Sunday, July 31, 2005

Miscellaneous: I Like ‘Em Stacked

The local Tower Records celebrated its move to a new location by putting every DVD in the store on sale. Rosemarie and I went in with a specific agenda: pick up the new disc of John Boorman’s POINT BLANK as well as any bargain oddities we stumbled on, like a copy of Larry Cohen’s sublimely berserk GOD TOLD ME TO for only five dollars.

When we got home, I put our latest purchases on top of a few used DVDs we picked up the week before. On the floor, next to what we laughingly call “the entertainment center.”

And realized, to my horror, that I had created a stack.

Stacks in and of themselves aren’t bad. There’s nothing wrong with putting things on top of other things, as Monty Python has taught us. It’s where the stacks are that matters.

For instance, our first apartment in Seattle had a loft over what we laughingly called “the living room.” We used it to store books. Thousands of them, in dozens of piles. But as nobody could see them without climbing a ladder – which was impossible because we kept non-perishable foodstuffs on the rungs – those stacks didn’t count. Out of sight, out of mind.

We divested ourselves of most of those books when we moved to our new digs. Since then, I’ve acquired a small collection of older paperback crime novels. Stacks of them are balanced on the front of our shelves. But as they are technically on the bookcases, again they don’t count. I prefer to think of them as a creative utilization of space.

But this pile of DVDs on the floor, in plain sight? That’s a stack. Even if I find some nook into which I can wedge these discs, I know another stack can’t be far behind. Thus marking the start of the long slide toward GREY GARDENS territory.

Unless, of course, we move to a bigger place. Then we’re hipsters who own lots of cool stuff.

Friday, July 29, 2005

Movie: Lonely Are The Brave (1962)

Here there be spoilers. The movie should bear a similar warning, because it manages to spoil itself.

Kirk Douglas has cited this as his favorite of the films he made, and with good reason. He plays John W. Burns, a cowboy who rides the deserts of New Mexico, sleeping outdoors, living off piecework as a ranch hand. He rides into town primed for a bender, only to learn that his drinking buddy has been thrown in jail. Burns promptly gets himself arrested so he can bust his friend out. When the friend decides to stay and face the charges, Burns flees the law on his own.

It’s a solid plot for a western. The difference is that the story, based on an Edward Abbey novel, is set in the then-present day. Burns is an anachronism, living as if the frontier were still a reality. Actions that wouldn’t have raised an eyebrow in Tombstone or Dodge City only a few decades earlier come across as revolutionary. Burns tells the police he doesn’t carry ID because “I don’t need it. I know who I am.” No one would ever think of asking the Duke or Gary Cooper for his papers. When Burns heads into the high country with his horse and his rifle, local sheriff Walter Matthau pursues him with helicopters coordinated by radio.

It’s the clash of the Old West versus the New brought to vivid, brawny life, and Douglas has seldom been better. So it’s a shame that the movie shoots itself in the foot from the get-go.

Very early on, the film makes a baffling stop in the Midwest, where we meet long-distance trucker Carroll O’Connor. He’s hauling toilets, he says. Taking them down New Mexico way. You know, that state where Kirk Douglas is.

Throughout the film, the action cuts back to O’Connor as he booms his way southwest. He’s pushing that big rig hard, swilling coffee, trying to stay awake. I kept wanting to say, “Archie, pull over, get some shuteye. Let the Meathead drive for a while.”

What I actually shouted at the TV was, “Why the hell are we seeing these scenes?” I doubted that Kirk was going to come up with a clever, MacGyver-esque plan to escape that would require several dozen porcelain privies at exactly the moment O’Connor’s rig rumbled past.

Nope. When these two meet, it’ll be bad news. And you know that from the first frames, which drains the movie of all tension. What happens between Douglas and Matthau doesn’t matter. It’s what happens between Douglas and the truck that counts.

Maybe these scenes were in Abbey’s novel. I suspect they were added by screenwriter Dalton Trumbo, a talented man who learned a thing or two about life the hard way. Perhaps he wanted to make a comment about fate, or the futility of fighting modernity.

All I know is they ruined an entertaining movie for me. It’s tough to be subtle with an idea that’s an eighteen-wheeler bearing down on the audience. Literally.

