Friday, February 25, 2005


Well, it's all over but the beer and pizza. Our annual Oscar soiree is being catered this year by the good folks at Two Guys from Italy, located on Verdugo Road directly underneath the 134 Freeway in a pleasant industri-dential area of Glendale. The Vons just around the corner from our house is kindly supplying (for a nominal fee, of course) the Miller Genuine Draft, and I'll finally be popping the cap (as onetime Oscar nominee Mickey Rooney used to say in those Rainier Beer ads in the mid '70s) on a very nice Czech lager given to me as a Christmas present by my good friend Cruzbomb. Oh, yeah, there'll also be enough vino on hand to sate even the likes of Paul Giamatti (if only it weren't merlot!), courtesy of a friend who shall remain nameless for fear of her being prosecuted under those strict new Burbank ordinances forbidding transfer of mass quantities of red wine to Italians. Oscar Night is a special night in our house, second only to Christmas and Opening Day of Baseball Season (note caps), one of the only nights of the year that the big TV in the living room is on in the evening and the voices of either Vin Scully or Elmo cannot be heard emanating from it, and the attendees of the Howard Street Oscar Affair 2004 are sure to afford all the reverence and solemnity that the evening demands. That is, unless Kate Winslet comes down the red carpet Sunday afternoon looking anywhere near as devastatingly gorgeous as Shohreh Aghdashloo did last year. If that happens, all bets are off and the house is likely to turn into a howling den of iniquity real fast.

Before any of that has a chance of happening, let me see if I can sabotage my odds at winning the office pool and run down my sage picks (guesses-- Ed.) for this year's Oscar winners. The act of taking guesses in public is a little different than laying down your three bucks and checking off categories in private. Now everybody will be able to return to this page as Oscar Sunday night gives way to Monday morning and be able to track exactly why I've never won that damned pool in the 44 years I've been putting it together. But the hubris of having a public forum is superseding all claims of modesty this year, and so I'll just jump right in and try to sound like I know what I'm talking about. Where's that Czech lager? All of the sudden I feel like drinking...

Best Picture: Sideways could sneak in here if the awards end up as evenly distributed among many different films this year as they were all lumped into one Peter Jackson-sized basket last year. But essentially I see this as a two-picture race. The Aviator has the scale of a typical Best Picture winner, but I'm betting that the interest, and the controversy, surrounding Million Dollar Baby has peaked at exactly the right time for voters to send this one across the finish line by a thin margin. Winner: Million Dollar Baby

Best Actor: With all due respect to Clint Eastwood (my personal pick), Don Cheadle, Johnny Depp, Leonardo DiCaprio and, hell, even Paul Giamatti, the only way Foxx doesn't win this is if the Academy screwed up and printed the voters ballots with the name "Redd" instead of "Jamie." Winner: Jamie Foxx

Best Actress: All the talk is about the big Bening-Swank rematch, but pool voters shouldn't discount the possibility of Imelda Staunton's support being a mite stronger than the relative visibility of Vera Drake on the box-office charts might suggest. That said, unless the actors branch decides to honor Bening for playing one of their own, I predict Swank makes it two for two. Winner: Hilary Swank

Best Supporting Actress: The actress categories are definitely more difficult to call than their male counterparts. Again we have a two-person race. As good as they were, Linney, Okonedo and Portman can just be glad to have been invited. The race between Cate Blanchett and Virginia Madsen is, for my money, the toughest to call in any category this year, and I salute in advance anyone who gets it right. But I can't just bail out like that, can I? Winner (nervous shudder): Cate Blanchett

Best Supporting Actor: Thomas Haden Church is getting a lot of good press, and some would love to believe that Jamie Foxx can pull off something that no one has ever done and win in both acting categories in the same year. But if this isn't Morgan Freeman's year, after three previous losses, then, hey, maybe Clint Eastwood's chances at that Best Actor statue are better than I thought. Winner: Morgan Freeman

Best Director: I don't see a split between Picture and Director coming this year, which means that I think Martin Scorsese is gonna go home empty-handed again. But at least he didn't participate in all the groveling for the award this time around that he indulged in trying to win for Gangs of New York (and The Aviator is a far better movie too). Winner: Clint Eastwood

Best Adapted Screenplay: In 1991, the one major award for which Unforgiven was nominated that it did not win was Best Original Screenplay. Prepare to see the same fate befall Paul Haggis and his script for Million Dollar Baby. Winner: Sideways

Best Original Screenplay: Those who love The Aviator (and I count myself among them) tend to be most reserved about its script. I think the strongest contender might just be Brad Bird's wonderful screenplay for The Incredibles... if it weren't for that pesky Charlie Kaufman and his co-nominated cohorts in narrative contortion. Winner: Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind

Best Animated Feature: The winner had damn well better be The Incredibles!

Best Art Direction/Set Design: I'd love to see A Very Long Engagement sneak in here, but I think we're going to see the Scorsese picture come on strong in the technical categories. Winner: The Aviator

Best Cinematography: I didn't see The Phantom of the Opera (did anyone?). But Caleb Deschanel's work in The Passion of the Christ is, for the man who shot The Black Stallion and The Right Stuff, typically brilliant; Bruno Delbonnel's sublimely impassioned textures in A Very Long Engagement are indeed stunning; Zhao Xiaoding's electrifying images in House of Flying Daggers are so sensuous and dreamlike that I can't shake them, nor do I want to; and Robert Richardson's masterly and magnificent approximation of three-strip Technicolor to inform the different periods of The Aviator are thrilling beyond compare. Had the Academy made room for the digital video dreamscape of Collateral, courtesy of Dion Beebe and Paul Cameron, this would have been the most spectacular collection of nominees this category had ever seen. But hey, four out of five is still spectacular. Winner: The Aviator

Best Costume Design: Ray could slip in here, maybe, but I'm thinking a near-sweep of sorts in the technical categories, and I'm sticking to it. Winner: The Aviator

Best Film Editing: The winner of this award usually matches up with the Best Picture winner (you'll have to ask someone smarter than me-- maybe George Pennachio-- exactly why), so I'm gonna stick my neck out and let the tides of history carry me on this one, even though discounting Thelma Schoonmaker (and my genius Aviator technical awards sweep theory) may be a mistake. Winner: Million Dollar Baby

Best Makeup: I can't believe they nominated The Passion of the Christ in this category, and I really can't believe they'd actually give the Oscar for Best Makeup to it. I just can't. Winner: Lemony Snicket's A Series of Unfortunate Events

Best Original Score: I'm feeling nostalgic. Winner: Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban (John Williams, silly!)

Best Original Song: Shouldn't there be years when they just shut this category down? Winner: "Accidentally in Love" from Shrek 2

Best Sound Editing: The winner had damn well better be The Incredibles!

Best Sound Mixing: The winner had damn well better be The Incredibles... but it won't be. Winner: The Aviator

Best Visual Effects: Harry Potter has my heart, but the heart and the vote don't always occupy the same check box. Winner: Spider-Man 2

Best Foreign Language Film: Downfall

Best Documentary Feature
: Born Into Brothels

Best Documentary Short Subject: Sister Rose's Passion

Best Animated Short Film: Birthday Boy

Best Live-Action Short Film: Wasp

Okay, so there's Million Dollar Baby taking five big ones, The Aviator manhandling the technical categories (and the Supporting Actress category) for five wins, the screenplay categories reserved for honoring deserving films with less heft, overall nominations-wise, and some trinkets left over for The Incredibles, Lemony Snicket, Spider-Man 2, Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban and, yes, even Shrek 2. This is the Academy pendulum swinging back in the direction of spreading the wealth after last year's Return of the King-fest. So, after such decisive and compelling choices in each category as I've presented here, it should be a piece of cake to now go and fill out my Oscar Pool ballot, right? Not so fast. I always end up taking a chance or two that derail my hopes of actually winning, so why should this year be any different? I'll probably end up talking myself into picking Annette Bening or Million Dollar Baby for screenplay, and then watching my $3.00 go right down the pipe. Oh, well, we do a lot of irrational things in our private, fearful moments, don't we? That's what's fun about this little blogsite exercise for me-- everything's just a little less private now, and when I bomb this year it'll be clear that I no longer deserve to be known as Dennis. These picks had better be perfect down the line, otherwise my name is PRESS HERE


...was anyone else heartened to read this compelling headline for this bit of hard-hitting news in this morning's Internet Movie Database news column?:


The story reports that Ben Affleck has waived his usual multi-million dollar fee to play actor George Reeves, the Superman star who was mysteriously shot dead in Beverly Hills in 1959, in a movie entitled Truth, Justice And The American Way. Affleck is so convinced, says the item, that the fact-based drama is the perfect project for him that he's taken a massive pay cut - and will only earn $2.8 million.

