Sunday, November 30, 2008

Where's the Beef?

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

By Scott Duhamel

It’s Los Angeles in 1928 and single mother and telephone-company supervisor Christine Collins (Angeline Jolie) returns home after work to find and makes the most horrible discovery of all—her nine-year-old son, Walter is missing. After months of a misspent and slothful investigation, the Los Angeles Police, led by a corpulent and corrupt chief (Colm Feore) and under heavy pressure from a crusading radio show clergyman (John Malkovich), announce that her son has been found in far off Illinois and, under the glare of photo’s popping and pressman circling, triumphantly deliver the boy. One problem though, the boy stepping off the train is not, despite a physical resemblance, the stunned woman’s son. The cops urge her to “try him out”, but as her protests mount, point man Captain J.J. Jones (Jeffrey Donovan) responds by incarcerating her in the psycho ward, with the threat of shock therapy hanging over her next move.
Writer J. Michael Straczynski’s and director Clint Eastwood’s Changeling proto-feminist story is based on public records, and it’s set in a time period and city familiar to those who know L.A. movie crime stories like Chinatown or L.A. Confidential, a setting devoid of honest men, a city and a police force brimming with moral decay. Jolie plays the one truly virtuous character, and Eastwood trails her like a golden-haloed heroine of some long ago silent film parable. Jolie in period costume is a truly iconic sight, and she delivers a delicate, even comely performance. The problem is the 78-year-old director’s classicist tendencies--the movie unfolds with a stately, methodical tone and proceeds with his assured feel for cinematic storytelling-- but ultimately it never bears down and scratches the surfaces beneath the readily apparent emotional and moral concerns.
Unlike, say, the histrionics of Mystic River or the intimacies of Million Dollar Baby or even the keen sense of reverse nationalism on display of Letters From Iwo Jima, with this latest effort Eastwood seems to stay far too content with polished (but surface) performances, the handsome production design of James J. Murakami, the bone-dry visuals of cinematographer Tom Stern, and his own directorial aversion to spectacle. As well-made as Changeling is, it suffers from an over reliance on a just-the-facts-m'aam recreation of the past and a slowly culminating feel of self-righteousness, somehow the filmmaker never gets around to truly stirring up the juices.
The movie also dithers in multiple directions, part mystery tale, part bad cop cautionary, part feminist ballad, part gothic chiller (serial killer Gordon Northolt-played by Jason Butler Harner—is also on the loose in the film’s periphery), and as well spelled out as all of it is, it still doesn’t prevent Jolie’s single minded performance from become repetitive rather than enriched by the expanded canvas. One hates to damn Eastwood, as fine a working contempo director today, with faint praise, yet Changeling is more admirable than affecting, more contained than disturbing, more passive than passionate. It’s an old-fashioned movie that just about rises above its own mawkishness and inherent stolidity. Rare as it, maybe Eastwood the filmmaker has crafted a well-made offering that is essentially a misfire-a sharply drawn shell that too firmly covers up its raw entrails. Jolie’s much vaunted turnabout doesn’t crack the shell either, it’s far too gilded without an iota of much needed grit.
While we are falling short of good intentions, let us examine the strange case of Oliver Stone and his weirdly discomforting new movie W, the remarkably straight-laced biopic of most likely the worst president in U.S. history, George W. Bush. When first announced, this teaming of Stone, the mad dog ideologue behind controversial wall bangers like Natural Born Killers, The Doors, or JFK, sharpened life slices like Platoon and Wall Street, or even surprisingly meditative ones like Nixon or Heaven and Earth, and good ol’ screw up George W promised more than enough fodder for friends, foes, and free-thinkers alike, with even the most disinterested observer imagining a goosed-up doozy of satirical dagger throwing, or an old-fashioned string-em-up filmic indictment.
Sorry. Neither overflowing with complexities or eye-rollingly gonzo, Stone’s picture is strangle placid, and, even more worrisome, bizarrely without depth or substance. Is it some kinda Stonesian black joke that he’s managed to make a movie that’s as every bit as superficial as our very own world leading bumpkin? Even more bewilderingly, the movie doesn’t even attempt to offer up any particular insights into Bush the man or Bush the President; it trots out a plethora of well known Bush benchmarks with the airy lightness of a romantic trifle, piling up vignette after vignette with an eyebrow stretched towards some overt Freudian father-son fission, a reoccurring fantasy sequence which (very) simply depicts Georgie Boy as a guy who wants to be adored by the faceless minions, and a batch of top notch character actors (Jeffrey Wright, Scott Glenn, Thandie Newton, Bruce McGill, Toby Jones, Dennis Boutsikaris) all rolling out as the President’s oh-so-familiar playmates.
W is eminently watchable, although the end-all effect to an ever vigilant audience (waiting for the first real screw-ball to get tossed at the plate, a screwball that never comes) is eventual acquiescence-you finally wilt into the theatre chair knowing full well that the film (and creator Stone) are just going to keep on slicing up the malleable butter. As far as the rest of the principles, the usually reliable James Cromwell overdoes it as Papa Bush, while the always welcome Ellen Burstyn (as Barbara) is mistakenly shunted off to the side, leaving Elizabeth Banks as Laura at with the best effort as surface polishing. It’s up to Josh Brolin as Dubya, inhabiting the well known public figure without overt caricature and also without cringe-inducing deference, and Richard Dreyfuss, smacking his teeth as the creepy shark that is Dick Cheney, to give the film any semblance of testicular strength. It also points to what’s truly missing: the sort of high-fevered satirical bent that might have allowed Stone and his actors to indulge, even wallow, into hell-bent excessiveness, dirty, drippy salaciousness, or beady-eyed comic malevolence.
Disappointingly, more importantly, confusedly, W doesn’t come on like the second coming of Dr. Strangelove. Instead it trots out a comely, well-trodden tale, a paint-by-numbers remuneration of what most of us already know. It’s an entree into a cinematic abyss already recognized, an unblinking fable of a canonized misfit, a thoroughly oxymoronic undertaking. There’s simply no there, there. It’s as if Stone’s real agenda is to reel us in and let us drown in own complicity. In other words, you elected the guy boys and girls, let me draw your mistake on the blackboard again, and don’t worry, recess is right around the corner.

