Tuesday, August 30, 2005

Miscellaneous: Dog Days No More

I don’t know if Hollywood’s box office slump is for real. I ain’t no numbers genius. If it does exist, its root causes could be any combination of possibilities: lousy movies, the poor quality of the filmgoing experience, maybe even the price of gas.

I make no claims to being a distribution guru, either. But it seems to me that the industry’s release patterns should bear some of the blame as well.

The summer movie season now begins in late April. Studios jockey for position to claim one of the next ten to twelve weeks a full year in advance, and on each of those Fridays a behemoth is unleashed on the world.

But what if you have no interest in that Friday’s big new movie?

It happened to me more than once in the summer of 2005. Hell, there was one stretch where I didn’t go the theater for two weeks in a row. It’s as if the lesson of the summer of 1989 has been forgotten. Disney opened HONEY, I SHRUNK THE KIDS opposite the BATMAN juggernaut and cleaned up on the overflow crowds. It seems like common sense: have more movies out when people are in the mood to go.

The madness ends in July. There are exceptions; THE FUGITIVE was an early August release. But generally the last month of the summer is given over to also-rans.

Except this year. August has brought a bounty of interesting films that has had me catching two or three shows per week. And not a sequel or TV spin-off among them.

The studios released two of the better movies of the season in RED EYE and THE 40-YEAR-OLD VIRGIN, as well as John Singleton’s urban western FOUR BROTHERS and Terry Gilliam’s THE BROTHERS GRIMM. The documentaries MURDERBALL and THE ARISTOCRATS expanded to more theaters. From the indie world, we got the latest from auteurs Jim Jarmusch (BROKEN FLOWERS) and Wong Kar-Wai (2046), as well as the Sundance award winner JUNEBUG. The month ends with Fernando Meirelles’ adaptation of the John le Carré novel THE CONSTANT GARDENER, the first legitimate awards contender since CINDERELLA MAN.

I’m not saying that all of these films are winners. But they are all worth seeing. I could have used a few of them back in July, when there was nothing in theaters to tempt me out of the house even though I would have welcomed the air conditioning.

Sunday, August 28, 2005

Movie: The 40-Year-Old Virgin (2005)

The Steve Carell comedy deserves its critical acclaim. Any movie that namechecks David Caruso in JADE will win a place in my heart, but VIRGIN is hilarious, sweet, and boasts an array of rich supporting characters and offbeat moments into the bargain. It also prompts these thoughts:

1. The big Hollywood story of the summer is the box office slump, which may or may not exist. #2 on the list has to be the triumphant return of the R-rated comedy, offering a path out of the wilderness: focus on adult audiences instead of teenagers. Of course, it helps when the movies, like VIRGIN and WEDDING CRASHERS, actually deliver the goods.

2. Oh how we’ve missed you, Catherine Keener. The actress disappeared from the screen for a few years, but in 2005 she anchors THE BALLAD OF JACK AND ROSE, provides some much-needed snap in THE INTERPRETER, and single-handedly elevates this movie from raunchfest to romantic comedy. More, please.

3. Asia, my favorite band in high school, is catnip to the ladies. Catnip. I speak from personal experience. “Heat of the Moment,” indeed.

Friday, August 26, 2005

TV: The Daily Show

Once upon a time I wouldn’t have linked to this clip. But I said I was going to make some changes around here.

It’s great television. A conversation between Christopher Hitchens – whose writings on Iraq and the war on terror are worth reading because they reveal a nuanced, evolving position – and Jon Stewart, who on some nights is all that keeps me sane.

Hitchens holds his ground, but Stewart is magnificent. He shucks the comic persona and lays out in simple, heartfelt terms what he expects and desires from government in general and this administration in particular: to be treated like an adult.

Movie: Executive Suite (1954)

Speaking of being treated like an adult, I cued up this film on Turner Classic Movies’ new On Demand service expecting soapy melodrama. Instead, I was utterly galvanized.

The president of a company dies, and five executives (including William Holden and Fredric March) scheme amongst themselves to succeed him. They must also sway the two other members of the board, a shady manager with plans to make a killing by selling the firm’s stock short, and the unstable daughter of the company founder who’s also the dead man’s mistress (Barbara Stanwyck). It’s like THE HUDSUCKER PROXY played straight.

