Saturday, June 30, 2007

The Fine Young Cannibal

Somewhere in the throne room of the Beautiful Loser Hall of fame there sits a double-sided bust of one Chet Baker, with whatever trumpet he had in his possession at the time of his death in 1988 lying nearby. The bust is finely etched, one side the profile of a farm fed Okie kid with alabaster features and the look of a dreamy angel, aglow with a future sparkling with promises, the other side craggy, dissolute and ravaged--a dope fiend’s visage, collapsed and pummeled by time. Bruce Weber’s Baker documentary Let’s Get Lost was initially released in 1988 to a heady mix of consternation and disinterest. Photographed in luminescent black and white, the movie goes for the obvious in one way-juxtaposing the simple visual contrast of the early china doll-meets-boxer Baker look with the then ancient 57-year-old wastrel, yet it pulls the rug out by refusing to do the straight docu route, being short on performance footage and factual narration, spending an inordinate amount time following the nearly comatose Baker around Santa Monica in the company of unconnected hepcats like Flea, Lisa Marie, and Chris Issak. Newly reissued, the movie is something of a minor revelation. It now seems apparent that Weber’s intention all along, in lieu of piecing together a flesh and blood tale (a virtually impossible task with the vampiric, contradictory, ever drifting Baker), Let’s Get Lost (click on link)is an extended riff, a blast of cinematic impressionism, a deconstructed look at the dirty dreams of showbiz. As one of Baker’s jazz cats later commented in author James Gavin’s excellent Deep In a Dream: The Long Night of Chet Baker, the movie is perfect because Chet’s lying about everybody and everybody’s lying about Chet, epitomizing his work and life in a movie-nutshell. If you can catch this in a theater during its limited re-release, do it up.

Friday, June 29, 2007

Turning Japanese

Clint Eastwood’s Letters from Iwo Jima (Warners, $34.98), the companion piece to his well-made, thoughtful, but not wholly successful Flags of Our Fathers, is easily the best picture of the duo, a quietly stirring and unobtrusively evocative filmic retelling of the Japanese side of 1945 Iwo Jima battle. It obviously wasn’t box office boffo, although the simple accomplishment of making a sub-titled, Japanese soldier point-of-view without one central white-faced figure would have been nearly impossible in the Hollywood of the past, even during Eastwood top-of-the-world-ma- heyday in the late 60’s--early 70’s. Clint the filmmaker brings his usual plethora of John Ford-meets-Don Siegel-meets-Sergio Leone cinematic mechanics to the fore, and the film (magnificently shot by cinematographer Tom Stern) is all grays, flying dirt, and misty vistas seen through a grunts-eye-view with only the slightest of omniscient shots to set the tale in motion. The violence is of the non-operatic variety, quick, lethal, and casually brutal, and the movie’s mission to lay out the opposing philosophies of the ground soldiers of two sides amidst their shared fear of imminent death is done without trotting out the message board. Letters from Iwo Jima is a first-rate examination of war and warfare and one of Eastwood the Auteur’s finest technical and thematic efforts.

Wednesday, June 27, 2007

Notes From the Noir Underground

Despite the fact that most of my readers (like me) are old, older, and way past prime time, it might make most of yer shrinking, soured, and barely beating curmudgeon hearts thump a little bit stronger if you knew that there are indeed young and fervent fellow pop culture vultures out there. After being blown away by a home screening of Howard Hawk’s prototypical Chandler/Bogie 1946 noir, The Big Sleep, a young, married vulture couple had the smarts to ask me to direct them further into the noir world, by (yee-hah) making a list for their enthusiastic perusal. They asked, I complied:

Glad to see you are pursuing your cinema studies with such verve and attention to detail, kiddies. The noir world is far too large, unwieldy and indefinable for me to go quickly there without going to great lengths, so I stuck strictly (purty much) to private eye stuff, ala The Big Sleep, with a few offerings thrown in that are close enough to sneak by. By the way, this was indeed a labor of love; cuz there is nothing I like more than a good list. (And a good trailer!)

Professor Scotty D

The Maltese Falcon (1941)-The definitive hard-boiled with Bogie as a Sam Spade that’ll never be beat, written and directed by John Huston from a Dashiell Hammet classic, and peopled with a first class supporting cast.

The Glass Key (1942)- Another solid Hammet adaptation, not exactly a private dick tale, with Alan Ladd as our tough guy hero and Veronica Lake as the romantic interest, William Bendix as a weirdly homoerotic baddie, exquisite running time of 86 minutes, and a catchphrase for the ages: “Gimme the roscoe.”

This Gun For Hire (1942)-Ladd and Lake again, perfect running time of 80 minutes, adapted from a Graham Greene book, the political crap has aged badly, but Ladd’s angelic looking toughie makes a hell of an impression from the infamous opening sequence throughout.

