Thursday, April 29, 2010

Dead Laughs

The following column is reprinted from the February issue of Providence Monthly (including the stuff my youthful editors somehow deem necessary to leave out):

Eyes Wide Open
By Scott Duhamel

The movie farce has always been something of a shaggy dog compared to the fine beast typically displayed on stage. Certainly, dialogue, plot and action can resonate as equally on both stage and screen, but movie farce has to be also driven by some of the prerequisite cinematic techniques like shot selection, editing, and camera movement. Movie farces helmed by the vaunted likes of Preston Sturges, Billy Wilder or even Mel Brooks usually roll out via such finely interlocking machinery, rapidly cranking up the ante towards comic nirvana.

Death at a Funeral is a sweat drenched attempt at carving out a sparkling (and supposedly outrageous) movie farce, but it ultimately strains at the seams, whisking along ever so tepidly, providing some legitimate laughs, but failing to pull it all together, or even reach occasional comic heights . Worse, upon final view, it even seems a step down from the movie’s it’s remaking, the 2006 film of the same name.

Transposing the setting from England to Southern California, and changing the cast from white Brits to middle class African-Americans, the new version sticks close to the original (they both share the same screenwriter in Dean Craig). As family and friends gather for a funeral viewing, secrets from the past, romantic tensions, misplaced bodies, and a vial of hallucinogens help tilt the day’s mounting encounters steadily off course.

The original (well okay, four-year-old) movie was directed by Frank Oz, a decent comic hand, responsible for the likes of Little Shop of Horrors (’86), Dirty Rotten Scoundrels (’88), What About Bob? (’91), and Bowfinger (’99). Inexplicably the new, Americanized version has been but in the hands of Neil LaBute, the bad boy misanthrope behind both button-pushing plays (In the Country of Men, The Mercy Seat, Fat Pig) and films (In the Company of Men, Nurse Betty, The Shape of Things). LaBute may be a smart guy, but he has seemingly stepped into a role, that of comic filmmaker, that ill suits him. The movie veers towards the inept, with unconvincing bouts of slapstick, misfired gags, and no discernable snap or punch in the majority of the humorous exchanges. It’s as if LaBute, never a particularly great visual filmmaker, has eschewed even his usual unsettling edginess in a misguided attempt to prove he has a heretofore unseen directorial versatility. Well, it just ain’t so.

Even most of the potentially decent cast spend most of their time misfiring. Chris Rock, as the more traditional of two brothers largely plays it straight, and that tact remains disappointing, as one expects more slyness and rapier reactions from him, while Martin Lawrence, as the cock-of-the-walk sibling, stays stuck in his typically one note, you’ve-seen-it-before, hyperventilating shtick. The usually reliable Luke Wilson doesn’t even register in his low radar role, and such stalwarts as Loretta Devine, Regina Hall, Danny Glover, and Keith David and Zoe Saldana don’t come up with much beyond the fairly predictable. Strangest of all is the case Peter Dinklage, reprising his role in the first film, albeit with a different name, as an unwelcome funeral guest, who happens to be a dwarf and a homosexual lover of the deceased—yet executing a turn that seems less energetic and much less inspired then the first time around. (Only Tracy Morgan and James Marsden remain unscathed, both contributing some true belly laughs, with the latter registering some particularly inspired looniness.)

When LaBute is effective he usually allows a subtle anarchic spirit to creep into his film work, but the all important destructive spirit of comedy is not on display here. There is no piquant shredding of assumptions or of social or moral consents, just some rat-a-tat knockdowns, and a mere spritz. LaBute, despite his high toned background doesn’t get anarchic or ironic enough, he his most persistent directorial choice seems to be to just wave the action along like a complacent traffic cop, as if the material was unique or special enough to bring it on home. Of course, that isn’t the case, and the laughs here are as stiff as the corpses.

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

A Horse That Was a Bird

(Reprinted from PopKrazy)

It’s been a hell of a fertile period for the Grim Reaper, Pop Cult Dept, (in my movie, that part is played by Larry Blyden), with a run that included Alex Chilton, T-Bone Wolk, and Johnny Maestro along with Dixie Carter, Fess Parker, Robert Culp, and John Forsyth, never mind Meinhardt Rabbe, the munchkin crooner from The Wizard of Oz, and Malcolm McLaren, that genuine force of nature. Wow, knock ‘em down and drag ‘em out. Yet, when the brimstone stench dissipated, the semi-celeb’s loss I felt most tenderly was a sports figure from my baseball-crazed pre-adolescence, pitcher Mike Cuellar of the Baltimore Orioles.

