Saturday, June 28, 2008

Do You Feel Lucky?

The first movie featuring Inspector Harry Callahan of the San Francisco Police Force, 1971’s eponymously titled Dirty Harry, was at once a box office home run, a polarizing and much debated product of its time, and a thoroughly unexpected jumpstart to a franchise of an iconic cinematic character. What is often overlooked is that its sure-handed direction was deftly executed by cagey vet Don Siegal, a less-is-more type whose ability to convey kinetic on-screen action marks him as the sort of unfettered stylist that once flourished in the Hollywood studio system. The original Dirty Harry remains a 70’s classic and the best of the bunch (with one of the all time cool daddy villanous turns from the unforgettable Andy Robinson), while the follow-ups vary in both tone and quality, ranging from 1973’s Magnum Force (a tight, no excess follow-up), 1976’s The Enforcer (virtually a TV-movie-of-the-week), 1983’s Sudden Impact (Dirty Harry goes hardcore, directed by Eastwood himself), and 1988’s The Dead Pool (wickedly close to self-parody). The new set (Dirty Harry: Ultimate Collectors Edition, 1971-88, Warner, $74.92, 530 minutes) puts all the Dirty Harry efforts together and includes a ream of bonus material include documentaries, postcards, production correspondence and even a replica Callahan ID card, more than enough to make even the casual fan’s day.

Thursday, June 26, 2008

RIP George Carlin 1937-2008

The acknowledged King of Comedy (in most circles anyway) is Lenny Bruce, with Richard Pryor an arguable second. George Carlin should also be classified in the same rarified air, and the cold hard fact is that most baby boomers saw and heard a lot more of the forever-feisty Carlin than the gloom and doomed Bruce. Carlin, like most of his audience, transitioned from hipster to hippie right in front of our eyes, from Ed Sullivan to Saturday Night Live, from comic LPs to HBO specials. Carlin shaped himself into a blue-collar philosopher, a workingman’s thinker, and his brand of comedy was among the first that was drug fueled and informed rather than soaked in alcohol. Carlin’s greatest (and coolest) comedic weapon was his wordplay, and his obvious adoration and puzzlement of and about the everyday American idiom. When on the top of his game (he had an undeniable long term of sustained showbiz excellence), there was nothing quite like his New York City staccato delivery, alternately barking out phrases or enunciating another newfound language absurdity in virtual slow motion, with a comic sensibility that was directly drawn from his Roman Catholic/Irish background, spiced with a solid sprinkle of marijuana logic, a never aging rebel with a cause.

Tuesday, June 24, 2008

TV EYE:Yet Another Tough Blonde

USA has had some well deserved success with its fleet of character-driven and semi-comic procedurals, Monk, Psych, and Burn Notice, yet the new kid on the block, In Plain Sight (Sunday, 10:00 PM), seems to owe as much to TNT’s two slightly more dramatic entries, The Closer and Saving Grace. Mary McCormick (The West Wing) gets the showcase role already delineated by Kyra Sedgwick and Holly Hunter in the aforementioned cable nuggets—the tougher-than-nails top cop who is as bad at real life as she is good at her cop job. Set in pleasingly photogenic New Mexico with the fetching but tough McCormick as a US marshal with the witness protection program surrounded by an eyebrow-arching partner (Frederick Weller), a simpering, tongue-tied boss (Paul Ben-Victor), a sensitive to-die-for Latino boyfriend (Cristian de la Fuente) a preening drama queen sister (Nichole Hiltz), and pickled cougar of a mom (Leslie Ann Warren). The crime-of-the-week in the three shows rolled out so far is well beneath engaging, and the idiosyncratic supporting cast (with the exception of the silky smooth Weller) more irritating than interesting, the end result being more desultory than bright, yet there still remains something better-than-average at its core.

