Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Philly Low Down


Low rent, scabrous, wildly uneven, brazenly overindulgent, in-yer-face, ridiculous, and more often than not, downright laugh-out-loud hilarious, it’s somehow taken me until now, four seasons in, to discover the raw gem sit-com knock-off called It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia. Unarguably for certain tastes only, this barebones half hour depicts the antics of four slackers (three guys, one girl-Kaitlin Olsen-who is a sister to one of the three) and a highly recognizable curmudgeon/geezer (Danny DeVito) who run a bar that seems to do little-to-no business smack in the heart of a vibrantly dumpy Philly. Each of the buds is wholly self-involved and without fear or care about how their antics effect each other, essentially recreating Larry David’s Seinfeld Principle, yet scraping it down to unadulterated artifice and near idiocy. The main men –Charlie Day, Glenn Howerton and creator Rob McElhenney, who all wear multiple hats as the dumb-as-a-rock principles, producers and writers—are truly mad (as in funny) men.

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Existential Popcorn


The Dark Knight (2008, Warner, $29, 157 minutes) was probably the mainstream movie hit of the year, loved by fan boys, the intelligentsia, and the great unwashed alike. I can’t get over what a strange dose of populxe it is, centering around two fierce performances by Christian Bale (as a whispery and intensely coiled agent of good who seems to be operating with his nerve endings exposed) and Heath Ledger (a screechingly grandiose turn as a baddie who’s part walking nightmare and part unrestrained psyche), all of it wrapped in the most dystopian of on screen settings, mixed together with guttural violence and eye-popping effects, a huge, smoldering, broken-off piece of bleakness, popcorn fodder sprinkled with a heavy dose of null and the void. Obviously, that’s an ideal commercial and artistic mix for the America we live in.

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

High Fidelity


In retrospect it’s more than obvious that there might not be but one big name musician more appropriate to host a talk-cum-performance show then the smashingly erudite Elvis Costello-smart guy, smart aleck, musical culture vulture, and a quick wit on top of it all. I mean Bono would probably foam at the mouth, The Boss more than likely act far too reticent, and potential talking heads like Bowie, Petty, or even Michael Stipe might not quite possess the proper dynamics that make up a host with a most. Costello’s new show, Spectacle (Sundance, Wednesdays, 9:00 PM) in which he intertwines interview and song-playing, snaps along at a breezy pace for a highly informative and entertaining hour, which has so far included one-on-ones with Elton John and Lou Reed, with upcoming shows devoted to Rufus Wainwright, Smokey Robinson and Bill Clinton, among others. It’s an inspired concept, ably delivered by the jack-of-all-trades Costello, the unusual host brimming with intelligence, talent, and a sincere predilection for listening to what others have to say. Let’s hope this has a decent run, as the Elvis-Plus possibilities are endlessly intriquing.

Thursday, December 11, 2008

When I'm Sixty-Four


There are definite perks to being an aging rock and roll fan, among them having friends in high places. Attended the Ray Davies show at Providence’s Lupo’s last night and pre-show utilized the valet parking and accepted a complimentary drink from a restaurateur friend. I also went to the show as a guest-lister out of the largesse of a promoter friend, but I declined a further invitation to watch from a rattle-your-jewelry special section because I knew it would be crammed and filled with tawkers and gabbers, and I’m just old and cranky enough to want to watch said show, not talk through it or participate in the various running commentaries and rainbow-infused reminiscences. Ray himself was in fine fettle and finer voice, and his set nicely modulated from an acoustic section (a bit heavy on the sing-a-longs and awfully tough to discern the between-song patter, but serving up solid versions of “Where Have the Good Times Gone”, “Apemen” and particularly “See My Friends”) to a band accompanied middle section that was skewered towards the Ray solo stuff (“Vietnam Cowboys”, “Working Man’s Café”, “The Tourist”) finished off with classy and often rocking interpretations of “You Really Got Me”, “Low Budget”, “Celluloid Heroes” and a truly bring-tears-to-yer-eyes transcendent “Shangri–La”. More great aspects of being an aging rock and roll fan? Among others, showtime sobriety and good ears and eyes for peripheral happenings.

Overheard at the Ray Davies Show at Lupo’s 12-10-08
All Dialogue Guaranteed Verbatim
(All bellowing in caps):

GOD SAVE THE QUEEN!

Came out to hear the Poet Laureate, Sir RayDay?

CADILLAC!

My sisters partied with these guys when they first came to America in ’77.

Should we applaud harder just for Ray’s forehead?

We are the Village People’s Preservation Society.

GLORIA!

64 years old. 64 years old.

Not one goddamn song from Muswell Hillbillies.

POWERMAN!

That bass player’s prettier than the girl singer.

TEARS OF A CLOWN!

I hope they do “All the Young Dudes”.

Sunday, December 7, 2008

Gary Gilmore's Eyes


There was once a special category reserved among panting cineastes for the once-in-a-while TV movie that was deemed worthy-and The Executioner’s Song: Director’s Cut. (1982, Paramount, $20.00, 135 minutes) a made-for-TV adaptation of Norman Mailer’s book of the same name, scripted by the author himself, once had that heady mojo attached to it. (The movie managed to even earn a European theatrical release.) Tommy Lee Jones, emanating pure rock solid intensity, delivers in a major way in one of his early roles that help establish him, as Gary Gilmore the prison rat, drifter, punk, and condemned killer that Mailer frames as one of America’s lost souls. Director (and Mailer collaborator) Lawrence Schiller renders it all sparse and stripped down, with a Utah that looms as hardscrabble as Gilmore’s blank existence, an existential void walked through by man who’s nearly there. The exquisitely quirky Rosanna Arquette is nicely matched with the imposingly haunted Jones, both of them helping paint a memorably bleak picture. Forget the TV origins, this deserves to be seen again as a vividly American mood piece, not quite in the nether regions established by the likes of Terence Malick or Robert Altman, but undeniably evocative.

Friday, December 5, 2008

Bloodless and Hot-Blooded


Stephanie Meyer’s popular books are oh-so-obvious explorations of teenage emotional and sexual awakenings and entanglements masquerading as modern day vampire/goth tales. Twilight, the first movie adapted from her works, is helmed by a near perfect interpreter, Catherine Hardwicke, the high priestess of hardcore emo teenarama flicks (Thirteen, Lords of Dogtown, The Nativity Story), and she directs this purple (and red) passion play with an over-the-top panache, camera constantly boring into her pretty subjects’ liquid eyes, chiseled features and porcelain skin with a heightened yet understated urgency. Sadly, the blank cast and the warmed-over plot drag down Hardwicke’s attempts at fashioning a swirling, volcanic mood piece. Worse, at times the movie approaches kitsch and becomes outright laughable. Don’t worry, bad reviews or any simple gauging of artistic merit won’t stop the teen swarm from crowding the theaters, this one is a surefire box office success despite the fact that there ain’t really no blood on the tracks.
True Blood ,Alan Ball’s HBO follow-up to his much praised Six Feet Under never attempted to stretch either boundaries or genre restrictions as HBO entrees are supposed to. Instead it put together a smashing cast, and a sassy mix of drollery, fantasy, and pure soap operatics and it wound up as a wildly appealing potboiler, dishing out both its reveals and its less-than-subtle vamps-as-outsiders parables with a spunky vibrancy. Anna Paquin’s Sookie Stackhouse is an inspired creation, just short of cartoonishness, with her over baked Southern accent and eye-twinkling combo of innocence and sexiness. Stephen Moyer is the appropriately smoldering main vampire and Sookie love interest (whose Civil war courtliness is yet another bit of underplayed humor), while Ryan Kwanten as Sookie’s bro nearly steals every episode as the wide-eyed himbo usually running around in his underwear, neatly balanced by Nelsen Ellis as the wry and worldly short order cook, Rutina Wesley as the constantly up-in-arms gal pal, Sam Trammel as the guy-with-the-secret club owner, and Alexander Skarsgard, as the wholly Nordic kingpin vamp, and old reliable William Sanderson as the seen-it-all Sheriff. He show’s setting, tiny Bon Temps, Louisiana, is an ideal backdrop for this likably twisted mainstream fantasy soap, a perfect meeting place for artificial blood drinking vampires, snub-nosed little southern smarty’s, mealy-mouthed Cajuns, beer-sopping good ol’ boys, shape-shifters, fake voodoo priestesses, and a big batch of gotta-have-‘em small town hypocrites, all of them bubbling around this neat dramedy of misfits.

Sunday, November 30, 2008

Where's the Beef?


