Thursday, October 30, 2008

It’s a Man’s, Man’s, Man’s World

The following column is reprinted from the November edition of Providence Monthly

By Scott Duhamel

One of the prescient charms of the movie westerns that once flourished in both the Hollywood studio system and beyond was that the genre’s central characters typically succeeded in displaying their back stories, convictions, and psychological make-ups through movement, action and response rather than through any sort of extended dialogue. Whether it was Randolph Scott or John Wayne, Gary Cooper or Clint Eastwood less was always more, and it was understood that within the western setting, with civilization silently encroaching and the call of the wilderness ever beckoning, words carried much more import when spoken plainly and applied directly. As the movie western progressed, turned sideways, and even circled back unto itself a sort or prairie-speak was created, laconic and lean, pregnant with the constant implication of impending violence, spare and colloquial, yet strangely poetic.
Ed Harris, the co-writer, director and star of the latest contempo Western, Appaloosa, has obviously latched onto that aspect of the storied genre, and his valiant go at it has some fine moments when the camera eye settles on the simple (but meaningful) back and forth between Harris and co-star Viggo Mortensen. The actors, who share a similar steely-eyed rectitude, play lawmen-for-hire Virgil Cole and Everett Hitch, riding into Appaloosa, New Mexico in 1882, and a town well under the yoke of an erudite but thuggish landowner named Randall Bragg. Jeremy Irons is cast as Bragg, and as soon as you note his tendency to preen and speechify you’ll easily identify both his place (oily villain) and his fate (the wrong end of a main street shot-out). Neither Cole (Harris), dressed far too neatly and notably clean-shaven (which helps hint at a touch of psychopathology in his lawman’s soul) nor Hitch (Mortensen), sporting a dandified mustache and an ironic bent as the film’s sparse narrator, place much faith in talk. They act like a long married couple, filling in each other’s thoughts and finishing off short sentences, interacting in a Zen-like manner with the essential addition of six guns, of course. Harris is being faithful to the structures and rhythms of the Western, and most of the movie benefits from his adherence.
Renee Zellwegger is the movie’s wild card, a widow that arrives in town and immediately courts the indomitable Cole, then suddenly (and inexplicably) makes a play for Hitch. She’s a modern concoction in a throwback effort, an invader from the East, half whore/half Madonna, who throws the longtime partners equilibrium off and promises to take the movie down a newly trodden road. Threats are made and carried out, guns drawn and fired, the dusty streets of the town are left behind for encounters with Indians, a train sequence, and an excursion to Mexico (replete with a Mexican stand-off), and Harris the director strains to forge a genre exercise that is simultaneously faithful and exploratory and in turns facile and portentous, but it doesn’t quite jell, while Zellweger’s character remains a cipher which puts a strain on the proceedings.
Harris (getting behind the camera for the second time in his career, some eight years after helming 2000’s Pollock) gets a lot right here--the emphasis on Western and male codes, the underlying pull of the constraints of civilization versus the freedom of the wilderness, the utilization of violence as an example of professionalism, the great wide open spaces between horses, riders, and small talk. Appaloosa is venerating enough, but far too stolid and open-ended to resonate beyond its outlines. It ain’t no Western classic, but it’s a valid addition to the genre as a whole.
Although Ridley Scott mostly cashes his chips in the plush surroundings of the Hollywood high-falutin’ popcorn movie, he is, above all else, a stylist of the first order. Hand Scott the first class cast, the well draw setting, and an entertaining script that grafts on even an intimation of some kinda weighty theme, and he’s home free, pounding and tapping an infectious backbeat through the heart of the mainstream action drama(whatever it’s permutation), ala Alien (’79) ,Blade Runner (’81), Thelma and Louise (’91), Gladiator(’00), Black Hawk Down(‘01), American Gangster(’07). Body of Lies, his latest, sets him up with the blue ribbon teaming of Russell Crowe and Leonardo DiCaprio, award winning screenwriter William Monahan (The Departed), and lets him play with the accruements of the spy thriller, zipping through a big budget actioneer that’s part Syriana and part Bourne Identity, with a touch of 70’s paranoid political thriller thrown in. It’s bravura filmmaking, more entertaining than significant, a good and efficient jigsaw puzzle that satisfies but leaves one wanting for more, hoping for substance over style.
Body of Lies is a globe-trotting romp, largely set in the Middle East (which has so far been box office poison), and Scott fills it out with whomping explosions, edge-of-your-seat torture, spy-in-the-sky camera work, all of it underling the foreboding presence of the political and spy thrillers most well known villain-the omnipresent government. Crowe, pasty and fattened up, is Ed Hoffman, a CIA handler and puppet master, who, from his suburban digs and his Langley, Va. office tracks, sacks, and smacks field agent Roger Ferris (DiCaprio) through his hide-and-seek machinations. Much of what Scott fluffs up for display is cliché-ridden and old hat, yet he has the directorial flair to punctuate the predictable with his finely honed editing skills and deep dish camerawork. DiCaprio’s agent hopscotches from one frying pan to another, a mini-soldier in a maze of a war game, and the lack of original plot and a few more deep-seated secondary characters makes the movie veer towards staleness.
Both Crowe and DiCaprio deliver the goods, the latter working up quite a head of furrowed brow consternation and flop sweat while the former lays way back, smothered in a southern accent, a rambling duck walk, smugly armed with his own brand of weaponry--a laptop and a cellphone. A romance between Ferris and a Jordanian nurse (Golshifteh Farahani) is plot stroking at its worse, and the only other character who even seems to register is British actor Mark Strong, simmering with malice as the chief secret policeman, although one has to wonder why this pivotal role wouldn’t be played by a true Middle Easterner?
The central question about Body of Lies remains: Does Scott (alongside the TNT combo of Crowe and DiCaprio) have what it takes to break the losing streak of Middle Eastern war movies (Redacted, The Kingdom, Stop-Loss, Grace is Gone. Lions for Lambs, Rendition, In the Valley of Ellah, Home of the Brave)? I can’t help but admire the Scott’s sure handedness, or the way he puts some muscle (and maybe even some brains) behind his cinematic eye candy, but its obvious Body of Lies packs some nice punches and combos but comes no where close to a knock-out. That film still remains to be made.