If we're to take "multi" as meaning more than one, or even more than two (Webster's 11th Collegiate Dictionary supports both meanings), then I think I'm safe in saying the status of Affleck's fee as a multi-million dollar one, while perhaps severely diminished, remains intact. How he expects to to survive on "only" $2.8 million, on the other hand, is a question I think only he can adequately answer.

Thursday, February 24, 2005


Good Friends of the Blogosphere,

It's hard for me to get used to the idea that there might be an increasing audience out there checking in on what's happening with this site, but it seems to be, on some still small scale, true. So I thought I'd let you know, in case anyone was wondering why nothing new has been posted in three days, that a house full of colds (kids and adults) and a bunch of deadlines at work that all seemed to gather around one day have made posting new material a difficult proposition.

That said, there's much new stuff on the way. I finally caught up with The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou and expect to have some things to say about that film, and the whole Wes Anderson phenomenon, in the next few days. My local Blockbuster has, within the last week, stocked some very interesting titles, and what with their new "no late fees" policy (there are strings attached, of course, but they're fairly easily clipped) I expect to be able to see and post about some titles that are likely to get very quizzical looks from the clerk behind the counter. Some of the titles I saw on their shelves last weekend include the documentary My Architect, as well as Godard's In Praise of Love, the acclaimed Japanese film All About Lily Chou-Chou and Goodbye, Dragon Inn, a film found on many top-ten lists at the end of last year and one I hope to see and write about this weekend. And I also recently caught an old Clifton Webb-Gloria Grahame saga of British wartime intrigue called The Man Who Never Was, which will definitely be worth some comment.

That's not to even mention the fact that the Oscars are just around the corner (Sunday evening). I have a couple of items to share on that monumental event as well.

And a little thing called Spring Training starts next week too. Baseball season is back!

So, to those who have been checking in and not finding much new over the last few days, I thank you very much for your continued interest. There should be some new items up and ready in the next 24 hours or so.

Monday, February 21, 2005


Hunter S. Thompson is gone today. However he might have romanticized it, and whatever his ultimate reasons were, in his own particularly astringent way he probably thought all along that spraying his brains out with the firearm of his choice would be the way to go, at least for him. The isolation of the Woody Creek compound, good for retreat and for the production of Gonzo Journalism, finally, as the demons began shouting louder, provided the stage for the ultimate getaway. Like Loxjet, I first read Hell's Angels at a wildly inappropriate age-- I think I was around eight or nine when I squirreled a copy out of my aunt's book club-derived library-- and it scared the hell out of me, which is exactly what I think I wanted it to do. I wouldn't return to Thompson until my late college years, and during the Reagan '80s I devoured the entire twisted Thompson bibliography, perhaps as a way to escape the crushing reality of that most depressing of decades, but also because I felt transported by the grandiose hallucinatory historical vision and fecund imaginative connections produced by reading Hell's Angels (again), Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail '72, The Great Shark Hunt, Generation of Swine and, of course, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas virtually back-to-back. As Loxjet suggested, now that Thompson is gone all we're left with is a long string of imitators and watered-down pretenders to the throne, and watered-down is even worse when it comes to Thompson (as his later work, cut by increasing paranoia and incoherence, certainly proved) than it is when speaking of a tumbler of his beloved grain alcohol. Writing in The New York Times in 1973, Christopher Lehmann-Haupt worried Thompson might someday "lapse into good taste":

"That would be a shame, for while he doesn't see America as Grandma Moses depicted it, or the way they painted it for us in civics class, he does in his own mad way betray a profound democratic concern for the polity," he wrote. "And in its own mad way, it's damned refreshing."

That lapse certainly never happened. While the trajectory of his career and life may leave a bitter aftertaste, for those who loved his writing, in its peaks and its valleys, there is a freakish kind of solace from revisiting his contributions to the continuing surgery being done on "that dark, venal, and incurably violent side of the American character." R.I.P. seems a strangely inappropriate sentiment on this day. Better to think of Dr. Thompson hitting the highway on the other side and letting 'er rip.

And goodbye as well to another icon of the '60s who was never able, as Thompson was, to burst out and make her mark on the subsequent decades of her life. Sandra Dee was Gidget (1959) long before anyone ever heard of Sally Field, and it's for that movie she'll be most fondly remembered. But as a kid I was always partial to her two appearances as country girl Tammy Tyree, the role Debbie Reynolds originated in Tammy and the Bachelor (1957). Dee first played the role in Tammy, Tell Me True (1961) and then again in Tammy and the Doctor (1963). Her coming-of-age adventures were favorite rainy Sunday afternoon TV fare, and while no one, not even me, would mistake them as anything but corny fluff, they were well served by her unpretentious charm and precocious energy. Her split from husband Bobby Darin in 1967 got her stuck with the label "divorcee," not exactly a scarlet "A," but close enough for a Hollywood mired (at least publicly) in outdated moralistic attitudes toward actors who would dare to be open about such personal matters. The last thing I ever saw her in was her damsel-in-distress turn in the American International Pictures H.P. Lovecraft adaptation of The Dunwich Horror (1970), frightening enough to a ten-year-old but certainly not worthy of her warm and easygoing presence. Dee was diagnosed with throat cancer and kidney failure in 2000 and died of complications from kidney disease at the age of 62. Those who knew her well will mourn the passing of a friend who likely treasured her early Hollywood experiences and her life beyond them. For those of us who knew her only as Gidget and Tammy, her relatively low profile over the past 30 years will make it easy to preserve that bubbly starlet persona as our remaining fond mems of Sandra Dee.


Emma, Nonie and I braved the downpour this morning, enjoyed a cheap and delicious breakfast at our new Sunday morning haunt, Hamburger Central, at the corner of California and Central in beautiful downtown Glendale, and took in an 11:10 a.m. screening of the season's most anticipated feature (at least by two-thirds of our party), Pooh's Heffalump Movie. We smuggled in popcorn, juice, and (for Dad) a couple of cans of Wild Cherry Diet Pepsi, and settled in just as the previews began, Emma (the big girl) in a seat of her own, Nonie turning my crossed leg into a literal lap of luxury from which she happily munched and laughed for 68 straight minutes. These two make my dreams come true every time I take them to the movies. They're so attentive, excited and joyful about the whole experience, and today's matinee was no exception-- Nonie lost herself in delighted laughter over one triumphant moment near the end, hiccupping ha-has well past the point where the rest of the kid-packed auditorium had gotten over it all and returned to relative silence. Did she ever get the looks, mostly from amused parents, to which she remained blissfully oblivious, happily lost in the Hundred-Acre Wood.

Pooh's Heffalump Movie is better than Piglet's Big Movie, and a damn sight better than The Tigger Movie, both visually and as storytelling-- not once did I feel the seductive pull of the Sandman luring me away from consciousness toward a hopefully Pooh-less place. In fact, it was a much more engaging movie than I would have ever expected. And it was amusing to see the conventions of sophisticated suspense softened and put to relatively clever use as the identity of the horrific Heffalump is teased at and finally revealed-- Emma sat glued to her seat and reacted to each rustling bush and barely glimpsed shadow as if she were her old Dad waiting for the elevator doors to open and allow "Bobbie" to take his/her slow-motion hacks at an unsuspecting Angie Dickinson.

The movie takes the cues for its visual palette from the lavender hue of the adorable Heffalump himself, and it almost goes too far in this direction in the first 10 minutes-- Pooh's nightgown is lavender, all the wood seen in this forest-- planks and trees-- seem to lean away from a natural brown toward a lavender pastel, and even Tigger's nose seems to have a lavender tinge. I found myself overcome with the urge to grab the remote and try to tweak the image slightly. Things do tend to balance out back to the traditional and familiar color schemes of the Disney-fied Pooh after a while. But by then it's too late. The movie has become about something more than just an overzealous hue. The makers of Pooh's Heffalump Movie have tipped their hand, practically daring cultural watchdogs like Focus on the Family's James Dobson and other card-carrying members of what the think tank Political Research Associates have termed "the theocratic right" to come down on this relatively thoughtful children's movie like the vice squad shutting down a pajama party at Tinky Winky's purple pad.

You see, Pooh's Heffalump Movie is the story of a group of friends forced to confront their preconceptions and prejudices regarding a much-speculated-upon unseen creature and in doing so realize that said monstrous beast is not monstrous at all but instead, in all the ways that count, very much like themselves. The heffalump turns out to be a very plush-toy-ready version of an elephant, but Pooh and company have plenty of strange ideas about what he/she/it looks like before meeting he/she//it that underline the creature's status as a metaphor for social and ethnic minority-- Tigger's insistence that the heffalump sports a tail with vicious spikes on it sounds very much like the claims of those who once perpetuated (and still do) the myth of Jews as horned devils. In this way the movie can be seen as a general plea for tolerance, a kid-friendly lesson in the pitfalls of bigotry.

