Friday, February 29, 2008
Are you in the mood for a whacked-out southern gothic Tennessee blues ditty love story redemption fable? I got just the picture for you. Black Snake Moan (Paramount, 2007,$29.99, 115 minutes) features Samuel L. Jackson as a farmer/ex-electric blues man who finds a bashed up Christina Ricci on the side of the road clad in only a tattered t-shirt and her skimpy undies and decides to nurse her back to health while vanquishing her inherent wantonness with a neat combo of good food, bible reading, blues songs, and chaining her to his radiator. All this, and Justin Timberlake as a soldier boy with a bad case of the shakes and l-u-v in his heart for the little gal who can’t keep her pants on. Writer/director Craig Brewer made quite a splash with his down home Southern hip-hop tale, Hustle and Flow, and his second offering is such a truly strange hybrid (a feel good, Grade A exploitation film) that marks his next effort as a surefire must see. Of course, if you’re like me, you’ll watch this one poised between laughter, disbelief, and a kinda head shaking admiration.
Wednesday, February 27, 2008
For those of you who actually still read printed matter, there are some strong recent pieces out there ready to be digested and enjoyed. I myself, while succumbing to certain charms of the Internet, still remain a steadfast print person, buying three papers a day and subscribing to over twenty mags. There is nothing like the tactile magic of bending and folding and turning a page, all in fervent pursuit of the tell-tale ending, wrap-up, or well-written summation at the end of the hard copy rainbow.
In the February 25 New Yorker the ever reliable David Denby, utilizing No Country for Old Men as a starting point, goes full bore into the cinematic output of the Coen brothers, noting, among other things, “In the past, Joel and Ethan Coen have tossed the camera around like a toy, running it down shiny bowling lanes or flipping it overhead as naked babes, trampolined into the air, rise and fall through the frame in slow motion. Now they’ve put away such happy shenanigans….That’s a strange way to feel at a Coen brothers movie. For almost twenty-five years, the Coens have been rude and funny, inventive and tiresome—in general, so prankish and unsettled that they often seemed in danger of undermining what was best in their movies. Have they gone straight at last?”
Our own literary hero, Jim Shepard (author of the recent brilliant story collection “like You’d Understand, Anyway”) is back on the Hollywood beat in The New York Times Book Review of February 17, dissecting Mark Harris’ “Pictures at a Revolution: Five Movies and the Birth of the New Hollywood”, a book that focuses on the five movies nominated for Best Picture in 1967-Bonnie and Clyde, The Graduate, Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner, In the Heat of the Night, and Doctor Dolittle. “The book’s design is to track all five movies from conception to release, a happy strategy that both illuminates American filmmaking during that period and demonstrated how little the world in which the movies surfaced resembled the one in which they had been conceived.”
Finally,in the March Esquire, Homicide/The Corner/The Wire creator and the unofficial Bard of Baltimore David Simon writes about the slow demise of the American daily newspaper, particularly his own beloved Baltimore Sun, a story that reaches deep in the gut of those still addicted to newsprint and familiar with the oh-so-similar occurrences at our own Providence Journal. “ At the very edge of being rendered irrelevant by the arrival of the Internet--at the precise moment when their very product would be threatened by technology—newspapers will not be intent on increasing and deepening their coverage of cities, theior nation, the world. …Instead of a news report so essential to the high-end readers that they might—even amid the turmoil of the Internet—still charge for their product online and off, American newspapers will soon be offering a shell of themselves in a market unwilling to pay for such and then, in desperation, giving the product away for free.”
Monday, February 25, 2008
Yawn and stretch. Stretch and yawn. The Oscar broadcast, perhaps prematurely deflated by weeks of “what if” speculation before the writer’s strike was resolved, rolled out as bland, as unexciting, as padded, as superfluously lengthy as it has ever been. Even Jon Stewart, in full smarty-pants mode, didn’t get much past an ironic stare and a few self-chuckles, despite some witty one-liners and a few neatly improvised bits; he looked like a guy in the top row at a one-sided sports event with sleet blowing down his neck. The surfeit of clips from the past (prepared in the eventuality of an actor less strike show) only further emphasized the funeral glaze of the proceedings, outside of the occasional refreshing reaction (Marion Cotillard), no one seemed truly inflated by the ritual, and the best patches of chemistry all night were undoubtedly glimpsed in the by-rote scripted exchanges between Jonah Hill and Seth Rogen or Josh Brolin and James McAvoy.