Wednesday, October 29, 2008

TV EYE: Remake/Remodel

This remake of the well-liked 16-episode British with the same name, Life on Mars (ABC, Thursdays, 10:00 PM) has started off strongly. Waking up after a car crash in 2008 New York cop Sam Tyler (Jason O’Mara) finds himself in 1973 and wonders if he’s gone mad, is time-traveling, or is dreaming it all under a crash induced coma. Meanwhile, while pondering his fate and continually sleuthing it, he solves crimes of the week retro detective style, without the use of forensics and technology (wotta relief), in the company of a put-upon police women nicknamed “No Nuts” (Gretchen Mol), a wise guy handlebar-wearing fellow detective (Michael Imperioli), and a gruff suspect bashing boss (Harvey Keitel-huge bonus points for bringing one of the most watchable actors of our time to TV). The period music used is coolly evocative and amusingly ironic, the recreated 70’s done up with a nod and a wink, and the series itself capably blends sci-fi, comedy, and drama, all of it sprinkled with a neat touch of cosmic (and comic) mysticism into a fresh and spicy dish.

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Newman’s Own

Somehow, just a few weeks after the fact, the cracked and golden image of Paul Newman keeps reappearing to me, and I can’t ponder the significance of his unarguably solid movie career. A lot of baby boomers (like me) first glimpsed the golden boy when one of the local television stations played one of his earlier films and his image and countenance wasn’t so easily categorized. Not as medium cool or as existentially blank as his counterpart Steve McQueen, he also wasn’t old school tough like Bob Mitchum or as athletically theatrical as Burt Lancaster. As a direct connect to Dean and Brando, he was neither as soft or as curdled as the former or as unhinged and dangerous as the latter. Somehow he became a box office love mate with Robert Redford (who combined a touch of McQueen’s emptiness with a rueful quality that was closer to a mid-range proletariat like Jack Lemon then it was to any of the new kids of the time-Hoffman, Nicholson, Pacino), and they combined for the slick and easy, but fairly entertaining trifle The Sting, and one of the godawfullest Westerns of all, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid.
Although Newman virtually buzzed with insouciant charm throughout George Roy Hill’s sub-Penn, sub-Peckinpah, sub-Boetticher version of the west, and, yup, admittedly he and Redford displayed a near perfect marijuana/Marlboro man chemistry in a genre that virtually never teams males up equally—preferring instead to pair off males as traditional interconnected opposites (white hat-black hat, farmer-gunslinger, lawmaker-lawbreaker, easterner-westerner)—the movie is at best a breezy 60’s road movie disguised as a horse opera. It’s all quick vignette after vignette, perked up by the Newman-Redford coy exchanges, and get dragged down to the driest gulch by the worst sequence in western history (worse than Dale horsewhipping Trigger) when Newman ambles around in dimpled sunlight with earth momma Katherine Ross posing idiotically on a bicycle while B.J. Thomas sings a virtual New Christy Minstrel number in the background.
Newman stands out, and deserves to, as a young acting stud who quick-as-a-wink found himself an icon, a matinee pin-up, a generational representative, yet managed to play around purty vividly within his own well drawn dungaree-wearing, beer-sopping, uncaring-Adonis outlines. Here's mine, a baker’s dozen of Newman’s own. Whattya think?