The film made one hell of an impression on me, because it tells a complex story about important issues. It says that what a man does is important, but his motives and methods are equally so.

The late, great Ernest Lehman beautifully adapts Cameron Hawley’s novel; the climactic boardroom scenes are spellbinding. There’s a hint of Ayn Rand in Holden’s big speech – even his character’s name, McDonald Walling, sounds like something out of THE FOUNTAINHEAD – but I kind of dig Rand.

The direction by Robert Wise also shines. In a piece written for the 2002 Academy Awards, David Mamet observed that a film’s editor was the audience’s best friend, because the editor only cares about the story. Wise began as an editor – he’s vilified in some quarters for being the studio hatchet man on Welles’ MAGNIFICENT AMBERSONS – and it shows in his clean, efficient storytelling.

Comedian Bill Maher often says that people either want to live in the 1950s or the 1960s. It’s a glib line that misreads the Eisenhower era completely. But when it comes to movies, I think he’s onto something. I used to be a huge fan of the films that came out of the ‘60s political and cultural movements, but now many of them seem indulgent. I find myself drawn more and more to the movies of the previous decade, which are disciplined, well-crafted, and every bit as personal.

TCM will be airing EXECUTIVE SUITE September 1st at 8PM Eastern. Set those DVRs now.

Thursday, August 25, 2005

Miscellaneous: Feed Me

For all the time and energy I put into this website, you’d think that I would know something about how it works. You’d be wrong. No VCR I have owned has ever blinked twelve, but beyond that I am not the most technical person. The site’s been up and running for well over a year now, and I still believe that critical tasks in its operation are performed by gnomes.

But give me a little credit. I do know when things are amiss. I’d noticed recently that whenever I ran text searches in Technorati or other blog directories, the site never came up. All this deathless prose I’m cranking out, and no way for the unsuspecting masses to stumble onto it.

So I did what I always do. I mentioned it in passing to the site’s technical advisor.

Who immediately said, “It’s probably a problem with your Atom feed. I’ll take a look at it.” She did. Adjustments were made. And I am pleased to say that as of last night, people could actually find this site if they were so inclined.

Please note that the gnomes whose positions were eliminated (‘downsized’ seemed a poor word choice in this case) have found gainful employment at Northwest Airlines.

Miscellaneous: Links

I linked to Josh Friedman’s blog i find your lack of faith disturbing the other day, and I’m linking to it again. The man is just that good. His latest post contains two nuggets of wisdom for all screenwriters: “Don’t be your own hack” and “Smile a fucking smile.” Words to live by.

Goodies galore at GreenCine Daily, including Jon Stewart on the reinvention of television and the Onion on 10 bombs worth watching.

Mark Evanier reflects on the past and future of Las Vegas’ Imperial Palace. I never stayed there, but I can recommend the I.P.’s car exhibit, as well as the automotive museum in Reno that he speaks of. Whenever I’m in Sin City, I like to stop by the neighboring Barbary Coast casino. Fine nickel slots, and it’s where the locals go to gamble. I’m told that means something, but I’ve never been sure what.

I can’t decide if I like this portable toilet company’s name or its slogan better.

Tuesday, August 23, 2005

Movie: Red Eye (2005)

At last. A summer movie I can call my own.

Wes Craven forsakes horror for straight, almost Hitchcockian suspense. He keeps the action uncluttered; much of the movie consists of two people speaking quietly onboard an airplane. And a real airplane at that. Cramped, uncomfortable, complete with screaming babies and fat men wedged behind tray tables.

He casts phenomenally well, too, relying on relative newcomers Rachel McAdams and Cillian Murphy to carry the day.

Rosemarie, giddy when the movie was over, described it as “a feminist thriller about heroic competence.” And she’s right. The only reason good has a fighting chance against evil is that the film’s many women characters, from McAdams to her nervous assistant to the flight’s lead stewardess, know their jobs and do them well.

No one’s on their game more than Craven, who directs the film – and conducts the audience – with masterly skill. It’s the most fun I’ve had at a theater since last summer’s smart popcorn thriller CELLULAR.

