Friday, March 31, 2006

Movie: Find Me Guilty (2006)

So far 2006 has been a solid year for the New York crime thriller at the movies. First there was 16 Blocks, which blended old-school shoot-‘em-up with crooked cop saga and allowed Bruce Willis to do some meaty character work. Next came Inside Man, a sharp take on the bank robbery genre bristling with big city attitude and sly star turns.

Both movies owe a debt to Sidney Lumet, master of Big Apple crime and punishment stories. Lumet, who turns 82 this year but looks a good two decades younger, also has a movie out. In many ways it’s the most interesting of the lot, so naturally it’s garnered the least attention.

Find Me Guilty focuses on “Jackie” DiNorscio, a New Jersey Mafioso (played by a damn good Vin Diesel) who served as his own attorney in a complex RICO case that became the longest criminal trial in U.S. history. The action doesn’t stray far from the courtroom; much of the dialogue is taken directly from trial transcripts. Lumet still finds room to explore Jackie’s belief in an outmoded system of honor that even his fellow defendants don’t take seriously.

Linus Roache scores as the hard-charging Irish Catholic D.A. prosecuting the case. Which brings me to my problem with New York crime thrillers: I always identify with the wrong guys. Cops, federal agents, attorneys. The white dress shirt brigade. Not because I’m a law and order type, but because these are people I understand. Growing up, my neighborhood was full of men who worked for the government in one capacity or another. The director John Boorman said of Goodfellas that it’s not about gangster characters but what it’s like to be a gangster. True. But it’s still easier for me to picture myself as the FBI agent who puts Henry Hill into witness protection at the end of the movie.

In another life, I could have been that guy. Well, not exactly. I’m lacking in what you might call physical courage, so law enforcement would be out. But I do have a low-key flamboyance, a self-righteous streak, and a stubborn belief that I’m smarter than everyone else. Hello, District Attorney’s office.

Watching Roache in the movie, an entire alternate life opened up before me. I burst out of Fordham with my law degree and quickly earn a reputation as a comer, largely because I have no inner life. I start cultivating relationships with an eye toward moving into federal law or politics. I marry a girl from the old neighborhood who ends up looking at houses out on the Island by herself every weekend because I’m just too busy.

Eventually my ambition gets the better of me. I miscalculate, step on toes, make enemies in high places. I get exiled to some backwater, handling cases John Jay students could knock off as homework. I engage in a seamy office romance that tarnishes what’s left of my reputation. To compensate I become a permissive parent and my daughters lose all respect for me.

A partner at a white-shoe law firm with a grudge against my boss hires me, and I while away the years doing corporate hackwork. I write a novel that’s equal parts self-aggrandizement and sexual fantasy, but it contains enough realistic detail to be published as a paperback original. I start hanging out in writers’ bars, where I am tolerated as long as I pick up the tab. I drink myself to death at age 57. At my funeral, people talk about all the potential I had.

In some parallel universe, that version of me exists. The poor bastard.

Miscellaneous: Link

Slate’s Human Guinea Pig is a paparazzo for a day. I don’t think pictures of Red Buttons are going to cut it.

Wednesday, March 29, 2006

Book: The Film Snob’s Dictionary, by David Kamp with Lawrence Levi (2006)

This book is dedicated in part to “everyone who has ever shouted ‘Focus!’ in a revival house,” so I’m surprised that an autographed copy was not delivered to me personally.

Don’t let the marketing fool you. The book may be next to cash registers the world over, the Barnes & Noble equivalent of a pack of gum. But it’s a smart, funny, opinionated take on movie mania. Kamp and Levi (whose no-longer-secret identity is film blogger the Looker) have been writing this material for magazines for years, and they know whereof they speak.

The authors differentiate the types of film snob; categories include Art, Gore and Kitsch. They point out that ‘existential’ and ‘offbeat’ are in fact euphemisms for ‘slow.’ They call bullshit on the oeuvres of Peter Greenaway and Dogme 95. I’m pretty sure they don’t think much of people who use the word ‘oeuvre.’ (I’ve already sworn off saying that a movie is a ‘meditation on’ something.)