Wednesday, July 27, 2005

TV: Midnight Movies

Lately my cable box has been a greater source of entertainment than the multiplex. First the South Korean thriller MEMORIES OF MURDER makes its North American debut via On Demand. Then I discover that this documentary, fresh from the Cannes Film Festival, is available to Starz! subscribers.

Stuart Samuels’ film surveys the half dozen cult favorites that spawned the phenomenon of the midnight show: EL TOPO, the original NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD, John Waters’ PINK FLAMINGOS, THE HARDER THEY COME, THE ROCKY HORROR PICTURE SHOW, and finally ERASERHEAD, which represents the movement’s greatest artistic achievement.

In a brisk, entertaining ninety minutes, Samuels talks to the makers of each film as well as distributors and theater owners. It’s clear that these movies existed in opposition to mainstream culture, down to the fact that audiences turned up to see them when most people were turning in. Now, as John Waters observes, that fringe mentality is the mainstream culture. Which sort of takes the fun out of it.

I risk embarrassment by admitting that I’ve only seen two of these six movies. I’ll limit the scope of the damage by not saying which ones.

Website Update: Links

I’m slowly gearing up to make some changes around here. I started by updating the links. Polly P.I. joins the permanent roster, as does Kung Fu Monkey. I was going to add Paul Guyot’s Ink Slinger, but he thinks we spend too much time in the blogosphere as it is.

Meanwhile, the missus has relaunched Lady, Make A Note Of This with a brand new focus. Stop by and make her feel welcome.

Tuesday, July 26, 2005

DVD: Slightly Scarlet (1956)

Is a Technicolor film noir even possible? It’s not going to be very noir, for starters. But if you are going to do it, play to the format’s strengths. Hire the great John Alton as cinematographer. And stock the movie with redheads.

Two, to be precise. The luscious Rhonda Fleming is more than a girl Friday to a reform candidate for mayor. Her sister Arlene Dahl, fresh out of the slammer, single-handedly keeps the DSM-IV in business: she’s an alcoholic, a kleptomaniac, and a nympho. Quite the trifecta. Both of them vie for the affections of fixer John Payne.

SCARLET, based on James M. Cain’s LOVE’S LOVELY COUNTERFEIT (and no, I don’t know what either title means), is indifferently plotted. I was still trying to figure out whether Payne was a sleazy P.I. or a political operative when next thing you know, he’s running the rackets. As for the sisters, their motivations are at times murky. Like it matters. Did I mention they’re redheads? (Sorry. Crimson-maned lovelies with loose morals are Irish kryptonite. Having two in one film damn near killed me.)

The movie’s an unhinged treat. It’s like a Douglas Sirk melodrama in which all of the sublimated emotion erupts on screen. You get the rich color and the craziness.

Payne, who began as a singer, is one of those “light” actors who proved startlingly effective in crime dramas. His romantic lead looks had curdled slightly by the time he appeared in movies like this and 1952’s KANSAS CITY CONFIDENTIAL. That made him ideal for playing desperate men who can’t coast on their charm any longer.

Rhonda Fleming, who is still very active with charity work, has her own lovely website that includes tributes to her costars. It’s well worth a look.

Movie: Wedding Crashers (2005)

I don’t want to overpraise this summer comedy. I’ll just say that the sequence cut to the song “Shout!” is the greatest use of montage since Eisenstein.

Monday, July 25, 2005

Book: The Golden West: Hollywood Stories, by Daniel Fuchs (2005)

Novelist Daniel Fuchs went west in 1937 to become a screenwriter, and a damn good one. He worked on Elia Kazan’s PANIC IN THE STREETS and won an Academy Award for 1955’s LOVE ME OR LEAVE ME, a musical bio of mobbed-up singer Ruth Etting. He not only wrote the legendary noir CRISS CROSS but received script credit on the remake that came almost half a century later, THE UNDERNEATH.

Thanks to TCM, I recently caught one of his first efforts, 1942’s THE HARD WAY. It’s an engrossing backstage melodrama with Ida Lupino stopping at nothing to turn her sister into a star. The film makes great use of the comedy team of Jack Carson and Dennis Morgan. Carson puts his antic mannerisms in service of a dramatic performance, while Morgan is a revelation as a cynical showbiz sharpie. They truly don’t make ‘em like that anymore.

