’s so overbearing that I occasionally found myself wishing the hit man would get a move on. Knowing the history between the two as actors only adds to the film’s impact. In its quiet moments, it’s an affecting study of middle-aged friendship, and how years of shared experiences don’t make it any easier to forgive years of petty grievances.

Miscellaneous: Link

This year’s Slate Movie Club was a non-starter. Too much discussion of criticism and not enough of movies. And bringing up Pauline Kael in such company is always a bad idea. But a quintet of the best film bloggers – Filmbrain, the Cinetrix, Liz Penn, Aaron at Out of Focus, and David Hudson of the indispensable GreenCine – have taken this Golden Globes weekend as a cue to start a Conversation of their own.

Tuesday, January 11, 2005

Why I’m Going To Hell: VH-1’s Celebreality

Months ago, I vowed that I would not watch the fourth season of VH-1’s THE SURREAL LIFE. I’d had enough of cohabitating C-listers and has-beens. I mean, I’m a reasonably smart guy. There are better uses for my time.

When I heard that season 4 would anchor a block of reality shows featuring the once famous and almost famous, my resolve did not waver. Much.

So Sunday night rolls around. I’ve read the paper. I’m looking to unwind. The season premiere comes on. Why not check out the new crop of houseguests? Watching a few minutes can’t hurt.

The first arrival is Joanie “Chyna” Laurer, former professional wrestler and current adult film star. She shows up wearing a bikini, clear stilettos, and a fur coat. She immediately takes the only single room. This in spite of the fact that the fixtures and furniture have clearly been designed to accommodate one of her roommates, the two-foot-eight Verne “Mini-Me” Troyer.

It’s at this point that I decide I’ll be watching the entire episode.

The other houseguests arrive, among them ex-Brady Christopher Knight and former Go-Go Jane Wiedlin, now a habitué of fetish clubs. Mini-Me gets drunk, then wakes up in the middle of the night to tool around the house on his scooter naked, pausing only to relieve himself in the corner. To quote Milhouse van Houten, “I fear to watch, yet I cannot look away.”

Also in the line-up is CELEBRITY FAT CAMP. Sorry, Fit Club. Fit Club. FIT CLUB. Wherein eight overweight personalities pledge to drop those unsightly pounds.

The definition of ‘celebrity’ is extremely loose here, as evidenced by the fact that the show’s host (Ant) and one of the participants (Ralphie May) are refugees from another reality show, LAST COMIC STANDING. Most of the other contestants I don’t recognize - a plus-size model, the judge from DIVORCE COURT. Wendy Kaufman’s name is followed by the honorific “The Snapple Lady” throughout the show, even during the closing credits. I don’t remember her until they show one of her ads.

Truly, a showbiz Rubicon has been crossed with this series. On other reality shows, you could see how celebrities could delude themselves into thinking it was a good career move, even when it clearly wasn’t. With CELEBRITY FAT CAMP – sorry, FIT CLUB – that pretense has been dropped. This isn’t about the next job. It’s about being on TV, plain and simple. And it’s catching on, too. There’s a UK version in the works, as I learned from this article about darts champions.

I told Rosemarie that I could see checking back in to see who was losing weight. Flabbergasted, she asked why. I told her about the giant scale that could weigh all eight celebrities at once. She said, “Thanks a lot. Now I have to see it, too.”

The third show in the lineup is STRANGE LOVE, following the romance between Public Enemy’s Flavor Flav and dipsomaniacal Amazon Brigitte Nielsen. I haven’t seen a minute of it. Believe it or not, I have my standards.

Random Observation: Andrew Lloyd Webber

A class at my gym was working out to the PHANTOM OF THE OPERA soundtrack. I hope no one was hurt.

