Monday, February 28, 2005

Academy Awards: The Aftermath

Eight for eight in the main categories, nineteen out of twenty-four overall. I can live with those numbers. I won my Oscar pool. Although considering that the prize is buying a round of drinks, I’m not sure how that’s winning. If I were smart, I’d have gambled on a late FINDING NEVERLAND groundswell.

The show moved fairly quickly. It always does around Chez K, where the first cocktail is poured as the pre-show ends and they keep coming until Barbara Walters is done yammering. Chris Rock, wisely realizing that hosting the Oscars is exactly like hosting SATURDAY NIGHT LIVE in that the opening monologue is all anyone remembers, treated it like any other stand-up gig. He owned the room for five minutes and then stayed out of the show’s way. I have no doubt he’ll be back, although I prefer Steve Martin myself.

Gil Cates deserves credit for mixing up the show’s format. He made better use of the Kodak Theater than previous telecasts, and having the nominees line up on stage actually worked. They each got to appear on camera for a split second, which is better than nothing, and those tortuous walks to the stage were eliminated. The Donahue moments out in the audience flopped, but at least they tried something different.

The “young Oscars” still came off as stodgy when compared to the Independent Spirit Awards, dominated this year by SIDEWAYS and ably blogged by the Cinetrix. That show is still geared more toward the attendees than the television audience, and the laid-back vibe comes across on screen. It helps that the movies they’re honoring are better, too.

As for the winners, I knew there would be no surprises once I heard that Halle Berry showed up to accept her Worst Actress Razzie in person the night before. Hollywood can only take one real-life plot twist per weekend.

As one of the few film bloggers who thought MILLION DOLLAR BABY was the best of the five nominees, I’m not going to complain. It would have been nice to see Martin Scorsese take home an award, but at least he fared better last night than he did two years ago, when GANGS OF NEW YORK was up in ten categories and left with nothing. And Charlie Kaufman finally got his Oscar. All in all, not bad.

The high point of the show was Sidney Lumet’s gracious speech accepting the lifetime achievement award. As if he hadn’t done enough by making great movies, he thanked Francis Faragoh for writing LITTLE CAESAR. What a guy.

The ad for the new BAMBI DVD claims that the film has been “restored beyond its original brilliance.” That’s not restoring, kids, that’s improving. And thanks to the SPARTACUS spot, I’m never drinking Pepsi brand products again.

Miscellaneous: Link

At Slate, Seth Stevenson explores the popularity of the ad for I link to it as a public service for the many of you who, according to my referrer logs, come to this site looking for information on the alluring woman who appears in the commercial only to find a rather dull post I wrote about it that doesn’t even mention her.

As for those of you who came here because you searched for nude photos of OPEN WATER star Blanchard Ryan, I still can’t help you.

Saturday, February 26, 2005

Academy Awards: Best Guesses

You’ll note that I didn’t call this predictions. And “Oscar Coin Flip” doesn’t have the right zing.

Usually, I’m pretty good at prognosticating. In 2002, I tied for first place in Daily Variety’s Oscar pool, and that was against actual industry types. But with no front-runners and little enthusiasm in this year’s race, many categories remain up in the air.

You’d think that would free up Academy voters to make some surprising choices. Here’s one prediction: that ain’t gonna happen. I expect them to be even more hidebound than usual.

On to my best guesses, in the main categories first:


Director: Clint Eastwood, MILLION DOLLAR BABY

Actor: Jamie Foxx, RAY

Actress: Hilary Swank, MILLION DOLLAR BABY

Supporting Actor: Morgan Freeman, MILLION DOLLAR BABY

Supporting Actress: Cate Blanchett, THE AVIATOR

Original Screenplay: Charlie Kaufman, ETERNAL SUNSHINE OF THE SPOTLESS MIND

Adapted Screenplay: Alexander Payne & Jim Taylor, SIDEWAYS

The last category would be the hardest decision for me personally. BEFORE SUNSET is my favorite of the five films, but Paul Haggis’ script for M$B is the best of the nominees, a true marvel of construction that improves on its source material. That said, I’d vote for Payne & Taylor. Because comedy is hard, and I don’t want SIDEWAYS to go home empty-handed.

I’d love to see Don Cheadle, Clive Owen and Virginia Madsen receive statuettes on stage, or from their seats, or from their cars on the 405, depending on what producer Gil Cates has planned. But I doubt it’ll happen.

And now, as they say on GILLIGAN’S ISLAND, the rest:

Animated Feature: THE INCREDIBLES

Art Direction: THE AVIATOR

Cinematography: THE AVIATOR

Costume Design: THE AVIATOR

Documentary Feature: BORN INTO BROTHELS

Documentary Short: AUTISM IS A WORLD

Film Editing: THE AVIATOR

Foreign Language Film: THE SEA INSIDE (Spain)



Original Song: “Learn To Be Lonely,” THE PHANTOM OF THE OPERA

Short Film, Animated: RYAN

Short Film, Live Action: LITTLE TERRORIST

Sound Editing: SPIDER-MAN 2

Sound Mixing: THE AVIATOR

Visual Effects: SPIDER-MAN 2

Cinematography is the real toss-up, as evidenced by what happened at the ASC awards. It represents THE PASSION OF THE CHRIST’s best chance for an Oscar. But for brilliantly executing Martin Scorsese’s complex visual scheme (like recreating the look of three-strip Technicolor), THE AVIATOR’s Robert Richardson gets the nod. I don’t think the Academy will be able to resist giving an Oscar to Andrew Lloyd Webber, especially in a year when all five nominated songs are pretty poor.

Prediction #2: Chris Rock will do fine. But he won’t turn this mother out, either.

Friday, February 25, 2005

TV: Inside the Blogs

With the mainstream media (sorry, MSM) under constant attack by the blogosphere, cable news is trying to make nice with their enemies. They’re approaching bloggers cautiously, the way you would a strange dog, with your hand extended. A trick I learned from SUPERFRIENDS, incidentally.