The brief listings contain some surprisingly sharp writing, like a tossed-off reference to Robert Altman’s “muddy-brown period.” Or the lethally incisive observation that Hal Ashby established himself “as an ‘actor’s director’ – a designation that, like the sports term ‘player’s coach,’ suggests a mixed blessing of amiability and erratic discipline.” Any book that claims John Cassavetes “carried off his self-indulgences with an acuity and slim-lapelled flair that his heirs lack” demands to be taken seriously.

Besides, how many reference works contain handy sidebars that will help you tell Anita Ekberg from Britt Ekland, and both of them from Elke Sommer? I’ve lost sleep trying to keep them straight.

The book also underscores the cultural significance of The 4:30 Movie, a staple on New York’s WABC and the telecast that made me the man I am today. Dig those groovy opening credits.

Miscellaneous: Links

Via GreenCine Daily, an article in praise of recent horror films and their ability to tap into post-9/11 teen angst. Personally, I think the guy’s reading a little too much into them.

Elsewhere, Seattle considers its historic signs. Speaking of signs, I’d give this guy a dollar.

Tuesday, March 28, 2006

Book: A Touch of Death, by Charles Williams (1953)

Opening with a definition is an old high school debating trick. But the thing about old high school debating tricks is that they tend to work.

inexorable, adj.: not to be persuaded or moved by entreaty: relentless

For an example, look no further than this Williams novel republished by Hard Case Crime. The set up is familiar: big lug stumbles onto what looks like Easy Street, provided he can stay one step ahead of a bad dame.

But knowing where you’re going doesn’t mean you’ll keep your footing. Williams’ genius for plotting pulls you toward a foregone conclusion in ways you don’t expect. Around the halfway point I broke out in a sweat that didn’t let up until the hammer finally dropped. The cover promises that what begins as a burglary will end as a nightmare. The book delivers.

Movie: The Fallen Idol (1948)

The Third Man is so justly revered that it tends to overshadow this collaboration between Carol Reed and Graham Greene made the year before.

Rialto Pictures is working to change that with a brand-new print of The Fallen Idol that will be playing around the U.S. this spring. If it turns up anywhere near you, go. It’s worth the trip.

Greene’s story ‘The Basement Room’ has been turned into a remarkable film about childhood. Philippe, the son of the French ambassador to England, has forged an uncommonly close bond with a household servant (Ralph Richardson). From Philippe’s point of view we watch the dissolution of Richardson’s marriage – and possibly witness a murder.

Reed’s direction is extraordinary, transforming the vast rooms of the embassy into Philippe’s personal kingdom. It’s like Eloise at the Plaza meets Grimms’ Fairy Tales, complete with wicked witch.

TV: The Surreal Life

Honest, I’m not watching the umpteenth season of VH1’s has-been reality show. I’d just like to know how Tawny Kitaen can be so judgmental about her cast mates when the last press she got was for beating up her professional baseball player husband. Where is that carefree woman who gyrated on car hoods in Whitesnake videos?

Miscellaneous: Links

Dan Curtis, the producer behind Dark Shadows, The Night Stalker, and The Winds of War, has died. And screenwriter Josh Friedman is back from cancer surgery and better than ever.

Sunday, March 26, 2006

Richard Fleischer, R.I.P.

A career like the one the late director Richard Fleischer had is probably a thing of the past in Hollywood. Decades long, in a range of genres, working with budgets high and low. He was a professional, in every sense of the word.

He’ll no doubt be best remembered for the big-budget extravaganzas 20,000 Leagues Under The Sea and Fantastic Voyage, and with any luck he’ll be forgiven for big-budget flops like Doctor Doolittle. Soylent Green, the last film in Charlton Heston’s apocalypse trifecta, is largely regarded as a joke now – truth be told, it’s kind of a snooze – but when I was a kid, I revered it. Some part of me still does.