Somebody Up There Likes Me (1956). Newman (grabbing a role meant to go to Dean) gets to Do the Method, as he dance through this explicitly 50’s slice of heightened realism. He hams it up as Rocky Graciano, all marbled mouthed and cartoonish New Yawknees, but it’s the snazzy gumball performance of somebody young, gifted, and, yes, ambitious.

The Left Handed Gun (1958). Another role inherited from dead man driving Dean, an all the more interesting as one posits which way the more slithery Dean would have gone towards inhabiting the tender young psychopath Billy the Kid. (How about Newman as Pat Garrett and Dean as Billy under the tequila splashed lens of Sam the Man Peckinpah?) Neither Newman nor director Arthur Penn had developed the experience to do this real justice, but it remains an intriguing offshoot Western, and Newman’s Kid twitches fairly effectively.

Cat on a Hot Tin Roof (1958). Newman woulda kicked this outta the park on stage, but this high-falutin’ somewhat truncated Richard Brooks’ version of Tennessee Williams allowed Newman-as-Brick to edge slightly closer the homoerotic whiff that always seems to emanate from many of Hollywood’s male idols, and he also successfully connects to that under-the-surface anti-macho, anti-society, anti-ambitious American male figure that so many of his other on-screen characters would push into a recognizable misshapenness.

The Hustler (1961). Upping the kitchen sink ante on the Graciano biopic, this much less Hollywoodized tale of upward mobility and salient loserdom lets the more assured dice-throwing actor come of age with his portrait of Fast Eddie Felson, a mannish boy who’s part fool and part rebel, both self-assured and self-defeated, caught squarely on the cusp between back room stardom and suit-and-tie respect.

Hud (1963)
Newman goes deep here, creating the sorta sexy cad that only Brando might have pulled off, with Brando’s acidity. Years afterward Newman himself would talk about his disappointment that audiences celebrated what he thought was a throughy unsympathetic figure; never acknowledging that in itself was a testament to his performance.

Harper (1966)/The Drowning Pool (1975). Somehow Newman’s two time turn as Lew Harper (nee Archer) consistently falls under the radar as exercise in Marlowean (Phillip) culture, yet the actor’s private dick has to be the most prescient contempo version of such since this side of Elliot Gould in The Long Goodbye. Blissfully cynical but inherently moral, a lone outsider drifting between straightsville and gonzoland during both the 60’s and 70’s, fingernails clean and pants neatly pressed as he leans down to peek through another keyhole—he’s an undercover version of one of Newman’s constants—the lost in the flood American male.

Cool Hand Luke (1967). Newman at his most wounded and his most charismatic, all of it played with barely a quiver of actors’ muscle. A dynamic film and a first class performance.

Buffalo Bill and the Indians…or Sitting Bull’s History Lesson (1976)
One of my personal faves, a vastly underrated outing that died at the box office. Robert Altman and the actor plotted together to make his Buffalo Bill a blustery, sad, and lost figure in a movie that subversively utilizes Arthur Kopit’s play about the decline of west and the betrayal of the Indian into a showbiz lampoon, albeit a dark and puffy one. There is a wistful sense of self-knowing at the center of this etching of a false idol, as if the actor felt both connected and repulsed sketching out a weird form of self-portrait.

Slap Shot (1977)
A truly 70’s slice-of-life with some slapdash comic moments, Newman filled out his hockey skates like Bobby Hull’s better looking older brother, all the while nimbly scratching out another one of his wise but empty husks, more masculine promise gone sideways.