MSNBC’s new show Connected Coast to Coast is built around the concept of interactivity. I haven’t watched it for two reasons: it’s co-hosted by Monica Crowley, and half of the telecast is from Seattle. I live here and I don’t understand that.

I have seen CNN’s new recurring segment, “Inside the Blogs.” It consists of two women who look like interns reading off their computer screens. It gives my old high school closed-circuit TV newscast all the gravitas of an Edward R. Murrow production.

In addition to being stupefyingly dull television, the bit also reveals how most political blogs rely heavily on snark and juvenilia. Of course, it doesn’t help that the big buzz item of the day is the body politic getting all hot ‘n’ bothered over Condoleeza Rice’s dominatrix boots.

Reading blogs might make bad TV. Writing them is another matter. Take this one, for instance. Cranking out this stuff generally involves a bottle of Power’s Irish Whiskey and Wagner played at APOCALYPSE NOW volume. I work myself into a frenzy as I type, cursing many of those I have known and spilling all manner of dark secrets. I’m also oiled to make it easier to savage the keyboard.

I think that’d make a hell of a segment. Fox News, you know where to find me.

Thursday, February 24, 2005

Book: Chinaman’s Chance, by Ross Thomas (1978)

It’s Bleeck Midwinter month over on Rara Avis, the hardboiled fiction list, which means we’re reading Ross Thomas. Bleeck because he published several novels under the pseudonym Oliver Bleeck. (The midwinter part has me at a loss, because it hit 65 degrees in Seattle today. Everybody with a convertible was out on the road.)

Several years ago I chanced on Thomas’ final novel AH, TREACHERY! When I read it, I felt as if I were home. Thomas had a jaundiced take on the world, forged by stints in journalism, politics, and possibly espionage. Nobody knows for sure. At the same time, he wrote with a light touch, brimming with good humor and a faith that more often than not, the right bunch of rogues would win out.

The next Thomas I read was an early effort. THE SEERSUCKER WHIPSAW – even his titles are great – was based on his experiences running an election campaign in Africa. I was hooked. But sadly, Thomas was out of print. In the years since his death in 1995, he’d gone from critics’ favorite to forgotten man.

When St. Martin’s Press began reissuing his work, I knew I’d be out a good chunk of change. And I didn’t care.

CHANCE is the latest reprint, and one of Thomas’ more popular books because it introduces his recurring con men Artie Wu, last of the Manchus, and Quincy Durant. The typically corkscrew plot involves a missing folk singer, two million dollars stolen from the U.S. embassy during the fall of Saigon, a dead Congressman, and a Southern California town ripe for the picking.

No one writes Establishment types better than Thomas. Political operatives, corporate bigwigs, CIA officers. They’re all here, and interacting with low-level gangsters. I know it’s a cliché, but I’ve got to say it: I’d love to see what hay Thomas would make of our current political situation. We could use a man like him long about now.

Bill Denton, who runs Rara Avis, steered me toward this great overview of Thomas’ career by novelist/blogger Roger L. Simon.

Miscellaneous: Links

GreenCine Daily’s David Hudson, back on the beat now that the Berlinale is over, pointed out this review of the “director’s cut” of Theodore Roszak’s spellbinding novel FLICKER. I read the original version years ago and never forgot it. A film adaptation – especially one written by Jim Uhls (FIGHT CLUB) and directed by Darren Aronofsky – looms as a terrifying proposition.

Elsewhere, Emmanuel Levy watches all 76 Best Picture winners and finds many of them wanting. And Lisa Lutz devoted the best years of her life to a Mafia farce only to have it debut on September 11, 2001. Trust me, the article is worth getting the Salon day pass. Sitting through the ad’s not gonna kill ya.

Wednesday, February 23, 2005

DVD: Looney Tunes Back In Action (2003)

When news broke of Warner Brothers’ plans to update their classic Looney Tunes characters, I was filled with conflicting feelings. That is if contempt and disgust can be said to be in conflict.

After a few minutes in a dark room, these feelings passed. And I decided to adopt the sane, sensible approach of Mark Evanier. LOONATICS might never get off the ground. If it does and turns out as badly as it’s likely to, it won’t diminish the old cartoons in the slightest.

Besides, you never know. Warners has gone to this well before with pleasing results. TINY TOON ADVENTURES and ANIMANIACS were spun off from the Looney Tunes franchise. Of course, so was SPACE JAM.

And this film, which got lost in the shuffle of 2003’s holiday releases but which I enjoyed tremendously. After sampling the anti-LOONATICS reaction in the blogosphere, I watched it again and liked it even more. Any movie that puts Daffy Duck front and center is OK in my book.

The characters aren’t reinvented here. They’re simply grounded in contemporary pop culture as they were in their heyday. It helps that the gags in the script by veteran SIMPSONS writer Larry Doyle work. Bugs and Daffy are obviously safe in the hands of director Joe Dante, whose films show the clear influence of the original cartoons.

This movie marks the second time that Timothy Dalton has played a movie star who is also a spy, after 1991’s THE ROCKETEER. Which is equally underrated. It also features Howard Hughes as a character. Maybe I should watch that again, too.

Doyle was chosen by Warner Brothers to supervise a new wave of Looney Tunes shorts using the traditional characters. The Road Runner cartoon included on the DVD, “Whizzard of Ow,” isn’t exactly an auspicious beginning.

TV: The One Day At A Time Reunion

What do you want me to say? If I stumble onto a reunion special, odds are I’ll watch it. Even if I didn’t particularly like the show when it was on.

My one vivid memory of the series was prominently featured in the special: Valerie Bertinelli’s rendition of “Hey, Big Spender” in feather boa and heels. It had a powerful effect on me as a young man. I may in fact have passed out when it ended. The particulars are kind of hazy.