To my surprise, the movie is racking up positive reviews. But there’s a curiously defensive tone to many of them. A well-told story is a well-told story, regardless of genre. So why does Salon’s Stephanie Zacharek, in praising RED EYE’s “dazzling obviousness,” say it “will have you jumping out of your seat on cue. And is that really so bad?” Then there’s this from the Toronto Globe & Mail:

Sitting through RED EYE is like watching a master carpenter at work on a custom bookcase. No one would call the result art, but you’re sure bound to admire the sheer craft of the thing.

Why do reviews contain this kind of depressing nonsense? Is it because Hollywood turns out so much crap that critics don’t know how to respond when they come across a piece of genuine entertainment? Or has film criticism fallen to such a lowly state that anything that delivers on its promise of old-fashioned thrills can only be seen as guilty pleasure?

The correct answer, I fear, may be C. All of the above.

Sunday, August 21, 2005

R.I.P. Dennis Lynds, George Fasel

It seems strange to report that mystery novelist Dennis Lynds has died. I just read his novel ACT OF FEAR the other day, with writing so strong and fresh it seemed like the work of an up-and-comer instead of a gem from almost 40 years ago. His last piece of writing appears in the current issue of Thrilling Detective.

Not that it was my first encounter with his work. Lynds also wrote several titles in the Alfred Hitchcock & The Three Investigators series. What sparks your imagination as a child has a huge impact on the person you become, so those books easily rank among the most influential I’ve ever read. Lynds had recently become a fixture on the hardboiled fiction list Rara-Avis, where he was kind enough to offer hard-won wisdom from a long career as a writer. Would that I’d had my act together, I could have told him how much I enjoyed his work.

I also note with sadness the passing of George Fasel, the film blogger behind A Girl and a Gun. He had strongly held opinions and a deep love of cinema, and I always enjoyed reading what he had to say.

I have my share of problems with how the Internet has affected the way we communicate. We spend too much time reading what reinforces our own beliefs, and rely on email to stay in touch with friends. But these two men used the web to share something of themselves, to give back to that which meant a great deal to them. I never had contact with either one directly. But I’ll miss their reports from the world.

Miscellaneous: Links

Once something ends up online, it never goes away. As proof, consider this story of a six-year-old “comic” video by Seattle’s least funny disc jockey, which has only now triggered an international incident.

Screenwriter Josh Friedman (WAR OF THE WORLDS, the upcoming adaptation of James Ellroy’s THE BLACK DAHLIA) launches his blog with tales of movie premieres and unmet collaborators. Via Kung Fu Monkey.

Friday, August 19, 2005

Movie: The Crimson Pirate (1952)

After watching A FATHER ... A SON ... ONCE UPON A TIME IN HOLLYWOOD, the new HBO documentary about Kirk and Michael Douglas, I had the urge to see a movie starring ... Burt Lancaster. (Sorry. Those ellipses are catching.) Douglas père et fils come off great in the film – it even ends with them singing a song from 20,000 LEAGUES UNDER THE SEA together – but the clips of Kirk sparring with Burt reminded me that it had been too long since I’d seen Lancaster in action. Fortunately, my DVR was way ahead of me.

I started with the 1973 espionage drama SCORPIO. Burt on the run from his CIA masters, Alain Delon as the assassin on his trail. How bad could it be?

I bailed 30 minutes in. Right after Burt eludes the Company by slipping onto an airplane disguised as a priest. In blackface. It’s the scene from SILVER STREAK played straight.

But the DVR had planned for that eventuality, too. (Frankly, this machine is beginning to freak me out.) Four months ago, it recorded THE CRIMSON PIRATE, in which every last buckle is swashed. No movie makes better use of Lancaster’s early training as an acrobat; his performance is gloriously physical and a joy throughout. Plus, a young Christopher Lee appears as a villain. Top that.

TV: News Watch

Bob Costas, subbing for Larry King, becomes the latest CNN anchor to balk at blanket coverage of Natalee Holloway’s disappearance when there are no new developments. True, the pot/kettle/black factor is at play here; King’s show aired with another host, and Nancy Grace is milking the story five nights a week. But at least the question is being raised by someone other than Jon Stewart.

Miscellaneous: Links

Whenever people ask me what the difference between a manager and an agent is, I always give the same answer: How did you get this number? Now, I will tell them to go to Kung Fu Monkey, where all will be explained.

