Sunday, August 31, 2008

Storm porn

I'm sympathetic to the situation, but the hurricane chatter that's wall-to-wall on local and national news channels is a little sickening. It's all Gustav, all the time, and if this storm doesn't level New Orleans it risks disappointing viewers who are being force-fed it every minute. With mealymouthed, all-talk-do-nothing Democrat mayor Ray Nagin still unfortunately in charge--his record of non-achievement on all fronts is staggering--audiences and station managers getting their rocks off on this probably won't go away hungry if Gustav intensifies. About the only good news is that the Republican bloviators who blew it so badly last time will largely be off camera tomorrow, though we can expect a round of sanctimonious, we're-here-for-you-this-time speeches from the participants anyway. If by some meteorological miracle the storm changes track and wallops convention HQ in St. Paul, taking out the idiots who let down the city the last time (and Nagin so everyone comes away happy), I'm all for it.

Saturday, August 30, 2008

A star is born

Meet Larissa Delitha Cashill, born Monday, Aug. 25, to her very proud and delighted parents. Larissa means "bright" and "cheerful" in Latin, and thus far our little girl is living up to her billing. She's the reason I've been offline so much, but I think you'll agree she's worth it. Here she is yesterday in the car seat, off to her first doctor's visit; at home, she's very much in the driver's seat.

Sunday, August 24, 2008

"Crab Shell Trio"

A hot new band with a nautical theme? No, just my name, anagrammed. Other possibilities include "Liberals Torch," "Harbor Cellist" (I like the water), "Lilac Brothers," and (not to read aloud to the kids) "Clitoral Herbs." Thanks to my friend, Movie Morlock "Rascal Hard Hind Mirth," for sending.

Saturday, August 23, 2008

Pusher men

Kudos to the Sundance Channel for showing multi-part movies that are not easy to see--or perhaps just plain sit through, regardless of quality--theatrically. Sundance premiered Peter Greenaway's trying The Tulse Luper Suitcases last month, and is currently showing The Best of Youth, the acclaimed years-spanning Italian saga. Tonight, the trilogy that proves there's something rotten in Denmark, Pusher, screens in its entirety beginning at 10pm.

It's worth the time, which of course you can shift at your convenience. The movies are portraits of the underbelly of Copenhagen, centering on dope dealers. (Not "pushers" as we know them, milling about junior high schools, but the term may have crossed the Atlantic differently.) Director Nicolas Winding Refn shot the first in 1996, then a decade later made the other two back-to-back in 2004 and 2005. The first has a Pulp Fiction ring to it, and the third The Sopranos (with the shared metaphor of a swimming pool) but they don't feel derivative or knocked off. These are tough, gritty, Super 16-filmed pictures, occasionally quite funny (particularly the second, which spotlights the lunkhead Mads Mikkelsen, pre-Casino Royale, pictured) and ultimately as melancholic as a certain Dane.

These films share certain characters, but you don't necessarily have to watch them sequentially. (You'll be surprised to see Mikkelsen in the second if you've already screened the first, but the scar on his noggin acts to cover the reappearance.) There's at least one scene is each that is not for the squeamish--the third, where Milo the low-level kingpin (Zlatko Buric) has to drop his surface affability and deal with some immigrant upstarts, is something of a meatgrinder towards its close--but the violence isn't for violence's sake. It hollows the perpetrators, who for all their bragging rights come to learn that they'll have to live with what they've done. Not pretty pictures, but effective, and readily available for recording. (I'm not sure Sundance knows that the second has hardcore porn footage playing on a TV as Mikkelsen, freed from jail but too coked-out to perform, tries to dally with two hookers, but I won't tell if you won't tell.)

Thursday, August 21, 2008

"The Explanation"

Matt Zoller Seitz, editor emeritus of The House Next Door and a filmmaker himself, explains it all for you, with a little help from the likes of Roy Scheider, Ian Holm, and Keanu and Laurence in The Matrix to start it off.

Rough justice

Outdoors, it's been a string of delightful August days here in New York. But within the Anthology Film Archives, the temperature will be as cold as a dish of revenge through Sunday, as it hosts "New York City Vigilantes," a handful of firepower-empowerment pictures from a different, dirtier era.

Last year's pretentious The Brave One was anachronistic. Not that there aren't periodic outrages to get the most peaceable city toiler in a Bernard Goetz state of mind, but crime is way down here--the more ex-urban Death Sentence is in keeping with the trends. More importantly, in line with the "broken windows" theory of prevention that has been central to New York crime management since the early 90s, the windows aren't as broken; a spic-and-span attitude has seeped in, despite boom-and-bust building, renovation, and gentrification cycles. Jodie Foster being rescued by Robert DeNiro in the Bicentennial hell of Taxi Driver made sense; Foster locked-and-loaded in 2007 felt like wishful thinking, as if anyone has nostalgia for that aspect of the good old bad old days.

