Wednesday, June 29, 2005

Movie: Gangster Story (1959)

Most people justifiably think of Walter Matthau as a comedic performer. I always associate him with the trio of tough crime dramas he made in 1973 and ’74: CHARLEY VARRICK, THE LAUGHING POLICEMAN, and THE TAKING OF PELHAM ONE TWO THREE, which I really need to stop talking about.

He stayed in the genre for his only directing gig. The resulting movie is terrible. GANGSTER STORY has that wall-eyed look you only see in MST3K films. Every line of dialogue was looped. The interiors were shot at crew members’ houses in Anaheim.

Still, Matthau’s character Jack Martin pulls off a brilliant bank robbery at the beginning of the film, one that involves inviting the police in advance. It’s like something Donald E. Westlake would dream up.

As a director, Matthau made one key mistake. He hired himself. He’s so much better than the rest of the cast that he throws the movie out of whack. It’s a clear violation of the Joe Queenan Guitar Rule.

In THE UNKINDEST CUT, his book about independent filmmaking, Queenan compares hiring an actor who outshines the others to leaving a guitar out at a party. Many guests will pick it up and noodle around with it, strumming a few chords. Then one guy, who used to be in a band, will play an entire song and make everyone else feel inadequate. The party’s mood will shift. Guests will make excuses and leave. The next thing you know, they’re all gone by 9:30 and you’re tossing out perfectly good shrimp. I told you we didn’t need to buy the big platter. Whenever we throw a party you never listen to me. If we’d put on that jazz CD like I suggested, we wouldn’t be in this mess. And why do we keep inviting your friend Carol? I can tell she has it in for me. And she zeroes in on the good gin like a guided missile.

OK, that one got away from me.

Tuesday, June 28, 2005

Movie: Batman Begins (2005)

I’ll be honest. I had reservations going into this one. I’m not even sure if I saw the last BATMAN movie. Who were the villains again? Tim Robbins as Egghead and Kevin Costner as Shame, right? With a cameo by Alan King as Louie the Lilac? Or was that a dream I had?

Plus I was feeling burned out on costumed avenger movies. How could you improve on the dizzy operatic heights of SPIDER-MAN 2?

But Spidey is a hero who rules the day. We need one who haunts the night. And Christopher Nolan is the man to give him life.

There’s too much mystical hooey at the beginning and too much everything at the end, but overall this is smart filmmaking with a flair for pop psychology and Gothic imagery. Nolan and co-writer David Goyer wisely put the focus on Bruce Wayne. It’s an opportunity Michael Keaton, Val Kilmer, George Clooney – hell, Adam West – never had. And Christian Bale is more than up to the challenge.

Cillian Murphy and his scarily low-tech Scarecrow mask get the job done in the villainy department. Some critics have taken Gary Oldman to task for his strenuous regular guy performance as Detective Gordon, but I’m enough of an Oldman fan to think that the effort is intentional. His work here called to mind the May Sarton line that opens John le Carré’s THE RUSSIA HOUSE: One must think like a hero to behave like a merely decent human being.

My favorite performance in the movie, though, is from Tom Wilkinson as Gotham’s crime boss. Instead of doing another variation on the GOODFELLAS idea of a gangster, Wilkinson harks back to older examples out of the Warner Brothers library. And it works beautifully. It’s a treat to watch him channeling Edward G. Robinson, a dandy intoxicated by his own power, chewing his dialogue like breadsticks. His scene with Bruce Wayne is the strongest in the movie. I was sorry to see him go.

Overlawyered can tell you how much this movie would cost Bruce Wayne. Luckily, he can afford it. Thanks to Bill Crider for the first link.

Sunday, June 26, 2005

Operation Travolta: Peter Weller

Last week’s film meme asked which movie character I’d like to be. My back-up reply: Buckaroo Banzai. Surgeon. Rock star. Adventurer. Lover of two incarnations of Ellen Barkin.

Wait. Can I change my answer?

Anyone who can carry off such a role with the casual aplomb Peter Weller brought to it should be besieged by work. But as I have done before, I’m challenging the filmmaking community to give this man a part worthy of his talents.

