Friday, August 31, 2007


So, I saw a movie last night. Yeah, right, big surprise, I know. It was a very good film; in fact, I'd say it was an excellent film. It's from one of the world's greatest filmmakers and contains an absolutely superb lead performance from an actor who continues to impress me. I have the feeling that not everyone will be as enamored of the film as I am, but for serious film lovers, I feel it will be a must-see. In fact, I'd go so far as to say it will probably be one of the best films of 2007.

It's name? I can't tell you.

While I am obviously not a working journalist, in order to attend this advance screening I had to promise some people that I would not write a review of the film I saw until its actual release date. I'm sure that others will probably jump the gun, but I was told there was an embargo on reviews and I'm going to stick to it because I promised I would. Am I thrilled with this? Not really. I'd love to tell you about this movie, since I liked it so much and because the director is my favorite director of all time, but a promise is a promise. And I keep my promises.

It's a very odd thing that it's all come to this, but a lot of the studios are really sticking to this whole embargo thing and I'm not quite sure why. If a picture is good, like this one certainly is, wouldn't you want people to know about it? It isn't like they're hiding something or are ashamed of the film, but I guess the studios feel that advance reviews, no matter what they say, are to a film's detriment. I can understand if getting word out too far in advance would confuse people to think a film's coming out earlier than it actually is, but this waiting... I don't get it. Are they trying to not give away the film's surprises? Do they want to make people savor the suspense of know if the film is good or not? Gets me. All I know for sure is, I'm not writing about it for the next two weeks. Doesn't mean I can't talk about it, but posting a review? Nope, sorry, folks.

So who's spoiled things for the rest of us? Ain't It Cool? Variety? Can't say. It isn't like there was some big news-making, embargo-breaking review that went up that got the studios all in a huff. I think they're just flexing some power, showing everyone who's boss, even though this is a film for which reviews matter and you want to start spreading good word. And it's going to show at one of the big film festivals very soon, so then the word of mouth will go from there and then the reviews will hit and what are you going to do? What happens to poor little old me when everyone else breaks the embargo and reviews start hitting before release date? I have the feeling I'll be told some time in the next week or so that it will be OK to talk, but I'd like to tell you about it all now, while it's still fresh in my mind and I'm still excited about it. But I can't and I won't. Sorry folks, but that's the review game in August of 2007; strange but true.

Me and my promises. Oh well, I guess you'll all just have to wait.

Surf's Up - My Shameful Beach Boys Admission

As summer winds down (nooooo!!!), I take with me a precious memory of the soundtrack to my summer of '07. I rather liked both Maximo Park's Our Earthly Pleasures and 1990s' Cookies, while I have also been seriously digging the new VHS or Beta album, Bring on the Comets, which contains moments of pop perfection like "Can't Believe a Single Word" and "Fall Down Lightly". I'm still warming up to Snakes and Arrows, Rush's latest (Rush fan! No shame in it!), but musically speaking it ranks with some of their best works and thanks to some industry connections (yeah, I'm connected), I can tell you that the latest album from the Toronto-based Stars, In Our Bedroom After the War, is a first-rate effort all around. I also want to give a shout-out to The Ref-O-Ree Records Story soul compilation from SPV for giving me some damn fine classic soul to discover throughout the summer. But on top of it all, the group that made the summer of 2007 for me was a band from Southern California who put out some of the most incredible, soulful music I've ever heard. Their name? The Beach Boys.

Yeah, that Beach Boys. The "Fun, Fun, Fun", "California Girls", "Good Vibrations" Beach Boys. I know, I know, I'm a little late to the party. And yes, I'd heard of them before, wise ass.

Like most folks, when it came to The Beach Boys I knew the hits. I own a copy of Pet Sounds on both cassette and CD and have an old greatest hits double LP. I knew of their history and about Brian Wilson, who I even sat close to at a 2005 SXSW screening of the Smile documentary (that's about as close to greatness as I've gotten). But as for all the other stuff, basically the music they were making when they had stopped making hits, I was at a bit of a loss. A real loss, actually, since all of that stuff was just a mystery to me. Until recently, I'd never heard Wild Honey, 20/20, Carl and the Passions, Surf's Up, none of that stuff. It doesn't get played on the radio and you don't really hear it in movies or ads. Why I didn't ever investigate the Boys' work until now I don't really know, but it wasn't until this spring when I got my hands on a copy of The Warmth of the Sun, a new "Best of" compilation did I ever really get to hear much of it. Warmth of the Sun is actually a very smart and cool package of songs that have been favorites of true Beach Boy fans but aren't the "hits"; it's got such tunes as "Friends", "Feel Flows", "All Summer Long", and the title track and whoever put this thing together deserves a nice, big raise, because it's an exceptional compilation. The songs were all enticing enough to get me excited about the rest of the Beach Boys catalog that I was missing out on, a mix of songs from the early 60s to the mid-70s and if you're looking for a Beach Boys primer, I do suggest looking here.

