Friday, May 30, 2008

Sydney Pollack RIP 1934-2008

Sydney Pollack was a commercial director with an artistic touch, a mainstream mover and shaker who willingly put his money and name behind a series of intriguing movie projects, and a one time acting teacher who found a middle-aged niche in some memorable character roles in both the movies and TV. Pollack’s most memorable directorial work began with They Shoot Horses Don’t They (1969) and lasted up to Out of Africa (1985), in between he helped jump start and burnish Robert Redford ‘s career (Jeremiah Johnson ’72, The Way We Where ’73, Three Days of the Condor ’75) and crafted one of the greatest American screen comedies (Tootsie ’82). ( He also gets credit for some major stinkers with some major players- Al Pacino and Bobby Deerfield in 1977, Redford and Havana in 1990, and Harrison Ford and Sabrina in 1995.) and As a producer he helped bring to the screen such diverse productions as The Fabulous Baker Boys (’89), Dead Again (’91), The Talented Mr. Ripley (’99), Michael Clayton (’08), and even the recent HBO political retelling Recount (’08). His most memorable on screen roles came as the incredulous agent in Tootsie, and the big timey mover and shaker in both Eyes Wide Shut (‘99) and Michael Clayton. Pollack was never quite a bonafide auteur, neither distinguishing himself with a distinctive style nor spinning a true thematic web throughout his efforts, but he could indeed deliver a well-made film, and oft times a film that sparked with the current zeitgeist. Rank him just beneath the often-similar Sidney Lumet and the vastly quirkier Hal Ashby.

Thursday, May 29, 2008

TV EYE: Glazed Ham, M.D.

As much as the success of House depends on the showy, quirky, central performance of Hugh Laurie as the iconoclastic Doc with the Sherlock Holmes medical brain, an addiction to pain killers, a total disdain for social boundaries, and an ego twice the size of his hospital, it’s secret strengths lie in both its stellar supporting cast and the succinct writing that fills in the blanks of the interrelationships around the plot sinking medical mystery of the week. (Because Laurie is a Brit playing American, the majority of the audience thinks he's doing Shakespeare, unable to recognize that thick glaze on his hammy theatrics.) Unlike, say Shark, which allows James Woods to ham it up virtually untouched, surrounded by supporting players who, outside of his on-screen daughter, never manage to register, the House role players (particularly Lisa Edelstein, Omar Epps, and Robert Sean Leonard) work well collectively and burnish Laurie’s grandstanding. This season’s decision to add to the cast initially muddled the drama, but as the year wound down to a well-honed two-parter, House regained it’s footsteps with the help of newcomers Kal Penn, Olivia Wilde and the spotlighted Anne Dudek, regaining it’s position as one of the most entertaining and sharpest TV melodramas.

Monday, May 26, 2008

Drinking and Blogging

The dedicated drinker, the avid drinker, the drinker still sporting more than a couple of fresh brain cells, the drinker who adores both the process and the results of drinking, when forced by reality or weakness to pursue activities outside the drinking arena can find some solace in the almost spiritual act of burrowing into a good read centered in or around the fine art of drinking. Besides the readily acknowledged holy grails (Frederick Exley’s A Fan’s Notes, Pete Hamill’s A Drinking Life, J.R. Moehringer’s The Tender Bar) countless novels, short stories, articles and treatises exist, and any self respecting drinking man or woman should consider it de rigueur to keep their bloodshot eyes open and on the lookout for additional sacred screeds. The latest New Yorker (May 26, 2008) offers us a fine piece by Joan Acocella, “A Few Too Many”, exploring the myths and reality of the omnipresent drinker’s companion, the hangover. By turns amusing and informative, Acocella explorations and digressions hit just the right tone, and the essay actually becomes just the sort of fertile talking ground that should be gamboled in by two parties' intent on some sweet liquid indulgence.