The following column is reprinted from the December edition of Providence Monthly

EYES WIDE OPEN
By Scott Duhamel

It’s Los Angeles in 1928 and single mother and telephone-company supervisor Christine Collins (Angeline Jolie) returns home after work to find and makes the most horrible discovery of all—her nine-year-old son, Walter is missing. After months of a misspent and slothful investigation, the Los Angeles Police, led by a corpulent and corrupt chief (Colm Feore) and under heavy pressure from a crusading radio show clergyman (John Malkovich), announce that her son has been found in far off Illinois and, under the glare of photo’s popping and pressman circling, triumphantly deliver the boy. One problem though, the boy stepping off the train is not, despite a physical resemblance, the stunned woman’s son. The cops urge her to “try him out”, but as her protests mount, point man Captain J.J. Jones (Jeffrey Donovan) responds by incarcerating her in the psycho ward, with the threat of shock therapy hanging over her next move.
Writer J. Michael Straczynski’s and director Clint Eastwood’s Changeling proto-feminist story is based on public records, and it’s set in a time period and city familiar to those who know L.A. movie crime stories like Chinatown or L.A. Confidential, a setting devoid of honest men, a city and a police force brimming with moral decay. Jolie plays the one truly virtuous character, and Eastwood trails her like a golden-haloed heroine of some long ago silent film parable. Jolie in period costume is a truly iconic sight, and she delivers a delicate, even comely performance. The problem is the 78-year-old director’s classicist tendencies--the movie unfolds with a stately, methodical tone and proceeds with his assured feel for cinematic storytelling-- but ultimately it never bears down and scratches the surfaces beneath the readily apparent emotional and moral concerns.
Unlike, say, the histrionics of Mystic River or the intimacies of Million Dollar Baby or even the keen sense of reverse nationalism on display of Letters From Iwo Jima, with this latest effort Eastwood seems to stay far too content with polished (but surface) performances, the handsome production design of James J. Murakami, the bone-dry visuals of cinematographer Tom Stern, and his own directorial aversion to spectacle. As well-made as Changeling is, it suffers from an over reliance on a just-the-facts-m'aam recreation of the past and a slowly culminating feel of self-righteousness, somehow the filmmaker never gets around to truly stirring up the juices.
The movie also dithers in multiple directions, part mystery tale, part bad cop cautionary, part feminist ballad, part gothic chiller (serial killer Gordon Northolt-played by Jason Butler Harner—is also on the loose in the film’s periphery), and as well spelled out as all of it is, it still doesn’t prevent Jolie’s single minded performance from become repetitive rather than enriched by the expanded canvas. One hates to damn Eastwood, as fine a working contempo director today, with faint praise, yet Changeling is more admirable than affecting, more contained than disturbing, more passive than passionate. It’s an old-fashioned movie that just about rises above its own mawkishness and inherent stolidity. Rare as it, maybe Eastwood the filmmaker has crafted a well-made offering that is essentially a misfire-a sharply drawn shell that too firmly covers up its raw entrails. Jolie’s much vaunted turnabout doesn’t crack the shell either, it’s far too gilded without an iota of much needed grit.
While we are falling short of good intentions, let us examine the strange case of Oliver Stone and his weirdly discomforting new movie W, the remarkably straight-laced biopic of most likely the worst president in U.S. history, George W. Bush. When first announced, this teaming of Stone, the mad dog ideologue behind controversial wall bangers like Natural Born Killers, The Doors, or JFK, sharpened life slices like Platoon and Wall Street, or even surprisingly meditative ones like Nixon or Heaven and Earth, and good ol’ screw up George W promised more than enough fodder for friends, foes, and free-thinkers alike, with even the most disinterested observer imagining a goosed-up doozy of satirical dagger throwing, or an old-fashioned string-em-up filmic indictment.
Sorry. Neither overflowing with complexities or eye-rollingly gonzo, Stone’s picture is strangle placid, and, even more worrisome, bizarrely without depth or substance. Is it some kinda Stonesian black joke that he’s managed to make a movie that’s as every bit as superficial as our very own world leading bumpkin? Even more bewilderingly, the movie doesn’t even attempt to offer up any particular insights into Bush the man or Bush the President; it trots out a plethora of well known Bush benchmarks with the airy lightness of a romantic trifle, piling up vignette after vignette with an eyebrow stretched towards some overt Freudian father-son fission, a reoccurring fantasy sequence which (very) simply depicts Georgie Boy as a guy who wants to be adored by the faceless minions, and a batch of top notch character actors (Jeffrey Wright, Scott Glenn, Thandie Newton, Bruce McGill, Toby Jones, Dennis Boutsikaris) all rolling out as the President’s oh-so-familiar playmates.
W is eminently watchable, although the end-all effect to an ever vigilant audience (waiting for the first real screw-ball to get tossed at the plate, a screwball that never comes) is eventual acquiescence-you finally wilt into the theatre chair knowing full well that the film (and creator Stone) are just going to keep on slicing up the malleable butter. As far as the rest of the principles, the usually reliable James Cromwell overdoes it as Papa Bush, while the always welcome Ellen Burstyn (as Barbara) is mistakenly shunted off to the side, leaving Elizabeth Banks as Laura at with the best effort as surface polishing. It’s up to Josh Brolin as Dubya, inhabiting the well known public figure without overt caricature and also without cringe-inducing deference, and Richard Dreyfuss, smacking his teeth as the creepy shark that is Dick Cheney, to give the film any semblance of testicular strength. It also points to what’s truly missing: the sort of high-fevered satirical bent that might have allowed Stone and his actors to indulge, even wallow, into hell-bent excessiveness, dirty, drippy salaciousness, or beady-eyed comic malevolence.
Disappointingly, more importantly, confusedly, W doesn’t come on like the second coming of Dr. Strangelove. Instead it trots out a comely, well-trodden tale, a paint-by-numbers remuneration of what most of us already know. It’s an entree into a cinematic abyss already recognized, an unblinking fable of a canonized misfit, a thoroughly oxymoronic undertaking. There’s simply no there, there. It’s as if Stone’s real agenda is to reel us in and let us drown in own complicity. In other words, you elected the guy boys and girls, let me draw your mistake on the blackboard again, and don’t worry, recess is right around the corner.

Thursday, November 27, 2008

Fuzzy Paranoia/Paranormal


The initial buzz on Fringe(Fox, Tuesdays, 8:00 P.M.) was that one of TV’s golden boys, J.J. Abrams (Alias, Lost), had come up with one of the few hits of the fall season, plus a possible successor to the late and much vaunted sci-fi/ conspiracy series The X-Files. Like everyone else I bit on these potential tidbits but after a half dozen shows I find the series unable to keep spinning its initial captivating spell, timidly poking around its central mythology while trotting out a far too neatly contained creature-feature of the week. While well cast, Abrams and his writers keep writing the same show: Icy beauty Anna Torv gets whispered to by her handler Lance Reddick about a new bioscience phenomena and she seeks out the help of nutty professor John Noble (who always suddenly recalls a past connection to said phenomena) and his reluctant son Joshua Jackson who somehow tackles a baddie or fumbles around with a gun while spooky Blair Brown oversees the action as the head honcho of some shadowy mega corporation. Filmed in an entirely faux Massachusetts the tone is that oh-so-familiar Orwellian ominousness and the setting the industrial gray of aging labs, empty warehouses, and dank cellars. While most of what’s delineated is presented with a sturdy paranoia nothing actually resonates, and the player’s moves are far too predictable.

Sunday, November 23, 2008

Riding Lonesome


Cineastes have long sang the praises to the smartly layered Westerns that sprung forth from the collaborative efforts of director Anthony Mann and star Jimmy Stewart, now the time has come to heap equal praise on the body of Western work cobbled together on a shoestring by maverick Budd Boetticher and cowboy icon Randolph Scott. The Films of Budd Boetticher (1957-60, Sony, $59.95. The films included, Decision at Sundown (’57), The Tall T (’57), Buchanan Ride Alone (’58), Ride Lonesome (’59), and Comanche Station (’60), were all made on low budgets at Columbia, shot and completed in a few weeks in sturdy California locations, and none run past 80 minutes. The titles tell all--Western miniatures, lean and compact tales, long on simplicity and burnished by starkness, propelled by the aging and ever stoic Scott’s overriding aura of inherent desert loneliness and frontier morality, and fierce individualism. The B-movie constrictions don’t harm Boetticher’s virulent style at all, in fact in all of these films the slightest movement is a form of tensile action that directly underscores the streamlined plots, with Scott oozing prairie dust and wisdom while epitomizing both survival and individualism as he rides tall in the rugged landscape. Like the more ballyhooed Don Siegel, Boetticher presented action with a kinetic grace, like the more poetically corrosive Sam Fuller the director sprinkled in an ever-present ideology between setting and camera angles, and like the much more successful Robert Aldrich his thematic vision flourished wonderfully in the confines of genre picture making.

Friday, November 21, 2008

No Boner


Yep, I ‘m in the Kevin Smith fan club. Sure, I’m in the Seth Rogen fan club. Yeah, I wanna be in the Elizabeth Banks fan club. But I still didn’t cotton to Zack and Miri Make a Porno, a strange brew of high and low brow, of crudity and hilarity, of explicitness and mushiness. Much of Smith’s patented mix of aging adolescent bawdiness and slacker self-parody is on display here but the movie never gathers any true comedic steam, and the losers-make-a-porno plotline turns out be funnier as a concept than as a comedic tale. Smith, the self-promoting indie sage, cops out in the long run too, carving a conventional romantic story out of what’s supposed to be a raunchy dose of Gen X ribaldry. In the long run, many Smith followers are going to be disappointed as the movie veers towards the mainstream and essentially balks at delivering its outrageous promises. On the other hand, mainstream audiences are bound to find it sub-Apatow and slightly over-the-top (or under-the-counter) for their tastes, leaving Zack and Miri smack dab in the middle of the road.