Stoked to hear more, I used some of my aforementioned connections to get my hands on some of these previously unheard albums. Asking someone I know through work, I was in the process of making some simple trades when my connection asked me if I was looking for any particular music. Without a second thought I said, "If you can get me some Beach Boys, that would be great" and a couple of days later a box filled with every Beach Boy album available on CD came my way. Ho-ly shit! No search through album review after album reviewer, no picking a CD here, a CD there (I'm not big on downloading), they're all here, all of them containing 2 albums on 1 CD, all of them mine. Yes! So over the summer I've been diving into almost all of them (can really only do one at a time), but as I think you can guess, I'm becoming more and more enraptured with what I hear. The earlier albums, fine as they are, aren't the same as those later, more complex works; "I Get Around" may indeed be a piece of pop genius, but a song like "Til I Die" has more weight to it, with lyrics that feel like a broken heart that will never heal. The hopefulness of youth having given way to the realities of the adult world (felt in "Disney Girls (1957)") and certainly the difficulties the band itself were going through obviously took their tool, but they added in an odd way, too. They allowed members of the band other than Brian Wilson and Mike Love get their opportunity to shine (especially Dennis Wilson's contributions, like "Be With Me" and "Forever", probably one of the best love songs ever written) and proved that the Beach Boys as a collective, beyond just Brian Wilson, were indeed a great rock 'n' roll band. Sure, there were still misfires, but a bunch of new classics were born, too; I mean, Jesus Christ, how fucking great a song is "Surf's Up"? Is it possible that this song, filled with truly haunting melodies and poetic lyrics, is their masterpiece? I don't know, but I know that I love it to death and have listened to it countless times over the summer.

On top of all this, they still made a bunch of those fun little ditty's that made them famous, but they made them even better; songs like "Darlin'" and "Do It Again" are as good as pop music gets. Then you've got tracks like "Sail On, Sailor" and Carl's ode to cocaine, "Feel Flows" (both songs I knew but never knew they were Beach Boys songs) that are great mood music and you're like, what an idiot I've been for missing out on all this great stuff for so long. And I'm glad that I made this discovery in the summertime, because it's given the season a soundtrack all its own. How cool is that?

Beach Boys fucking rule.

If You See One Movie This Weekend...

Make it Johnnie To's EXILED, which I reviewed back in February and have seen three times on the big screen already, something I haven't done in years. If you love movies, this one you've got to see.

Tuesday, August 28, 2007

The Forgotten Movies: Frankenheimer's FRENCH CONNECTION II

NYC’s Film Forum is wrapping up a month long series called “NYC Noir” with a week’s booking for William Friedkin’s THE FRENCH CONNECTION, the much-beloved cop thriller that spawned as many imitators as JAWS or STAR WARS and (along with BULLITT) helped give birth to the modern-day action film. It’s also that rare genre picture to be embraced by critics, audiences, and the motion picture establishment, which awarded it with the Best Picture Oscar back in 1971. Famed for its classic car chase and for making Gene Hackman into a leading man (and for that we are eternally grateful), it’s still a solid film today that I like quite a bit, although a certain amount of its freshness is long gone thanks to countless TV shows and other cop movies. FRENCH CONNECTION had a certain freshness to it back in ’71, mainly because of Friedkin’s documentary-like approach to the material, which has now become something of the norm to telling this kind of story. Like NAKED CITY before it, it’s so famous for bringing something different to the cop movie in ’71, but anyone new to it today would ask, “What’s so original about that?” And there’s another factor that is rarely discussed that I feel needs to be brought up when discussing THE FRENCH CONNECTION’s legacy and that’s John Frankenheimer’s FRENCH CONNECTION II. To be blunt, it’s a better film.

Let me make one thing very clear before we proceed: One of the reasons FRENCH CONNECTION II (currently only available on DVD in a 2-disc set with the original) is a great film is because of THE FRENCH CONNECTION. II is a true sequel in that it is a direct continuation of the first film and obviously couldn’t exist without it. It isn’t just a rehashing of the first film’s story, it’s the climax (as the film’s poster proclaimed), it’s own movie, though it needs that first FRENCH CONNECTION in order for it to make sense. But it quickly establishes its own pace and before you’re halfway through it, your memories of the first film are no longer what’s keeping you there. This is mainly due to John Frankenheimer, and whomever came up with the idea of hiring him to make this film deserves a place up there in movie heaven, because the guy made zero mistakes. Frankenheimer is one of my very favorite directors and FC II is one of my favorites of his films in part because he made FRENCH CONNECTION II “A John Frankenheimer Film” and not a Friedkin wannabe. FC II has its own vibe and it doesn’t waste any time in getting the story up and running. We pick up with Gene Hackman’s “Popeye” Doyle as he arrives in Marseille to find Fernando Rey’s Charnier and we get right to it, no need to rehash what happened in the first film or try to establish anything else about this character. We already know him and what he does, so let’s get cracking.

What’s especially interesting about FC II (and please forgive the obnoxious abbreviation, but it’s going to help this whole thing go a hell of a lot faster) is how the entire film is told through Popeye’s point of view, as an outsider in a strange place where he doesn’t speak the language and isn’t especially welcome (although he’s still able to get laid). The first third of FC II seems to be setting up another variation of the first film, yet another game of cat and mouse between Doyle and Charnier on his turf, and then it throws you for a loop that takes this film into a completely unexpected realm. To some, it stops the film cold while for me it’s what gives the film its heart and soul, though I’m reluctant to go into it for the sake of those who’ve never seen the film (though this part of the film is often discussed in detail). So I’ll just say that in these scenes, Hackman simply does the very best work of his career; he brings you through an incredibly rough and powerful experience that is some of the very best screen acting you will ever see. Hackman earned both a Golden Globe and BAFTA nomination for this film and it’s due mainly to these scenes and the guy unquestionably deserved an Oscar nomination for it, if you ask me. If I’m ever lucky enough to meet Gene Hackman, the first words out of my mouth will be “FRENCH CONNECTION II is the best performance you’ve ever given”. When you see this part of the film, you’ll know why.