Easily his best work was 1952’s The Narrow Margin, which is everything you want a B-movie to be. I’ve also got to put in a word for an even earlier effort, Follow Me Quietly (1949). It’s a spellbinding little gem about the hunt for a serial killer, featuring one of the creepiest shots I’ve ever seen. It’s so shocking that for a moment, I thought I’d imagined it. You’ll know it when you see it, and you have Fleischer to thank for it.

Miscellaneous: Link

Sometimes, your wildest dreams do come true. Xanadu is becoming a stage musical.

Saturday, March 25, 2006

Miscellaneous: Links

In a transparent attempt to make up for being remiss in my duties of late, I offer a few meaty links. Like Ed Gorman's two part feature on the work of the great Richard Matheson. And New York magazine's chilling dive into the depths of 9/11 conspiracy theory.

Wednesday, March 22, 2006

DVD: The Best of Youth (2003, U.S. 2005)

With all due respect to Roger Ebert, this year’s Best Picture winner Crash can’t owe a debt to Charles Dickens because it’s only 113 minutes long. To be truly Dickensian, you need a little room. Say six hours’ worth.

You don’t watch The Best of Youth so much as steep in it. Originally a TV miniseries, it follows two brothers through forty years of modern Italian history. Youth has an epic scope but a surprisingly intimate feel; it knows that no matter how tumultuous the times, the key moments in life are usually quiet ones. Chance meetings, conversations that may not initially seem important.

The best illustration of this is Youth’s first hour, which focuses on a trip the brothers take during a break in their studies. Nothing momentous happens, but the experience dictates how both men will live out their days.

Youth played theatrically last year. The New York Times’ A.O. Scott named it the best film of 2005. I can’t imagine the impact of seeing all six hours in one sitting. Spreading it out over a few nights doesn’t hurt it at all.

DVD: That’s My Queue

I watched Youth because Netflix allows subscribers to keep DVDs indefinitely. Late fees can make committing to a six-hour film a problem.

Today’s Los Angeles Times features an article on how the company is altering the movie landscape. A similar piece ran in Variety last month.

As fascinating as the statistics are – like Netflix’s 70/30 ratio of library titles to new releases – it’s the movies cited that made me take notice. Like Intermission, a terrific Irish film that I point to whenever someone badmouths Colin Farrell. Fifty percent of the Americans who watched Oldboy on video saw it via Netflix. For the documentary Capturing The Friedmans, the figure jumps to seventy percent.

These movies have two things in common: I love them, and saw them in theaters. Much as I hate the idea that the moviegoing experience is shifting to the home, I’m thrilled that these films are being seen, especially in smaller markets where they wouldn’t be released. For all the talk of how technology will change audience habits – digital projection, downloads, on demand, the whole schmear – something as doggedly low-tech as sending movies through the mail may be what reinvents the business.

Movies: Overlooked

Speaking of Roger Ebert, last year I emailed him to suggest that he screen Iceman in his Overlooked Film Festival. He was kind enough to respond, saying that he’s been meaning to program a Fred Schepisi film for some time.

Fred didn’t make this year’s line-up. But the centerpiece of the festival will be David Mamet’s Spartan, and regular readers know what a rabid fan I am of that movie. It’s good to have company.

Miscellaneous: Wha?

From Alessandra Stanley’s New York Times TV review:

‘The Evidence,’ a series on ABC about two homicide detectives, is set in San Francisco, but has no Asian or gay lead characters; these minority groups are not even visible in crowd shots ... it’s like filming a show in Bruges and making no mention of lace.

Not the example I would have picked.

Tuesday, March 21, 2006

Sports: Beisbol

The last ten days have been so hectic that I haven’t kept up my diet of pulp fiction and old movies.

To relax – and to prepare for the start of the season – I’ve been watching the inaugural World Baseball Classic. This in spite of the fact that ties are allowed, a ten-run ‘mercy rule’ is imposed, and the tournament’s last two rounds are single elimination. These affronts must make purists like Bob Costas want to die so they can turn over in their graves.