Musical episodes were a staple of many ‘70s comedy series, no doubt because the performers of the time often had song-and-dance training. Every season the rec center or the youth center or the senior center would be on the verge of bankruptcy, so the cast would be forced to put on a show to raise money. I can still remember the stars of HAPPY DAYS singing “Top Banana.” I’d like to see the gang at EVERYBODY LOVES RAYMOND try that.

Tuesday, February 22, 2005

DVD: Fat City (1972)

Boxing has produced more great movies than any other sport, from the 1940s classics BODY AND SOUL, CHAMPION, and THE SET-UP to RAGING BULL to the latest film threatening to deny Martin Scorsese his Oscar, MILLION DOLLAR BABY. (Which everyone is now abbreviating M$B. Is that official? I didn’t get the memo.)

It’s easy to figure out why: boxing deals with defeat head-on. Two men step into the ring. One of them will leave a loser. Even ROCKY, boxing’s ‘feel good’ movie, acknowledges that reality, although the sequels blithely ignore it.

John Huston’s film, based on a novel by Leonard Gardner, more than fits that model. It focuses almost entirely on what happens outside the ring. Fighters Stacy Keach and Jeff Bridges are never going to contend for a title. They’re more concerned with getting by than getting ahead. Huston uses locations in and around Stockton, California to startling effect, and he draws terrific performances from a cast that includes CHEERS’ Nicholas Colosanto, the Oscar-nominated Susan Tyrrell, and Candy Clark, one of the great treasures of ‘70s cinema.

What amazed me about this movie was that it came a full 30 years after THE MALTESE FALCON, Huston’s directorial debut and a model of classic studio filmmaking. Three decades later the New Hollywood, with its emphasis on character over narrative, was in control of the system. And Huston, the veteran, not only played their game perfectly but revived a career that would give us THE MAN WHO WOULD BE KING, PRIZZI’S HONOR and THE DEAD. Amazing.

Book: Wolves Eat Dogs, by Martin Cruz Smith (2004)

I’ve only read two crime fiction series in their entirety: Lawrence Block’s peerless Matt Scudder books and Smith’s novels about the Russian detective Arkady Renko. Beginning with GORKY PARK almost 25 years ago, Smith has explored the transformation of the Soviet Union through these novels. He also nails the uniquely Russian strain of romantic fatalism, similar to the Irish sensibility I know too well.

In this fifth novel, Renko’s investigation into the ‘suicide’ of one of Moscow’s oligarchs takes him to the Zone of Exclusion surrounding Chernobyl’s crippled nuclear reactor. The mystery at the novel’s heart is fairly simple to figure out, but Smith’s treatment of this blasted moonscape full of ‘black villages’ and animals that no longer fear man is strong, compelling stuff.

Miscellaneous: Links

Movie City News brings reports of new Oscar voters, including a Bollywood director and my close personal friend, actor Keith David.

Sunday, February 20, 2005

TV: Video Mods

You never know when intimations of mortality will strike. Sometimes all it takes is a reminder that the entertainers of your youth are aging.

Any milestone will do. Over the holidays, a friend of the family said, “Did you know Dustin Hoffman turned 67 this year? Doesn’t that make you feel old?” I had to say that it didn’t, because Hoffman was always older than me. But when I heard Tom Cruise was throwing his 40th birthday party? That was a rude shock. Maverick and me, I thought we were gonna live forever.

The friend looked at me like I was nuts. I don’t know what she wanted. They were both in RAIN MAN.

Another sure way to feel old is when the next generation gets into something that is beyond your comprehension. I don’t mean grousing about how the kids’ music is too loud, or too fast, or too filthy. I mean something that your mind refuses to process.

Like this MTV2 show, in which music videos are recreated with characters from video games.

MTV was a year old when I started high school, which puts me in the last generation of people who could listen to a song and not automatically associate it with a predetermined set of images. (I came of age at an odd time. When I was a kid, black and white TVs and manual typewriters were common. People only five years younger than me regard those as relics.) Videos quickly became another part of the music experience. They may have stunted the imagination, but the best of them provided additional insight into the artists’ sensibilities.

The performers have no input on VIDEO MODS other than the music. Evanescence’s “Bring Me To Life” is one of those swooping rock songs that instantly fills me with high school-grade angst. Lead singer Amy Lee is a beautiful woman with a powerful voice, and in the original music video she climbs up the outside of a building clad only in a thin nightgown. It’s awesome. The VIDEO MODS version features dead-eyed CGI sprites with butterfly wings. I’m not a fan of the multiculti aerobics class vibe of Black Eyed Peas, but their video for “Shut Up” is a perfect hip-hop mini-musical. VIDEO MODS gives us a creepy alternate take using characters from LEISURE SUIT LARRY. In fact, every VIDEO MODS clip is creepy.

Does it bother the audience that the show is essentially an unpaid advertisement for video game companies, or are they so used to commercialization that they don’t notice or care? Are these impersonal videos a sign that younger people now regard music as a disposable product like any other? Or that they view the artists themselves as so plastic and unreal that they’re interchangeable with game characters? Or, even worse, that the simulacrums are just as real to them as Gwen Stefani is?

Of course, it’s entirely possible that the show isn’t that popular and that everyone who watches treats it as a joke. That may be the most telling way of revealing your age: by reading too much into things.

Thursday, February 17, 2005

DVD: Youth of the Beast (1963)

Seijun Suzuki has been called the Japanese Samuel Fuller. I can understand why. Each has a signature technique that he brings to bear on pulp material. But Suzuki pushes stylization to extremes Fuller wouldn’t dream of.

Criterion has released a beautiful new edition of the film that put Suzuki on the map. The plot has echoes of Dashiell Hammett: a mysterious hoodlum pits two groups of yakuza against each other for reasons of his own. But the telling is Suzuki’s alone, a riotous eruption of color and wild jazz. The trailer promises “A defiant achievement!,” with “senseless cruelty vividly portrayed!” And it ain’t kidding. This is the best DVD of the year so far, and a must-see for hardboiled fans.