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Art for Art's Sake


Our talented pallie Diane Meloccaro (currently somehow exiled to Florida), the gal who created our my very own Culture Vulture Time graphics, has come out with her own fresh new blog, Blunt Objects, a forum for her eye-opening acidic and satirical pop art stylings, giving us all a new coolio cyber place to visit.
Speaking of pallies, Mark (Fountain of Youth)Cutler came clean about a week or so back and gave a nod and a wink to a tremendously intriquing and extremely erudite new blog spot, The Houndblog, filled with sharp thinking and cool obsessions. (Take special note of the links to other blogs--there are more than a few knock-outs, including a connection to one of my all time heroes---writer Nick Tosches.)
For a touch of inspired nonsense go to Kotite's Corner, a Philly-based blogarama and run through the The Top 101 Mustaches in Pop Culture.

Friday, November 14, 2008

Sweet Dreams


The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938, Warner, $26.99, 102 minutes) is eye candy of the highest order, this Technicolor helping of Hollywood classicism is unadulterated pleasure viewing. The movie won three deserved Oscars (Art Direction, Editing, Score) and it is ably burnished by the always capable Michael Curtiz, a perfectly paced and sumptuously filmed adventure tale, with the perfect coupling of Errol Flynn (effortlessly dashing) and Olivia de Havilland (rapturously beautiful), sprinkled with a typically first class supporting cast (Alan Hale, Claude Rains, Ian Hunter) and a devilishly villainous Basil Rathbone. Absolute dream machine opium, unfettered by anything other than resolute professionalism and into-the-vein entertainment value.

Sunday, November 9, 2008

Shannon Shane




It’s truly a shame to watch two gifted farceurs like Molly Shannon (the onetime Saturday Night Live stalwart) and John Michael Higgins (the hilarious character player from Christopher Guest’s movies) stuck in the slow drying cement of failed sitcom bravura that is Kath & Kim (NBC, Thursdays, 8:30). Adapted from an Australian TV hit and sandwiched into NBC’s high flying night of deadpan drollery (My Name is Earl, The Office, 30 Rock) it’s a lead-footed parody about suburban obliviousness with Shannon as a spandex wearing, stiff-upper-lip paragon of cluelessness head over heels in love with a corndog mall sandwich honcho (Higgins), all the while helicoptoring over her recently married and separated vacuum of a daughter Kim (Selma Blair). Blair’s idea of comic acting seems to be a series of blank expressions, dead fish line readings, and the random toss of her hair—she absolutely squashes any semblance of funny the show aims for, although the gifted Shannon and Higgins steer up a momentary yuck or two when they venture into some periodic physical shtick. Having not glimpsed even a minute of the Aussie prototype, I gotta figure this Americanized wrecking ball missed the joke entirely.

The Real Deal


Many John Cassavetes aficionados consider A Woman Under the Influence (1974, Criterion, $39.95 147 minutes) his preeminent effort, an amazingly orchestrated indie/art film that wears its soul on its sleeve, a peering-into-the-abyss look at the state of Middle- American womanhood with a brave and unadorned central performance from the innovator/director/writer’s wife Gena Rowlands, buoyed by a particularly astute supporting turn by Cassavetes bud Peter Falk. It’s a harrowing and hypnotic long day’s journey into suburban catatonia, rippling with energy and grit, in-your-face camerawork, all of it propelled by Cassavetes unique distillation of the proto-real, a combination of verve, technique, and style that not many filmmakers have even come close to duplicating. Not for everyone, but scintillating and overtly original for those who can hang on for the jumpy and truly stimulating ride.

Friday, November 7, 2008

Whatever Happened to Bobby D?


It’s so easy to become inured to witnessing the tarnish flecking off the once indomitable Robert DeNiro that you have to blink a few times when he actually goes beyond rote in any shape or form. In What Just Happened, working with the equally tarnished Barry Levison, DeNiro exhibits some of the subtlety and gusto he was once acclaimed for in this Hollywood-insider satire adapted from his own book by long suffering producer Art Linson. DeNiro plays the surrogate Linson, a supposedly powerful Hollywood player mostly reduced to quiet (and comic) desperation by the bratty talent, insipid greed, and wrench-tossing star-making machinery that engulfs him. The movie doesn’t stroll down many original pathways, and it has the burnt out feel of a late night cable staple, but it does have a quiet, doleful wit propelling it, and a fairly hilarious self-parody delivered with aplomb by Bruce Willis.

Wednesday, November 5, 2008

Livin' in America


American life has, for a moment at least, taken on a deeper significance, hit some higher ground, somehow rounded third and headed safely home. What an unusual feeling--a gentle euphoria. It's good, it's right, it's proper, it's earned, and, yup, it's deserved. For once, no dreams deferred. Adding to the pervasively unreal state of mind was a concession speech that had more than a touch of grace to it and a victory speech that spoke to the intangibles of change and dreams and possibly a little working class something-something around the corner. As my hero Iggy Pop once repeatedly howled, "I feel alright!"

Monday, November 3, 2008

Heart of Darkness


As much of a genius that Orson Welles was, and the few films he left behind only attest to that, he was a lifetime pain in the ass, a self-styled Don Quixote forever tilting at studio windmills. His absolutely top-notch Touch of Evil (1958, Universal, $26.98 3 discs, 95 minutes, 108 minutes, 118 minutes), a late period noir, sparkling with grit and dripping with the decay of corruption, puts together Charlton Heston (as a Mexican-American cop), Janet Leigh (as the cop’s new bride), and Welles himself (as a corpulent sheriff), along with a batch of regular Welles’ players, in a border town gone bad around the edges. Although the filmmaker had no real budget to speak off, his film is a technical how-to catalogue, and the movie hums along darkly with precise storytelling, evocative camerawork, and superbly dense misc-en-sene. The collection offers three versions for the true film buff or Welles fanatic-the director’s original premier version, the studios truncated version, and a restoration put together in 1998 following Welles's 58-page notes (also included). Although I’m a true sucker for the more languid and baleful entanglements of the pulp fed Chinese jigsaw puzzle of 1948’s The Lady from Shanghai, the more I watch Touch of Evil I realize that it resonates much the same as that earlier gem—as a wonderfully baroque genre exercise, as a black-hearted Wellesian infective, as a technical and artistic treasure (the opening crane shot remains one of the most cool daddy evuh), and a damn fine (and infinitely memorable) movie.

Thursday, October 30, 2008

It’s a Man’s, Man’s, Man’s World


The following column is reprinted from the November edition of Providence Monthly