These scenes are the backbone of the film and what follows is dependent upon their success and Frankenheimer, being no dummy whatsoever, just keeps the camera rolling on Hackman, while Hackman knows to not go overboard with such intensely dramatic material. Because this segment of the film is so incredible, it also provides an emotional resonance for the film’s final third, which brings the action back and, in a sense, brings Frankenheimer back to being the filmmaker he had been in his glory days of the 60s. This is something the first film never had, a reason for being; a need not just for retribution but also to re-establish Doyle’s self-worth, and knowing that Frankenheimer went through some of the same experiences that Doyle goes through, it becomes even more remarkable. With this, Frankenheimer is able to come up with some of the most eye-popping action sequences of his entire career, including a shootout in a boating dock that’s simply amazing and a final foot chase against time that is superbly shot and edited and ends the film on an emotional high note (with kick-ass action) that was missing from the first film. With this, FRENCH CONNECTION II is a career highlight for all concerned and unquestionably one of the all-time great sequels.

Saturday, August 25, 2007

People I Know Make Stuff

A pair of goodies from a pair of good friends:

My friend Alex Kuciw works for Hungry Man, the ad agency behind the great Career Builder commercials, among many others, and now he's directing shorts for their new Hungry Man TV web channel. His first short is called "Mouthpieces" and can be found on Channel 4 at Enjoy!

Another good pal, Nathaniel Thompson, webmaster for the awesome Mondo Digital DVD review site and producer of Image's sure-to-be-awesome upcoming 3-disc set for CALIGULA, has just directed his first music video for the song "Bet You Like It Like That", by Andrew Burnette. This one speaks for itself. Enjoy!

Bet You Like It Like That (Music Video)

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Tuesday, August 21, 2007

"Where's My Doctor?!?" - An Appreciation of Kenneth McMillan

A few weeks ago I took in a screening of Joseph Sergeant’s THE TAKING OF PELHAM ONE, TWO, THREE at Film Forum and as I was watching it, a pleasant surprise came up in seeing Kenneth McMillan in a small role. It had been a long time since I’d seen the film and completely forgot that McMillan was in it. It was nice to see him pop up in the film from time to time as a cop and it added to my enjoyment of the film, a solid thriller that’s now an interesting time capsule of a NYC that almost doesn’t exist anymore. But it was also a little sad, as it reminded me that McMillan has been gone from movie screens for far too long; he passed away in 1989 after racking up an impressive string of credits throughout the late 70s and 1980s. This was one of those guys you figured would get an Oscar nomination, or even the award itself, based not just on one performance but a whole slew of them, a lifetime achievement award and nomination all in one. But that never happened.

McMillan was one of those guys who casting agents loved, someone who looked, walked and talked like an average Joe, a regular working man type that audience members could identify with in one way or another. He could be a cop or a mobster, someone’s dad or your asshole boss, though never the romantic lead. But he had a power about him, an ability to give any role he played a sense of authenticity about them; in Milos Forman’s RAGTIME (a beautiful film) he was the racist Willie Conklin, whose actions against Howard Rollins, Jr. set the second half of the story in motion, and he was a right rat bastard. He shares a memorable scene with James Cagney who insults him right to his face (as only Cagney can) and McMillan goes straight into a fit, lunging at Cagney with such force that you’re momentarily afraid that he may actually do something. It was around the release of RAGTIME that I started seeing McMillan in several films, from that to Allan Arkush’s HEARTBEEPS, John Badham’s WHOSE LIFE IS IT ANYWAY?, Peter Yates’ EYEWITNESS and I became aware of what a “character actor” was. He wasn’t the leading man, he wasn’t just a supporting player, but he was the glue of a movie, the kind of actor who would play a pivitol role in making the movie and his fellow castmate all the better. In short, a Kenneth McMillan type.

If you were to site some of the best McMillan performances, his work as the safe cracker Barney (OK, I had to go to the IMBD to look up the character’s name) in THE POPE OF GREENWICH VILLAGE instantly comes to mind (providing you’ve seen the film) and it’s a marvelous piece of work. But for many it will no doubt be his work as Baron Vladimir Harkonen in David Lynch’s DUNE and I think they’re right. DUNE has long had a reputation as a notorious flop, but the tide has been turning over the last few years and I’m happy to see that happen because I’ve long been a fan of it, with McMillan being a big reason why. The Baron (or “That floating fat man”, as Jose Ferrer’s Emperor calls him) is this spectacularly over-the-top villain in the grandest sense and it would have been so easy for McMillan, or any actor, to go so overboard that they would do nothing but eat scenery; however, McMillan walks the line so perfectly that I consider it to be a classic performance and a textbook example for all actors of how to give a proper exaggerated performance. To be honest, the film lights up whenever he appears, because McMillan is one of the few “fun” elements of this fairly serious film and he delivers one wonderful scene after another: admiring his nephew Feyd a little too much (“Oh, Feyd. Lovely Feyd.”); wanting to spit on the face of Francisca Annis (“Just one tiny piece of spittle on your face”); his exuberance over defeating his enemy, Duke Leto; just about every scene with McMillan is marvelous. He also fit into the David Lynch style of acting very well and it’s a shame they never worked together again, as he could have more than been amazing asset for this great filmmaker, but oh well, we do have DUNE to look back on. This role couldn’t have been more different than THE POPE OF GREENWICH VILLAGE, but if you look at the two (which were both released in 1984), you’ll see an actor who knew how to build a character, no matter what character it was. Amazing stuff.