Still, there have been some good games, and it’s been fun to get a sense of baseball’s international flavor. Japan took the title thanks in part to a bravura display of leadership by the Seattle Mariners’ Ichiro, a man I aspire to emulate in every way. Here’s hoping he brings some of that fire to the AL West pennant race this year. I plan at least one trip to Safeco Field, which has its own share of international flavor. There’s nothing like eating sushi in the hot sun.

Miscellaneous: I’m Your Employer, Fly Me

Thanks to the travel boom, the days of airline employees and their families flying for free are numbered.

My father spent more than thirty years working runways, so I know firsthand how prized that perk is. Using it was always a little complicated. You’d have to dress up when you flew in case the only available space was in first class; the company wanted you to look like you belonged there. To this day I can’t wear casual clothes when I travel, even though it would make the extended security checks easier.

Flying home from college meant waking up at 4 AM to catch the first plane out of Boston’s Logan Airport, then spending the rest of the day in St. Louis waiting for a connecting flight. Sometimes two or three would take off before my name was called, but I was always home in time for dinner.

That fringe benefit made attending an out-of-state college feasible. It also allowed our family to spend part of each year in Ireland visiting relatives. One of my few regrets is that I didn’t take advantage of it to see more of the world.

Now when my father flies he has to pay full fare, and the planes belonging to the airline he worked for only take to the skies in The Aviator. Truly the end of an era.

Sunday, March 19, 2006

TV: Cash Cab

How long has this Discovery Channel game show been on? And why isn’t it an enormous hit?

The rules couldn’t be simpler. Unsuspecting New Yorkers hail a taxi and are quizzed on trivia by their driver. The questions are worth more money – and become more difficult – the closer they get to their destination. Get three wrong and they’re booted out of the cab. I haven’t seen anyone abandoned on a bridge or in a tunnel yet, although a pair of college kids came close to being left to the mercies of the FDR Drive the other day.

The contestants get two shoutouts – one on the phone, one out the window. The latter proves surprisingly helpful. Passersby in New York are an erudite bunch, happy to tell you that the Frank Gehry-designed outpost of the Guggenheim Museum is in Bilbao, Spain.

This show fulfills two of my long-held fantasies: that a complete stranger will ask me general knowledge questions out of the blue for money, and that I will get out of a cab with more cash than I started with. Neither has ever happened to me. Now, there is hope.

Miscellaneous: Links

Via Mark Evanier, a fascinating interview with MSNBC’s Keith Olbermann. And from James Reasoner, the 100 science fiction novels you have to read.

Thursday, March 16, 2006

Movie: The Bellboy (1960)

Happy birthday to Jerry Lewis, who turns 80 today.

Coincidentally, I watched his directorial debut earlier this week. The Bellboy came about because Jerry insisted that his film Cinderfella be a holiday release. Paramount wanted a summer movie, so Jerry pulled one together over the course of a month while he was performing at Miami’s Fontainebleau Hotel.

The Bellboy is a string of gags without a plot. Jerry felt the need to prepare the audience with an intro featuring studio representative Jack Emulsion, who announces that you’re about to see a film “based on fun.”

My favorite bit has Jerry, as himself, checking into the hotel with his entourage. (“Stop with the brushing!”) The payoff, involving Milton Berle, is priceless.

Jerry was clearly a born filmmaker. One look at the way he frames his shots in the Fontainebleau’s vast lobby will tell you that. The Bellboy is at times like an American answer to the work of Jacques Tati. (I’m going to link to the Tati site again, simply because it’s one of the most beautiful I’ve ever seen.)

Book: The Scrambled Yeggs, by Richard S. Prather (1958)

When I need a break, nothing beats one of Prather’s Shell Scott novels. This one was originally released in 1952 as Pattern for Murder. I think we all agree the reissue title is one of the greatest in the history of publishing.

Rosemarie glanced at the cover and asked, “Is Shell spanking that woman?” Yep. Happens in Chapter One.