Murder My Sweet (1944)- Dick Powell is Philip Marlowe in this adaptation of Raymond Chandler’s Farewell My Lovely in this wonderfully stylized and acutely cynical Edward Dmytryk version, with Powell as Marlowe doing the voice over narrator thang about as good as it gets.

Laura (1944)-Otto Preminger’s beautifully sensual tone poem, a gliding, probing dream of a film, with a very off kilter central performance from Dana Andrews as a hard guy obsessed with a dead gal, the emblematic presence of Gene Tierney, the infamous title song by Johnny Mercer and David Raskin, one of the greatest character names evuh in Waldo Lydecker, and a pallid “happy ending” that in no way removes the heavy shadows of complicity the film traffics in.

The Blue Dahlia (1946)- From an original screenplay by Raymond Chandler, a sour, dissolute black tale of post war noir blues, filled with blackmail, amnesia, and corruption, featuring Ladd and Lake again, with another great bit from William Bendix.

Lady in the Lake (1947)- Another Chandler book brought to the screen with Robert Montgomery directing Robert Montgomery as Marlowe, and, in a totally bold experiment for it’s time, the movie is mostly photographed from Montgomery/Marlowe’s subjective point of view, while screenwriter Steve Fisher retains huge chunks of Chandler’s marvelously pithy and archetypal dialogue.

The Lady From Shanghai (1948)-A huge personal favorite of mine, I’ve watched it countless times and continually marveled at writer/director/star Orson Welles’s sheer filmmaking ingenuity and audaciousness. Adapted from a mediocre novel, Welles makes this low budget bit of noir into a true cult classic, with Welles’s then-wife Rita Hayworth as one of the most memorable cinematic femme fatales of all time. Welles truly utilizes his prodigious skills to elevate his version of noir into something quite complex and dreamlike. The Lady From Shanghai (click on link)is more baroque than most noir films, and it’s shifting juxtapositions of locale, character, and imagery, makes this a stunningly elliptical movie; an 86 minute ticking time bomb of fate.

Kiss Me Deadly (1955)- Robert Aldrich kicks this 50’s noir into overdrive in his brutally streamlined version of a Mickey Spillane Mike Hammer book, with deadpan hunk-of-beef Ralph Meeker as the ultimate Hammer, a callous and sadistic not-so-white knight. A hipster favorite for many reasons, including a picture perfect supporting cast, an outrĂ© literary subplot/clue, the private-eye-meets-cold-war search for “the great whatsit”, and Aldrich’s richly textured but ultimately simplistic narrative-driven direction. Ten thumbs up.

Alphaville (1965)-Strange, mutant mix of sci-fi and noir, one of Jean Luc Godard’s most successful attempts at self-conscious art, with tough potato Eddie Constatine a sorta secret agent/private dick of the future. An absolute visual stunner, and also a movie almost impossible to get out of one’s mind after viewing.

Marlowe (1969)-A somewhat pedestrian, but earnest, update of Raymond Chandler’s The Little Sister with a solid James Garner as a slightly anachronistic Marlowe awash in the chaos of the 60’s. Bruce Lee puts in an unforgettable cameo.

The Long Goodbye (1973)-Yet another long time fave of mine, with Elliot Gould as Phillip Marlowe, in Robert Altman’s sublime attempt to subvert the noir genre the way he did up the western in 1971’s McCabe and Mrs. Miller. Despite the fact that Gould is as deadpan and cynical as any big screen Marlowe, he is also a truly wounded and lost man, one who silently believes in a seemingly discarded chivalrous code yet keeps muttering to the non-listeners around him and to himself “It’s O.K. with me.” Like the traditional private eyes, he solves the mysteries, but winds up with no victory other than the hollow sense that’s he’s done the right thing in an uncaring void, a theme equally vividly displayed in 70’s companion pieces Chinatown and Night Moves. Altman’s casting of the one and only Sterling Hayden as drunken novelist Roger Wade is only one of his delicious supporting choices, alongside Nina van Pallandt, Henry Gibson, director Mark Rydell and baseball rebel Jim Bouton.

Night Moves (1975)-Gene Hackman is Harry Mosby, small-time private detective with a nose for the truth and doing the right thing in Arthur Penn’s sadly overlooked contemporary noir, impeccably scripted by Alan Sharp (The Hired Hand, Ulzana’s Raid), as a mediation on middle-age, post-Camelot America, and the gut wrenching irony that knowledge no longer equals power. The film finished off with one of the most superb and subtle final shots in movie history, a pronouncement I wouldn’t toss around lightly.