The Verdict (1982). An autumnal film that washes over you with a quiet deluge of gray backgrounds, washed-out countenances, indiscernible settings and Newman’s burnt out, lost soul of a living-on-the-edge lawyer. Sidney Lumet mostly sticks with the minor chords in this closed-in redemptive fable, and the well worn actor comes through with his most evocative performance.

The Color of Money (1986). While it certainly wasn’t one of the primary performances that should have brought Newman the Oscar, the Academy tossed it belatedly his way, and he does carve out another subtle caricature, bringing gravity to Marty Scorsese’s gritty yet pumped-up stylings, and accenting the essential shadows of his earlier go at an American hustler, while still resisting any form of big screen grandstanding, a quiet storm at the center of the director’s amped-up ministrations.

The Hudsucker Proxy (1994)/Nobody’s Fool (1994). A quality twofer. The Coen Brothers film film (The Hudsucker Proxy) is one gliding, stylized, completely artificial riff of a movie-movie and Newman goes full tilt in a character role, comically malevolent and obviously slumming, albeit in high style. The Robert Benton offering (Nobody’s Fool) is a movie length short story with Newman gleefully getting the chance to play Hud all growed up, a twilight reprise of the quintessential good-bad guy, a role enhanced by the obvious twinkle in the aging role player’s eye.

Monday, October 20, 2008

Say It Ain't So, Joe (Madden)

When all is said and done, no one can blame Bye Bye Manny, or the the absence of the clutch bat of Mike Lowell, or Josh Becket's strained oblique. As hurtful as it is, The Tampa Bay Rays beat the Red Sox straight up, fair and square, over and out. Joe Madden's Rover Boys stayed his steady (and irritatingly upbeat) course, and thier young bats kept pounding away (15 home runs to our 9, while thier younger arms gut- checked the mostly veteran Sox hitters when they needed to (the Sox scratched out 55 hits to Tampa's 54 while only scoring 27 runs to the Rays' 40). We lost two out of three at home (conjuring up a miracle to grab one), let a second game victory in Tampa get away, left a ton of guys on base in a variety of scoring situations, watched Captain Veritek become the surest out since the last stand of Bob Beetle Bailey, had Big Papi and Pedroia hit and run into a truly classic strike-em-out-throw-em-out momentum killer in the 6th, allowing the tiring Matt Garza to shut down rally killers Kotsay and Tek in the 7th with two men on, let Elvis Costello Madden mix and match five pitchers in the 8th without one run squeezing by, and, finally, let a guy (David Price) with 5 games major league experience to his name strike out J.D Drew (looking more than ever like one of those haunted movie Civil War vets stumbling back home through a field of cannon smoke and dead bodies) and absolutely shut us down in the 9th. I wasted a lot of time yesterday morning attempting to figure out which Sox jersey I'd wear to work today for my day after celebration, anybody wanna loan me a Willy Aybar model?

Friday, October 17, 2008

Bobbin' and Weavin'

As much as we spend an inordinate amount of time peering through blurry eyes at the television screen, sweating over the next essential choice at Netflix, or tap dancing between the popcorn kernels at the local Cineplex, Culture Vulture headquarters does indeed provide space and time for reading and perusing.
A few dandy magazine pieces have recently caught my attention, including a very intriguing profile of filmmaker P.T. Anderson (who knew his daddy was legendary Cleveland horror TV host Ghoulardi?) by John H. Richardson in Esquire That was 1989, the year Anderson graduated from Montclair Prep. Under his yearbook picture, he had the usual collection of ironic quotes-the hook from “Staying Alive,” a joke from Woody Allen, and a few lines from Robert Downey’s Sr.’s deranged 1960 business satire, Putney Swope. But he might have been the only kid in America who also quoted his own fictional character: “All I ever wanted was a cool ‘78’ Vette and a house in the country”.-Dirk Diggler
Spike Lee also gets dissected by John Colapinto in the New Yorker Scorsese told me that financial obstacles are not unusual for established directors with a personal vision, like Lee or Robert Altman, or Scorsese himself. “Sometimes these things go in cycles,” Scorsese said. “Particularly if your films more subjective, more personal points of view. After The King of Comedy, ‘I wound up going back
to a low-budget independent cinema with After Hours, then ratcheting it up just a little bit more with The Color of Money and then going back to independent with The Last Temptation of Christ and then finally getting back into a kind of a fighting shape with Goodfellas. So in a way you have to go off and explore. Some people don’t come back.” He added, “It sort of separates the men from the boys, the ones who keep going. And he(Lee) has kept going and he’s not going to take no for an answer. Which is great.”