Fuchs continued writing short fiction as well as occasional columns for Commentary about life in the movie business. Now those pieces have been collected in a book that’s a bracing take on the writer’s lot in Hollywood.

His stories show uncommon sympathy for stars (Fuchs knew his share) and for their behavior, motivated by the fact that “they didn’t know what they had ... or whether in fact they had anything at all.” In ‘Triplicate,’ he offers screenwriting advice that ranks with William Goldman’s: “Never write about people who can’t fiddle with their destinies.”

But it’s Fuchs’ non-fiction that makes the book essential. He tells of his encounters with William Faulkner, Frederick Faust (Max Brand), Harry Cohn and Samuel Goldwyn. He’s forthright about the question of money and addresses “the real grief that goes with the job. The worst is the dreariness in the dead sunny afternoons when you consider the misses, the scripts you’ve labored on and had high hopes for that wind up on the shelf.”

In a somewhat despairing introduction, John Updike wonders why a writer as gifted as Fuchs would abandon fiction for the movies. In one way or another, every piece in THE GOLDEN WEST is about that conundrum. Fuchs himself admits that his novels, which Updike greatly admires, didn’t sell until they were reprinted decades later, resulting in what he calls “a respectable following somewhere in the country.” In the meantime, the films he wrote afforded him a comfortable life and continue to find audiences even now.

Fuchs has a character in one of his short stories make the radical suggestion that perhaps that outcome is enough: “The whole idea is not to make great pictures but to enjoy life in the sun.” I’ve heard worse philosophies.

Miscellaneous: Link

Critic David Thomson recounts the fascinating tale of how he transformed an aborted collaboration between Marlon Brando and PERFORMANCE director Donald Cammell into a novel. Via Greencine Daily.

Friday, July 22, 2005

DVD: Clonus (1978)

Attractive young people clad in monochromatic running gear live in bliss and isolation, awaiting their chance to be sent to paradise. One of the innocents begins asking questions. When they’re not answered, he escapes into the outside world only to find somebody who looks an awful lot like him.

It’s not THE ISLAND, opening in theaters today, but CLONUS, aka PARTS: THE CLONUS HORROR, aka THE CLONUS HORROR. (I suppose the next release of the movie will be called HORROR. Or maybe just THE.) Reports of the similarities between these films have been circulating for weeks. But as long as I beat PARADE magazine, I’m content.

This is where I’m supposed to say that CLONUS outshines its big-budget competitor, that it’s a triumph of scrappy ingenuity. Sorry. ’tain’t. The fact that it’s been featured on MST3K is a dead giveaway. Director Robert S. Fiveson does what he can with limited resources, but the script is simply too thin. I’d prefer to see this story done on a grand scale with attractive stars like Ewan McGregor and Scarlett Johansson.

Part of my problem is that the lead in CLONUS is Tim Donnelly, a member of the Jack Webb stable of players. He was a regular on EMERGENCY, but I know him from his numerous appearances on DRAGNET. In one episode he played Stanley Stover, a lonely geek who donned a homemade costume and fought crime as ‘The Crimson Crusader.’ Thanks to DRAGNET’s harshly clinical style, Stanley is one of the most pathetic characters I’ve ever encountered. So much so that I recoil whenever I see Donnelly in another role.

On the plus side, CLONUS does feature a true B-movie attitude toward nudity. Which THE ISLAND could have had but doesn’t, due to financial concerns over the movie’s rating. Sometimes capitalism simply doesn’t work.

According to the publicity material for THE ISLAND, director Michael Bay wants the movie to spark conversation. CLONUS certainly did the job around here. Assuming it were possible to develop a clone to be used for spare parts, I said I’d probably do it but would have moral qualms. Rosemarie said she’d have moral qualms but would probably do it. It’s the little differences that keep a marriage lively.

Wednesday, July 20, 2005

Book: The Men Who Stare At Goats, by Jon Ronson (2004)

Ronson writes about outrageous subjects in a deceptively personable way that allows you to see how serious they really are. THEM: ADVENTURES WITH EXTREMISTS is an incisive look at people who believe secret cabals actually run the world.