I first saw Weller in 1983’s OF UNKNOWN ORIGIN, in which he plays a New York yuppie waging war on the rat sharing his swank new digs. Weller’s performance elevates the movie to the level of allegory, and established his prowess at playing superficially successful men beset by neuroses.

THE ADVENTURES OF BUCKAROO BANZAI ACROSS THE EIGHTH DIMENSION followed a year later. 1987’s ROBOCOP introduced the character for which the actor is best known; Paul Verhoeven’s film remains a scabrously funny comic book satire. I even like the 1990 sequel, which some critics found too dark. Weller was smartly paired with the hangdog Sam Elliott in 1988’s SHAKEDOWN, an appealingly low-brow actioner from B-movie maestro James Glickenhaus.

The early ‘90s brought Weller’s best work. In David Cronenberg’s NAKED LUNCH, he embodies both the writer William Burroughs and the narrator of Burroughs’ seminal novel. Personally, I prefer his other collaboration with actress Judy Davis, who referred to herself and Weller as “the Astaire and Rogers of dysfunction.” 1994’s THE NEW AGE is one of the decade’s great films, an unsparing portrait of a privileged Los Angeles couple as their marriage buckles under financial and spiritual woes. Weller has never been better, and he’s perfectly matched by Davis. The film also features a scorching cameo by Samuel L. Jackson before he became “Samuel L. Jackson.” It’s a crime that Michael Tolkin’s film remains unavailable on DVD.

The latter half of the decade wasn’t as kind. Weller turns up briefly in Woody Allen’s MIGHTY APHRODITE, but what should be a surefire collaboration goes nowhere. In the low-budget Philip K. Dick adaptation SCREAMERS, he issues my favorite order by a military officer: “Relent!”

Weller plumbed the moneyed depths of Southern California again in Bernard Rose’s IVANSXTC, which combines Tolstoy’s “The Death of Ivan Ilyich” with the tragic story of Hollywood agent Jay Moloney. Weller received an Independent Spirit Award nomination for his performance, but sadly, I haven’t seen it. The film, which may have cut too deep for many in the business, did not get theatrical distribution and has never been released on video in the United States.

Behind the camera is where the actor has flourished of late. In 1993, his short film “Partners” was nominated for an Academy Award, and he directed a sharp adaptation of the Elmore Leonard novel GOLD COAST for Showtime.

I look at the career that Christopher Walken has had and wonder why Weller hasn’t gotten similar opportunities. They share many qualities: a flair for the theatrical, flawless timing, a great sense of personal style. Some enterprising filmmaker should think of Weller’s name the next time Walken is too busy to take on a juicy supporting role.

And I, for one, haven’t given up hope of seeing Buckaroo take on the World Crime League.

Friday, June 24, 2005

Music: Paul Anka, Rock Swings (2005)

When I heard about this album – Paul Anka doing big band covers of rock songs – I thought it was a joke. Kind of like the medley Joe Piscopo did as Frank Sinatra, moving from “Born To Run” into “Smoke on the Water.”

Then Rosemarie sampled the record online and said, “I think we need to buy this.” Now I can’t stop playing the damn thing.

Some of the songs have a lipstick-on-a-pig quality. No amount of showbiz pizzazz is going to make Bon Jovi’s “It’s My Life” sound better or R.E.M.’s “Everybody Hurts” less obvious. At other times, Anka’s old school approach – adding a Count Basie call-and-response to Van Halen’s “Jump,” performing the Pet Shop Boys’ “It’s A Sin” as a bossa nova number – livens up unlikely material. He even brings some Threepenny Opera swagger to Survivor’s “Eye Of The Tiger.”

It’s no accident that the best covers are of songs that were strong to begin with, like Spandau Ballet’s “True” and especially “Wonderwall” by Oasis. And Anka’s take on Soundgarden’s “Blackhole Sun” is surprisingly potent. I was disappointed that he skipped the spoken word part of Billy Idol’s “Eyes Without A Face.” I wanted to hear him say:

I’m on a bus, on a psychedelic trip,
Reading murder books and trying to stay hip.

And then we come to Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit.” The selection that has come in for the most scorn.