But that preference for lavender, whether intentional or not, ought to set a lot of bells ringing if anyone is paying attention in Dobson's office. After all, as I wrote in a comment on Loxjet's Wailing and Gnashing blog this afternoon, we've been witness to a little lesson recently about what the theocratic right, and Dobson in particular, really seems to think of tolerance. Whether it's Arthur's pal Buster traveling around the world espousing tolerance and understanding of those who are different than we are on the PBS Kids show Postcards from Buster, or Spongebob Squarepants living his off-kilter life in a pineapple under the sea, Dobson and like-minded social and spiritual tyrants just want you to know that whenever the word or the concept of "tolerance" shows up in this context, it's a secular humanist buzzword that, loosely translated, means acceptance of gays and, naturally, the gay lifestyle.

And when Pooh's Heffalump Movie, like that violet-hued purse-wielder Tinky Winky, traffics in a color as coded as lavender and starts talking about how we should try to understand one another and not succumb to our prejudices and fears, why, that's practically the dogma of the decadent laid out in easy-to-swallow morsels for our young and innocent to swallow, and be swallowed by. And that's why these shows and films are bad, bad, bad. Not only are gays and the gay lifestyle to be refuted as ungodly, so too now must the idea of anyone else treating them with love and compassion, like any other human being, for fear of being seen as tacitly promoting a heretical and damnable sexual orientation. It's enough to make one's head spin in delicious, yet ultimately depressing anticipation of Dobson discovering and decoding Heffalump's hidden, evil agenda.

Myself, I'm kinda hoping Emma and Nonie swallow those particular morsels. I'll leave Dobson to suss out to the eternal consequences while we get ready to see Robots, which undoubtedly has some foreboding subtext that I'll have to consider before allowing my little impressionables to see it. Perhaps there'll be the wanton mixing of 30-weight and 40-weight amongst the film's mechanical characters in some sleazy oil bar about which to fret and gnash my teeth. And that densely constructed set design on display in the Robots trailer ought to be fertile soil ready for plowing by the repressed loons who have tired of ranting about the phallic columns of Neptune's palace in the ad art for The Little Mermaid. What fun to have a whole new cityscape potentially crammed with hidden sexual imagery to decode, rail against and, of course, fantasize about! I'll bet this is why Dobson thinks God made the movies.

Sunday, February 20, 2005


Thanks to faithful reader and excellent friend Andy for reminding me of something that should have been painfully obvious-- there's just no excuse for not finding a place for Claudia Cardinale in the divinely inspired chain linking classic beauty Sophia Loren to stunning newcomer Eva Mendes. I mean, not only did I make observation regarding her ultimate loveliness that I stated in the previous post, but she's also immortalized in the masthead of this very blog site, for crying out loud. Along with his reminder, Andy was kind enough to link me to two superb shots of Ms. Cardinale at the peak of her popularity in the mid '60s, the most electrifying of which is posted below. He also confirms the celestial nature of this triple (now quadruple) feature of movie goddesses with this spot-on observation that he left in the comments section last night:

"Ya know, the Great Set Designer, or Big Blue Dodger in the Sky, or the world's most Positive Thinker, or whatever you wanna call him, he's just messin' with us, letting our scientists think they can clone something. Clearly, he's been doing it all along."

I couldn't have said it better, nor did I.

Please feel free to place Claudia right between Sophia and Raquel on this timeline of tempestuous and awe-inspiring cinematic beauty. And Claudia, if you'd forgive me my oversight, why, I might even sit through Fitzcarraldo again.

What the hell was I thinking?

Saturday, February 19, 2005


If I might be permitted a not-exactly-prurient diversion on a rainy Saturday night...

I just saw the cover of the latest issue of Elle magazine while I was buying some laundry detergent this afternoon, and suddenly this evolutionary line of great beauties of the movies formed in my express-lane consciousness. With apologies to Claudia Cardinale, who I once listed as the most beautiful woman I'd ever seen in a movie, based on her appearance in Once Upon A Time in the West, follow along with me for a moment for a brief visual presentation, if you would...

Is it so hard to imagine the Great Production Designer drawing a line from this lovely woman...

Sophia Loren in Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow

OR IS THERE... this lovely woman...

Raquel Welch in a publicity shot from (I believe) Hannie Caulder

A CONNECTION HERE? this lovely woman?

Eva Mendes

Or am I just enjoying some rare free time getting to know my Bloggerbot picture-loading system? At any rate, these latest photos sure beat the heck out of looking at a picture of Jeff Kent and Paul DePodesta.

Thursday, February 17, 2005

NOTES FROM THE TRENCHES: Dargis, Lumet, Poland and Eastwood

I used to have such issues with Manohla Dargis when she wrote for the L.A. Weekly. Though she never approached the level of pugilistic contrarianism that informs much of Armond White's criticism, it always seemed to me that she frequently tried too hard to wear her hipster credentials on her sleeve in some of her off-the-cuff remarks. But either Dargis is getting better, or I am, because since she left for the Los Angeles Times two years ago, and since arriving at the New York Times, for whom she currently writes, Dargis' writing has been, while not always 100% agreeable, a lot like a breath of fresh air in a film culture of TV blockheads and junket whores. In her current assessment of the career of Sidney Lumet, who is to receive an honorary Oscar at this year's Academy Awards ceremony, she probably has Pauline Kael in mind, but it's hard to imagine she's not including her past self in the group of critics she describes here:

"Film critics like to champion the humanism of artists like Jean Renoir, as if their genius - and historical distance - gave us license to applaud their decency. It is no small irony that many of those same critics, many of whom lean to the left, are often tougher on filmmakers like Mr. Lumet, whose artistry doesn't always match their good intentions. We mock the do-gooders even as we refuse to take issue with the dehumanizing violence and various "isms" that passes for entertainment on our screens. Politics may be cool, at least in documentaries, but forget about social engagement, fighting the good fight, moral outrage."

Dargis's writing has really become, for me, one of the high points of American film criticism, and her levelheaded Lumet piece is just one more reason why.

And the op-ed browbeating over Million Dollar Baby marches on. David Poland, in today's Hot Button column makes a pretty eloquent case against the narrow-minded reductivism currently blowing hard against Eastwood's film. He takes "Maggie Gallagher's remarkably bent piece" lucidly to task, and pointedly wonders, regarding her column and, by extension, this entire type of argument, "How much less interested in a real discussion can you get?" Good question, one that cuts to the heart of the kind of circus tent shout-down that seems to have replaced cogent, intuitive thinking (and listening, and perceiving) in the entertainment press, as well as the media as a whole.

Wednesday, February 16, 2005


The following is the first in a series of reviews of DVD commentary tracks that will hopefully become a recurring feature of this blog site.

When they first began appearing as "added value" material on laserdiscs back in the early '90s, commentaries that ran simultaneously with the movie on a separate audio track tended to be rather dry enterprises. I remember the commentary on the original Criterion laserdisc for Carrie was a none-too-spry affair featuring an obscure French film critic, one Laurent Bouzereau, who has in the years since made for himself a lucrative career as a writer and director of those added value DVD extended advertisements known as "making of" featurettes. Bouzereau read a long essay on Brian De Palma and the film in a stilted manner that not only betrayed his slippery grasp of spoken English, but also suggested that for him print might be a more successful mode of communication. But the track for the original Criterion Taxi Driver boasted probing, feature-length observations from screenwriter Paul Schrader and director Martin Scorsese, and director John Sturges' commentary for the Bad Day at Black Rock laserdisc has been somewhat famously cited by filmmaker Paul Thomas Anderson (Magnolia) as the young director's film school-- everything Anderson knows about directing, he claims, was gleaned from listening to Sturges' incisive comments and remembrances of directing the Spencer Tracy-Robert Ryan drama.

In the DVD age, almost every major release gets the commentary treatment, and not surprisingly only about one out of every 10 actually deserves it. After all, just how much illumination can the directors and casts of efforts like The Santa Clause or the mediocre horror cheapie Idle Hands really shed on their films? These newly pervasive and superfluous DVD tracks tend to devolve into exercises in spotting the directors' friends and family members, genial, often overly generous observations about cast members, anecdotes about how hot it was on the set, the pointing out of instances of "homage," or rambling dissections (and demystifications) of the special effects or other tricks of the trade on display in any particular scene. The most successful of these kinds of tracks tend to serve as informal cast reunions and have a disarming atmosphere that allows for a certain level of self-seriousness that gets routinely deflated by the conviviality of the proceedings. Director Joe Dante is particularly good at hosting these kinds of parties, and the DVD commentary tracks for Gremlins 2: The New Batch, The Howling and even Hollywood Boulevard, his first film, co-directed with Allan Arkush under the auspices of Roger Corman's notoriously frugal New World Pictures banner, are terrific fun and, dare I say, even enlightening about the creative processes at work on his sets.