The title of his new book refers to a top secret program at Fort Bragg that trains Special Forces troops to harness psychic energy. It’s part of a post-Vietnam push to build supersoldiers using New Age concepts. The plan has gotten a new lease on life because of the War on Terror; some of the techniques developed in the program are turning up in the battlefields of Iraq. Along the way, Ronson meets an Army general trying to teach himself to walk through walls, and a martial arts/dance instructor with a government contract to baffle hamsters using only his mind. It’s about time my tax dollars were spent on something I approve of.

Miscellaneous: Links

My new favorite blog is P.I. Files, the adventures of Polly, a private investigator in the Midwest. Slate offers a fascinating give-and-take on Steven Spielberg’s WAR OF THE WORLDS, with Timothy Noah accusing the director of exploiting 9/11 and film critic David Edelstein coming to his defense. For what it’s worth, I’m on Edelstein’s side. And the Los Angeles Times declares that the era of the hipster is over. Thank God. I could use the rest.

Tuesday, July 19, 2005

Movie: Diamonds Are Forever (1971)

Now that SUVs come equipped with DVD players – America’s Roads: Getting Safer All The Time! – choosing movies has become another step in planning the family vacation. USA Today offers suggestions for several summer travel destinations. This 007 film is their children’s recommendation for Las Vegas.

I know today’s kids are sophisticated, what with the Internet and DEGRASSI: THE NEXT GENERATION. But this strikes me as a spectacularly bad idea, because DIAMONDS unnerved me as a ten-year old.

It’s largely due to the hit men/lovers Mr. Kidd and Mr. Wint, played by jazzman Putter Smith and actor Bruce Glover. They have a childlike yet oddly formal relationship that makes their violence even more disturbing. It’s like watching the Goofy Gophers go on a killing spree.

DIAMONDS is thought of as the first Roger Moore Bond film even though it stars Sean Connery, because it marks the point when the series began to emphasize comedy and outlandish set pieces. The producers hadn’t perfected the balance, so the smarm factor is high. Another reason it’s not appropriate for kids. At one point Connery has to hide a cassette, so he slides it into the bottom of Jill St. John’s bikini.

I have no recollection of anything that follows.

Here’s my choice for a movie to prep the youngsters for Vegas: HONEY, I BLEW UP THE KID, about a giant baby terrorizing the Strip. Wholesome fun for the entire family! After seeing the film, Rosemarie and I made a pilgrimage to the Hard Rock Hotel & Casino so we could get a photo of the huge neon guitar that the kid rips out of the ground and strums like a ukulele.

Sunday, July 17, 2005

Movie: Memories of Murder (2003, U.S. 2005)

On my bleary-eyed Friday morning march through the New York Times, I took special note of Manohla Dargis’ rave review of this South Korean film. I had missed it during its brief run at the Northwest Film Forum a few weeks back – one of the rare occasions when a movie opened in Seattle ahead of the Big Apple – and wanted to catch up with it.

I did the very next day. In the comfort of my own home. For free.

MEMORIES is part of Palm Pictures’ new video on demand film festival, run in conjunction with Comcast Cable. Palm asks viewers to vote for the films online to determine which ones receive theatrical and/or DVD release. So far their website keeps rejecting my vote, which would be to get this movie into as many theaters as possible.

It’s based on a true story and unfolds primarily in 1986, as South Korea gears up for a critical election. A serial killer begins preying on women in a rural section of the country. The lead local detective is a cagey brute content to force the most likely suspect into confessing. As the murders continue, he’s paired up with a brilliant but damaged inspector from Seoul determined to take a more intellectual approach.

All the stock elements are in place. Mismatched partners? Check. Depraved psychopath who kills according to an elaborate set of rules? Check.

But they’ve never been delivered like this before. Writer/director Bong Joon-Ho perfects a singular tone, one that incorporates deadpan black comedy – even the big city cop is woefully unprepared to investigate a crime of this magnitude – to chilly reverence. He also skillfully weaves in political commentary, as South Korea’s national upheavals play out in the background. It all culminates in a quiet, utterly devastating climax.

