Tuesday, April 29, 2008

Good Hair, Awful Agent

Al Pacino, following in the ignoble late career footsteps of big screen thespians like Michael Caine and Gene Hackman hasn’t apparently met a bad script he doesn’t like yet. 88 Minutes ranks right up there with his ever mounting filmic turkeys (Simone, Two For The Money, The Recruit, Scent of a Women, And Justice For All, Revolution ,Author, Author, Bobby Deerfield ), and while Al shakes, rasps and rolls his way through this putrefied serial killer thriller-diller. Absolutely nothing in the movie makes sense as characters babble incessantly on cell phones, the supporting cast (including a strange female threesome-LeeLee Sobieski, Amy Breneman, and Alicia Witt) appears to be drowning, and another unsavory dollop of misogynistic sadism (in repeated close-ups) gets rolled out. Al hams it up with particular impunity but the movie is a garbage dump of soulless clich├ęs without an iota of spark or credibility. My stepson tried to convince me that it enters the category of so-bad-it’s- good, which I can’t quite buy, although Al’s hair does turn in a remarkably agile performance, so riveting that I just couldn't avert my eyes back to the plodding movie taking place in the background.

Friday, April 25, 2008


Ah, the sweet pop culture wonders of the Internet, a wondrous place for a ravenous and crusty culture vulture to be lurking. Nerve.com has come up with a list of the so-called 50 Greatest Comedy Sketches of All Time and the video checklist provides a whole lotta true laffs, and a purty cool collection of sketch meisters ranging from Ernie Kovacs to Sid Caeser, from Monty Python to Dave Chappelle, from SCTV to a big bunch of SNL. Perusing the list, one might quibble with a few choices and wonder a bit about who or what has been omitted (Jackie Gleason), but all in all this is a fine array of genuinely funny bits.

Tuesday, April 22, 2008

TV EYE:A Minstrel Show

The logic lurking behind the motives of those responsible for TV programming can range from confusing to inexplicable (Kathy Lee Gifford as a ratings booster for the Today show?), but sometimes it borders just this side of insanity. Case in point--Dopey ex-Public Enemy trickster and reality TV figure Flavor Flav has now parlayed his so-called talents into a starring role in a new syndicated sitcom entitled Under One Roof (Various channels, various times). It’s a steaming pile of low-grade showbiz horseshit that a coupla of fifth grade television aficionados could have come up with, a blatant rip-off of The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air (which in comparison, looks downright like a farce from the pen of Feydeau) purporting to show the wild and wooly antics of ex-con Flav, now living under the rich roof of his uptight brother (whom he took the rap for), his more uptight (and lily white) sister-in-law, a dumb sexpot daughter, a neo-nerd son, and a disparaging Korean maid. You just couldn’t make that up, nor could you manufacture the shucking, jiving, and eye popping that accompany the delivery of each predictable line reading. It’s so godawful that one can't help but wonder that maybe it’s an insidious and subversive entry in the pop culture wars by some cool daddy potheads smirking their way to the bank, or at least an outtake from Spike Lee’s unjustly underrated Bamboozled.

Friday, April 18, 2008

Further Sinatra Research: Frank as a Dick

Frank Sinatra’s movie career was a whirligig of the good, the real bad and the very ugly, an indeterminate mixed bag of breezy musicals, half-assed action pics, a few prestige productions and high mannered projects, and a whole lot of oddities. In the late sixties Sinatra hooked up with glorified traffic controller Gordon Douglas (The Chairman’s favorite sort of director) and made three successive policiers, each one strangely lurid and overtly vulgar, all three brimming with certifiable bad taste. The initial Douglas/Sinatra collaboration was Tony Rome (1967), featuring Frankie Boy as the lowlife Miami gumshoe of the title, which was followed up by a sequel of more of the same Lady in Cement (1968), while in between the duo released The Detective (1968), a surprise box office hit with Sinatra as small time New York police dick/agent of morality Joe Leland. Watching these three back-to-back-to-back recently I was struck by the commonality of tone, mood, subject matter, and misc-en-scene that existed outside of the familiar Sinatra persona and formula. All three movies exhibit an odorous mix of repellant chauvinism, on-the-surface homophobia, and a bleary-eyed view of society, swirled in a cocktail of lurid sixties-styled psychoanalyses, suggestively shining a shaky spotlight of Sinatra’s ever mutating public metamorphosis from civil rights liberal through Rat Pack Party Boy to budding anti-hippy conservative. The movies feature sexy, tough gals like Jill St. John, Racquel Welch, Lee Remick, Gena Rowlands, and Jacqueline Bisset, and utilize meat-and-potatoes actors (and some Sinatra buds) like Richard Conte, Martin Gabel, Ralph Meeker, Jack Klugman, Dan Blocker, Rocky Graziano, and Sugar Ray Robinson, and have characters with names like Catleg, Fat Candy, Packy, and Shev. The movies all depict (with obvious disgust) drug usage, homosexuality, ineffectual law and order, open sexuality, and rampant societal cowardice, with the only redeeming signposts being a stiff drink, a horse race, an old fashioned lay, or a sucker punch. Tony Rome remains eminently watchable, albeit in a laugh-with-me/laugh-at-me fashion, possessing an undeniable throwback charm that’s part highly-absurd-faux-hip-Chandleresque-romp and equal part shoddy-trashy-brain dead-finger snapper, a movie that begins and ends with a zoom-in on a bent-over woman’s ass. Now, that’s entertainment, baby.