More work that I’ve been saved: For months I’ve been meaning to write about Jack-FM, the new radio format that supposedly mimics the iPod. It’s killed oldies stations in New York and Chicago. In Seattle it just replaced one of many unfocused adult contemporary outlets, so no harm done. The Onion A.V. Club says all that needs to be said. Via Scrubbles.

Wednesday, August 17, 2005

Miscellaneous: Links

I’ve said before that Ed Gorman’s blog is one of the best places to read about the state of contemporary publishing. Further proof: this heartbreaker by western novelist Richard S. Wheeler.

Is JESUS coming to your mailbox?

Salon offers this must-read article on recently indicted Washington, D.C. lobbyist Jack Abramoff’s brief stint in Hollywood, producing grade-Z action flicks starring Dolph Lundgren. You’ll have to sit through an ad, but it’s worth it. What Ross Thomas could have done with this guy.

I never wrote up my out-of-town-screenwriter-skies-into-Los-Angeles-to-sell-a-screenplay trip of a few months back, and now I don’t have to. Diablo Cody has done it for me. The basic story is the same, only Diablo signed more deals, stayed in a better hotel, and has a much, much cooler name.

Plus, I have never worked as an exotic dancer. In spite of what you may have heard.

Tuesday, August 16, 2005

Book: The Man With The Iron-On Badge, by Lee Goldberg (2005)

One of the few things guaranteed to set my teeth on edge in a mystery is the lead character who constantly wonders how their favorite fictional detectives would handle the situation. It’s an amateurish way of building reader identification. “You read Kinsey Millhone? So do I! And I like Janet Evanovich, too. Isn’t she great?”

But a talented writer can not only take a hackneyed ploy and turn it on its head. He can build an entire novel around it.

Lee Goldberg is a veteran television scribe (DIAGNOSIS: MURDER) and author of both tie-ins (um, DIAGNOSIS: MURDER) and original novels. His BEYOND THE BEYOND is a personal favorite, a bitingly funny book about the TV business by an insider. When Lee tees off on fan fiction over at his must-read blog, it’s because the man knows whereof he speaks.

IRON-ON BADGE’s Harvey Mapes drifted into security work because he thought it would be like MANNIX or one of his Gold Medal paperbacks. He stays in it because it gives him time to read more Gold Medal paperbacks. When a resident of the gated community where he works hires him to tail his wife, Harvey finally gets his chance to make like Spenser.

The book is about Harvey’s discovery that real-life crime isn’t like the fictional variety at all. At first, the differences are played for laughs, but when Harvey’s case takes a tragic turn, Lee never loses his footing. Harvey actually matures on the page, a transformation made evident in the character’s distinctive voice. He stops wising off and starts wising up.

Miscellaneous: Feel The Burn

For some reason, the Giorgio Moroder theme to MIDNIGHT EXPRESS has been playing the last few times I went to the gym. It doesn’t seem like ideal workout music ... but whenever I hear it I see visions of Brad Davis at the airport in Turkey and start sweating buckets.

By that logic, the gym should pipe in “Dueling Banjos” or the theme from JAWS. Then the pounds will melt away.

Sunday, August 14, 2005

Movies: The Aristocrats (2005)/Pink Flamingos (1972)

In which the author decides to test his personal standards and is startled to discover that he does indeed have some.

I’ve wanted to see THE ARISTOCRATS since Comedy Central aired the heavily-edited Friars Club roast of Hugh Hefner, at which Gilbert Gottfried launched into a joke legendary amongst comedians. It couldn’t be cleaned up for broadcast, so the network simply cut it out. But it was still obvious that the atmosphere in the room had changed. Gottfried’s televised set was nothing memorable, yet the crowd was ready to bow down to him.

Actually, ‘The Aristocrats’ isn’t a joke so much as an excuse to let the id run amok. You’ve got a simple set-up and a shaggy-dog punch line. In between, fill the space with the foulest notions the imagination can provide.

It is no doubt a reflection on my poor character that I found the movie hilarious.

We hear versions of the joke from old-school comics like Chuck McCann and Larry Storch as well as younger performers like Sarah Silverman, who essentially deconstructs it – and still kills. Stand-up and SIMPSONS writer Dana Gould cites an epic rendition that included “white slavery and a zeppelin race.”