Friday, June 20, 2008

RIP Cyd Charisse 1922-2008

Only under the grand, keen, objectifying spotlights of Hollywood could a little girl born Tula Ellice Finklea in Amarillo, Texas gone on to be the sophisticated, dazzling, and wondrously long-legged Cyd Charisse, among the finest big screen examples of pure class and rapturous beauty. Forget the many television appearances, the theater roles, the occasional dramatic movies, and just watch (or recall) Charisse in exquisite dancing form (alongside Fred Astaire, Gene Kelly, or even James Mitchell) in such Hollywood fantasia's as Singing in the Rain (’52), The Band Wagon (’53), Brigadoon (’54), Deep in My Heart (’54) or Silk Stockings (’57), a sight both erotic and dynamic, a moving image as spellbinding as the Dream Factory can produce. As a young moviegoer I didn't like movie musicals or dancing-the-light-fantastic sequences (I was far too wannabe macho) but I did dig Cyd and her elegantly muscled stems. As a middle-aged film buff I truly adore the classic, well-made movie musical, and I worship at the very altar of Ms. Charisse and her innate sexy stylishness.

Thursday, June 19, 2008

Making Yer Bones

John Wayne made his bones as a leading man in The Big Trail (1930, Fox, $20.00, 158 minutes) Raoul Walsh’s western epic, a bust-out Hollywood cornfest, yet at the same time one of the great ambitious early westerns. The acting is stilted, just this side of the silent screen, but the stunts and extras employed will tickle yer eyes, as will director Walsh’s big screen vision. For Western buffs, viewing (or buying ) this DVD is a no-brainer, for students of Hollywood, almost as essential. For those drawn into the magic (and mystery) of big screen acting it will be a joy to witness Wayne‘s magical big screen qualities emerging; hidden behind a youthful countenance, a big-boned stance and a transparent swagger, and American icon coiled and ready to burst into cinematic flames.

Tuesday, June 17, 2008

TV EYE: Schwing

You can smell this one a mile away--Swingtown (CBS, Thursdays, 10:00 PM)is an ill-conceived but noble hybrid, an HBO/Showtime offering doing time on mainstream network television. Set in a suburban Chicago neighborhood in 1976, the show attempts to penetrate into the deeper and darker truths of the malaise ridden “Me Decade”, particularly in the temporary phenomena of open marriages and spouse-swapping. The show is awash in garnished nostalgia, the songs, the drugs, the accoutremonts, but it all somehow comes across as shallow, a surface examination of a titillating piece of post-hippie, pre-yuppie time, Ang Lee’s memorably shaded movie of novelist Rick Moody’s book The Ice Storm remains the pop culture template of the period so far.