Saturday, April 12, 2008

Bang Bang, No Kiss

In the movie season of 1967 the release of Bonnie and Clyde (1967, Warner, $39.92, two-disc, 112 minutes) created the kind of slam-bang ripple effect that far too few movie releases could get close to in the current, less kinder, non-too-gentle, atmosphere of contempo jadedness and cynicism. Viewing the film with the eyes of a 2008 viewer, the movie neither shocks nor scandalizes, although it remains a superb effort, and an amazing distillation of combined talents, from sharp director Arthur Penn, hipster screenwriters Robert Benton and David Newman, stunning Faye Dunaway, and producer/lead actor Warren Beatty. Under Penn’s sturdy and bold hand, the movie rolls along like a backwards American fable, exquisitely interweaving humor and violence, tossing in a strange subplot of murky sexuality, and turning the Robin Hood hijinx at its center purty much upside down. Beatty and Dunaway simply bask in the burnished glow of the camera lens like a pair of old school Hollywood icons, even while the movie itself drives another spike in the glorified past of the Hollywood studio product. The extras included in this “Ultimate Collector’s Edition” are fascinating and educational, but they lack the chorus of critical voices that can make these extra discs particularly superlative.


Ahh Georgie Boy. Ambition is usually a good thang, and it’s clear the Mr. Clooney, star and director of Leatherheads, a new slapstick tale of romance and sports is very much a film made in the style of the great Preston Sturges (co-star John Krasinski has mentioned in interviews that Clooney advised him to watch the filmmaker’s movies as a prep device), but the movie doesn’t come close to achieving that one-of-a-kind Sturges (The Lady Eve, Sullivan’s Travels, The Palm Beach Story) combo of wit, panache, insightful satire and withering cynicism. Clooney, as both actor and director, seems to be straining here and much of the movie is muddled-the climatic game, the attempt at snappy screwball-styled dialogue, the strained attempts at moralizing (always a death knell for a comedy). The truth is, I like Clooney, I like Rene Zellweger, I like sports movies, I like grown-up comedies, and I truly wanted to like Leatherheads a whole lot more.

Friday, April 11, 2008

TV EYE: Mud and Guts

Although I made my recent switch from Cox Cable to Verizon Fios since the former is a dastardly non-union company and the latter is a proudly unionized one, I’ve had the opportunity to discover a few minor gems on a few fresh channels. Chief among my new found pleasures is looking into the gritty World War II series Combat (AmericanLife, various times and dates) which ran from 1962-1967, with 152 hour long episodes. Anchored by the hangdog Vic Morrow, all tussled hair, squinty eyes, five o’clock shadow, with a killer a pause-and-terse reply style of anti-banter, the show purported to show the war from the trenches, a tale of infantrymen striving to survive through the minor skirmishes and oblique battles in war torn Europe. The shadow of Vietnam shades at least a portion of the proceedings, as the show shies away from heroic acts and crackerjack action, focusing instead on the humanity of the soldiers, and the mud-and-guts reality of their world. Many of the episodes are helmed by TV vets like Bernard McVeety, Ted Post and Tom Gries, with a few intriguing shows shot by Hollywood mavericks Robert Altman and Burt Kennedy.

