Friday, November 30, 2007

Transcendent Contempo Classic

Writing about the latest DVD releases provides your everyday popcult nitcrit with a proven path to pure cinematic nirvana, as it seems nearly every other week brings about a re-release, a reissue, or a director’s cut of a bonafide movie classic. 1974’s Chinatown (Paramount, 130 minutes,$14.99), a fine intertwining or art and commercialism (box office boffo, multiple Oscar nominations, and a transcendent exercise in genre), also managed to exquisitely combine the varied (but exemplary) talents of a superior screenwriter (Robert Towne), an actor who was climbing new heights (Jack Nicholson), an actress at the top of her game (Faye Dunaway, a heavy that was so much more than that (John Huston), a near perfect soundtrack (Jerry Goldsmith), absolutetly impeccable cinematography (John Alonzo), and a director who was channeling his sharp European sensibilities into the Hollywood dream machine to great effect (Roman Polanski). Chinatown may or may not be the last great noir picture, but its poetic depiction of a sun-drenched California just as corrosive and confined as any neon lit and dark shadowed mean street, it’s peppery nods and winks to the grand tradition of Hammet and Chandler, and it’s truly empyrean existential finale mark it as one of the most haunting and vivid hard boiled movies ever. Evuuuuuhhhhhh. The one-hour of extras included is valuable primarily for the sharp observations of Towne, a lynch pin who figuratively and literally held the film and it’s principles-Nicholson, Polanski, and producer Robert Evans, together.

Wednesday, November 28, 2007

TV EYE--Zen Detective

Life (NBC ,Wednesdays, 10:00 PM) may be the most bracing and uncontaminated new television show this year, and it’s certainly among the least showy and hyped new shows. Brit Damien Lewis goes American as Charlie Crews, an L.A. police detective who did a decade plus stretch for a crime he didn’t commit, gets exonerated and handed a tidy settlement but still chooses to get reinstated back to the force much to the consternation of those around him. Detective Crews is an invigorating creation-a Zen copper going through the usual crime scene paces with a whacked-out sense of calm, all the while peppering anyone nearby with a torrent of philosophical inquiries both large and small. He has a no-nonsense partner (the absolutely lovely Sarah Shahi), an ex-cellmate/financial advisor (Adam Arkin), and a crusty female captain (Deadwood’s Robin Weigert) to aid and abet him as he solves the crime of the week and secretly probes the many conspiracy theories surround his frame-up. It’s a smooth and easy procedural, smarter and hipper than it initially appears to be, and a cop show that’s witty and highly self-contained, a true breath of fresh air. I wouldn’t have put any money down on this, but against the odds the show has been picked up for further episodes by NBC.

Tuesday, November 27, 2007

Lee Marvin Ain't Secondary to Me

Ahhh, another plea for sweet, transcendent companionship. A cry in the dark to join me in mutual cinematic exaltation as I show another film in in our Noir Series, Wednesday the 28th, 7:00PM, downstairs at Local 121.

The Big Heat (1953). A thoroughly nihilistic noir detective story well executed by German expatriate Fritz Lang, featuring the always underrated Glenn Ford a policeman who’s heart has turned black with vengeance. The world depicted here is a familiar noir universe—filled to the brim with suspicion, paranoia, and duality. The square-jawed and dogged Ford is both avenging angel and an impassive agent of destruction, infecting everything in his path in his lone-wolf pursuit of equity. Lang delves into the thin line between salvation and corruption, simultaneously toying with society’s notions of decency and innocence, which is to say, the treatment of women in this one is downright peculiar, even for a noir. Bonus points awarded for two great secondary players: Lee Marvin doing his young thug thang and Gloria Grahame as his dame with-a-heart.

Monday, November 26, 2007

Monday Morning Quaterbacking

1)Jimmy Johnson laid out the obvious on the Fox pre-game show early in the day yesterday. In order to beat the Pats, you have to get to Brady, or at least get close to him. You have to bang Moss right off the line and double team him. You have to roll the dice and take some bold shots both offensively and defensively, and change up a variety of schemes. You have to play tough and smart with special teams. And you can’t make the overt mistakes (like tossing the long ball up instead of going for short punches to eat up end-of-game time). Well, the Eagles almost stuck to the plan, and almost pulled off a road upset that woulda be heard around the sports world. Hey, this blueprint isn’t exactly a plan of unequaled genius, and in football actual execution matters as much as the ol game plan, so I think it’s safe to say that Pittsburgh looms large as the only true potential spoilers to a historic season, that match a mere two weeks away.

