Friday, September 28, 2007

South Korean Monster Mash

Check it—The Host (Magnolia, $27.00, 119 minutes), an astute an ingenious (and absolutely hilarious) monster movie from South Korean director Joon-ha Bong. A young girl (the films’ most together character, an 11-year-old) is whiffed away from the shores of Seoul’s Han River by a primordial lizard/fish/mutant, which prompts the missing girl’s highly dysfunctional family (prole granddad, slacker father, arrogant college boy uncle, psychologically-off Olympic athlete auntie) into a slapdash search and destroy party. Add to the mix bad scientists, clueless doctors, scheming South Korean officials, officious American military figures, youthful protesters, and a whole passel of everyday South Korean peeps serving as monster bait and you’ve got a whale of a good time. The movie, hugely popular at home, and an art house hit here, is a kitchen sink juxtaposition of family comedy, digital monster movie, paranoid big-brother-is-screwing-up fable, and a pulpy action banger. The movie flows artfully from somberness to farcical (think Larry Cohen or George Romero meet David Cronenberg), and it fares equally well as a social satire, slapstick comedy, and monster mash. Highly entertaining.

Wednesday, September 26, 2007

Get Back

Great intentions (far too) often come with excess baggage, and Julie Taymor’s Across the Universe, an oh-so-serious interpolation of Beatles tunes and cinematic pomposity, is almost god awful and excessive enough to come back a decade or two from now as a camp classic. (Zanadu, anyone?) Bathed in sincerity and enveloped with arty conceptualizing, this shortcut to the sixties uses a wide (and unrelated) variety of Beatle numbers to tell a laugh inducing throwback fable that, while never as cheesy, tinny, or as obviously idiotic as the 1979 Robert Stigwood wetdream/fiasco Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, is an equal mishap, crammed full of wooly-bully visual theatre-into-film vignettes that are just gag-inducing. Of all rock artists, the Beatles elevated the pop art of a song-as-story, and no by-rote highbrow visualization is gonna equal that achievement.

Monday, September 24, 2007


Contempo television, with all of its cable niches and non-network possibilities has become more of a big (re: movie) name acting repository than ever, particularly for actresses. Many of those who’ve worked fairly steadily on the big screen (Sally Field, Ann Heche, Lili Taylor, Gina Gershon), most particularly Kyra Sedgwick, whose The Closer is a huge cable ratings hit, have found solid homes on the small screen, and every other Tom, Dick and Turner Broadcast network went looking for the same. Holly Hunter is detective Grace Hanadarko on TNT’s Saving Grace (Mondays, 10:00 PM), an unrepentant middle-aged crazy who devotes equal time and energy to both solving crimes and to boozing, smoking, and sexing it up. Into Grace’s chaotic life comes Earl (Leon Rippy) an angel with actual wings and a thing for dipping tobacco, who claims he’s there to provide Grace with an opportunity to gain some faith and avoid a road trip to Hell. Hunter, she of the chipmunk voice, the pre-teen body, and the disposition of a rabbit bunny rabbit makes the most of this showy role, pushing Grace around from fetching to annoying to downright dislikable, but much of the show’s religiosity on display is an unpalatable mix of whimsy and heavy-handedness. The show is sharp and crackling enough to stick with, with Hunter’s central performance well worth watching, but hopefully the writers will learn to better intermingle it’s heavenly aspirations with it’s earthbound pleasures.

Glenn Close has entered the TV diva fray, as a regal and lethal omnipotent lawyer named Patty Hewes, in the FX potboiler Damages(Tuesdays, 10:00 PM). The basic plot, Patty vs. a big bad CEO (Ted Danson, wonderfully reptilian), with young and naive start-up lawyer Ellen Parsons (Rose Byrne) caught up in their web of intimidation, manipulation, pet killing, and, yep, good old fashioned murder, is a twisty soap opera. The show comes across sleek and well oiled, a small screen Grisham-like thriller, but its insertion of a knife turning plot device every twenty minutes or so, along with the employment of a huge spate of chameleon-like secondary actors is more over calculated than mood inducing. Close, angular, cold and self-satisfied is obviously enjoying the chance to extend a role through an episodic structure (she was a top notch guest star in The Shield season of two years ago), and her lawyer/goddess almost makes the pour-it-on plot conventions worth hanging in there for, although the smug sheen thrown off by all of the paranoia thickening ingredients has been decidedly off-putting as the season has worn on. If Damages manages to hunker down to even a slightly satisfying conclusion, I'll hop on again next time around, figuring the creators may get around to substituting credible suspense for high-falutin' shenanigans,and for the chance to watch Gal Glenn do her TV thang again.