Thursday, November 27, 2008

Fuzzy Paranoia/Paranormal

The initial buzz on Fringe(Fox, Tuesdays, 8:00 P.M.) was that one of TV’s golden boys, J.J. Abrams (Alias, Lost), had come up with one of the few hits of the fall season, plus a possible successor to the late and much vaunted sci-fi/ conspiracy series The X-Files. Like everyone else I bit on these potential tidbits but after a half dozen shows I find the series unable to keep spinning its initial captivating spell, timidly poking around its central mythology while trotting out a far too neatly contained creature-feature of the week. While well cast, Abrams and his writers keep writing the same show: Icy beauty Anna Torv gets whispered to by her handler Lance Reddick about a new bioscience phenomena and she seeks out the help of nutty professor John Noble (who always suddenly recalls a past connection to said phenomena) and his reluctant son Joshua Jackson who somehow tackles a baddie or fumbles around with a gun while spooky Blair Brown oversees the action as the head honcho of some shadowy mega corporation. Filmed in an entirely faux Massachusetts the tone is that oh-so-familiar Orwellian ominousness and the setting the industrial gray of aging labs, empty warehouses, and dank cellars. While most of what’s delineated is presented with a sturdy paranoia nothing actually resonates, and the player’s moves are far too predictable.

Sunday, November 23, 2008

Riding Lonesome

Cineastes have long sang the praises to the smartly layered Westerns that sprung forth from the collaborative efforts of director Anthony Mann and star Jimmy Stewart, now the time has come to heap equal praise on the body of Western work cobbled together on a shoestring by maverick Budd Boetticher and cowboy icon Randolph Scott. The Films of Budd Boetticher (1957-60, Sony, $59.95. The films included, Decision at Sundown (’57), The Tall T (’57), Buchanan Ride Alone (’58), Ride Lonesome (’59), and Comanche Station (’60), were all made on low budgets at Columbia, shot and completed in a few weeks in sturdy California locations, and none run past 80 minutes. The titles tell all--Western miniatures, lean and compact tales, long on simplicity and burnished by starkness, propelled by the aging and ever stoic Scott’s overriding aura of inherent desert loneliness and frontier morality, and fierce individualism. The B-movie constrictions don’t harm Boetticher’s virulent style at all, in fact in all of these films the slightest movement is a form of tensile action that directly underscores the streamlined plots, with Scott oozing prairie dust and wisdom while epitomizing both survival and individualism as he rides tall in the rugged landscape. Like the more ballyhooed Don Siegel, Boetticher presented action with a kinetic grace, like the more poetically corrosive Sam Fuller the director sprinkled in an ever-present ideology between setting and camera angles, and like the much more successful Robert Aldrich his thematic vision flourished wonderfully in the confines of genre picture making.

Friday, November 21, 2008

No Boner

