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.

Friday, August 22, 2008

Bottom Feeder Time

Weasel. Worm. Rodent. Nightcrawler. Chipmunk. Independent Man. They are all the same. John DePetro, that bastion of radio wisdom, the man with the most acute case of the Napoleonic complex in all of Rhode Island, the guy who has his daily swim around the bottom of the barrel airwaves publicly everyday while he lies heavily at the lowermost of local radio popularity pulls a sixth grade cheating move with the Arbitron ratings and unbelievably lets his wife take the bullet. Funny as it is (didn’t the little fella look screamingly hilarious offering up his pale-faced mea culpa on the local TV news spots?) it’s simultaneously sad and sickening. Since WPRO, in their infinite wisdom (any buzz is good buzz right?), is allowing Mr. Standup to use his tiny feet and tap dance over his wife’s prone body, they ought give him a new grabber of a nickname. How bout Little Johnny Emasculation? Or John “No Balls” DePetro? Those who mistakenly listened to his show of shows have always known he was a low rent circus clown, but we never realized what a truly pathetic creature he’d become.

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

He Had the Feelin'

Nice title--I Got the Feelin’: James Brown in the 60’s (2008, Shout Factory, $40, 3-discs), and while one of the concerts featured in this three disc set, Man to Man-James Brown Live at the Apollo Theater in 1968, offers a valuable and entertaining look at Soul Brother Number One, it is the documentary The Night James Brown Saved Boston that literally demands a viewing. Brown happened to be scheduled to play the Boston Garden on April 5, 1968, one day after the fatal shooting of Martin Luther King Jr., causing much consternation to the Boston Brahmins and Mayor Kevin (Very) White, as other urban centers had broken out with rioting and they feared bringing a large group of African-Americans into the heart of the city would spell big trouble. Somehow the wise decision was made for Brown to play and to simultaneously televise the gig over the bluest of airwaves, TV public channel WGBH. Brown is magnetic, and in full bloom as a dancing, sweating, talking contradiction: capital seeking artist, dynamic performer, and inner city ambassador, and the performance footage is mesmerizing, particularly when The Godfather of Soul steps in front of the glinty-eyed policemen patrolling the stage and cools out the crowd. For those that only know Brown through the myriad sampling of his oeuvre in hip-hop, this is a must see, and the DVD’s bonus footage includes his incendiary and forever classic T.A.M.I. Show appearance.

Sunday, August 17, 2008

RIP Bernie Mac 1957-2008

Watching Bernie Mac’s (born Bernard Jeffrey McCullough) wholly successful and mostly riotous stand up act one wouldn’t have thought he could ever creatively translate it to the sit-com medium, yet The Bernie Mac Show, which ran from 2001-2006 for a total 103 episodes, did exactly that. It steadily served a funkier (and a decidedly self-conscious) version of Cosby Show family values, while also nodding heavily in the direction of the surreal precedents of the George Burns and Gary Shandling shows. Bernie Mac, with his linebacker’s gait and comically self-inflated bluster, presided over the familial turmoil and showbiz sprinklings like a defanged despot, huffing and barking his law of the jungle philosophies to a stellar cast, including Kellita Smith as his lovely and put upon wife, and Camille Winbush, Jeremy Suarez, and Dee Dee Davis as his adopted brood. The show coasted along with a lively intelligence, and co-creator Larry Wilmore and Mac never compromised the comedian’s rough hewn sense of street irony and in-yer-face wisdom. Mac achieved the contempo comedian’s trifecta, with solid success as stand-up, in movies (as a star and as a character type), and in fashioning a sit-com that will stand the test of time, a rare example of the genre that had both heart and soul alongside the consistent yucks.

Friday, August 15, 2008

Sweet Gillian, Sad (and bad) X-Files

The simple (but sadly true) take on the strangely delayed second X-Files movie (The X-Files: I Want to Believe) is that it rolls out as nothing more than an elongated regular TV-like episode. Creator Chris Carter, answering the complaints of many, has purposefully tossed away the dark and swirly central mythos that both bewitched and bedeviled the show’s legions of loyalists in it’s TV years (1993-2002), but the film plods along like a procedural, despite the plots hints and detours into spiritual questions and ethical dilemmas. It’s a sadly desaturated exercise, all but killing the chance for another movie to follow, and definitely finishing off the desire for further x-filing for any audience other than the most hard core cultists. Gulp, bye-bye my beloved Scully, you television china doll, you, Gillian Armstrong, who epitomized the attractiveness of an overtly intelligent women, a fictional feminine creation who sparked a sexual aura through the characteristics of restraint, reserve, and mystery and made your character whole without an iota of overtness. How sweet it was.