Monday, January 10, 2005

Movie: Million Dollar Baby (2004)

Maybe it’s the fact that Clint Eastwood works in an unfussy, no-nonsense style that demonstrates a complete faith in his material. Maybe it’s that his latest effort is steeped in the moodiest strains of Irish Catholicism, and as a former altar boy I’m vulnerable to it. Whatever it is, this movie had me reeling. It’s a powerful piece of work.

The details are what register. The way Hilary Swank is careful to lick the frosting off the candle she removes from her birthday cake. The tatty shirts that Eastwood’s character wears. The bits and pieces steadily accrue to create a fully lived-in cinematic world, as rich as any crafted by Wes Anderson.

Paul Haggis’ adaptation of the story by F. X. Toole is a marvel of construction. Even the use of voiceover (brilliantly delivered by Morgan Freeman) has been well-considered, with a payoff that hits like a final shot at the bell.

Eastwood’s work as an actor has been getting short shrift here, most likely because of his modesty. His most powerful scene is shot half in shadow. But the emotion of that moment is undeniable. With this unprecedented late run of films (UNFORGIVEN, MYSTIC RIVER), Eastwood is offering a startling reappraisal of the kind of characters that made his career: loners who are all too familiar with violence. It’s obviously having an effect. When the movie ended, over half the audience stayed in their seats through the credits, unwilling - or unable - to leave.

Miscellaneous: Links

David Thomson had a similar experience when he saw the movie. And ALEXANDER: wha’ happen? The Observer anatomizes the failure of Oliver Stone’s epic. Both courtesy of GreenCine.

Friday, January 07, 2005

Movie: The Aviator (2004)

When the film ended, I knew as much about Howard Hughes as I did going in: rich guy, aviation, lotsa girls, went crazy. And I didn’t care, because Martin Scorsese’s film is that entertaining. He directs it in a way that Hughes would have appreciated. It’s all about forward motion. The first hour in particular is a thrill. Hughes is a young man taking on the powers that be in Hollywood, gambling his fortune on HELL’S ANGELS.

The scenes depicting Hughes’ escalating madness have something of an obligatory feel, and no attempt is made to plumb the causes his condition. Initially, I thought that was a weakness. But the more time passes, the more I admire Scorsese’s approach. Any cut-and-dried explanation would seem like a gross Hollywood simplification; you’re only going to buy Rosebud once. Why not let Hughes remain an enigma? Scorsese also deserves credit for ending the film on a disquieting note. William Goldman wrote that he ended ALL THE PRESIDENT’S MEN at the moment of Woodward and Bernstein’s greatest blunder because the audience knew the rest of the story. Scorsese and writer John Logan have inverted his advice. They close THE AVIATOR with Hughes at the pinnacle of success, because what happens next is part of popular legend. We’ve all seen MELVIN & HOWARD, or at least that episode of THE SIMPSONS where Mr. Burns opens a casino. Leaving us with Hughes teetering on the brink of that sad, epic decline is a bold choice.

It’s a bad sign for a biopic when a supporting character dominates your interest, but Cate Blanchett is simply that enchanting. She doesn’t channel Katherine Hepburn, she embodies the version of Kate that lives on in moviegoers’ collective fantasies. It’s a staggering performance.

Oh, and Rosemarie would want me to mention Cate’s clothes.

My father spent over 30 years working as a ramp serviceman for TWA, so for some of that time he was a Hughes employee. I called him in Ireland the other day to tell him he should see the movie just for the scene featuring several brand new Constellations gleaming in TWA colors. (Even I got a thrill seeing that logo again.) He told me that TWA used to have the last flight of the day from New York to Los Angeles. Every day of the week, it seemed, he’d see a star boarding the plane. Elizabeth Taylor, Anthony Quinn, Gregory Peck. Sports legends, too. He got autographs from some of them. Hughes himself would often take the flight. Everyone would tense up until the natty man with the mustache finally got on the plane. The most famous recluse in American history, and yet my father had seen him in person over a dozen times.