EYES WIDE OPEN
By Scott Duhamel


One of the prescient charms of the movie westerns that once flourished in both the Hollywood studio system and beyond was that the genre’s central characters typically succeeded in displaying their back stories, convictions, and psychological make-ups through movement, action and response rather than through any sort of extended dialogue. Whether it was Randolph Scott or John Wayne, Gary Cooper or Clint Eastwood less was always more, and it was understood that within the western setting, with civilization silently encroaching and the call of the wilderness ever beckoning, words carried much more import when spoken plainly and applied directly. As the movie western progressed, turned sideways, and even circled back unto itself a sort or prairie-speak was created, laconic and lean, pregnant with the constant implication of impending violence, spare and colloquial, yet strangely poetic.
Ed Harris, the co-writer, director and star of the latest contempo Western, Appaloosa, has obviously latched onto that aspect of the storied genre, and his valiant go at it has some fine moments when the camera eye settles on the simple (but meaningful) back and forth between Harris and co-star Viggo Mortensen. The actors, who share a similar steely-eyed rectitude, play lawmen-for-hire Virgil Cole and Everett Hitch, riding into Appaloosa, New Mexico in 1882, and a town well under the yoke of an erudite but thuggish landowner named Randall Bragg. Jeremy Irons is cast as Bragg, and as soon as you note his tendency to preen and speechify you’ll easily identify both his place (oily villain) and his fate (the wrong end of a main street shot-out). Neither Cole (Harris), dressed far too neatly and notably clean-shaven (which helps hint at a touch of psychopathology in his lawman’s soul) nor Hitch (Mortensen), sporting a dandified mustache and an ironic bent as the film’s sparse narrator, place much faith in talk. They act like a long married couple, filling in each other’s thoughts and finishing off short sentences, interacting in a Zen-like manner with the essential addition of six guns, of course. Harris is being faithful to the structures and rhythms of the Western, and most of the movie benefits from his adherence.
Renee Zellwegger is the movie’s wild card, a widow that arrives in town and immediately courts the indomitable Cole, then suddenly (and inexplicably) makes a play for Hitch. She’s a modern concoction in a throwback effort, an invader from the East, half whore/half Madonna, who throws the longtime partners equilibrium off and promises to take the movie down a newly trodden road. Threats are made and carried out, guns drawn and fired, the dusty streets of the town are left behind for encounters with Indians, a train sequence, and an excursion to Mexico (replete with a Mexican stand-off), and Harris the director strains to forge a genre exercise that is simultaneously faithful and exploratory and in turns facile and portentous, but it doesn’t quite jell, while Zellweger’s character remains a cipher which puts a strain on the proceedings.
Harris (getting behind the camera for the second time in his career, some eight years after helming 2000’s Pollock) gets a lot right here--the emphasis on Western and male codes, the underlying pull of the constraints of civilization versus the freedom of the wilderness, the utilization of violence as an example of professionalism, the great wide open spaces between horses, riders, and small talk. Appaloosa is venerating enough, but far too stolid and open-ended to resonate beyond its outlines. It ain’t no Western classic, but it’s a valid addition to the genre as a whole.
Although Ridley Scott mostly cashes his chips in the plush surroundings of the Hollywood high-falutin’ popcorn movie, he is, above all else, a stylist of the first order. Hand Scott the first class cast, the well draw setting, and an entertaining script that grafts on even an intimation of some kinda weighty theme, and he’s home free, pounding and tapping an infectious backbeat through the heart of the mainstream action drama(whatever it’s permutation), ala Alien (’79) ,Blade Runner (’81), Thelma and Louise (’91), Gladiator(’00), Black Hawk Down(‘01), American Gangster(’07). Body of Lies, his latest, sets him up with the blue ribbon teaming of Russell Crowe and Leonardo DiCaprio, award winning screenwriter William Monahan (The Departed), and lets him play with the accruements of the spy thriller, zipping through a big budget actioneer that’s part Syriana and part Bourne Identity, with a touch of 70’s paranoid political thriller thrown in. It’s bravura filmmaking, more entertaining than significant, a good and efficient jigsaw puzzle that satisfies but leaves one wanting for more, hoping for substance over style.
Body of Lies is a globe-trotting romp, largely set in the Middle East (which has so far been box office poison), and Scott fills it out with whomping explosions, edge-of-your-seat torture, spy-in-the-sky camera work, all of it underling the foreboding presence of the political and spy thrillers most well known villain-the omnipresent government. Crowe, pasty and fattened up, is Ed Hoffman, a CIA handler and puppet master, who, from his suburban digs and his Langley, Va. office tracks, sacks, and smacks field agent Roger Ferris (DiCaprio) through his hide-and-seek machinations. Much of what Scott fluffs up for display is cliché-ridden and old hat, yet he has the directorial flair to punctuate the predictable with his finely honed editing skills and deep dish camerawork. DiCaprio’s agent hopscotches from one frying pan to another, a mini-soldier in a maze of a war game, and the lack of original plot and a few more deep-seated secondary characters makes the movie veer towards staleness.
Both Crowe and DiCaprio deliver the goods, the latter working up quite a head of furrowed brow consternation and flop sweat while the former lays way back, smothered in a southern accent, a rambling duck walk, smugly armed with his own brand of weaponry--a laptop and a cellphone. A romance between Ferris and a Jordanian nurse (Golshifteh Farahani) is plot stroking at its worse, and the only other character who even seems to register is British actor Mark Strong, simmering with malice as the chief secret policeman, although one has to wonder why this pivotal role wouldn’t be played by a true Middle Easterner?
The central question about Body of Lies remains: Does Scott (alongside the TNT combo of Crowe and DiCaprio) have what it takes to break the losing streak of Middle Eastern war movies (Redacted, The Kingdom, Stop-Loss, Grace is Gone. Lions for Lambs, Rendition, In the Valley of Ellah, Home of the Brave)? I can’t help but admire the Scott’s sure handedness, or the way he puts some muscle (and maybe even some brains) behind his cinematic eye candy, but its obvious Body of Lies packs some nice punches and combos but comes no where close to a knock-out. That film still remains to be made.

Wednesday, October 29, 2008

TV EYE: Remake/Remodel


This remake of the well-liked 16-episode British with the same name, Life on Mars (ABC, Thursdays, 10:00 PM) has started off strongly. Waking up after a car crash in 2008 New York cop Sam Tyler (Jason O’Mara) finds himself in 1973 and wonders if he’s gone mad, is time-traveling, or is dreaming it all under a crash induced coma. Meanwhile, while pondering his fate and continually sleuthing it, he solves crimes of the week retro detective style, without the use of forensics and technology (wotta relief), in the company of a put-upon police women nicknamed “No Nuts” (Gretchen Mol), a wise guy handlebar-wearing fellow detective (Michael Imperioli), and a gruff suspect bashing boss (Harvey Keitel-huge bonus points for bringing one of the most watchable actors of our time to TV). The period music used is coolly evocative and amusingly ironic, the recreated 70’s done up with a nod and a wink, and the series itself capably blends sci-fi, comedy, and drama, all of it sprinkled with a neat touch of cosmic (and comic) mysticism into a fresh and spicy dish.

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Newman’s Own


Somehow, just a few weeks after the fact, the cracked and golden image of Paul Newman keeps reappearing to me, and I can’t ponder the significance of his unarguably solid movie career. A lot of baby boomers (like me) first glimpsed the golden boy when one of the local television stations played one of his earlier films and his image and countenance wasn’t so easily categorized. Not as medium cool or as existentially blank as his counterpart Steve McQueen, he also wasn’t old school tough like Bob Mitchum or as athletically theatrical as Burt Lancaster. As a direct connect to Dean and Brando, he was neither as soft or as curdled as the former or as unhinged and dangerous as the latter. Somehow he became a box office love mate with Robert Redford (who combined a touch of McQueen’s emptiness with a rueful quality that was closer to a mid-range proletariat like Jack Lemon then it was to any of the new kids of the time-Hoffman, Nicholson, Pacino), and they combined for the slick and easy, but fairly entertaining trifle The Sting, and one of the godawfullest Westerns of all, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid.
Although Newman virtually buzzed with insouciant charm throughout George Roy Hill’s sub-Penn, sub-Peckinpah, sub-Boetticher version of the west, and, yup, admittedly he and Redford displayed a near perfect marijuana/Marlboro man chemistry in a genre that virtually never teams males up equally—preferring instead to pair off males as traditional interconnected opposites (white hat-black hat, farmer-gunslinger, lawmaker-lawbreaker, easterner-westerner)—the movie is at best a breezy 60’s road movie disguised as a horse opera. It’s all quick vignette after vignette, perked up by the Newman-Redford coy exchanges, and get dragged down to the driest gulch by the worst sequence in western history (worse than Dale horsewhipping Trigger) when Newman ambles around in dimpled sunlight with earth momma Katherine Ross posing idiotically on a bicycle while B.J. Thomas sings a virtual New Christy Minstrel number in the background.
Newman stands out, and deserves to, as a young acting stud who quick-as-a-wink found himself an icon, a matinee pin-up, a generational representative, yet managed to play around purty vividly within his own well drawn dungaree-wearing, beer-sopping, uncaring-Adonis outlines. Here's mine, a baker’s dozen of Newman’s own. Whattya think?

Somebody Up There Likes Me (1956). Newman (grabbing a role meant to go to Dean) gets to Do the Method, as he dance through this explicitly 50’s slice of heightened realism. He hams it up as Rocky Graciano, all marbled mouthed and cartoonish New Yawknees, but it’s the snazzy gumball performance of somebody young, gifted, and, yes, ambitious.

The Left Handed Gun (1958). Another role inherited from dead man driving Dean, an all the more interesting as one posits which way the more slithery Dean would have gone towards inhabiting the tender young psychopath Billy the Kid. (How about Newman as Pat Garrett and Dean as Billy under the tequila splashed lens of Sam the Man Peckinpah?) Neither Newman nor director Arthur Penn had developed the experience to do this real justice, but it remains an intriguing offshoot Western, and Newman’s Kid twitches fairly effectively.

Cat on a Hot Tin Roof (1958). Newman woulda kicked this outta the park on stage, but this high-falutin’ somewhat truncated Richard Brooks’ version of Tennessee Williams allowed Newman-as-Brick to edge slightly closer the homoerotic whiff that always seems to emanate from many of Hollywood’s male idols, and he also successfully connects to that under-the-surface anti-macho, anti-society, anti-ambitious American male figure that so many of his other on-screen characters would push into a recognizable misshapenness.

The Hustler (1961). Upping the kitchen sink ante on the Graciano biopic, this much less Hollywoodized tale of upward mobility and salient loserdom lets the more assured dice-throwing actor come of age with his portrait of Fast Eddie Felson, a mannish boy who’s part fool and part rebel, both self-assured and self-defeated, caught squarely on the cusp between back room stardom and suit-and-tie respect.