As an eleven-year old in the summer of 1967, I made the full transformation into rabid Red Sox fan, following the ups down of that “Impossible Dream” season, all the while transfixed by the day-to-day heroics of Carl Yastrzemski, the one and only Yaz. Like most baseball obsessives, I also underwent a quickie education about the sport, reading dusty book after book about the glories of baseball past, and digging into the sports page as soon as my father put the paper down each evening, and even going out and buying the up-to-date baseball guides available at the local newsstands. Eventually familiarizing myself with the starting line-ups of nearly every major league team, I also
learned that it was acceptable, at least for the sophisticated fan, to root for other cool daddy ballplayers that didn’t necessarily play for the home team.

Baltimore was a powerhouse in the late 60’s and early 70’s, with a kooky, colorful manager in Earl Weaver and a team made up of the Robinsons (non-brothers and future Hall of Famers Brooks and Frank), a batch of other intriguing characters (Boog Powell, Mark Belanger, Paul Blair, Davey Johnson), and quite possibly the best starting pitching staff in the American League, with Mike Cuellar as one of its stalwarts.

Cuellar, Cuban born (Miguel Angel Cuellar Santana), was a crafty lefty, not a typical flame-thrower, known for his screwball and changeup, and given the wonderful moniker, Crazy Horse. He, after starting in the Cinnacinati Reds system, was traded to the St. Louis Cardinals and then to the Houston Astros (where, in 1967, he did win 16 games and make the All-Star team), before winding up in Baltimore in 1969, and staying until 1976, after which he was traded to the Angels before leaving the game after a fifteen season career.

In his eight years with the Orioles he won 23 games in ’69, 24 in ’70, 20 in ’71, 18 in ‘72 & ‘73, and 22 in 74, made three more All-Star teams, and shared the coveted Cy Young Award in 1969 with the Detroit Tigers’ Denny McLain. As a kid, I was fascinated with both his mess-with-your-head array of pitches, his impenetrable pitcher’s stare, and (it was the dawning of the Age of Aquarius, dig?) his non-white-guy look. Noted tribal leader and kneecap Napoleon Billy Martin said of Cuellar, “His fastball couldn’t blacken my eye, but he owned the batters’ minds.”

As a Red Sox fan, I simply couldn’t root for the Yankees, but as a baseball fan I felt that one had to route for the American League rather than the National League, in both All Star and World Series games, and I found it rather easy to, once the Sox were out of the picture, to get behind the Orioles as they made their way to the play-offs and every year (except for ‘72) from 1969-1974, and onto the Series in ‘69, ‘ 70, and ‘71.

Of course Mike Cuellars’s biggest claim to pop culture longevity was and shall remain, as one of the answers to one of the perennially great baseball trivia questions : Only two teams in baseball have boasted four 20 game winners, one of them being the 1920 Chicago White Sox , and the other being the 1971 Orioles. Name the four pitchers. Don’t even contemplate sitting at the Baseball Elders Table if you can’t snap off that answer: Dave McNally (21-5), Jim Palmer (20-9), Pat Dobson (20-8), and Mr. Crazy Horse himself, Mike Cuellar (20-9). All but Palmer are dead and gone now, co-co-ca-chooing with jilted Joe DiMaggio.

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Humble Opinions

In my humble opinion, this is how you cover a song (staying true to the original, but redrafting it in yer own style): LouDoesLennon

In my humble opinion, this is how you stay vital and perpetually hip (and get up close to Shelby Lynne): PeteGetsTragic

In my humble opinion, this is how you veer off course and make rumblin' rock and roll magic (and put in some quality time with Tito Larriva) : BobAndThePlugzDoBob

In my humble opinion, this is how you use file cards and quote F. Scott Fitzgerald after giving the audience the finger (and say, with great ironic aplomb: “Roll over, Woodstock”): IggyDoesItRight

Friday, April 9, 2010

Misunderstood Marty

The following column is reprinted from the February issue of Providence Monthly (including the stuff my youthful editors somehow deem necessary to leave out):

Eyes Wide Open
By Scott Duhamel

Among my multitude of favorite moments in Martin Scorsese’s 1972 American masterpiece Mean Streets, is when one of the character says, out of nowhere: “D.D. Disappointed Dunsky.” Well the word on the less-than-mean streets of pop culture city is that my main man Marty has lost it, that the last couple of Scorsese’s specials have been pandering and bloated Hollywood production line figurines, and that the continual Scorsese-Leo DiCaprio partnership isn’t half as innovative, explosive, or enthralling as the venerated run of Scorsese and his prior acting totem, Robert DeNiro. Meanwhile, Scorsese cultists (like myself), have been reduced to half-wacky, half-flagellant worshippers who resemble Michael Imperoli’s infamous Soprano’s character, Christopher, who once ran into Scorsese and sputtered “Marty! Kundum. I liked it.” For us, it’s quite simply: “M.M. Misunderstood Marty.”