Monday, April 7, 2008

Easy Listening

I'm aging. graying, decaying. It would seem that part and parcel of the aging process is a new found reliance in ritual and habit. My once wonderfully chaotic, spur-of-the-moment, I-want-some-fun lifestyle has been reduced, almost erased, in favor of as many carved out moments of comfort, familiarity, and stress less activity as possible. Even more frightening--I take great pleasure in the successful repetition of these habitual endeavors. That's right, pleasure, i.e. delight, a zoomarama rush of internal gratification. Take Sundays for instance.It was once a morn devoted to coming down, putting the mental pieces back together, crawling from the bed to the couch while angling through the sweaty and discarded undergarments with a piece of processed cheese held limply in soiled hands, fervently praying that somewhere in cableville the shaky clicker finger could land on a western, a Martin-Lewis movie, or a batch of Dragnet reruns. My contempo Sunday game plan is a whole different shebang. Early release of the dogs into the backyard, out of the house by 7:30 AM or so (even after a night of deliciously nectareous alcohol consumption), paper and smoke purchase completed, back to sweet spot in the living room, ESPN on, but muted, and switch on the radio for the 8:00 AM local broadcast of Steve Van Zandt's syndicated two hour radio show, Little Steve's Underground Garage. Then it's 120 minutes of rock and roll bliss, hipster ha-ha's, waves of childhood nostalgia intermixed with childlike womderment about just how coolio pop music can still be. Unadulterated, pure genius. Do me, and yerself a favor, take a bit of time to check out the hilariously erudite Little Steven, a cockamamie mix of Dino, Stiv Bators, and Sal Paradise, and his most recent show (or at least peruse the playlist), a tribute to The Ramones.

RIP Charlton Heston 1924-2008

Even during his box office champion heyday, Charlton Heston was referenced as an object of some derision, as a wooden actor who brought with him a patented godlike posturing and familiar stentorian vocal style alongside his obvious good looks, blazing blue eyes and well-toned physique. Heston had a serious track record of blockbusters, from the fifties through the seventies, colorful big budget productions like The Greatest Show on Earth (’52), The Ten Commandments (’56), The Big Country (’58), Ben-Hur (’59), El Cid (’61), 55 Days at Peking (’63), The Greatest Story Ever Told (’65), Planet of the Apes (’67), The Omega Man (’71), Soylent Green (’73),Earthquake (’74), and Airport 75 (’74). His monolithic and magisterial presence registered well with audiences, even those who enjoyed a good joke at his expense, yet he never had quite the magical trick up his sleeve to please the highminded moviegoing crowd, the sort of stuff his beefcake brothers like Robert Mitchum (intrinsic coolness), Kirk Douglas (high flying neuroticism), or Burt Lancaster (magnetic vitality) had in spades. (Heston did manage to be part of three enduring critical faves: Orson Welles’ Touch of Evil (’58), Sam Peckinpah’s Major Dundee (’65), and the vastly underrated Western Will Penny (’68).) Heston, like Sinatra a liberal gone over to the dark side with age, became a kind of Cardinal of Conservatism, and in the last decade and more he became the omniscient narrator and spokesman of the gun lobby and other right wing causes, becoming known as much for his political stances than his quite glorious Technicolor past, a past filled quite nicely by the ever chiseled Heston, rugged and rigid, clad in sandals, a robe, or some other such spurious costume, surrounded by extras, guided by a dictatorial director from high in a camera crane, a central piece of the lavish and plush jigsaw excessive splendor that was Hollywood in the heart of the studio era.

Friday, April 4, 2008

Let’s Get Whimsical

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

By Scott Duhamel

I’ve been under the mystical spell of the infamous “Auteur Theory” since I first read (and reread) Andrew Sarris’ The American Cinema back in my salad days. Sarris spelled out the obvious in a nutshell-that the film director is essentially the author of a film, despite the fact that filmmaking itself is indeed a thoroughly collaborative process (writing, acting, camera work, set design,et al), and the foremost of these film authors create work that is continually linked by personal themes, preoccupations, motifs, and other commonalities. Among the pleasures derived from this well accepted theory (particularly for the legions of film nitcrits who write about movies for the public) is that even the lesser works emanating from these legit auteurs are a head above the fodder produced by the majority of mere traffic cops and artless technicians who helm much of Hollywood’s product .

Case in point: Michael Gondry, a truly gifted filmmaker whose latest, Be Kind Rewind, while not a wholly successful creation, stands as discernibly watchable effort, as unevenly stitched together as it may be, its very stitchings are bewitching, all of them propelled by a captivatingly singular vision. Is it a superlative film, a knockout punch? No, but as the theory dictates, any Gondry is well worth seeing.