At times, Anka’s approach to the song imparts a Joel-Grey-in-CABARET vibe that’s wholly appropriate (“Hello, hello, hello, how low”). Seconds later, it seems an affront to the laws of God and man. But any recording that provokes such an intense response is worth listening to.

The lush arrangements unfortunately underscore how little depth most of these songs have. Conventional wisdom holds that popular music suffered with the advent of the singer-songwriter and the decline of the interpretive artist. Rock Swings bears that theory out.

Anka and Kurt Cobain make an odd pairing: the consummate pro and the tortured poet. Filmmaker Mike Figgis once said, “My heroes all seem to have been junkies ... they’re often very brave people who burned fast – because accelerated creativity yields a higher gain.” I’ve always found that argument absurd, so much so that I seem to have gone out of my way to avoid “junkie literature.” Many of the artists I admire are prolific, professional, and dismissed by critics as “slick.” As if productivity and devotion to craft couldn’t yield rewards of their own.

I suppose what I’m saying is that, on the Anka/Cobain spectrum, I tend toward the Paul Anka side. Just so you know.

Wednesday, June 22, 2005

Miscellaneous: Meme’s The Same

I usually don’t go in for this kind of thing. I’m a loner, Dottie. A rebel. But it’s all the rage among the GreenCine regulars, so I want to play, too.

1. Total number of films I own on DVD and video

112. Wow. I didn’t think it was that many.

2. The last film I bought

A “Classic Monster Movies” collection featuring DOCTOR BLOOD’S COFFIN, FURY OF THE WOLFMAN, and THE BRAINIAC on one disc.

Look, it was only five bucks. What do you want from me?

3. The last film I watched

THE HARDER THEY FALL (1956). A tough, pulpy boxing drama from a novel by Budd Schulberg. Bogart’s last film. I watched it because Max Baer, the villain of CINDERELLA MAN, appears in it as an exaggerated version of himself.

4. Five films that I watch a lot or that mean a lot to me, in no particular order

Here I’m going to cheat and give each selection a similarly-themed alternate. It’s a meme, people. I can do what I like.

ALIEN (1979) – In a lapse of judgment she has come to regret, my mother took me to see this when I was a kid. I had never realized you could frighten adults before. That revelation made me want to make movies. Alternate: BRAZIL (1985)

THE TAKING OF PELHAM ONE TWO THREE (1974) – Pound for pound, the most entertaining movie ever made. Alternate: RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK (1981)

BLOWUP (1966) – For peerless writing. It tells its story in purely visual terms. Alternate: CHINATOWN (1974)

NORTH BY NORTHWEST (1959) – The complete movie package, and the level of artistry to which I aspire. Alternate: L.A. CONFIDENTIAL (1997)

THE THIRD MAN (1949) – As good as it gets. Alternate: DR. STRANGELOVE (1964)

Bonus Entry: OUT OF THE PAST (1947). Just because.

5. If you could be any character portrayed in a movie, who would it be?

Gene Hackman in THE POSEIDON ADVENTURE. Because he goes out cursing God and saving Pamela Sue Martin. And because I’ve never looked good in a turtleneck.

Who’s next?

TV: Celebrity Charades

All my life I have waited for a worthy successor to THE BATTLE OF THE NETWORK STARS. This limited-run AMC series created by Bob Balaban, Chad Lowe and Hilary Swank isn’t it – for one thing, there’s no dunk tank – but it’s close.

Tuesday, June 21, 2005

TV: Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy

In the end, the envelopes got to me.

Online DVD rental outfits like Netflix and GreenCine want you to hang on to movies for weeks at a time; it improves their numbers. But I’d see those envelopes stacked up next to the TV and feel guilty. I really ought to turn those around, I’d think.

The trick is to rent discs that take days to get through. Titles like Kino Video’s silent film compilations, for instance.

The ideal solution would be to rent TV shows. I don’t watch much TV, so I’d have plenty to choose from. I could catch up on ARRESTED DEVELOPMENT or dig into FX’s highly lauded lineup (THE SHIELD, NIP/TUCK, RESCUE ME). As for older series, I wouldn’t know where to begin. Here I shamefacedly admit that I haven’t seen a minute of classics like, picking two at random, THE ANDY GRIFFITH SHOW and GREEN ACRES.