2)A reunion for the ever hallowed Leo’s, acknowledged by most of those-in-the-know as the quintessential Providence watering hole, took place at Jake’s this past Saturday, and, yep, a good time was had by all. It was fairly well attended by ex-employees and customers, although the participants skewered slightly towards Leo’s final years rather than the early-to-mid period. My pallies The Dino Club delivered a wonderfully recondite and ebulliently celebratory set, with Mark (“The Fountain of Youth”) Cutler digging deep into his own fine songbook while simultaneously doling out some particularly astute covers with his typical combo of passion, humor, and artistry-a mature dose of rocking for a largely over mature crowd. Leo’s was indeed the ultimate boho haunt, a place where you went to eat and wound up drinking, or you went to drink and wound up eating, also a watering hole and a scene that was bomb and strafed by the cocaine implosion of the 80’s/90’s. Leo’s ongoing collection of Rhode Island artists, rockers, politicos , scene-makers, hipster fashionistas, tofu-slurping hippies, temporary anarchists, art-for-arts-sakers, up-and-comers and down-and-outers, loud, fast, and snotty tawkers, deep-thinkers, and bar stool philosophers, and it’s scintillating mix of good food, superb service, and an intoxicating plethora of potential drinking partners will never , ever, evuuuuhhh, be matched again.

3) A magazine supplement entitled Movies Rock is included with a bunch of Conde Nast (Vanity Fair, The New Yorker, GQ, et al) publications this month. Edited by the worthy Mitch Glazier, and featuring contributions from the likes of James Wolcott and Nick Tosches, it shows some potential, despite it’s ridiculous name. Of particular interest is a ring-a-ding piece by James Kaplan on Jimmy Van Heusen (“Sinatra’s Songwritin’ Wingman”), songwriting partner to Sammy Cahn and infamous Sinatra bud and confidante, it’s one of those highly infrequent must-read magazine pieces, a mutsa got lost mix of fact, oral history, hearsay and waggish writing.

Friday, November 23, 2007

So Much Younger Than Today

Richard Lester and The Beatles followed up their delightfully effervescent and vastly entertaining A Hard Day’s Night in 1964 with Help!(1965, Capitol, 2-discs,90 minutes, $29.95), a leap into color and full-blown absurdity, a mere year later. The times they were indeed a –changing, with the Beatles (and their fans and admirers) in the process of losing their collective innocence, and Lester’s untidy romp still delights, the songs and mini-videos as fresh (and simple) as ever, although viewing them through the harsh contemporary light prompts a decidedly wistful feeling, rather than the vibe of pure enthralling exuberance the movie originally elicited. It’s a sweet and sad stop on the Pop Time Machine, and it ought to be required viewing for the grandkids of the baby boomers, and for the boomers themselves searching for some pre-Vietnam treasured memories. The extra disc details the restoration of the film, includes a making of documentary, and an interview with the still spry Lester.

Tuesday, November 20, 2007

John Garfield Kicks Ass

Our fall Film Noir series continues at Local 121, 7:00 Wednesday 11/21/07. I will be your host with the most, cranked up on coffee and tequila and and spreading the mighty word of the Church of Cinema. I expect to see you, both fervid worhshippers and non-believers, as I show and tell you where's it at-- noir style. (By the way, quite seriously, for those of you who have not had the chance to witness the one and only John Garfield high up on the big screen, he was indeed a unique and particularly riveting Hollywood actor.)

Force of Evil (1948). Before Abraham Polonsky found himself on the fatal Hollywood blacklist, he managed to write the screenplay for the social noir Body and Soul (1947) with star John Garfield and followed that up by writing and directing this Garfield vehicle in the same ilk. Garfield’s blue collar earnestness (he’s the missing link between Bogie and The Method) drives this bleak cautionary tale and indictment of capitalism as a prole-turned-overachieving-lawyer as seen through a noir lens. The location shooting throughout New York City is used to great effect as is Polonsky’s highly literate screenplay, a Cain and Abel storyline, and the overall curtain of existentialism that drapes over the proceedings.