Gondry made his bones as a rock vid director turning heads and blowing minds as the dreamy mad scientist responsible for the parade of kooky, funky, and wholly preternatural images parading behind the music of people like The White Stripes, Daft Punk, or Bjork. His bag of tricks, which include primitive special effects, a heady predilection for the whimsical (he and Wes Anderson outta go mano-a-mano in a whimsy contest), a humorous appetite for the surreal, and a noticeably light and gentle directorial touch, were fully intact by the time he made his big screen debut with Human Nature in 2001. That breezily satirical glance at science, civilization and the so-called uncivilized was percolating with funny bits and cheeky laughs, it just didn’t quite coalesce. His second collaboration with the noted screenwriter Charlie Kaufman in 2004, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, resulted in his finest film yet, a deft and ingratiating amusement park ride of a movie, wondrously executed and fanciful enough to tickle both the eye and the soul. The Science of Sleep, released in 2006, was almost as good, a ticky-tacky kaleidoscope fantasy of sad love and failed romance was as much imaginative collage as it was movie head trip, although it suffers from a slight over reliance on the director’s now patented sense of whimsy.

Be Kind Rewind is more of the same, a filmic conceit built of charm, stylistics, and loopy visuals, all of it amusing to behold, but not quite ever achieving any significant staying power. The tale, set in the most unlikely of fantastical places-Passiac, New Jersey—defies logic from the start. After one of those weird science accidents lovable loser Jerry (Jack Black) manages to erase all of the shelved movies in the neighborhood video store owned by the venerable Mr. Fletcher (Danny Glover), and run by Jerry’s best bud Mike (Mos Def). With help from homegirl lma (Melonie Diaz), and mucho encouragement from the store’s steadiest customer Miss Falewicz (Mia Farrow), the unskilled duo begins to videotape short homemade versions of such popular fare as Driving Miss Daisy, Ghostbusters, RoboCop,and Rush Hour, and the scheme somehow results in bonding the neighborhood’s denizens through the power of primitive art.

Gondry’s cinematic arsenal is purely fabulist, and his low-tech trickery remains just this side of crayons, Elmer’s Glue, and flip books. His previous works all seemed to emphasize a contemporary sense of distancing and unfired connections, while Be Kind Rewind skewers toward a highly sentimental push for closure and communal bonding. His typical infusion of childlike innocence still dominates the proceedings, but many of the gags land at a comic level slightly below the Buster Keatonish heights they aim at. The movie’s finale, a paean to sweeter times and a more guileless Hollywood, attempts to will the audience into a state of heightened pathos, yet even a true believer such as myself might have a problem jumping in that deep. Still, Gondry’s powers for the illusory, and his commitment to a tone that remains haplessly enchanting and deliberately delusional truly does make even his flawed handiwork appealing. The quixotic nature of his filmmaking ethos lends itself to loose ends, to a certain razzle-dazzle hat comes without the eruptive fireworks. In today’s bleak landscape of formula, cheesiness, and overt commercial twaddle a penchant for both charm and imagination goes a long, long way.

Wednesday, April 2, 2008

Run Through the Jungle

Even as a fairly knowledgeable film buff I purty much only knew Cornel Wilde from his two best known roles in 1955’s The Big Combo and 1964’s The Greatest Show on Earth, and that he had forged some sort of strange secondary directorial career. His 1966 cult fave The Naked Prey (Criterion, 96 minutes, $40.00) has recently been released as a DVD, and it’s a wondrously effective yet determinedly odd and authentically primitive effort. The largely dialogue-less adventure has Wilde pursued through the jungle after a safari-gone-wrong by a passel of African tribesman. Intercut into the running, grunting, and and bang-bang bouts of brutality are bits of wildlife and landscape footage, edited in a way that actually furthers the lean narrative. Wilde, a taut physical specimen at 50, treats the natives with a decidedly nonracist eye for the mid-60’s, and the movie glides and pounds its way through a tense hour and a half before reaching a predictable, if satisfying finale. Weird and as low rent as it may be, the combo of the location shooting a minimalist acting, and faux verite can’t hide a certain sense of authorial vision, essentially urging further Wilde viewings like his war film Red Beach (1967) and his deep sea fable Shark’s Treasure (1975).