Friday, September 21, 2007

God's Lonely Man

Well before Harrison Ford was jumping into waterfalls and trying to stay one step ahead of Tommy Lee Jones terrifying lockjaw there was The Fugitive as televison series. What a strangely downbeat and moody bit of television this inexplicably popular series was. It ran for 120 episodes from 1963-67, was created by Roy Huggins (The Rockford Files), starred Richard Janssen as Dr. Richard Kimble, the falsely accused title figure, and the last episode remains one of the highest rated in TV history. The newly released first season (Paramount, 4 discs, $38.99) depicts a monumentally grim world, with the truly laconic Janssen sleepwalking from one location to the next, all the while pursued by his equally tortured nemesis, the visually drained and dogged Barry Morse’s Lieutenant Phillip Gerard. The show allows for no reoccurring characters outside of the intertwined duo (a twosome that were decidedly weird for primetime—-both twitchingly neurotic, hollow and haunted), as Kimble stays on the road and on the run, backing himself into the deep shadows of America’s backwaters, stumbling into the briefest friendships and quickly doomed romances. Janssen’s performance is almost perverse, considering the tenure of the times, the weight of the world on his sagging shoulders, eyes blinkered with inner pain, and a gravelly monotone that oft times barely rose above a mumbled whisper. What kept people watching back in those pre-Vietnam days of eternal optimism? The odds are loaded every which way against Janssen’s Kimble—if he finds his elusive one-armed man and proves his innocence the series is over. Did the 1963 audience tune in because of some internal desire for capitulation? Did they harbor secret wishes to watch a dream deferred, as when three-quarters of the way through each and every episode Janssen’s hardcore sad sack would watch his brief idyll poisoned and his temporary hopes deflated, heading off to the lonely, decidedly non-Kerouac-ian highway, an ex-bigtimey Doctor (one of the epitomes of the American dream during that era) shrinking and tucking himself into another obscure dark corner, a TV protagonist half broken by the continual twists of fate?

Wednesday, September 19, 2007

Bloody Yet Bloodless

The redolent tabloid saga of Raymond Fernandez and Martha Beck, a pair of 40’s grifters who first bilked then killed well-to-widows has already inspired two film retellings, 1970’s The Honeymoon Killers (a cult fave) and the 1996 mexican remake Deep Crimson, making Lonely Hearts (a box office failure just resurfacing on DVD, Sony, $24.96,108 minutes) the not so-lucky third time around. A stale period piece with Jared Leto and the sumptuous Salma Hayek as the con/killer duo and John Travolta and James Gandolfini( potentially intriguing pairing that goes nowhere) as two lumpen Long Island coppers on their trail, the film never jumpstarts itself, although the 40’s production design is quite effective, the film stages it’s inherent luridness (emphasized in the other films) with a drab mood and tone, and it’s somewhat stellar cast seems unable to breathe life into the bloody but bloodless proceedings.

Tuesday, September 18, 2007

Halloween All Over Again

John Carpenter’s original 1978 Halloween was essentially a horror film in Hitchockian clothing, a lip-biting, fist-clenching amusement park ride that was devoid of blood, guts, and back story, a small-scale spine-tingler that hit it big at the box office through mood, pacing, and directorial acumen. Rob Zombie, erstwhile rocker-turned-filmmaker, has been handed the reins for a remake (the ninth Halloween movie overall, and titled, uh-huh, Halloween)), ostensibly to fill in pop cult boogieman Mike Myers’ fictional history, and to bring on the blood and guts. Zombie’s prior two features (House of 1000 Corpses and The Devil’s Rejects) were both eye-winking gore fests, amusing enough as stylish pulp, with Zombie’s own brand of weirdness infecting the proceedings in a decidedly unnerving way. The first half of this remake is similarly infused, making the boy-into-psycho part of the tale quite effective, but the second half merely recycles the bumps and runs so familiar to the genre, and runs a potential intriguing Zombie-take right into the usual shallow ground.