Finally Howard Hampton, the bastard son of Greil Marcus and Lester Bangs and the author of the absolutely killer collection of pop criticism Born in Flames: Termite Dreams, Dialectical Fairy Tales, and Pop Apocalypses, sets out to get a grasp on the popular American political film in Film Comment:/fcm.htm.
Maybe rapprochement between the mockers and the mocked was possible after all; Manny Farber thought that Altman’s “promiscuous” movie was really about “group endeavor” as “the cure for a fucked-up America.” Love it or hate it, Dr. Robert’s zeitgeist treatment could be a mutually validating win-win for everyone: the hip, holistic in-crowd got Gestalt therapy out of it-a deep-dish psyche-of-the-union address with a bittersweet scoop of Neo-Fellini ice cream on top-while the hicks and vulgarians got something else to see the about, bellyaching at Hollywood for its offhand disrespect.
While we are in a state of perusal, I can’t mention a wonderful new web site,The Art of the Title, still in its infancy, that offers a ton of potential. For those of you who (like me) worship at the altar of Saul Bass, among others, this is truly the right stuff. Let me finish by shoving the spotlight over to our pals at The Popcorn Trick for taking us back to the weird and fuzzy days of TV’s recent past and filtering it through a glass, darkly.

Monday, October 13, 2008

RIP Paul Newman 1925-2008

Paul Newman was out and out beautiful, a sparkling blue-eyed physical specimen with a charming swagger and a mesmerizing easiness, a man’s man equally adored by every persuasion of moviegoer, and probably one of the all time greatest looking faces to ever get a star’s close-up as part of the assembly line of the Hollywood Dream Factory. It turned out he could act too. Without seemingly lifting a finger (for a box office kingpin, he was a remarkably recessive big screen figure) he became a truly iconic movie figure, bridging the wide gap from the 50’s to the 60’s, connecting the lamp lit dots from Brando and Dean to Nicholson and Beatty, making all the pre and post Vietnam lists of movie rebels with and without causes, conjuring up the peculiar voodoo of the American male whose compass has been jarred, epitomizing that very guy in movies based on the works of authors ranging from Tennessee Williams to Ken Kesey to Richard Russo. Like almost everyone whipped through the Hollywood vortex Newman made his share of clunkers but his acting choices were more often than not impeccable, and many of his performances infinitely more resounding than the completed films themselves. He play tough guys with hearts of gold, heels, con men, cops, lawyers, private dicks, cowpokes, sons, dads and grandfathers, ne’er do wells and magnates, cuckolds and lovers, and he brought to them all a sense of lean efficiency, eschewing ham handedness or grandstanding, making film audiences peer deep within the glint of those infamous eyes to sometimes catch the soul of a prototypical American dreamer, yearner, and sometimes failure.

