Wednesday, January 30, 2008

Gripping Ghost Story

The Orphanage is throw-back cinema, a suspense tale that is fraught with psychological frisson while unfolding in a surprisingly stately, keenly modulated manner bringing immediately to mind similarly effective movies like The Others(2001) The Innocents (1961), or The Haunting (1963). Brought to you by Mexican master Guillermo del Toro (as producer) this beguiling (and haunting) ghost story is ably handled by first-time director Juan Antonio Bayona. No cattle prod, shock-and-roll tactics here, this is all about the atmosphere, atmosphere, atmosphere. Taking more than a few pages from the great American terrormeister Val Lewton (Cat People, I Walked with a Zombie) as well as del Toro (The Devil’s Backbone, Pan’s Labyrinth), the movie, set in a Spanish home that was once an orphanage, artfully dances around the terrors of childhood and the tug-and-pull of mother-son bonding, all the while upping the tension ante by showing less and suggesting more. All in all, a legitimately unsettling (and gripping) experience.

Monday, January 28, 2008

Blade Runner Deja Vu

There’s no denying that Ridley Scott’s 1982 Blade Runner is a hugely influential film, a strange hybrid of sci-fi and noir adapted from cult writer Philip K. Dick’s novel “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep”, and the forerunner of the widespread dystopian landscapes that seem to form the backbone of any recent futuristic vision. The movie, newly released as Blade Runner: Ultimate Collector’s Edition (Warners, $78.92) is a compact triumph of set design, pointed narrative, and taut, polished direction. Is it worthy of a briefcase-packaged four-disc set that includes 5 separate cuts (including the with and without voice-over versions, the forced happy ending version, the director’s cut and even an original work print) of the movie? Fanatic, collector, or admirer, the set’s biggest draw may be the inclusion of “Dangerous Days” the three hour plus retrospective documentary that is overfilled with details about the making of this certifiable contemporary classic. This one stands the true Cinephile Test: Watch it on the big screen and you’ll be swept away by the force of its vision, watch it on the small screen and you’ll be drawn in by the wonderfully rendered details.

Thursday, January 24, 2008

TV EYE: Third Season Renewel

Ahh, to live under the shadow of the almighty Sopranos and the equally powerful HBO, as Blake Masters’ sharply drawn and exquisitely modulated mob/family cable drama, Brotherhood, has done for it’s two superb, under-the-radar, seasons. No bush league Sopranos, Brotherhood’s landscape simmers more than sizzles, and it’s depiction of the interweaving of criminal activities and familial strains cuts a little closer to the bone. The mythical Providence depicted is a decidedly more working class environment, then that of Tony Soprano’s upper middle class New Jersey playground, and the slow boil dramatics the show traffics in aren’t as visually or emotional demonstrative- Brotherhood is subtly gritty and pervaded by a continually gray mood. Many of the Rhode Island/Providence touches are on the money (although one wonders why a greater effort to utilize RI musicians as part of the typically nifty soundtrack wasn’t attempted), and while the accents waver a bit the ensemble acting is top notch, led by the equally arresting Jason Issacs and Jason Clark, aided by the likes of Fionnula Flanagan, Kevin Chapman, Brian F. O’Bryne, Stivi Paskoski, Matt Servito, and Len Cariou, and kicked in the gut by two truly memorable performances from Ethan Embry and Annabeth Gish. Word jus in that Showcase is doing the right thing and granting a third season for this admirably resonant and finely executed series.

Tuesday, January 22, 2008

TV EYE: Western Eclipse

Larry McMurty’s 1989 Lonesome Dove was not only one of the finest TV mini-series of all time, it was also a wonderfully told and neatly spun Western, the sort that has mostly faded from the big screen. It’s follow-up, Streets of Laredo (1995) was a strong, elegiac dose of more of the same, although the third installment Dead Man’s Walk (1996) sadly came up short in just about every category. The fourth, and final, installment of McMurty’ television saga, Comanche Moon (televised last week on CBS over three nights), doesn’t do the original justice either, although original director Simon Wincer is back and McMurty does his best to spin another tale of male bonding, Texas pride, put-upon women, and horse-eating, all set during the ongoing battle between the Texans and the Comanches between 1858-65. The mini-series meanders, loses focus, lacks pacing, and Karl Urban, in the Tommy Lee Jones role, leaves a big black void in the middle of it all. Steve Zahn does a nice job channeling Robert Duvall and while both Val Kilmer and Rachel Griffiths go full-scale hambone, only the former succeeds.