In the last few weeks, entrepreneurs as varied as Mark Cuban and Morgan Freeman have made noise about turning the mechanism of film distribution upside down. I’ve had my doubts. But if this is the future – having one of the year’s best movies debut on your cable box instead of falling into the cracks – I say bring it on.

Miscellaneous: Link

Patrick McGilligan, author of the indispensable BACKSTORY books, interviews my hero Larry Cohen. From getting in on the ground floor of blaxploitation films to directing Bette Davis’ last movie, it’s all here. Courtesy of GreenCine.

Saturday, July 16, 2005

TV: Ultimate Film Fanatic

Looks like my 15 minutes aren’t quite up yet. Welcome to anyone who caught the rebroadcast of my UFF episode. Glad you stopped by. By popular demand, here are the Operation Travolta pieces on Michael Keaton, Sandra Bullock, Rutger Hauer and Peter Weller, as well as my behind-the-scenes take on the show. Feel free to come on back.

Books: The Glass Cage (1973) and The Venice Train (1974), by Georges Simenon

A conversation about last year’s film RED LIGHTS reminded me that it had been too long since I’d read Simenon. Any excuse to visit the remarkable downtown branch of the Seattle Public Library is fine with me. I grabbed two because his novels are so economical you can read them in one sitting.

Simenon personifies a key difference between the U.S. and European schools of suspense. In the typical American thriller, some external force threatens home and hearth, and our hero rallies to save them from harm. The protagonist of one of Simenon’s “psychological novels” gets into trouble and finds those bonds of marriage, family and society constricting.

VENICE is a pure exploration of this theme. A husband and father has a chance encounter on a train and comes into possession of a large sum of money. He realizes he can’t spend any of it without arousing the suspicion of those close to him.

At home, in his own apartment, he, a man of thirty-five, married and with children, a man with responsibilities, did not have a single place where he could hide an object ... it meant that he was a prisoner of his household.”

Dark, unsettling stuff with an undercurrent of genuine sadness. Not exactly Hollywood material.

Miscellaneous: Link

I can’t help linking to this local story, which is in no way grimly hysterical. To keep it on-topic, I’ll call it a tribute to the Spinal Tap classic “Sex Farm.”

Wednesday, July 13, 2005

Miscellaneous: The Meme Generation

Not only did Bill Crider tag me with this meme, he also swiped the Fredric Brown tribute I wanted to use as a title. Someday he’ll get his.

Here are my answers. Prepare to be disappointed.

1. Imagine it’s 2015. You are visiting the library at a major research university. You go over to a computer terminal (or whatever it is they use in 2015) that gives you immediate access to any book or journal article on any topic you want. What do you look up? In other words, what do you hope somebody will have written in the meantime?

First: me, to see if any of my projects ever made it off the ground. I’m assuming this part won’t take long. Then a quick check of all the latest innovations in pornography. It’s not like it’s my computer.

I’d want a list of the Block and Westlake books I’d missed. It would be nice to know how many times Terrill Lee Lankford and Jess Walter hit the bestseller list in my absence.

There would be several political questions I’d want answered. I’d be curious to see how events playing out now would be seen ten years hence.

But the above is mere prelude for these two questions:

How many times have the Mets won the World Series?

How much will it cost me to replace all my DVDs with whatever the new format is?

2. What is the strangest thing you’ve ever heard or seen at a conference? No names, please. Refer to “Professor X” or “Ms. Y” if you must. Double credit if you were directly affected. Triple if you then said or did something equally weird.

I’ve never been to a conference. I can say, though, that while I’ve heard all manner of shameful stories about Professor X, I have always found Ms. Y to be the salt of the earth.

3. Name a writer, scholar, or otherwise worthy person you admire so much that meeting him or her would probably reduce you to awestruck silence.

David Mamet. In part because he’s been a huge influence. Mainly because I don’t want to blather in front of someone who uses language with such concision. Will you go to lunch?

4. What are two or three blogs or websites you often read that don’t seem to be on many people’s radar?

I’m very unadventurous on this score. My usual stops are on the Links page. I don’t even have anyone I can tag. Whoever wants to answer next, step right up.