Chinatown (1975)- No need to oversell this potent mix of Hollywood magic and artistic vision, combining the one-of-a-kind elements of Robert Towne’s transcendent screenplay, Roman Polanski’s razor sharp direction, and two all-time turns from Jack Nicholson and Faye Dunaway. If you haven’t seen this you musta been comatose.

Farewell My Lovely (1975)- Throwback Chandler film, with aging Robert Mitchum as a sad-eyed, world-weary Marlowe. Mitchum’s smoky voice sounds resplendent doing the voice-over, the production values on display are superb, and despite Dick Richards predictable direction that movie scores some extra points as an affectionate tribute to L.A., Chandler and noir.

Harper (1966)/The Drowning Pool (1975)-Two outings with Paul Newman as Ross Macdonald’s Lew Harper don’t really qualify as noir, but both are well cast, above average private detective entries, with Newman solidly filling the shoes of a window-peeping dick, and both manage to exhibit nice auras of curdled morality and back door blues.

The Late Show (1976)-Quirky, semi-comic tribute to Hammet and Chandler, ably written and directed by Robert Benton and boasting the most unusual detective team-up of all, Art Carney as an over-the-hill gumshoe and Lily Tomlin as his reluctant new-agey partner.

Tuesday, June 26, 2007


Just look at the pile of pure low brow excrement planned for the summer television schedule--Fast Cars & Superstars (ABC), Bridezillas (WE), Who Wants To be a Superhero? (Sci-Fi), Rock of Love with Brett Michaels (VH1), America’s Got Talent (NBC) and my true blue fave Hey, Paula (Bravo), which has the reality cameras following around that multi-talented scion of charisma Paula Abdul. (And that’s just dragging one plastic gloved finger through the surface of crapola.) Well, let me pitch the following:

Burrowing Into Bob Barkers Bowels-We follow the octogenarian around from bowel movement to bowel movement, with the ever charming Bob both narrating and analyzing for our pleasure, and some bonus comic relief from Bob’s home staff, including Ch-Chi, his 22-year-old Brazilian maid, Arable, his 23-year-old Dominican gardener, and Bona, his 24-year-old Columbian personal trainer.

Going Postal-A nationwide search gathers together as many US postal workers who have recently been laid-off, fired, checked into drug or alcohol rehab, suffered work-ending injuries, or have taken leaves of absences due to on-the-job stress, and comedian Joe Rogan and retired Major General Paul Eaton (former head of Iraqi training mission) put them through their paces in order to determine the best and most qualified to go postal at their former work place.

The Wide, Wide World of Dog Crap and Cat Vomit—Regular people from all over the country, from Glendale, CA to Baton Rogue, La., send in home made videos highlighting the wide variety and forms of dog waste and cat upchuck.

Cribbage Wars---Behind-the-scenes look at the rough and tumble world of competitive cribbage, peopled with unforgettable real life characters like Dotty the Baker’s Wife, Slim Jimmy Wolinski, and Matt “the Knife” Stewart.

Mowing It! —Deeply insightful, wonderfully panoramic look at the wide array of lawn care products, tools, and lawn mowers of every shape and size, hosted by the wry Richard Karn, formerly of the fondly remembered hit Home Improvement.

So You Think You Can Massage—Documentary crews hit the back alleys and out-of-the-way store fronts in crusty, busty run-down New England cities, searching for the one undocumented masseuse who can provide host Mario Lopez an empyrean happy ending, all for a $2,450.00 sweepstake price and an accompanying green card.

Monday, June 25, 2007

Middle Age Crazy

Judd Apatow, the producer-writer-director- comedy guru, may not exactly be mining spanking new comedic territory in his two directorial efforts, the mega-hit The 40-Year-Old Virgin, and his newest box office winner, Knocked Up, although he is at least putting a legitimately funny spin on the nature and nurture of the American male, sui generis. Coming home from an event the other a day, in a van full of 30 and 40-something males I listened with piqued interest to a brief off-the-cuff discussion of the new movie: “Anybody see Knocked Up?” “Is that by the same people who made The 40-Year Old Virgin?” “I think so, but it’s even funnier.” “Without that goofy bastard, Carell?” “Yeah, it’s kinda serious, and kinda touching, but it’s got a ton of sophomoric shit, and I need that.” “Sounds perfect.” Apatow skims the surface of the contempo middle class white male’s trials, tribulations and transgressions without ever digging in deep enough to provoke, although his genuinely laugh-inducing dialogue, constant side dishes of pop culture references, decently sharp comic situations, and frequent stops at the outhouse door, make his movies purty pleasurable. Perhaps one day, he’ll have the urge to take it up a notch, and go beyond his farcical tweaking into unique cinematic territory, but for now we can watch his stuff and enjoy a well-earned batch of solid (not sublime) laffs.

Friday, June 22, 2007

Notes Father's day.