My father was mugged twice in the 70s, and we never went to Broadway without the car windows shut tight and the doors locked. (Eighth Avenue resists a thorough cleansing, but I'm OK with patches of badness.) Anthology's mini-fest might have started with 1971's scarily satiric Little Murders, where the only rational response to beat random murderous snipings is to join them, but it was Death Wish that appealed to guys like my dad, with provoked upscale liberal Charles Bronson accepting the killer within. Picking up a Magnum is as sacred a duty in these pictures as taking up the cross. Dirty Harry had set the tone for urban Westerns; in Death Wish, the gun gifted to architect Bronson by good ol' boy Tucson client Stuart Margolin is a talisman of the Old West, passed religiously into the Wild East for the benediction of the vigilante-to-be. Abel Ferrara's creepy Ms. 45 (1981), which opens the series with a bang tonight, has the deaf-mute heroine Thana (for Thanatos, the Greek god of death) never at ease in society ("she was abused and will never happen again!"), putting on a nun's habit to consecrate her vengeance at a costume party. These movie avengers ride with the angels. (Ferrara will be at Saturday's screening, one hopes of an uncut print; the DVD is missing footage that my ancient laserdisc maintains.)

The rest of the fest is something of a salute to Brox-born filmmaker, William Lustig, who will also be making a personal appearance, and is now CEO of the fine Blue Underground DVD label. Lustig appeared at the last gasp of the grindhouse, jolting even the most jaded horror junkies with 1980's Maniac. (The poster alone, which I owned for years, along with that of Ms. 45's, is enough to give you the shakes.) By 1983's Vigilante, Lustig had cleaned up his act sufficiently for multiplex bookings, and had a more aspirational cast--Fred Williamson, Carol Lynley, Richard Bright, Woody Strode, and the excellent and underrated Robert Forster in the title role--at his disposal. It doesn't hang in my memory, though--I recall the savagely suggested murder of Forster's child (a blood burst on clothes on a laundry line), and that it comes to involve a group dynamic, with other members of Brooklyn's dispossessed joining in the fight against the bad guys, who as usual in these pictures are carefully multiethnic. Race would intrude on the death wish fulfillment for the broadest possible demographic. (Jeff Goldblum and Laurence Fishburne did time as scumbags in Death Wish movies--it's a shock seeing Goldblum doing unmentionable things with spray cans to Hope Lange and her daughter in the first one, as the score wails.)

Rounding out the series are the first two of the three Maniac Cop movies that Lustig directed, from typically cheeky and topical screenplays by Larry Cohen, in 1988 and 1990, the contentious Do the Right Thing era. Here the frustrated shooter (and smacker, and knifer, and so on with the weaponry) is a policeman--an undead one, no longer bound to the ethics and codes as set forth by the hypocritical and face-saving top brass, which we come to learn had it in for him.

(Pause. How he came to be is explained in the final one, 19923's Badge of Silence, which looked to me to be filmed pretty much in L.A., which had the Rodney King incident on its plate. It's not up to par with its predecessors, but if you were wondering how Jackie Earle Haley spent the interregnum between The Bad News Bears and Little Children, look no further. And it has a character comparing police brutality to Iraq, referring to the Kuwait invasion but a standout line when heard on cable TV late in the evening today, where I encountered it. )

With its monster-on-the-loose element, the Maniac Cop movies (the second, in particular, is distinguished by excellent, pre-CGI era car chases and stuntwork, gory, old-school makeup effects, and a fine-fettle cast including Robert Davi, Leo Rossi, and big-faced Robert Z'Dar as the unstoppable cop Cordell) don't really fit the angry citizen template, but what the hell--you'll rarely get the chance to see any of these pictures with an appreciative audience, especially at Anthology, a high church of cinema. But what happens at Anthology stays at Anthology--let's keep the bad vibes on the screen and off our streets, please.

Wednesday, August 20, 2008


National Lampoon's Animal House turned 30 three weeks ago, and I missed it. (Must be another attack of CRAFT--Can't Remember a Fucking Thing--Syndrome.) It was the first R-rated movie I saw. Dad took me. I subsequently watched it roughly 800 times on HBO.