Yep, I ‘m in the Kevin Smith fan club. Sure, I’m in the Seth Rogen fan club. Yeah, I wanna be in the Elizabeth Banks fan club. But I still didn’t cotton to Zack and Miri Make a Porno, a strange brew of high and low brow, of crudity and hilarity, of explicitness and mushiness. Much of Smith’s patented mix of aging adolescent bawdiness and slacker self-parody is on display here but the movie never gathers any true comedic steam, and the losers-make-a-porno plotline turns out be funnier as a concept than as a comedic tale. Smith, the self-promoting indie sage, cops out in the long run too, carving a conventional romantic story out of what’s supposed to be a raunchy dose of Gen X ribaldry. In the long run, many Smith followers are going to be disappointed as the movie veers towards the mainstream and essentially balks at delivering its outrageous promises. On the other hand, mainstream audiences are bound to find it sub-Apatow and slightly over-the-top (or under-the-counter) for their tastes, leaving Zack and Miri smack dab in the middle of the road.

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Art for Art's Sake

Our talented pallie Diane Meloccaro (currently somehow exiled to Florida), the gal who created our my very own Culture Vulture Time graphics, has come out with her own fresh new blog, Blunt Objects, a forum for her eye-opening acidic and satirical pop art stylings, giving us all a new coolio cyber place to visit.
Speaking of pallies, Mark (Fountain of Youth)Cutler came clean about a week or so back and gave a nod and a wink to a tremendously intriquing and extremely erudite new blog spot, The Houndblog, filled with sharp thinking and cool obsessions. (Take special note of the links to other blogs--there are more than a few knock-outs, including a connection to one of my all time heroes---writer Nick Tosches.)
For a touch of inspired nonsense go to Kotite's Corner, a Philly-based blogarama and run through the The Top 101 Mustaches in Pop Culture.

Friday, November 14, 2008

Sweet Dreams

The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938, Warner, $26.99, 102 minutes) is eye candy of the highest order, this Technicolor helping of Hollywood classicism is unadulterated pleasure viewing. The movie won three deserved Oscars (Art Direction, Editing, Score) and it is ably burnished by the always capable Michael Curtiz, a perfectly paced and sumptuously filmed adventure tale, with the perfect coupling of Errol Flynn (effortlessly dashing) and Olivia de Havilland (rapturously beautiful), sprinkled with a typically first class supporting cast (Alan Hale, Claude Rains, Ian Hunter) and a devilishly villainous Basil Rathbone. Absolute dream machine opium, unfettered by anything other than resolute professionalism and into-the-vein entertainment value.

Sunday, November 9, 2008

Shannon Shane

It’s truly a shame to watch two gifted farceurs like Molly Shannon (the onetime Saturday Night Live stalwart) and John Michael Higgins (the hilarious character player from Christopher Guest’s movies) stuck in the slow drying cement of failed sitcom bravura that is Kath & Kim (NBC, Thursdays, 8:30). Adapted from an Australian TV hit and sandwiched into NBC’s high flying night of deadpan drollery (My Name is Earl, The Office, 30 Rock) it’s a lead-footed parody about suburban obliviousness with Shannon as a spandex wearing, stiff-upper-lip paragon of cluelessness head over heels in love with a corndog mall sandwich honcho (Higgins), all the while helicoptoring over her recently married and separated vacuum of a daughter Kim (Selma Blair). Blair’s idea of comic acting seems to be a series of blank expressions, dead fish line readings, and the random toss of her hair—she absolutely squashes any semblance of funny the show aims for, although the gifted Shannon and Higgins steer up a momentary yuck or two when they venture into some periodic physical shtick. Having not glimpsed even a minute of the Aussie prototype, I gotta figure this Americanized wrecking ball missed the joke entirely.