But I can’t do it. If I can get by without watching TV shows at their appointed airtimes, why should I binge on them once they reach DVD?

So I struck a compromise. I’d rent long-form programs, what ABC used to call “Novels For Television.” All the comfort of a series, with the satisfaction of an actual ending. I began with this 1979 adaptation of John le Carré’s book, often hailed as one of television’s finest productions.

Alec Guinness stars as George Smiley, a cashiered intelligence officer brought back into the fold to determine which of four key players in the service is a Soviet mole.

In many respects, TINKER, TAILOR hasn’t aged well. It takes its time; one scene consists entirely of a shot of Guinness in a ratty cardigan reading a file, and like every shot in the series, it’s held several beats too long. Only one of the four suspects is developed in any way, so it’s no surprise when he’s revealed to be the traitor.

But the series exerts a powerful hold, and does an extraordinary job of depicting how isolating intelligence work can be. As for Guinness’ performance, no other actor could make reading a file while wearing a ratty cardigan so compelling.

The sole extra is a 2002 interview with le Carré, in which he speaks in dense, perfectly formed paragraphs for thirty minutes.

Monday, June 20, 2005

Miscellaneous: Take Me Out To The Ball Game

Webster’s Dictionary defines popular culture as ... hang on, the phrase isn’t in here. And this isn’t a Webster’s Dictionary.

Baseball counts as popular culture, right? Too bad if it doesn’t, because baseball was the only thing on my mind the last few days.

I’d been waiting for this weekend for ages. The Seattle Mariners were finally hosting the New York Mets. My New York Mets. And I had tickets for the first of their three games.

Growing up in Queens, you had to be a Mets fan. On summer evenings, every radio in the neighborhood would be tuned to the game; you could run down the alleys for blocks and never miss a pitch. We didn’t live too far from Shea Stadium, and my father would take me to the ballpark at least once a season.

New York has few hard and fast rules. One of them is: if you like the Mets, you hate the Yankees. But I still went to see the Bronx Bombers play when I won tickets in my school’s Sports Night raffle. Another of New York’s hard and fast rules is never pass up anything free.

Whenever I moved, I kept the habit of living close to stadiums. There was no professional baseball team at the time I lived in the Tampa Bay area – you could make the case that there’s still not – but the Toronto Blue Jays’ spring training facility was blocks from my house. One morning on my way to school a foul ball landed at my feet, and a Jays’ outfielder asked me to throw it back. When my best pitch thumped the roof of a CBC van, he laughed and said, “Kid, you suck!” Not exactly a Mean Joe Greene moment. My apartment in Boston was directly under the Citgo sign you can see whenever anyone hits a shot over the Green Monster at Fenway Park. It was easy for me to pull for both teams, because they were rivals of the Yankees.

I’ve always wished the Mariners well, but I can’t call myself a fan. Setting the modern-day record with 116 wins in a season but failing to make the World Series indicates certain fundamental flaws in the organization. Safeco Field is a beautiful stadium, though, and I was eager to see the Mets play there. So was Rosemarie, the original flashy girl from Flushing, who can’t sing ‘Meet the Mets’ without tearing up. Here we are.

The game moves faster when you’re there in person. Maybe it’s not having to sit through all the ads for local car dealerships. And between innings there’s always some kind of activity going on, although nothing as elaborate as Milwaukee’s Weiner Races. I enjoyed a beer in the stands for the first time. I don’t think there’s a better way of passing a summer evening, and I hope to go back before this season is over.

As for the game, the Mets lost 5-zip. In fact, the Mariners swept the series. I don’t want to talk about it.

Thursday, June 16, 2005

DVD: Hitch (2005)

When this movie opened, some friends emailed me with a startling observation. They were convinced that character actor Adam Arkin, appearing as a New York newspaper editor, was, in fact, playing me.

“It was like he was channeling you,” they said, finding it so eerie that they had to comment on it during the movie.

I saw Arkin in person once, over 10 years ago. At the time he had a recurring role on NORTHERN EXPOSURE, which filmed outside Seattle, and seeing cast members on the streets of the city was a common occurrence.