Miscellaneous: Correction

My award-winning niece Hannah also enjoyed the Hungarian film Kontroll. What’s more, she was the one who got it from the video store. She even made two trips. regrets the error.

Miscellaneous: Links

At Mystery*File, Bill Pronzini and Lynn Munroe offer a definitive account of the life of pulp master Gil Brewer. And, via Arts & Letters Daily, a look at early avant garde cinema now on DVD, including the first film by Orson Welles.

Tuesday, March 14, 2006

Miscellaneous: Come Blow Your Own Horn

Various commitments are keeping me from delivering work of the high standard I’ve set here at the ol’ internet homestead. But I can’t slack off, not when I’ve received concrete proof that I am A Force For Good In My Time. In recent days, I have:

- Convinced the eminently sensible Bill Crider to record The Gong Show Movie.

- Gotten my whip-smart nephew Luke to fall in love with “the Budapest underground murder mystery thriller romance dark comedy Kontroll.

- Helped a total stranger discover the miracle that is Out of the Past. If you search for the dialogue exchange from the movie that was featured in the Oscar tribute to film noir, this site comes up first. Meaning that I have Robert Mitchum’s back.

- Persuaded my friend Mike to use his Barnes & Noble gift card on two Mickey Spillane classics.

As Mike himself told me: “You’re changing lives, dude.” Yes. Yes, I am. Now if I can only get a few more people to watch The Apple, I’d be in business.

TV: The American Idol Exchange Of The Day

Simon Cowell: This stage either makes you, or it breaks you.

Me, dripping with sarcasm: Well said.

Ryan Seacrest, simultaneously and without a trace of irony: Well said.

Miscellaneous: Links

Yet another reason to be in New York: the Film Forum’s Don Siegel retrospective. Oh, to see Charley Varrick on the big screen. And four diaries offer a day in the life of Hollywood.

Monday, March 13, 2006

Miscellaneous: Mystery*File

The latest installment of my column ‘In The Frame’ is now up at Steve Lewis’s excellent Mystery*File. I review Massimo Carlotto’s The Goodbye Kiss and Patrick Hamilton’s Hangover Square, both from foreign fiction specialists Europa Editions. I also revive an old feature of this website, Remake Rematch, to consider the 1947 and 1995 versions of the noir classic Kiss of Death. Check it out.

Miscellaneous: Blasphemy of the Day

During the “It’s Not TV, It’s HBO” ad that lead into last night’s Sopranos/Big Love extravaganza, I realized that I’m more excited about this summer’s return of Deadwood.

Sunday, March 12, 2006

Book: Prayers For The Assassin, by Robert Ferrigno (2006)

Nobody can accuse Ferrigno, author of dark SoCal crime fiction, of thinking small. His latest novel is set in 2040, decades after a series of terrorist attacks has torn the United States asunder. Most of the country now lies within two camps: the Bible Belt, driven onward by Christian soldiers, and the Muslim Republic of America. Ferrigno’s novel is set in the latter, depicting a country that has been turned inside out and yet remains strangely familiar.

The plot, fairly standard thriller stuff, pales in comparison to the setting; it lacks the ingenuity that George Alec Effinger brought to his Budayeen stories, which also depict an Islam-centric future. Ferrigno, a master of tough-guy wisecracks, allows that dialogue to crop up here in ways that are occasionally jarring. And a few aspects of his new world are hard to swallow.

But the book is lethally well-paced, and Ferrigno has a keen understanding of the ways that devout religious belief can inform one’s view of life and the world. Plus, he regularly lobs in features of the future America – like San Francisco’s rebirth as a fundamentalist redoubt nicknamed Sharia City, or the fate of Mount Rushmore – that are chillingly perfect.

In the book, Seattle is the Muslim Republic’s capitol, and the new White House is located a stone’s throw from Chez K. There’s a Trader Joe’s there now. Serves them right for their decision to stop stocking the cream soda that Tod Goldberg got me hooked on.