Though Kenneth McMillan is sadly no longer with us, it turns out his daughter, Alison McMillan, has followed her father into the acting profession. I can't say I've seen her work, but she's obviously got good genes, so I'm sure we'll be hearing from her soon enough. Good luck to her.

Friday, August 17, 2007

An Evening Without John Waters

One of these days I'm going to ditch everything and join the Alamo Drafthouse's Rolling Roadshow tour of famous movies at famous locations. I'll get myself a nice car, a beautiful lady friend, a GPS tracking system (especially the new one with Burt Reynolds' voice) and really go to town. We'll sleep in cheap motels, eat greasy food, hang out with my friends from Austin and, best of all, see America while seeing some great movies. The films themselves will be nothing more than pleasant afterthoughts to the trip itself, which will be the real reason to go, with the Roadshow simply providing a map and points of interest. America's a pretty god damn great country (really!) and though I've done the cross-country thing once before, I did it in a speedy manner (N.J. to L.A. in 52 hours, with a 3 hour layover in St. Louis), so I feel like I haven't seen enough of the U.S. of A. to satisfy my love of it. I'm a man who's gone searching for America... and hasn't found it anywhere. Yet.

Until that glorious day happens, I will simply have to satisfy myself with my periodic visits for the Rolling Roadshows on the east coast, of which I've attended three and they've all been a blast. For THE WARRIORS screening and cast reunion in Coney Island last year, I picked up cast member Dorsey Wright and his friend in the Bronx and drove them all the way down to Coney, all on the hottest day of the year (it was still 100 degrees when the show started). But it went over great and after it was done I got to hang out in a swank Manhattan hotel bar with Michael Beck and talk MEGAFORCE and Christianity (though not at the same time). A CLERKS screening in Red Bank, NJ was most pleasant, being held right on the water (though not in front of the Quick Stop, thanks to the Leonardo town council) on a perfect summer's night. This year's Roadshow flicks included THE LOST BOYS (sans Coreys) in Santa Cruz, CA, STAND BY ME in Oregon (complete with pie-eating competition) and SMOKEY AND THE BANDIT in Texarkana (complete with road race), but all of those, as fun as they must have been, were nowhere near me, so I had to make due with the John Waters triple feature of HAIRSPRAY, POLYESTER and DESPERATE LIVING in Baltimore, which turned out to be enough fun to make up for missing all those other shows.

The three hour drive to Baltimore took an extra hour thanks to traffic (which hit once I passed into Delaware - fucking Delaware!), so when I pulled into the Middlebranch Park location (just on the water) the inflatable screen hadn't even gone up yet (I helped drive the spikes in) and the first several hours were spent just helping and hanging out with the Roadshow crew: Tim League, Zack Carlson, Justin Ishmael, Tim Doyle and three other guys whose names I don't remember (sorry). It was hot as blazes that day, too, so I got myself a slight sunburn for my troubles, but it didn't really bother me none. Tim and Zack and I went on ahead for a pre-show party that was being held at The Drinkery, one of Baltimore's more established gay bars, which was pretty much an old man's gay bar (don't mean to typecast, but it's true) and it turns out none of the guest from the films showed and it was just us with a lot of gay Baltimoreans. The place was pleasant enough, but it wasn't exactly an experience to write home about, either, since we didn't get hit on, though as we were leaving one of the bar patrons did say how much he wanted to "blow all three a'youse", which is always flattering. (True story, by the way.) We stopped off in Baltimore's old burlesque district (now pretty much the "strip club, liquor store and pizzeria" district) for some none-too-tasty cheese steaks and a sweet reminder that no matter how gentrified a city can get (and Baltimore is getting there), you can still find some good old-fashioned sleaze.

Is this boring you, by the way? Not that I care, but it's always good to know.

Driving back to the screening location, I hear Tim say, "Hey, you can see the screen from across the river. And no audience!". Yeah, attendance for this one was pretty darn low, though it perked up as we got closer to showtime and it seemed like enough people from the neighborhood turned out once someone told them they were showing movies in the park to not make it a total embarrassment. Part of the reason I came down was also because I'd never seen any of the features (though I've seen HAIRSPRAY on Broadway) and this seemed the right way to do it. Waters himself wasn't going to be there, but three of his old associates (producer Pat Moran and actors George Stover and Susan Lowe) were, so along with the location I knew this was going to be a good time. I haven't seen a Waters picture since SERIAL MOM, but CRY-BABY is a longtime fave and PINK FLAMINGOS, though I don't feel the need to see it again, is not easily forgotten.