Personally, I went down for the count as an Oscar handicapper, hitting only 12 out of 24, breaking a five year streak of 20 or more, and missing a walloping two (went with darling Julie Christie for Best Actress and Chameleon Cate Blanchett for Best Supporting Actress) in the money categories. Sure, there has to be a lot divined and said about an Academy year so reflective of the societal fissures at play. A year when four out of the five Best Picture entries (Juno, in both spirit and subject matter, doesn’t get an invite to the Zietgeist party), included an old-fashioned epic about the power of lying and the fallout of warfare (Atonement), an old-school fable about corruption, morality, and lawyers (Michael Clayton) and not one, but two, hardscrabble tales about the great American void at the end of the blood drenched rainbow (No Country For Old Men, There Will Be Blood) were the last movies standing. But, hey, I’m way too brain dead after staying up and watching the broadcast until the bitter, fizzled finale to be the guy volunteering for that duty.
Thursday, February 21, 2008
Our great pallie and one of the truest culture vultures out there, Mark Cutler, was kind enough to provide the following insightful account of his recent gig as both opener and accompanist to cult figure Daniel Johnston.
We showed up around 5:00 with our two little amps, 3 guitars, kick drum, snare and high hat and there were ten guys there to help us load it onto the stage. Pretty funny but we were glad not to hump the junk onto the stage. Mike D and the crew from Providence were really good to us. We set up and played a little bit then the sound guy started checking his equipment so we sat in a booth out in the main area.
Daniel Johnston and his brother Dick arrived and we waved to them. We approached each other and shook hands. Dick is a good guy and obviously a good brother. He takes care of all Daniel's needs. He's a manager and a big brother. Daniel was a very sweet guy. Kinda like Brian Wilson, Jojo Richmnan and Santa Claus combined. A bit absent minded. We went over the songs we were playing together ( “Go”, “Worried Shoes”, “Fish”, “Rock n Roll EGA”, “Rock This Town”, “Casper”, “Life In Vain”). Dick got out Daniel's notebooks and pulled out the lyrics to the songs we were to play and put them in the order we'd be doing them so nothing could go wrong. Daniel reads from the lyric sheets in concert. We did a quick rehearsal onstage playing the first verse and chorus of each song so Daniel wouldn't strain his voice. He had a bit of a cold. After that, we talked for a while in the dressing room and I left for a couple of minutes. When I came back in it was like we never met but that was ok he was very nice when we met for the first time again.
When we went on as the opening act, the place was pretty jammed but just as I suspected, they were there to see Daniel not us. And as I suspected again they are very protective of their Daniel and that's cool. But sometimes it seems a bit patronizing if you know what I mean. We got some good ovations but nothing approaching the adoration that he would soon get. I figured we'd stick to some softer songs (although we opened with “Lonesome Pain” and closed with “Jumpin Time”).” I Could Get Used to This” went over really nice as did “Lie Next to You”.
We finished our set and hung with Daniel and Dick for a while. Daniel likes to smoke cigarettes and drink Mountain Dew. He went outside a few times to puff his butts.Whenever he came back into the dressing room the first thing he would say was, "Where's my brother?" He is very dependent on Dick.
He went on at first by himself and the crowd was Moonyesque as you probably could imagine. Then his friend Bret joined him onstage and they played a few songs. Short break and then we went on. We started with “Fish” I think. When I looked out into the audience just about everyone's eyes were on DJ. A lot of energy flowed his way, He was engaging and funny and very fragile. After the show, he signed autographs and took pics with fans. He offered his lap to a young girl who wanted her photo with him. I offered to take the pic and told them that it would take about ten minutes to get it right –hahaha. Daniel told me how sells his drawings for 100 bucks a piece and we both nodded when I said how nice it is for him to make a living as an artist. He made some dough that night. Anyway it was an exhausting day, we left at 2:30 PM to get to Boston and got home around 1:00 AM and I was up around 6:00 to get to work today. Ah the life of an aging rocker....