The joke also functions as something of a Rorschach test; which comedians lard on the scatological detail, and which ones focus on violence? Who adds a personal spin to the lame closer? And no recent sight in film is as perversely thrilling as watching Bob Saget kiss the family-friendly portion of his career goodbye by offering the filthiest take in the movie.

By coincidence, I caught John Waters’ seminal cult film PINK FLAMINGOS this weekend for the first time. Part of my make-up work in midnight movies class. FLAMINGOS, I realized, is a cinematic rendering of ‘The Aristocrats.’ Every form of moral turpitude is on display: bestiality, incest, bloodshed, all of it played for laughs. Worse, it’s dished out by hippies, and in Maryland woods so desolate that I kept expecting the cast to stumble onto those poor kids from THE BLAIR WITCH PROJECT.

Parts of the film are deeply funny. But other parts ... I may be outing myself as a square here, but some of them I couldn’t even watch. Here I am thinking of myself as an unflappable man of the world, only to hide my eyes like the quivering Catholic schoolboy I once was. And not just because there’s a difference between hearing skillful descriptions of various depravities and seeing those acts enthusiastically performed.

Waters is a dazzling raconteur – why he doesn’t have his own talk show is beyond me – but let’s be honest: he’s never been much of a filmmaker. (I think even he’d back me up on that.) FLAMINGOS, from early in his career, shows an utter lack of artistry that makes some of the images unpalatable. Plus, they’re part of a story that has even less of a structure than the simplest joke. There’s no sense of release that’s provided by a punch line, even one of the worst in the annals of humor.

ARISTOCRATS producer Penn Jillette may be right when he says that in art, it’s always “the singer, not the song.” But it helps when that singer can carry the tune.

Friday, August 12, 2005

Book: Act of Fear, by Michael Collins (1966)

May was Dennis Lynds month on the hardboiled fiction list Rara Avis. The author, who also writes under the Collins name, graciously agreed to field questions about his work. I went right to my local mystery bookshop and picked up the first of his novels about one-armed P.I. Dan Fortune.

You’d think tracking the book down would be the hard part. For me it’s reading it in time to participate in the discussion. Three months too late, I finally got around to it. The important thing is that I read it.

FEAR is sharply plotted, with a wonderful feel for New York’s Chelsea in the 1960s. Lynds describes himself as coming “from an older school of writing,” exemplified by Chandler, Hammett, and Lynds’ friend Kenneth Millar (Ross MacDonald), where the focus isn’t on the protagonist but on the case and the characters involved with it. He views Dan Fortune as “a voice, a way of looking at the world.” For a voice, Fortune is remarkably fleshed out, and he imbues the story with a rough-hewn wisdom.

Magazine: Premiere, September 2005 issue

When I was in high school I would hike up to the record store on the day the latest Premiere hit the stands, then devour it in one sitting. This is back when the magazine styled itself after French film journals and came complete with movie poster cards. Now it’s simply another celebrity rag with a severe case of listmania.

Take the current issue’s article on ‘The 20 Most Overrated Films of All Time?’ (The link won’t help much. Only the intro is online. The actual list of titles is here.) That question mark is a dead giveaway; the piece features pro and con arguments on each movie, so it can be read as a list of justly-rated films. “GONE WITH THE WIND is bloated and racist!” “No, it isn’t!” “2001 is boring!” “Nuh-uh!”

On top of that, almost half of the films are less than 15 years old. 4 of them – A BEAUTIFUL MIND, MONSTERS’ BALL, CHICAGO and MYSTIC RIVER – were made after 2000. Academy Award wins aside, how can we have any perspective on these movies yet?

On the plus side, the magazine does include this quote from cover boy Matt Damon:

“(The) standard rule of thumb is, if you’re headlining and you make three bombs in a row, the amigos are out of the mansion.”

I thought I was the sole person who made ¡THREE AMIGOS! references in conversation. I knew I liked that kid.

Miscellaneous: Links

Rosemarie smells something fishy back home. From Hollywood Elsewhere, a tribute site to the titles of Saul Bass. The article with the worst headline I’ve seen in a while has a terrible lead-off sentence to boot. And in the 2008 election, my mind is already made up.

Wednesday, August 10, 2005

Miscellaneous: Let’s All Go To The Lobby

The August 12th issue of Entertainment Weekly has a long article on the sad state of moviegoing. There’s plenty of blame to go around: rising prices, pre-show ads, general boorishness and the home video boom.