Wednesday, August 13, 2008

TV EYE: Runaway Sons of the Nuclear A-Bomb

The Wire, created by David Simon and ably abetted by Ed Burns, may have been the most-praised, least-seen cable series ever. Their follow-up, Generation Kill (HBO, Sundays, 9:00), adapted from reporter Evan Wrights’ original Rolling Stone 3 part-article and subsequent book, is a no-holds-barred, manically anecdotal look at the Iraq War, that much like The Wire, traffics in multiple-characters, quasi-theatrical slang-talk, and allows an overwhelming (and often dark and bitter) sense of fatalistic irony to function as the core of what is essentially a sweeping critique of a war program and it’s day-to-day actions. The Marines at the center of this low-key, shambling, virtual road movie, are a mix of smart aleck tough guys, ironic wise guys, sarcastic hip guys, and funny-in-spite-of-themselves psycho warriors. Simon and Burns don’t make distinguishing any of the players an easy thing, and two or three episodes go by before you can finger a few of the pivotal players like Corporal Ray Person (James Ransome) a motor-mouthed survivor intent of riffing his way through the battleground, Sergeant Brad “Iceman” Colbert (Alexander Skarsgard), the one soldier with brains, heart, and courage, the writer (Lee Tergesen) alternately repelled and fascinated by what he observes-an obvious audience surrogate, and the Lieutenant Colonel known as “The Godfather” (Chance Kelly), a whisper-for-a-scream battalion leader who is primed and ready for a true tactical fight. Mix in references to video games, pop songs group sung by off-key soldiers, a J. Lo death rumor, rampant homophobia, and a non-ending barrage of twisted ball busting and you get the picture. Generation Kill is a comic nightmare ride, grim, contradictory, and hard-ass funny, outstandingly horrifying.

Sunday, August 10, 2008

Light and Shadows

You’ve heard the expression “pure cinema”? Well, Danish filmmaker Carl Theodor Dreyer(known for his 1928 The Passion of Joan of Arc), defines the term. Vampyr (1932, Criterion, $40.00, 73 minutes) an early cinematic tale of the supernatural, is as surreal as it is scary, and it sustains an unbelievably pervasive mood of dread, with Dreyer’s absolutely distinct camera work, his incomparable use of light and shadows, combining it all with the moodiest of soundtracks and the director’s extensive use of long takes and amateur players. Light and shadows, it’s as simple and pure and unforgettable as that. And truly as powerful.

Friday, August 8, 2008

Summer Pleasures

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

by Scott Duhamel

Hellboy II:The Golden Army

If you are looking for a primer on what the basic virtues of summer movies ought to be, you need to look no further than Hellboy II: The Golden Army, a fun movie that offers the plot up as a start-up for a series of imaginative flourishes, that allows silliness to churn into charm, and wades into the current stream of cinematic comic book adaptations waving its pulpy freak flag high.
Keeper-of-the-flame director Guillermo del Toro seems to derive great pleasure in flitting back and forth between his more highbrow, and critically praised offerings (Pan’s Labyrinth ‘06, The Devil’s Backbone’01) and his lowdown genre exercises (Blade II ’02, Hellboy ’04), although he continually displays a fervent penchant for acute production design and a true visual flair no matter what category his films happen to fall into. As a filmmaker, del Toro operates with a little boy’s heart and a full-out fantasist’s mind, tempering it all with an eye-winking overview, a near perfect combo for this comic book sequel, making it easily one of the summer’s most delectable movie pleasures.
For those unfamiliar with Hellboy (and this is not the type of sequel that demands viewing of the original), who is played with glazed ham gusto by Ron Perlman, is a demon raised by humans who works for an agency devoted to quelling paranormal activity. Hellboy is thoroughly reluctant so-called super-hero, filled to the brim with self-depreciation, and as able to toss out a tongue-in-cheek aside as throw a crushing left. The sawed-off horned, cigar-chomping, good/bad boy is aided and abetted by two great side characters, one being Abe Sapien (Doug Jones) a kinda fishy empath, and the other Liz (Selma Blair) who is both human torch and girlfriend.
The movie is an unabated creature feature, with a parade of patented del Toro creations, both sweetly nightmarish and comically ghastly, the film may even err with its overdose of phantasmagoric legions, almost too many for the eyes to digest. Yet despite the barrage of stage front and peripheral mutations, del Toro never allows us the CGI stuff or rubber costuming to demand attention, instead all of it is submerged under the burnished glow of his version of a modernized EC comic book of the frightening fifties.
(The coolest piece of imagination may the newly introduced Johann Krauss, a German ghost hunter who is basically a blast of gas held inside of a diving suit, and whose body movements are credited to two actors (John Alexander and James Dodd). He is voiced (get this) by Family Guy kingpin Seth MacFarlane, and the comic repartee between him and Perlman is truly humorous.)
Director del Toro knows how to stage and choreograph his assaultive pockets of violence, painting it all with baroque brushstrokes, directing it with fanboy passion and a storyteller’s talent. Hellboy II is exquisitely scraggy, low-heeled, and bursting with comic book vividness, a true summer movie treat both knowingly entertaining and solidly amusing.


