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    Friday, September 03, 2004

    DVD: Millennium Actress (2002)

    A reclusive screen legend agrees to one final interview to mark the closing of the studio that made her name. As she speaks to the film crew, scenes from her movies merge with moments from her life until it becomes difficult to tell them apart.

    Satoshi Kon’s feature-length anime is an insanely ambitious work. It’s a look at the full sweep of a woman’s life as well as a history of postwar Japanese cinema. (I have no doubt that it’s packed with movie references that sailed over my head. Although I’m pretty sure I spotted Zatoichi in there.) The plot that drives the film is gossamer thin; it’s really more of a conceit than a story. But it allows Kon to tie all of his themes together and build to a poignant ending.

    The scope and sweep of this movie would be impossible to achieve in live action. Luckily the Japanese continue to see animation as a vessel for adult storytelling.

    TV: Republican National Convention

    A highpoint of this week’s coverage was MSNBC’s ‘Convention After Hours.’ The show, hosted by Joe Scarborough and Ron Reagan, Jr., aired nightly from midnight to 2AM EST live from Herald Square. Maybe it was the lateness of the hour or the in-house jazz band, but the show had a mellow vibe that encouraged guests to speak to each other without screaming. I was sorry to see it end.

    Last night Triumph the Insult Comic Dog joined the panel. (A moment, please, to honor Robert Smigel. Who must laugh himself to sleep every night, still unable to believe that a one-joke bit on Conan O’Brien has become a second career.) Triumph asked actor Ron Silver if he’d endorsed Bush because it was either that or go on HOLLYWOOD SQUARES. Silver replied that national security had made him a one-issue voter, then asked Triumph to name the key domestic issues of 1940, ’44, ’52 and other election years when the United States was at war. After a pause, panelist Mike Barnicle said, “Ron, are you actually trying to debate the dog?”

    Cut to my favorite shot in all of television: the crew in hysterics.

    Over on Fox, Pat Boone decried morals in Hollywood. As an example, he cited Robert Mitchum’s arrest for marijuana possession – in 1948. When he got out, Boone said, “he was bigger than ever.” Well, that’s true.

    Thursday, September 02, 2004

    Cable Catch-Up: Innerspace (1987)

    I keep waiting for a cult following to spring up around this movie, one of your better comic science fiction love stories. It’s a riff on FANTASTIC VOYAGE in which miniaturized test pilot Dennis Quaid is accidentally injected into hypochondriac Martin Short. Meg Ryan is Quaid’s love interest, which may bring back a few painful memories. But we’re all adults here, and we have to get on with our lives.

    Director Joe Dante is one of the few masters of this tone. A product of the Roger Corman factory, he’s best known for 1984’s GREMLINS. The 1990 sequel is actually a much better movie, a straight ahead gonzo comedy packed with in-jokes. Dante began his career with two pitch-perfect comic horror films, PIRANHA and THE HOWLING. His crowning achievement is 1993’s MATINEE, a warm look back at 1960s horrors real (the Cuban missile crisis) and imagined (the creature features cranked out by William Castle). I count myself among the few fans of Dante’s last feature, LOONEY TUNES: BACK IN ACTION, which did an admirable job of recreating the anarchic spirit of the Warner Brothers cartoons.

    Co-writer Chip Proser also wrote ICEMAN, one of the great lost films of the 1980s. I hereby launch a campaign to have it released on DVD. Who’s with me?

    Music: Laura Branigan

    The pop singer died last week. She had largely retired from performing in 1996, so she unfairly missed out on the ‘80s revival. I didn’t think much of her songs like ‘Gloria’ and ‘Solitaire,’ but she had a powerful voice.

    The video for her song ‘Self Control’ was one of the first to be banned from MTV. I remember it vividly: the suggestion of an orgy, the masked lover, the enormous belt Branigan wore over her cat suit. It was directed by William Friedkin of EXORCIST/FRENCH CONNECTION fame, and in retrospect it seems like a dry run for his 1995 sex thriller JADE. (Who knew? It turns out Friedkin is now directing opera.) Times change; the video is now a staple on VH-1 Classic. You can watch it on the official Laura Branigan website.

    Miscellaneous: Huh?

    “Saying that Fox News is beating the networks only because Republicans are watching is like saying ‘The Sopranos’ beats the networks only because Italians are watching.”

    -Fox spokeswoman Irena Briganti to the New York Times on their coverage of the Republican National Convention

    Wednesday, September 01, 2004

    DVD: Pennies From Heaven (1981)

    Let me say up front that I refuse to compare this movie to Dennis Potter’s original 4½-hour miniseries, because I haven’t seen that version. Although now that it has also been released on DVD, I intend to. The film has only whetted my appetite for Potter’s work.