From old pallie, co-founder (with me,of course) of the Ellen Barkin Worship Club, and longtime Culture Vulture-Beatnik Division, j. celenza.

My old man is now in his mid 80s having outlived the bulk of his people.

Of his fifteen brothers and sisters only three left.

His wife dead, the men he served with in the Pacific dead,

All those he worked for and with in the great post war building boom in

NYC have departed.

He saved his younger brother Tommy from being shot because of

inadvisable gambling debts.

He helped build the NY School for the Performing Arts and Lincoln Center

And worked for Donald Trump’s father (Fred)who build thousands of

garden apartments throughout the New York metro area.

It was only when I worked on some jobs with him in Brooklyn’s

Bed Sty and east NY

and on the inlet of workers paradise,

Coney Island I saw how well respected he was

And how unbelievable hard it was to work like that…

And what money meant to people who work to earn it.

ANd The cigar soaked concrete workers, the lathers who looked like brown tree

trunks with arms, sullen laborers, the electricians (prima donnas)

and the hoisting engineers, his fellow brickees,

guys with names like Jimmy Hooks and Rudi the Kraut,

Willie the mule driver, Frankie three eye

Monte three card, Mickey the Mook,

scaffold men with arms like steel girders,

and the union stewards

the little fierce paper-thin Jewish bookkeeper who floated like a kite when

there was a gust of wind,

who came to us from Treblinka…

All, they all called him uncle

He lives now in a retirement village in Florida

As one of the few men in the complex is very popular...and a big flirt

He is deaf and a little bit addled when I tell him anything.

Anything at all he invariably replies:

I went to the pool today and we went to eat at Angelo’s

and I had the tripe and I had a glass of wine

That’s a nice day.

He engaged in violence to his children and his wife.

The paradox of tracing that back to its roots is that it becomes less paradoxical

You can always find the reasons.

He was an unbelievable successful gardener: fig trees and cherry trees and

eggplant and tomatoes and herbs …

But the story I want is when

There was going to be a major anti war demo and these people in

Sunglasses came onto

the job site basically mob guys

and said we giving everybody the day off

But you got go up to Central park and beat those fucking fag snot bag

Commie Hippes we got some bags of bats and tire irons and wrenches…

You with me boys?

And are we being paid?

Yeah yeah full days pay


Once the sunglassed people left

Everybody put their tools away

Waited waited waited

And then everybody to a man

went to the nearest bar (it was an IRA-Westie bar

in Hells kitchen) spent the whole day signing Irish Polish Yiddish Italian

Spanish songs and getting sublimely shitfaced…

I am not a big believer in the greatest generation stuff

Except that almost all the generations after—the one after

and mine and the one after that: Clueless, pampered, self absorbed

Tedious whiners…

And boring…

And none would take the money from the wise guys and say fuck em and

and go to an Irish bar ….

Thursday, June 21, 2007


No comedy duo ever made me laff it up like Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis. As a youngster glued to the TV in the sixties I had plenty of chances to watch their movie output (which in actuality only consisted of 15 movies from 1949-1956), as all of it was regularly televised. The new collection, The Dean Martin & Jerry Lewis Collection, Vol. 2 (Paramount Home Entertainment, $30), is made up of their last five films together (without 1954’s 3 Ring Circus), Living It Up(’54), You’re Never Too Young (’55), Artists and Models (’55), Pardners (’56) and Hollywood or Bust (’56), all in wondrous Technicolor. As I kid I was all about the wackado Jerry, as an adult all about the deadpan Dean, but buried in the midst of godawful plotting, and a bunch of vaudeville spritzing are expanded moments of true comic chemistry, a yin and yang alchemy that can dropkick you in the gut, despite the fact Martin/Lewis bond was seriously fracturing in real life. As a kid I adored Pardners, a truly dopey comedy western and Hollywood or Bust, a broad Frank Tashlin (ex-Warner animator) directed Hollywood satire, but adulthood reveals the real treasures lie in Living It Up,(click on link) wherein the duo is undeniably operating on all cylinders, You’re Never Too Young, which allows Dean, with his infamous asides and hilarious reaction shots, to put the movie in his pocket, and Artists and Models, a bountiful bit of fifties escapism peppered with director Tashlin’s surreal bits and an almost refined burst of Martin/Lewis energy, plus it’s an astoundingly good looking film in general, with both production values and directorial acumen far above the typical Martin/Lewis fare.