Monday, November 19, 2007

Grown Up Thriller

George Clooney seems to be one of those rare actors that seem to have a real life divining rod, rather than an agent, when it comes to picking projects. He’s done it again, teaming with writer/director Tony Gilroy for Michael Clayton, an old school thinking man’s thriller that is actually made for grown-ups, a movie about a low level fixer caught up in the heady world of evil corporations and corpulent lawyers that doesn’t shy away from compelling character development and purposefully avoids the overt telegraphing and obviously cued twists and turns that are part and parcel of most contempo thrillers. The movie’s one iota of predictability is that it sets itself up as a fable of redemption, but writer/director Gilroy’s stubborn refusal to follow a predictable generic path, compounded by his extremely measured (but effective) pacing even calls that into doubt.Gilroy’s prior credits include two less-than-dialogue heavy Bourne films and the pulpy knee-slapper Armageddon, and one can feel him stretching his writing skills here—much of the talk is piquant, lively and engaging, despite the dollops of lawyer speak. Clooney, once again, downplaying his matinee looks, holds down the center, and the always smashing Tom Wilkinson tears it up as a man-over-the edge, while Gilroy scripts and films it with unusual aplomb, making this something wholly unexpected, namely a well-made film crafted for an audience of adults.

Friday, November 16, 2007

Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas/November 2007

Ahhhhh, Las Vegas. Just returned from an annual business trip/ four day tour and I still can’t get that horrifying (and continual) sound of the ever-clanging slot machines out of my head. That and the ongoing sight of hookers, high-rollers, bottom-feeders, sandal and short donning grown men, weirdly tanned women, hyped-up Asian youth, fat-assed security guys, all exhaling that strange combo of desperation and hope. It ain’t Sinatra’s Vegas any more, although a brief excursion through so-called “Old Vegas” provided some temporary stale but outside breathing and a chance to walk among the more middle-class dreamers and beamers in a slightly upgraded version of the Atlantic City boardwalk. Just to make sure that I was fully aware that I could never walk in Frankie’s venerated footsteps, my colleagues decided that we should (for once) go to a show, rather than just eat, drink, and gamble till the wee wee hours. My boys, good guys all, are not exactly culturally discerning, and some how the choice was made to sit through a performance of Cirque du Soliel’s Mystere. (Yeah I know, not even the Beatle’s show!) The sight of us, nine grown men in various states of inebriation and head titling sleepiness, seat by seat next to each other awaiting this hocus-pocus mix of mime, acrobatics, and artificial meaningfulness had to be, without a doubt, the gayest image I’ve ever been part of. After nodding through most of it, recoiling at half of it, and, despite my struggles, fully inhaling the acid aroma of stale showbiz cheese, I burst out onto the streets and left my union brethren behind, desperate to find my inner manliness, to go John Wayne on someone, to plunge down the Vegas strip with the Zen toughness of Burt Lancaster, the brutish male soul of Robert Mitchum, and the hard and clear oh-so-masculine eyes of Lee Marvin. I immediately bent right down on the sidewalk and sniffed the first pretty girl’s ass that I saw, elbowed aside a couple of frat boy jokers and flashed ‘em the psycho stare, broke up the hand-clenching of two starry-eyed young lovers, got on my hand and knees and scooped up every grimy call girl playing card stuck to the curbsides, asked two silicone-injected west coast divorcee types to do the funky chicken with me, tore up the stairs to one the saddest McDonalds of all time and swallowed a Big Mac and left the goo right on my lips, threw a few fries at some Frenchy looking bastards with poofed-up hair walking below, then zigzagged across the street challenging any one of the Pakistani cabbies to run me over, demanded two Cuervo Gold shots and a Budweiser at the nearest bar and loudly asked anyone in the vicinity to tell me if there was a better sports town on earth than Boston, and by the way did they know that the 6-0 Celtics were marching directly towards the NBA crown, that Bill Belichick oughta just tap dance on the grave of Vince Lombardi, and that the Red Sox just might roll through the next coupla World Series. The bartender cast a weary eye on me, pointed a finger a the torn Cirque du Soliel stub sticking out of my top pocket, and told me in a quiet but stern voice that the next round was on him, nodding sagely all the while.

Sunday, November 11, 2007


Ironically enough, what could have been one of the better (or at least more adventurous) TV shows of the year, Viva Laughlin, was among the downright worst. CBS's attempt at innovation was just that, a feeble attempt, a warmed over, watered down Americanized version of BBC’s Viva, Blackpool, a family drama juiced up with a murder mystery subplot and semi-musical set in Laughlin, Nevada. Even having Hugh Jackman serve as executive producer and reoccurring character didn’t lift this out it’s creative sandpit. The show looked forced, felt used, and rolled out meekly. Leading man Lloyd Owen had all the charisma of a used car salesman clicking his teeth together on some dusty Nevada car lot, and it was he who had to do the bulk of the show’s strange and strangled karaoke-like singing and dancing. (Can anyone tell me what at least four new shows-This one, Journeyman, Life, and Bionic Women, have Brits masquerading as Americans? What hath Hugh Laurie wrought?) The show also featured a potential camp-classic-in-waiting with Melanie Griffith pursing her worked-on lips and scrunching up her plasticized features in attempt to go full tilt sexy as a rich guy’s widow, but alas, it’s been canceled after a mere two episodes. D.O.A. and gone, baby, gone.