Thursday, October 9, 2008

Here Come The Regulars

The following column is reprinted from the October edition of Providence Monthly

By Scott Duhamel

The movies, like most of the weird and woolly universe of pop culture, ain’t all about entertainment value, or box office results, or, by gosh, even artistic merit. A whole lotta moviegoers shuffle off to the Cineplex with a touch more than snap, crackle, pop, and breasts on their respective minds. Filmgoers are sharp, they ascribe their own internal ratings, muscle up their own comparisons, connect the movie-movie dots, divide up and then judge movies by genre, and follow career trajectories. For those of us functioning as nitcrit Greek choruses, ensconced high in the balcony or cracking our knuckles behind hidden keyboards, this sort of pop cult group consciousness, providing multiple paths into the judgment garden, as we wave the magic wand and manipulate our thumbs, or assign those cheesy ratings stars, well knowing that film goers are bright enough to watch and asses a movies intent, merit, or significance outside of the context of whether their asses got itchy.
It’s virtually impossible to divine the success or failure of Woody Allen’s latest effort, Vicky Christina Barcelona or the Joel and Ethan Coen’s newest, Burn After Reading, without looking at the body of work that preceded them, particularly that most recently churned out. It’s the contention of many of those-who-know-such-things that the finest filmmakers purty much make the same film again and again, or, at the very least, tip-toe through the same themes and obsessions while consistently utilizing a plethora of repetitive stylistic flourishes, despite genre, subject, or plot.
As Woody Allen’s career has progressed he (like his unlikely doppelganger, Clint Eastwood) he has largely removed himself from his directorial efforts as an actor, and his films have taken on a decidedly autumnal feel. Most recently Allen has left his beloved New York City backgrounds behind for Europe (Match Point ’05, Scoop ’06, Cassandra’s Dream ’07), and Vicky Christina Barcelona (as the title hints) is set in Spain. It’s one part valentine to the city of Barcelona, one part a typical Allen mediation on the dueling natures of love and lust, and one part a springboard into the voluble elements that make (or break) the artistic disposition, another longtime preoccupation. It’s also one fine outing, deliciously adult and marvelously well executed.
We are in Barcelona because two young women are summering there, Vicky (Rebecca Hall), the smart but repressed one, and Cristina (Scarlett Johansson), the bold and adventurous one. They meet head on a charming modern day Don Juan named Juan Antonio (Javier Bardeem at his most disarming), a painter and self-styled ladies ,man who offer the girls what they least suspect, “no subterfuge.” As the gentle, but rollicking comic drama plays out the inert Vicky finds observing an unfolding that replaces her with Maria Elena (Penelope Cruz, burning it up), another artist and Juan’s highly temperamental ex-wife.
Allen, as his wont, sets us up with callow figureheads until the film flows evenly along and new depths are revealed or suggested by both the sureness of his narrative and his subtle but meaningful visual punctuations. Emotionally piquant scenes tumble into gag-centered bits as the sun-splashed setting (and the omniscient narrator) imbue the proceedings with a literary weightiness. What could have been a mere picturesque postcard of a film morphs into something richer and messier. Vicky Cristina Barcelona is a shrewdly effusive vision, a film that offers a lovely palate and is exquisitely executed; a rich turn from one of most intriguing American filmmakers.

Those fascinatingly contradictory Coen brothers (Joel and Ethan) are at it again, following their deservedly well praised and magnificently elegiac modern day western No Country for Old Men with Burn After Reading-a movie that could be no more different-an anarchic, no-holds-barred farce that ultimately cares little for its characters and seemingly even less for its audience.
The movie purports to be a spy farce bit it also tilt-and-whirls between a highly meta-screwball comedy and a not-so-sly indictment of Beltway behavior. The opening camera work features the camera’s eye honing in from above on the Virginia/DC governmental playground and quickly revealing a batch of dumb-but-officious types who seem to people that arena. The movie unfolds as quick and febrile as most of the Coens work (Raising Arizona, Fargo, the Big Lebowski), larding on the quirkiness and laying out the dumbasses, although it doesn’t ever mount the sort of organic connective tissue that allows a successful farce to be knock-out amusing.
The stellar (and extremely game) cast, including George Clooney, Frances McDormand, Tilda Swinton, John Malkovich and Brad Pitt), all equipped with silly names and sillier dispositions race broadly through the bang-bang scenes made of multiple double-takes, telegraphed close-ups of rage and consternation, absurd brutality, and deadpan dialogue with a look of feral determination of their faces—they work overtime in a gallant bid to make the assembled troupe of idiots seem hardy-har funny.
While there are certainly moments of temporary hilarity (particularly Brad Pitt’s moronic monkey play-although if you’ve seen the TV ads you’ve seen three-quarters of his performance), and the movie is impeccably shot by Emmanuel Lubeski and goosed up by production designer Jess Gonchos, but it still unfolds like a chilly sketchbook of flipped pages. Obviously thumbing their respective noses at Hollywood propriety, the Coen’s revert too much into the emotive distancing that has already spoiled a few of their efforts (The Man Who Wasn’t There, The Hudsucker Proxy, The Ladykillers), and they created comic figurines that don’t transcend their cartoonishness, and made the greater mistake of leaving the audience out of the ol’ loop de’ Coen.
The Coens truly misstep when it comes to the treatment of brother Joel’s wife and frequent collaborator Frances McDormand. Her clueless gym employee and desperate single woman character, Linda Listzke, may hold impetuous behind the plot shenanigans (a true cinematic MacGuffin-a computer disc of little or no import) but she seems to hold no more importance that that of plot device all the while being the film’s ostensible central figure. She is more a sad and disturbing creation than a truly comic invention; as the razor-sharpen jokes fly she appears conveniently disposable, and remains a personae more off-putting than sympathetic. You can’t deny the Coen’s forthright ability to build bizarre cinematic universes or the outright talent they continually demonstrate from behind the camera and as unusually stellar editors. Burn After Reading is funny enough and marginally entertaining, it’s just not that good, a facile replica of intellectual slapstick, a movie that mocks everything but itself.

