Monday, March 30, 2009

Roasting Chesnuts

Jimmy Fallon just keeps dying, ever so excruciatingly, on the television vine.

Maybe it’s time to bring back the Rick Danko look.

Try as I might, I can’t remember who sat next to me in grammar school, junior or senior high school. Why can so many others?

It’s time to explore the non-Leone entries in the Spaghetti Western cannon.

When I watch dramatic network television from the 50,60’s, or even 70’s I always note that the episode title looms large and seems invented to be as pulpy, purple or poetic as possible. Why doesn’t most contempo TV still go there?

You can and should don a jaunty or tasteful hat, and not risk ridicule, if you’re a male over-50 with a job.

If you are indeed a male over-50 with a job never, evuuuhh, use the terms chakra, synchronicity, optimize, or closure.

Yeah, yeah, yeah, I know, I really do, but B.B. King always has and always will bore me to sleep.

I always brag to my wife that I have an exceptional sense of voice radar (a truly non-marketable skill)—I can readily identify almost any actor or actress behind the voice over within one or two listens. Last night I pinpointed Peri Gilpin and James Remar. Top that, mofos.

I truly wish I coulda shared a drink or two with one-of-a-kind Jack Elam.

Everybody kills The Stones for rocking and aging in the public eye, yet they only sing hosannas to the likes of Leonard Cohen, Van the Man Morrison, and Neil Young.

Benicio Del Toro grabs all the hipster buzz, but Josh Brolin just keeps quietly knocking ‘em against the wall and outta the park.

Don't really watch golf on any sort of regular basis, and I've spent a lifetime rooting for the sports underdog against the favorite, but when Tiger is in contention in the final round late on a sunday afternoon it's somehow become must-see TV for me.

When real life newspaper columnists resort to that tried-and-true chestnut of the random thought/list thang I know it’s a stroke job, but I have to read it anyway.

Friday, March 27, 2009

King of Kings

C’mon, face it, Ian McShane just simply kicks ass, and yup, I’d put down good dough to watch the guy read the phonebook. Once again, as the central figure in NBC’s shockingly ambitious and surprisingly imaginative new hybrid drama, Kings (Sundays, 8:00 PM.), McShane somehow gleams with prickly charisma as he spouts cheesy, quasi-biblical dialogue and (much like his one-of-a-kind Al Swearengen in HBO’s late lamented Deadwood) fascinatingly teeters between wisdom and amorality, between bleary-eyed self-recognition and razor-sharpened egomania. McShane, with his craggy features, his oratorial delivery, his leopard-like bearing, commands the small screen, and manages (again, as in Deadwood) to grab you up despite his readily apparent ruthlessness.
The series, a truly weird combo of familial soap opera, sci-fi fantasy, and mutated Shakespeare, takes place is a seemingly modern city called Shilo in the kingdom of Gilboa (McShane is the ruler, King Silas), engaged in an ongoing fight with the next door neighbors, Gath, over some thing to do with water rights. The main setting, a subtly tainted CGI Manhattan, yet it glows with a positively otherworldly sheen-- everything’s different, yet everything’s the same-- and the King’s court, a huge, looming space replete with grand ballrooms, glass-encased conference rooms, and bird populated turrets is equally visually engrossing. The whole deal squirts just this side of ridiculousness, and occasionally errs on the side of portentousness, yet it casts an almost Twin Peaks-like spell.
The cast, anchored by veterans like Eamonn Walker (as a mysterious religious adviser), Dylan Baker (suit-and-tie villain, coporate style), Wes Studi (imperious General) and Susanna Thompson (Lady MacBeth oh-so-perfectly coiffed), and is a little imbalanced by the pure out-and-out mainstream blandness of the two actors playing Silas’ children, the bad boy prince (Sebastian Stan) and the do-gooding princess (Allison Miller), although Chris Egan as the show’s other principle the a seeker/soldier named (uh-huh) David Shepard does show promise.
Kings, with its scintillating mix of familiar dramatic blueprints and chance-taking narrative modernism is flush with exceptional camerawork and sturdy, inventive storytelling. After a two-hour pilot and one subsequent hour-long follow-up, I’ve been drawn in. As far as the overabundance of cheese, it only adds to the flavor. Add in McShane’s eye-catching swagger, and it’s almost a must-see, or at least a must-try.