Hud (1963)
Newman goes deep here, creating the sorta sexy cad that only Brando might have pulled off, with Brando’s acidity. Years afterward Newman himself would talk about his disappointment that audiences celebrated what he thought was a throughy unsympathetic figure; never acknowledging that in itself was a testament to his performance.

Harper (1966)/The Drowning Pool (1975). Somehow Newman’s two time turn as Lew Harper (nee Archer) consistently falls under the radar as exercise in Marlowean (Phillip) culture, yet the actor’s private dick has to be the most prescient contempo version of such since this side of Elliot Gould in The Long Goodbye. Blissfully cynical but inherently moral, a lone outsider drifting between straightsville and gonzoland during both the 60’s and 70’s, fingernails clean and pants neatly pressed as he leans down to peek through another keyhole—he’s an undercover version of one of Newman’s constants—the lost in the flood American male.

Cool Hand Luke (1967). Newman at his most wounded and his most charismatic, all of it played with barely a quiver of actors’ muscle. A dynamic film and a first class performance.

Buffalo Bill and the Indians…or Sitting Bull’s History Lesson (1976)
One of my personal faves, a vastly underrated outing that died at the box office. Robert Altman and the actor plotted together to make his Buffalo Bill a blustery, sad, and lost figure in a movie that subversively utilizes Arthur Kopit’s play about the decline of west and the betrayal of the Indian into a showbiz lampoon, albeit a dark and puffy one. There is a wistful sense of self-knowing at the center of this etching of a false idol, as if the actor felt both connected and repulsed sketching out a weird form of self-portrait.

Slap Shot (1977)
A truly 70’s slice-of-life with some slapdash comic moments, Newman filled out his hockey skates like Bobby Hull’s better looking older brother, all the while nimbly scratching out another one of his wise but empty husks, more masculine promise gone sideways.

The Verdict (1982). An autumnal film that washes over you with a quiet deluge of gray backgrounds, washed-out countenances, indiscernible settings and Newman’s burnt out, lost soul of a living-on-the-edge lawyer. Sidney Lumet mostly sticks with the minor chords in this closed-in redemptive fable, and the well worn actor comes through with his most evocative performance.

The Color of Money (1986). While it certainly wasn’t one of the primary performances that should have brought Newman the Oscar, the Academy tossed it belatedly his way, and he does carve out another subtle caricature, bringing gravity to Marty Scorsese’s gritty yet pumped-up stylings, and accenting the essential shadows of his earlier go at an American hustler, while still resisting any form of big screen grandstanding, a quiet storm at the center of the director’s amped-up ministrations.

The Hudsucker Proxy (1994)/Nobody’s Fool (1994). A quality twofer. The Coen Brothers film film (The Hudsucker Proxy) is one gliding, stylized, completely artificial riff of a movie-movie and Newman goes full tilt in a character role, comically malevolent and obviously slumming, albeit in high style. The Robert Benton offering (Nobody’s Fool) is a movie length short story with Newman gleefully getting the chance to play Hud all growed up, a twilight reprise of the quintessential good-bad guy, a role enhanced by the obvious twinkle in the aging role player’s eye.

Monday, October 20, 2008

Say It Ain't So, Joe (Madden)


When all is said and done, no one can blame Bye Bye Manny, or the the absence of the clutch bat of Mike Lowell, or Josh Becket's strained oblique. As hurtful as it is, The Tampa Bay Rays beat the Red Sox straight up, fair and square, over and out. Joe Madden's Rover Boys stayed his steady (and irritatingly upbeat) course, and thier young bats kept pounding away (15 home runs to our 9, while thier younger arms gut- checked the mostly veteran Sox hitters when they needed to (the Sox scratched out 55 hits to Tampa's 54 while only scoring 27 runs to the Rays' 40). We lost two out of three at home (conjuring up a miracle to grab one), let a second game victory in Tampa get away, left a ton of guys on base in a variety of scoring situations, watched Captain Veritek become the surest out since the last stand of Bob Beetle Bailey, had Big Papi and Pedroia hit and run into a truly classic strike-em-out-throw-em-out momentum killer in the 6th, allowing the tiring Matt Garza to shut down rally killers Kotsay and Tek in the 7th with two men on, let Elvis Costello Madden mix and match five pitchers in the 8th without one run squeezing by, and, finally, let a guy (David Price) with 5 games major league experience to his name strike out J.D Drew (looking more than ever like one of those haunted movie Civil War vets stumbling back home through a field of cannon smoke and dead bodies) and absolutely shut us down in the 9th. I wasted a lot of time yesterday morning attempting to figure out which Sox jersey I'd wear to work today for my day after celebration, anybody wanna loan me a Willy Aybar model?

Friday, October 17, 2008

Bobbin' and Weavin'


As much as we spend an inordinate amount of time peering through blurry eyes at the television screen, sweating over the next essential choice at Netflix, or tap dancing between the popcorn kernels at the local Cineplex, Culture Vulture headquarters does indeed provide space and time for reading and perusing.
A few dandy magazine pieces have recently caught my attention, including a very intriguing profile of filmmaker P.T. Anderson (who knew his daddy was legendary Cleveland horror TV host Ghoulardi?) by John H. Richardson in Esquire That was 1989, the year Anderson graduated from Montclair Prep. Under his yearbook picture, he had the usual collection of ironic quotes-the hook from “Staying Alive,” a joke from Woody Allen, and a few lines from Robert Downey’s Sr.’s deranged 1960 business satire, Putney Swope. But he might have been the only kid in America who also quoted his own fictional character: “All I ever wanted was a cool ‘78’ Vette and a house in the country”.-Dirk Diggler
Spike Lee also gets dissected by John Colapinto in the New Yorker Scorsese told me that financial obstacles are not unusual for established directors with a personal vision, like Lee or Robert Altman, or Scorsese himself. “Sometimes these things go in cycles,” Scorsese said. “Particularly if your films more subjective, more personal points of view. After The King of Comedy, ‘I wound up going back
to a low-budget independent cinema with After Hours, then ratcheting it up just a little bit more with The Color of Money and then going back to independent with The Last Temptation of Christ and then finally getting back into a kind of a fighting shape with Goodfellas. So in a way you have to go off and explore. Some people don’t come back.” He added, “It sort of separates the men from the boys, the ones who keep going. And he(Lee) has kept going and he’s not going to take no for an answer. Which is great.”

Finally Howard Hampton, the bastard son of Greil Marcus and Lester Bangs and the author of the absolutely killer collection of pop criticism Born in Flames: Termite Dreams, Dialectical Fairy Tales, and Pop Apocalypses, sets out to get a grasp on the popular American political film in Film Comment:/fcm.htm.
Maybe rapprochement between the mockers and the mocked was possible after all; Manny Farber thought that Altman’s “promiscuous” movie was really about “group endeavor” as “the cure for a fucked-up America.” Love it or hate it, Dr. Robert’s zeitgeist treatment could be a mutually validating win-win for everyone: the hip, holistic in-crowd got Gestalt therapy out of it-a deep-dish psyche-of-the-union address with a bittersweet scoop of Neo-Fellini ice cream on top-while the hicks and vulgarians got something else to see the about, bellyaching at Hollywood for its offhand disrespect.
While we are in a state of perusal, I can’t mention a wonderful new web site,The Art of the Title, still in its infancy, that offers a ton of potential. For those of you who (like me) worship at the altar of Saul Bass, among others, this is truly the right stuff. Let me finish by shoving the spotlight over to our pals at The Popcorn Trick for taking us back to the weird and fuzzy days of TV’s recent past and filtering it through a glass, darkly.

Monday, October 13, 2008

RIP Paul Newman 1925-2008


Paul Newman was out and out beautiful, a sparkling blue-eyed physical specimen with a charming swagger and a mesmerizing easiness, a man’s man equally adored by every persuasion of moviegoer, and probably one of the all time greatest looking faces to ever get a star’s close-up as part of the assembly line of the Hollywood Dream Factory. It turned out he could act too. Without seemingly lifting a finger (for a box office kingpin, he was a remarkably recessive big screen figure) he became a truly iconic movie figure, bridging the wide gap from the 50’s to the 60’s, connecting the lamp lit dots from Brando and Dean to Nicholson and Beatty, making all the pre and post Vietnam lists of movie rebels with and without causes, conjuring up the peculiar voodoo of the American male whose compass has been jarred, epitomizing that very guy in movies based on the works of authors ranging from Tennessee Williams to Ken Kesey to Richard Russo. Like almost everyone whipped through the Hollywood vortex Newman made his share of clunkers but his acting choices were more often than not impeccable, and many of his performances infinitely more resounding than the completed films themselves. He play tough guys with hearts of gold, heels, con men, cops, lawyers, private dicks, cowpokes, sons, dads and grandfathers, ne’er do wells and magnates, cuckolds and lovers, and he brought to them all a sense of lean efficiency, eschewing ham handedness or grandstanding, making film audiences peer deep within the glint of those infamous eyes to sometimes catch the soul of a prototypical American dreamer, yearner, and sometimes failure.