However, the gold standard for group commentary tracks was set by director Kevin Smith and his band of rowdies on the Mallrats DVD. Smith gathered together himself, Ben Affleck (in the days when constantly identifying the actor as "Phantoms' Ben Affleck" was still a funny dig), Jason (Jay) Mewes, producer Scott Mosier and a couple of other production cronies for a truly hilarious bullshit session laid over Smith's most notoriously failed project, his misbegotten but not entirely charmless follow-up to Clerks. But Mallrats goes the routine commentary track one better. At various points during the film an icon pops up in the corner of the screen, at which time is revealed, if the proper button is pressed, video of these ne'er-do-wells sitting around their microphones blabbing about the movie. This video footage runs simultaneously over the film's scenes, and it adds enormously to the viewer's illusion not only of being let in on a private party, but at times even being a welcome participant in it.

The Smith tracks (there are similar ones on the DVDs of Clerks, Chasing Amy, Dogma and Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back) are extremely enjoyable and valuable too for the wealth of anecdotal information they reveal about the realities of independent filmmaking, struggles with the MPAA and, in the case of Dogma, the right-wing religious powers that be, at a grassroots and a national level. But they're also goofs laid on top of films that cannot claim structure or expressive directorial technique as their most potent devices. For my money, some of the most provocative commentaries I've heard are ones accompanying the Steven Soderbergh-directed films Out of Sight, The Limey and Ocean's Eleven. Not only is Soderbergh articulate about his intentions, he avoids merely parroting what's obviously there on the screen, he's lucid when dealing with the thematic strings of his films, and he's confident enough to jump right in there and deconstruct just how his methods often fall short of those intentions. The other thing that raises these commentary tracks above the norm is the participation, on each one, of the screenwriter. The Out of Sight track features writer Scott Frank engaging Soderbergh in some very entertaining comedic back-and-forth about adapting the Elmore Leonard novel, and writer Ted Griffin joins the director in illuminating just how difficult stacking the elaborate Ocean's Eleven house of cards for maximum clarity and comic effect really was. But the best of the three is The Limey. The elliptical crime drama starring Terence Stamp and Peter Fonda is the most formally challenging film Soderbergh has made to date (and that includes Traffic), and therefore it's more than a little intriguing to hear what was going on in his mind regarding his decisions. But writer Lem Dobbs proves a prickly partner in the commentary studio, and he's none-too-shy about voicing his reservations about the way Soderbergh altered the chronology of his original script. The often tense dialogue between the writer and director speaks volumes about the way films are made creatively and is perhaps as good a class for would-be filmmakers in the reality of how two creative visions mesh, and clash, as Sturges' Bad Day at Black Rock laserdisc session was as a basic lesson in directing for P.T. Anderson. I'd rank the DVD commentary track for The Limey as the best I've heard to date.

(Part two of this article, a review of the DVD commentary track for the horror thriller Saw, has been posted separately and can be found directly below.)


The commentary track for the horror thriller Saw, released yesterday on DVD, turns out to be an enjoyably self-deflating hybrid of the Smith and Soderbergh approaches. Director James Wan and screenwriter Leigh Whannell (who also has a major role in the film) come at the DVD commentary game with no illusions that they've created a work of art, or even that their low-budget creation works on all cylinders all the time. But if there's good credit to be given for not taking oneself too seriously, while refraining from taking a dump all over the work in question so as avoid implication in its shortcomings, then Wan and Whannell's laugh-filled track must be generously tagged as this week's best example of the fine interpersonal art of self-deprecation on public display.

The writer and director actually come off fairly charming in their initial apologies for the possibility of sounding "stupid" as the track unfolds, and they're remarkably up front about the process of on-the-job training they went through to get the movie made. Much hay is made of the fact that they shot the entire movie, exteriors as well as interiors, inside a downtown L.A. warehouse, and even when the resulting sets often belie their origins (the same ugly brick adorns a hospital, a police station, a hospital parking garage, and the interior of Cary Elwes' house), it's heartening to hear the writer and director waxing enthusiastic about how those location restrictions challenged them as filmmakers, and especially about the efforts of their production designer Julie Berghoff to be as creative as she was within such budgetary limitations. At one point Whannell exhorts filmmakers faced with the same challenges to consider the efficiency of building those limitations into the aesthetic of the project, as they were forced to do. After all, what could be cheaper than this film's initial setup of two men chained to the wall of a dingy industrial restroom at the mercy of a moralistically Machiavellian murderer? It's good advice that often gets lost on filmmakers as they find themselves with more and more money to play with, and less creative inspiration on tap, on subsequent projects.

But for all the insight into the process of low-budget filmmaking that Wan and Whannell offer up, what really sells the Saw commentary is their easygoing rapport (though it is never elaborated upon, these two obviously have some history) and absolute insistence on seizing every opportunity for a self-deprecating jab. Wan frequently delights in pointing out specific events in the narrative as obvious plot devices, deriding his own film as "plot-driven," and Whannell's deft deflation of his own intentional overacting during a fake death scene, spoken over the scene itself, of course, is a cracking bit of a priori film criticism. The director's predilection for mentioning throughout the track the fact that he had only 18 days to shoot the entire film becomes a kind of comically haunting refrain, and at one point it inspires Whannell to create "The Saw 18-Day Drinking Game"-- viewers are challenged to take a shot of their favorite hard liquor every time Wan mentions the grueling two-week-plus-four-day schedule, with the writer readily predicting that participants will be "heavily pissed" by film's end. In truth, Whannell frequently displays the quick, sharp wit of a natural comedian, and his track-ending impersonation of a BBC announcer-- "For this quiet neighborhood, the fruit of peace has become the jam of war"-- is nasal pinched-perfect, apropos of nothing regarding Saw, and absolutely fall-down hilarious. Both men seem agreeably inclined toward their craft, though they sometimes fall into the DVD commentary trap of navigating among the obvious-- upon encountering a scene in which one character finally saws off his own foot at the ankle, one of the fellas (I fail to remember which) earnestly puts forth this observation: "For some reason, the scene of (this guy) hacking his foot off really seems to get to people." But they always return to more solid ground by continually expressing an apparently genuine enthusiasm for the efforts of their crew and their actors, without whom they know their film would've likely been less successful aesthetically as well as in the marketplace.

Which brings us to those actors, every one of which, from Danny Glover to Cary Elwes to Monica Potter, is singled out for praise as excelling at their craft, as well as being of a relatively elevated stature in regard to a gory low-budget thriller of this sort (one can't imagine, had they been solicited, too many Hollywood stars lining up to be cast in The Texas Chainsaw Massacre). But it's very amusing indeed to hear respect for the likes of Elwes and Glover give way to the very respectful fan-boy enthusiasm that erupts from the duo upon the appearance of Shawnee Smith.

In much the same way as Smith's brief appearance in Saw elevates the movie's game to an entirely different level (one it unfortunately retreats from once she exits the film), the already zippy energy level of the commentary track spikes noticeably when her scene begins. Whannell and Wan (especially Wan) greet her appearance with a mixture of awe inspired by the actress's talent and unabashed puppy love and admiration obviously based on years of seeing her in movies while growing up in their native Australia. Whannell even outs the crush Wan carried for her even through the film's production and revels in the fact that it was, to the director's great disappointment, apparently unrequited.

But in addition to their starry-eyed pronouncements of amazement over being able to cast her, her performance is the only one of all the actors mentioned that inspires a kind of reverence that goes beyond her stature as a good sport or a well-known name to be used in elevating the movie's profile. The wisecracks halt long enough during Smith's grueling episode for Wan to simply proclaim her work as "really good acting," and that's certainly the unadorned, boiled-down truth. Getting another look at the intensity Smith packs into her five-minute appearance in this movie provided sure and steady reinforcement of my initial reaction to her work when I saw the film last November, and even more so when Wan and Whannell reveal just how little time (less than a day) Smith was on set crafting the kind of performance that most horror directors-- hell, any director-- would slice and dice to have in their movie. I can honestly say that if I were dictating the Oscar nominations, Shawnee Smith would occupy a slot right alongside Sandra Oh, Cate Blanchett, Virginia Madsen and Irma P. Hall for Best Supporting Actress, and it was nice to hear the writer and director of Saw recognize the quality of what Smith gave to their film. Would it be too much to hope that these guys would be smart enough to cast her, and craft a meatier role for her, in the inevitable Saw 2?

Movie: ** (out of four) Commentary Track: *** (out of four)

Sunday, February 13, 2005


I first saw my finest friend Bruce acting on stage at Medford High School in Medford, Oregon, in the spring of 1977, during a state Thespian conference for high school actors. He was performing a scene from Of Mice and Men with his friend Bill Helwig, a tall, redheaded kid who weighed in at around 300 pounds. Bill played Lenny and was, no surprise, the focus of much of the audience that attended that afternoon's performance. But Bruce made an impression playing George as well. So much so that I remembered him several months later when I ran into him in the basement of the Sigma Nu house on the University of Oregon campus, looking just as nervous as I was, on the set of National Lampoon's Animal House. I introduced myself after a couple of minutes, sure that he'd just dismiss me as an oddball. To my amazement, he did not, and nearly 28 years later I'm wishing him happy birthday on the Internet. (For those wishing to get a glimpse of Bruce circa 1977, check out the courtroom scene in Animal House-- Bruce can be seen wearing a blue sweater just off of John Belushi's left shoulder, joining Bluto and the rest of the Deltas in their cough-covered invitation to Dean Wormer and friends to "eat me!")