Trailer: Larry The Cable Guy, Health Inspector (2006)

This preview succeeds where others have failed, in that it has me wanting to know more. Like: Is he a cable guy or a health inspector? Can a man be both?

Friday, March 10, 2006

Music: Elvis Costello Live With The Metropole Orkest, My Flame Burns Blue

It’s a knee-jerk reaction. I will buy anything with Elvis Costello’s name on it. Which can get expensive, because the man is nothing if not prolific. In the last few years he’s released albums of piano ballads (North), roots music (The Delivery Man), and straight ahead rock and roll (When I Was Cruel).

I wasn’t entirely sure what My Flame Burns Blue was when I snapped it up. Now I know. It’s the best recording I’ve heard in ages.

In July 2004, Elvis appeared at the North Sea Jazz Festival with the Metropole Orkest, a full jazz orchestra complete with string section. Together they performed raucous covers of Elvis songs old (‘Watching The Detectives’) and new (‘Episode Of Blonde’), as well as experiments like ‘Hora Decubitus,’ a Charlie Mingus composition for which Elvis composed lyrics. It works like gangbusters.

I love everything about this album, from its Saul Bass-style cover art to the film noir musical arrangements. It even comes with a bonus CD of excerpts from Il Sogno, a suite of music Elvis wrote for a ballet based on Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream. I’m telling you, it’s the gift that keeps on giving.

TV: Carson’s Comedy Classics

Vintage Tonight Show bits – including ‘Johnny San, Samurai Detective,’ in which Johnny and Doc Severinsen pretend to be Japanese complete with bad accents, faulty swords and, for some reason, Liza Minnelli – are now available on demand. And an hour of my life is gone like that.

Miscellaneous: Link

In the era of government wiretapping, Slate considers the evolution of the paranoid thriller.

Tuesday, March 07, 2006

Movie: The Gong Show Movie (1980)

My love of The Gong Show drove my father crazy. “What’s the point of a talent contest with no talent?,” he’d ask. I couldn’t mount a defense, because I was busy stuffing my face with peanut butter. I was also too young to articulate the genius of Chuck Barris.

It’s hard to believe that Chuck’s show was once considered a harbinger of the end of civilization, particularly in light of what’s currently on TV. But as the saying goes, the pioneer is the guy with all the arrows in his back.

Chuck was visionary enough to recognize a simple truth: those who are untalented still crave attention. On The Gong Show, scorn and celebration were conjoined. Yes, your armpit rendition of “The Yellow Rose of Texas” was an abomination, and frankly the tutu didn’t help. Yes, you were gonged by L.A. Dodgers great Steve Garvey. Yes, we are laughing at you. But you got to be on TV, nobody’s feelings were hurt, and you can come back at the end of the show when the confetti drops. There was something pure, innocent, even noble about The Gong Show. It was a half hour during which every dog had its day.

Now, eating animal testicles on Fear Factor is a way of building your personal brand, people bounce from one reality show to another as if it’s a career path, and there’s no gong on American Idol. I ask you, what’s worse?

Chuck’s “unauthorized autobiography” Confessions of a Dangerous Mind – later turned into a terrific film – tried to make sense of the public’s hostility toward him. But his first attempt to deal with the subject was The Gong Show Movie. Made during the waning days of the TV series, it didn’t receive a real theatrical release and has never been available on video. Finding it on TV the other day was like sighting the Flying Dutchman.

The movie’s a true cri de coeur, asking the eternal question: Why does everybody think I’m an asshole? It combines uncensored audition footage with absurdist scenes of Chuck struggling to get through life. Think of it as Jackass meets , with musical numbers by Chuckie Baby himself.

It’s not a good movie, by any stretch. Chuck’s not much of a director; he should have turned the reins over to his writing collaborator, cinema wild man Robert Downey. But so help me, I loved every minute. I paid it the highest compliment I can think of: I didn’t erase it from my DVR. A day will come when I will want – nay, need – to revisit it. It’s even given me a new catchphrase. “Dr. Crawford, if you please ...”