Wednesday, February 20, 2008
It’s obvious that Juno is this year’s Little Miss Sunshine, you know, the quirky indie that makes us laugh and imparts a life lesson (and cleans up at the box office), and although a bit arch and too smart for it’s own good, does indeed deliver, thanks in large part to a picture perfect cast (particularly J.K Simmons and Allison Janney as supportive parents, and Jason Bateman as a male 40- something squarely astride the ol’ Peter Pan syndrome). Current Hollywood It Girl stripper/blogger-turned screenwriter Diablo Cody’s screenplay turns the pregnant teenage girl (played blithely by Hard Candy’s Ellen Page) of the title into a smartypants that could go one-on-one with Dorothy Parker, but director Jason (son of Ivan) Reitman, reigns in the heightened cognizance assigned to the character and whips up a fairly resonant (and purty amusing) coming-of-age story. As much as I was prepared to find fault with Cody’s overly schematic dialogue the screenplay does possess more than enough actual charm to bring the movie on home.
Friday, February 15, 2008
The Rockford Files, easily the best television private eye series ever, seemed to get better with each season, with James Garner’s languorous Jim Rockford and an overall sense of California grayness seeping deeper into the core of the show. The newly released fifth (out of six) season (The Rockford Files:Season 5, Universal, $39.98) features a number of episodes written by three of the shows sharpest enablers, Stephen J. Cannel (40 episodes), Juanita Bartlett (34 episodes), and pre-Sopranos David Chase (20 episodes). The shows supporting characters were strong, as was the pervasive ambiance of California weirdness, but Garner’s decidedly blue collar, ex-con, low maintenance, flim-flam man remains one of the more layered characterizations in the history of the cool medium, and the show also ably updates (and satirizes) the detective genre, making Rockford a logical successor to Phillip Marlowe in many ways, yet a much less romanticized version. I have a particular fondness for the show, and I believe it is arguably one of the finest long-running television shows of all time, a show marked by artistic consistency coupled with a truly intelligent entertainment quotient.
Tuesday, February 12, 2008
Malcolm in the Middle was one of those done-well-enough shows that drew me to it with some consistency. Over the course of its run I’d wind up shaking my head countless times at the Mr. Brady-goes-spastic take on the American sit-com Dad turned in by Bryan Cranston. His go-for-broke antics made him the most committed television farceur in quite some time, while seemingly miles away from his memorable turn as unctuous dentist Tim Whatley on Seinfeld. Cranston vaults into another category altogether in AMC newest original effort, Breaking Bad (AMC, Sundays, 9:00PM), as a middle class schlep/high school chemistry teacher who, when given a lung cancer death sentence, decides to kick out the jams and become a meth chemist/salesman. Cranston does a riveting middle-aged-crazy, teaming up with a none-too-bright ex student (Aaron Paul) for some highly surreal Abbott and Costello riffing. Although the show sounds as if it’s venturing dangerously close to Showtime’s Weeds, the distinctions are obvious-Weeds being a comedy of suburbia and upper class entanglements while Breaking Bad is truly a drama that veers into satire all the while wringing out a thought provoking moral conundrum.
Friday, February 8, 2008
The following column is reprinted from the Feburary issue of Providence Monthly
EYES WIDE OPEN
By Scott Duhamel
It’s time for that look back through the cinematic looking glass, time to recall the films of 2007 that stood apart, that were either glimpses of filmic poetry or entertained at a higher level. As a longtime film nitcrit I’ve come to favor (and prefer) movies that are ostensibly commercial films that make it to the mainstream marketplace yet are imbued with artistry, authorial vision, or straight-up filmmaking chops. The list below is in no particular order, only three loose groupings.
TRANSCENDENT CINEMA, 2007:
There Will Be Blood. Paul Thomas Anderson kicks his raw and nervy epic off with fifteen minutes of wordless visuals, and then begins to crank up the fevered intensity of this astonishing effort. Buoyed by yet another towering, magnetic, uncompromising Daniel Day-Lewis acting turn, this polarizing film probes deep into the hardscrabble heart of the American dream, a dream corrupted with blood and guts, greed and ambition, violence and impotence. Eschewing formula for imagination and experimentation Anderson manages to evoke the unsettling genius of movies like Citizen Kane, Days of Heaven, and McCabe and Mrs. Miller while still creating his own hypnotic and unforgettable convergence of ferocious sound and fury. It’s an eye-opener, exquisitely scaled and elementally moving-a true must-see.