Book: Diagnosis Murder: The Death Merchant, by Lee Goldberg (2004)

On their blogs, Lee and James Reasoner have been having an interesting discussion of novelizations and tie-ins. I haven’t read any examples of the form in years. When I spotted this one in the library I picked it up, even though I’ve never seen the TV series on which it’s based.

I enjoyed it. It’s a sharp story, well-told. I never pictured Dick Van Dyke while I was reading it, even though his mug is on the book’s cover. And because of commercial demands, his character is always at a remove; Dr. Mark Sloan is unchanged by events, just as he’d be at the end of an episode of the show.

I’d read another book in the series but I’d prefer one of Lee’s originals, like the hilarious BEYOND THE BEYOND. Even if it does have a penis on the cover.

Noticed: Michael Medved

I’ve never been a fan of the conservative commentator. Not because of his politics, but because of THE GOLDEN TURKEY AWARDS, his snotty 1980 book about the worst movies ever made. And he was a stiff on SNEAK PREVIEWS, where he managed to imbue Jeffrey Lyons with a Peter O’Toole level of charisma.

Lately he’s been on the warpath about MILLION DOLLAR BABY. Seattle Weekly lays it all out in this article, which includes spoilers and an interesting perspective on the movie from critic Jeff Shannon. Here’s a quote from Medved:

“(Critics are) trying to gain sympathy for Eastwood by portraying him as facing a furious assault by a brigade of archconservative mountebanks. By voting for Clint and his movie, you can cast an emphatic vote against Medved and Medvedism.”

Hold the phone – there’s a Medvedism? How do I sign up? Let me guess. I have to refer to myself in the third person, use big words to impress people, laugh at my own jokes –

Aw, nuts.

Miscellaneous: Links

In which many vital questions of the day are answered. Such as:

Does Oscar help directors live longer? What does it do for screenwriters?

Has the NYPD been shooting at Ernest Borgnine for the last 45 years? What did he ever do to them?

Does speed reading actually work?

Elsewhere, it’s nice to see that my alma mater is still turning out self-starters with a knack for business. Speaking of ol’ Boston U., Jaime Weinman uses Professor Ray Carney to consider whether critics can also be fans.

Wednesday, February 16, 2005

DVD: The Apple (1980)

I pride myself on keeping my Pavlovian responses to a minimum. But one phrase is guaranteed to make me weak in the knees: so bad it’s good.

The problem is that bad movies are invariably disappointing. The film ends, and my typical reaction is: that wasn’t so bad. Or: that was bad, but it wasn’t horrible. Or: that was horrible, but it wasn’t terrible.

Then there are those rare occasions when a movie’s sheer awfulness not only exceeds my expectations, but makes me believe that I’ve slipped through a wormhole into an alternate universe where aesthetic standards – nay, the very laws of God and man – have been cast aside.

Such a movie is THE APPLE.

It was written and directed by Menahem Golan, one half of the brain trust behind the ‘80s schlock factory Cannon Films. It had drifted into obscurity when the NuArt Theater in Los Angeles began running it as a midnight show. A burgeoning cult following led to the release of a bare-bones DVD, so that now its dark magic can be inflicted on the world.

It’s a rock musical set in the distant future of ... 1994, when the most popular car seems to be the one Homer Simpson designed for his half-brother and the world is controlled by an evil entertainment conglomerate. A pair of Canadian folkies (one of them played by Catherine Mary Stewart, who will always and forever be the sensible girlfriend in THE LAST STARFIGHTER) makes a surprisingly strong showing in the globally televised song contest with their ballad “Love, The Universal Melody.” Soon, they’re pressured by the sinister Mr. Boogalow to sign a record deal. It’s a struggle for the souls of our heroes –

Only this movie means it. Literally. What follows plays out in biblical terms. Which of course means a celebration of vice, because we’ve got to be tempted, right? So the movie’s future is positively steeped in decadence. Freaky sex, ready drugs, yards of gold lamé. It’s Cecil B. DeMille riding the white horse.

But you can’t have sex and drugs without rock and roll. Or in this case, disco. All of this religious dementia is set to music, complete with on-the-nose lyrics and filmed in a style reminiscent of “Goddess,” the stage show featured in SHOWGIRLS. (As Rosemarie put it, “Verhoeven has to have seen this. Many, many times.”) It makes XANADU, another musical released the same year, look like SINGIN’ IN THE RAIN.

One stupefying moment follows another. The number set in Hell, featuring “an actual, actual, actual vampire.” The song about how America is addicted to cocaine. The compulsory disco calisthenics. The disco orgy sequence. The scene where our hero stumbles onto the tribe of vagabonds and is told that they’re “refugees from the 1960s, commonly known as hippies.”

And then there’s the ending. A moment of such transcendent WTF absurdity that I began to think I was imagining the entire experience.

As soon as the movie ended, I wanted to watch it again. Mainly because I was afraid to go to sleep.

The only thing that allowed me to maintain my sanity during THE APPLE was knowing how far off the mark its vision of the future was. A world dominated by media companies and obsessed by fame, where undue attention is paid to a hellishly bad talent competition? Dream on, Menahem. Dream on.

Tuesday, February 15, 2005

Movie: Inside Deep Throat (2005)

Fenton Bailey and Randy Barbato have the pop culture documentary down to a science. Their work for film (THE EYES OF TAMMY FAYE) and TV (SHOWBIZ MOMS & DADS) may not always be insightful, but it’s reliably slick and entertaining thanks to deft editing and clip selection.

Their latest effort, produced by Hollywood powerhouse Brian Grazer, is their best to date because of the potency of the subject matter. The 1972 release of DEEP THROAT (no, I haven’t seen it) was a landmark moment in the sexual revolution that heralded the mainstreaming of pornography. How society got to that point – and how the fallout led to a porn industry separate from the rest of show business and accountable to nothing except profit margins – is a fascinating story. Bailey and Barbato don’t overstate DEEP THROAT’s impact, but use it as a way to explore questions that are more relevant today than at any point since the Reagan era.