It is the compulsive aspect of blogging, combined with the steady and incessant doses of over sharing that make the vast arena of personalized blogging so off-putting, overbearing, and ultimately nonsensical. A blog that matters is one that offers opinions buttressed by insight, information, or specific knowledge, typically leavened with humor, originality, or an inspired point of view. Emily Gould's article ("Exposed") in the May 25th New York Times Sunday Magazine is purely another example of authorial and personal self-service, yet another 20 -something's pseudo-literary attempt at ego stroking, completely facile and thoroughly devoid of the obvious irony that she's back at it again-leaving her central thesis ("I was a naive and misbegotten tool of the internet") without merit. Let's not even get into the cover shot and accompanying photos, or the sad arrogance of a so-called serious writer who could actually title her blog Emily Magazine.

Thursday, May 22, 2008

TV EYE: Mercy Mercy Me

Marvin Gayes’s 1971 “What’s Going On” is arguably the finest full length soul/r&b triumph ever committed to vinyl, marking Gaye as a creative force on par with the likes of James Brown, Curtis Mayfield, Stevie Wonder or Prince, yet he seems a largely overlooked pop music figure. PBS American Masters-- Marvin Gaye:What’s Going On weighs in and provides Gaye with one hopes will be the start of a deeper probe into the man and his music. Gaye was a true walking contradiction, a smooth performer who winded up dodging gigs, an overtly sensual man with a background and philosophy steeped in religion, a multi-talented and highly creative musician given to stultifying bouts of depression. The hour long doc is a bit thin, but it does feature some decent live footage, plenty of pithy talking head stuff (Smokey Robinson, Mos Def, Michael Eric Dyson), and a truly intriguing late period interview with the man himself.

Tuesday, May 20, 2008

Sam Fuller Goes To War

Although Merrill’s Marauders (1962, Warners, 98 minutes, $20.00) is not one of maverick filmmaker Sam Fuller’s so-called signature efforts like Pickup on South Street, The Naked Kiss, or Shock Corridor, it is solid example of Fuller’s idiosyncratic filmmaking style, a full expression of one of his overriding themes (the individual vying against group sublimation), and a taut, non-nonsense war pic. Fuller, a WW II vet himself, depicts action and violence most succinctly, and the squad of men spotlighted here, prowling through the jungles of Burma to fight the Japanese, are revealed as survivors, not heroes, and as dogfaces more afraid of dying then concerned with winning. Fuller’s patented tight, compact, in-yer-face, directorial style infuses this the kind of gritty panache not ever glimpsed in the vast majority of Hollywood war product. As a kid, watching both movies countless time on TV, I thought that this and Don Siegel’s 1962 Hell Is for Heroes were both truly gritty, ultra-realistic, non-Hollywoodized war movies, and I may have been more right than wrong.

Thursday, May 15, 2008

TV EYE: Found

Here we go. Lost (ABC, Thursdays, 10:00 PM), nearing the end of it’s fifth season, is rocking on all cylinders, adding complexity and mystery yet still managing to keep the pivotal overriding in-the-now tale progressing captivatingly forward. Unlike such stellar outings as The X Files or Twin Peaks, Lost(which is certainly treading on much of the same sci-fi/supernatural/psychological ground as those two aforementioned seminal series) has only temporarily lost it’s steam, and managed to right itself before jumping the shark or veering into innocuous territory. The show has always managed it’s time-into- multi-character constraints as well as any prime time soaper ever did, leaping from one dissipating arc to a regenerated one in just the nick of time. Between flashbacks and flash-forwards, the show divides its time in Ben’s camp, on the beachfront with Jack, and on the boat with Sayid and Desmond, all the while mixing and matching dead folk, possibly dead folk, and potentially dead folk to add to the sense of sharp roller coaster exhilaration that marks the series as among the best that mainstream TV has to offer, and hopefully (whimper-whimper) proves that it’s creators can truly close the thing out in style and with smarts as its subsequent last two seasons unfold.