No Country For Old Men. This is undeniably Joel and Ethan Coen’s most sublime effort, a modern western that utilizes the Coen’s typical wryness, their adolescent penchant for gore, and their film student’s acumen for the form and shape of movie’s past, resulting in a fully formed, quiet little masterpiece. Adapted from Cormac McCarthy’s acclaimed 2005 novel, the movie floats along on the dirty seeds of vengeance and greed, traffics in the slow ooze of blood, and winds itself around as subversive mediation on the soullessness of the new American west. (Not exactly buttered popcorn for the vid kid generation.) For once, the Coen’s throw aside their own legendary archness and the movie’s central tale of hunting and trapping, although punctuated by the crackle of gunshots and the suddenness of viciousness, becomes memorably marked by the ominous reverberations of silence. For once, style is overcome by facility, and the movie, offering no easy or final answers, doesn’t moralize or judge. The perfectly cast, venerable Tommy Lee Jones, playing his twang like a maestro, brings No Country for Old Men home, a home that the Coen’s superbly demonstrate, is both repellant and void, but impossible to take your eyes away from.
Eastern Promises. Slowly and surely Viggo Mortensen is transforming into the kind of Hollywood acting firmament that we see far too little of in contemporary movies. His persona shifts easily from a square-jawed Midwesterner to a California biker boy to the first born of American immigrants, and he can carry a film with just his looks and his eyes, maybe a few gestures and meaningful glances. Eastern Promises is an exercise in genre that is really about peeling away the edges, stripping away the layers until one is left naked and instinctual. The movie glides along while hinting and probing at secrets and deceptions, and Mortensen’s central figure stands firmly astride it all, mostly silent, occasionally tart, and weirdly civil. It’s a wondrous performance, made all the better but the sheer effortlessness the actor displays.
Zodiac. David Fincher’s ominously prescient look at the unsolved serial killings in the bay area in the late sixties manages to be the type of period film (much like the Coen’s No Country) that belies its time and setting; the movie manages to hypnotically take place in the now of its characters while subtly rendering the details of the period. Fincher also creates a policier that doesn’t resolve itself, and a suspense film that refuses to coasts on the ebb-and-flow rhythm of the genre. While it’s quite easy to cite Fincher and his first resounding effort, se7en, as the inspiration/launching pad for dozens of artless (and heartless) horror, suspense, and snuff films since, his readily acknowledged visual acumen and hardscrabble thematic vision seems to flourish in the larger scope of this particular cinematic tale. Finally, a film where the exploitative violence of a series of killings isn’t the payoff—Instead, Zodiac ‘s pleasures are derived from the intercrossing of textures (time and setting shifts, investigative inertia, characters incessantly yapping and smoking, yet another bloodied body), textures which are both the nuts and bolts and the very backbone of the story’s curdled arc. It’s a quiet, contemplative film, and the more impressive for it, spilling over with the sort of nuance and detail that will stay with you long after having viewed it.
Into the Wild. Sean Penn, working with Jon Krakauer’s 1996 bestselling real life book about the inner and outer journey of Christopher McCandless, winds up fashioning a twisty road movie, one without the expected burst of wild exhilaration or heady meaningfulness that typically characterize the genre. The landscape, captured exquisitely by cinematographer Eric Gautier, provides the film with an occasional burst of raffishness, but Penn the filmmaker sticks tight to the young man’s genuinely heartfelt but generally unfocused and ultimately absurd quest. The movie is part distress tale, part pilgrimage, part eulogy. It’s a profoundly sensual, physical film, unafraid of silence, and peopled with on-the-road eccentrics, sages, and loser, as Penn’s acute eye captures the conflicting vibe of magnificent risk, naïve indulgence, and inevitable doom and gloom, and it will stick deep in yer gut long after the end credits roll.