We've been through a lot together-- there's no need to itemize the experiences here, because he already knows about 'em. I just wanted to take this opportunity to express to him how much his friendship means to me, how much I value his support and his critical voice, and how lucky I feel that we've been able to remain so close despite never living, except for those college years and one year here in Los Angeles when I first came to this city, within 400 miles of each other during those 28 years.

Friend, you make me feel understood, and you afford me the opportunity to be real like I can be with no one else outside my wife and daughters.

We laugh together at things that few others would understand or even find funny, and the raised eyebrows of wives and family just seem to make it all funnier.

And I think we both know that in the other there will always be an ear to hear, a shoulder to lean on, and a place to rest and not worry about being entertaining, or erudite, or even awake.

Many grand wishes to you, Bruce, on your 46th birthday. Emma sang it, I wrote it, and everyone here in this household hopes your birthday was as special to you as you are to me, and to us.

"You came in that thing? You're braver than I thought!" [Cue sped-up version of Star Wars score]...

Saturday, February 12, 2005


If anybody out there manages to make it to a screening of Inside Deep Throat over the next few days, I'd really appreciate you dropping me a line on the comments page of this post, or in an e-mail, and letting me know what you think, especially if you are, like me, of a certain age (approaching 45) and therefore more likely to have specific memories regarding Deep Throat when it was in release, and shortly thereafter, and its effect on society.

I remember reading a novelization (!!!) of it in high school-- talk about the mainstreaming of pornography-- and though it was not the first hard-core film I ever saw (In the Realm of the Senses takes that honor, and yet I remain relatively well-adjusted), it was certainly the first hard-core porno film I ever saw. I saw Deep Throat at a screening in a lecture hall on the University of Oregon campus in 1977-- another indication of how times have changed--sponsored by some local group, perhaps a fraternity, or maybe the local Maranatha Society chapter, and for $1.25 I saw things I'd never seen before (and some, like the behavior of an overstimulated young gentleman in the row behind me and off my right shoulder, I hope never to witness again).

So I'm very intrigued by this new documentary dealing with the movie's popularity, the specious circumstances regarding its funding, its effect on politicians and religious groups (the ripples of which are still felt today) and, of course, the testimony of those surviving members of the production (sadly, Linda Lovelace died as the result of a car accident a few years ago). There's absolutely no way I'll be able to make it to West Hollywood or Santa Monica to see it in the next two or three weeks, and I'm not sure I'd wanna fight traffic and crowds for the privilege of paying top dollar and sitting in a house packed with Hollywood hipsterati laughing knowingly on all the right cues anyway. I think I'll wait until it makes it over to the sticks of Pasadena before I seriously consider giving it a go.

I'm also champing at the bit to see this new Thai boxing martial arts film called Ong Bak: The Thai Warrior. The movie's advertising claims, in a manner reminiscent of the way in which Jackie Chan was once introduced, to sport no digital effects, no wires, no trickery, just the amazing martial arts of one Tony Jaa, who's been drawing some pretty heady comparisons with Bruce Lee in uniformly enthusiastic reviews like the one from Kenneth Turan in yesterday's Los Angeles Times. Oh, boy!

And I still hold out some hope to see Bad Education which, despite making no waves with the Academy, is still hanging on at the Laemmle Pasadena Playhouse; Vera Drake, also somewhere in Pasadena; and Being Julia, a fabulous chance to face up to some of my most potent prejudices against one Annette Bening, who is reportedly superb in this role.

All these heady intentions, and my weekend cinema has consisted thus far of the last 20 minutes of Mulan II, which looks at least as good as the first movie, amazingly enough-- could the direct-to-video branch at Disney have finally learned a lesson or two about going cheap? And my weekend cinema chances don't look to get a whole lot shinier. Godard's Masculine-Feminine is back in town, I still need to catch Hotel Rwanda, but if it rains tomorrow (today), and it sure looks like it will, I have a feeling Emma, Nonie and I are gonna be headed to the nearest screening of Pooh's Heffalump Movie. Well, my prospects are nothing if not eclectic.


I hemmed and hawed for a few minutes, and then decided to go ahead and rent the thing, despite its universally negative reviews. Perhaps to delay what was surely maybe almost the inevitable crush of disappointment (or crush of confirmed preconceptions), I pulled the box off the shelf and began perusing the credits before heading to the cashier. A woman sidled up beside me, mulling through the F's and G's, and she hesitated and did a double take with her eyes when she saw my choice. "That's just what they want you to do, you know," she said, somewhat mysteriously, as if renting Gigli was my mindless contribution to some global conspiracy. "They figure we were smart enough to avoid it in theaters, but we'll just lap it up on video," she continued, fully confident that she was giving me some straight-from-the-heart advice that, if I knew what was good for me, I would heed without further ado. My response—“Hmm”—was, I think, not very satisfying to her, and she walked away with her choices, Phat Beach and Gymkhata, tucked safely under her arms, knowing she’d done all she could.

That was last summer.

Last night, I found myself back in my neighborhood video store, a homegrown establishment that somehow is able to hook up with the latest releases a week earlier than their advertised street date. I don’t know how they do this, and I would never reveal the name of the store, just in case they’re doing something that the Hollywood studio gods wouldn’t exactly approve of. Suffice it to say it’s a neat little perk that I take advantage of quite often. It’s also one of the establishments around town where my wife, my daughters and I are known by name, and we enjoy the small-town feeling of going in, renting two or three titles, and knowing we’re contributing not to the coffers of a corporate behemoth like Blockbuster, but to the well-being of a local family business whose employees always have a kind word, often a recommendation, and always let my oldest use the pottie when the need hits her as she shuffles through the kids section.

So when I came up to the counter from the back of the room with my choice for Thursday’s night’s edition of Dirty Dishes Cinema, it was with not just a little trepidation. I’d spent some time with the clerk talking about worthy new titles—I recommended Cellular, Shaun of the Dead, Bus 174 and the Poltergeist-meets-U-571 thriller entitled Below, while he pointed out The Story of the Weeping Camel, The Yes Men and Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow as worthy of his praise, taking a few extra seconds to wag his finger in the direction of The Village, an apparent disappointment. But I’d made my decision, and it was off the tracks of anything we’d discussed, so I really wasn’t surprised that I got some kind of comment from him.

“Are you sure about this?” He looked at me askance, as if wondering if my good sense and good taste had suddenly gone out the door with the guy who just left holding the last copy of I, Robot. I said, “Yeah, I think so,” I replied. “I’m just looking for some time to kill-- I’ve got dishes to do—and I do remember reading one good review of this somewhere.”

“Okay,” he conceded, shaking his head. “But just don’t come back in here mad at me tomorrow.”

“What, I’m gonna take it out on you if I don’t like it?” I said, laughing.

“Don’t laugh,” he shot back. “I recommended Signs to a guy not too long ago, and he brought it back the next day and literally threw it at me—not underhand, either—and started yelling, ‘What a piece of shit! How dare you?’ Believe it or not, he was disappointed with my suggestion. But this guy is the neighborhood critic, the kind of guy who comes in and ranting about Dodgeball, not because he didn’t think it was funny, but because he can’t get over the fact that a guy who gets hit square in the face with a wrench would somehow not get permanent brain damage and have to exit the movie altogether.”

“Well, his critical criteria seems a little fishy, all right, and he’s obviously not a well renter,” I said. “But don’t worry. You didn’t suggest this one.”

“You’re damn right I didn’t. I can’t believe you wanna see that. It’s supposed to be awful.”

I couldn’t disagree. I don’t know why I wanted to see it either. Maybe because it got such bad reviews. Not because “I just had to see what was so bad about it.” I hear that a lot from people justifying their rentals of everything from Showgirls to Battlefield: Earth, and that implies to me a joy in seeing bad film that I just don’t key into very much anymore (something about time being precious and all that). And seeing those movies was anything but a joyful experience—well, maybe Elizabeth Berkeley gyrating like an unattached outboard motor on top of Kyle MacLachlan in that hot tub was a little bit joyful, but I’m getting off my subject here. No, a lot of times when I rent a movie widely reported to be everything from stunningly bad to the death of cinema, my interest is piqued because those kinds of extreme comments are usually hyperbole spat out in the spirit of enjoying the death twitches of a picture that everyone has somehow decided is the Noxious Movie of the Moment. And it often seems to me, rightly or wrongly, that a film which generates that much smart-ass one-upsmanship stands a fairly good chance of not being nearly as bad as all the conventional wisdom suggests. Not a good movie, necessarily, but perhaps better than its reputation, perhaps worthy of some levelheaded consideration apart from the howls of the mob.