Friday, September 14, 2007


All across the football landscape they are piling on--The Patriots are cheaters, turns out Belichick was more fraud than genius, both Brady and Kraft are undeniably tainted too, no wonder they won multiple Super Bowls. I hate to be a homer or an apologist, but, while the videotaping of signs was certainly wrong, and punishable, the hue and cry in the sports pages, on the internet, and heard on sports radio (one can only imagine the time that will be devoted to Videogate on the Sunday pre and post game TV shows), sounds more like the high pitch of a bunch of whiners and also-rans that the high-minded protest of the moral football majority. Stealing signs, in both baseball and football, has long been part of each sports’ gamesmanship, thus the age-old camera shots of the pitcher covering his mouth with the glove as he talks to his catcher and or sideline coach hiding his lips with a curled up game plan as he makes the decision for the next big surprise handoff up the middle. Sure Belechick’s Nixonian side is equally hilarious, scary, and pitiful, but you’ll never convince me that the Pat’s recent run of continued success stems from the ability to swipe a few play calls.

Wednesday, September 12, 2007

Action Without Steroids

Reprinted from the September issue of Providence Monthly

by Scott Duhamel

Even the casual filmgoer knows the basic, tried-and-true elements of the cloak-and-dagger action film: A hip-scotch of international film settings, a few slow-boiling set pieces punctuated with snap, pop, and crackle bursts of up-close brutality, a plot determined by cat-and-mouse maneuvers, a hero-on-the-fly facing menace every which way but loose, and a huge cloud of paranoia and omnipotent Big Brotherness hovering over the proceedings. It’s cold war pulp, inflated hokum, and most contempo movies pump up and inflate the genre with high tech gimmickry, ‘yippie-kay-yay” dialogue, and a profusion of eye-catching detonations. The Bourne films, including the newest, The Bourne Ultimatum, are sprightly archetypes---agile, resourceful, well-made action films that pack a wallop without subtracting astuteness. As well evidenced by this third entry, the Bourne movies are acutely entertaining, action movies devoid of steroids.
Upon the release of The Bourne Identity in 2002, few expected much of a movie taken from the pages of Robert Ludlum’s potboilers with pasty-faced Matt Damon on board as the enigmatic spy-without-a-memory Jason Bourne. Brown grad and Swingers director Doug Liman’s attempt to make the genre film earthbound, utilizing Damon for his very ordinariness, and fitting the car chases and fight sequences into the context of a very recognizable and grim world, struck a chord with audiences seeking the thrills of action but not the cartoonishness. The follow-up, 2004’s The Bourne Supremacy, was taken over by Paul Greengrass (Bloody Sunday), who further filed the excess of genre away, shooting in a quasi-documentary style pumped up with skillfully rabid editing and jumpy hand-held camera stylings. It was smart and scorching, a strange combo of Hitchcock, 70’s paranoid cinema (The Parallax View, The Conversation) and a James Bond film that the late Michelangelo Antonioni might have made.
After making the harrowing but accomplished United 93, Greengrass is back behind the lens for Ultimatum, as is a Damon who seems more physically right for this role than ever. He’s aged nicely, filling out and losing much of his boyish air, and the undercurrent of inner anguish the role requires comes to the forefront. The character is all thought and action-he’s gotta be one of the smartest indestructible guys on the planet—yet Damon saves him from becoming pure cipher or cartoon figure, and he does it without much verbalizing. (Bourne talks so little that you better go see another Damon movie if ya wanna catch a glimpse of his pearly whites.)
As in the other films, Ultimatum, comes equipped with a full roster of strong supporting types (David Strathairn, Albert Finney, Joan Allen, Paddy Considine) and Julia Stiles reprises her role as a conflicted operative. The acting, like the movies, is lean and unadulterated, mere background to a film that is more concerned with dimensions and spatial relationships. Greengrass shoots his action, from confined apartments to conjoined rooftops to crowded subway stations, with one foot in reality and the other in cinematic technique, presenting the chaos of violence as a way station between stillness and thought. Greengrass’ direction attaches a solid air of plausibility to the mechanics of espionage, and Damon’s forlorn (but well-armed) seeker of truth and self-justice brings extra layers to the usual running, leaping, martial-arts wielding, and speed-racing lone avenger that takes center stage in this genre, and their collaboration produces some exquisite results. The Bourne Ultimatum is a movie buff’s wet dream---clever and subtle yet frenetic and visceral, filled to the brim with a cinematic bravura that seems earned and unalloyed.