Wednesday, June 20, 2007

Scamming With The Riches

FX’s The Riches,(click on link) which just wrapped up it’s first season, turned out to a quietly clever drama, with two stellar turns from leads Minnie Driver and Eddie Izzard. They play Wayne and Dahlia Malloy, two charter members of the Travellers, those Irish-American gypsy scam artists who prowl the south east skinning the regular folks with variety of bunko schemes. Through darkly comic circumstances, both husband and wife (she just recently released from a brief stint behind bars) and their three kids steal the identity of the recently deceased Riches and plunge headfirst in an American dream/nightmare of upward mobility and encroaching creature comforts. The show’s premise is quite original and awfully shrewd—the outsider Malloys, used to a life as true outsiders, used to the codes and conducts of their own tribe, used to a life of brief and very temporary financial gain and consumer pleasure, become the Riches, mixing with their waxy suburbanite neighbors in a deep south cookie cutter development, maxing out legitimate credit card while keeping face with the Joneses, and learning the very peculiar ways and means of daily capitalism as practiced by what they refer to the regular Janes and Joes they refer to as “buffers”. Both the comely Driver and the cross-dressing comedian Izzard reroute their Britishness into becoming deep-fried Dixie chickens, and their dual performances are wonderfully shaded, easily transitioning from the broken, to the bewildered, to the bold. Izzard’s Wayne sums up his sudden strange circumstances succinctly by asking if his tombstone is going to state, “Here lies a guy who came up with $19,876.74 a month.”

Tuesday, June 19, 2007

Lord of the Flies

I was once an extremely fervent Boy Scout, proudly flouting a badge-filled merit sash, achieving the rank of both Patrol Leader and Life Scout. I rubbed sticks together and slept in tents and makeshift cabins and ran through the woods hiding from the hairy fellow scout who was trying to engage me in some rather scary, ahem, wrestling. Point is, I dug the outdoors, the fresh air, swimming, climbing trees, nature at it’s finest. That was then, this is now. I don’t care if the only outdoors I ever see is that 2-minute block between my car and the next building door entrance. I despise the beach scene, with little kids kicking sand in everyone’s tuna sandwiches, Frisbees belting you in the back of the neck, a view that includes a far too wide array of body types who just simply shouldn’t have even thought about beachwear, and the trek from parking lot to towel spot, as long, sweaty, and arid as anything any recruit in the French Foreign Legion ever had to endure. I detest running, and runners, plodding down suburban streets with looks of determination that resemble George Bush trying to read a chapter of Don deLillo’s Libra, fitted up in outfits more ludicrous than the worst hip-hop attire, and most of them making faces more farcical than the great Jerry Lewis ever created in his heyday. But what I really loath, absolutely abhor, what fills me with curdled, poisonous, black hearted, astringent hatred is mowing the lawn. It’s an abominable act, a crime against humanity, a life strangling waste of time, thought, and physical motion. I vowed a long, long time ago to never mow a lawn, and I kept my sacred pledge through two marriages and many different abodes. My third wife, the good one, purchased some fancy-dancy lawn mower last year under the auspices of mowing the lawn herself, after we had hired and fired a series of misfit lawn guys who woke us up on holidays at 7:00 am, turned our healthy front yard tree into a diseased mini-behemoth, showed up three weeks after they promised to cut a lawn that now looked like a Argentinian jungle, or who kept increasing the blackmail price of the ole lawnkeep with absolutely no rhyme or reason. You can guess the final sad and sorry result-somehow last Saturday I found myself under the harsh, terrifying, suburban spotlight I’ve long dreaded (and avoided) for over 30 plus strong, manly years, pushing an infernal four wheeled noise machine across some grass, cutting logical geometric patterns in full view of a whole passel of neighborhood slo-mo car drivers, healthy bikers, dog walkers, baby pushers, ass-sniffers, RFK conspiracy buffs, Kansas City Royal followers, Sting worshippers, Rob Schneider fan club members, Rachel Ray recipe users, and Ovaltine swillers, all the while pressing myself to actually force a fake friendly nod in the direction of my next door lawn-obsessed neighbor (who spends more time bending over his immaculate lawn than a priest does in front of an altar boy), the same guy who is always out there swathed in some kind of Arabian pants that might be pajamas or maybe a moth eaten and moldy piece protected and saved from the long defunct MC Hammer clothing line, a bald-headed regular Joe who never seems to work, just washes his car, starts his motorcycle up in the driveway and revs it every fifteen minutes just so I can’t hear what non-baseball subject Jerry Remy and Don Orsillo have lapsed into, a guy I’d have to guess by looking at his extremely frightening black-wigged, waxen, Cranstonian, Italian-American, witch-like wife, that could very well be (has to be) a cross-dressing chicken fucker who gets off watching Olive Oyl showing her ankle to Popeye and Bluto while sloshing bleach around his immaculate basement work center, where, right above the sparkling, glimmering, gleaming set of barbells that haven’t been touched or moved since 1989 sits a full array of weird, hair-raising lawn tools of every size and shape, all oiled and well-used and seemingly vibrating with an inanimate anticipation of their next shot at cutting, trimming, or shearing the goddamned green, green grass of home. I hate the smell of cut grass in the morning.