Happily, both HAIRSPRAY and POLYESTER proved to be fun experiences that proved the trip to be worth saying (the lateness of the hour and the long drive home made me bolt before DESPERATE LIVING). They reminded me that Waters is actually a skilled comedy director, filled with fresh, funny ideas (POLYESTER's arthouse drive-in was priceless) and excellent comic timing. The intentional "badness" is always part of the joke but it isn't the joke itself (Waters is still trying to tell a story) and there's a love and sympathy for his lead characters that makes the film endearing. The films look and sound great, too, with some fantastic music (I remember how much praise HAIRSPRAY's soundtrack received back in '88), costumes and production design. And the performances are often first rate, with Waters finding actors (and, let's face it, non-actors) who get what he's doing and know how to work within those lines. And it must be said, Tab Hunter has one of the all-time great movie entrances in POLYESTER, showing that Waters knows how to film a movie star, too. Waters may be the king of bad taste, but he's also a good filmmaker who deserves a little more credit than what he's given. He's a one-of-a-kind filmmaker and his movies are often good fun, so shouldn't he be celebrated more often? It's one thing to be "independent", but another thing to be what Waters is, original. Hollywood may have caught up to his "gross out" humor, but they don't understand that there's a heart to these films, too, and that's pretty damn unique no matter how you size it.

Wednesday, August 15, 2007

Elvis! Elvis! Elvis!

I remember where I was when I first heard Elvis Presley died. It was in a pizzeria in Cape May, NJ, surrounded by my brothers and various cousins (I happen to have a lot of those; there must have been about 15 of us in all down there). My family used to summer in Cape May (it's way down at the tip of the Jersey Shore) and we'd meet up with my aunts and uncles and cousins for about a week and do the whole beach/miniature golf/skeeball thing and they are always precious memories associated with those trips. That night we were all sent out to buy pizza by ourselves while our folks went out and did whatever the heck it was adults would do back then (fondue party?) and as we sat in the pizza joint we could actually hear the news over the radio, just like in the movies. I may only have been 7 at the time and my knowledge of celebrities may have been a little limited, but I sure as hell know who Elvis was and even to a kid like me the whole thing was more than a little jarring. Elvis... dead? It was a big a deal to all us kids and when Graucho Marx died the following day (a fact remembered by few, except for Rob Zombie) it started a series of celebrity deaths during our Cape May visits that became a running joke amongst the cousins (the only other one I remember was Yankees catcher Thurman Munson back in '79, a big event for me).

The legend of Elvis continues to loom large over all of us, and when you consider how it's been 30 years since his passing and he's still massively popular, then you have to assume there's a reason for that. I will freely admit to being an Elvis fan (didn't you read the Norman Taurog piece?), but even non-fans have to see that the guy was just a talent unlike any other. It wasn't so much the way he sang, the way he moved or what he sang, it was the whole package; Elvis was the consummate performer and a true original. Many will say that he just took from the African-American R&B performers of the era, but I can't think of a single one from that era like Elvis. Besides, he was just as influenced by hillbilly and gospel music and his melding of those forms of music was unique and still feels timeless over 50 years later. He also had a natural charisma that only born performers have, something about him that just drew you to him and made you his fan (I remember Walter Matthau, who co-starred with him in KING CREOLE, saying something to that effect in a mid-90's interview, so it ain't just me). It's something that a lot of performers work their entire careers to try and obtain, but for Elvis it all came naturally and it's still damn impressive. But even more incredible was the life he led, by equal amounts amazing and tragic, with all the highs (the '50s, '68 to '70) and the lows (the last few years, especially) that would feel like a bad, trashy novel if it wasn't actually true. His life and times have already been recounted endless numbers of times (no better than in Peter Guralnick's Last Train To Memphis and Careless Love, two of the best books I've ever read and absolute must-reads) and it's obvious to me that he's one of the most fascinating figures of the 20th Century. Even Shakespeare couldn't come up with a life so equally inspiring and tragic as Elvis did himself.

Elvis was, of course, also an actor, and a good one when given the chance. Part of his problem was that he wanted to be Marlon Brando or James Dean, so he would try to play brooding, sullen characters sometimes, which was not really his strong suit. In a sense, he was best playing the role that he always played, which was Elvis, and when you see him in nominal pictures like Taurog's BLUE HAWAII or G.I. BLUES (which are actually pleasant little pictures), they survive more on that effortless charm than anything else. But watch him in VIVA LAS VEGAS, where he has Ann-Margaret to play off of (and a much better selection of songs to sing) and he really is something. The two were a more than combustionable pair (onscreen and off, the legend goes) and it obviously put Elvis more on his game than in previous pictures (he didn't quite have the same chemistry with Barbara Stanwyck in ROUSTABOUT earlier the same year) and made for a film that I consider to be one of the few great films that is not actually great (I think you get what I mean by that). I have a perverse fascination with a lot of those later pictures (especially LIVE A LITTLE, LOVE A LITTLE, the film which gave the world both "A Little Less Conversation" and a scene where Elvis acts opposite an actor playing a dog) and if you look at the likes of CHARRO and THE TROUBLE WITH GIRLS you can at least feel Elvis giving it a post-'68 comeback try, which is more than can be said for the likes of DOUBLE TROUBLE. But yeah, Elvis did appear in some classic stinkers (the scene where he "cures" an autistic girl in CHANGE OF HABIT is stunning in its idiocy), but he also appeared in legitimately good films like Michael Curtiz's KING CREOLE and Don Siegel's FLAMING STAR, so you members of the "Elvis movies suck" crowd can just stuff it as far as I'm concerned. I can understand if the movies aren't that great, but to say someone this talented couldn't make it as an actor is just plain ignorant. Trust me, the guy had it.