Perfection, Thy Name is Malick

There are well-made movies, there are good and great movies, and once in a long while there are perfect movies-1978'sDays Of Heaven (Criterion, 95 minutes, $40.00) is one. Magically shot, wonderfully acted, hypnotically paced, this turn of the century dram moves easily from hardscrabble Chicago to Texas wheat country, a road film that transforms into a love triangle, set in one-of-a-kind landscape, filmmaker Terrence Malick poetically externalizes the internal struggles of his characters with an astonishing parade of transcendent images (mostly shot by the great cinematographer Nestor Almendros, helped out by cameraman legends Haskell Wexler and John Bailey). The movie’s hypnotic flow feels more like a book reading than a film, and young Linda Manz’s free flowing voiceover narration will stick with you long after the film is done, as will the faces and demeanors of all four principles-Manz, Brooke Adams, Richard Gere and Sam Shepard, the latter two arguably never better before or after. The very fact that this left field, out-of-the-mainstream, European-styled film was made, supported and released by a Hollywood studio just proves once again that the Hollywood of the ‘70’s was (and remains) an amazingly fertile workplace, a land of Oz that will probably never be revisited. The extras include a succinct audio interview with a smart Gere, crew commentary, interviews with Bailey, Wexler and Shepard, but alas, nothing from the notoriously elusive Malick.

Friday, November 9, 2007

Mr. Jones Gets All Turned Around

In the Valley of Elah writer turned director Paul Haggis sticks with the same contemporary mode of realistic grimness with his follow-up to the award-winning Crash, in this taut exploration of the cost of war. Ostensibly a military mystery tale, the movie centers around the unlikely hook-up of female detective Charlize Theron and former Army man Tommy Lee Jones as they search for answers surrounding Jones’ AWOL son (Jonathan Tucker), one week returned from action in Iraq. Writer/director Haggis avoids the flashbacks route by utilizing the device of periodically retrieving footage from a scrambled phone camera while the film continually hones in on the faces of the secondary characters like the heartbroken mom (Susan Sarandon), the police boss man (Josh Brolin), the Army brass (Jason Patric) and the missing boys fellow dog soldiers (Wes Chatham, Victor Wolf, Mehcad Brooks, and Jake McLaughlin). Of course, the face the dominates all is that of Jones, turning in a momentous performance, etching the character of a silent, American man of action, torn up inside with conflicting concepts of patriotism, character, and duty, a man borne of a military culture of a certain time and place forced to examine what that has mutated into. The final result is decidedly uneven, but Jones’ acting turn alone demands a viewing—if Haggis was bold enough to fuse the camera to Jones throughout this one might have been a masterwork.

Wednesday, November 7, 2007

Money Talks (Sometimes)

The money side of sports gets harder and harder to deal with all the time, with continued offers tendered that push through the limits of absurdity, with players released and signed for all the (+money, -money) wrong reasons, with having to listen to every other father-in-law, cousin Dickie, and bar stool neighbor bemoaning the oh-so-inequitable state of sports salaries. What a pleasant, and unexpected surprise, then, to see the Red Sox and Curt Schilling reach a seemingly a smart conclusion in their negotiations, and wind up with a fitting compromise utilizing the sorely underused hometown discount concept. (Which, of course, bodes extremely well for the reacquisition of Mr. Professional, Mike Lowell.) Leave it to the Boston Globe’s resident smart aleck Dan Shaughnessy to sum it up: “In addition to being a 216-game winner, a latter-day Bob Gibson of October, a tireless fundraiser, a father of four, a blogger extraordinaire, an online fantasy role-playing gamer, a GOP warrior, a part-time pitching coach, a badge-carrying member of the Medfield auxiliary police department (how did Al Gore beat him out for the Nobel?), Schill is his own agent. And this means Schill acted in the best interest of himself and his family. And he knows they belong here and nowhere else, not while he is still pitching in the big leagues. …It’s your basic win-win-win situation. The Sox win. Schilling wins. And those of us who get to write and talk about it…we win, to.”