Monday, March 23, 2009

Behind the Screen

Put some time in recently wading into three disparate movie books, each one receiving at least a modicum of critical praise, all three eminently readable.

David Gilmour’s The Film Club: A Memoir (2008, Twelve, 225 pp., $21.99) is a sweet, peculiarly Canadian, reminiscence of a three-year period wherein author/talk show host Gilmour, essentially between jobs, and his high-school-dropout son Jesse, reach one of the strangest parenting deals you can imagine. Liberal/academic Daddy switches abodes with his ex-wife and allows wanna-be musician and rebel-who-can’t-name-his-cause sonny boy to drop out and not go to work as long as agrees to watch three movies a week alongside Dad and further discuss them. Together, the two traverse the movie treasure trove, watching French New Wave, horror films, buried and guilty treasured, with Jesse (who begins the experiment at 16) alternatingly bored, disinterested, mum, fascinated, thrilled, and bored stiff. As time passes the two devote a whole lotta conversation to the vagaries of womanhood, manage to get a tenuous grip on their own relationship and watch some first class movies (including Aquirre, Wrath of God, Mean Streets, The Night of the Iguana, The Searchers, Pickup on South Street, even Night Moves.) Although it can be patently egocentric and psychologically sugary (a yellow brick road to hipster parenting) the memoir is self-consciously sincere enough, and oftimes funny, ultimately making a breezy and entertaining read.

What’s so funny about peace, love and Ronald Reagan as president of a labor union? Big-time showbiz biographer Marc Eliot (whose prior effort; a Jimmy Stewart bio, was first class) has elected to focus on the thirty years that Ronald Reagan spent in tinsletown, as ladies man, hapless B-movie headliner, all around glad handler, and (gulp) union activist. Reagan: The Hollywood Years (2008, Harmony Books, 375 pp., $25.95), is a keen glimpse into everybody-likes-Ronny’s acting struggles (1951’s Bedtime for Bonzo became his best known film, despite memorable turns in 1942’s Kings Row and 1940’s “win one for the gipper” Knute Rockne All American), his much publicized marital struggles with the man-eating Jane Wyman, and his stumbling into the machinations of the Screen Actors Guild, where the once self-declared F.D.R. Democrat somehow wound up union leader, and, for a brief minute, a protector of those tainted by the hues and cries of communism.
During Reagan’s run as SAG president he just squeezed by being tainted with inside dealing by the nefarious Lew Wasserman, the head of the all-powerful talent agency MCA and a life-long Reagan enabler. He also began his slide into conservatism and began toying with the precepts of what would eventually be Reagan Republicanism. Known to many of the more politically left and not-so-staid Hollywood players as an overgrown Boy Scout and a speechifying bore at cocktail parties, Reagan’s failing movie career was turned around when Wasserman found him the well-paying (and highly visible) gig as the host of the 11-year run of TV’s General Electric Theater, where he was able to occasionally star in one of the weekly drama and perfect his twinkle-in-the-eye homilies. When Reagan eventually wiggled his way into the California’s Governorship, and then the nations’ Presidency many of his peers had the same dual reaction: it made perfect sense yet it made no sense at all. Jack Warner, one of the more infamous studio honchos probably summed it up best when, upon hearing of Reagan gubernatorial win commented “Governor, no. Bad casting. The friend of the Governor.”