This was certainly true of Gigli—that movie was a box-office bomb starring two tabloid magnets and was reported in most circles as being perhaps one of the worst movies ever made (the kind of comment usually circulated by reviewers looking to generate copy who haven’t seen too many movies made before 1970). True, Ben Affleck drifts through the entire enterprise looking smugger and more detached than any actor I’ve ever seen in a movie before or since, and he can rightfully take the blame for much of what is inescapably bad about the movie. But Jennifer Lopez, though somewhat miscast, sports an erotic glow and a seriousness of intent, and the movie itself is an earnest shot at something interesting that gets caught up in director Martin Brest’s stillborn mise-en-scene, simply and slowly spinning and spinning until torpor and inertia finally have their way with the narrative and the whole thing just dies. But all this talk about Gigli being profoundly, heart-stoppingly bad is just nonsense. I saw at least 20 other movies released in 2003 that were far worse, more offensive, more fatally misconceived than this softheaded but essentially harmless dud.

In fact, studio back catalogues are littered with titles that everyone knew were just the worst things ever foisted on an unsuspecting public at the time of their release, but whose reputations have been rescued by the onward march of time. Movies like Robert Altman’s The Long Goodbye and George Miller’s Babe: Pig in the City, to cite two disparate examples among many choices, were slammed by critics and ignored by audiences, but those who chose to see them anyway saw a couple of real gems that have, in the intervening years, widely been recognized as such. There are others, of course, ignored by moviegoers due largely to the sackcloth-and-ashes approach of the entertainment press—movies like Steven Spielberg’s 1941, Billy Wilder’s Buddy Buddy, Ron Shelton’s duality of the L.A.P.D. double feature Dark Blue and Hollywood Homicide, and the recent Out of Time and Looney Tunes: Back in Action. Those who chose to listen to the nearly universal negative appraisal of these films and ignore them missed out on some pretty vital and energetic mainstream Hollywood cinema.

And as I left my video store last night I was hoping for the same sort of revelation vis-à-vis my Dirty Dishes Cinema choice for the evening, Catwoman.

Alas, sometimes the conventional wisdom is right.

Catwoman is directed by the mono-monikered Pitof (he of origins unknown to me), and he’s got the whole slick cosmetics ad look down all spiffy. And the movie, which starts out with a main title sequence that promises some sort of indulgence in ancient Egyptian cat lore, has a strong basic hook in the Catwoman story—not how Halle Berry’s milquetoast Patience Philips becomes Catwoman (that’s pretty random and silly), but instead the story of how she is, in fact, the latest in a long line of catwomen, carrying on a chronology of women imbued with feline qualities by the enduring god-like beasts of ancient Egypt itself. But Pitof is too impatient for all that, really. He just wants to get Berry into that leather suit and have her wolfing down sushi and leaping in herky-jerky CGI splendor all over the face of the metropolis, camera swooping around likewise, ensuring that we never get a foothold geographically or emotionally that will allow us to give two cat shits about anything that happens in his movie’s quite lengthy 102 minutes.

The plot has something to do with Sharon Stone’s cosmetics queen unleashing a deadly product, of which she is the original beta tester, which creates lovely alabaster skin like living marble (she’s perfectly named to play such a monstrous character) that, unfortunately, renders that skin essentially lifeless, dead to any feeling (a rather deft metaphor for plastic surgery, actually). The downside is that discontinuing the use of the cosmetics causes the skin to erupt in boils and other horrendously scarring phenomena which lead, eventually, to death. Catwoman, adapting to her new agility and sensitivity to sound, touch and smell, darts about the city attempting to avenge herself against those, headed by Stone, who “killed” her and left her lifeless body to be swarmed and revived by the aforementioned ancient, CGI-rendered kitties, all the while carrying on a romance with the police detective (Benjamin Bratt) investigating a series of robberies and attacks in which Catwoman seems to be involved.

Bratt plays the dumbest detective alive—he can’t seem to deduce that Catwoman and his girlfriend Patience are the same person, even after he’s slept with Patience and ended up with bobcat-sized scratches down his back. And that’s the most circumstantial of the mountain of evidence with which he’s confronted. And Berry, who was clearly out of her league in the emotional hurricane of Monster’s Ball (imagine how much better that movie would have been had Berry's role been played by Regina King), is closer to her league here and still seems like a rank amateur. The woman has no weight on-screen, no power as an actress—her affect on an audience depends almost entirely on whether she’s acceptably beautiful or alluring enough, and she has to do some pretty silly things here, including rubbing catnip all over her face with erotic abandon and pounding tuna from a can with earnest focus and concentration, that serve mightily to undermine any effect upon which she might build. The great screen beauties, from Garbo, Monroe and Loren up through Sigourney Weaver and up-and-comers like Eva Mendes, Ziyi Zhang and Monica Bellucci, all had or have much more than their obvious loveliness and sexuality on which to rely, but Berry brings none of their game to the table, and some of the failing of Catwoman to build up much of any momentum as story or action cinema, unfortunately, has to be laid at her paws, er, feet.

But the movie also fails because its director hasn’t a clue how to stage action coherently, or to integrate it into the story so that it has any meaning— a scene where Berry steals a motorcycle and roars through the city for no appreciable reason seems to go on forever, and you get the sense that it does so largely because Pitof just thinks it looks cool. A courtship scene staged to some one-one-one street hoops between Berry and Bratt (hunh?) is shot so badly, with so little regard to coherence and film grammar, it begins to feel like an affront to the audience, and then finally a simple embarrassment of the actors. And in an effort to play both sides of the coin, Pitof bites down hard on the postmodern feminist homilies of the script, but he can’t wait to get to her nocturnal sashaying in that leather getup while another lousy, inappropriate trip-hip-hop tune blows up on the soundtrack. As Walter Chaw observed in his review on the website Film Freak Central, “Catwoman is interested in being both ghetto hip (witness the soundtrack) and entirely unthreatening to the ruling majority.” The requisite showdown between Stone and Berry is occasion for more lip service to the double standards of beauty that the plot traffics in, and exploits, as well as for various bad cat puns and other saucy one-liners that delay the inevitable death of the baddie and the prescribed-by-committee semi-happy ending. The whole thing leaves a very sour taste, like lapped-up milk left out in a dish a couple of days too long.

That one good review I mentioned came from Mick La Salle in the San Francisco Chronicle, and I accessed it online today in an attempt to refresh myself about what it was he liked about the movie. I think he’s essentially right about some of the points that he makes about the underlying seriousness of the film's attempts to deal with modern feminist concerns, and my earlier observation about the deadly cosmetics and their effect being a deft metaphor for plastic surgery must have been a holdover in my brain from reading his review, because the observation is right there in his piece.

But I don’t think La Salle does a very good job of recognizing the myriad ways the movie undermines those attempts, and I don’t think his suggestion of putting this movie in a time capsule as a representative example of feminism and its schisms in our society circa 2004 is a very good idea either. The movie’s have-it-all-ways, freedom-with-sharp-claws-and-hot leather empowerment fantasy just doesn’t hold water. Even so, the very presence of those attempts to deal, however ineptly, with the experience of women in a media-saturated society, along with a single really cool CGI shot of Berry being blasted out of a storm drain by a suddenly slo-mo torrent of water that sparkles like liquid diamonds under the fake moon, make it pass the “it can’t be that bad” test. Catwoman is pretty bad, but it offers nowhere near the fecal wallow to be had by 2004’s leading contender for Worst Movie of the Year, Van Helsing. Faint praise, perhaps, but praise strong enough for me.

So when I returned the movie tonight, I returned it with my head held high, and I did not launch it at the clerk, although I felt like reprimanding him for giving me the full-screen version when I specifically requested the wide-screen disc, dammit! (He offered me a free rental of the wide-screen disc as compensation, but I demurred.) I am not ashamed that I rented Catwoman, nor am I disappointed that it didn’t fully live down to its reputation. It got me through my stack of dishes just fine and I got to see it for myself, apart from all the teeth gnashing and flailing about when it was originally released. I’ll be honest if you ask me what I thought, but I promise never to sneer at you or lecture you about it if I see you renting it at the video store. Because more likely than not I’ll have a copy of The Village or some other alleged monstrosity in my hands, ready to give another movie orphaned by the tastemakers a fair shot. After all, who am I to point fingers, or claws?

Thursday, February 10, 2005


As we creep toward the two-week warning signaling the approach of Oscar night, David Edelstein, the funny and abrasive film critic for the online magazine Slate, fires a salvo in the direction of longtime Oscar producer Gilbert Cates, who's maybe more powerful but not nearly as pretty as his niece Phoebe. He's got a plan for making the Oscar show shorter, and Edelstein, quite rightly, points out its absurdity in this keen Slate post.