Thursday, January 06, 2005

Book: Corporate Warriors: The Rise of the Privatized Military Industry, by P.W. Singer (2003)

Remember that great scene in APOLLO 13, perhaps the best scene in the movie, when an engineer walks into a room filled with other engineers, dumps the contents of a box onto a table, and says they have a few hours to design a filter using only this equipment?

It turns out that all of those guys worked for Brown & Root, a subsidiary of Halliburton. I’m just saying.

Miscellaneous: Links

Movie City News provides this exhaustive list of all 267 theatrical releases eligible for Academy Awards consideration this year. By my count, I’ve seen just over 25% of them. I haven’t decided if I’m proud of that total or disappointed by it.

Western novelist Richard S. Wheeler launches a new blog that asks some provocative questions about the publishing business – and offers a few equally provocative answers.

Tuesday, January 04, 2005

TV: The Late Late Show With Craig Ferguson

The Scottish comedian broadened cultural horizons in his first official night as talk show host. In a country that doesn’t play baseball, “getting to second base” is known as “upstairs outsidies.”

DVD: Indie Film Catch-Up

I believe in seeing movies on the big screen. But let’s face it: some days you can’t be bothered to leave the house. The sad truth is I’m far more likely to blow off independent films. Intimate character studies won’t suffer as much on home video, I tell myself.

I know. I’m a bad cineaste.

But I make it a point to catch up with the smaller movies as soon as possible. Herewith, quick takes on some of 2004’s indie stalwarts that I watched over the holidays. None would have cracked my best list, but a few came close.

MARIA FULL OF GRACE. In following a young Colombian girl who becomes a drug mule in order to have a future, Joshua Marston pares the narrative to the bone. This approach occasionally threatens to drain the movie of nuance, but for the most part transforms it into a powerful fable. The film’s tag line was “Based on a million true stories.” Marston has managed to sketch out the dynamic common to each one. The early scenes of everyday girlhood in Colombia are particularly strong. As Maria, the luminous Catalina Sandino Moreno keeps the film honest.

BAADASSSSS. Mario van Peebles plays his father Melvin in this recounting of the production of Melvin’s groundbreaking SWEET SWEETBACK’S BAADASSSSS SONG. I’m a sucker for behind-the-scenes stories, and this film delivers. Mario wisely keeps the focus on his family; he doesn’t shy away from showing what a difficult man his father could be. The movie gets the ‘70s in a way that a lot of films about the period don’t. It also has the happiest ending involving the Black Panthers that I’ve ever seen.

GARDEN STATE. Zach Braff has a true director’s eye. His debut feature is filled with striking images and bits of whimsy. It also has the faults common to movies written by actors: characters with larded-on quirks, an unfocused story. There’s a lot going on here, but the film seems to suffer from the same condition plaguing its main character. It swims through a medicated haze, struggling to feel. The movie was one of last summer’s success stories, and the Online Film Critics Society just nominated it for Best Picture alongside SIDEWAYS and BEFORE SUNSET. But I didn’t get it. Maybe it’s a generational thing.

Miscellaneous: Link

Or maybe not. After all, I liked NAPOLEON DYNAMITE. From Jim Romenesko’s Obscure Store comes this story about the movie’s huge following among teenagers.

Monday, January 03, 2005

Book: The Fourth Durango, by Ross Thomas (1989)

I’m slowly making my way through the St. Martin’s Press reissues of Thomas’ work. They’re an absolute joy. Funny, clear-eyed, written with tremendous style. DURANGO is about a former state supreme court justice recently released from prison who hightails it to the title California town, a godforsaken burg that covers its municipal debts by hiring itself out as a safe haven. It may not rank among Thomas’ best, but still stands head and shoulders above most contemporary thrillers. Here’s why. Allow me to introduce Durango resident Merriman Dorr:

Dorr was a fairly recent immigrant from Florida who claimed to have taught geography at the University of Arkansas, flown as co-pilot for something called Trans-Caribbean Air Freight and, before all that, played two seasons at second base for the Savannah Indians in the double-A Southern League.