It should be apparent by now that your correspondent sees a lot of movies in the theater. I’ve been able to keep these distractions to a minimum for one simple reason: I’ve gotten out of the habit of going to opening weekend evening shows. Probably because I was an usher for so long. Once you’ve cleaned up after a Saturday evening crowd, you lose your taste for being in one.

Last Friday, Rosemarie and I went to an evening show of the documentary MURDERBALL. Two weeks into the film’s run, the smallish audience was rather mellow. Although someone did hiss the Air National Guard recruitment ad, which irked me no end. Attention, Phantom Menace: you are not making a political statement. You are merely making a passive-aggressive ass out of yourself. Besides, you should save that ire for the Fantanas.

The Saturday matinee of the debuting BROKEN FLOWERS, on the other hand, was practically sold out. But the well-behaved crowd skewed older. It was odd to hear hardcore Jim Jarmusch fans bragging up their grandchildren, but STRANGER THAN PARADISE was more than twenty years ago.

You can’t completely avoid talkers. There was the quartet of teenage girls who broke into nervous laughter whenever Diane Lane got hot and bothered in UNFAITHFUL, and the member of the Troubled Loners’ Club recording his own commentary track at STATE & MAIN. What I find annoying are the people who fire up their cell phones the second the credits start to roll. (“Yeah, it’s over. Sucked.”) Don’t they need a moment to collect their thoughts? At least wait until you’re in the lobby.

The article ends on a hopeful note, saying that theaters will ultimately cater to those who are serious about film along the lines of Los Angeles’ ArcLight Cinemas. That theater is on a list of ten that do the moviegoing experience right. I wanted to see Seattle’s Cinerama on there, but sadly its single screen isn’t programmed very well. The Sith have lain siege to it since May.

My favorite statistic in the article: 98% of survey respondents think that ushers should be allowed to kick people out for bad behavior. I assume that these ushers will be armed. It’s hard to project strength when you’re wearing a clip-on bow tie, even if the darkness is hiding most of your acne.

Once when I was an usher, a woman complained about a man smoking in the theater. First I disoriented him by shining my flashlight into his face. It’s part of my patented Double-Dazzle approach: stun them with the beam, then the force of your personality. I told him he’d have to put out his cigarette. “What if I don’t want to put it out?,” he asked. Then his buddy chimed in, “Yeah, what if he don’t want to put it out?”

I couldn’t believe it. The guy actually had a sidekick. I thought that only happened in the movies.

Monday, August 08, 2005

DVD: Stone Reader (2003)

As if reading this V. S. Naipaul interview and accompanying essay on whether “nonfiction is better suited than fiction to capturing the complexities of today’s world” wasn’t bad enough, yesterday I watched SIDEWAYS again. Which opens with would-be novelist Paul Giamatti being told that reading fiction in this day and age is simply a waste of time.

Such pessimism would be enough to send me to my sickbed if I hadn’t spent a few hours watching Mark Moskowitz’s winning documentary and tooling around the accompanying website. This dense and textured film is a meditation on the power that novels have over their readers, an exploration of the fate of literature in the digital age, and an investigation into the fate of one particular writer: Dow Mossman, whose only book THE STONES OF SUMMER had a galvanizing effect on Moskowitz. It’s strange that a film got me more excited about fiction than anything that I’ve read in recent years.

The conceit of structuring the movie as a hunt for Mossman is corny but enjoyable; I’m sure I could have turned the author up in a day and half. (I believe it’s the destination, not the journey, which is why I’m not a documentarian.) I would have started at the University of Iowa, where Mossman studied. One thing the movie makes plain is that the Writers Workshop there is the center of American letters, a literary Holy See in the heartland.

It’s only fitting that writer, editor, and friend of both Dow Mossman and this website Ed Gorman turns up in the film, as his blog offers some of the best commentary on the current state of publishing. Not just from Ed but from novelists like Terrill Lee Lankford and Richard Wheeler.

R.I.P. Peter Jennings

I don’t have much to say about the late ABC anchorman that wasn’t voiced in this heartfelt tribute from the folks at Gawker.

Several years ago he did WORLD NEWS TONIGHT from Kerry Park in Seattle. When I wandered past early in the day Jennings was already there, taping intros for that night’s broadcast. The only word to describe his appearance was dashing; he was richly tanned, wearing one of his signature trench coats.