Tuesday, May 13, 2008

Rockin' Was Their Bizness

Somehow The Treniers don't get the credit they truly deserve. An acrobatic,comedic, rollicking hot jump blues band lead by twins Cliff and Claude Trenier, they got their start singing for swing band The Jimmie Lunceford Orchestra, and began their own thang, with elements of Louis Jordan, Cab Calloway,even Louis Prima (all of whom swung with humor), but they truly can't be denied as definitive precursors to Bill Haley. Most well known for one of the greatest baseball songs of all time "Say Hey (The Willie Mays Song)", they also made memorable appearances in early rock and roll movies like The Girl Can't Help It and Don't Knock the Rock, and brought a truly rocking feel to The Colgate Comedy Hour in 1954, cooly cavorting with our boys Martin and Lewis. They stayed together in one form or another through the 80's, without ever achieving the kinda success they deserved, although surviving member Milt Trenier still performs periodically in Chicago to this day. It's impossible to keep your fingers from snapping and your head from bobbing and smiling while enjoying The Treniers sharp, snazzy effusiveness.

Monday, May 12, 2008


What a strange, and strangely divided, comic book movie offering Iron Man is. Robert Downey Jr. absolutely kicks ass as Tony Stark, the playboy inventor/industrialist turned into iron clad super hero, bringing his bonafide hipster sensibility to the fore, and making the first half of the latest Marvel Comic-into-movie come alive with eye-winking moxie. Regrettably director Jon Favreau can’t avoid whoosing down the path of digital bam and pow, and the tale, once deprived of Downey’s marvelously insidious satirical stylings, transforms into yet another popcorn spectacle. Certainly, both the genre and the salivating fanboys demand the by-rote sound and fury series of clashes, but none of it is either inventive or special, grinding down the gears initially propelled by Downey’s joyride of a performance, and making an end result that winds up as just another entry into the movie/comic book franchise sweepstakes, albeit one currently raking in the box office dough.

Friday, May 9, 2008

Dr. HAckenbush Opines

From his high perch in some dark and cluttered New England bachelor pad, wizened Culture Vulture Jim Celenza weighs in on dead man Charlton Heston and one of our fave transcedent pieces of time, Orson Welles' 1958 Touch of Evil.

redemptive qualities: the pope ol chuck heston has also played a redemptive role.
the ironjawed gun totting weirdo (Heston, not the pope) was a prime savior in bringing to
life Orson Welles' classic, Touch Of Evil.
It was only after Heston signed on to that project and pressed studios
for financing that Welles' film got made.
(Welles was a vivid master of ambition wedded to self destructive behavior.)
Touch of Evil? Thats one with the iconic tracking shot accompanying by the pulsing mancini score. Thats the one with the M Dietrich's last
line of dialogue -what does it matter what you say about people?

Really. And even though there
is a swarmy cartoonist quality to the whole bordertown
shebang, there is nothing quite as evil as the huge bloated Capt Quinlan hovering
like an oil derrick in the suspect's hotel room or
squeezed into a tiny hotel elevator threatening to quit or
when he strangles Akin Tamiroff (eyes bulging like a lizard's) in the squalid hotel room.
Because of Wells' inflammatory obsession with the shading and shape and movement within a
scene or even within a single camera frame, he approached a haunting painterly neorealistic surrealism. Maybe it should be termed irrealism?

To me the long smoothly evocative sequence as lawman Heston scuttles like a wet rat
through an operating oil derrick to record, with a periodic malfunctioning recorder, the bloated man's alcoholic confession is an apt and principled assessment of what it means to make a movie, or any art thing...nes pa?
Touch of Evil was also Touch of Genius; and Heston deserves some credit for that.

Dr HAckenbush

Wednesday, May 7, 2008

Thank you, Mr. President

From our consistently cranky fellow Culture Vulture John Kiley, emanating from somewhere in the midst of Maine, temporarily getting caught up in reality, temporarily eschewing the pure pleasures of pop culture.