Looking for that cool daddy gift for yer fellow tawk-the-talk cinephile? For years I’ve been passing along the newest edition of the uniquely personalized Biographical Dictionary of Film by author/critic/academic David Thomson, a kinda/sorta reference book first published in 1975, which lets the idiosyncratic pundit loose on the wide array of artists, icons, trench-diggers, shadow players, and bull goose loonies who make the scene in front of and behind the cameras all over the wide world of cinema. Thomson’s latest, Have You Seen…? A Personal Introduction to 1,000 Films (2008, Alfred A. Knopf, 1,007 pp., $39.95), yet another dose of Thomsonian wit, insight, and cine-passion.
Exactly what it purports to be, an alphabetized dileneation, each one page entry somewhere around 500 words or slightly above, ranging (literally) from Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein (1948) to Zabriskie Point (1970), with predictable stops at Citizen Kane (1941) and Rashomon (1950), and everything from Detour (1945) to The Man From Laramie (1955) in between. The omissions alone could warrant mucho debate, as could (obviously) the anointed choices but that’s nary the point. As the author sturdily states: "The book is not simply my one thousand preferred films offered with whatever mixture of authority I can muster or generosity you will allow. I like or love many of these movies and I hope you will feel that in the reading and come closer to sharing my pleasure. The first purpose or wish behind the question in my title is not to establish you as an expert in film studies but to give you a good time—or a better time than you have been having.”
Look for your own favorites, flip through it randomly, use it as the occasional non-internet reference source. Thomson’s sweeping intelligence and breath of knowledge will leave you panting for another movie-movie hook-up on yet another inevitable dark and lonely night of isolation- that age old, continually satisfying, straight-into-the-vein, cinematic fix.

Tuesday, March 17, 2009


When is a concept better (and more provocative) then the well-polished immaculately burnished results? Well, in the world of mainstream (particularly network) TV, with just about four out of five projects that make it to prime time. Still, one would hope that the mastermind behind the exquisitely far reaching and vastly pleasurable Buffy the Vampire Slayer might have one up on most of the next-big-idea guys and gals, but his newest slice of TV originality, Dollhouse, just doesn’t turn the final corner.
The drama, featuring actress Eliza Dushku ( Buffy’s memorable running buddy Faith), about a corporation devoted to providing the services of pre-programmed humans in order to fit them to the desires of their wealthy clients, and then “wipes” them clean afterwards is chock full of potential big themes (computers as substitute for souls, modern day enslavement, personality as social signifier, the rise of the robo generation, contempo fractured identities) and its damn certain to include a bit of feminine ass-kicking once or twice per episode. So far it seems all vaguely intriguing, seemingly percolating with some underlying darkly thematic thread, yet it just comes across as a less playful, more muted version of Alias, with Dushku donning a newly sexed out costume plus identity twice per sixty minutes.
Since it’s Weedon, we’ll hang on a few episodes more, and put the blame on the ever emasculating network powers that be, cuz so far it ain’t the sorta dollhouse that sticks deep within your TV induced dreamscape, and Dushku comes across as far too pouty and skindeep to carry it one her lithe shoulders.

Saturday, March 14, 2009

Long Live the Queen(s)

The following column is repronted from the March edition of Providence Monthly.