Bigfoot remains a mystery. And that is how it should be; no one should really "solve" UFOs, the Loch Ness Monster, etc. We need strange magic in the world. (Anyway, no actual Bigfoot could live up to my memory of the creature from The Six Million Dollar Man, where Andre the Giant and Ted Cassidy stepped into his shoes in separate episodes.)

I'm humbled to admit I've read more about the late critic Manny Farber than I've actually read him. These reminiscences encourage me to get up to speed.

Always nice to hear from Robin Wood, Canadian critic and author of one of my favorite volumes, Hollywood from Vietnam to Reagan, which changed my thinking on pariah films like Heaven's Gate, Cruising, and the more obscure Eyes of a Stranger, a movie maybe after Farber's heart. Here he picks his fave Criterion DVDs.

And a happy third anniversary today that thank God I did not forget.

Tuesday, August 19, 2008

Ciao Bela

Lugosi will always be my favorite Bela, but coach-turned-Olympics commentator Bela Karolyi is up for silver. We love his erudition and enthusiasm, and his no-nonsense crap-cutting. He and Bob Costas are an inspired team, and the cutaways to the booth get a lift when Karolyi is chewing the fat over this or that result or ruling. Personally, I miss the perfect 10s, but I can understand why they were dropped, as they emphasized showmanship over sportsmanship. The tie-breaking scoring makes a lot less sense to me and I'd say most viewers, and it was gratifying to hear Karolyi go to town on it.

As a coach, Karolyi was a controversial figure, trailing allegations of abuse and mismanagement, but also spirited defenses of his medal-winning tactics. He's been golden at the Games, but that's a temporary gig. Karolyi has been played at least twice on TV, including a 1984 TV movie about his legendary stewardship of Nadia Comaneci, and according to the Internet Movie Database did act in Romanian films when he was much younger. But now is the right time for him to go Hollywood. Not that I want to take any work away from Armin Mueller-Stahl, his near-lookalike, but Karolyi could at least pick from the available parts: I see him as wry defectors, bad guys, with or without hearts of gold, in Bond and Bourne adventures, Slavic grandpas with stories to tell of the old country, Russian kingpins in Coney Island, etc. Go, Bela, go!

Sunday, August 17, 2008

On TCM: Monday with Jack Palance

I just posted on tomorrow's "Summer Under the Stars" salute at the Mobius Home Video Forum, with an entry on the actor's third and final collaboration with director Robert Aldrich, the Hammer Films production Ten Seconds to Hell (1959). I then realized I was stepping on my own schtick, so I'm bringing it back to base camp. Ten Seconds, which I've never seen, proved a trying experience, but their two, much more essential pictures, Attack! and The Big Knife, a movie-about-moviemaking that drips real venom, are also on. So is the fine, last hurrah for the Old West drama Monte Walsh (1970), with he and Lee Marvin giving warm and sympathetic performances as aging cowboys heading out to pasture. (They're on opposing sides in the all-star The Professionals, also airing.) And, revisiting another topic, Palance and Alain Delon (and Ann-Margret) co-star in 1965's Once a Thief, which is either a French crime drama gone Hollywood style, or vice versa. However you look at it, Delon never caught fire here. But Palance, whose facility from part to part wasn't truly appreciated till his Oscar-winning comic trail boss in 1991's City Slickers, walked tall whatever company he was keeping.

Facing facts

The Tropic Thunder boys laid some smack on The Dark Knight, dethroning it from the top of the boxoffice charts. But the beancounters are no doubt wondering where the lightning is. It's by no means a huge opening, and the movie will struggle to recoup its triple-digit cost. The analysts are already analyzing. It opened too late; it's R-rated (last week's Pineapple Express took a sizable fall); the Northeast market is awash in glorious, stay-outdoors August weather; the controversy over Robert Downey, Jr.'s faux black character and "retard" jokes kept audiences away. And so on.

But it comes down to two basic things. It's a satire, and satire, even when pitched low to woo the 20-somethings who stayed away anyway, rarely does well. Well, maybe two-and-a-half basic things: I'd say another reason is Stiller-itis, as audiences tire of its star and director, who is approaching Robin Williams levels of annoyance.

The main reason, I think, is that movies (and TV shows) about moviemaking are toxic. Not actively so, like traditional musicals and Westerns used to be and maybe still are to a degree despite encouraging signs of rehab, but like a poisonous gas that if slowly released kills everything in its path. Audiences have learned to stay away in droves from the whiff of narcissism that accompanies them, even if they pretend to bite the hand that feeds them (the same hand that in this case gave its makers $100 million to produce the abuse). I can't think of one that's succeeded in years--maybe decades. (There's HBO's likable Entourage, but that's spent after several seasons, and is best when it's away from the soundstages). We're generations away from Sunset Blvd. and The Big Knife, when the scorn was fresh.