I've never been to Memphis, much less Graceland, but if I ever get to go I will most certainly pay my respects to a guy who, like it or not, changed the world. A simple country boy from Memphis who could sing and perform like nothing ever seen before or since; someone whose life is one part miracle, one part textbook example of how to avoids the pitfalls of fame, this is a guy who, despite his many shortcomings, is also worth celebrating. Someone of his talent is pretty rare in this life and is always worth remembering (even in chocolate form).

Monday, August 13, 2007

"I Was Trapped Near the Inner Circle of Fault": Defending DEFENDING YOUR LIFE

It's more or less acknowledged that Albert Brooks is a comic genius. He's the definition of a "comedian's comedian", the kind that other comics go to in order to make them laugh, someone whose work is so fresh and unique that you marvel at it like you would a Beatles song. His stand-up work in the 70s, his comedy albums, early television appearances and SNL shorts made him a comedy legend in no time. When he started making feature films with REAL LIFE back in 1979, he proved that features were his true calling and he followed that one up with two of the best comedies of the 80s, MODERN ROMANCE, a film so uncomfortably and hilariously real that even Stanley Kubrick told Brooks that he wish he had made it, and LOST IN AMERICA, the definitive movie satire of the decade. There was also his excellent performance in James L. Brooks' otherwise hideous BROADCAST NEWS and a stellar cameo in TWILIGHT ZONE - THE MOVIE, but looking back, it seems to me like the 1980s were simply building up to what I consider to be Brooks' masterwork, a film I've come to love and admire and regard as one of the greatest comedies ever made. It may not always win in the Albert Brooks popularity pool, but for my money, the guy's never done anything better than DEFENDING YOUR LIFE.

I distinctly remember when DEFENDING YOUR LIFE opened in March of 1991, it was a pretty crappy season for movies, with a lot of bad ones opening and closing and the likes of HOME ALONE and DANCES WITH WOLVES still selling out at the old HQ10. I had seen DEFENDING at an earlier screening before it opened and liked it very much, but it ended up being a hard sell to get people to go see it for some reason. It was always seen as a second or third choice ("THE SILENCE OF THE LAMBS is sold out? What else is playing?"), but I do recall people liking it when they exited the theater. I happened to also be working at a video store when it hit video and again, it wasn't a picture at the top of anyone's list, but when people saw it, they liked it. Cable has been very good to it, too (having a lot to do with its numerous daily showings thanks to its friendly PG rating), and it seems to me to be a picture that a lot of people have discovered throughout the years ("Oh yeah, that's a really funny movie"), but its status as a classic is slower in coming than I'd like. But a classic it is, an almost perfect comedy with a treasure trove of great ideas and innovation that keeps giving back to the viewer. I honestly wish there were more movies like it.

What hooks me into DEFENDING YOUR LIFE is that it has this amazingly simple premise - defending whether or not you've conquered the fears of your life after you die - and works it perfectly. This kind of thing had been done before, but usually as a sketch or part of a bigger film, like in THE DEVIL AND DANIEL WEBSTER; Brooks took a risk in working an entire feature around this, because it could have ended up too sitcom-y, but it's obvious that he knew what he was doing. This is a film that's been scripted by a master (well, two masters, Brooks and his co-writer, Monica Johnson) who is able to avoid giving the material any kind of sentimental qualities that would make it too soft. Brooks and Johnson take an idea that's pretty universal (we all have fears and they're part of what holds us back from achieving total happiness) but they don't make it into a "feel good" movie, but one that makes you think about how these themes impact your life. No bullshit, there hasn't been day since I've seen DEFENDING YOUR LIFE where I haven't thought about this premise and how, if I were to be judged, what it would look like. At the same time, I haven't been able to walk past any establishment that says "All Nude" without thinking of DEFENDING YOUR LIFE, either, but that's neither here nor there. Brooks and Johnson tap into something very important, that sense of the spirit as it relates to the here and now, and run with it through the film; Brooks' character learns (albeit very, very, very late in life) how to discover true happiness by letting go of his ego and conceptions of who he thought he was vs. who is really is and that makes this a very rich film. GROUNDHOG DAY gets a lot of praise (justifiably so) for having essentially the same concept behind it, but DEFENDING YOUR LIFE did the exact same thing just a well and two years earlier, to boot.

And DEFENDING YOUR LIFE also happens to have an amazing cast behind it. When the film came out there was a bit of a brouhaha over the fact that it was Meryl Streep's first comedy, though she's actually more or less the straight woman to Brooks, but as Meryl Streep so often does, she takes this kind of character and makes it much more fleshed out than you would expect. She has to provide Brooks' character with something to believe in and in the end, you realize she is indeed worth fighting for. Brooks does what he does so well once again and his big scene, where he tells Streep that he loves her but chooses not to stay the night with her, is beautifully done. But the film is practically stolen by Rip Torn as Brooks' lawyer, a master BS artist who can spin anything into a positive. This was just before THE LARRY SANDERS SHOW, when no one could realize he could do comedy so well, and it was a revelation then and it's still a classic performance today. So many of the film's biggest laughs are Torn's and he works Brooks' wonderful dialog like a master (such as the title line for this piece) that I wonder why the two haven't worked together since. But they're wonderful together here.