I was leaving a coffee shop when I saw him. I did my patented I-know-who-you-are-but-I’m-not-making-a-big-thing-out-of-it half-smile, a deft social gesture that has won the hearts of the great and the near-great. Arkin nodded amiably at me in return.

Having seen the movie, I can now only assume that somewhere in that transaction, the actor was able to capture my essence. To download my soul, as it were.

Part of it is that we have the same haircut. Close-cropped but stylish, projecting an unforced masculinity. Or so my barber tells me. But the man has the rest of me down pat: facial expressions, head movements, rhythm of speech, general attitude. And above all, the innate decency.

Of course, I’m not the best judge. I don’t watch myself all day. Mainly because I haven’t figured out how to get paid for it. So I was relying on Rosemarie’s opinion.

She cackled every time my doppelganger appeared. Her final verdict: “I can see it. I can definitely see it.”

Arkin doesn’t get much screen time, but I’m more of a second banana anyway. Always leave ‘em wanting more, that’s my motto.

Wednesday, June 15, 2005

Movie: Fourteen Hours (1951)

Noir expert Eddie Muller writes about this movie in the introduction to his book DARK CITY. But in many respects the film isn’t noir so much as a grim fable of urban life.

It’s based on an actual incident, but similar tales unfold all the time. A young man (Richard Basehart) in deep despair climbs out on the ledge of a building. As he debates whether he’ll take the plunge, New York coalesces around him. Cabbies takes bets on what time he’ll hit the ground. One couple meets, another reconciles. And aging beat cop Paul Douglas becomes the kid’s only lifeline.

Basehart is extraordinary as the city’s oddly polite victim, and Martin Gabel shines as a police psychiatrist. But the movie is truly about Douglas’ character, a working-class flatfoot all too familiar with disappointment who’s suddenly asked to explain why life is worth living. The reasons he gives are good ones: the first sip of beer on a hot day, an afternoon out fishing, cracking a tired old joke so you can see your wife smile.

The film originally had a much darker ending that was altered when the daughter of Fox exec Spyros Skouras committed suicide by leaping off Bellevue Hospital on the day of the film’s premiere. The edited version still packs a wallop.

Watching the movie, I thought of a phrase that seemed the exclusive property of sportswriters until I heard it in conversation recently. A man I was talking to in a bar in Los Angeles was telling me about a documentary he’d just seen about seminal punk band The New York Dolls – and specifically about Arthur ‘Killer’ Kane, who overcame tremendous odds to join the Dolls for a reunion concert. “You really should see it,” my newfound friend told me. “It’s full of wonderful music and great human drama.”

Human drama. No ticking clocks, no cartoon villains. Just the drama of being human. That’s what FOURTEEN HOURS has in spades.

Book: Watch Your Back!, by Donald E. Westlake (2005)

Today’s comedy lesson: Verbs can be funny! Example:

“Holy shit!,” Stan realized.

Tuesday, June 14, 2005

Movie: The Driver (1978)

Terrill Lankford – read his novel EARTHQUAKE WEATHER, you’ll thank me later – wrote about this stripped-down noir on Ed Gorman & Friends a while back. His review prompted me to catch up with it, one of the few films by Walter Hill that I hadn’t seen.

My film school professor summed up why I’m a Hill fan when he said that, alone among contemporary action filmmakers, Hill is able to get a genuine sense of danger into his movies. Just look at his best-known films. THE WARRIORS uncannily captures that feeling of dread that erupts an instant before violence does. 48HRS. may be famous for launching Eddie Murphy’s big screen career, but there’s real menace lurking in the corners of the frame – and in Nick Nolte’s performance.

Hill’s flair for depicting the low life remains evident in his later films, like the underrated JOHNNY HANDSOME. And he’s still riding tall in the saddle, winning an Emmy last year for directing the premiere episode of HBO’s DEADWOOD.

So why had I blown off THE DRIVER? Two words: Ryan O’Neal. I couldn’t see him as a tough, monosyllabic wheelman targeted for a personal vendetta by obsessed cop Bruce Dern. It was the tough part that bothered me; I figured the monosyllabic thing was doing O’Neal a favor.

The movie, made in Hill’s customary lean style, is an example of pure action cinema. There’s only the bare bones of a plot, which makes just enough sense to hang together. What it does have is stupendous vehicle work, great use of downtown Los Angeles locations, and a rough American approximation of the self-conscious cool of Jean-Pierre Melville films.