Friday, January 18, 2008

Emptyin' the Bucket

There was a time—after Brando and before DeNiro—that Jack Nicholson was the actor de rigueur in Hollywoodland, a box office success, a project starter, a critical fave,and easily the most commanding male presence on the big screen. These days Nicholson mostly floats through throw-away trifles, eschewing the same over-the-hill charms or mad-dog screen chewing that we've seen so many times, evoking traces of his greatest hits without seemingly clenching a muscle (acting or otherwise.) Some how poor Morgan Freeman (an actor who came into his own as the twilight of his career began) is teamed up with Smacked Jack and has-been director Rob Reiner in The Bucket List, an erstwhile feel good finding-yerself comedy, a movie that could have just as easily been made for TNT and starred Ed Asner and John Amos. At least Nicholson completists will have another entry along with with Anger Management as Bad Jack’s worst.

Thursday, January 17, 2008

Kneel at the Altar of True Genius

There is talent, there is artistry, and, every once in a while, there is true genius. I, for one, can only kneel at the altar...

Wednesday, January 16, 2008

TV EYE: Open-the-Oven-TV

Bemoan the state of contempo TV all you want, weep at the pure ugly stupidity of the vast majority of reality TV programming, but watch Poker After Dark (NBC, Mon-Fri, 2:05 AM) only at the risk of having an urgent desire to stick yer head in the oven within 15 minutes. A major network program is a bunch of Vegas stiffs sitting around a poker table and grinding their respective teeth, raising the occasional eyebrow, and tossing out the deadliest (which means dead-on- arrival) of bon mots during the card play. The conception of such a show begs some questions about some programmer’s sanity, but the reality of a show as empty, as non-dynamic, as anti-TV as this it reaching on-air status renders any questions unnecessary. Yet another looming signifier that the apocalypse is right around the corner, my friends, face up to it, even more scary and convincing when you realize a special “Director’s Cut” is shown on the weekends!