In an anatomical sense, the scenes from DEEP THROAT (which account for the documentary’s NC-17 rating) are hugely impressive. But the film looks lousy and doesn’t seem all that funny, even though that was its big selling point. (Well, one of them, anyway.) Bailey and Barbato make terrific use of other clips from the period, like a Dick Cavett-refereed showdown between Hugh Hefner and feminist Susan Brownmiller that reveals how short-sighted both of their arguments are. Two retired New York vice cops offer their own reviews of DEEP THROAT. If there was any justice, they’d have had their own show. Who’d know better than them which porn films were worth seeing?

INSIDE DEEP THROAT uses many songs heard in BOOGIE NIGHTS. Is that the official porn soundtrack now? “Brand New Key” doesn’t even make sense in this context.

Watching Norman Mailer and Gore Vidal opine in this film makes me wonder who’ll be called upon to weigh in on the vital issues of the day in documentaries thirty years from now. We don’t seem to have public intellectuals of that stripe any more. So I’d like to nominate myself for the job. I’m a reasonably clever guy and I clean up nice. It’s either me or somebody from VH-1’s I LOVE THE ‘90s.

Phrases deleted from the first draft of this post because they sounded, well, dirty: bottom line, goes down easy, thumbs up, hard to swallow.

Magazine: Entertainment Weekly, 2/18/05 issue

Owen Gleiberman has a theory on why studio romantic comedies are so unsatisfying while indie versions like SWINGERS and SIDEWAYS work in his negative review of HITCH:

Dating is all about behavior: the fine tuned verbal and chemical idiosyncrasies that make one person mesh (or not) with another. Most Hollywood love stories are too broad and schematic for that. They’re not about personalities. They’re about situations.”

I think he’s right. I also think the fact that HITCH grossed $45 million this weekend means we can expect more of the same.

Miscellaneous: Links

I haven’t watched a local TV newscast in over fifteen years for many reasons. Here’s one of them – and remember, I live in Seattle. Bill Crider read SIN-A-RAMA so I wouldn’t have to. But I’m gonna do it anyway.

Sunday, February 13, 2005

Book: Eyeing the Flash, by Peter Fenton (2005)

Step right up, step right up, folks, and learn the ancient secrets of the carnival midway! Find –

Don’t crowd me, son, there’s room enough for everyone.

Find out what happens when a tender youth flees a family fraught with dysfunction only to find freedom amidst freaks and felons! Yes, in this memoir our hero, young Fenton, slips the bonds of a suburban Michigan childhood in the 1960s and hits the road with a traveling carnival.

Journey back to a more innocent era, when entertainment came from Fattest Wife/Skinniest Husband contests and a brand-new outboard motor was awarded to the person who correctly guessed how many catfish would float to the surface after a stick of dynamite was thrown into a swamp.

Follow young Fenton as the boy becomes a man! Learn the three types of carnival games – Hanky Panks, Alibis and Flat Stores – and discover for yourself why you shouldn’t play any of them! Feel the marrow in your bones chill as it is revealed why the only way to eat anything bought at a midway “grab joint” is locked inside a Port-A-John! Look on in awe and disbelief as young Fenton, schooled in the tools of his trade, dupes dentists and rooks Rotarians! Thrill to the heart-stopping climax as our hero tries to out-con his con man mentor in a genuine Indiana Bust-Out!

As for the fate of feckless Fenton, fear not! The lad learns his lessons and sets out on a truer path: journalism! Holding high the flaming sword that is the freedom of the press!

He grows up to become a reporter for the National Enquirer.

DVD: Catwoman (2004)

Seven Razzie nominations and every one of them deserved. Except for Sharon Stone’s. She’s a hoot in this movie. Love those red fighting pajamas.

Miscellaneous: Link

John Pultorak reconstructs the computer used by the Apollo astronauts, with its awesome 1K of RAM. They used it to go to the moon. I use a machine many times more powerful to look up information on former hostesses of THE PRICE IS RIGHT. More proof that something somewhere has gone horribly awry.

Friday, February 11, 2005

Movie: In Good Company (2004)

Another whip-smart comedy from ABOUT A BOY’s Weitz brothers. This time Paul writes and directs, with Chris producing. Dennis Quaid stars as a salesman entering his 50s at the peak of his profession, only to find himself abruptly answering to an upstart half his age (Topher Grace). What follows is a semi-serious and ultimately moving look at the power of mentoring, and what each party in such a relationship can draw from the other.

The Weitzes are working in Cameron Crowe mode here, showering affection on their characters while still allowing them to make mistakes. Even supporting players like Grace’s soon-to-be ex-wife (the divine Selma Blair) and boss (Clark Gregg) are fully fleshed out. Hollywood used to know how to crank out sharp commercial comedies for adults on a regular basis. Now getting one in a blue moon is cause for celebration.

Noticed: Used Book Store Report

Someone offloaded their entire collection of STAR TREK Fotonovels. I had forgotten these books existed. Fotonovels consisted of hundreds of stills from movies or TV shows, with the dialogue presented in comics-style word bubbles. In other words, they’re books for people who find novelizations too complicated. About a dozen such STAR TREK books were released in the late ‘70s, but great films of the period like NIGHTWING and ICE CASTLES also got the treatment.

Naturally, I had many of these books. I don’t know where they are now. And I didn’t feel like paying eight bucks for one yesterday, because I’m not that nostalgic for them.

You’d think that the advent of home video would have been the end of the Fotonovel, but an Amazon search turned up a few recent ones like CHARLIE’S ANGELS and SHREK. I’ve never seen them in stores, though.

Miscellaneous: Links

Plenty of other blogs have linked to this brutally frank Ian Irvine essay on how publishing actually works. Couple that with this Hollywood Reporter piece on the shrinking market for original screenplays and a guy could get depressed. Makes me long for the days when I wrote phone sex ads for a living. At least I got to be creative.

And: is D. W. Griffith the spiritual father of Edward D. Wood, Jr.? Reason may not say so, but REASON does.