THIS SIDE OF PARADISE, 2007:
Killer of Sheep. When Charles Burnett was a budding UCLA film student that last thing he probably thought was that the student film he was cobbling together on 16mm stock, with many unknown and amateur players, and editing in his spare time, would wind up becoming a film school staple. His 1977 student film, Killer of Sheep, finally, deservedly, got at least a limited mass release, complete with a newly restored print and a resolution of the musical/soundtrack issues that have prevented the film from achieving a commercial release so far. Burnett’s movie, a totally original effort set in the post-riot Watts section of L.A., eschews the blaxploitation of the time for a grounded and strangely muted humanism. The title character (played by Henry Gayle Sanders), who works in a slaughterhouse, just plods along, as does his neighborhood, and seemingly all of his environment. The film shuns plot dynamics for an incidental feel, and the screen just simmers the with the opaque stock of class structure, refusing to even hint at the politics of oppression, content with just presenting a landscape overtaken by malaise and quiet discontent.
Rescue Dawn. in this bare bones retelling of the tale of American Navy pilot Dieter Dengler, shot down in 1966, captured as a POW, who became an eventual escapee. Maverick filmmaker Werner Herzog intentionally adheres to the prison break genre, but is beset with his usual preoccupations; i.e. the harsh beauty of nature, the inherent surrealness of being a stranger in a strange land, while also being yet another exploration of an impossible dreamer. Dieter is singularly inhabited by one of the big screen’s ablest chameleon’s, Christian Bale, an actor who keeps inhabiting characters that stand alone, allowing no connective tissue at all from role to role. It’s a harrowing, fascinating piece, and it fits snugly into Herzog’s estimable cannon.
Michael Clayton. An old-school thinking man’s thriller that is actually made for grown-ups, a movie about a low level fixer played by George Clooney caught up in the heady world of evil corporations and corpulent lawyers that doesn’t shy away from compelling character development and purposefully avoids the overt telegraphing and obviously cued twists and turns that are part and parcel of most contempo thrillers. The movie’s one iota of predictability is that it sets itself up as a fable of redemption, but writer/director Tony Gilroy’s stubborn refusal to follow a predictable generic path, compounded by his extremely measured (but effective) pacing even calls that into doubt. Once again George Clooney makes a superb career choice.
I’m Not There. Are you ready for film as cubist painting? Or perhaps as a savory collage? Maybe even a sprawling fever dream? Todd Haynes cocky and confident meditation on all things Bob Dylan is also a wacky musical, a biopic, a filmic essay all rolled into one, with six actors (including the sublime Cate Blanchett) taking on the character and characteristics of Dylan’s songs, his personas, and even some of the aspects of his actual history. Risky, overflowing with minutiae, throbbing with clues and suggestiveness, a full blown cinematic allegory, it will not please many audiences, but for those who hitch up for the ride, it just about demands repeated viewings.
Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead. 83-year old Siney Lumet outdoes himself with this family drama masquerading as a crime thriller. Lumet, the man who shaped Dog Day Afternoon, The Verdict, and Serpico (among many others) is a whiz with actors (in this case primarily Philip Seymour Hoffman and Ethan Hawke as two sad sack brothers), and unparalleled when it comes to evoking a slice-of-life locales and emotional interactions. The movie’s wind-up and flashback structure only powers it’s bleak and powerhouse finale.
GENRE GRANDEUR, 2007:
The Host. An astute an ingenious (and absolutely hilarious) monster movie from South Korean director Joon-ha Bong. The movie, hugely popular at home, and an art house hit here, is a kitchen sink juxtaposition of family comedy, digital monster movie, paranoid big-brother-is-screwing-up fable, and a pulpy action banger. The movie flows artfully from somberness to farcical (think Larry Cohen or George Romero meet David Cronenberg), and it fares equally well as a social satire, slapstick comedy, and monster mash. Highly entertaining.
3:10 to Yuma. The western, at it’s best—is as essential an American mythology as we have, encompassing and including the age old debate concerning man-made laws and intrinsic morality and the continual pull between self-reliance and the tug of community, all the while utilizing a stage that features both the pure splendors of open land versus the muscle and sweat fueled swelled pride of towns in their infancy. James Mangold, a filmmaker on-the-rise (Heavy,Cop Land, Girl Interrupted, Walk the Line) seems to understand all this, even acknowledge it, in his newly remade 3:10 to Yuma, a 1957 western helmed by Delmer Davies, both movies as lean and austere as their shared title. While Mangold’s movie doesn’t achieve classic western status (the original was also a minor gem), and it’s extended finale strains the tenants of plausibility, it’s a fine character-driven actioneer and a skillfully enacted western, lithe and acute, a genre remake that manages to be both faithful and astute.