Sundance Channel will be airing the movie a few more times throughout March. I cannot honestly recommend it to anyone. But I wouldn’t have missed it for the world.

Sunday, March 05, 2006

Miscellaneous: Late Blogging The Oscars

I’m fairly sure that “live blogging,” whatever that is, involves a level of technical expertise that is beyond my capabilities. I also have it on reasonable authority that it would impede my drinking. (Seriously. I had a pitcher of martinis and an entire bottle of wine to get through. Is this thing on?) That didn’t stop me from recording my thoughts throughout the telecast.

The Pre-Show:

How do I hate Billy Bush? Let me count the ways.

This is why I love David Straitharn. Even his answers to stupid red carpet questions (“Was it hard to smoke so much?”) are interesting (his cigarettes were made with pipe tobacco because it smelled better, was less harmful, and the smoke looks good on camera).

The Actual Show:

The opening, featuring a city of movies that includes every major global landmark and cinematic character, is cheesy.

The intro comedy film with every living Oscar host is funny. Points for making hay of the fact that nobody wanted the gig this year.

A rock-solid monologue by Jon Stewart. He will be asked back.

Damn. Even Clooney’s acceptance speech is good. At least another has stepped up to don the mantle of brooding dark Irish sexual charisma. I could use the rest.

Are they going to play music under every winner? This is a bad idea.

This is why I love Ben Stiller. When the man does a bit, he commits completely.

They are going to play music under every winner. This truly is a bad idea.

A salute to the biopic? Am I imagining this?

Could I rock the ascot look like Morgan Freeman, or do you have to be a man of a certain age?

Both supporting performance presentations reunite co-stars. Clooney and Nicole Kidman (The Peacemaker), Freeman and Rachel Weisz (Chain Reaction). Am I the only person who notices this? I am, aren’t I?

Lauren Bacall introducing a tribute to film noir? This is officially the best Academy Awards show ever.

The campaign ads for best actress bring the finest of The Daily Show sensibility to the Oscars.

Why do the documentary presenters have to stand next to a TV like they work at Circuit City?

The March of the Penguins team brought stuffed penguins with them. That is ingenious.

During ‘In The Deep,’ the song from Crash, dancers are acting out the movie. Including a police officer unlawfully groping a woman. I thought the restraining order said that Debbie Allen had to stay 500 yards away from the Oscar show.

Now a salute to issue movies? Who signed off on this?

Mickey Rooney is under contractual obligation to provide one sage nod during each Oscar telecast.

How long has Grease been considered an epic?

The sound mixing winners from King Kong coordinated turns at the mic like the Four Tops. Well done, lads.

The Altman intro by Lily Tomlin and Meryl Streep is pitch-perfect.

The Hustle & Flow song’s chorus now says, “Got a whole lot of witches jumpin’ ship.” I can live with that.

I assume those are union guys removing the lamppost after their number is done. Does the local provide their tuxedos?

Did the Three 6 Mafia just give a shoutout to Gil Cates? I love show business. And America.

Seeing Ziyi Zhang reminds me that my favorite movie of last year was 2046, and it wasn’t nominated for a damn thing. Rent it now.

Philip Seymour Hoffman did not bark. Color me disappointed.

Crash’s surprise win means that, unless I’m mistaken, Paul Haggis is the first person in Academy history to write two consecutive Best Picture winners. More importantly, it means that my prediction of at least one major upset panned out. Because in the end, tonight is all about me.

Friday, March 03, 2006

Miscellaneous: And The Winner Izzzz ....

I don’t mean to go all Jimmy Carter here, but it seems like malaise has overcome the Academy Awards. As producer Lynda Obst says, it’s a strange year: “The East Coasters love it because it’s so arty, and the Left Coasters hate it because it’s so arty.” Conservatives point to the nominees as proof of Hollywood’s lefty agenda, while liberals are either defensive or excessively proud of themselves.