Tuesday, October 7, 2008

TV EYE:Coming Up Empty (Again)

Aussie actor Simon Baker, the star of The Mentalist (CBS, Tuesday, 9:00 PM) has the sort of insidious charm that just ekes outta his pores with the mere turn of his head. CBS has twice tried to wring success out of his good looks and eye-twinkling vibe (The Guardian, Smith) and they’ve decided to try it again, cranking out yet another mainstream procedural with Baker at its center as a fake psychic turned criminal consultant, solving the crime of the week committed by the guest star of the week all the while surrounded by a team of consistently harried, puzzled, and grudgingly admiring team of crime solvers of the week. Its Psych meets House meets Without a Trace and even Baker’s inherent likeability can’t amp up the tepid crimes, the obvious clues, and the stock situations. Like anyone else, I believe that either a TV show or a movie can occasionally get by on the acting chops or charms of a particularly cool daddy thespian. Often times, the actor or actress’s chops or magnetism is enough to make an audience overlook the work at hand’s obvious deficiencies or lack of originality. Not this time. Score: CBS 0, Baker 0, Audience 0..

Sunday, October 5, 2008

NYC, 70's style

Word is out that cult fave The Anderson Tapes (1971, Sony, $19.94, 99 minutes) is about to be remade, though somewhat inexplicably moved from its New York City setting to Miami (It’s sister film, 1974’s The Taking of Pelham 1-2-3 is currently in production, with the remake wisely still set in NYC). The movie stands out for a few reasons. It marked the first time director Sidney Lumet used New York as a background, before he went on to mini classics like Serpico, Dog Day Afternoon, or Prince of the City. It’s also a paranoid thriller masquerading as a heist film, stacking Big Brotherness right next to deadpan violence right next to tounge-in-cheek urban humor. Best of all, once you look past the fact that it was one of Sean Connery’s leaps away from his James Bond persona, it’s packed with a batch of kick ass character turns from the likes of Dyan Cannon (Manhattan gal pal), Alan King (Mafia kingpin), Martin Balsam (swishy antiques dealer), and a weirdly youthful Christopher Walken playing a gang member know as The Kid, never mind the whole passel of 70’s prototypes filled out by Val Avery, Paul Benjamin, Dick Anthony Williams, and Richard B. Schull, with the icing on the cake the strangest of cop pairings--Ralph Meeker and Garret Morris.

Thursday, October 2, 2008

The Bobby and Al Show

More than a few years back this teaming up of Al Pacino and Robert DeNiro would have had any bonafide film buff hot tailing it to the theaters. Alas with the duos’ current track record of bad choices and worst movies, any regular filmgoer can only expect the worst, particularly since the director of record is Jon Avnet, the chef responsible for Pacino’s most recent turkey, 88 minutes. Righteous Kill (terrible title) is bland, the quirky cast (50 Cent, John Leguizamo, Donnie Wahlberg, Carla Gugino) wasted, and the proto-intensity is grafted on like a typical sixty minute television procedural, 101 minutes of cinematic drivel. If the Bobby and Al Bang a Gong Get It On Show actually draws something other than flies, I suggest a few potentially lucrative teamings: Bobby and Al as dogcatchers in rural Michigan, Bobby and Al as rival chefs at a Colorado ski resort, Bobby and Al as a gay couple who happen to star as television film nitcrits, Bobby and Al as retired stunt men spinning tales in a dusty Venice Beach dive bar, Bobby and Al as ex-New Yorkers going partners in a Miami deli , Bobby and Al as two aging Nordic brothers taking their estranged sons on an extended ice-fishing excursion in Minnesota, Bobby and Al as Othello and Iago with a western backdrop, and finally, Bobby and Al in a remake of Ishtar.