If THE DRIVER had been made in France, it would be hailed as a minor classic. If it starred anyone other than O’Neal, who’s too light a presence to register in this role, it would be a tough-guy staple. As it is, I’ll go along with TL on this one: it’s an interesting failure that’s definitely worth watching more than once.

And now you’ll get your chance. The movie debuted on DVD last week, and you can pick it up for as little as seven bucks.

Miscellaneous: Links

Speaking of pure action cinema, one of the best film stories of recent months was Michael Davis. After decades of working in Hollywood, he hit the big time with his original screenplay SHOOT-‘EM-UP. I had the chance to read it and thought it was a blast, a wild, kinetic ride that used Hill’s spare writing style to describe over-the-top mayhem.

And now that Clive Owen has been signed to play the lead, I’m ready to camp out in front of Mann’s Chinese Theater for tickets. Even if the movie doesn’t play there.

Monday, June 13, 2005

Book: Citizen Vince, by Jess Walter (2005)

Great. Now I’ve got to come up with something else to call my memoirs.

It wasn’t the title that got me to read this book, although to be honest it helped. It was the name Jess Walter on the cover. With his third novel, Walter vaults to the top of the short list of authors whose work I won’t miss.

His previous effort, LAND OF THE BLIND, perhaps shouldn’t have been marketed as a mystery novel; no real crime is committed, and yet everyone is somehow guilty. It was one of my favorite books of 2003.

The genre is thick with writers who claim to be regionalists, but Walter is the genuine article. All of his books feature loving depictions of Spokane, Washington, where Walter works as a newspaper reporter. His portrait of this overlooked, hardscrabble corner of America is one of his strengths.

The Vince of the title looks at the city with fresh eyes. He’s a low-level New York hood dropped into the Pacific Northwest courtesy of the witness protection program in 1980. Armed with one legitimate skill – making donuts – he tries to start his new life. Which includes, for the first time, voting. There’s a presidential election coming up, and Vince is determined to make the right choice: Carter or Reagan? Even the appearance of another East Coast thug isn’t about to deter Vince from fulfilling his obligations as a citizen.

It’s a terrific book – funny, packed with surprise cameos, and ultimately moving. Walter’s three-for-three now, and I can’t wait for the next one.

Thursday, June 09, 2005

Movie: Wild, Wild Planet (1965)

TCM slipped this swinging ‘60s Italian SF epic on in the wee hours of the morning. That’s the ideal time to watch it, when you’re not sure if you’re dreaming the whole thing.

It’s set in a future when residents of Earth live in scale models of cities and travel in Matchbox cars. The planet is invaded by an army of inflatable women accompanied by four-armed clones of actor Michael Berryman, also inflatable. (The clones, not Michael Berryman. Well, maybe he is. I’ve never met him.) The invaders set about miniaturizing the world’s great thinkers. When one of the attacks is interrupted, a dwarf is brought in to take over the role of the victim.

Around this time, I began questioning whether I was truly awake.

It’s all part of a mad scientist’s plan to create a master race. Which also has something to do with melding two personalities into one body. I never figured out how the shrinking business fit in. Frankly, I don’t see how the scientist got grant money for any of it. The action ends with a tidal wave of cranberry juice and a credit for "wigs and hair-do."

With all the hours to be filled, you’d think more movies like this would turn up on cable. God knows they’re out there. And Antonio Margheriti, aka Anthony Dawson, is responsible for plenty of them. His son Edoardo set up a website in his honor that includes more information on this film.

Book: Everything Bad Is Good For You, by Steven Johnson (2005)

I haven’t read this book, but thanks to a mountain of publicity I got the gist of it. Johnson argues that popular culture, specifically television, is making us smarter in part because of the complexity of the storytelling.

I had written his argument off as a crock. Then I tried to watch an episode of STARSKY & HUTCH that I had fond memories of. After twenty minutes of tedium, I thought: maybe the man’s got a point.

Wednesday, June 08, 2005

R.I.P. Anne Bancroft

Her career speaks for itself. And don’t overlook her many stage credits.