Tuesday, February 08, 2005


If you are among the many who have yet to see Million Dollar Baby and still intend to, I respectfully suggest that you forego reading the following article until you’ve seen the movie. In it I discuss the arguments posed in a recent Los Angeles Times piece that examines the critical response to the movie, and I was unable to do so without exposing elements of the plot of the film that most (but not all, as it turns out) would agree should be kept under wraps and reserved for the film to reveal. I also regret that the Los Angeles Times Web site requires that you be a seven-day-a-week subscriber to the print edition in order to access their online content free of charge. I would love for you to be able to read the article in question for yourself, so I have provided a link to the Times article under the assumption that it will not cost you to read it. Or perhaps you’ll be able to find a copy of Saturday’s Calendar still laying about the house and take in the foundation for my rant the old-fashioned way. Whether you are familiar with the original article or not, I have tried to accurately convey the gist of its argument without excessive quotation, and I trust that, for the sake of the effectiveness of my own counterargument, I have succeeded. (I also refer you to Patrick Goldstein’s article in today’s edition of the Los Angeles Times Calendar which takes on the conservative critics of Million Dollar Baby.)

By now you’ve doubtless either read or heard of complaints about Million Dollar Baby voiced by representatives of organizations like the National Spinal Cord Injury Association, as well as from esteemed film critics like Michael Medved, Rush Limbaugh and Debbie Schlussel. The gist of the complaints are grounded in fears that Clint Eastwood’s film perpetuates a prevailing notion, among the injured as well as those not affected, that spinal-cord injury is a fate worse than death, exactly what Marcie Roth, executive director of the NSCIA, says her group works so hard to dispel. It’s easy to sympathize with Roth’s concerns while at the same time disagreeing on whether or not the film endorses such a conclusion or merely addresses the subject of euthanasia as it is encountered by specific characters within the context of a specific story, and whether or not one has, by using euthanasia as a story element, an obligation to present it in the one light acceptable to those, like Roth, who work tirelessly to improve conditions for the disabled.

Schlussel, on the other hand, rather more sensitively predicts that Million Dollar Baby will reign supreme at the Academy Awards on February 27 “because it’s Hollywood’s best political propaganda of the year… it supports killing the handicapped, literally putting their lights out.” The myopic views of Schlussel and pals are typically reductive, conveniently boiling what most, even those who have objections to the story’s third act, have experienced as a nuanced and powerful piece of storytelling down to an easily digestible nugget, a simple piece of propaganda and nothing more, making it all the more easy to dismiss or, more pointedly, to attack and use to make their own political hay. Eastwood is not asking viewers to agree with his character Frankie Dunn’s decision to aid in an act of euthanasia, and he leaves it open to the discussion of audiences whether the priest who advises him that he will become forever lost if he goes through with it is correct, or whether by disappearing to the diner he has found a way to maintain his connection to Maggie (Hilary Swank), the boxer he has trained and who he has helped to die, and begin to find some redemption after all. But this kind of ambiguity drives black-and-white “thinkers” like Schlussel bats. She’d rather misrepresent the film’s intent and portray it as a single-minded, Nazi-like clarion call for the elimination of an entire class of disabled people. Ultimately, though, loudmouths like Schlussel don’t matter. These talk-radio and Internet voices raging against the indignities foisted upon quadriplegics by Eastwood and his film aren’t likely to carry their torches past Oscar night, regardless of whether the film wins or loses, because the moment and the momentum will have passed—Million Dollar Baby and the Oscar race will have ceased to be the hot story, and the outrage of these AM-radio geniuses will have moved on to other high-profile straw men to be used to heighten their own media presence.

Certainly more perplexing than the NSCIA’s concerns, at least to my mind, was the argument forwarded in the Los Angeles Times Calendar section this past Saturday, February 5, by journalist Tim Rutten in his regular column “Regarding Media.” In an article entitled "Why the Million Dollar Secret?” Rutten defends the movie as a work of art, but from that defense springs a complaint most unique among the cacophony of awards-season carping about the film. The writer somewhat perversely suggests that film critics who have gone out of their way to preserve the secrecy of the film’s plot developments from readers interested in seeing the film, but not interested in having those secrets revealed to them beforehand, are guilty of a kind of artistic dereliction of duty. Rutten discounts such reticence to give away too much as being more in tune with commerce than with art, then follows with a rather strange assertion. He acknowledges that giving away the plot of a thriller such as The Sixth Sense, or even “entertainments” like The Crying Game or The Third Man (!) would be “churlish,” but that serious films with “genuinely important themes” occupy what he terms “an entirely different aesthetic space” and should be treated with the same gravity as a great novel or important painting. “To presume otherwise is to relegate film to a lesser art,” asserts Rutten, “and film criticism to a lesser genre.”

First, the reality is that it is not the exclusive domain of film critics to consider Carol Reed’s The Third Man not only ‘an entertainment’ but indeed a bona fide classic and, yes, a work of art. I’d wager that you wouldn’t even have to hunt that rigorously to find a reputable writer or two who might even make the art case for The Crying Game and The Sixth Sense. Rutten’s insistence on a separation between “entertainment” and “art” smacks of the kind of snobbery that critics like Andrew Sarris and Pauline Kael were railing against 45 years ago, and it accounts for the loftiness of the “entirely different aesthetic space” that he insists serious films “with genuinely important themes” occupy. Furthermore, to disagree with this vague thumbnail encapsulation of his critical theory, much less press the writer on exactly how that aesthetic space differs from the presumably run-of-the-mill aesthetic of an ‘entertainment’ like, say, Psycho, is to bestow on film the status of a lesser art (like what, needlepoint?) and film criticism to a lesser genre (like what, copywriting for the Recycler?) Having now degraded two separate and honorable arts, I suppose we needn’t continue this argument, then, because the writer and this reader are obviously operating within entirely different aesthetic spaces.

But I’m afraid I must insist. To make his point, Rutten draws an analogy between a film reviewer’s hesitance to reveal too much plot and a newspaper art critic sent to review an important new painting who comes back with a report couched in language describing the work as a masterpiece built around a vital moral issue, but sidestepping the nature of that issue or the aesthetic value of its imagery based on a fear of coloring the reader’s experience of the painting. The argument sounds pretty convincing, unless you’re aware of some pretty fundamental differences in the way appreciators of fine art approach and experience nonlinear works, like sculpture or paintings, as opposed to works of narrative fiction or nonfiction, like those found in literature and film. Rutten relies on the reader finding his theoretical juxtaposition clever enough that it would never occur to her or him to consider the pleasures one takes in viewing, for example, the Mona Lisa. Those pleasures are rooted, among many other things, in art history and our own imaginings of what circumstances might inform that famous smile, and are independent of the kinds of pleasures inherent in being drawn into and surprised by narrative developments and techniques of filmed storytelling and the associations it makes with the real world, as well as with all of the other arts.

In other words, different types of art are experienced in entirely different ways. But could someone who maintains that critics must approach films of thematic import and inflated intent with entirely different aesthetic criteria than those which seek merely to entertain ever fully understand this simple tenet? Rutten’s downright odd assertions about film critics and Million Dollar Baby truly make me wonder.

Another element that may account for Rutten’s arguments is that he seems to define a work of art by its simple tackling of these kinds of moral issues as central themes, an approach that grounds him solidly in the camp of the sort of critic who would insist that Gandhi is a better film than E.T.- The Extra-Terrestrial because the real-life Gandhi was about nonviolent resistance, whereas E.T. was just a made-up alien who wanted to go home. And there is hardly a more notorious instance of lofty “quality” reigning supreme than Ordinary People’s 1980 coronation as Oscar’s Best Picture over competition like Martin Scorsese’s Raging Bull and David Lynch’s The Elephant Man, two films that have, in the years since that award was handed out, proven much more resonant and respected by general audiences and lovers of film than Robert Redford’s rather crude familial drama.

But I suspect Gandhi and Ordinary People are exactly the kinds of films to which Rutten refers when he trots out that “entirely different aesthetic space for serious films” horse, and if he deigns to place Million Dollar Baby in a category with those movies, then I think he seriously misjudges the film’s true worth as art as well as its audiences response to it. Is Million Dollar Baby simply a movie of morality, implying the delivery of a lesson of some kind as its primary objective, its raison d’etre, or is it a movie of characters, of a crisis of faith, of the possibility, but not the guarantee, of redemption? And is the assisted suicide central to the story, as Rutten maintains, or only to its resolution? What is thematically central to the story is the relationship between these three people, which makes Frankie’s ultimate decision painful and dramatically powerful. But the movie is not a polemic, and, as I said earlier, it does not insist that we agree with Frankie’s decision, or the conclusions drawn by Scrap (Morgan Freeman) about what kind of a man Frankie is as he describes him in a letter to Frankie’s estranged daughter Katy, or even to what degree Frankie is either damned or redeemed by that decision. Rutten makes the same mistake as the right-wing agenda thumpers when he decides that euthanasia is the film’s lofty theme. Of course, euthanasia is no more the “theme” of Eastwood’s film than the decision of Ethan Edwards to kill or not kill his own niece, who had been kidnapped and then assimilated into a violent Indian tribe, was the “theme” of The Searchers. It is, as Eastwood has asserted, the crossroads that his character, Frankie Dunn, finds himself at when Maggie asks him, the only person she feels close to in the world, to help her die, and what makes the necessity of the decision so emotionally harrowing is the groundwork of character that has been laid so artfully, so purposefully, so sensitively throughout the body of the film, a groundwork notably lacking, aside from a story told by Maggie that prefigures the “dark turn” of the plot that has so offended Medved and company, in portents and imagery relating to euthanasia.