To paraphrase Gloria Swanson, these pictures have gotten small indeed, yet there is a seeming glut of them, on TV, the multiplex and the arthouse. In some cases, it may be that their young-ish creators have no other life experience to draw from, but why a veteran like Barry Levinson (of the failed Jimmy Hollywood and the more successful but not exactly barn-burning Wag the Dog) is going back to the well for a third helping with the forthcoming What Just Happened is a puzzle. If anyone needed a superhero picture to get back on track it's Levinson, and I'd (almost) rather see him attempt one than another tinseltown schmoozer.

By the same token, there is a heartfelt reminiscence in today's Times about the Promenade Theatre, which closed two years ago. That was too bad, as in its heyday it was worth making the journey uptown to see, say, Edward Albee's mesmerizing Three Tall Women, which filled the house in the mid-90s. But it had fallen on very hard times in the new century, with dreck like Morgan Fairchild and John Davidson in High Infidelity and an absolutely rock-bottom comedy about showbiz (natch!) and Communism that I am grateful not to recall the title of. I saw one or maybe two good shows there in maybe eight years, and that was hardly enough to break a spell of okay-to-rotten productions. The author laments that the Promenade is now a Sephora; I'd say only a perfume shop could have cleansed the foul odor that had regrettably doomed the space.

Saturday, August 16, 2008

Popdose: Elegy

The summer movie season winds down with the autumnal Philip Roth adaptation Elegy, starring Ben Kingsley and Penelope Cruz. It is sure to be on year-end Top 10 lists, maybe even my own.

Rise and fall

I've spent some time leafing through the massive You Must Remember This: The Warner Bros. Story, by Richard Schickel and George Perry, which ties in with a multipart American Masters history of the studio that airs next month on PBS. There's a lot to salute as the studio celebrates its 85th anniversary: The coming of sound via 1927's The Jazz Singer, its run of classics from the 30s to the 50s, from gritty gangster pictures to Casablanca, Mildred Pierce, and Rebel Without a Cause, and of course all those great stars it bred, like Bette Davis, Humphrey Bogart, James Cagney, and James Dean, not to mention Bugs and Daffy.

But the party's over. By the time the book reaches the present day, it's pretty much just big glossy photos of Harry Potter and other so-called "tentpoles," that keep audiences and shareholders happy. The absence of text is no surprise--what is there to say about them? That's not why I'm party-pooping, however. It's discouraging to read that WB no longer wants to shelter smaller films under the ever-widening tents, which is, or used to be, the artistic justification for the blockbusters. Since the book went to press this includes what will soon be the second-biggest grosser of all time, the stridently overrated Dark Knight, which in Heath Ledger's slightly Cagney-esque performance as the Joker winks at a risk-taking and exuberant past the studio is in retreat from. It wants to sell superhero soap, and that is that.

WB--you can't really call it "Warner Bros." anymore--is hardly alone in this. Hollywood is like one melded entity searching for the next big thing, preferably in tights. In the heyday of this book (which Running Press publishes Sept. 9) the studios had distinctive identities, and you could still discern the outlines of what they were in the 70s and 80s. (Clint Eastwood, who contributes the foreword, still hangs his shingle on the WB lot.) But it's discouraging to see a regime so upfront about putting marketing over moviemaking. Looked at one way, the cover of You Must Remember This caps a record of distinguished achievement. Looked at another, it might front a gilded mausoleum. I do remember this, and it's nice that WB puts out a thick book (and lots of DVDs, though that has slowed) to commemorate the good old days. But what the new, thoroughly corporatized WB wants you to remember is the balance sheet.

Thursday, August 14, 2008

Girl interrupted

A Girl Cut in Two is a nasty title for a genteel picture, which IFC Films releases tomorrow. The worst of it happens beneath the surface, as it often does in the thrillers of Claude Chabrol. "Thriller" isn't really the right word; it's more a slightly satiric observation of class differences, with a murder. The 78-year-old Chabrol has been called the "French Hitchcock" (whose 109th birthday would have been yesterday) but with 70 features and TV credits under his belt he's very much his own auteur, making films with a cadre of close relations the way other families plan annual barbecue get-togethers. He co-wrote the script with his stepdaughter and long-time first assistant Cecile Maistre and directed; his wife Aurore supervised the screenplay; his son Thomas co-stars; and his other son, Matthieu, composed the score. DP Eduardo Serra, who as usual supplied the coolly textured cinematography, and male leads Benoit Magimel and Francois Berleand are like blood relatives at this point.

