Wednesday, September 24, 2008

I Am Sam (Jackson) I Am

Stop me if you’ve seen this one before: young, freshly married couple moves into new digs and collides with the most dreaded of housing problems-the bad neighbor. Sure it seems like Hollywood recycles this same plot every coupla years (TV’s Lifetime has probably done it up a dozen different ways too), but most of the time the film’s don’t feature the indomitable Samuel L. Jackson like Lakeview Terrace, and they aren’t usually helmed by filmmakers sporting the kinda pedigree playwright-turned-director Neil LaBute packs (In the Company of Men ‘97, The Shape of Things ‘03). Jackson works hard (especially as the movie unfolds) to make this one rise above its inherent stockness, and LaBute adds racism to his big screen resume of sexism, misogyny and general bad behavior, yet the movie never holds up as a psychological thriller or an issues film. Even worse, it just about putt-putts is way into a tone and finale that becomes both overblown and downright silly.

Next Stop Mainstream City

How the West Was Won (1963, Warners, $20.98, 3 discs, 162 minutes)Made for a then huge 15 million, divided into 5 segments, helmed by 3 directors (Henry Hathaway, George Marshall, and the estimable John Ford) peopled by a passel of big names (James Stewart, Debbie Reynolds, John Wayne, Henry Fonda, Richard Widmark, Gregory Peck) and a too cool array of character names (Eli Wallach, Thelma Ritter, Harry Morgan, Robert Preston, Karl Malden, Carrol Baker, Walter Brennan) this 1963 epic western was also filmed with a 3 lens Cinerama camera and originally had to be projected by 3 projectors running simultaneously. Somehow I saw this with my parents and brother in the family station wagon at the Westerly, RI Drive-In the summer of, I’m guessing ’64, and I, a fanatic western bluff, was blown away by its splendor while being a little annoyed by its lack of traditional mano a’ mano gunfire. Years later its vistas still remain purty spectacular and Stewart and Reynolds acquit themselves decently while most of the rest of the featured acting is wooden (George Peppard Alert!) and the narrative pure swiss cheese with even Ford’s sequence (“The Civil War”) doesn’t pack the director’s typical majesty or sweep. As mainstream Hollywood studio product goes this remains more of a project than a fully rounded movie yet it goes down good with the popcorn.

TV EYE:Easy Riders

Kurt Sutter made his bones as writer/producer for FX’s leftfield cop drama The Shield, and that alone is enough to make me climb on board his new FX motorcycle gang show, The Sons of Anarchy (TNT, Wednesday, 10:00 PM). The guy has yet another secret weapon going for him--his real life wife Katey Sagal (Married with Children) is present front and center, flaming it on as the gang’s resident Lady MacBeth. Equally surprising is the presence of both Drea de Matteo (The Sopranos) as the junky ex-wife of the show’s central figure alongside Maggie Siff (Mad Men), playing an ex-lover/Doctor, two other strong female characters embedded in a macho universe. The golden boy, and the one biker with a budding conscience is Jax, charismatically inhabited by Charlie Hunnan, cut straight outta the Heath Ledger mode. While the show’s premise, 60’s hippie bikers-turned-outlaw slash combination small town kingpins and watchdogs, is slightly outlandish, but the biker saga boasts a host of cool daddy character types including Ron Pearlman (Hellboy), Dayton Callie (Deadwood), Mitch Pilliegi (The X-Files), Mark Boone Jr. (Trees Lounge) and tough guys Kim Coates and Tommy Flanagan. You can’t overlook the show’s ambitions either, delving straight into the same territory as The Shield and even The Sopranos, dancing on the line between morality and amorality, navigating through the codes (said and unsaid) of a closed society, and shining a shaky light on the nuts and bolts of good ol' American capitalism. This one has potential.

Friday, September 19, 2008

McShane Rode Before

Before Ian McShane was pouring whiskey down his molten throat as a chaser between the stringing together of the yet another highly scatological and viciously bellicose observation as Deadwood’s Al Swearengen he once starred as a devilishly charming and highly irascible antiques dealer on British television’s Lovejoy(Lovejoy: The Complete Season 3, 1192, BBC/Warner, 706 minutes, $69.98). Making a living (barely) deep in the English countryside, Lovejoy comes across as a counterpoint to California’s Jim Rockford (as Susan Stewart pointed out in a recent Sunday Times), a lovable loser and an affable ladies man, dodging creditors and stirring up the local gentry in between quick money schemes and investigations into antiquities, surrounded by a motley crew of associates, quick of wit and deeply schooled in a vast array collectibles and prized pieces, with the hour long episodes as effortlessly low key and humorously rakish as its anti-hero. I found myself hooked on the series and the roguish McShane when this was televised by PBS some years back, and I couldn’t image a more pleasant night during the upcoming winter, snowed in, generously imbibing, and trawling through multiple episodes of this neatly crafted series.