Miscellaneous: Link

We’re halfway through the year. Time to check the quote whore scoreboard.

Tuesday, July 12, 2005

DVD: Prime Cut (1972)

For all the talk of the 1970s (which for purposes of discussion run from 1967 to ‘75) as a golden age in American movies, how many great comedies can you name from that period?

Which is why I’ve always been a fan of Michael Ritchie. Starting with 1972’s THE CANDIDATE, he put together a string of sharp, character-driven films that didn’t stint on laughs. SMILE may be his best work, a backstage look at beauty pageants that’s one of the era’s most neglected movies. He followed it up with two sports films – THE BAD NEWS BEARS and SEMI-TOUGH – that work against all the genre’s clich├ęs.

He got sucked into big-budget crap in the ‘80s, along with everyone else. On the plus side, he directed FLETCH. But he’s also responsible for the sequel.

He had a modest comeback by returning to form. THE POSITIVELY TRUE ADVENTURES OF THE ALLEGED TEXAS CHEERLEADER-MURDERING MOM is one of the best TV movies ever made. And 1992’s DIGGSTOWN is a ‘70s film in modern drag, about losers and hustlers and packed with twists. It didn’t fare well at the box office, but it found a long life on video and cable. Every guy I know has seen it at least twice.

Leonard Maltin describes this early Ritchie effort as “tongue-in-cheek trash that fans of sleazy crime melodramas should love.” Regular readers will know that this description applies to me. I was ashamed that I hadn’t seen the movie. When a bare-bones DVD hit the streets last month, I pounced on it.

At last I know why PRIME CUT seldom surfaces on TV. ‘Sleazy’ is the operative word; over the opening credits, we watch a man get ground into sausage.

There’s barely a plot. Enforcer Lee Marvin is sent by the Chicago outfit into the wilds of Kansas City to collect from a gangster known only as Mary Ann (Gene Hackman). That’s it.

In some respects PRIME CUT is a forerunner of this year’s SIN CITY, taking a stock hardboiled set-up and inflating it to the level of a cartoon. Mary Ann doesn’t just sell young girls, he auctions them off from pens in his slaughterhouse. And so on.

I hesitate to recommend PRIME CUT. I will say it’s outrageous enough to command your attention. I’d watch Lee Marvin in anything; nobody exits a room like him. And if, like me, you’ve ever wondered what would happen when a stretch Lincoln meets a thresher, well, this is the movie for you.

Monday, July 11, 2005

DVD: Seed of Chucky (2004)

Somehow I managed to miss the CHILD’S PLAY movies. The closest I’d come to seeing Chucky the homicidal doll in action was watching Jon Gruden coach during football season.

The series was revived with the emphasis on jokes in 1999’s BRIDE OF CHUCKY. I checked it out for one reason: Jennifer Tilly. She’s a terrific comic actress in the Judy Holliday mode who works against her sexpot image. She’s been a favorite since 1989, when she played a gambler’s moll who’s not as dumb as she appears in LET IT RIDE and auditioned memorably for THE FABULOUS BAKER BOYS.

BRIDE OF CHUCKY is terrible. But Tilly, as usual, is very funny in it.

I had forgotten the movie completely until I was asked a question about it on the IFC game show ULTIMATE FILM FANATIC. Knowing the answer let me advance to the next round.

So out of gratitude I watched the series’ latest installment, a meta-epic in which Tilly plays herself as well as a killer doll.

I hereby declare whatever karmic debt I owe the Chucky movies to be repaid. In full. Many, many times over.

But again, Tilly is hilarious. Considering her new hobby, maybe now she can hold out for better material.

Sunday, July 10, 2005

Message Movies: Silver City (2004)/Land of the Dead (2005)

Experiment in Viewing #12: Can agitprop hold up after it fails to do its job?

The filmmakers and cast of SILVER CITY made no bones about the movie’s intent. They wanted to help usher George W. Bush out of office. But the film debuted too close to the November election to have much impact. (Confidentially, I think some other film might have stolen its thunder.) I was curious, though, to see if it stood on its own merits past its expiration date.

The W surrogate is the dim bulb scion of a Colorado political family who’s running for governor. John Sayles often structures his films around a central mystery. Here it’s the question of whether someone is out to sabotage the campaign.