Thursday, October 9, 2008

Here Come The Regulars


The following column is reprinted from the October edition of Providence Monthly

EYES WIDE OPEN
By Scott Duhamel

The movies, like most of the weird and woolly universe of pop culture, ain’t all about entertainment value, or box office results, or, by gosh, even artistic merit. A whole lotta moviegoers shuffle off to the Cineplex with a touch more than snap, crackle, pop, and breasts on their respective minds. Filmgoers are sharp, they ascribe their own internal ratings, muscle up their own comparisons, connect the movie-movie dots, divide up and then judge movies by genre, and follow career trajectories. For those of us functioning as nitcrit Greek choruses, ensconced high in the balcony or cracking our knuckles behind hidden keyboards, this sort of pop cult group consciousness, providing multiple paths into the judgment garden, as we wave the magic wand and manipulate our thumbs, or assign those cheesy ratings stars, well knowing that film goers are bright enough to watch and asses a movies intent, merit, or significance outside of the context of whether their asses got itchy.
It’s virtually impossible to divine the success or failure of Woody Allen’s latest effort, Vicky Christina Barcelona or the Joel and Ethan Coen’s newest, Burn After Reading, without looking at the body of work that preceded them, particularly that most recently churned out. It’s the contention of many of those-who-know-such-things that the finest filmmakers purty much make the same film again and again, or, at the very least, tip-toe through the same themes and obsessions while consistently utilizing a plethora of repetitive stylistic flourishes, despite genre, subject, or plot.
As Woody Allen’s career has progressed he (like his unlikely doppelganger, Clint Eastwood) he has largely removed himself from his directorial efforts as an actor, and his films have taken on a decidedly autumnal feel. Most recently Allen has left his beloved New York City backgrounds behind for Europe (Match Point ’05, Scoop ’06, Cassandra’s Dream ’07), and Vicky Christina Barcelona (as the title hints) is set in Spain. It’s one part valentine to the city of Barcelona, one part a typical Allen mediation on the dueling natures of love and lust, and one part a springboard into the voluble elements that make (or break) the artistic disposition, another longtime preoccupation. It’s also one fine outing, deliciously adult and marvelously well executed.
We are in Barcelona because two young women are summering there, Vicky (Rebecca Hall), the smart but repressed one, and Cristina (Scarlett Johansson), the bold and adventurous one. They meet head on a charming modern day Don Juan named Juan Antonio (Javier Bardeem at his most disarming), a painter and self-styled ladies ,man who offer the girls what they least suspect, “no subterfuge.” As the gentle, but rollicking comic drama plays out the inert Vicky finds observing an unfolding that replaces her with Maria Elena (Penelope Cruz, burning it up), another artist and Juan’s highly temperamental ex-wife.
Allen, as his wont, sets us up with callow figureheads until the film flows evenly along and new depths are revealed or suggested by both the sureness of his narrative and his subtle but meaningful visual punctuations. Emotionally piquant scenes tumble into gag-centered bits as the sun-splashed setting (and the omniscient narrator) imbue the proceedings with a literary weightiness. What could have been a mere picturesque postcard of a film morphs into something richer and messier. Vicky Cristina Barcelona is a shrewdly effusive vision, a film that offers a lovely palate and is exquisitely executed; a rich turn from one of most intriguing American filmmakers.

Those fascinatingly contradictory Coen brothers (Joel and Ethan) are at it again, following their deservedly well praised and magnificently elegiac modern day western No Country for Old Men with Burn After Reading-a movie that could be no more different-an anarchic, no-holds-barred farce that ultimately cares little for its characters and seemingly even less for its audience.
The movie purports to be a spy farce bit it also tilt-and-whirls between a highly meta-screwball comedy and a not-so-sly indictment of Beltway behavior. The opening camera work features the camera’s eye honing in from above on the Virginia/DC governmental playground and quickly revealing a batch of dumb-but-officious types who seem to people that arena. The movie unfolds as quick and febrile as most of the Coens work (Raising Arizona, Fargo, the Big Lebowski), larding on the quirkiness and laying out the dumbasses, although it doesn’t ever mount the sort of organic connective tissue that allows a successful farce to be knock-out amusing.
The stellar (and extremely game) cast, including George Clooney, Frances McDormand, Tilda Swinton, John Malkovich and Brad Pitt), all equipped with silly names and sillier dispositions race broadly through the bang-bang scenes made of multiple double-takes, telegraphed close-ups of rage and consternation, absurd brutality, and deadpan dialogue with a look of feral determination of their faces—they work overtime in a gallant bid to make the assembled troupe of idiots seem hardy-har funny.
While there are certainly moments of temporary hilarity (particularly Brad Pitt’s moronic monkey play-although if you’ve seen the TV ads you’ve seen three-quarters of his performance), and the movie is impeccably shot by Emmanuel Lubeski and goosed up by production designer Jess Gonchos, but it still unfolds like a chilly sketchbook of flipped pages. Obviously thumbing their respective noses at Hollywood propriety, the Coen’s revert too much into the emotive distancing that has already spoiled a few of their efforts (The Man Who Wasn’t There, The Hudsucker Proxy, The Ladykillers), and they created comic figurines that don’t transcend their cartoonishness, and made the greater mistake of leaving the audience out of the ol’ loop de’ Coen.
The Coens truly misstep when it comes to the treatment of brother Joel’s wife and frequent collaborator Frances McDormand. Her clueless gym employee and desperate single woman character, Linda Listzke, may hold impetuous behind the plot shenanigans (a true cinematic MacGuffin-a computer disc of little or no import) but she seems to hold no more importance that that of plot device all the while being the film’s ostensible central figure. She is more a sad and disturbing creation than a truly comic invention; as the razor-sharpen jokes fly she appears conveniently disposable, and remains a personae more off-putting than sympathetic. You can’t deny the Coen’s forthright ability to build bizarre cinematic universes or the outright talent they continually demonstrate from behind the camera and as unusually stellar editors. Burn After Reading is funny enough and marginally entertaining, it’s just not that good, a facile replica of intellectual slapstick, a movie that mocks everything but itself.

Tuesday, October 7, 2008

TV EYE:Coming Up Empty (Again)


Aussie actor Simon Baker, the star of The Mentalist (CBS, Tuesday, 9:00 PM) has the sort of insidious charm that just ekes outta his pores with the mere turn of his head. CBS has twice tried to wring success out of his good looks and eye-twinkling vibe (The Guardian, Smith) and they’ve decided to try it again, cranking out yet another mainstream procedural with Baker at its center as a fake psychic turned criminal consultant, solving the crime of the week committed by the guest star of the week all the while surrounded by a team of consistently harried, puzzled, and grudgingly admiring team of crime solvers of the week. Its Psych meets House meets Without a Trace and even Baker’s inherent likeability can’t amp up the tepid crimes, the obvious clues, and the stock situations. Like anyone else, I believe that either a TV show or a movie can occasionally get by on the acting chops or charms of a particularly cool daddy thespian. Often times, the actor or actress’s chops or magnetism is enough to make an audience overlook the work at hand’s obvious deficiencies or lack of originality. Not this time. Score: CBS 0, Baker 0, Audience 0..

Sunday, October 5, 2008

NYC, 70's style


Word is out that cult fave The Anderson Tapes (1971, Sony, $19.94, 99 minutes) is about to be remade, though somewhat inexplicably moved from its New York City setting to Miami (It’s sister film, 1974’s The Taking of Pelham 1-2-3 is currently in production, with the remake wisely still set in NYC). The movie stands out for a few reasons. It marked the first time director Sidney Lumet used New York as a background, before he went on to mini classics like Serpico, Dog Day Afternoon, or Prince of the City. It’s also a paranoid thriller masquerading as a heist film, stacking Big Brotherness right next to deadpan violence right next to tounge-in-cheek urban humor. Best of all, once you look past the fact that it was one of Sean Connery’s leaps away from his James Bond persona, it’s packed with a batch of kick ass character turns from the likes of Dyan Cannon (Manhattan gal pal), Alan King (Mafia kingpin), Martin Balsam (swishy antiques dealer), and a weirdly youthful Christopher Walken playing a gang member know as The Kid, never mind the whole passel of 70’s prototypes filled out by Val Avery, Paul Benjamin, Dick Anthony Williams, and Richard B. Schull, with the icing on the cake the strangest of cop pairings--Ralph Meeker and Garret Morris.