Chabrol has an enviable track record for a foreign filmmaker in the U.S. Because he works in a saleable genre, most of his movies do get at least a modest release here, and if you have IFC Films on Demand on your cable system you don't even have to make an effort to go out and see this one. In his quieter niche I don't think he's ever made a commercial picture like the current French-language arthouse success Tell No One, which is closer to the Hitchcock mold. But there are Chabrols like La Ceremonie and The Bridesmaid, which heighten the suspense, and there is Girl, whose twists are entirely, and intentionally, familiar. If you look up the Evelyn Nesbit/Stanford White case on Wikipedia, you have the storyline for this one, and the new movie takes its cue from Richard Fleischer's 1955 movie about the crime-of-the-turn-of-the-last-century saga, The Girl in the Red Velvet Swing.

Here, the girl, Gabrielle (Ludivine Sagnier), works as a TV weatherperson. The White character, Charles (Berleand), is a jaded novelist, married, much older, who is attracted to Gabrielle's lack of guile--and her willingness to go with his flow and enact his kinky scenarios (implied more than shown, though Sagnier does more with a large feather than dust with it). Charles keeps his dark side under wraps; it spills right out of Paul (Magimel), the spoiled heir to a pharmaceuticals fortune, who is irked by Gabrielle's attraction to her sunset years lover. The two men, one charmingly but irreedemably cynical and the other attractive but hopelessly schizophrenic, pull her in different directions. Homicide clouds the picture for the plucky weathergirl, as a front of old money represented by Paul's frosty mother (played by Caroline Silhol) moves in to tidy up the mess.

A Girl Cut in Two is full of false fronts, right up to the final image, a nod to Lola Montes (released the same year, coincidentally, as the Fleischer picture). Only Gabrielle is exactly what she appears to be, an ideal template for a mediagenic age--but what that is remains a private mystery. (The appealing Sagnier has appeared in numerous homegrown films, like Francois Ozon's hits Eight Women and Swimming Pool, but Chabrol sparked to her as the cute Tinkerbell in the recent Hollywood Peter Pan.) Her co-stars give expert performances as unknowable, if somehow likable, men; Magimel's Paul (pictured, with Sagnier) is so confused he can't even decide on a hair color. Also in the cast is Mathilda May, the delectable vampiress of 1985's Lifeforce, whose very presence adds a note of perversity to the film without her having to do much to reinforce it. Nothing is pushed, it's a notably chaste picture, reasonably faithful to the century-old case but at a discreet distance from the sensationalism of our own era, and likely to strike an audience primed for more as detached. But that cautious remove is part of the Chabrol bloodline.

Wednesday, August 13, 2008


Announcing the full lineup of the New York Film Festival. I've seen Mike Leigh's Happy-Go-Lucky, with the radiant Sally Hawkins as an ever-chipper schoolteacher (pictured).

As the summer movie season winds down Salon is a little late with an essay on "blockbuster fatigue". Like, maybe 15 years late, as relentless torrents of CGI replaced wit, emotion, and simple imagination in would-be crowdpleasers.

An uncut Psycho is found abroad. Will Gus Vant Sant have to redo his, too?

The misadventures of a subtitler in Europe are recounted. Porn is involved.

Are you a dyed-in-the-wool cinephile? If so, you probably have to catch a screening and have no time to read this.

Tuesday, August 12, 2008

On TCM: Wednesday with Peter Lorre

As "Kim Novak Day" continues on Turner Classic Movies (there's still time to catch the little-seen and very good Paddy Chayefsky adaptation Middle of the Night at 6pm, followed by the fine Fred MacMurray noir Pushover at 8pm), Peter Lorre waits in the wings for his closeup tomorrow. Lorre was one of the great all-time character actors, a Michael Phelps of the form, effortlessly stealing scene after scene. Here he is, at his most diabolical, in 1935's Mad Love, positioned for prime time at 8pm Wednesday. Right after that (9:15pm) he adds to the expressionist style (including a memorably off-the-wall dream sequence) of 1940's noir-ish Stranger on the Third Floor, co-written by Day of the Locust scribe Nathanael West. Two of his pairings with "the fat man," Sydney Greenstreet, air beginning at 10:30pm, the legendary Maltese Falcon and the twisty Mask of Dimitrios. A day of lauding Lorre nears its close with one of my favorites, 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, airs at 2pm, with Lorre a fine foil for a chipper Kirk Douglas and Esmerelda the seal.

I really should read Stephen D. Youngkin's acclaimed biography of the actor, but tomorrow is a good time to experience some of his facets.