Monday, January 14, 2008

The Big Bang Theory

The following column is reprinted from The January issue of Providence Monthly

by Scott Duhamel

Whether you know it or not (and if you are a regular moviegoer, you do), violence and nihilism are among the strongest commercial elements in the structure of today’s commercial film packaging. Saw this, Hostel that, Smokin’ Aces up my ass, it’s all about the bim-bam-boom of strafing the populace, wiping out multitudes, kicking out the jams under the shadows of Oklahoma City or 9/11 or whatever natural apocalyptic occurrence you can thank of, and doing it in the blink of an eye. That’s entertainment, that’s contempo cinema. Audiences (particularly those that actually go to movie house) are spent and jaded, harbor no expectations except for the tick-tock machinations of the lowest common genre expectations. Shoot ‘em up, blow ‘em out, crash and burn and paint it black and ugly—that’s the ticket to the box office sweepstakes. That’s no whiny, teary-eyed complaint from the last of the cinematic strokers—that’s reality: context, theme, and mise-en-scene have been all but removed from a vast majority of the well-oiled movies. It’s all about the slam-bang-no-thank-you-mam, quick, shortcut payoffs, and surface sizzle. For the sole purposes of this inquiry, let’s examine two distinct excursions into the ol’ ultra–violence, The Coen Brothers’ No County for Old Men, and Ridley Scott’s American Gangster.
The Coen’s are nitcrit darlings, the wonderfully smart aleck guys behind such stellar cinematic outings (all box office favorable, plus critical fave raves) as Raising Arizona, The Big Lebowski, O Brother, Where Art Thou?, Fargo. Still, after their last three overt failures (The Man Who Wasn’t There, Intolerable Cruelty, The Ladykillers), a bulls-eye has been drawn on the meta-filmmakers who, critical word has it, have become seemingly far too concerned with artificially creating some smart-ass version of Hollywood’s glorious past, funny boys whose surfaces have become too slick and whose game has become too empty and obvious. Yep, well you can put that all to rest, as No Country for Old Men is undeniably Joel and Ethan Coen’s most sublime effort, a modern western that utilizes the Coen’s typically wryness, their adolescent penchant for gore, and their film student’s acumen for the form and shape of movie’s past, and created a fully formed quiet little masterpiece.
Adapted from Cormac McCarthy’s acclaimed 2005 novel, the movie floats along on the dirty seeds of vengeance and greed, traffics in the slow ooze of blood, and winds itself around as subversive mediation on the soulessness of the new American west. (Not exactly buttered popcorn for the vid kid generation.) Ostensibly set in 1980, it (like Sam Peckinpah’s standout 1972 contemporary western The Getaway), if not for the presence of automobiles, could very well be occurring in 1880, shot in a familiar landscape of dusty jaggedness and big patches of emptiness, with small town streets as creaky and foreboding as any western backwater stopover. Coen collaborator and cinematographer Roger Deakins’ dense yet simple compositions are more than effective—they set a tone that clearly spells out that these ain’t the epic vistas of the heroic and bygone west, that the ragged Texas on display here is a makeshift combo of junk and spaciousness—a hard place where the sun really doesn’t get to shine.
The bare bone structure of the movie is a three person man hunt, with Vietnam Vet/cowpoke Llewelyn Moss (Josh Brolin) haplessly ahead of the pack, otherworldly dark angel and hired assassin Anton Chigurh (Javier Bardem) close behind him, and dogged, world weary old school Sheriff Ed Tom Bell (Tommy Lee Jones) circling closely. The men share an avuncular approach that translates as saying little, preparing meticulously and drowning in their own malaise. For once the Coen’s throw aside their own legendary archness and the 3-way track down, although punctuated by the crackle of gunshots and the suddenness of viciousness, becomes memorably marked by the ominous reverberations of silence. For once, style is overcome by facility, and the movie, offering no easy or final answers, doesn’t moralize or judge. Bardem and Brolin are perfectly cast, but of course the venerable Jones, playing his twang like a maestro, brings No Country for Old Men home, a home that the Coen’s superbly demonstrate, is both repellent and void, but impossible to take your eyes away from.
American Gangster combines the stellar talents of not one, but three of the highest powered and blatantly talented Hollywood alpha males around—actors Denzel Washington and Russell Crowe and bigtime director Ridley Scott—and digs in deep and hard trying to whip up an urban classic like Scarface or The Godfather or Goodfellas, and it comes up decidedly short. Facile, aggressive, and buttressed with spicy bits, it lacks the gravitas of those aforementioned touchstones; it never quite bores inside the criminality on display in a way that (however temporarily) links you with its subject and his netherworld. While it’s not dumbed-down or pandering, it still substitutes a lotta violence-for-violence’s sake and finally gets dragged down by it’s own sense of superior social combustibility.
Washington plays real life drug lord Frank Lucas, a force of nature who is a walking talking embodiment of the American dream, a guy bent on creating his own rags-to-riches tale. Charismatic, smart, quick-on-the-draw, Lucas builds himself a criminal army and a drug biz with a captivating combo of weird etiquette and charged-up entrepreneurial fervor, and watching the film, you can’t help but to keep flashing to the bare assed fact that the guy is a pusher, a harbinger of death and destruction. (Scott and screenwriter Steve Zaillian never quite get their hands around that.)
Running parallel to the crime pin’s story is that of honest blue collar cop Richie Roberts (Crowe), a Serpico type, both intense and low key. The movies finest moments come during the sections devoted to the methodology of both gangster and copper, Scott shooting much of the nuts and bolts action with brio and filmic swagger. The movie depicts the Crowe and Washington figures as some sort of brothers under the cloth, despite their opposing types, yet all they come off as is two big screen archetypes fitted together in one of producer Brian Glazier’s wet dreams. Scott (throwing in touches of The French Connection and Superfly for good measure) can be a solid stylist, but something’s missing in American Gangster, once you get past the smooth pacing, the lilting ebb and flow of the drama, Washington’s powerhouse turn and Crowe’s eye catching attempt at going gritty.
American Gangster is simply too tidy, too meticulous, too impassive. The central conceit of the movie-the tug between vice and virtue, between race and class, between success and failure just doesn’t get explored. The movie sets itself up as a portrait of yet another American go-getter and so-called man of the people, and by and large it’s an approving one, as long as you block out the scenes of skin-poppers and the ever wasted populace. It’s a cinematic portrait neither intimate or grand, and it’s doesn’t come close to achieving the heights it means to scale.