“Not long after Dorr materialized in Durango, the ever dubious (police chief) Sid Fork made a series of long distance phone calls and discovered Dorr had done everything he claimed and more. The more included being held without bail for three months in the West Palm Beach jail on a vaguely worded fraud charge

In any other book, Merriman Dorr would be the hero. In Thomas’ world, he’s merely a supporting player. Dorr offers the use of his roadhouse – sorry, supper club – and his airplane, then vacates the stage. That richness of detail is a Thomas trademark.

Sunday, January 02, 2005

Movie: Beyond The Sea (2004)

In my college freshman days, the question of greatest recording ever made came up in one of those conversations that only college freshmen have. Several votes were cast for songs by the Clash. There was also a small but vocal Led Zeppelin contingent. When I skulked in from my job at the university library, the issue was put to me. I answered honestly: Bobby Darin’s rendition of ‘Mack the Knife.’ I put in a lot more time at the library after that.

I am an unabashed Bobby Darin fan. A steady stream of bad reviews, like this one from Slate’s David Edelstein, was not about to keep me away from Kevin Spacey’s biopic. I figured I’d find something to like.

I did not, however, expect to find an utterly cracked pinwheel of a movie to love. But that’s where I find myself.

I’m fairly sure that BEYOND THE SEA is not, in critical parlance, a “good” film. There are too many glaring errors, and too often its reach exceeds its grasp. In fact, there’s a real probability that it is, in critical parlance, a “bad” film.

But screw critical parlance. BEYOND THE SEA had me in its thrall from the start, and when it ended I wanted to see it again. Mainly to figure out what the hell I’d just witnessed.

Darin is remembered primarily because of his early death rather than for any specific accomplishment. He was an ambitious performer, one who experimented in different genres and branched out into acting (even receiving an Oscar nomination). But that’s not exactly the stuff of drama.

And the movie doesn’t really offer any. There’s little conflict in the film other than Darin’s race against the clock. (After a childhood plagued by illness, he knew he’d have a shortened life.) Everyone in his circle backs him 110%. So where’s the drama?

It comes from Spacey himself, who demonstrates a hunger for performing that rivals Darin’s own. In essence, that’s what BEYOND THE SEA is about: performance as life. Darin struggles to find acceptance as a protest singer at the same time that he learns his family history was a sham meant to protect him. “Bobby Darin” the entertainer turns out to be no more real than Walden Robert Cassotto the human being. BEYOND THE SEA is the story of a man who realizes that he has to be fake in order to be real, and Spacey embraces this theme with a crazy gusto (co-writing, producing, directing, starring, and doing all of his own singing and dancing) that becomes deeply moving.

The result is a movie that says far more about its creator than its subject. It’s THE PASSION OF THE CHRIST with musical numbers.

I was so captivated by the film that I’m tempted to dismiss its flaws as part of a master plan. The poorly developed supporting characters? That’s because Spacey’s Darin is directing the movie about his own life, and sees everyone else solely in relation to himself – just like we all do. But then come moments that defy my best intentions, like the staging of the title song on what looks like a blustery afternoon in Bavaria, and I begin to question Spacey’s sanity and my own. At times, BEYOND THE SEA veers perilously close to Ed Wood territory, holding you rapt with its deranged enthusiasm. A beat later, it all suddenly makes perfect sense, and Spacey’s passion elevates the entire film into a rarified realm. Whatever was happening, I enjoyed every nutso minute of this movie.

As we were heading home after the show, Rosemarie shook her head and said, “I’m still trying to think of adjectives to describe that.” I offered the only expression that had occurred to me: “That’s the goddamnedest thing I’ve ever seen.”

Miscellaneous: Link

Lawrence Block, soon to be hosting a show about audiobooks on satellite radio, weighs in on abridgment too far.