From the beginning, the story gets bogged down in issues. What’s worse is that the issues are so old hat that the movie itself can’t get worked up over them. Did you know that money influences politics? That businesses matter more than the voters? Why, in some cases lobbyists ... oh, never mind. It’s as if Sayles filmed an issue of MOTHER JONES.

Whatever you think of President Bush, it’s obvious that he’s given his opponents plenty of new material to work with. But SILVER CITY is content to stick with the Bleeding Heart Liberals’ Greatest Hits. Sayles should have taken his cues from Karl Rove. Attack your rivals on their strong points and watch them flail helplessly.

Plus, the movie’s a tad obvious. The candidate is named Pilager, for Christ’s sake. Chris Cooper does wonders mimicking Bush’s speech patterns, but having his character be a simpleton does the actor and the film no favors.

Contrast this movie with LAND OF THE DEAD. Like Sayles, George A. Romero loads his films with political content. His latest tackles the yawning gulf between the haves and have-nots and the use of fear mongering to keep the public in line.

Yes, there’s too much on-the-nose dialogue. There are also bracing action sequences shot in the efficient, muscular style of John Sturges or early John Carpenter. And zombies, zombies, zombies.

I’m all for reasoned discourse in politics. But in the movies, I want my issues served up with entrails and a kickass battle truck. They just help things go down easier.

Wednesday, July 06, 2005

TV: Watch The Skies!

This TCM documentary on 1950s science fiction films was somehow able to squeeze in the new version of WAR OF THE WORLDS. (Long story short: I liked it fine.) A mite convenient, I say. Still, it did give Steven Spielberg the chance to explain that business with the red vines, which didn’t exactly make sense to me. (Long story short: terraforming.) Initially I thought it was an extreme form of product placement, because I found myself craving Twizzlers.

The high point of the show was seeing James Cameron light up at the mention of THE MONOLITH MONSTERS. I’m glad someone else shares my affection for this low budget 1957 film, which demonstrated true ingenuity in having its villains be ... rocks. To this day, I have a lingering fear of minerals.

Ernest Lehman, R.I.P.

The screenwriter passed away on Saturday at the age of 89. One look at his credits makes it plain that he had one of the greatest careers in the movies. SWEET SMELL OF SUCCESS, NORTH BY NORTHWEST, WEST SIDE STORY, so many other classics. He always was and always will be an inspiration to me, and he shall be missed.

Tuesday, July 05, 2005

Book: The Fountainhead, by Ayn Rand (1943)

The New York Times recently described Christopher Cox, the California congressman nominated to the Securities and Exchange Commission by President Bush, as “a devoted student” of Ayn Rand. Raising the prospect that fifty years from now, one of President (Chelsea) Clinton’s nominees might be “a devoted student” of Dan Brown.

Later, George Will claimed Cox’s enthusiasm for Rand was overstated. The Rand Institute said that Cox’s first act should be to abolish the commission he’s been named to lead.

Rand has always seemed like something you should read at an impressionable age, like Tolkien or INTERVIEW WITH THE VAMPIRE. I never got to those. Saw the movies, though.

Over the years I’ve picked up a little about Rand’s philosophy of objectivism. Most of what I know about her I learned from a guy who lived in my freshman dorm. Over Christmas break, he read both THE FOUNTAINHEAD and ATLAS SHRUGGED and came back to school a changed man. I can still remember him striding down the hall upon his return, arms spread messianically wide. When he reached his room, he pulled a marker out of his coat and wrote EGO in huge letters on the door. Only then did he enter, smoke a few Winstons and doze off.

What made an impression on me was the fact that he’d carried the pen with him. No stopping to search through luggage for him. I respect anyone who inspires others to feats of showmanship, and vowed to read one of Rand’s novels.

What can I say? The last few years have been a little busy.

First, as a work of fiction: The only character who behaves in a remotely human fashion is the one Rand holds up to ridicule. In a book purportedly about architecture, her descriptions of the craft make no sense. The ending is ludicrous. Her style is turgid.

But I couldn’t stop reading. Rand’s tale spans decades and includes epic grudges, thwarted passions, dizzying rises and falls. She wrote in an era when authors strove to tell big stories, and the force of her narrative carries the day.