Thursday, October 2, 2008

The Bobby and Al Show


More than a few years back this teaming up of Al Pacino and Robert DeNiro would have had any bonafide film buff hot tailing it to the theaters. Alas with the duos’ current track record of bad choices and worst movies, any regular filmgoer can only expect the worst, particularly since the director of record is Jon Avnet, the chef responsible for Pacino’s most recent turkey, 88 minutes. Righteous Kill (terrible title) is bland, the quirky cast (50 Cent, John Leguizamo, Donnie Wahlberg, Carla Gugino) wasted, and the proto-intensity is grafted on like a typical sixty minute television procedural, 101 minutes of cinematic drivel. If the Bobby and Al Bang a Gong Get It On Show actually draws something other than flies, I suggest a few potentially lucrative teamings: Bobby and Al as dogcatchers in rural Michigan, Bobby and Al as rival chefs at a Colorado ski resort, Bobby and Al as a gay couple who happen to star as television film nitcrits, Bobby and Al as retired stunt men spinning tales in a dusty Venice Beach dive bar, Bobby and Al as ex-New Yorkers going partners in a Miami deli , Bobby and Al as two aging Nordic brothers taking their estranged sons on an extended ice-fishing excursion in Minnesota, Bobby and Al as Othello and Iago with a western backdrop, and finally, Bobby and Al in a remake of Ishtar.

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

I Am Sam (Jackson) I Am


Stop me if you’ve seen this one before: young, freshly married couple moves into new digs and collides with the most dreaded of housing problems-the bad neighbor. Sure it seems like Hollywood recycles this same plot every coupla years (TV’s Lifetime has probably done it up a dozen different ways too), but most of the time the film’s don’t feature the indomitable Samuel L. Jackson like Lakeview Terrace, and they aren’t usually helmed by filmmakers sporting the kinda pedigree playwright-turned-director Neil LaBute packs (In the Company of Men ‘97, The Shape of Things ‘03). Jackson works hard (especially as the movie unfolds) to make this one rise above its inherent stockness, and LaBute adds racism to his big screen resume of sexism, misogyny and general bad behavior, yet the movie never holds up as a psychological thriller or an issues film. Even worse, it just about putt-putts is way into a tone and finale that becomes both overblown and downright silly.

Next Stop Mainstream City


How the West Was Won (1963, Warners, $20.98, 3 discs, 162 minutes)Made for a then huge 15 million, divided into 5 segments, helmed by 3 directors (Henry Hathaway, George Marshall, and the estimable John Ford) peopled by a passel of big names (James Stewart, Debbie Reynolds, John Wayne, Henry Fonda, Richard Widmark, Gregory Peck) and a too cool array of character names (Eli Wallach, Thelma Ritter, Harry Morgan, Robert Preston, Karl Malden, Carrol Baker, Walter Brennan) this 1963 epic western was also filmed with a 3 lens Cinerama camera and originally had to be projected by 3 projectors running simultaneously. Somehow I saw this with my parents and brother in the family station wagon at the Westerly, RI Drive-In the summer of, I’m guessing ’64, and I, a fanatic western bluff, was blown away by its splendor while being a little annoyed by its lack of traditional mano a’ mano gunfire. Years later its vistas still remain purty spectacular and Stewart and Reynolds acquit themselves decently while most of the rest of the featured acting is wooden (George Peppard Alert!) and the narrative pure swiss cheese with even Ford’s sequence (“The Civil War”) doesn’t pack the director’s typical majesty or sweep. As mainstream Hollywood studio product goes this remains more of a project than a fully rounded movie yet it goes down good with the popcorn.

TV EYE:Easy Riders


Kurt Sutter made his bones as writer/producer for FX’s leftfield cop drama The Shield, and that alone is enough to make me climb on board his new FX motorcycle gang show, The Sons of Anarchy (TNT, Wednesday, 10:00 PM). The guy has yet another secret weapon going for him--his real life wife Katey Sagal (Married with Children) is present front and center, flaming it on as the gang’s resident Lady MacBeth. Equally surprising is the presence of both Drea de Matteo (The Sopranos) as the junky ex-wife of the show’s central figure alongside Maggie Siff (Mad Men), playing an ex-lover/Doctor, two other strong female characters embedded in a macho universe. The golden boy, and the one biker with a budding conscience is Jax, charismatically inhabited by Charlie Hunnan, cut straight outta the Heath Ledger mode. While the show’s premise, 60’s hippie bikers-turned-outlaw slash combination small town kingpins and watchdogs, is slightly outlandish, but the biker saga boasts a host of cool daddy character types including Ron Pearlman (Hellboy), Dayton Callie (Deadwood), Mitch Pilliegi (The X-Files), Mark Boone Jr. (Trees Lounge) and tough guys Kim Coates and Tommy Flanagan. You can’t overlook the show’s ambitions either, delving straight into the same territory as The Shield and even The Sopranos, dancing on the line between morality and amorality, navigating through the codes (said and unsaid) of a closed society, and shining a shaky light on the nuts and bolts of good ol' American capitalism. This one has potential.

Friday, September 19, 2008

McShane Rode Before


Before Ian McShane was pouring whiskey down his molten throat as a chaser between the stringing together of the yet another highly scatological and viciously bellicose observation as Deadwood’s Al Swearengen he once starred as a devilishly charming and highly irascible antiques dealer on British television’s Lovejoy(Lovejoy: The Complete Season 3, 1192, BBC/Warner, 706 minutes, $69.98). Making a living (barely) deep in the English countryside, Lovejoy comes across as a counterpoint to California’s Jim Rockford (as Susan Stewart pointed out in a recent Sunday Times), a lovable loser and an affable ladies man, dodging creditors and stirring up the local gentry in between quick money schemes and investigations into antiquities, surrounded by a motley crew of associates, quick of wit and deeply schooled in a vast array collectibles and prized pieces, with the hour long episodes as effortlessly low key and humorously rakish as its anti-hero. I found myself hooked on the series and the roguish McShane when this was televised by PBS some years back, and I couldn’t image a more pleasant night during the upcoming winter, snowed in, generously imbibing, and trawling through multiple episodes of this neatly crafted series.

Thursday, September 18, 2008

Funny Ha Ha


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

EYES WIDE OPEN
By Scott Duhamel

The Hollywood movie comedy can take on all sorts of forms and mutations, ranging from scalding satire to puffy pastiche, from comedy team vehicle to actor surrounded by funny, from overt genre parody to skit-inspired silliness. When a movie is funny, whether it be gut-busting, surreal, sly, or inspired, you know it, audiences know it, whether it be the Marx Brothers brand of anarchy in one of their finer romps, the trenchant snappiness of a Preston Sturges outing, the rat-a-tat outrageousness of a Dr. Strangelove, or the infantile stony chuckles drawn from a Cheech and Chong pairing. Film historian Gerald Mast once went as far as divvying up the sound movie comedy into three distinct traditions: Dialogue, Clown and Ironic. Of course, that was before the advent of the Rob Schneider tradition. (Hardy-har-har.) Below, a look at a few of this summer’s attempts at big screen humor.
Mike Meyers’ latest attempt to slip on the shoes of the great Peter Sellers, The Love Guru (released in June), had the distinction of bombing on all fronts. Murkily shot, haphazardly sewn together, it tosses penis jokes, midget jokes, and over-the-hill pop psychology jokes at the screen without an iota of charm or substance. Watching, I couldn’t help but think what would have happened had this had been a simplistic vehicle for a rollicking team like Hope and Crosby or Martin and Lewis, with a competent Hollywood directorial traffic man at the helm, and a team of old school gag writers, odds are it would have been a silly and pleasant romp. Instead it’s a deadly grind, tediously unfunny, and brimming with ham-handedness and mugger, piling on the insipid puns into the gleam in Meyers eyes resembles the look of someone dying to go to the bathroom. That’s not funny, just desperate.
Will Ferrell and John C. Reilly managed to kick up some obvious comic chemistry in the broadly lowbrow Talladega Nights, so it only made sense to the money men that they should combine for a feature length go-at-it. Step Brothers lets the two loose as two middle-aged misfits, both still living at home with their respective single parents (Mary Steenburgen and Richard Jenkins) forced into co-mingling once Mom and Dad tie the knot. It’s pure raunch and roll, propelled by a shock and giggle comic assault plot, another contempo comedy film that seems to revel in perpetual adolescence, which by all evidence, is aimed directly at an audience that is either striving to do the same or thinking back fondly at their attempt to have done so.
Step Brothers commits wholly to stupid, and while much of the sequences are hit or miss, the hits do draw legit guffaws. The self-absorption at the heart of the characters (a Ferrell specialty) is acutely funny, the actions derived from it not quite so. The movie is openly caustic, and there lurks a sort of idiot’s rage behind much of comedic gusto. Of crude and rude can only go so far, and the movie never truly differentiates the step boys, sheering off any hope of a connective batch of extended hilarity by never generating any actual narrative conflict. In another words, it’s one of those comedies that comes as an elongated skit, although if your idea of hilarity is watching Will Ferrell rub his exposed testicles all over a drum kit, this one’s for you.
When you walked out of Superbad did you take a little time wondering what became of those characters as they grew up? Well comic wunderkind Judd Apatow (Knocked Up, Forgetting Sarah Marshall), must have, because Pineapple Express (written by Apatow and his Superbad writers Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg) kinda sorta brings you to that place, all the while posing as a genre twisting mash up of Harold and Kumar and Lethal Weapon. Rogen himself plays Dale Denton a sad sack process server who just wants to get high with his bud and dealer Saul Silver (James Franco). Soon the two are running from drug baddies and bad coppers with wheels screeching and bullets flying. It’s a stoner road trip gone bad, and its comic tone slyly slips from laid back to deranged as the pot smoke thickens and some action gore sprouts into the picture.
Apatow, in a canny move, hired indie filmmaker David Gordon Green (Snow Angels, ’07, All the Real Girls, ’03), to filter down his broader comic sensibility (bromance and perpetual adolescence remain at its core), and for a while, he manages the weird combo of mayhem and ha-ha nicely. When the movie starts to leave behind its stoner charm and pushes into the action-jackson machinations it becomes less of a sweetly smart goof and more of standard (and predictable) actioneer. Pineapple Express has it highs (uh-huh) and it will be a welcome addition to the barstool game of naming the coolest stoner flicks, but it winds up as another example of the simple fact that eventually every zoom has a come down.
As you watch the previews and the like before Tropic Thunder rolls out, once you realize that they are part of the bigger joke that is, you’ll worry if the full length feature that follows can sustain the same high level of jocularity. No problem. Ben Stiller’s high-budget jape at Hollywood movies, mores and moronity is acutely amusing and its satiric bits actually jell into a whole. It’s a breezy, zany, satire with more than enough amusing ideas, farcical riffs, and hilarious performances to sustain it.
Stiller has long taken the self-depreciative airs of Woody Allen into the wooly realm of comic self-flagellation, plunging ever deeply into the arena of the uncomfortable. With his sights set directly on the heart of Hollywood artifice, the target is an easy, albeit hard-to-argue one. Pricking at the delusions of grandeur that are passed like hard candy from movie producer to filmmaker to audience to (especially) actors, Stiller has fashioned a smart aleck comedy that is ostensibly about bad taste but manages to veer into areas slightly less definable, and sometimes touching it with an inkling of the surreal.
Tropic Thunder tosses together Stiller as a fading action star, Jack Black as a comedian trying to stretch his chops, and Robert Downey Jr. as a method acting madman delusional enough to make a movie in virtual blackface as they come together on the movie set of a war movie being filmed in Southeast Asia. Add to the mix Steve Coogan as the Brit director, Nick Nolte as the actual war vet hired as an advisor, Brandon T. Jackson as a hip-hop star trying out the acting game, and, (as the cat is already out of the bag) surprise participant Tommy Boy Cruise as the ultimate kingpin producer. Cruise, channeling a studio head as coarse gargoyle, goes all out, braying, dancing, spewing profanities, treading the oh-so-thin-line between discomfort and inspired, all the while enhancing the total self-referential party train that the movie is coasting on. Tropic Thunder is kick ass funny, not just funny ha ha.