He spotted me hanging around and offered a smile and a cordial nod. I suppose I could have approached and said a few words to him, but I chose not to. I was content to watch one of the best in the business practice his craft in person.

Sunday, August 07, 2005

DVD: Forty Guns (1957)

Further proof that you can never go wrong with a Samuel Fuller picture. Barbara Stanwyck stars as an Arizona ranching baroness who dresses in black and rides a white horse. She never goes anywhere without a whip and her army of the title desperadoes. They even dine together at the longest table in the southwest, which no doubt had to be shipped in by train and assembled in sections. Ideal for entertaining.

The movie also includes a twister; a swooning, romantic shot of a man’s true love framed through the barrel of his gun; a stark funeral scene filmed with the austerity of a Mario Bava horror film that gives way to a heartbreaking hymn, and dialogue like the following:

Gene Barry, to the beautiful blonde who has just, ahem, adjusted his rifle: I never kissed a gunsmith before.

Beautiful blonde gunsmith: Any recoil?

All that, and it’s only eighty minutes long. Sam knew how to get the job done.

Miscellaneous: Link

I violently disagree with Joseph Epstein on the work of Hammett, Chandler, and Cain, and I don’t buy his contention about the artistic merit of writers “who cashed in their chips for better money in movies.” But what he has to say in this Commentary article on three recent film books, his own experiences with Hollywood and the current state of the culture is worth reading.

Friday, August 05, 2005

Movie: Across 110th Street (1972)

Some movies are made to be watched on hot summer nights. Take this brutal pulp melodrama. A trio of gunmen disguised as cops take the Mafia’s Harlem operation for 300K. They’re hunted by an uneasy alliance of black and Italian gangsters, as well as a similar pair of detectives (Yaphet Kotto and Anthony Quinn). It’s a nasty, fast-paced time capsule of New York’s Fun City days. You can practically smell the trash in the streets. And for the sartorially-inclined, there are some fine blaxploitation threads on display, particularly by Antonio Fargas in proto-Huggy Bear mode.

I felt a thrill when I saw the name Fouad Said in the credits. Said developed the legendary “whammy chart” popularized by screenwriting guru Syd Field. It showed that action movies need an explosion every ten minutes to hold the audience’s interest. In his book A POUND OF FLESH, Art Linson credits “some Egyptian who worked at American International Pictures” for passing the theory along to a pair of then up-and-coming producers. “(Joel) Silver and (Lawrence) Gordon live very well,” Linson wrote. “No one seems to know what happened to the Egyptian.” There’s one mystery solved. As for Syd Field, he’s now helping the Pentagon teach scientists to write for the movies.

Quentin Tarantino used the Bobby Womack title song over the opening credits of JACKIE BROWN. In a quirk of timing, that movie came on soon after I finished watching this one. Stranger still, the music plays as we watch Pam Grier pass the LAX tile mosaic that features memorably in POINT BLANK, which I also watched this week. Increasing the sense that all the movies I’ve seen are in fact one endless loop.

Miscellaneous: Link

Forget Syd Field. Write for Hollywood the Joe Eszterhas way!

Thursday, August 04, 2005

TV: Kathy Griffin

The nuts-and-bolts of celebrity fascinates me. Not rarified, A-list celebrity, an alternate existence captured in the following sentence from this recent article on the subject: “Mariah Carey becomes a star at 18, and she never has to think about the weather for her entire adult life.”

I’m talking about the kind of fame exemplified by Rene Russo’s character in GET SHORTY: a one-time scream queen who goes to the supermarket to buy her own groceries.

That fascination is why, after one episode, I’m ready to watch Kathy Griffin’s MY LIFE ON THE D-LIST every week.

It’s not a reality show about people who were once famous or arguably never were; Griffin’s act about her run-ins with the great and near-great makes her a staple on the stand-up circuit. And unlike, say, Bobby Brown, she’s not deluded about the show affecting her place in the Hollywood pecking order.

If anything, D-LIST is a lot like Anna Nicole Smith’s horrible TV show. Only, you know, good.