Monday, June 18, 2007

Lost and Found

When Charles Burnett was a budding UCLA film student that last thing he probably thought was that the student film he was cobbling together on 16mm stock, with many unknown and amateur players, and editing in his spare time, would wind up becoming a film school staple, shown by dozens of bearded film profs to countless budding young Spielberg’s as prime examples of (a) making the film you want to make, (b) delivering on an actual cinematic vision, and (c) unintentionally creating a cult film that only students and some selected festival audiences ever got to see. His 1977 student film, Killer of Sheep, is finally, deservedly, getting at least a limited mass release, complete with a newly restored print and a resolution of the musical/soundtrack issues that have prevented the film from achieving a commercial release so far. (Only one song included on the original soundtrack has been removed-Dinah Washington’s version of “Unforgettable”, which has been replaced with her “This Bitter Earth.”) Burnett’s movie, a totally original effort set in the post-riot Watts section of L.A., eschews the blaxploitation of the time for a grounded and strangely muted humanism. The title character (played by Henry Gayle Sanders), who works in a slaughterhouse, just plods along, as does his neighborhood, and seemingly all of his environment. The film shuns plot dynamics for an incidental feel, and the screen just simmers the with the opaque stock of class structure, refusing to even hint at the politics of oppression, content with just presenting a landscape overtaken by malaise and quiet discontent. Burnett, who is still working, went on to make a few movies that were noticed (To Sleep With Anger-1990, The Glass Shield-1994), but nothing as powerful or profound as this. Killer of Sheep is a little gem, a poetic effort, a first novel-like burst of artistic energy.

Friday, June 15, 2007

I Found John Doe

From fellow Culture Vulture (and designer of our graphic) Diane M, wilting under the FLA sun.

Hey Scott!

I just saw the greatest movie on sundance channel! Tell me if you've
seen this: it's called "Sugartown", and it's about 4 aging rockers
from the 80's trying to make a comeback record in the late nineties in
LA. It was made in 99, and John Doe plays one of the guys in the
band, and is, as usual, fabulous. There's an all star cast,
including Rosanna Arquette, Michael Des Barres, Ally Sheedy and
Beverly D'Angelo, and other people I recognized but can't name offhand
due to accumulative brain damage over the years. What made it great
is that it's sort of a small quiet movie, instead of an over the top
silly one, which is what those usually are--very believable, well
written, and poking fun at the dilemma of being an aging rockstar in
decline while still being very sympathetic, and treating the
characters with more respect than one usually finds in movies on this
subject. If you haven't already seen it, find it and watch it. Two
thumbs up!

Wednesday, June 13, 2007

Double Up On Paul

Two of Paul Newman’s most indelible and contrasting performances, made some 20 years apart, get the double two-disc reissue this week, the 1961 pool hall classic The Hustler and the 1982 courtroom drama The Verdict (Fox, $19.95 apiece).(The The-get it?) It’s actually exhilarating to watch the marked differences between the young, rising star Newman, quivering with macho energy as Fast Eddie Felson, the brash, unpolished pool stud in The Hustler and then go to the veteran Newman’s burnt out, alcohol saturated, empty husk of a lawyer Frank Galvin in The Verdict. The Hustler racks up as a prototypical 60’s chunk of realism dosed with heavy sentimentality, helmed by Robert Rossen with great help from cinematographer Eugene Shuftan, who grabbed an Oscar. The young Newman featured is highly mannered, doing his best sub-Brando moves, surrounded by a rogue’s gallery of supporting types (Murray Hamilton, Vincent Gardenia, Jake LaMotta, and big boys George C. Scott and the one and only Jackie Gleason), but the movie put him smack dab on the Hollywood map. The Verdict is a wintry, grimy drama, scripted to perfection by David Mamet and directed by Sidney Lumet with his usual penchant for wringing the best out of actors. The elder Newman’s acting is punctuated more by silence and reaction than the early youthful, bottled-up method tics, and the actual acting execution of his lawyer-seeking-redemption is formidably contained and gracefully sad, a great mid-to-late career keeper.