Wednesday, February 09, 2005

DVD: The Wrong Man (1957)

The opening shot of this film, based on a true story, indicates that you’re not in for the typical Hitchcock experience. Hitch foregoes his usual cameo and instead appears in shadow, introducing a movie he describes as stranger than any fiction.

It’s one of the few Hitchcock films I hadn’t seen. I was prepared for the semi-documentary style, but not for the fact that the events unfold along the path of the 7 train that runs through my old neighborhood in New York.

Henry Fonda plays a musician at Manhattan’s Stork Club who is arrested for a series of robberies that he didn’t commit. Hitchcock employs a powerful subjective camera technique that puts the viewer in Fonda’s place as he takes in every feature of the cramped jail cell he suddenly finds himself in, or glances around a courtroom at people who seem indifferent to his fate. The passivity of Fonda’s character – he’s a decent man from a tight-knit Italian family who trusts the system, even when mistakes are obviously being made – only adds to the intensity.

The film didn’t play out in the manner I expected, particularly in the way it focused on the psychological toll Fonda’s ordeal takes on his wife (Vera Miles). The closing scenes between the two are so raw that the happy ending title card seems a grievous misstep, as if Hitch himself were unsettled by the material.

In stripping away his usual artifice, the director simply underscores his masterful storytelling skills. Hitchcock’s films are noted for their Catholic symbolism and their expression of his fear of the police. It’s odd that both aspects receive their fullest exploration in a story torn from the headlines of the day.

Miscellaneous: Quote of the Day

The New York Times’ Charles McGrath attends a screening of the new documentary INSIDE DEEP THROAT and comments on the “raisiny ... shrunken and overly tanned” appearance of many of the original movie’s principals. This includes “Count Sepy Dobronyi, in whose wine cellar some of the action was filmed.”

Tuesday, February 08, 2005

DVD: Code 46 (2004)

Director Michael Winterbottom has already gone from a straight adaptation of Thomas Hardy (JUDE) to one transposed to the California of the Gold Rush (THE CLAIM). Now he’s followed up the joyously offbeat 24 HOUR PARTY PEOPLE with a science fiction love story. What’s amazing is how well it works.

PARTY PEOPLE screenwriter Frank Cottrell Boyce’s original script has exactly the right heft; the film feels more like a novella, with enough shading to hint at a larger and darker picture. Tim Robbins plays an insurance investigator sent to Shanghai to track down the source of counterfeit travel documents. He’s hepped up on an “empathy virus,” so spotting the culprit (Samantha Morton) is easy. Turning her in, alas, is not.

CODE 46’s vision of the future is one of the most striking put on film: the polyglot dialogue, the subtle but wholesale incorporation of technology into everyday life, the use of real world locations (Shanghai, Dubai) in a way that puts LOGAN’S RUN to shame.

The result is a haunting vision of a borderless tomorrow where anyone is within reach yet everyone feels isolated. It called to mind Wim Wenders’ UNTIL THE END OF THE WORLD, one of the first attempts to address globalization and the pervasive sense of dislocation that came with it. It’s hard to believe that Wenders’ once-maligned film is almost 15 years old, which only proves how prophetic it was. I’d like to revisit the movie someday. Perhaps when I get the chance to see the fabled 280-minute version.

Miscellaneous: Links

Oscar producer Gilbert Cates threatens to liven up this year’s telecast. If this means the winning sound editor can’t cop a feel from Sharon Stone when she hands him his trophy, I think we’ve all lost something.

And David Thomson on how Volkswagen’s SINGIN’ IN THE RAIN ad is destroying mankind’s collective memory. His story about the difficulty of finding a copy of Anthony Mann’s MEN IN WAR takes on an additional tragic dimension considering that they’re about to strike new prints of DEEP THROAT to cash in on the release of the documentary.

Monday, February 07, 2005

TV: Super Bowl Commercials

It’s bad enough that the game was a stiff. Then the annual rite of critiquing the commercials was made superfluous by the hilarious FedEx/Kinko’s spot that ran during the first quarter. It ticked off all the ingredients needed for a memorable Super Bowl ad as they appeared – celebrity (Burt Reynolds), talking animal, cute kid, hot babes, awesome song (Journey – yes!), right down to the bonus ending. For the rest of the game I was calling out these elements as they showed up in other ads.

Brad Pitt’s Heineken spot is something of a watershed moment. The stigma against movie stars appearing in American TV commercials is ending. Soon, the storyline of LOST IN TRANSLATION will be no more than a quirky relic of a bygone era.

This could be huge. As significant a transition as James Stewart’s decision to take profit participation instead of a straight salary on 1952’s BEND OF THE RIVER. And who can forget where they were when that happened?

Book: Sex and Rockets, The Occult World of Jack Parsons, by John Carter (1999)

I’ve read a few of the wild titles published by Feral House. So far I’ve managed to avoid being on their mailing list. I have my future political ambitions to think of.

The book’s fantastic cover got my attention, but I read it because of the fascinating subject matter. Parsons was an aerospace pioneer whose innovations in rocket fuel are used to this day, and a key figure in the history of the Jet Propulsion Laboratory. His social circle included science fiction writers like Jack Williamson, Robert Heinlein, A. E. van Vogt and L. Ron Hubbard. Parsons was also a disciple of “black magician” Aleister Crowley. He eventually died in a mysterious explosion involving the use of hazardous chemicals in his kitchen.

Carter (a pseudonym, and I’m sure any resemblance to the name of the Edgar Rice Burroughs hero is purely coincidental) spends way too much time on the arcane rituals that obsessed Parsons and not enough on how he managed to live his double (hell, triple) life. It’s one of those books with idiosyncratic capitalization, as when Robert Anton Wilson refers in his introduction to “those few who, like Parsons, have taken the hermetic oath to Will and Dare and Know and Keep Silence.”