These are the Oscars That Frivolity Forgot. The Academy Awards are supposed to be meaningless folly, a chance to laugh at the movie business’s penchant for self-love. They’re subjective opinion passed off as objective truth, accompanied by spangly dresses. They’re ice dancing with less falling.

But not this year. This year, they apparently mean something.

The torpor has even affected me. I’m not in an Oscar pool, and I can’t bring myself to write a category-by-category “who will win” post. I just can’t muster the enthusiasm.

I know who I’d like to win. Munich, Terrence Howard, William Hurt, Amy Adams, Noah Baumbach’s script for The Squid and The Whale. I predict disappointment.

While I’m at it, a few other random predictions and observations:

Jon Stewart will dazzle as host. Every interview indicates that he knows exactly what’s required of him: to be unobtrusively funny and to keep the show moving. He seems to be harking back to the Johnny Carson model, which is fine by me.

There will be at least one major upset, in part because the conventional wisdom (Brokeback, Ang Lee, Hoffman, Witherspoon, Clooney, Weisz) calcified early. If everyone knows who’s going to win, nobody will vote that way.

Actress/singer Kathleen ‘Bird’ York, nominated for her Crash song ‘In The Deep,’ costarred opposite Michael Madsen in the TV series Vengeance Unlimited. I point this out to complain that the show is still not available on DVD.

In 1994, screenwriter William Goldman proposed the category of Movie Snubbed By Oscar That Would Come To Be Regarded As A Minor Classic. His on-the-money choice then: Groundhog Day. My pick now: The 40-Year-Old Virgin.

The high point of the ceremony will be the speech by Lifetime Achievement honoree Robert Altman. A maverick like him won’t pass up the opportunity to say something memorable.

The high point of the coverage will be watching A-list actresses shy away from E! commentator/loose cannon Isaac Mizrahi, particularly after Scarlett Johansson slammed him for being handsy at the Golden Globes.

For that reason alone, I intend to break with tradition and watch some of the pre-show this year. I’ve already made my run to the liquor store for supplies. Cocktails at Chez K will be poured early and often.

Miscellaneous: Link

John Rogers gives the lie to the myth of the heartland audience. Go, Kung Fu Monkey, go!

Thursday, March 02, 2006

Movie: Night Watch (2004, U.S. 2006)

Installment one of this Russian trilogy packs in every conceivable fantasy/horror element. A battle between the forces of good and evil that has raged for millennia, check. Vampires, check. Owl women, double check.

Director Timur Bekmambetov is clearly in love with this mythos (based on a series of novels), and tells the story with potent images that slash through the complexity. It’s mainly a set-up for the other two movies, but what a set-up. It helps immeasurably that the film was shot on the grimy streets of Moscow instead of some artfully soiled back lot. For once, souls actually seem in jeopardy.

The movie’s best feature is its use of subtitles. They’re not just words on the screen but a part of the atmosphere. Swirling away like blood in water, changing color or size, being blown off the screen when supernatural badasses throw down.

Not every foreign film could benefit from this treatment, but something’s got to be done. At one point in Caché, the actors sit down on either side of a white table and the captions disappear almost completely. They could have been swapping croque monsieur recipes for all I knew.

TV: American Idol

Now that the audition phase and Hollywood Week are over, I treat the show as if it were a basketball game. By watching only the last ten minutes, I don’t have to suffer through any performance in its entirety or hear Randy Jackson repeat “Dawg Pound, we got a hot one tonight!” in the hopes of turning it into a catch phrase. Why is AI lifting this Dawg Pound shtick from Arsenio Hall’s old talk show? Magic like that can’t be recaptured.

Thanks to Matt Zoller Seitz, here’s the first of Dave White’s columns on the show for The Advocate. Legendary TV writer Ken Levine is also a fan. His explanation for why no 15-year-old can sing Sinatra should be handed out to every would-be crooner who auditions next year.

Miscellaneous: Links

The New York Times’ David Carr slays the demons of Oscar coverage. And writer John August on being a professional in a world of amateurs.