Monday, June 11, 2007


Was your living room like mine last night as The Soprano’s closed out its scintillating eight year, six season run? A fist or two slammed in anger, a few simultaneous “wha?”’s , and perhaps a contented smile or two . No grand guignol string of casualties, no operatically staged finale, no hair raising betrayals, no big questions answered (not even a comic reveal about the Russian from the Pine Barrens episode), no melodramatic cross-cutting while a baby gets baptized, no excessive suffering, no hand-of-fate meted out, no tangible or precise answers, no (oh gawd do I hate the word) closure. Sure some of what transpired smoldered with significance, like A.J.’s discovery of Bob Dylan/auto meltdown, Phil’s blackly comic death, Paulie’s superstitions revved up by the presence of that feral cat, the lawyers blocked-up ketchup bottle, or the Godot-like talk with Uncle Junior. The show began with a fakeout (Tony meeting with the FBI guy not for a witness protection discussion but simply to fish Phil out) and may have ended with one also (Meadow’s dripping-with-import parking maneuvers). The series began with Tony Soprano bemoaning the loss of the “old days”, and everything that went with them, i.e. the perception, at least, that families (both crime and real) were once tighter, more loving, more loyal, more adherent to societal codes, a perception his own background belied. So it went, Tony and the whole nuclear family gathered around a paper container of onion rings in a quaint and seemingly pedestrian diner, a jukebox filled with oldies (heavy on the 70’s), surrounded by figures from a Rockwell painting gone a little peculiar—young lovers, boy scouts, a blue collar guy with a USA cap, hip-hoppers with droopy drawers, and that grimfaced guy in a Members Only jacket— a possible assassin or possibly just a mirror image of Tony- a dog-tired and lonely Italian-American seeking solace in fried food, maybe without family, maybe without Tony’s high and lows, just another New Jersey working stiff, riding out the mundanities of existence a stool or two away from Tony, who as creator David Chase reminded us continually over the years, was always, inevitably sentenced to the same basically bleak continuance as that guy at the counter and all of the rest of us.

Friday, June 8, 2007

Scratch It Up

Wild William “Billy” Friedkin once sat atop the Hollywood dogpile as one of the brashest and brightest, serving up audience and nitcrit favorites like The French Connection (1971), The Exorcist (1973) and To Live and Die in L.A. (1985). It’s been a precipitous downhill slide ever since, filled with mediocrity (1994’s Blue Chips), curiosity (2003’s The Hunted), and idiocy (1995’s Jade), sandwiched around a whole lotta TV work. There’s hope yet, as evidenced by Friedkin’s latest, an ambitious movie adaptation of Tracy Lett’s play, Bug. It’s an intense and strange film, assaultive and claustrophobic. Although it’s being marketed as yet another entry in the gore porn genre, it’s the exact opposite, a thoroughly psychological exploration of paranoia, centering around a down and out waitress (Ashley Judd), and that oh-so-familiar dramatic figure, the mysterious stranger (Michael Shannon, repeating his theatrical role). Most of the movie centers on these two, crawling around and exchanging monologues while pouring out paranoiac sweat in a bare hotel room, as Friedkin employs a wild array of weird shots and ambient sounds. Bug may come across as a bit forced, but one has to credit Wild Billy with infusing the film with a sharp energy and a resolute focus. Like it, dislike it; it’s one hell of an eerie effort.

Thursday, June 7, 2007

Bullet Head

With all eyes on the most prescient anti-hero to evuh hit the small screen, James Gandolfini’s indelible Tony Soprano, lest us not forget the less watched and much less talked-about, but arguably, the equally vivid and layered anti-hero created by Michael Chikis, the bullet-headed detective Vic Mackey of FX’s The Shield. Vic is a tougher-than-nails cop given to prowling the mean streets of inner-city L.A., a cop as volatile as his perps, and one who straddles many lines ranging from smarmy racist to inveterate do-gooder, from family man to serial cheater, from law abider to law breaker, from uber moral cop to one not against lining his pockets. Since 2002, for over 70 episodes, Chiklis’ Mackey has been traipsing and marauding down the same American shock corridors as Tony Soprano, albeit more ferociously and on a much tighter-strung high wire. Watching The Shield is akin to a gut punch (or shot), as creator Shawn Ryan has perfected the art of making the audience root for Vic, despise Vic, be appalled by Vic, even admire Vic, intrinsically carving out the protagonist-as-anti-hero in a nutshell. It’s a dark and dirty show, the rare television product with its compass purposefully askew, and when it eventually winds down (supposedly next season) the show, and Chiklis’ unforgettable Vic Mackey, may indeed deserve an extremely high ranking in the Overlooked TV Hall of Fame--standing alongside such under-watched gems as Homicide: Life on the Street, Buffalo Bill, Frank’s Place, Johnny Staccato, Nichols, or Shannon’s Deal.