I would not be the first to point out that her legendary role as Mrs. Robinson in THE GRADUATE typed her as “the older woman” far too early. As a result, much of her best work surfaces in unexpected places. Her single scene as an alcoholic selling out her daughter for a bottle in MALICE is like a mini-tribute to Thelma Ritter. In an appearance as Marge’s psychiatrist on THE SIMPSONS, her delivery permanently enshrined one line – “Let’s not go nuts” – in the Keenan family pantheon.

Most of all, I admired Anne Bancroft for her marriage to Mel Brooks. Largely because it seemed so improbable: elegance and boisterousness, joined for four decades. Brooks stood in such awe of his wife that he referred to her by both names. Bancroft once said of her husband, “I get excited when I hear his key in the door. It’s like, ‘Ooh! The party’s going to start!”

If there’s a better model in this life, I can’t think of one.

Tuesday, June 07, 2005

TV: Jeopardy!

Rosemarie here. Vince asked me to contribute a few words about my JEOPARDY! experience. You could call it a companion piece to his write-up of what it was like to be on ULTIMATE FILM FANATIC.

First, the try-out in Seattle. A 50 question timed test. A screen in front of the hotel ballroom flashing the questions while I and 99 other people who think we're pretty smart scrawl down our answers. I wasn't sure if I was doing well until I saw that the guy next to me had answered only half the questions. Eight of us made the cut - no word on what a passing grade was.

The contestant coordinators said they would call us for the show, if they did, within 14 months. I was summoned two weeks later. Too bad. I had planned to use those 14 months studying geography, the periodic table and words ending in "ola."

Taping day was fun, with a professional make-up artist on hand to glam us up a bit. During every commercial break she ran up and applied another layer. By the end of the show I looked like Glenda Jackson in ELIZABETH R.

In sum, while my buzzer technique was nonexistent and I have proven for all posterity that I am ignorant of fly fishing, I had a blast.

Plus all the folks at work said I looked great. So when do I get my sitcom pilot?

Monday, June 06, 2005

Movie: Cinderella Man (2005)

Playing boxer James J. Braddock, Russell Crowe somehow rearranges his features so that he looks vaguely like John Garfield. I don’t know how he did it. For that matter, I don’t know he managed to deliver another terrific performance, one that manages to be relentlessly physical even when he’s sitting still.

And he’s more than matched by Paul Giamatti. After AMERICAN SPLENDOR and SIDEWAYS, you have to ask: is there a better actor in American movies right now? I came across SPLENDOR on cable again last night, and it’s become one of those films that I can never turn off. It’s got so much to say about life, work, and art, and those rare instances when all three can be the same thing. Above all it’s got Giamatti, offering so many grace notes that every viewing yields a new delight.

Watching these two heavyweight actors spar is a treat. And Ron Howard shoots the hell out of the fight sequences, especially the climactic bout between Braddock and Max Baer (Craig Bierko).

But personally, I’d rather see a movie about the other guy.

TV: Jeopardy!

Another reminder to tune in and see my lovely wife Rosemarie on the show tonight. Or go to the JEOPARDY! website and watch her Hometown Howdy. Honest, that’s what they’re called.

Miscellaneous: Link

“Who else is still around who can say he wrote a screenplay with F. Scott Fitzgerald, yakked about movies with Sergei Eisenstein and is still owed $100 by Harry Cohn?” Budd Schulberg, that’s who.

Friday, June 03, 2005

Movie: Layer Cake (2004, U.S. 2005)

It’s a familiar story. A criminal (in this case a mid-level drug dealer) who fancies himself above the game makes plans to get out. It’s the skilled assurance of the telling that makes it special.

Producer Matthew Vaughn, making his debut behind the camera, puts the flashy tricks he learned from Guy Ritchie in service of the story. Their earlier collaborations could be fun, but there’s real psychological heft here.

Which receives its sharpest expression through the acting. Daniel Craig, The Man Who Might Be Bond, owns the screen from the first frame. Something tells me that whatever I’m supposed to feel when I watch Steve McQueen is what I’m feeling here. Colm Meaney again proves himself to be one of the most reliable actors in film. And the great Michael Gambon walks off with the movie as a Mephistophelean crime lord.