    His pioneering use of song as way of illuminating narrative has been cribbed many times. (See John Turturro’s ROMANCE AND CIGARETTES, due later this year.) Steve Martin stars as a sheet music salesman in the 1930s Midwest. As he struggles to sort out his romantic life, the upbeat tunes of the era provide a sharp counterpoint. The cast lip-syncs to original recordings, although they do their own dancing. Martin proves to be a surprisingly able hoofer. Better than Richard Gere, anyway.

    The drastic compression of the storyline makes the film more melodramatic, but also contributes to the intensity of the musical numbers. The characters need these songs, because they provide the only respite they have from the burdens of the Depression. The bombastic MOULIN ROUGE! attempted something similar with contemporary music, but in order to do that, you have to let at least one song play out in its entirety. And overblown originals do not count.

    PENNIES doesn’t fully cohere into a whole, but it’s never less than gripping. It’s a powerful testament to music’s ability to articulate emotion in a way beyond the reach of most of us.

    TV: The Daily Show

    On the Republican National Convention: “Madison Square Garden hasn’t seen this many white people since the last Rangers home game.”

    I am proud to say that Rosemarie made this very joke, word for word, the day before Jon Stewart did.

    Miscellaneous: Celebrity Politics

    Arnold Schwarzenegger Movies That He Has Yet To Invoke In A Political Speech:

    Red Heat
    Jingle All The Way
    Batman & Robin
    End of Days
    Collateral Damage

    Arnold Schwarzenegger Movie That He Should Have Invoked In His Speech To The RNC:

    Hercules in New York

    Miscellaneous: More Celebrity Politics

    Actor Ron Silver, one of the founders of the Creative Coalition, has received a lot of press for his endorsement of President Bush. Here’s an excerpt from a New York Times article:

    Running into Al Franken, the comedian and liberal talk show host, at the Four Seasons Party on Monday, Mr. Silver said, “I’m speaking tonight.”

    Puzzled, Mr. Franken asked, “For Bush?”

    Reinforcing the point, Mr. Silver replied, “I’m speaking.”

    “For Bush?,” Mr. Franken said.

    “I’m speaking,” Mr. Silver said again.

    “For Bush?,” Mr. Franken said.

    Tuesday, August 31, 2004

    DVD: Gun Crazy (1949)

    More from Warner’s new film noir collection. Joseph H. Lewis’ lethal, low-budget gem has never looked better. It’s often cited as a forerunner to BONNIE AND CLYDE. As powerful as that film is, I think I prefer this one. It has a simplicity that cuts closer to the bone.

    Maybe I’m getting ornery in my dotage, but I find myself drawn more and more to movies made before the onset of Method acting and the cult of the director brought about by the nouvelle vague. Those developments put a greater emphasis on stylistic flourishes in front of and behind the camera. Movies of the ‘40s and ‘50s generally place the focus on the story. (And, by extension, on the screenwriter, but I’m sure that has nothing to do with my feelings.) Of course, I have been watching a lot of older movies lately. Park me in front of THE CONVERSATION and watch me change my tune.

    The commentary track by Glenn Erickson, aka the DVD Savant, is packed with information – almost too much – and has been synchronized to the second. He is one prepared individual.

    Book: Island, by Thomas Perry (1987)

    A husband-and-wife con artist team cook up the greatest scam of them all: they’re going to build their own island in the Caribbean and go into business as a country. Before long, they’ve attracted the attention of the CIA, the Mafia, and big business. What they don’t expect is that soon even their partners in crime will start viewing the island as an actual, honest-to-God nation.

    This sadly out of print book is a treat, suspenseful and hilarious all at once. It put me in mind of the work of Ross Thomas, who looked at the intersection of industry, politics and espionage with a jaundiced eye. St. Martin’s Press is in the process of reissuing all of Thomas’ books, but sometimes that’s not enough. I can only imagine what Thomas would do with what’s going on in the world right now. We need someone to don his mantle. Maybe Perry is that writer.

    Monday, August 30, 2004

    Movie: Hero (2004)

    Who’d have thought that one of last year’s Oscar nominees – which you can already find on DVD – would top the box office? Miramax deserves plenty of credit for releasing Zhang Yimou’s historical martial arts epic theatrically, because this movie demands to be seen on the big screen.