TV EYE: Lowering the Bar


Hey kids, let’s put on a courtroom drama. Let’s start with an idealist, we-the-people, thoroughly impassioned public defender with a boys band haircut (Mark-Paul Gosselaar). We have to have the foxy, long-legged, blonde lawyer (Melissa Sagemiller) from the DA’s office who shoots sparks at the boy lawdog before and after they tussle in the courtroom. Don’t forget the wiggy, capricious judge (Jane Kaczmarek) who somehow manages to grab most of the young buck’s cases. Add a few more stereotypes, toss in every courtroom cliché imaginable, and make sure to gather most of the characters (between bed-hopping and courtroom wrangling) in a familiar bar by the end of an episode. Cool. We’ll call it Raising the Bar (TNT, Mondays, 10:00 PM), and wonder if maybe if its creator, the venerated TV Kingpin Steven Bocho pulled it outta some tattered notebook he kept back in high school.(The next TV courtroom drama I'd like to see would feature Robert Downey Jr (crossing and channeling Al Pacino and Tom Cruise) in a episodic version of the worst courtroom movie evaaah, 1979's ... And Justice or All. Mark me, that would be a keeper...)

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

How Does His Hair Look?


There are always two opposing ways to judge a Nic Cage movie. (1) Whether Hammy Nic or Restrained Nic, did he and the right director click? (2) How is his hair? No doubt about it, Bangkok Dangerous, which features Restrained Nic as an assassin named Joe London (genius character name, huh?), has our boy in top-notch hair mode—a horse mane peopled with thick stringy black threads drooping down. Sadly the directorial connection is more fizzle than sizzle, as the Hong Kong Pang Brothers, Danny and Oxide, trot out every bit of whooped-up firepower they can muster, but the movie exacts nothing new, it’s just another version of the same old Hollywood action yawn. Maybe the most off-putting aspect of this stillborn actioneer is the visage that lies beneath the excellent hair-Cage’s face seems frozen in a sort of perpetual voodoo nap, neither alive or dead, neither engaged nor zoning away, its as if he’s lost in the midst of counting all the dough thrown away towards his services in his latest ride on the bad film express.

Tuesday, September 9, 2008

Cool Hand Newman


While Stuart Rosenberg’s directorial career only held a few highlights (Pocket Money, The Drowning Pool, The Pope of Greenwich Village), he knew well how to work with actors, particularly Paul Newman, who he directed four times, and teamed-up with to make his finest picture, Cool Hand Luke (1967, Warner, 126 minutes, $19.97). Newman is at the height of his powers here, utilizing a physicality equal to Brando’s combined with the wistful soulfulness of James Dean and the outsiderness of Montgomery Clift. Rosenberg and master cinematographer Conrad Hall make sure we don’t miss the Luke/Newman–as-Christ figure implications, but they also combine for an array of visual flourishes that only serve to make this prison/rebel tale more full-bodied. Of course, those of us going through adolescence when this became a television fixture will never forget three of it’s major scenes: the one-on-one scrape up between Newman and Kennedy, the egg-eating contest, and the nerve-tingling country-girl-washing-car-sequence. Any filmgoer worth his or her salt should immediately conjure up both the cadence and the flavor of Strother Martin’s unforgettable line: “What we have here is failure to communicate.”

Tuesday, September 2, 2008

Japanese Neo-Noir


While High and Low (1963, Criterion, $40, 143 minutes) a quiet, complex, but highly intense neo-noir is not an acknowledged masterpiece, it still shows one of cinema’s finest, Japanese master Akira Kurosawa, operating on all cylinders. The one and only Toshiro Mifune plays a heavily mortgaged old-school factory boss who is faced with the dilemma of opting to pay ransom for his chauffeur’s son, mistakenly kidnapped instead of his own. The film opens with a series of static scenes confined to Mifune’s elite high rise digs that play out with high import, but as the cops-and-robbers plot bleeds into a finely drawn character portrait and a simultaneous acute social commentary, the movie opens up and the pace quickens; the film’s formalized opening subtly nods to the staid Japan of old while the second half trips along the surface of a far more chaotic modern world. Kurosawa’s exposition is unbelievably crisp and the movie plays on with an artful wholeness, a genre piece that tip-toes through the rigidity and permutations of both Japanese contemporary culture and century-old codes while casting a gray shadow of moral complexity.

Thursday, August 28, 2008

Rebaked Beans


Roger (King of the B’s) Corman’s original 1975 Death Race 2000, directed with funky eye-winking aplomb by Paul Bartel, was one of those types of future schlockfests that wore it’s self-awareness on it’s gory and greasy sleeves. It was all vroom-vroom, wink-wink, and ha-ha while the cloud of marijuana smoked wafted through the midnight showing. Watching the movie again, it remains a cult treasure, lean, mean, and propelled by a deadpan tone that mocks itself at every B-movie cliché and corner. Corman is listed as one of the multiple producers of his movies’ remake, now simply Death Race, and he has cannily connected himself with writer/director Paul W.S. Anderson, a contempo schlockmeister proudly responsible for the vidgame-to-movie crap classics Resident Evil and Mortal Kombat. Anderson whips through the remake with a rat-a-tat-tat breeziness, with stone headed Jason Statham in the role originated by the forever cool David Carradine, surprisingly helped out by A-listers Joan Allen and Ian MacShane, both juicily slumming on the B-side. It’s a trifle, and no way as much cheeky fun as the original, but it’s a totally entertaining trifle.

Monday, August 25, 2008

Dead Man Acting


Overlong, extremely ponderous, straining towards artfulness, and irritatingly murky, I (among the few I guess), found filmmaker Christopher Nolan’s latest go at the Batman franchise, The Dark Knight, largely disappointing. Despite Nolan’s talents, the movie seems to disdain narrative coherency (characters float in and out, scenes buck up short without achieving any dramatic frisson, while screwing the lid down tighter seems to be the only impetus for the storytelling arc), but the grisly rawness of the tale plus the cutting edge editing make a patented arty downer hiding under the colorful umbrella of box office boffo. All that is, except for Heath Ledger’s virtuosic and exquisitely calculated turn as the Joker. Imbued with a whole extra tone as one of the infamous (and infrequent) cases of a Dead Man Acting, Ledger, wobbling frantically, caked in white powder, muttering maniacally, manages to steal the movie without veering into hammy grandstanding. His full-blown anarchic spirit sticks in yer brain even as the movie dissolves from its own highbrow calculatedness.