I'm so glad that I'm getting that rebate check that
you are borrowing from China. It will cover about 1/2
the commissions that I lost today as I was designed out
of PerkinElmer because we had to hit them with a 20%
increase due to the tanking dollar that you,
Microsoft, GE, and GM love so much. So long 300k/year.
Of course this borrowing along with the endless
interest rate cuts will keep inflation humming along
but keep those well-controlled investment houses

So McCain is going to keep the War going, keep the tax
cuts in place, and keep borrowing from China. Thats
what I want- 8 more years of failed policy that has
screwed the economy and kept the Stock Market @ zero
growth. I'll vote for that twice if I can.
The State of Maine, having scrambled to tax anything
due to less and less revenues from DC, has just
imposed a huge tax on Soda and Beer. Guess who likes
his Soda and Beer. But I have to admit these are not
healthy so I'm glad they are taxing me. I'm going to
give up these unhealthy habits and with the money I
save, I'm going to start buying breakfast sandwiches @
McDonald's instead of having a Diet Pepsi. And every
nite I'm going to Wendy's and get me one of those
triple cheese Double burgers with 5 strips of bacon
instead of beer. Can't be unhealthy cuz they are not
taxed. In 6 months I won't be complaining anymore
after the massive coronary.

Sunday, May 4, 2008

The Education of Stiv Bators

This weekend, while reading Peter Bogdanovich's Who the Hell's In It (Knopf, 2004, 528 pages), a neat, slight comedown from his extremely erudite and vastly entertaining Who the Devil Made It, I took great pleasure in realizing that out of the many trenchant actor profiles/interviews collected (John Cassavetes, John Wayne, Marlene Dietrich)the lengthiest, most wide ranging, and most highly informative chapter featured none other than enfant terrible Jerry Lewis. Serendipity intervened, as it will on the occasional perfect cave-dwelling, get-it-together, hope-for-the-best weekends, and up popped the Jerry Lewis/Frank Tashlin gem Rock A Bye Baby somewhere in cableland. What can I say about my boy Jerry, in full rocking mode? Sublime. Delicious. (Hold on, I gotta watch it again.) Fucking hilarious.

Friday, May 2, 2008

Subversive Cinema and War-Ache

The following column in reprinted from the May issue of Providence Monthly

By Scott Duhamel

Funny Games
A few years back filmmaker Gus Van Sant confounded industry friends and foes alike by following his first out and out commercial success (Good Will Hunting) with a literal shot-for-shot remake of Alfred Hitchcock’s seminal 1960 Psycho. Now Austrian writer/director Michael Haneke has decided to up that ante and follow his most widely viewed effort (Cache), by trotting out a scene-by-scene, shot-by-shot, remake of his own 1997 film Funny Games. Haneke is a self-declared cultural provocateur, and he’s claiming in interviews that his project was always intended for the jaded, overfed eyes of the American public, and, that in fact, the movie’s very narrative is a thinly disguised critique of the penchant for violence in American movies. One way or the other, the new, set-in-America, version of Funny Games is easily the squirmiest movie to sit through from the lens of a legit filmmaker since Oliver Stone’s Natural Born Killers or Marty Scorsese’s The King of Comedy.
The plot is a simple variation on the 1955 The Desperate Hours, where thugs descend on an all-American family in their safe suburban digs, the ultimate middle class nightmare. In the new Hollywood version, Mom and Pop Whitebread are played by Tim Roth and Naomi Watts, with a tow haired son (Devon Gearhart) and a doggie misnamed Lucky on hand for the fun and games. Haneke’s intruders aren’t exactly cons-on-the-run or snarling baddies, instead they appear as blond preppies clad in tennis whites (Michael Pitt, Brady Corbet), boyish and well scrubbed. More importantly, these particular domestic terrorists are characters blatantly devoid of psychological underpinnings and any sort of clear-eyed motivations. That’s the filmmakers twist--the family is fair game simply because they are moneyed, and the psychos-on-the-loose are they because, we, the fat assed American audience, demand them.
Ironically, when Haneke delivered this film to a howling and divided Cannes audience some ten years ago, the craven genre of horror-porn had yet to coalesce into the commercial and critical behemoth is it today. Funny Games is weirdly behind the times—there is some variation of this combo of voyeurism and onscreen catharsis released to movie houses every few weeks or so, albeit without intellectually subversive agenda Haneke the self-proclaimed cinematic artist has attached to his versions. The director also makes sure to stamp his film as a recognizable postmodern work by having Pitt’s blond Nazi youth break down the fourth wall periodically and directly address the audience about the terrorized family’s plight, a device that comes across like a professor waving his chalk in your face. You are meant to leave the theater drenched in the sweat of complicity and pondering the critique of culture masquerading as a popular film. Haneke is extremely talented, but, as the evidence of this release’s almost immediate exit from the multiplexes, audiences are either too dumb to accept the movie’s subversive layering, or too smart to sit through the lecture.