The newest offering from the smarty-pants at Pixar aims a bit higher than the aforementioned feisty sights and sounds of Guillermo del Toro and his Hellboy II. In fact, right from the gitgo it’s obvious that director Andrew Stanton (Finding Nemo) has lofty goals with WALL-E, goals a bit beyond the usual Pixar mix of fully conceived storytelling and exquisitely textured computer animation. WALL-E, while masquerading as a prestige family film, is a well-realized cautionary tale and an eerily poignant love story told through the most tactile Pixar animation yet.
The movie begins on an earth that’s seemingly become one infinite trash heap. Amidst the skyscrapers of trash, the abandoned autos, the burned-out warehouse husks, are huge mega-billboards still blinking their messages into the void. Through the silence one hears the whirring click-clack of the last robot standing, a Waste Allocation Load-Lifter, Earth-class (WALL-E) for short, as it/he goes about his daily Sisyphean task, compacting the junky entrails of commercialism gone to seed.
The sustained tone of these opening sequences-which continue through a sudden intrusion of new robot life called EVE (Extra-terrestrial Vegatation Evaluator), is some of the most neatly and deliciously pure elegiac cinema that I’ve seen in some time. The juxtaposition of garbage and found junk (a Rubik’s cube, a toaster, an old videotape of Hello, Dolly!), the stark contrast of a planet devoid of humanity inhabited by a machine sparking with touches of personality, and the sense of a small (mechanical) breath of hope peeking through a ravaged dystopian landscape is both a superb rendering of silent film magic and that rare type of animated film that actually makes you forget that what you are watching is not human flesh roving around an actual (or man-made) landscape.
Stanton (who also co-wrote A Bug’s Life, and both Toy Story movies), despite the fact that this is foremost a children’s film, is bold and smart enough to draw all of this slowly, almost languidly, an approach so alien to the contempo desire for crash-bang speed and aural aggression that it unfolds with a spellbinding wonder. When the movie (and plot) zoom into space and churns into a canny parody of consumerism run amuck Stanton picks up the pace yet it doesn’t zip his tale into the frenetic zone, nor does he allow the high-tech cautionary tale veer down the path of muddy sentimentality. Evoking one or two of the Disney classics, WALL-E is an animated feature simultaneously dense and effortlessly simple, one languorous yet invigorating, an intangibly resounding bit of computer generated cinema.

Sunday, August 3, 2008

Tell Them Willie Boy is Here

The Cleaner (A&E, Tuesdays, 10:00 PM) comes accompanied by a strangely misleading title, a batch of portentous must-see trailers, and (uh-huh) yet another lead character who carries on an ongoing conversation with God. Benjamin Bratt is William Banks, a hardcore ex-junky now devoted to rescuing, babysitting, and kidnapping druggies of all shapes and sizes, all the while trying to redeem his sins and pay the rent under the doubting eyes of his seen-it-all wife (Amy Price-Francis). For all the drug culture similitude the show strives to evoke, it tugs on the logic meter when Willie Boy calls together his team (trust fund cutey Grace Park, shaky-puff Esteban Powell), and they make elaborate plots to achieve their old school interventions, and still end up in the midst of punch-outs and snatch-and-grabs. Through it all Bratt’s central figure, as potentially annoying as he’s drawn, manages to remain somehow likable, although I think this particular vehicle is highly unlikely to catch on.

Friday, August 1, 2008

Bye Bye Manny

The biggest downside in this mixed-up, messed-up Manny saga, is the tremendous upside for the Yanks (and Rays). Yup, even though I know that letting Manny go was the right and only thing to do, my stomach still feels sick this morning, and my baseball heart is saddened.