    The plot unfolds RASHOMON-style, as nameless warrior Jet Li presents himself to the king of one of the ancient kingdoms of China to explain how he single-handedly dispatched three ruthless assassins. The king’s questions force Li to revise his story, with each version bringing us closer to the truth. Plenty of movies use this multiform technique to cheat, concealing information as a way of amping up suspense (Exhibit A: John Travolta’s BASIC). Here it’s employed for a specific reason that doesn’t become apparent until Li’s final tale is told. Ultimately, the film conveys a complicated message about politics and history in a dynamic, visual way.

    Maggie Cheung, Tony Leung, and CROUCHING TIGER’s Zhang Ziyi also star; I can’t remember the last movie I saw with such an attractive cast. Cinematographer Christopher Doyle is the film’s real hero, crafting a beautiful color scheme for each variation of Li’s story.

    TV: Seinfeld

    No matter how many times I hear it, the outgoing message on George’s answering machine, sung to the theme from THE GREATEST AMERICAN HERO, cracks me up:

    “Where could I be?/Believe it or not, I’m not home.”

    Miscellaneous: Links

    Kevin Smith is making a sequel to CLERKS. I know JERSEY GIRL tanked pretty hard, dude, but come on.

    A big shock this weekend was hearing Roger Ebert give thumbs up to the new version of Vincent Gallo’s film THE BROWN BUNNY. This after Ebert called the earlier cut the worst film ever to appear in competition at Cannes, which prompted Gallo to place a curse on Ebert’s prostate. Now all is forgiven. Come feel the love.

    Sunday, August 29, 2004

    Cable Catch-Up: Buffalo Soldiers (2003)

    You’d think cable networks would be eager to seize on new titles to fill the hours. But Starz and its sister stations continue to roll out lesser-known movies outside of prime time. MASKED AND ANONYMOUS, the Bob Dylan political allegory that died on the festival circuit only to rally a staunch band of supporters like Salon’s Stephanie Zacharek, made its TV debut at 10:30 on a weekday morning. Everything about the preview for THE RETURNER, a 2002 Japanese kung-fu/time-travel epic, looked lame – except for the hovering 747 that transformed into a giant robot, which landed it on my ‘wanna-see-it-but-won’t-leave-the-house’ list. Little did I know it would surface on the Action Channel at 4:30 in the afternoon. I still haven’t caught up with either movie.

    Then there’s this adaptation of Robert O’Connor’s novel, which I happened to notice in the On Demand listings. It was barely released to begin with; in the wake of 9/11, Miramax’s thinking was that few people wanted to see a black comedy about bored U.S. soldiers on a West German military base in 1989. It reached theaters after numerous delays only to sink without a trace. Now even its TV appearance has been muted.

    This is where I’m supposed to say the movie is a lost gem, but I can’t. It has an intriguing premise but an erratic tone that more often than not shades into unpleasantness. It’s like watching an episode of SGT. BILKO where, thanks to the Sarge’s shenanigans, half the squad ends up dead.

    I stayed with it, though, because of several fine performances. Joaquin Phoenix almost makes the movie work, Anna Paquin is better here than she is playing a similar character in 25th HOUR, and Elizabeth McGovern has her best role in years. Best of all is Ed Harris. It’s shockingly funny to see this powerful, masculine actor playing the befuddled base commander who can’t see that his wife is cheating on him.

    Miscellaneous: Links

    I’m going link-happy today. What the hell.

    First up is Ed Gorman’s blog, which is an essential stop. I may permanently bookmark yesterday’s post on a life spent reading and writing. Powerful, inspirational stuff.

    Ed also steered me toward this list of cross-genre noir books, which came to him courtesy of BOX NINE author Jack O’Connell. Who mentions that the Theodore Roszak book on the list, FLICKER, is tough to come by. I keep my copy locked in a safe-deposit box in a Cayman Islands bank. It’s a magnificent, bruising thriller about film history, filled with images that haunt me to this day. It may be time to read it again. Better get my passport in order.

    GreenCine Daily offers its usual excellent round-up of the English papers. Worth reading are this article by DM Thomas on THE WHITE HOTEL’s ongoing slog through development hell, and a profile of Tim Robbins. Mainly for its opening paragraph, which says far too much about life in 21st-century America. Where the airport customs official who warns a reporter about Robbins’ politics also keeps abreast of the actor’s current projects.

    There’s a veritable bonanza in the New York Times’ Sunday Arts section, for once. Here’s a look at the developing niche for porn films made by and for women, and a piece on a fundamentalist Christian ‘hell house’ turned performance art piece in Hollywood. Plus, Marcelle Clements on the cinema of Simenon.

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