Monday, August 11, 2008

Seeing Red

I used the poster as an illustration, but I watched Red on the HDNet Movies channel, where it bowed last Wednesday, after festival play and right before a bound-to-be-small theatrical release by Magnolia Pictures. It's a revenge picture, based on a book by cult novelist Jack Ketchum, but it plays as much as a Western, and boasts a fine, laconic performance by Brian Cox. Cox's Avery Ludlow, a small-town proprietor who has lived somewhat reclusively following the death of his wife, has a lot to be mad about: For no good reason, other than "meanness," three teens shot his old dog, Red, a gift from the Mrs., after giving up their plan to rob him while he was fishing. The fat-cat father of two of the boys, Michael McCormack (Tom Sizemore), refuses to believe his story and stands by his kids, one of whom feels remorse over the hushed-up incident. The white-trash parents of the third kid (the redneck dream team of "Freddy" Robert Englund and Amanda Plummer, the Duse of indies) dummy up. There's no legal recourse for Avery to find justice. A sympathetic TV reporter (Kim Dickens, Cox's Deadwood co-star) broadcasts a story, which only adds fuel to the fire. Add in a few ghosts from Ludlow's past and pretty soon a man's gotta do what a man's gotta do, as Cox brings his fight to Sizemore's doorstep.

Red is co-credited to two directors, quirky horror film maker Lucky McKee (May) and the film's producer, Trygve Allister Diesen. A somber picture, with no fantastic elements, the movie doesn't have McKee's stamp. Its naturalism may have defeated him--scuttlebutt suggests he tagged on the sentimental closing scene, which comes close to invalidating most of what came before but runs counter to his usual instincts. I reckon it plays more evenly if you just leave the theater, or hit "eject," after the final confrontation. (Then again, if you want to exit on a cute up note, however false it may feel, stick around.)

Largely free of stylistic flourishes, unlike last year's flashier Death Sentence or The Brave One, Red has a pleasing economy about it--a burning building and a car chase are filmed modestly (the fire is pretty much just reflections of flames, with a morning-after reveal of the smoking husk). The eye-for-an-eye theme inevitably rekindles the Seventies, just as the low-slung filmmaking recalls late Phil Karlson pictures like Walking Tall and other backwoods B's of its era. It's a mellower relation, however, with greater emphasis on the eerie quiet of Avery's troubled life than the spasmodic bursts of violence that shake it to its core. Cox is a little too spry for his implied senior citizendom but he lands his character's regret-scarred monologue, with its reverberations into the present. You have to feel for a guy whose life now orbits around the truculent and unappealing Sizemore (behaving himself between rehab stints) and Plummer, a perpetual fright. I feel about her like a dad does about his tomboy daughter: What would she look like cleaned up and wearing a pretty dress for a change?

Sunday, August 10, 2008

RIP Isaac Hayes

He won Grammys and an Oscar for his theme for Shaft, that rare occasion when the Academy Awards were in sync with musical trends--and it was a terrific choice. Contributing the voice of Chef on South Park brought him right up to date. But for sci-fans of a certain age, Hayes will always be remembered as The Duke, in John Carpenter's Escape from New York (1981). Farewell to A-No. 1, gone too soon. (But he and Bernie Mac share a posthumous credit in the upcoming Soul Men, a title that rubs me the wrong way at this moment.)

On TCM: Monday with Richard Widmark

He never won an Oscar, but Turner Classic Movies is giving the late actor his own day tomorrow as its "Summer Under the Stars" series continues this month. You can get an early start at 2:30am, when TCM winds down its "Doris Day" with one of his few comedies, 1960's The Tunnel of Love. Then rise and shine at 6am with the Vikings and Moors epic The Long Ships (1964)--a false start, as it was the least of his pictures with co-star Sidney Poitier, and a credit he disliked. "Don't do me any favors," I can hear him snarling, through clenched teeth.

But things pick up at 8:30am, with one of his best grinning bastard roles, opposite the aged-in-wood Robert Taylor in 1958's The Law and Jake Wade. 1955's The Cobweb, a glossy asylum melodrama co-starring Lauren Bacall and directed by Vincente Minnelli, follows at 10am. Worth recording is 1956's Run for the Sun, a Most Dangerous Game remake with he and future Against All Odds co-star Jane Greer pursued by Trevor Howard in the Mexican jungle. It's the 4:30pm movie. 1978's Coma, which closes out the day at 4am, takes the grinning bastard out of the Old West and plunks him down in a modern hospital, a little smoother and more civilized this time.