The Real Deal

Many John Cassavetes aficionados consider A Woman Under the Influence (1974, Criterion, $39.95 147 minutes) his preeminent effort, an amazingly orchestrated indie/art film that wears its soul on its sleeve, a peering-into-the-abyss look at the state of Middle- American womanhood with a brave and unadorned central performance from the innovator/director/writer’s wife Gena Rowlands, buoyed by a particularly astute supporting turn by Cassavetes bud Peter Falk. It’s a harrowing and hypnotic long day’s journey into suburban catatonia, rippling with energy and grit, in-your-face camerawork, all of it propelled by Cassavetes unique distillation of the proto-real, a combination of verve, technique, and style that not many filmmakers have even come close to duplicating. Not for everyone, but scintillating and overtly original for those who can hang on for the jumpy and truly stimulating ride.

Friday, November 7, 2008

Whatever Happened to Bobby D?

It’s so easy to become inured to witnessing the tarnish flecking off the once indomitable Robert DeNiro that you have to blink a few times when he actually goes beyond rote in any shape or form. In What Just Happened, working with the equally tarnished Barry Levison, DeNiro exhibits some of the subtlety and gusto he was once acclaimed for in this Hollywood-insider satire adapted from his own book by long suffering producer Art Linson. DeNiro plays the surrogate Linson, a supposedly powerful Hollywood player mostly reduced to quiet (and comic) desperation by the bratty talent, insipid greed, and wrench-tossing star-making machinery that engulfs him. The movie doesn’t stroll down many original pathways, and it has the burnt out feel of a late night cable staple, but it does have a quiet, doleful wit propelling it, and a fairly hilarious self-parody delivered with aplomb by Bruce Willis.

Wednesday, November 5, 2008

Livin' in America

American life has, for a moment at least, taken on a deeper significance, hit some higher ground, somehow rounded third and headed safely home. What an unusual feeling--a gentle euphoria. It's good, it's right, it's proper, it's earned, and, yup, it's deserved. For once, no dreams deferred. Adding to the pervasively unreal state of mind was a concession speech that had more than a touch of grace to it and a victory speech that spoke to the intangibles of change and dreams and possibly a little working class something-something around the corner. As my hero Iggy Pop once repeatedly howled, "I feel alright!"

Monday, November 3, 2008

Heart of Darkness

As much of a genius that Orson Welles was, and the few films he left behind only attest to that, he was a lifetime pain in the ass, a self-styled Don Quixote forever tilting at studio windmills. His absolutely top-notch Touch of Evil (1958, Universal, $26.98 3 discs, 95 minutes, 108 minutes, 118 minutes), a late period noir, sparkling with grit and dripping with the decay of corruption, puts together Charlton Heston (as a Mexican-American cop), Janet Leigh (as the cop’s new bride), and Welles himself (as a corpulent sheriff), along with a batch of regular Welles’ players, in a border town gone bad around the edges. Although the filmmaker had no real budget to speak off, his film is a technical how-to catalogue, and the movie hums along darkly with precise storytelling, evocative camerawork, and superbly dense misc-en-sene. The collection offers three versions for the true film buff or Welles fanatic-the director’s original premier version, the studios truncated version, and a restoration put together in 1998 following Welles's 58-page notes (also included). Although I’m a true sucker for the more languid and baleful entanglements of the pulp fed Chinese jigsaw puzzle of 1948’s The Lady from Shanghai, the more I watch Touch of Evil I realize that it resonates much the same as that earlier gem—as a wonderfully baroque genre exercise, as a black-hearted Wellesian infective, as a technical and artistic treasure (the opening crane shot remains one of the most cool daddy evuh), and a damn fine (and infinitely memorable) movie.