Scorsese’s latest, Shutter Island, while doing strong box office, has received a wide array of critical reception, ranging from baa-baa-bad to flawed to “best director of the present” B-plus. Adapted from a Dennis (Mystic River, Gone Baby Gone) Lehane potboiler, set on a craggy, phosphorous island outside Boston harbor that houses only a state run insane asylum in 1954, the ideal setting for Professor Scorsese to delve into the arena of Alfred Hitchcock while setiing the appropriate framework for a psychological creep show.

At the same time, for the naysayers and those who’ve long vamoosed off the director’s bandwagon, the movie is yet another ideal cog in the Scorsese-DiCaprio decline and fall--- another chic and mannered populist sell out, at one with the recent likes of 2002’s The Gangs of New York, 2004’s The Aviator, and 2006’s The Departed, for which the fillmmaker won the Best Director Oscar. Conventional film maven wisdom follows along these lines: Scorsese is still more than capable of rendering virtuoso cinematic moments, whether they be set pieces or daring images, but he’s long been enmeshed in the Hollywood mainstream (which has muted his edginess), and DiCaprio simply never carries the weight his director entrusts to him, inexplicably remaining an unconvincing figure as a full borne adult. (What, has Johnny Depp somehow morphed into Jason Robards or William Holden?) Finally, there is this: Aging, 68-year-old Scorsese is beyond mustering up to the energy and originality of the unimpeachable DeNiro collaborations like 1976’s Taxi Driver, 1980’s Raging Bull, 1990’s Goodfellas or 1995’s Casino.

Shutter Island offers up a shimmering, tightly woven and even disturbing psychological thriller for a solid four-fifths of its way, before becoming boggled down with its overwrought denouement. DiCaprio plays a combustible Boston detective poking into the asylum’s shadowy goings on accompanied by his weirdly passive sidekick (an adept Mark Ruffalo), haunted by his dead wife (Michelle Williams), and turned round and round by docs, coppers and patients (finely done up by Ben Kingsley, Max Van Sydow, Patricia Clarkson, John Carroll Lynch, Emily Mortimer, Jackie Earle Haley, and Ted Levine.) The movie is ripe with Scorsese’s usual fusion of genre pastiche, filmic quotations, cliché-rattling and commanding visual verve, all in all a technically masterful and deft excursion, only marred by a few small miscues. Production designer Dante Ferretti, cinematographer Robert Richardson, music supervisor Robbie Robertson (aided by John Cage, John Adams, Nam June Paik, and Gyorgy Ligeti), are first class contributors, and, as always, editor Thelma Schoonmaker defines the boundaries of a cutting edge classicist.

Wrongly being bandied about as a slip-slide into more Scorsese-DiCaprio populist mediocrity, Shutter Island is by and large another big budget mediation on the particular wonders of genre cinema, speckled with vivid flourishes and consistently foreboding, while simultaneously another Scorsese portrait of a man gone dissolute. It may not be overflowing with eccentricities and jagged energies, but it’s delivered with propulsive relish, and overflowing with B movie spectacle rendered pointedly. On top of it, DiCaprio delivers---compact and sturdy, continually simmering just under a boil, moral compass unfettered despite the heavy weight of guilt, he’s as drop down earthy and subtly neurotic as John Garfield or early Jack Nicholson---unquestionably earning the baton pressed upon him by the director.

While no Scorsese-styled masterpiece, Shutter Island easily ranks up their with the aforementioned fictional Christopher’s Kundum (‘97), and with other such just-this-side-of paradise Scorsese entrees: Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore (‘74), New York, New York (‘’77), After Hours (‘78),The King of Comedy (‘82), The Color of Money (’86), The Last Temptation of Christ (‘88), Cape Fear (‘ 91), The Age of Innocence (‘93), or Bring out the Dead (‘99) . In the long and short of it is that Misunderstood Marty remains a uniquely visceral and masterfully evocative filmmaker with razor-sharp skills, despite his abandonment by cinema hipsters and a portion of the critical set. I’m more than certain that’s still a long way to go before we close the red velvet curtain on his storied career, until he contributes another shooting star to his master auteurist firmament.