They’re all aided by the movie’s design. Smart threads, flash cars, guy’s guy furniture. Never underestimate the power of possessions to put a movie across.

But it’s J. J. Connolly’s script, based on his book, that really pops. It has an almost novelistic texture, weaving the story of gunman Crazy Larry into the background, making room for a jaunt into African politics that’s like something out of Ross Thomas.

Please note that I could have said “This CAKE has the right ingredients,” but I didn’t. No need to thank me.

TV: Jeopardy

Just an early reminder that Rosemarie, designer of and frequent contributor to this website, will be appearing as a contestant on Monday night’s show. Check your local listings.

Thursday, June 02, 2005

TV: Steve McQueen: The Essence of Cool

This may cost me some street cred (like I have any), but here goes: I’ve never gotten Steve McQueen. Director Lawrence Kasdan, a fan who appears in this TCM documentary, describes watching him in THE MAGNIFICENT SEVEN as a boy, and his comments hit on my problem with the actor: McQueen always seemed to be playing a child’s version of a man.

Using the doc’s title to put it another way, there’s the kind of cool that comes from genuinely not caring what anybody else thinks (see Marvin, Lee and Mitchum, Robert). And then there’s the McQueen variety, which always involves a look in the mirror of other people’s eyes. Granted, his style of acting can be enormously effective. But I can’t say I’ve ever watched a film because McQueen was in it.

This documentary doesn’t shy away from the actor’s dark side, and as a result delivers a well-rounded picture of him. It made me want to check out a few more of his films. And I’ll say this for him: he was one hell of a driver.

TV: Dancing With The Stars

LOST? Haven’t seen it. DESPERATE HOUSEWIVES? Nope. But put on a celebrity ballroom dancing competition in which the most famous participant is the guy who played J. Peterman on SEINFELD and I’ll watch it. Or at least record it and speed through it later on.

God, I love summer television.

Wednesday, June 01, 2005

DVD: Iceman (1984)

If I could put a word in Roger Ebert’s ear, I’d advise him to book this movie in his Overlooked Film Festival. I’d schedule it elsewhere if I could. A ‘Great Films of the 1980s’ series, say, or a retrospective of the best science-fiction movies ever made. It features two of my all-time favorite scenes, and what is easily one of the finest performances in cinema history.

And yet nobody’s heard of the damn thing.

For years I was a one-man cult following for this movie, watching it a dozen times in 1985 alone. The premise – a Neanderthal man is brought back to life – was played for laughs eight years later in the Brendan Fraser comedy ENCINO MAN. Here it’s served up straight, with bracing intelligence and a unique respect for both science and spirituality. Yes, it gets a tad earnest at times. But that’s part of its charm.

John Lone stars as the title character, in a performance that is simply unparalleled. He’s asked to portray a man 40,000 years out of time, and does so without resorting to tricks. Which is probably why his work was ignored when 1984’s awards were handed out. Lone may be better known for THE LAST EMPEROR and his stylish Chinese-American gangster in YEAR OF THE DRAGON (he’s the best thing about that movie, coming to DVD this month). But he was at his peak here, in one of the greatest displays of acting that I have ever seen.

Two scenes have always haunted me: Lone and anthropologist Timothy Hutton singing together, and the ending, which consistently reduces me to rubble. I watched the film for the first time in 15 years the other day. Both moments hold up.

The only drawback to revisiting ICEMAN was the DVD, which sets a new definition for the term ‘bare bones.’ There’s not even a menu. But I suppose a special edition is out of the question.

Screenwriter Charles ‘Chip’ Proser also wrote 1987’s SF romp INNERSPACE. He’s a fellow Boston University alumnus. Posters for his movies adorned the halls of the film school while I was there. Several of his screenplays are available online, including INTERFACE, which American Film named one of the ten best unproduced scripts in Hollywood in 1984.

Miscellaneous: Links

The Los Angeles Times considers the merits of the book tour with mystery novelist Harley Jane Kozak. MTV offers a few tips on making a quality superhero movie. And the San Francisco 49ers’ training film, complete with racist jokes and a lesbian wedding, leaks out. Hard to believe a team this hilarious went 2-14 last season.