Thursday, September 18, 2008

Funny Ha Ha

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

By Scott Duhamel

The Hollywood movie comedy can take on all sorts of forms and mutations, ranging from scalding satire to puffy pastiche, from comedy team vehicle to actor surrounded by funny, from overt genre parody to skit-inspired silliness. When a movie is funny, whether it be gut-busting, surreal, sly, or inspired, you know it, audiences know it, whether it be the Marx Brothers brand of anarchy in one of their finer romps, the trenchant snappiness of a Preston Sturges outing, the rat-a-tat outrageousness of a Dr. Strangelove, or the infantile stony chuckles drawn from a Cheech and Chong pairing. Film historian Gerald Mast once went as far as divvying up the sound movie comedy into three distinct traditions: Dialogue, Clown and Ironic. Of course, that was before the advent of the Rob Schneider tradition. (Hardy-har-har.) Below, a look at a few of this summer’s attempts at big screen humor.
Mike Meyers’ latest attempt to slip on the shoes of the great Peter Sellers, The Love Guru (released in June), had the distinction of bombing on all fronts. Murkily shot, haphazardly sewn together, it tosses penis jokes, midget jokes, and over-the-hill pop psychology jokes at the screen without an iota of charm or substance. Watching, I couldn’t help but think what would have happened had this had been a simplistic vehicle for a rollicking team like Hope and Crosby or Martin and Lewis, with a competent Hollywood directorial traffic man at the helm, and a team of old school gag writers, odds are it would have been a silly and pleasant romp. Instead it’s a deadly grind, tediously unfunny, and brimming with ham-handedness and mugger, piling on the insipid puns into the gleam in Meyers eyes resembles the look of someone dying to go to the bathroom. That’s not funny, just desperate.
Will Ferrell and John C. Reilly managed to kick up some obvious comic chemistry in the broadly lowbrow Talladega Nights, so it only made sense to the money men that they should combine for a feature length go-at-it. Step Brothers lets the two loose as two middle-aged misfits, both still living at home with their respective single parents (Mary Steenburgen and Richard Jenkins) forced into co-mingling once Mom and Dad tie the knot. It’s pure raunch and roll, propelled by a shock and giggle comic assault plot, another contempo comedy film that seems to revel in perpetual adolescence, which by all evidence, is aimed directly at an audience that is either striving to do the same or thinking back fondly at their attempt to have done so.
Step Brothers commits wholly to stupid, and while much of the sequences are hit or miss, the hits do draw legit guffaws. The self-absorption at the heart of the characters (a Ferrell specialty) is acutely funny, the actions derived from it not quite so. The movie is openly caustic, and there lurks a sort of idiot’s rage behind much of comedic gusto. Of crude and rude can only go so far, and the movie never truly differentiates the step boys, sheering off any hope of a connective batch of extended hilarity by never generating any actual narrative conflict. In another words, it’s one of those comedies that comes as an elongated skit, although if your idea of hilarity is watching Will Ferrell rub his exposed testicles all over a drum kit, this one’s for you.
When you walked out of Superbad did you take a little time wondering what became of those characters as they grew up? Well comic wunderkind Judd Apatow (Knocked Up, Forgetting Sarah Marshall), must have, because Pineapple Express (written by Apatow and his Superbad writers Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg) kinda sorta brings you to that place, all the while posing as a genre twisting mash up of Harold and Kumar and Lethal Weapon. Rogen himself plays Dale Denton a sad sack process server who just wants to get high with his bud and dealer Saul Silver (James Franco). Soon the two are running from drug baddies and bad coppers with wheels screeching and bullets flying. It’s a stoner road trip gone bad, and its comic tone slyly slips from laid back to deranged as the pot smoke thickens and some action gore sprouts into the picture.
Apatow, in a canny move, hired indie filmmaker David Gordon Green (Snow Angels, ’07, All the Real Girls, ’03), to filter down his broader comic sensibility (bromance and perpetual adolescence remain at its core), and for a while, he manages the weird combo of mayhem and ha-ha nicely. When the movie starts to leave behind its stoner charm and pushes into the action-jackson machinations it becomes less of a sweetly smart goof and more of standard (and predictable) actioneer. Pineapple Express has it highs (uh-huh) and it will be a welcome addition to the barstool game of naming the coolest stoner flicks, but it winds up as another example of the simple fact that eventually every zoom has a come down.
As you watch the previews and the like before Tropic Thunder rolls out, once you realize that they are part of the bigger joke that is, you’ll worry if the full length feature that follows can sustain the same high level of jocularity. No problem. Ben Stiller’s high-budget jape at Hollywood movies, mores and moronity is acutely amusing and its satiric bits actually jell into a whole. It’s a breezy, zany, satire with more than enough amusing ideas, farcical riffs, and hilarious performances to sustain it.
Stiller has long taken the self-depreciative airs of Woody Allen into the wooly realm of comic self-flagellation, plunging ever deeply into the arena of the uncomfortable. With his sights set directly on the heart of Hollywood artifice, the target is an easy, albeit hard-to-argue one. Pricking at the delusions of grandeur that are passed like hard candy from movie producer to filmmaker to audience to (especially) actors, Stiller has fashioned a smart aleck comedy that is ostensibly about bad taste but manages to veer into areas slightly less definable, and sometimes touching it with an inkling of the surreal.
Tropic Thunder tosses together Stiller as a fading action star, Jack Black as a comedian trying to stretch his chops, and Robert Downey Jr. as a method acting madman delusional enough to make a movie in virtual blackface as they come together on the movie set of a war movie being filmed in Southeast Asia. Add to the mix Steve Coogan as the Brit director, Nick Nolte as the actual war vet hired as an advisor, Brandon T. Jackson as a hip-hop star trying out the acting game, and, (as the cat is already out of the bag) surprise participant Tommy Boy Cruise as the ultimate kingpin producer. Cruise, channeling a studio head as coarse gargoyle, goes all out, braying, dancing, spewing profanities, treading the oh-so-thin-line between discomfort and inspired, all the while enhancing the total self-referential party train that the movie is coasting on. Tropic Thunder is kick ass funny, not just funny ha ha.