Although I was disappointed by the book, I still think Parsons’ life would make a great movie. One of those off-kilter, ED WOOD-style biopics that could employ the gee-whiz tone of ‘40s sci-fi in telling his story, where real and fictional superscience collide. Along with generous dollops of sex and black magic. Kind of a SKY CAPTAIN meets THE PEOPLE VS. LARRY FLYNT.

My visit to the Feral House website pointed me toward another of their books that I’ll have to read: SIN-A-RAMA, a history of erotic paperbacks from the 1960s. Purely for research purposes, you understand. I’m not sure what I’m researching yet, but there’s gotta be something.

Miscellaneous: Link

Novelist and noir expert Eddie Muller on how Humphrey Bogart made THE MALTESE FALCON safe for grown-ups.

Sunday, February 06, 2005

Miscellaneous: Mystery Solved

It should be obvious to any regular reader of this site that I spent far too much time watching movies as a child. While my friends were setting up clubhouses in the collection of cast-off trash containers underneath the Amtrak trestle – an area known to us good Catholic schoolkids as “the bins” – I would be at home watching whatever films were served up by New York’s independent TV stations. I still believe that was the correct decision. Certainly the more hygienic one.

Plenty of those offerings have stayed with me. Repeated afternoon viewings of THE TAKING OF PELHAM ONE TWO THREE made me who I am. Others I have completely forgotten.

But one ended up somewhere in between, in my own personal cinematic limbo.

I must have been around seven when I saw it. I don’t remember it as being particularly good. What’s noteworthy is that I remembered it at all.

It was a horror movie. (Big surprise.) It was about a woman, possibly a redhead, who moved into an old house, possibly in Ireland or England, along with her husband, definitely a lout. In said house was a ghost known as Patrick. We never see him; he’d make his presence known by poltergeisting the furniture around. Patrick became the woman’s protector against her husband’s schemes. The film ends with Patrick setting the house on fire while the husband is inside, killing them both. The woman stands outside, screaming the ghost’s name as the place burns.

It wasn’t that scary, or that well-made. It was just a movie I watched one afternoon by myself, and for some reason the details stayed with me.

Except for the title. I had no idea what the damn thing was called.

Over the years the film would pop into my head, and I’d waste a few minutes trying to track the title down. I consulted books on horror movies, combed the Internet Movie Database, ran searches on the web. All to no avail.

Then last week it occurred to me. I was just on a game show with a passel of film fanatics. Maybe one of them would know. So I sent them all the information I had at my disposal, exactly as recounted above.

Less than 24 hours later I had my answer, courtesy of Tony Kay. Who hasn’t even seen the movie, but recalled it from a book about horror films that he’d read years ago. It’s THE HOUSE IN MARSH ROAD, from 1960. Directed by Montgomery Tully, who specialized in low-budget English thrillers. The IMDb entry features only one (1) user comment and links to only one (1) external review, so there’s no cult following. Probably because the film has never been widely available on video. It’s also in black and white, so I made up the redhead part.

It feels a little strange, having a question that has dogged me on and off for three decades finally answered. But at least now, should THE HOUSE IN MARSH ROAD ever surface on TV, I’ll make it a point to sit down and watch it again. And no doubt wonder what I’d made a fuss about.

Miscellaneous: Link

In honor of the Super Bowl and its cleaned-up halftime show, here’s a link to my all-time favorite McSweeney’s piece describing a spectacle I'd give anything to see.

Friday, February 04, 2005

R.I.P. John Vernon

The other night I caught a few minutes of CHARLEY VARRICK on TCM and thought about what great villains character actor John Vernon played. The sleazy criminal who sells out partner Lee Marvin in POINT BLANK. Clint Eastwood’s dogged pursuer in THE OUTLAW JOSEY WALES. He also had a memorable turn opposite Clint as “the Mayor” in DIRTY HARRY.

Most obituaries are highlighting Vernon’s work in ANIMAL HOUSE, as well they should. A comedy of that stripe is only as good as its foil, and Vernon’s Dean Wormer set the bar high.

I’d like to remember Mr. Vernon with this exchange from his performance in AIRPLANE II: THE SEQUEL.

Prosecutor: Doctor, can you give the court your impression of Mr. Striker?

Dr. Stone: I’m sorry. I don’t do impressions. My training is in psychiatry.

TV Commercial: Revlon

Let me get this straight. We’ve got Halle Berry and Susan Sarandon and Julianne Moore all in one dressing room? This must be the starriest production of THE WOMEN ever. I shudder to think what the tickets must cost. And not only are they sharing the same room, they’re sharing the same mirror. CATWOMAN and THE FORGOTTEN are more believable than these ads are.

On the bright side, it’s great to see this much A-list talent in a commercial outside of Japan.

Classics I Somehow Missed: Day for Night (1973)

I’ve got an excuse. For years Francois Truffaut’s Oscar-winning film about filmmaking was only available in a dubbed edition. The 30th anniversary DVD remedies that and includes some terrific extras.

Now that I’ve seen it, I intend to buy my own copy. It’s a delight from start to finish, brimming with Truffaut’s characteristic warmth. No other movie captures the spirit of frenzied camaraderie that exists on a film set better. You can see its influence on subsequent films about the subject like IRMA VEP and Christopher Guest’s THE BIG PICTURE, which even employs similar music cues.

Miscellaneous: Link

Margo Jefferson takes a look at the contemporary state of noir in print and on screen.

Thursday, February 03, 2005

Movie: Hotel Rwanda (2004)

Preconceived notions play a big role in whether I’ll see a movie. I still haven’t caught FINDING NEVERLAND in spite of the presence of Johnny Depp and Kate Winslet, multiple Oscar nods, and the opinion of one critic I respect that it’s the best film of 2004. I can’t help it. The previews make it look like a typical high-toned weepie, and I’ve seen enough of those, thank you very much.