Wednesday, June 11, 2008

Steve Erickson's Transcendent Zeroville

One of the longstanding problems with this potluck mix of pop and culture is I never seem to get around to writing about books, despite the fact, that yes indeed, the Culture Vulture does indeed find time here and there between the constant DVD parade, the furtive daytime work hour trips to the cinemaplex, the finger popping glides through the outer regions of cableville, or the daily sweetened sustenance of USA Today, The Boston Globe, The Providence Journal, and countless received-in-the-mail hard copy magazines, to actually open the covers of a full length book, and yes, simply settle down and read.
This time though, smack dab in the middle of a run on bios (Otto Preminger, Iggy Pop, Doc Pomus, Charles Schulz) and I dove into a work of contempo fiction that some small reference somewhere in infoland led me to, and the result was a knockout punch—simply the most arresting fiction experience I had in quite some time, a total, unexpected discovery of both author and authorial power, a book that hit me on both a guttural level (I knew exactly the tongue in which it spoke), an intellectual level (a read both sharp and dazzling, but brilliantly self-contained), and an almost otherworldly level (how could such a swirl of pop ephemera-about the movies, the 70’s, and rock and roll—be so intuitively intertwined?)
The book is Zeroville (Europa Editions, 329 pages, $14.95) by Steve Erickson, the film critic for Los Angeles Magazine, and the author of a few so-called provocative works of contemporary fiction of which I was heretofore unaware of, as I was the author. Zeroville is a phantasmagoric look at Hollywood (and the very magic of cinema itself) set in the “Raging Bulls, Easy Riders” era of 70’s Hollywood, a period noted for the sad comedown of the by then bloated but beloved studio system and the charged influx of a new generation of whiz kids weaned less on literature and art, but suckling directly from the milky discharge of both world and Hollywood cinema. The novel follows Vikar, who appears in Los Angeles in 1969, a distressingly na├»ve virgin escaping a small town, movie-forbidden existence and a stern, maybe even maniacal father filled with misspent religious fervor. Vikar, growing up without the cultural touchstones of television, radio, newspapers, has begun his transgressive path by diving soul deep into movie houses, and self-educating on a thoroughly disparate diet of blockbusters, classics, and art film folderol. Oh yeah, amidst the braless teen wonders and almost-cut-my-hair dandies waltzing through the mansions on the high hills, the beachfront hangouts, and the ever gritty streets of LA, Vikar is sporting a shaved head with a huge tattoo depicting the hypnotizing visages of Montgomery Clift and Elizabeth Taylor from A Place in the Sun.
Vikar, a protagonist as inactive and pawnlike as Chauncey Gardiner, interacts with the likes of Scorsese and Cassavetes, with Margot Kidder and the John Milius-like Viking Man, all the while watching movies frame by frame, collecting canisters of film for his own misshapen canon, and falling backwards into the holy realm of actual filmmaking. Iggy Pops drone on as his personal soundtrack, and whips himself into bloodied frenzies in the mosh pits of the burgeoning punk rock scene, Robert DeNiro studies him at a party and from such Travis Bickle blooms, and at one point finds himself on stage at Cannes as the audience equally celebrates and vituperates him.
The novel toys with a fevered religiosity, yet its aim seems to point more directly at the churning powers of obsession, of loss, and of art and artifice. Erickson sticks a toe into the surreal, yet the novel remains defiantly neo-real, and the prose and narrative devoid of flash or gimmickry. As the Vikar the woeful seeker finds transformation and mind bending poetry in the imagery, camerawork, acting and set design in the movies of Hitchcock, Bunuel, Dreyer and Godard (whose Alphaville both gives the novel its name and permeates its atmosphere), he, like all of us undone and spellbound while staying awake in the dark, finds his own sort of resounding meanings. Zeroville is simply transfixing and acutely heart rendering , like watching a transcendent, slow, unending collage of a loop of set pieces from Welles, Antonioni, Fuller, or Kurosawa, with no place to go and no end in sight.