TV EYE: Lowering the Bar

Hey kids, let’s put on a courtroom drama. Let’s start with an idealist, we-the-people, thoroughly impassioned public defender with a boys band haircut (Mark-Paul Gosselaar). We have to have the foxy, long-legged, blonde lawyer (Melissa Sagemiller) from the DA’s office who shoots sparks at the boy lawdog before and after they tussle in the courtroom. Don’t forget the wiggy, capricious judge (Jane Kaczmarek) who somehow manages to grab most of the young buck’s cases. Add a few more stereotypes, toss in every courtroom cliché imaginable, and make sure to gather most of the characters (between bed-hopping and courtroom wrangling) in a familiar bar by the end of an episode. Cool. We’ll call it Raising the Bar (TNT, Mondays, 10:00 PM), and wonder if maybe if its creator, the venerated TV Kingpin Steven Bocho pulled it outta some tattered notebook he kept back in high school.(The next TV courtroom drama I'd like to see would feature Robert Downey Jr (crossing and channeling Al Pacino and Tom Cruise) in a episodic version of the worst courtroom movie evaaah, 1979's ... And Justice or All. Mark me, that would be a keeper...)

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

How Does His Hair Look?

There are always two opposing ways to judge a Nic Cage movie. (1) Whether Hammy Nic or Restrained Nic, did he and the right director click? (2) How is his hair? No doubt about it, Bangkok Dangerous, which features Restrained Nic as an assassin named Joe London (genius character name, huh?), has our boy in top-notch hair mode—a horse mane peopled with thick stringy black threads drooping down. Sadly the directorial connection is more fizzle than sizzle, as the Hong Kong Pang Brothers, Danny and Oxide, trot out every bit of whooped-up firepower they can muster, but the movie exacts nothing new, it’s just another version of the same old Hollywood action yawn. Maybe the most off-putting aspect of this stillborn actioneer is the visage that lies beneath the excellent hair-Cage’s face seems frozen in a sort of perpetual voodoo nap, neither alive or dead, neither engaged nor zoning away, its as if he’s lost in the midst of counting all the dough thrown away towards his services in his latest ride on the bad film express.

Tuesday, September 9, 2008

Cool Hand Newman

While Stuart Rosenberg’s directorial career only held a few highlights (Pocket Money, The Drowning Pool, The Pope of Greenwich Village), he knew well how to work with actors, particularly Paul Newman, who he directed four times, and teamed-up with to make his finest picture, Cool Hand Luke (1967, Warner, 126 minutes, $19.97). Newman is at the height of his powers here, utilizing a physicality equal to Brando’s combined with the wistful soulfulness of James Dean and the outsiderness of Montgomery Clift. Rosenberg and master cinematographer Conrad Hall make sure we don’t miss the Luke/Newman–as-Christ figure implications, but they also combine for an array of visual flourishes that only serve to make this prison/rebel tale more full-bodied. Of course, those of us going through adolescence when this became a television fixture will never forget three of it’s major scenes: the one-on-one scrape up between Newman and Kennedy, the egg-eating contest, and the nerve-tingling country-girl-washing-car-sequence. Any filmgoer worth his or her salt should immediately conjure up both the cadence and the flavor of Strother Martin’s unforgettable line: “What we have here is failure to communicate.”

Tuesday, September 2, 2008

Japanese Neo-Noir

While High and Low (1963, Criterion, $40, 143 minutes) a quiet, complex, but highly intense neo-noir is not an acknowledged masterpiece, it still shows one of cinema’s finest, Japanese master Akira Kurosawa, operating on all cylinders. The one and only Toshiro Mifune plays a heavily mortgaged old-school factory boss who is faced with the dilemma of opting to pay ransom for his chauffeur’s son, mistakenly kidnapped instead of his own. The film opens with a series of static scenes confined to Mifune’s elite high rise digs that play out with high import, but as the cops-and-robbers plot bleeds into a finely drawn character portrait and a simultaneous acute social commentary, the movie opens up and the pace quickens; the film’s formalized opening subtly nods to the staid Japan of old while the second half trips along the surface of a far more chaotic modern world. Kurosawa’s exposition is unbelievably crisp and the movie plays on with an artful wholeness, a genre piece that tip-toes through the rigidity and permutations of both Japanese contemporary culture and century-old codes while casting a gray shadow of moral complexity.