DEFENDING YOUR LIFE is about as quality as movie comedy gets; some may say it's not "edgy", but it deals with so many deep and important themes that the edge comes from there. You can sit there and watch it and be entertained, but it will give you a lot to think about afterwards and it won't soon leave your psyche. That alone makes it more than just a great comedy, but a great film, period. It's one of my favorites.

Wednesday, August 8, 2007

Taurog! Taurog! Taurog!

As next week marks the 30th anniversary of the passing of Elvis Presley, the major studios are having a field day re-issuing their Elvis catalogs, with Warners, Paramount and MGM all putting out box sets of the Elvis films in their catalogs (Fox re-issued their Elvis titles last year for some reason, while all Universal merely owns in CHANGE OF HABIT, which it issued on disc in time for the 25th anniversary back in 2002). Of all of the sets, Warners' is the one to get for many reasons; while MGM and Paramount are merely re-packing their same old transfers in new (and cheaper) packaging, Warners has actually gone the extra mile to put together new versions of JAILHOUSE ROCK and VIVA LAS VEGAS which I'm sure will be considerable upgrades to the original versions first issued on disc (Jesus!) 10 years ago. But more importantly, their new ELVIS: THE HOLLYWOOD YEARS set includes several Elvis films never before available on DVD and a couple never available on laserdiscs, either. The new-to-DVD titles include STAY AWAY, JOE and LIVE A LITTLE, LOVE A LITTLE, while the newbies are KISSIN' COUSINS (the one where he plays twins), TICKLE ME, GIRL HAPPY and CHARRO, along with THIS IS ELVIS and newly re-packaged versions of several Elvis titles previously available, like IT HAPPENED AT THE WORLD'S FAIR, SPINOUT, and SPEEDWAY. Nothing but classics there, I tell ya.

Well, actually not, but there's something about an Elvis movie that makes them all a genre unto themselves. Even those really crummy ones (and there's a few in this set) had a certain watchable quality about them, a sort of "comfort food" aspect to them. They're predicable in every way, but no matter how lame they get (and they could get pretty damn lame), that familiarity doesn't work against them; like watching an episode of "The Brady Bunch" or something, it's bit soothing knowing that Elvis is going to win that big race at the end, you know? Much has been written about how Col. Tom specifically wanted all of Elvis' movies to be so cookie-cutter so he wouldn't alienate his audience and in order to accomplish this, Parker called upon one of the most cookie-cutter filmmakers in the history of Hollywood, Norman Taurog, who helmed eight of Elvis' films at the end of a very long and sometimes distinguished directing career. When I re-discovered Elvis a little over ten years ago, I started watching a bunch of the old MGM letterboxed laserdiscs of films like SPINOUT! and SPEEDWAY and was intrigued by what I kept seeing in them, a smooth professionalism that also came with a distinct lack of personality and passion. I've been fascinated by Taurog ever since.

Taurog is actually an interesting character; starting his career as an actor, he was involved in film as a youngster, with a bit part in a 1912 short TANGLED RELATIONS and directed his first film (THE FLY COP) all the way back in 1920. He directed over 100 shorts through the 20s and became the youngest director to ever win an Oscar (still) with SKIPPY (which starred his nephew, Jackie Cooper) back in 1932. After that he became one of those directors who were able to crank them out like there's no tomorrow, making an occasional good film (BOYS TOWN) mixed in numerous pleasant but forgettable ones. He was the guy you got to do a star vehicle or a harmless piece of fluff and he came through with a picture that merely entertained, nothing more. He worked with the likes of Bing Crosby, Judy Garland, Cary Grant, and later made six pictures with Martin & Lewis (such as THE CADDY and PARDNERS), all of which were recently issued on Paramount's Martin & Lewis DVD sets. Along with the Elvis pictures, he also made DR. GOLDFOOT AND THE BIKINI MACHINE and SERGEANT DEAD-HEAD at AIP in the mid-sixties, but following the completion of LIVE A LITTLE, LOVE A LITTLE, Taurog went blind and was forced to retire from filmmaking.

So while there's a lot of history there, and no doubt some good stories, Taurog remains pretty much unknown to today's audiences and unappreciated by most film scholars. While the guy wasn't really a hack, he wasn't an artist, either. More of a journeyman director than anything else, Taurog's work (from what I've seen of it; I'm not that devoted to the guy) showed him to be more than capable but also suggested very little personality as a filmmaker. There's nothing that suggests his own style or personal vision (the phrase "Taurogian" has yet to enter the lexicon, you know?), just an efficiency that I'm sure the studio execs and the crews admired more than anyone else did. Despite the Oscar and the years worth of constant work (and I'm sure the respect of his peers), once Taurog was gone, he was quickly forgotten. Deservedly so? I can't quite say for sure; the guy did so much, but how much of it was memorable? I appreciate the Elvis pictures more for Elvis than anything else, and though I can recognize Taurog's skills, I certainly wish they were all better pictures. Taurog's other pictures (that I've seen) all depend on the material and if it wasn't all that great to begin with, he didn't really do much to make it so (though apparently, even Mario Bava couldn't make a decent DR. GOLDFOOT movie). In watching his films, I gain a greater understanding of why sub-par filmmakers like Shawn Levy and Brett Ratner keep getting work, though it doesn't mean I gain any appreciation for them. Taurog's legacy is more or less non-existent, but to me he may be the ultimate afterthought in film history. So much accomplished, but little of it sticks.