Tuesday, June 5, 2007

Dusty Dustin

Of all of Dustin Hoffman’s storied performances, the one least known may be his fiercely modulated portrait of ex-con Max Dembo in 1978’s Straight Time (Warner, $20). Hoffman’s greasy, low-key lead is an unsavory but memorable concoction-- sympathetic, forlorn and frightening, while the supporting class is beyond cool (Harry Dean Stanton, Gary Busey, Theresa Russell, Kathy Bates and M. Emmet Walsh at his sleazeball best as scummy parole officer). The movie, long a cult fave, gains more cult cache by boasting contributions from acclaimed theatre director Ulu Grosbard doing one of his infrequent turns as a movie maker (True Confessions ’81, Georgia ’95) and screenwriter/novelist/bit actor Edward Bunker (who also penned Runaway Train ’85 and Animal Factory ’00, two other con flicks) adapting his own book. Straight Time is another of those wonderfully unsentimental 70’s American films, where the hard-boiled rubs against the mundane amidst the dreariest of settings, resulting in a unique dynamic that manages to be both spirited and understated, ardent yet low-key; the kind of 70’s American cinema that (for a little while) so successfully passed off the representational for the real with a unique cinematic frisson.

Monday, June 4, 2007

Decisions at Sundown

Showdown # 1

The Yanks-Sox weekend series was more of the same, a flame broiled three games in which Joe Torre got himself booted trying to fire up his beleagured cast, bewigged fans flooded the stands for a comical A-Rod throwdown, Mike Lowell rolled over Robinson Cano and unintentionally took out Yankee first baseman Dougie “Ballgrabber” Mientkiewicz (who was replacing the injured Jason Giambi) and continued to look like a straight-up all star and consummate pro, Bobby Abreau played right field bad enough that his counterpart, Willy Mo Pena, looked like Dewey Evans, Dusty Pedroia again played like the real thang, Scott Proctor came awful close to ringing Grizzly Youlkis’ bell in a big way, the umpteenth coming of Lazarus Clemens was postponed for at least a week, and, while still 12 & ½ games back, the Yanks grabbed two of three, also managed to score one come-from-behind run apiece against the heretofore untouchable Okajima (first blown save) and Papelbon (first loss), while the much despised A-Rod stuck the final fork in our New England asses. Yankee moral victory? Indeed. Next match up? August 28.

Showdown # 2

As last night’s next-to-last Soprano’s episode wound down, with the New Jersey clan hitting the mattresses, Godfather style, it was obvious (and strangely gratifying) that creator David Chase (co-writer of the episode) was giving in to both audience pressure (in a backwards way)) and the constrictions of the very gangster genre the series has so sublimely aerated by placing the drama squarely in Mobsville, with assignations and reprisals, the strapping on of the guns, essentially tossing the masses some fresh meat over the genre fence. (Yet another impeccable eyewink moment occurred when the boys sat down to dinner over the strains of the Raging Bull theme and playfully boxed in fake slow motion.) The guns are blazing, the blood flowing, let’s temporarily ditch the soul-searching and the road paved with moral ambiguities and cut to the heart of any good yarn—How is it gonna end, man?
1. T gets deadbanged.-- Doubtful, unless Chase manages to couch Tony’s death in the heaviest of ironic circumstances.
2. T gets jailed.-- Maybe. After a soul sucking arrest and conviction we watch Tony alone in his cell, devoid of his trappings and stripped of his kingdom, until in a quick, understated scene, he musters back his Big Machiavellian mojo and does the prison jungle king thing.
3. T gets witness protection.-- Sure the sight of Tony mowing his postage stamp lawn in sun burnt Arizona with a face drained of life and vigor would be poetically unsettling, but it’s also too direct a lift from GoodFellas.
4. T achieves nirvana.--Tony miraculously emerges from the New York-New Jersey war basically unscathed with his family intact, and voluntarily adopts the straight life, medium shot of him smiling, wildly content, flipping a hamburger over a grill in a greatly downsized backyard, area unknown. Too easy, too clean.
5. A.J. steps up.—All this focus on the dazed and confused A.J. pays off dramatically when inexplicably A.J. steps up and transforms into an avenger, morphing into the role once assumed to be that of either dead Christopher or Bobby. The finalcamera movement and shot is a slow zoom in, close-up on A.J., half determined, half lost, the second coming of Tony Soprano.

Saturday, June 2, 2007

Shark Bait

Right off the bat, Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End clocks in at 168 minutes. That just ain’t right. It’s a popcorn movie, pure and simple, not Bertolucci’s 1900 or some Fassbinder production. Crafted with meticulous production values, goosed along by crafty special effects, filled to the brim with Brit actors spitting out scenery (and Keith Richards too) it’s still a muddled spangle of costume jewelry, with enough whirl-a-gig plot riggings to make a drunken sailor (or pirate) straighten-out. Little Johnny Depp’s still hilarious Captain Jack Sparrow only seems to make occasional appearances like an amusement park ride highlight. Pirates 2 suffered from much of the same problems (and it was far too long at 150 minutes, Pirates 1 was 143 minutes), but Pirates 3 seems bloated and mechanical, however well-oiled. By the time this glossy bit of Hollywood tomfoolery wound itself down I felt like I sailed at least a few of the seven seas—dazed, glazed, and not so amazed.