Eyes Wide Open
By Scott Duhamel

By the time this piece reaches publication we effete, couch-dwelling, list-checking, blog-reading, celluloid-sniffing Oscar aesthetes will have already had our ever glorious, and typically never ending, night of award-giving; with Oscars going to the deserved, the unknown, and the unpredictable. The night’s biggest, hard-scratching, scrape-‘em-up scuffle may be between two of the more elite nominees, the reigning Queen of the Big Screen, the indomitable Wise Meryl Streep (with 14 past nominations and 2 wins to her credit), and the hard charging Sharp Kate Winslet (5 prior noms, no wins), the soon-or-later-to-be Queen.
Oscar voters are notoriously sentimental (and their collective age skewers well past the middle-aged markers) and they can’t help but adore knock-‘em-outta-the-park Wise Meryl, she being a baby boomer with the accompanying sturdy work ethic, the no nonsense attitude and fairly unblemished track record at the work place and the box office. By the same token Sharp Kate exhibits much of the same solidity, does exemplarily duty on the promotional circuit, lends unexpected class her frequent on screen clothes-doffing, and she will forever be able to shake out the box office boffo pixie dust of Titanic out of her well-coiffed tresses. Don’t ever kid yourself, Oscar wins are mostly all about the culmination of a number of Hollywoodized factors, with the actual film performance cited ofttimes relegated to a kinda-sorta/coulda-shoulda secondary factor.
Sharp Kate has grabbed up nominations for two supporting roles (1995’s Sense and Sensibility, 2001’s Iris), two other starring roles (2004’s Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, 2006’s Little Children), and of course the aforementioned cultural lighting bolt The Titanic (1997). This year (just like Wise Meryl) she was graced with two starring roles, in husband Sam Mendes’s finely-tuned adaptation of Richard Yates’s seminal 1961 novel, Revolutionary Road, and in the role she was actually nominated for, director Stephen Daldry and playwright David Hare’s, (prior collaborators on 2002’s heavily Oscar nominated The Hours) filmic take on Bernhard Schlink’s controversial more recent German novel The Reader. Both performances manage to be both acutely cerebral and unnervingly emotional (another page from the Wise Meryl book), although her turn in The Reader is decidedly showier, more overtly sexual, thus earning it’s Oscar markings.
Daldry and Hare’s film is a post-Holocaust tale that utilizes a central May-December romance (between Winslet’s Hanna and young David Kross’s Michael) to churn up questions of guilt and moral complexities. It’s rather deliberately paced, despites its interruptions of sexual ardor, and it regretfully contains itself with an overall feel of old school British propriety that belies the fiercely Germanic sturm and drag the film is meant to whip up.
When the middle-aged Michael (played by Ralph Fiennes) makes his first appearance we are supposed to have come to the realization that his first love Hanna has somehow transferred her complicity to him as a second-generation German, and that the weighty battle between what’s legal, what’s moral, and what’s right has been turn transferred onto our shoulders. But the movie is too obvious and, in actuality, too staid to make any of it profound. Despite that, Sharp Kate ‘s razor-edged portrayal in The Reader remains highly memorable and precisely etched, the kind of performance that stays in the mind’s eye, eventually looming larger then the movie’s itself dim memory.
I personally found Revolutionary Road a much better offering, and within it, a more scintillatingly calibrated overall performance from Sharp Kate. It’s a tough film, a heady downer about dreams deferred and paradise lost, another chance for director Sam Mendes (American Beauty) to pick at the existential scabs of American suburbia. The movie, which strives hard to convey its literary background (Yates novel has been at the center of many failed big screen dream projects before it’s current incarnation), could have defiantly used a few touches of the deadpan irony that served Mendes and his lead Kevin Spacey in the earlier foray into the dark heart of the American pipe dream.
Sharp Kate and her Titanic mate Leonardo DiCaprio are visually perfect embodiments of the picture perfect American on-the-rise couple. They convincingly display their heightened awareness--both are convinced that they aren’t simply ordinary citizens—by allowing their inner jaggedness to slowly protrude their glamorous outer shells. It’s scrupulous acting, virtually jettisoning any overt ties to audience empathy, and Mendes shoots the couple’s slow bit-by-bit descent with an impeccable eye, although the film fosters a coldness that even it’s two stars (and the scene-stealing Oscar nominated Michael Shannon) can’t quite melt down--- Mendes theatrical style seems to be underlining the fact that is, ahem, high literature, a framing device that detracts from the movie’s internalized central fissures.
Mendes theatrical background does allow for him to capture two highly compelling performances in Revolutionary Road, from DiCipario, and his own wife, Winslet. Enshrouding them in tight close-ups, pressing in on their constricted gazes, each and every actorly nuance seems to count. The emotional peeling away the actors let their characters execute is, finally, cathartic, and Sharp Kate is devastatingly compelling, inching ever closer to her inevitable cinematic Queenhood.