Monday, November 5, 2007

DVD Buddy

Buddy: The Rise and fall of America’s Most Notorious Mayor (Laurel Hill, $24.95, 90 minutes) Cherry Arnold’ s well-drawn and highly insightful look at the life and times of our own Vincent “Buddy” Cianci is deceptively sharp, and the welcome documentary that unfolds without any noticeable directorial agenda. It’s also a surprisingly wistful look into the captivatingly contradictory public servant, showing a plethora of characteristics that defined his double-ended Mayoral run—part dreamer, part bully, part overachiever, part con man, part used car salesman, part urban pioneer, part old school pol—and the film (which never gets truly inside Cianci) nevertheless demonstrates that Cianci’s striking combo of guile, arrogance and instinct is something the public and private man was consciously complicit to. Arnold’s choices of talking heads are all on the money, and the doc gets to the heart of much of what is specific to both Providence and Rhode Island, while drawing a singularly effecting portrait of the man who could and would be King.

Thursday, November 1, 2007

Viggo A-Go-Go

The following column is reprinted from the Novevember issue of Providence Monthly

Eyes Wide Open
by Scott Duhamel

Slowly and surely Viggo Mortensen is transforming into the kind of Hollywood acting firmament that we see far too little of in contemporary movies. His persona shifts easily from a square-jawed Midwesterner to a California biker boy to the first born of American immigrants, and he can carry a film with just his looks and his eyes, maybe a few gestures and meaningful glances. If you can excuse the time-machine hyperbole, one can effortlessly paint his cinematic antecedents—an Eastwood-gone-hippie, a less boozy Mitchum, the dark side of Kirk Douglas, you pick the smoldering macho man. Mortensen’s been at a while (he made his film debut in Witness in 1985) and has slowly ascended, most notably as the bad boy brother in The Indian Runner (’91), the lover boy in A Perfect Murder (’98), the counter culture lover boy in A Walk on the Moon (’98), the drying-out lover boy in 28 Days (’00), the middle-earth rock star Aragon in the Lord of the Rings Trilogy (‘01-‘03), old-fashioned hero in Hidalgo (‘04), and, most recently, as the everyman-with-a-past in David Cronenberg’s The History of Violence (’05). Mortensen, again teamed with the venerated Cronenberg in their new intense and veracious thriller, Eastern Promises, fully emerges as both actor and unmistakable cinematic shooting star.
Eastern Promises is set in and among the Russian émigré community in contempo London. Mortensen is Nikolia, the stone-faced, upwardly mobile driver for the elegant old world Russian mob boss and restauranter Seymon (Armen Mueller-Stahl), all manners and rectitude concealing an utter malevolence, and his dissolute, insolent, and given-to-drink son Kirill (Vincent Cassel, dripping with odiousness). When mid-wife Anna Khitrova (Namoi Watts), a Brit born but Russian descendant, finds a diary scrawled in Russian left behind by a just dead 14-year-old mother covered in track marks, it leads her right into the belly of the beast.
Eastern Promises is an unadorned genre film-a gangland thriller, and the seasoned Cronenberg cuts through the genre’s expectations with a seductive confidence. Cronenberg’s longtime predilection for the exploration of the flesh (as continually evidenced in films as disparate as Videodrome, Dead Ringers, The Fly, Crash, Naked Lunch, Spider) is put to good effect, very much in the subtle-but-shocking manner it was A History of Violence. The violence and sex on display is clinically explicit, all of it unfolding as just another element in a brutal, gray world, rife with corruption and slithering with old world inhumanity.
The film’s deus ex machina is an astonishingly punishing fight that occurs in the quietude of a Russian steam bath. The chiseled Nikolai, his face and body as angular and hardened as the tiles he walks upon, is set upon by two Chechens from the hinterlands, puffy villagers clad in leather jackets and clutching small, sharp tile knifes, in daunting sequence that is grimly outrageous, highly exploitative, and a pure adrenaline rush.Oh, and Viggo-as- Nikolia does his mano a mano thang naked, too.
Cronenberg delivers Eastern Promises with a compact and fully realized arc, although the finale (again, much like A History of Violence) is somewhat disaffecting-a muted whimper rather than a snap,crackle, pop bang. Despite the structure of straightforward, uncontrived propulsion that Cronenberg utilizes, Eastern Promises is an exercise in genre that is really about peeling away the edges, stripping away the layers until one is left naked and instinctual. The movie glides along while hinting and probing at secrets and deceptions, and Mortensen’s central figure stands firmly astride it all, mostly silent, occasionally tart, and weirdly civil. It’s a wondrous performance, made all the better but the sheer effortlessness the actor displays.