As a philosophical work, things get a tad muddled. But the core ideas – the power of the individual, the dangers of groupthink – resonated with me. It’s easy to see how they could be misinterpreted or misapplied. There’s a section on discrediting someone through false charges (“Reason can be fought with reason. How are you going to fight the unreasonable?”) that seems to have been grafted directly into contemporary political playbooks. I’d wager that free-market conservatives like Cox respond to Rand’s notion that there’s nothing evil about the desire to make money or even spending it to enjoy luxury. But they probably miss her larger point that money is only a means to an end, and that personal luxury eventually becomes a wasted effort to impress others.

I’m still immature enough to feel pride at finishing a book that’s over 700 pages long and doesn’t feature a boy wizard. Eventually I’ll tackle ATLAS SHRUGGED. I have to rest my arms first.

Sunday, July 03, 2005

Miscellaneous: The Story So Far

Around the Fourth of July, I always like to take a look back at what the first six months of the year have wrought.

Scratch that. I usually like to do it. But not this time.

People are forever saying what a bad year it is for movies, and I’m the one who shouts ‘em down. There are good films out there, I say, but you have to seek them out.

I can’t muster up that kind of enthusiasm anymore. Maybe I haven’t been taking my own advice. Maybe I haven’t been adventurous enough. All I know is that by this point in 2004, I’d already seen ETERNAL SUNSHINE OF THE SPOTLESS MIND; SPARTAN, which ended up being my favorite film of the year; and a good half-dozen other titles of note.

I’ve enjoyed several of 2005’s movies. But I’ve only seen three contenders:

OLDBOY
KUNG FU HUSTLE
LAYER CAKE

Pretty thin. So I’ll fill out the list with a few odds and ends.

2004 Film That Would Have Made My Best-Of List If It Had Opened In Time: BEYOND THE SEA. So help me, I loved this movie, in spite of its flaws. And perhaps because of them. We’ll see how it holds up when I watch it again on video.

2004 Films I Caught On DVD That I Should Have Seen In Theaters: BIRTH and CODE 46.

On to books. I’ve been doing a lot of research reading the last few months, so I haven’t finished my usual quota of novels. Which made these gems shine all the brighter.

RED JUNGLE, by Kent Harrington
CAVALCADE, by Walter Satterthwait
CITIZEN VINCE, by Jess Walter

Read any of them. They will not disappoint.

Friday, July 01, 2005

DVD: Junior Bonner (1972)

Mmmm ... crow ...

A while back, there was a dust-up around here when I confessed that I didn’t get Steve McQueen. I tended to agree with the critic David Thomson, who wrote that McQueen’s “range was severely limited” and that he “did too much routine work in which his ... impassivity grew monotonous.”

Several McQueen fans rose to his defense. The recent revival of his films on DVD has prompted reappraisals, so I decided to join in.

BONNER seemed a good place to start. It has a director in Sam Peckinpah who knows how to harness machismo. (He and McQueen also collaborated on 1972’s THE GETAWAY, but the strange vibe between the actor and Ali MacGraw taints that movie for me. Let’s face it, McQueen’s not good with women onscreen.) It’s a contemporary western in which McQueen plays an aging rodeo rider, another plus because McQueen is at his best when doing something physical. Best of all, his parents are played by Ida Lupino and the great Robert Preston.

It’s one of those ‘70s movies in which little happens, but what does is beautifully observed. It unfolds over a few days in a small town, and by the movie’s end I was sure I could draw a map of the place from memory.

In this setting, McQueen’s minimalism doesn’t seem like a harsh affectation but an essential part of the character. And he’s gracious with his costars, hanging back in his scenes with Joe Don Baker as his ambitious brother, letting Preston walk off with the movie.

I’m not going to go overboard and say that I get McQueen now. But I’m beginning to understand Thomson’s point when he asks: “He may be brutal, or brutish, at times – but when is he fake?”

Miscellaneous: Links

I was going to write a post about my perverse fascination with the HBO/Lisa Kudrow misfire THE COMEBACK. Then I found this chart. And who took the sex out of popular music? Via Arts & Letters Daily.