It turns out being a semi-known name is hard work, and Griffin is completely serious about it. She’s careful about which events to attend, although at a kabbalah book party – I can’t believe I just typed that – she’s the only name there, a fact that depresses her mightily. She’s also frank about using her celebrity to get free (or at least cheap) stuff; to convince a designer to give her a custom-built sofa at cost, she unleashes her surprisingly thick press kit and almost beats the poor man into submission. Her life seems exhausting and not even remotely fabulous.

The show also has its share of only-in-L.A. scenes, such as Griffin’s husband strapping on ankle weights so he can reach the minimum weight to qualify for gastric bypass surgery.

I have to say that Griffin owns an absolutely beautiful home. If this is what being the third banana on a sitcom nobody liked can net you, I’m in the wrong business.

Miscellaneous: Links

Speaking of celebrities, Tony Kay weighs in with a terrific report from the Hollywood Collectors’ Show – complete with photos! And show biz types scream? Is that true?

Tuesday, August 02, 2005

Movie: Hustle & Flow (2005)

There’s plenty to love about this Sundance award-winner. Terrence Howard’s incendiary performance as DJay, a small-time pimp and drug dealer driven to make a name for himself as a rapper. Terrence Howard’s hair. The sultry vibe of backstreet Memphis. And the music; the lethal hook to DJay’s record (“It’s hard out here for a pimp ...”) will be playing in my head for the rest of the summer.

Best of all, writer/director Craig Brewer actively embraces the conventional aspects of his story, and in so doing gives them new power. He combines two schools of ‘40s melodrama, Up-From-The-Streets and Let’s-Put-On-A-Show, for a potent mix. The movie reminded me of the short Charles Willeford piece “An Actor Prepares,” about a dishwasher who turns to the stage so he can make “a small sound,” because “everyone wants to make one before he dies.”

Like all American movies, H&F includes scenes in a strip club. Here they not only make sense (DJay runs one of his girls out of the club) but are sharply observed (the dancers have to work around buckets because the roof is leaking). The location is so common in films now that it’s become boring. When the clones go to a sleazy bar that’s a half-step up from a strip club in THE ISLAND (Keenan’s One Word ReviewTM: air-conditioned), I found myself tuning out of the action. This raises the disturbing possibility that I’ve watched entire movies set in strip clubs and simply don’t remember them.

Miscellaneous: Urban Legend

According to Hollywood Elsewhere, there’s an episode of THE ODD COUPLE in which Oscar and Felix visit a talent agent. A family is leaving the office as they arrive. The agent tells the boys, “They’re called The Aristocrats. What an act!”

I badly, badly want this to be true.

Miscellaneous: Link

Bill Crider becomes a SLIGHTLY SCARLET fan. There’s a cult building for this movie, I can feel it.

Monday, August 01, 2005

DVD: Cat Ballou (1965)

Like Mr. White and Mr. Blonde, I’m a big Lee Marvin fan. For years I’ve been lobbying for membership in the semi-secret society known as the Sons of Lee Marvin, even though I’ve heard the dues are steep and the hazing brutal. I should be a shoo-in; I share the actor’s signature philtrum, and I’ve been told by those in the know that our calves are similar.

But until recently, I’d never seen Marvin’s Oscar-winning performance in this comedy western.

He gets not one but two roles, the drunken gunman Kid Shelleen and the hired killer Tim Strawn, complete with steel nose. Marvin is somehow able to underplay his overplaying; his Shelleen is broadly funny but always real. I also loved Stubby Kaye and Nat King Cole as the wandering minstrels who narrate the story.

But honestly? I thought this movie was lousy.

Rosemarie, as usual, made a swift and accurate diagnosis: “There’s nothing worse than a star vehicle built around someone you don’t particularly like.” Jane Fonda, always a studied actress, is too modern for her role as a virginal schoolmarm. It doesn’t help that her character has been saddled with a tragic story in what is purportedly a comedy.

And that’s my main problem with the movie: it just ain’t funny.

Marvin doesn’t actually have that much screen time. I guess dual supporting roles equal a lead. I’m certainly not going to begrudge the man his Oscar, even though his competition that year included Rod Steiger in THE PAWNBROKER and one of my all-time favorite performances, Richard Burton in THE SPY WHO CAME IN FROM THE COLD. Actors always win for the wrong movies. It’s not like the Academy was going to acknowledge Marvin for POINT BLANK.