Friday, January 11, 2008

Reasons To Be Cheerful 2008

Part 4: The Novelty Book Lives!

Who woulda thought that they finally come up with one of the novelty books (often known as bathroom literature) that was right up the proverbial hipster alley? Even more mind-numbing, who could have imagined that long time punk rocker extradoinnare, bar owner, and lead yelper of the Dictators (one of New York’s truest rock and roll treasures), Richie Blum, aka Handsome Dick Manitoba would somehow manage to get an authorial credit? The book, The Official Punk Rock Book of Lists, co-written by Manitoba and Amy Wallace (The Book of Lists, Sex Lives of Famous People), and hilariously illustrated by noted rock and roll illustrator Cliff Mott, is stuffed full of nonsensical, ridiculous, idiotic, and thoroughly random bits of punk rock arcania, including “6 Great Moments in Puking”, “Johnny Thunder’s Great Big Kiss of Death”,
Richard Meltzer’s Beatnik Roots of Punk: A Reading List”, “29 Punk Rock Booze Songs”, “Nick Tosches’ 10 Who Were Punk before They Were Punk”, “Little Steven’s Top 10 Garage Punk Bands”, “Gilby Clarke’s 10 best punk rock Guitar Solos”, “9 Terrifying Covers the Replacements Loved to Play”, ”Jim Jarmusch’s 25 Pre-Punk Films with Punk Attitude”, “Debbie Harry’s List of People I’d Like to Fuck”, and so much more, it’s a must-have for ex-punks, wanna be punks, punk lovers, punk historians, and people who know that it’s a necessity to spike rock and roll with the largest dose of humor possible.

Wednesday, January 9, 2008

Reasons To Be Cheerful 2008

Part 3: We're Walkin' and We're Tawkin', Bring on the Election Process

Being a member of a very politically active union the IUPAT (International Union of Painters and Allied Trades) I knew I had a heavy duty political year in front of me, but I was caught by surprise when the call came from on high last Wednesday that assigning me and my fellow staff members from CT and RI to head up to Alaska, I mean New Hampshire, on the Saturday before the primary. Our organization, for the first time, had taken a poll of the more than 160,000 members about a Presidential choice, and out of the 30,000 members (sad, but true) that responded Hillary Clinton won a clear cut victory, not counting the 17% of IUPAT union men and women that placed their vote for a Republican. So there we were early Saturday AM, hitting the snowy environs of New Hampshire with members of our Locals also in tow. We did the old door-to-door canvas thang, and my team wound up in a largely upscale neighborhood outside of Brentwood, walking down long, curved, icy driveways to knock on the doors of some very nice New Hampshire digs, largely irritating and talking to people who ALL seemed to be between 40-55, before heading to a late afternoon rally in Manchester featuring Billy the C as the keynote speaker. Observations: 1) There were a whole lot of kids playing outdoors in New Hampshire, 2) New Hampshire yuppies appear to be dog people, as there were plenty of big doggies yipping and drooling behind electric fences, 3) The New Hampshirites were uniformly polite despite thier thinny masked irritation, and mostly willing to inform us canvassers of which candidate they we’re voting for, or to at least pop out of the front door and say “undecided” 4) It was indeed a kick to be on Main Street, USA in Manchester and be part of the screaming-mimi circus of political supporters lining the lengthy street on nearly every corner, waving signs and whooping it up all in the name of the grand old American political process. Yep, after last night’s Hillary victory, I’ve girded my loins in preparation for the next call, wondering whose front yard I’ll be tramping through, in what city, and in the long run, for what candidate. Because, as my union and all unions, hang on to dear life under the crushing oppression of the current administration, which is more virulently anti-union than either of those under Teflon Ronnie or Daddy Bush, when the final bell rings, we’ll be out there fighting in November in Ohio or Florida or another hotspot, ringing doorbells and manning the phones for the Last Dem Standing, and now I’m already primed and ready to rock.