Down on the Dead in Brooklyn

AUTHOR'S NOTE: Previously posted in a butchered, truncated version here. What follows is the much better original text. Enjoy!

It doesn't take much to nearly ruin my first theatrical screening of my favorite horror film of all time, just a bunch of stupid Brooklyn hipsters.

George Romero's Dawn of the Dead was screened at the Brooklyn Academy of Music last night (in a very nice print) as part of a special film series selected by actor Paul Giamatti (who seems to have great taste in movies). You've got to understand what a big deal this was, as theatrical screenings of this classic are incredibly rare, and the 6pm showing was even introduced by producer Dick Rubinstein. I couldn't make that show, but I wish I did after what I went through during the 9pm show.

We all know that Dawn of the Dead has many humorous and satirical moments, but according to this crowd, it should also be shown on our "Camp Movie Classics" series. Jerks!

The laughs started coming during the opening shootout in the tenement and pretty much kept going throughout. Every moment of drama that has always struck me as genuine and touching was apparently stupid and hilarious. Even the scene where where David Emge's character asks Gaylen Ross to marry him was laughed at. WTF?

Look, I understand that Dawn doesn't have the polish of a contemporary movie and that Romero isn't necessarily one of more subtle filmmakers around. But this crowd seems to have no understanding (or caring) about the working class world Romero was coming from with this. One of the things that makes Dawn so great in my mind is how true Romero was to this, but I guess that doesn't mean anything to these hipster jerks. I guess there's no room for sentimentality in a Zack Snyder, running zombie world.

Seriously, to all you hipster losers who ruined one of the greatest movies of all time, now I know where the living dead go when there's no more room in Hell: Williamsburg. Thanks a lot, jerks!

Monday, August 6, 2007

Running Out of Road: Larry Fessenden's THE LAST WINTER

There are a number of ways you can do horror movies, and many of those ways will work if you do them right, but Larry Fessenden's way is one of the most appealing to me. His films (he's only got four of them so far) are all about that sense of dread and foreboding, that feeling that something terrible is going to happen that eventually does happen, all despite numerous warning signs. People know these things could occur if they let them, but emotion, pride and ego all get the better of them, so when it all comes down there's a tragic quality about it that not a lot of horror movies touch upon. Like any real-life tragedy, the events that occur in Fessenden's films could have been avoided if people heeded the warning signs, but they never do. Sure, it can be said that's a staple of a lot of horror movies ("Geeeeeeet ooooooout!!!!"), but Fessenden's horrors are built upon this and display a sense of remorse that's rare for the genre. It's always the fault of someone who should have known better.

Fessenden's latest, THE LAST WINTER (which opens in September from IFC), takes this approach and applies it to the real-life horror of global warming. If we don't do something, if we don't listen to the experts, this is what's going to happen and you're going to regret it. Adding a spiritual element to this (not unlike his previous feature, WENDIGO), Fessenden reminds us that no matter what happens, we're all at fault. This isn't going to be one of those situations where the innocent and god-fearing will be spared; if (and when) this happens then we're all going to get it, no exceptions. THE LAST WINTER focuses on an Alaskan oil drilling expedition that's looking to start drilling ASAP, despite the fact that warmer temperatures have made it dangerous to do so. Environmental activist James LeGros (excellent), part of the expedition thanks to a deal between the oil company and the environmental groups, is being asked to sign off on it by oil company honcho Ron Pearlman (likewise), but LeGros feels that atmospheric changes are causing more problems than just a lack of stable earth and he's soon proven right. Things begin to get increasingly creepy by this point, so I'm not going to get too much into it, but at this tipping point the entire movie can either get better or self-district in potential silliness, and it's to Fessenden's credit that it goes the former. He understands how to mount suspense properly and slowly (though the film never drags) and still build on characterization. He also doesn't lose sight of the film's message, nor does he get overly preachy, waving his finger around. He knows how to make all this vital to the story and it's probably the most impressive element to the film.

Thanks to its artic setting (the film was actually shot in Iceland), some will think that THE LAST WINTER owes a bit to John Carpenter's classic THE THING and that's not inaccurate, but just because it's a horror film set in the Artic doesn't mean it's ripping it off. Fessenden, like Carpenter, makes this white open tundra a frightening place on its own and part of the reason why is that the environment is, in a sense, the monster of the movie. Though it's merely reacting to the horrors that have been done unto it, this vast landscape is also like something of a haunted house, with angry ghosts seeking revenge for an injustice. Fessenden is reminding us that the earth is indeed a living thing, and like all living things, if you provoke it, it will fight back. But he doesn't go overboard; there's no big DAY AFTER TOMORROW special effects finale, just a reminder that these are the consequences of our actions and that we're all here for a limited time while the earth will outlive us all. This may all sound a little too "deep" and pretentious, but it doesn't feel like that while you're watching it; rather, it's all what you take with you after the film is long done. And that's what a great horror film is supposed to do, give you something that makes the horror stay with you. With THE LAST WINTER, Fessenden has done an impressive job of tapping into the fears we all have about global warming and about the uncertainty that lays ahead for most of humanity. This is what the genre is supposed to be all about and it moves Fessenden very high up the ladder of genre directors who do this genre exceedingly well.

Friday, August 3, 2007

If It'll Make Me A Simpsons Character, I'll Gladly Endorse Burger King

I'm just bummed that they didn't give the Aztec Theater as one of the outdoor options. Other than that, I'm happy with it.