I had similar expectations about HOTEL RWANDA. I feared it was going to be a political film in the style of Stanley Kramer, high on ideals and low on drama. I overcame my resistance for two reasons: Don Cheadle and co-writer/director Terry George, whose films about Northern Ireland (like SOME MOTHER’S SON and IN THE NAME OF THE FATHER) ground real-world concerns in recognizable human dynamics.

He does the same here, keeping his focus firmly on Paul Rusesabagina, who turned the Kigali hotel he managed into a refuge during the 1994 Rwandan genocide.

Cheadle, always a reliable actor, is magnificent here as a man who finds a whole new use for his skill at greasing wheels. He makes the term ‘manager’ seem like the most noble of titles. Paul, like Cheadle, concentrates on the details, criticizing the housekeeping staff even as hundreds of refugees flood the premises. There’s an utterly heartbreaking scene when Paul, convinced that the hotel is about to be overrun, thanks the head of the company (a potently effective cameo by Jean Reno) on the phone for all that the firm has done for him.

If I were an Academy voter – and by God, I ought to be – this year I’d tick the box next to Cheadle’s name. Flawlessly recreating the mannerisms of a well-known entertainer is a true feat, as is subverting your image as one of the screen’s great tough guys. But Cheadle did something far harder: he convinced me that a man this good was real.

Miscellaneous: Links

The New York Times on the difficulties of seeing Oscar nominated films in the heartland. Slate’s Middlebrow feature, which offers sharp analyses of mainstream cultural figures like Michael Crichton and Dave Barry, turns its eye to James Cameron. And plans for an art show in which every piece has been stolen go awry. Seems to me that if they were going to do this right, they’d have stolen the gallery space, too.

Wednesday, February 02, 2005

TV: Bond Girls Are Forever

Starz! and Encore are airing this as part of their “Ultimate Bond” package. I expected a bit of ‘where-are-they-now?’ fluff about the women who have appeared in the 007 films.

What I got was an engaging quasi-documentary hosted, produced and co-written by Maryam d’Abo, who appeared in the underrated Bond film THE LIVING DAYLIGHTS opposite the underrated Bond Timothy Dalton.

The focus is mostly on the positive, but the actresses are also forthright about the mixed blessing of being “Bond girls.” (They almost universally reject the name “Bond women.”) Lois Chiles of MOONRAKER talks about the difficulty of playing Dr. Holly Goodhead during the age of feminism, while d’Abo openly calls the Roger Moore films sleazy. She even thanks Camille Paglia in the end credits.

DVD: Dracula Has Risen From The Grave (1968)

Hammer horror films were such staples of my childhood that I tend to blur them together. Particularly the ones starring Christopher Lee as Dracula. But it turns out I remembered the opening of this movie vividly:

- The dead woman hidden in the church bell.

- The townspeople telling a visiting monsignor that they won’t venture back into the church even after Dracula’s death because “the shadow of his castle touches the church wall.”

- The long climb up the mountain to cleanse the castle of Dracula’s spirit.

The remainder of the movie is underplotted, coasting on mood and Lee’s charisma. But those first moments are mesmerizing.

Miscellaneous: Links

Over at Thrilling Days of Yesteryear, Ivan has been wrestling with two questions that have plagued man throughout the ages, or at least since the late ‘50s: Is Jerry Lewis funny? And are Martin & Lewis funnier?

As a dedicated Quizno’s customer, I say: dump Baby Bob! Bring back the Spongmonkeys!

Tuesday, February 01, 2005

TV: The Late Show with David Letterman

Appreciations of last night’s Johnny Carson tribute show abound, like the ones here and here. So I’ll single out what I liked best about it: Dave’s use of original TONIGHT SHOW “More to Come” artcards around the commercial breaks. A lovely touch.

Book: The Whole Equation, by David Thomson (2004)

You won’t find a more readable reference work than Thomson’s BIOGRAPHICAL DICTIONARY OF FILM. I share his views on some subjects; for instance, he calls Robert Mitchum “one of the best actors in the movies” and has a huge soft spot for Angie Dickinson.

More often than not our opinions clash violently. I’ve always thought of Ron Shelton, with his jaundiced eye for detail and skill at combining sex and comedy, as one of the most underrated American filmmakers and a legitimate heir to Preston Sturges. Thomson writes: “few directors depress me more.” Ouch.

Agree or disagree, he’s always worth reading. Which is why I was eager to tackle his latest book, subtitled “A History of Hollywood.” A grand enough subject, to be sure, but early on Thomson casts his net even wider. He’s not writing a history of movies, but a history of America in the time of movies. With Robert Towne’s script for CHINATOWN and F. Scott Fitzgerald’s THE LAST TYCOON as his lodestars.

That kind of ambition is rare these days. And this book serves as a reminder of why.

When I was in college, I took a course in film criticism. The instructor told us that the true measure of a critic was the ability to write a “thinkpiece.” He pronounced the word the way a physician would say “malignant.” You know what I’m talking about: one of those bloated Sunday arts section essays that takes a single decent idea and inflates it beyond significance. Like A. O. Scott’s recent jeremiad (which, alas, I can’t link to) about SIDEWAYS being the most overrated movie of the year.

Aside: Why do I have the feeling that if SIDEWAYS had been released in 1974 – directed by, say, Hal Ashby and starring George Segal as the sad-sack writer – our Tony would at some point have held it up as a shining example of the kind of film Hollywood just doesn’t make any more?

Thomson’s book feels like a series of tenuously linked thinkpieces. He’ll raise an intriguing point about the origins of film noir or the role of class in the life and work of Chaplin, then move on before developing it. Worse, the transitions between subjects are so intuitive as to border on the personal. He knows how these ideas fit together so he assumes we do, too. And before you know it, you’re left eating his intellectual dust.

There are stirring passages. He employs statistics on declining movie attendance to devastating effect. But overall, the book feels tired. Thomson is unhappy with the direction that film and the steadily shrinking audience have taken in the last twenty years, and he’s allowed that ennui to contaminate his writing.

Which is too bad. Because the current state of the movies is one of the subjects where the two of us see eye to eye.