Monday, January 7, 2008

Reason to Be Cheerful 2008

Part 2:The Celts, KC, and Giiiiiiiiinnnnooooooo

When the Celtics play at home, late in the game, as they are turning the corner towards yet anther victory, a video appears on the scoreboard featuring clips of dancers from American Bandstand during the disco era, set to a one-and-only classic like “Shake Shake Shake (Shake Your Booty) by Harry Wayne “KC” Casey and his Sunshine Band or the Bee Gee’s “You Should Be Dancing”. The crowd goes bonkers, trotting out their own moves, old and young alike, awaiting the appearance of one particular dancer, a son-of-Travolta with a well-groomed beard, wonderfully coiffed hair, high-waisted and flared trousers and a white t-shirt sporting a Gino Vanelli logo. Since the majority of Celtic fans in attendance have no clue (to their credit) who the mid-70’s Canadian big-selling crooner was, the dancer has been named Gino, and the fans howl in anticipation of his light-footed, hip-shrugging moves. All of it is side-splittingly hilarious, great stuff for the Celts, a thoroughly satirical counterpoint to the Sox and “Sweet Caroline”, and perfectly appropriate for this new Celtic team that is evoking memories of the glorified past.

(If that ain't enough chuckles, here's a bonus for fans of both KC and Fernwood Tonight.)

Thursday, January 3, 2008

Reasons to Be Cheerful 2008

Part 1: Sports Are Us

Kevin Cullen, the erudite (and non-sports writing) Boston Globe columnist recently put it this way: “There has never been a time in Boston when so many of its professional sports franchises have been so good. There has never been a time when we believed—not wished, but believed—these teams would win. Hope has given way to expectation. A city, a region, of cynical losers is now, seemingly suddenly, a city, a region, of optimistic winners.”
There’s no arguing with the Cullen thesis, and if you add the pleasures of the Boston College football team and the URI basketball team (among others) its damnable evidence—we’ve gone from a New England sports-scape peopled with gloom-and-doomers, Yankee haters, Kobe detractors, prepared-for-the-inevitably-lowered-boomsters, many of them with inner feelings swayed by catholic guilt or puritanic
self-depreciation and huge doses of typical swamp-yankee lowered expectations.
The Sox finished ahead of the Yanks during the regular season, came back against the Indians in the play-offs, clobbered the Rockies in the Series, and essentially had a grand ol’ time in doing it with a cool daddy collection of players that, while not as overtly wild and wooly as the “Cowboy Up” boys, were equally as intriguing and as pleasurable to watch.
The Pats got past Spygate, managed to become the team-to-hate in the NFL, won big, won small, just about won games in each and every way possible, all the while enhancing the glowing auras of Belichick and Brady, and somehow transforming Randy Moss into a team guy. Three potential games remain and the defining mood is one of eager anticipation, as if the region collectively feels that another Super Bowl rack-em-up is right around the corner. After that, it’s simple---time to join the Celtic joyride…

Wednesday, January 2, 2008

TV EYE:Macho Slaps and Giggles

Despite the presence of the same cacophony of hearty backslapping and manly tittering that seems to be the essential element of all of the television NFL pre and post game shows, the Fox version, Fox NFL Sunday (Sunday, 12:00 PM), seems to coast above the rest. The cast of characters –Terry Bradshaw, Howie Long, Jimmy Johnson, Curt Menefee, Jay Glazier, Jillian Barberie and Frank Caliendo—mixes the mirth and football reportage as well as any of them, and the spirited jocksville repartee appears to be more authentic than the rest, and it’s certainly more palatable. The show thankfully lacks a stiff (like Bill Cowher), a big mouth (like Keyshawn Johnson), a know-it-all (like Chris Collingsworth), or a cheerleader (like jolly Chris Berman), and it does its quick mix of entertainment and info with an easy panache the other shows lack. Bradshaw remains the focal point, a hard-to-dislike combo of self-depreciation, genuine football ardor, and country-boy shtick, pumping along with an air of legitimate spontaneity that behooves the reality that it’s all about a goddamned bigtime sport rather than a matter of national security.