Grindhouse. A throw-back double feature dually dreamed up and executed by fun-loving auteurs Robert Rodriquez and Quentin Tarantino, this one does it’s best to re-carve out the good old bad days, and it largely succeeds. Grindhouse is presented and has been conceived as a boldfaced paean to the trashy ‘70’s and it unfolds with scratchy film stock, missing reels, and four downright hilarious trailers, missing reels, and four downright hilarious trailers. The two features, Rodriquez’s Planet Terror and Tarantino’s Death Proof both cruise along at 85 minutes, fueled by equal doses of comic brutality, eye-winking sensationalism, and highfalutin copycatting. Both efforts are filled with gratuitous violence, tempered with quasi-redeemable characters, and chock full of purely exploitive razzle-dazzle movie-movie pleasure. It’s a hell of a good time.
The Bourne Ultimatum. When it comes to the modern day suspense thriller, audiences know what to expect- cold war pulp, inflated hokum, all of it typically pumped up and inflated with high tech gimmickry, ‘yippie-kay-yay” dialogue, and a profusion of eye-catching detonations. The Bourne films, including the newest, The Bourne Ultimatum, are sprightly archetypes---agile, resourceful, well-made action films that pack a wallop without subtracting astuteness. As well evidenced by this third entry, the Bourne movies are acutely entertaining, action movies devoid of steroids, and star Matt Damon has grown up to be a convincingly legit central figure. When you come down to it director Paul Greengrass has fashioned a movie buff’s wet dream---clever and subtle yet frenetic and visceral, filled to the brim with a cinematic bravura that seems earned and unalloyed.
Oscar Did Ignore, but You Shouldn’t: Justin Timberlake and Sarah Michelle Geller in Southland Tales, Charlotte Gainsborough in I’m Not There, Ben Foster in 3:10 to Yuma, John C Reilly in Walk Hard, Michael Shannon in Bug, Don Cheadle in Talk to Me, Catherine Keener in Into the Wild, Steve Zahn in Rescue Dawn, Kerri Russell in Waitress, Marisa Tomei in Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead, Song Kang-ho in The Host, Jason Batemen in Juno, and less we forget Multi-Taskers:Philip Seymour Hoffman in Savages, Charlie Wilson’s War and Before The Devil Knows You’re Dead, Josh Brolin in No Country for Old Men, American Gangster, In the Valley of Ellah, Grindhouse
Tuesday, February 5, 2008
Who is the one worthy successor to the dig-down-deep-inside-yer-gut, hot-blooded, Mr. Intensity, method-acting mantle that has been passed from Brando to Nicholson to DeNiro? Ain’t no doubt about it--the crown belongs solely to Daniel Day Lewis, the one male lead working today who continually brings on the goosebumps, in scenes like this from Gangs of New York, or this from My Beautiful Launderette/Room With a View, or this from his latest stunning performance in There Will be Blood. Yet, as USA Today told us yesterday, Lewis’ “I drink your milkshake” scene from his absolutely killer tour de force in that stunning Paul Thomas Anderson offering is inspiring some wonderfully amusing YouTube work, like this simple parody, this catchy mash-up, or this truly entertaining MUST-SEE piece.
Monday, February 4, 2008
2:39 to go, to survive, to hunker down, to lie back on their haunches and dig in deep. 2:39 to go for 19-0. Instead it’s 18 and no, Eli not Peyton, the smirking 72 Dolphins, Arlen Specter’s bony, pointy fingers, crybaby ex-Rams Kurt Warner and Mike Martz, a hangover for all the wrong reasons, failure rather than perfection, Plaxico getting away with his pre game prediction and scoring the winning TD, a dominant image of Strahan’s gap rather than Junior’s fisherman’s cap, Little General Coughlin one-upping Billy Sweatshirt, a gray New England Monday filled with listless traffic, idiotic day after radio patter, with a palatable vibe of depression and frustration filling the February air. 2:39 and nothing but choke.