Despite drawing flies at the box office the Iraq movies keep coming-Lions for Lambs, Redacted, Rendition, In the Valley of Elah, and now Stop-Loss, keep coming. Much has been made of talented writer-director Kimberly Pierce and the long wait after her acclaimed 1997 Boys Don’t Cry, and it’s obvious she’s put heart and soul (and one incessant, all-over-the-map soundtrack) into this home-from-the-war tale, yet it remains to be seen whether audiences will follow, and in particular, follow this well-intentioned but ultimately tone-shifting and essentially fallow exercise in simultaneous flag waving and tearing.
Ryan Phillipe plays a natural born leader and actual Army Sergeant, temporarily ensconced back home deep in the heart of Texas, alongside his parents (Linda Emond and Ciaran Hinds), his also returned soldier buddies (Channing Tatum, Joseph Gordon-Levitt), and their respective honeys (Mamie Gummer, Abbie Cornish). One of the boys is waking up at night and digging a foxhole in his backyard while the other decides to take target practice on his newly received wedding gifts, so when the Sarge gets ordered back to Iraq, he stuns himself and his intimates by making the decision to desert and head off to Canada.
Of course, the civilian troubles (a litany of familiar woes-night sweats, missing limbs, over-drinking, domestic violence, aberrant behavior) and the external complications (ineffectual politicians, inefficient policies, impotent government) are all prefaced (and buttressed) by the now rote DIY digital footage of chaos and triangulated violence caught on the run in Iraq. Sure, there are a plethora of similar images flowing around the internet, but does every single Iraq movie have to include yet another dose of jazzed up and jangled video images as a demonstration to what’s really happening over there? The movies shifting tones are bothersome, as it jumps and jags from the casual to the frenetic, from characters choking on their own inarticulateness to scene chewing bits of rage and vehemence, while the soundtrack pounds and pummels away. The film also suffers from its own tentativeness, as it strains too hard to be a pro-soldier film wrapped in an anti-war fable.
Ryan Phillippe, in what has to be his most grown up performance to date, tries to get at the inherent dilemmas of today’s youthful warriors, but he doesn’t veer off a highly predictable acting path. When all is said and done he remains a blue-eyed GI Joe, and we just don’t get a true sense of soul. As impassioned and well-intentioned as Pierce’s direction is she also never manages to color outside the well drawn lines of her own formula, and Stop-Loss winds up veering into sentiment and closing out with an empty ponderousness. One of the lessons learned from the movie past, well documented if one looks closely at the film releases of the Vietnam era, is that the best so-called Vietnam films were more often than not the ones that either played out in the shadows of that conflict or came far after the troops had long been home. It’s tough to get a clear look, even a cinematic one, from the eye of the hurricane.

Thursday, May 1, 2008

Richard Kelly's Dreaming Again

Writer/director Richard Kelly’s first feature, Donnie Darko, was a little more than a bonafide cult whambang, and it, despite it’s uneasy mix of the fantastical and the mundane, held it’s viewers in heady sway. It was one of those films so strikingly weird and arguably original that (a) you couldn’t take your eyes off it as it unfolded and (b) it stuck with you well into your dreams at night. Well, Kelly’s finally released his much anticipated follow-up, Southland Tales and it’s gone almost overnight to DVD (2007, Sony, $24.96 ), strangely truncated from a theatrical running time of 142 minutes down to 92 minutes, and once again is a strange brew-conspiracy film, futurtustic fable, political satire. It’s has its amusing moments, and it’s Philip K Dick-lite plot convolutions revolve around a highly unlikely set of actors (The Rock, Sarah Michelle Geller, Seann William Scott, Mandy Moore, Justin Timberlake), but it never hypnotizes or even jells, reducing all the wild and wooly proceedings to a smorgasbord of weirdness.