Tuesday, June 10, 2008

One Soulless, the other Soulful

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

By Scott Duhamel

Speed Racer

Too long, too frantic, too much like a big screen videogame, exactly whom was this movie made for? Four-year-old boys with a side interest in physics? Technical wizards and co-directors Larry and Andy Wachowski have made a candy-colored whiz-bang of a movie, a whirligig of sound, color, and action without a semblance of narrative panache or creative soul. Which means, that for those accompanying said four-year-olds, Speed Racer is going to be a torturous 135 minutes, an expensive and gleaming high tech translation of an old school Americanized Japanese bit of pop culture ironic junk, devoid of the pop and sizzle that was behind the ironic tone of the 60’s Saturday morning cartoon offering, like a hard candy found laying behind the couch a few months after it falls out of its package.
The movie fails miserably in the most basic of ways. For a thrill ride devoted to bang-bang gear- shifting and frenetic excess, you know, about pure speed—vroom-vroom speed-the overall effect is strangely lifeless, totally devoid of any sort of extended hold-onto-yer-seat excitement. The story, a weary fable of a good-hearted youth up against the callow evil of corporate greed, of family values versus the vested interest of Big Brotherhood, is supposed to resonate with some sort of deep-seated significance, but besides being buried under wooden dialogue and ultra stiff plot mechanics (all of it apparently delivered without any goosed-up eye-winking), it comes across as predictable, trite, and badly old-fashioned. Oh yeah, and this, a movie with cars at its center, gives off absolutely nil automobile buzz, the digital cars careening around rattling your eyeballs registering as harmless, danger less, speed less, CG whimsy.
Initially, Speed Racer sports a bedazzling look and feel, a brightly hued cross between Candyland, Yellow Submarine, and a benign LSD trip. The rudimentary backgrounds of the assembly line original have been replaced by pop visuals akin to letting Walt Disney loose on some video-game scenery, a weirdly salubrious concoction of dreamy hues and crayon splashes. Granted, The Wachowski boys are in love with the process, the gamesmanship, the Mr. Wizard tinkering and inventivess of commercial cinema, but as their post- Matrix career has shown, they are not ably conveying all that to audiences. The same vaque lefty posturing that emanated from brother’s last script (V for Vendetta), the kind of unformed hinting that’s catnip to both fanboys and hipsters leaks in around the edges here too, although it’s easily cancelled out by the glass-of-milk imagery.
The Wachowski team may well have the chops, the verve, the all-out creative imagination to eventually make a mark in the industry. (It’s easy to deny it now, but the original Matrix was indeed something special.) Unlike the great commercial movie directors, that particular sort that could successfully weave together popcorn kernels and artistry (Alfred Hitchcock remaining the bellwether), the Wachowski’s can’t seem to transcend technique, can’t yet get past the magic tricks. A little bit of Speed Racer would make one hell of a trailer or one dynamite YouTube collage of images, but as a feature its sound and fury amount to nothing, it’s a soulless exercise, a long two hours plus of a craven parade of coloring book pages as movie.

The Visitor

It’s been heartwarming to see all the critical kudos and generous praise sent Richard Jenkins way in the advent of his taking on a lead role in The Visitor, a small but highly effective from sophomore writer/director Tom McCarthy (The Station Agent). For those of us situated in New England who have had the pleasure of watching Jenkins perfect his craft up close and personal at Providence’s Trinity Square Repertory Company, it’s both a pleasure and a confirmation—we knew the guy had something truly special. (For me, Jenkins turns in American Buffalo, Fool for Love, and as Biff in Death of a Salesman
Remain among the best stage performances I have ever witnessed.) The Visitor gives Jenkins the role that’s been waiting for him, and he delivers a subtle and nuanced turn, transforming an indie drama that revolves around political issues into a soulful character study.
Jenkins plays Walter Vale, an economics professor from Connecticut, a widower with a child living abroad, a bottled-up and closed-down middle-aged cipher, trudging step-by-step through dutiful existence. Sent to New York for a conference he opens up his little used Manhattan apartment and discovers a Syrian musician named Tarek (Haaz Sleiman) and his Senegalese girlfriend (Danai Guirra) occupying it. Victims of a real estate scam, the two wind up being befriended by the seemingly friendless professor, and the dour middle-aged sleepwalker begins to undergo a personal transformation, ratcheted up by our immigration policies and the appearance of Tarek’s mother (Hian Abbass).
McCarthy, an actor too (who played the duplicitous reporter on the final season of The Wire), works assuredly with his cast, and the films rhythms and trenchant writing ring true, yet the film still revolves around Jenkins deceivingly sturdy shoulders. Usually a multi-racial drama that asks us to draw our conclusions predominately through a white protagonist wilts because of its inherent liberal pretentiousness. Since The Visitor’s polemics actually center around a theme of commonality, and since the narrative is driven by the slow awakening of Jenkins’ character, and the heartfelt humanism he brings to the table, the movie delivers in a movingly good-natured way.
Jenkins has managed to forge out a neat movie career, playing supporting roles both comic and dramatic, registering with audiences as a familiar face and presence, a sturdy character type. The Visitor is his late career movie break-out, a sharp feature that allows him, however modestly, to stretch and breathe in a long distance role, and he compellingly delivers, his triumph translating as ours.