Sunday, March 8, 2009

The Revolution Was Kinda Sorta Televised

Dig the scene at the Santa Monica Auditorium on April 10 1968, the night of that year’s Academy celebration: Julie Andrews announcing the five Best Picture nominees, Bonnie and Clyde, Doctor Doolittle, The Graduate, Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner, In the Heat of the Night, more than likely followed by a huge brain-cracking pause before the applause if any audience member at all pondered the implausibility of such a thoroughly disparate bunching of movie nominations The strange brew consisted of a of highly self-aware crime story, a mummified musical, a politicized coming-of-age tale starring a weird looking unknown, a cake-and-frosting version of civil rights, and a lean and mean melodrama poking into more civil rights issues featuring the same star, Sidney Poitier, as actor star that somehow wasn’t nominated for either of his box-office-boffo role. In short, it was a night illustrative of a careening industry, a Hollywood splitting apart at the seams, a studio system in its death throes.
Mark Harris has written a wonderfully detailed book about Hollywood in upheaval, Pictures at a Revolution (Penguin, 2008, 490 pp., $17.00 paperback), wherein he takes each of the five movies from inception through execution onto post production into actual theatrical release. The inside stories abound, old schoolers thundering against shifting social and moral parameters, upstarts veering uncharted territory, age-old rules and expectations mutating with the turbulent times. A few books and even some documentaries have ventured into the same intriguing territory—after all there is nothing more fascinating for a student of Hollywood movie-making to peer inside the brick-by-brick demolition of a system so simultaneously despised and venerated—yet by honing in on the cause and effect of just five pictures Harris brings the blinkering state of the commercial movie arts during that pivotal period into true deep focus. Simply a must read for those pining for the stardust of Hollywood bygone or blissfully remembering the bountiful easy rider-raging bull era that sprung from the slow dissolve of the studio system.

Friday, March 6, 2009

Cultural Alert: Iggy Goes Puddle Jumper

No doubt about it, we all have our burdens to bear, and yes indeed, one of mine is indeed my obsession with Iggy Pop. The Igster has once again decided to fuse the lowbrow with highbrow in his own unique way, making an album with a New Orleans sound devoted to some highfalutin' Frenchie-authored book,even declaring he's sick of music made by guitar-bearing thugs. You just can't make stuff like that up. Watch his nutty professor edification and please hang in there through the coupla minute vid, in order to hear a new song entitled "King of the Dogs."

Wednesday, March 4, 2009

Ball Four

Once again, another love it/hate it pop cult proposition. HBO’s new Eastbound & Down, brought to you by the folks and star/co-creator (Danny McBride, also registering as a very funny guy in last year’s Pineapple Express and Tropic Thunder) behind cult indie comedy The Foot Fist Way, will either make you squirm on your couch with indignation and irritation, or leave you shaking yer head in sheer open-mouthed admiration.
A dramedy at heart, Eastbound & Down is also a down and dirty middle class satire, focusing on disgraced ex-major league pitcher Kenny Powers (McBride), a John Rocker-type, given to drinking, drugging, and womanizing, and without the apparent social graces of a six grade miscreant, who finds himself back in the house of his regular guy brother (Deadwood’s John Hawkes) in Shelby County, N.C., and (barely) working as a gym teach at the local school.
McBride’s schtick is lowball Larry David, socially inept, politically incorrect, blissfully arrogant and perpetually steamed at the no-nothing world around him, sans the intelligence—a walking and talking idiot, the crudball version. It’s both funny and scary, even a bit sad, as we watch the clownish actions of yet another big-timer who rose to monetary and societal heights seemingly only because of one simple, exceptional talent-the ability to throw a ball past batsmen. If you can handle a full half hour devoted to a relentless sadsack and obnoxious loser, this one’s for you.