The highlight is Sam Fuller's Pickup on South Street, at 8pm. His pickpocketing pas de deux with Jean Peters in a New York subway is one of the great erotically charged moments in strait-laced Fifties cinema. And he and Oscar nominee Thelma Ritter are equally combustible together. I love this exchange, as her stoolpigeon gives him grief for consorting with Red spies who are after microfilm in his possession:

Ritter: What's the matter with you? Playing footsie with the Commies!
Widmark: You waving the flag, too?
Ritter: Listen, I knew you since you was a little kid. You was always a regular kind of crook. I never figured you for a louse.
Widmark: Stop, you're breaking my heart.
Ritter: Even in our crummy line of business you gotta draw the line somewhere.

Saturday, August 09, 2008

RIP Bernie Mac

The goodwill generated by the enthralling Opening Ceremonies didn't last too long, what with murder in Beijing and the prospect of all-out war between Russia and Georgia. Further pall is cast, lamentably, by the passing of the 50-year-old comic actor, whose Fox show I particularly enjoyed. He usually did right by his makeshift family, but he took his sweet, slow burn time to do it; in that regard, he reminded me of W.C. Fields. Mac stole scenes in the Ocean's pictures, Bad Santa, and Transformers, and got into the spirit of Charlie's Angels more than the sourpuss Bill Murray. His best film role was in 2004's Mr. 3000, where he hit all the right notes of puffed-out ego, insolence, and wounded pride, and got to romance Angela Bassett. I'll miss his big voice and outsized personality--there was range and facility there, and I regret that it will go untapped.

Friday, August 08, 2008

Today's your lucky day

Get married (done). Have a baby (working on it). Watch the Opening Ceremonies of the Olympics (will do). It's the most auspicious of days, more or less.

Reports filtering in from China suggest that Zhang Yimou hit one out of "bird's nest" park with his direction of the ceremonies, an event years in the making. I still remember the somewhat subversive thrill I got sitting in pre-handover Hong Kong watching his great films Judou and the exquisite Raise the Red Lantern, which the Chinese government frowned upon. (And it was fun to see him and former muse Gong Li co-starring in the HK action comedy A Terracotta Warrior, a more amusing fish-out-of-water effort than the sloppy Mummy blockbuster now in release here.) The Times considers whether Zhang has sold out or bought in with his boosterism. I'm not sure he has, entirely: While Hero (2002), which among other things demonstrates what CGI can be in the hands of a true artist, was criticized for its might-makes-right philosophy, 2006's exhausted Curse of the Golden Flower shows a regime on the ropes, presiding over massacres that are swept away the next day. After this spectacular phase in his career I'd prefer he'd get back to real people, but to stay in China and work metaphor may be his preferred means of expression. Will the Opening Ceremonies have something to say to us?

Popdose: Getting high

In which I inhale Seth Rogen and James Franco (pictured) in Pineapple Express, have a Seventies flashback to Philippe Petit in Man on Wire, and get down with the newly documented Patti Smith.

Thursday, August 07, 2008

An accent on thrillers

"The French Crime Wave" breaks out at New York's Film Forum, for five weeks beginning tomorrow. It's a grab bag of titles from 1937-2000, encompassing film noir, thrillers, and a few that are a bit of one or the other and something else besides. (That would include the classic Eyes Without a Face, a personal favorite, screening Aug. 27 with the equally indispensable Diabolique, that has aspects of crime movies but is more of a horror picture, albeit a quite poetic one.)

The festival is in a way a celebration of Film Forum itself. Many of these long-unseen pictures were revived there for the first time in decades, then fanned out to other rep houses before getting the deluxe treatment on Criterion DVD. Some I first saw there were the late Jules Dassin's Rififi, which starts the show this weekend; a number of the excellent Jean-Pierre Melville pictures, including the coldly precise epic Le Cercle Rouge (Aug. 15-16) and Les Doulos (Aug. 24-25); and Jacques Becker's engrossing Touchez Pas Au Grisbi (Aug. 17-18) and Casque D'Or (Sept. 2).

All are worth revisiting. And there is some fresh blood, too. Arthouses tend to get the more prestigious films with the great Gallic stars, but they made the rounds in the shadowier corners of genre cinema, and continue to do so. If you don't get the Fox Movie Channel, which plays it occasionally, this is your chance to see Jean Gabin, Alain Delon, and Lino Ventura in the entertaining The Sicilian Clan, and Delon, Catherine Deneuve, and Richard Crenna in Melville's swan song, Un Flic, which are doubled up on Aug. 28. On either side of the law, Delon, no stranger to shadier walks of life offscreen, is a constant presence in these films--he and Jean-Paul Belmondo team up for the nostalgic mob hit Borsalino on Aug. 12, then he solos as the talented Mr. Ripley in Rene Clement's iconic Purple Noon (Aug. 13-14, pictured), which along with Le Samourai got me interested in the actor when it was revived in the mid-90s.