Monday, September 10, 2007

Pop Treasures

The Raspberries were pure power pop pleasure, with four albums released from 1972-1974 combing the energy and fervor of the Who with the harmonies of The Beach Boys. Hated by a lot of record buying hipsters for their throwback sound, Beatle haircuts, and matching suits, they were true rock nitcrit faves, anticipating the around-the-corner garage revival and punk movement by writing and performing simple and direct pop nuggets, that, while devoid of angst, rebellion, political content or bitterness that would infuse much of what was to come, were only driven by the old-timey twin concerns of teenage lust and romantic daydreams. The boys (from Cleveland, of all places), made their mark by releasing a few supremely catchy and undeniably rocking singles, a great break-up album and title song (Overnight Sensation), a batch of dynamic performances, all done without the over production and general pomposity that was afflicting much of the music during that time. Then-poof -they were gone, until lead singer/chief songwriter Eric Carmen emerged as a much-reviled pop idol (“All By Myself”) and eventually trotted down the familiar road to obscurity. Unbeknownst to me at least, the band, reformed briefly and played together in 2005, as evidenced by a new release on Rykodisc , Live On Sunset Strip, recorded at The House of Blues. The original band-Carmen, bassist Dave Smalley, guitarist Wally Bryson, and drummer Jim Bonfanti, augmented with a few other players, deliver crunchy, snappy versions of “I Wanna Be With You”, “Tonight”, “Let’s Pretend”, "I don't Know What I Want", "Ectasy", and “Go All the Way”, among others, and they sound deliciously undated and sharp, pure pop for now people. Sadly the packaging of the disc, outside of a rave paragraph contributed by unlikely fan Bruce Springsteen, leaves much to be desired, with no notes, no description of the event, nothing outside of the basic info and printed lyrics. The disc itself, savory and rocking, leaves nothing to be desired.

Friday, September 7, 2007

Shaggy Dog Sci-Fi Remake

Truth is always stranger than fiction in Hollywood. Consider this, big gun producer Joel Silver hires young screenwriter David Kajganich (One of Variety’s Hottest Ten Screenwriters in 2006) and German wunderkind Oliver Hirschbiegel (director of the 2004 Hitler’s-last-days Downfall) to whip up a contempo strange brew for the fourth movie go round of Jack Finney’s sci-fi novel Invasion of the Body Snatchers, they complete the task, and Big Joel brings in the Waschowski brothers (The Matrix) and their guy James McTeigue (V for Vendetta) to write and direct some additional scenes to punch up the movie, and to top things off, decides, in genius fashion, to rename it Invasion. The results are god awful, a shaggy dog of a film that’s part political diatribe, part tense-and-nervous sci-fi, and part action-jackson. One of the films conceits that actually works rip-roaringly well is that ice princess Nicole Kidman begins the movie as a near-zombie, coldy-moldy, simply going through her daily motions, and as the alien spores turn everyone else into an unemotional drone she becomes more nerved-up and tattered around the edges, meaning even her perpetually perfect hair becomes less so. The hair thang is unarguably cool, but not enough to coax an audience to see this failed clash of perspectives and intent.

Tuesday, September 4, 2007

Nice Design, Empty Results

Little Steven Soderbergh is determined to experiment his way through the Hollywood gloss of his big budgets efforts like the Ocean’s 11 franchise, and for that we tip our hat to him. Last year brought The Good German (Warners, $27.98, 105 minutes) an admirable attempt to make 40’s styled studio film, utilizing a setting, a plot, and many of the visual and camera techniques of the past. The end result is a sumptuous black and white endeavor, chock full of clever camera movements, atmospheric lighting, evocative misc-en-scene, and wonderful set pieces, with George Clooney attempting go all Bogart and Cate Blanchett settling into the spiked heels of Marlene Dietrich. As well executed (and well-intentioned) as Soderbergh’s full-length homage is, it never comes close to approximating its models (Casablanca, The Third Man) in the categories of intrigue, plot layering, wartime atmospherics, or pure inexplicable movie magic---The Good German’s plodding plot, lifeless characterizations and the glaring lack of romantic chemistry between the leads absolutely drain the movie of any life, despite the heartfelt mechanics Soderbergh successfully brings to the making of it.