Sunday, April 4, 2010

Alex Chilton 1950-2010

(Reprinted from shaking like a mountain)

“Children by the million
Sing for Alex Chilton
When he comes ‘round
They sing, ‘I’m in love
What’s that song
I’m in love with that song

The in-yer-face dichotomy of the strange, niggling, woebegone career of Alex Chilton is that absolutely more peeps, kiddies, flipsters, pop cultists and the not-so-great unwashed know of him than have actually hear him, or even, more insidiously, don’t know that they have indeed heard him. A perpetual, maybe even classic, cult artist, he, despite some true popcult peaks, remained unrecognized (as the young lead singer of the AM radio hitsers The Box Tops), undiscovered (as one of the primary forces of nitcrit cult faves Big Star), unknown (as the author of the Bangles well known “September Gurls” and the Cheap Trick diffident remake “In the Street, better known as the theme song for TV’s That 70’s Show), and unheard but forever mythologized as Paul Westerberg’s muse in The Replacements “Alex Chilton”).

Chilton was virtually a child star, a Memphis born blue-eyed soulster, who at 16 experienced a top of the chart hit while fronting the Box Tops with “The Letter”, followed by two more legit hits, “Cry Like a Baby” (which marched all the way to No. 2) and “Soul Deep”. Dissatisfied with the early sixties plastic pop machinery that The Box Tops were enmeshed in, he started up a second Memphis band, Big Star, in the early 1970’s with drummer Jody Stephens, bassist Andy Hummel and fellow songwriter and guitarist Chris Bell. That band, Big Star, became an immediate critical darling, drawing rave reviews and plenty of publicity push in the wide array of rock mags that existed at the time. A combination of industry bad mojo, including an uncomprehending public, a minor league record label, and the predictable split-up marked them as one of the biggest busts of the post-Beatle rock era.

Time, as is won’t with a whole lotta cultural iconoclasts, was good to Chilton and Big Star, with the band winding up as an after-the-fact staple on college and independent radio, with a legion of on-the record worshippers like the aforementioned The Replacements, REM, Elliot Smith, The DB’s and the Bangles. The third Jim Dickinson produced Big Star record Third/Sister Lovers (with Chilton as purty much the sole force, since Chris Bell had departed) wasn’t released until after the demise of the band and it is widely (and legitimately) hailed by pop cult diviners such as Robot Hull (“haphazard masterpiece”), a jangly, gloomy, sweet and sour, head-in-the-sand, tour de force.

Mid-career Chilton began embracing his cult status, becoming an American equivalent to John Cale, behaving outrageously and obviously abusing substances, acting as de facto party planner/producer for the likes of The Replacements, Tav Falco’s Panther Burns and The Cramps, moving to New York and cutting a top notch EP (Singer Not the Song), an influential single (“Bangkok”), and an all-time rock snob fave LP (Likes Flies on Sherbert), all of which poised him on the punk edge. I was lucky to see Chilton at Boston’s infamous Rathskeller during this period, he and his young band played a blistering but careening show, one both toxic and adrenaline-producing. I had lucked into a brief fill-in position as rock critic with the Rhode Island’s only daily, The Providence Journal, and I rejoiced immeasurably (in full, naïve, young, rebel-wanna be mode) that I talked an unknowing editor into allowing a mention of one the coolest and most arcane names in rock into a squaresville, mainstream, widely read publication.

Chilton soon went through another desolate period, changing styles again and making music that grasped at blues, rockabilly, and country’s primitive roots, eventually also producing Detroit’s The Gories and more Panther Burns stuff. Smack dab in the mid-1990’s Chilton once again did the unexpected and made an album and toured the oldies festival circuit with a revamped Box Tops and also reformed a mutated new version of Big Star, made up of old mate Jody Stephens and Jon Auer and Ken Stringfellow from modern day cultists The Posies. He passed away, only a few days before a scheduled appearance with Big Star at this years’ annual South by Southwest music festival in Austin, Texas, where he long been revered by industry insiders, geeky rock scribes, and budding quirky songwriters, many with long allegiances to the cult of Chilton and his backwards, side-stepping career, seeing Chilton as both soul deep American maverick and artistic wounded soul, another pop genius somehow doomed to a life on the showbiz periphery, perpetually resonant and influential to those game few that are willing to burrow, termite-like, into the crooked and tangled rock and pop foundations.