And more: Robert Bresson's legendary Pickpocket and A Man Escaped (Aug. 20), both gripping in their own ascetic manner, and Bertrand Tavernier's sly Coup De Torchon (Aug. 25), with Philippe Noiret and Isabelle Huppert. Plus Brigitte Bardot, in a film from Diabolique and Wages of Fear (Sept. 4) director Henri-Georges Clouzot, Le Verite. The truth is, crime does pay.

Wednesday, August 06, 2008


TCM's Anne Bancroft day is in full swing. (With commentary from this front.)

A friend and fellow Mobian impresses DVD Savant.

One-half of the "movie theme team," whose work is still ubiquitous on elevators and in waiting rooms, has left his piano.

Cranky city blogger complains about this, that, and the other thing. (He'd never make it in Hong Kong.)

Speaking of China, the American team is already under scrutiny for etiquette breaches. (I'm sympathetic, given what I've experienced with rising pollution levels over there, but it's a little early for the Dark Knight routine.)

Maybe next year for me and K2.

Tuesday, August 05, 2008

What's in a name

Behind this unassuming title is an enjoyable New York story, circa 1957, which we caught on Turner Classic Movies on Sunday. That title makes it easy to overlook--it's a Sammy Cahn tune that co-star Julie Wilson warbles, but if you didn't know that you'd probably pass it right on by. And that would be too bad: It's sort of a benign cousin to that same year's Sweet Smell of Success, with Jean Simmons very Audrey Hepburn-like as a prim schoolteacher who takes a part-time job at a nightclub ("The Tonic") run by old softy Paul Douglas and his harder-nosed younger partner (the underrated Anthony Franciosa in his film debut, right before scoring an Oscar nomination with a reprise of his stage success in the junkie drama A Hatful of Rain.) Wilson, the one-of-a-kind Joan Blondell, Tom Helmore (specialty: urbane, slightly oily types) and "Hokey Pokey" originator Ray Anthony and His Orchestra all turn up, along with other familiar mugs, and the venerable genre-hopper Robert Wise directs in that most atmospheric of formats, widescreen CinemaScope. We were amused at a subplot about an Arab busboy, Hussein Mohammed (Rafael Campos), trying to fit into the milieu; the immigrant aspect to the 51-year-old story is right up to the minute.

But that title. I have trouble remembering it two days later. I've made my peace with Quantum of Silence, but imagine most moviegoers will simply call it "the new James Bond movie." Yesterday, before settling in with The Mummy: Tomb of the Dragon Emperor (don't ask), I watched/endured one of those "AMC Regal First Look" shorts on a September release with Samuel L. Jackson and Patrick Wilson, a thriller-ish flick about a bigoted cop (Jackson) lording it over his new, mixed-marriage neighbors in their comfy L.A. enclave. It reminded me a little of 1992's Unlawful Entry--a decent title.

But this one turned out to be called...Lakeview Terrace. Huh? That's like an insert the Corcoran realty group sticks in my Times. It says nothing about the film or its premise. Prior melodrama monikers along these lines--Arlington Road, Pacific Heights--didn't result in hit pictures, either. Address titles are I think best left to pre-sold soap operas like Peyton Place, or stories where the specific locale has a certain notoriety (10 Rillington Place, about England's Christie murders), just as song titles as movie titles have to have a certain zing and timeliness to them (Girls Just Wanna Have Fun was well out of the Top 40 by the time the would-be cash-in movie appeared.)

Lakeview Terrace has a certain allusiveness--"Lake View Terrace" is the neighborhood where the LAPD cracked Rodney King's head--but moviegoers and non-Angelenos won't be swarming to Wikipedia to look that up. (The film was shot in more affluent Walnut, CA.) With a poster emphasizing its star, Screen Gems has to hope it'll register as the "Samuel L. Jackson badge and gun movie," not that there haven't been a dozen of those. (And this one is rated PG-13, indicating either subtlety regarding the edgy premise, or blandness.)

One name conspicuously absent from the advertising is that of the director. If this were a play in New York, "Neil LaBute" would be all over the place; onstage he's a brand, like Tide or McDonald's, and about as compelling to me in his sameness and overexposure. I suspect this was done to remove the taint of association. In Hollywood his last film was The Wicker Man--a flop under any name.