Friday, June 6, 2008

TV EYE: Done Wrong Dems

What a time to revisit the screwed-up, messed-up, comically depressing Presidential Election of 2000. With Recount (HBO, various times), writer Danny Strong and director Jay Roach have put together a telling narrative mostly derived from the actual fiasco-including multiple public concessions, behind the scenes maneuvering of both Repubs and Dems, a vamping mad-hatter (Laura Dern as Florida Secretary of State Katherine Harris), and enough matter-of-fact cynicism on display to penetrate the whole East Coast. Recount spins a funny and furious little tale (for a whole lotta of us, a bitterly funny kick-in-the-pants cautionary tale) but it doesn’t pack the lethal punches of a truly caustic satire. The fact is that despite all that most of us dyed-in-the-wool pissy and pissed off uberDems won't be able to resist watching such a stacked-deck cable movie.

Tuesday, June 3, 2008

Bo Diddley: He Used a Cobra Snake for a Necktie, 1928-2008

Somewhere in the ever-holy Tower of Song the residents’ shuffle up the winding staircase (handrails gleaming, carved from ancient ivory) to the incessant, herky-jerky, beneath the surface, bone-shaking, perpetually hypnotic, ever-so-pure, rhythm of the Bo Diddley Beat. Bo, like Little Richard, like Chuck Berry, helped erect the sturdy bridge between the swamp of jazz, blues, country and gospel that lead to rollicking seas of rock and roll, Bo being the undeniable architect of one of rock’s bulwarks--the otherworldly hip-shaking, chunka-chunka in-yer-head cadence of rock and roll. Bo, without the fey, screaming, grandstanding, sweaty immediacy of Little Richard who probably performed his way out of the womb or the sharp and calculated story tunes mixed perfectly with the spellbinding combo of propulsive piano and radio showy guitar hooks of Chuck Berry offered up a different sort of regal showmanship. Bo stood stage center like a conductor, hips akimbo, tasty hat, square eyeglasses, boxy guitar, oozing a quiet confidence while unleashing his snaky tremolo and laying down his first person eurhythmics. While Sun Ra readily informed his audiences and collaborators that he been transported to space and thus transformed, Bo might well have been a true time-traveler, clad in his own version of a space suit, his vast array of tailsmanic guitars his means of teleportation, mixing and matching the rumbling backbeat he lifted from the train yards of Chicago with ancient African tribal chants and the rat-a-tat-tat of a western gunslingers discharge, seemingly deprived of his earthly just desserts (money and fame), but actually here with other interstellar purposes: Help create rock and roll, jumpstart the Rolling Stones, and lay down a mystical, eternal syncopation that will forever hold its sway.

Monday, June 2, 2008

That Was Then, This is Now

Among the vast majority of film connoisseurs, buffs, fanatics, and cinema nitcrits the burst of outright enervated originality and pure artistic verve the first films (from 1960-67) of Jean-Luc Godard displayed are seared in the collective memory banks. At the time Godard seemed to be virtually reinventing the art of moviemaking, and his films swirled with passionate inventiveness, all of them celebrating the very blueprints of the movies yet simultaneously twisting them inside and out. His 1963 opus, Contempt (Criterion, $39.99, 103 minutes) , was a brilliant splash of Cinemascope on the big screens of the time, yet it still looks wondrous and feels powerful as a viewed-DVD today. A meditation on creativity and betrayal, it’s playful breeziness belies a truly moving underbelly, Godard’s imagery is both pop dazzle and restorative painting, his prolonged set pieces are truly hypnotic, and the casting simply exquisite; a luminous Bridgette Bardot, a piquant Michel Piccoli, a thundering Jack Palance, and a wise and battered (by Hollywood)Fritz Lang. Today’s audience can garner a bit of the same experience by watching a Tarantino concoction, both filmmakers share an adulation for cinema, both boldly steal and quote from the films they admire, and both manage to simultaneously craft a narrative and a self-reflexive commentary; the difference being that the Godard works are also steeped in art, politics, and, dare I say it, visual poetry.