A question I wish Rutten had elaborated on, one to which he alludes in his article but never directly addresses, would be exactly what he feels the function of a work of film art is. Given his complaint that no critic felt obliged to point out that the year’s two most provocative films, The Passion of the Christ and Fahrenheit 9/11 were essentially shut out of the Oscar party because they were propaganda and not art (a questionable assertion that makes me wonder if he read any of the many top ten lists published at year’s end by most film critics), he obviously doesn’t believe film need be instructional or propagandistic in order to qualify as art. But it seems that he thinks film critics must function at this level in order to honor their profession and the art they serve, and that consideration of sensitivity to what readers might value in that art should be superseded by a critical imperative that reduces the film writer to an extension of the lofty themes of the art work, in essence one who leads the flock to the trough and says, “There’s your dinner, this is what it is, now eat!" And he states that the real problem with revealing too much is that people will then be less likely to go out and see the movie, thus reducing criticism to a method of getting people in theater seats and not about getting ideas about specific films “into their heads.”

But surely Rutten believes that dissection of those ideas without regard to giving away too much is just another way of engaging a potential audience’s interest in the film in question (if not, then isn’t the practice of film criticism consigned to a peculiarly masturbatory vacuum?), and therefore similarly traffics in the methods of commerce to which he seems so adamantly against. The simple fact is, most people would probably prefer not to read a film review before seeing a film for the simple reason that, despite what Rutten stubbornly refuses to believe, they hold high value on preserving the experiencing of seeing a film with as few preconceived notions about it in their heads as possible, and that includes information about the film’s plot as well as an individual critic’s analysis and summation of its themes and assessment of how successfully they were employed. In reality, given the saturation of current pop culture with gossipy entertainment magazines dissecting every element of popular films, it’s very difficult for the average viewer not to pick up, through a kind of cultural osmosis, on information he or she would just as soon not know, which is why most audiences who have the desire but have yet to see Million Dollar Baby are probably aware if not of the specifics of the movie’s “dark turn,” then at least that there’s a point in the movie where the carpet is going to get pulled from underneath them. And even just that vague awareness is enough to provide distraction from the natural flow of the narrative and potentially curdle its effectiveness. I labeled Rutten’s argument as a perverse one earlier in this piece, and I did so partly because I think that, deep down, anyone who would suggest full disclosure when talking about narrative art to an audience unfamiliar with the work in question either just doesn’t understand the basic appeal of that art, or holds the indulgence in it with enough contempt that the act of “spoiling” becomes a pleasure of its own.

And finally, while we’re on the subject of divulging too much, I wonder why it is that, in the midst of an article devoted to denigrating critics who refrain from revealing too much of the film’s plot, Rutten at one point suddenly and mysteriously gets all shy himself when describing Million Dollar Baby’s crucial “dark turn” and decides to sidestep identifying exactly which character winds up quadriplegic and which one is asked to assist in her death. It’s a curious and inconsistent blip in Rutten’s argumentative technique that makes me wonder if he doesn’t secretly side with those who have fallen so short of their potential as critics after all and that his whole strange premise is the crux of an April Fool’s joke carried out about two months too early.

Rutten, the savvy media critic, ends his diatribe by asserting that somewhere in the midst of all this hemming and hawing over what serves a reader best in film criticism is “a misperception of responsibility and a fundamental mistrust of the readers masquerading as sensitivity.” Oh, what I wouldn’t give to know what the hell he’s talking about here. But unfortunately, the meat of his big finish is left twisting on the hook—no space left to waste hanging around to elaborate on that one, I suppose. Just what is this “mistrust of readers” that he alludes to? Exactly how would a critic go about mistrusting his readers? Perhaps by not expecting them to understand anything that isn’t spelled out for them by arrogant writers who assume they need the big themes of their movie art reiterated and spoon-fed to them rather than artfully approached through suggestion, allusion and the pleasures of language? If anything, the critic risks cultivating a mistrust in his readers if he can’t be expected to write honestly and with some measure of style about a film while at the same time preserving that aspect of the film-going experience that his audience, despite Rutten’s insistence to the contrary, are likely to value very highly in an age when every secret of every film’s production is fodder for tabloid TV shows. It seems to me fundamentally silly and, I’ll say it again, downright perverse not to salute writers who respect the experience of a work of art like Million Dollar Baby enough to encourage people to see it, or even discourage attendance by talking about its failings, without potentially undermining that experience for an audience. Mainstream film criticism has enough problems being perceived as irrelevant in an industry where publicists, junkets and entertainment beat reporters passing for film “reviewers” constantly blur the line between a studio’s marketing department and the independent voices who still believe that eloquently, evocative, critical writing still matters. I’m not sure what Rutten is ultimately calling for in his article, but it sounds disturbingly like film criticism as class syllabus to me—everything proceeding per the outline, lots of one-sided discussion, everyone finally coming to the same conclusions as proscribed by the professor. Why the Million Dollar secret? The mere posing of the question indicates that the teacher of this particular class might be putting too much stock in his skewed notions of art and its analysis, and not enough in the intuitive common sense of his students.

UPDATE 2/9/05: Film critic Henry Sheehan has checked in on the Tim Rutten/Million Dollar Baby article. You can read Sheehan's observations here.


Her favorite films are Trainspotting, West Side Story, Wings of Desire and Sleeper, among many others.

She would move heaven and earth to say hello to Ewan MacGregor.

Her iPod holds almost the entire collected works of U2, Radiohead, Tom Waits and Elvis Costello, as well as a most eclectic selection of a breadth of other artists.

She would move heaven and earth to say hello to Bono.

She has an amazing capacity for love and generosity, which my daughters and I benefit from daily.

She's the smartest person I know, in every way.

She's the most beautiful person I know, in every way.

She would move heaven and earth to give our daughters all the love we could possibly need.

And she does so daily.

She would move heaven and earth to give me all the love I could possibly need.

And she does so daily.

And yet she has no realistic handle on just how important she is, how loved she is, how special she is, how irreplaceable she is.

Is that her fault or ours?

I know that her answer to that question is the incorrect one.

I know that there is no else like her.

And I know that I'd be a wisp of smoke without her.

Happy birthday, my precious Patty.

I love you.

Monday, February 07, 2005

HOW I SPENT MY SUNDAY VACATION: Football, Big Breasts, Bigger Waves and a Promise to Do Better Tomorrow

Here it is, about 2:30 a.m., Sunday-- Excuse me, Monday morning-- and my daughter is gonna come knocking at my door in about five hours or less to boot me out of bed and into a new work week. So why am I still at the keyboard? This afternoon I got started writing on an idea that has been eating at me, trying to get out ever since I read the Saturday Los Angeles Times Calendar section yesterday morning. But Super Bowl Sunday intervened, and that's too much distraction for me to try and write with any success. Even though I'm not much of a football fan, I almost always stop down and watch on this day, if for no other reason than the good excuse it provides to invite the in-laws over for a day other than their usual Saturday visit, sit with everybody in the living room, paw at Wheat Thins and bean dip, pay attention to the game, and try not to pay too much attention to the heavily hyped ads.

I did see one, however, a parody of a senatorial censorship hearing in a spot for a web domain registration site called that was, perhaps, the most salacious and subversively funny satire I've seen on television in a while, perfectly placed before the half time show that would doggedly prove to be as noncontroversial as last year's tempest in a teacup was so disastrously otherwise. A lovely woman in a tank top insufficient to deal with her prodigious breasts sits before a government committee trying to convince them she's the right one to star in a commercial for, and in the midst of her pitch she has the wardrobe malfunction to end all wardrobe malfunctions-- one of the thin, thin shoulder straps on her top breaks, and she spends the duration of the ad attempting to hold her top up, her breasts threatening to tumble out at any second, while the aged senators purse their lips, gasp, and grasp for their oxygen masks. Finally, one perturbed, presumably mortified senator says, with a very straight face, "Ma'am, are you aware that you're upsetting the committee?" Amidst all the blackness of self-censorship and general FCC-inspired frigidity in the wake of Janet Jackson and Justin Timberlake's halftime nonevent-event last year, this was one of the bright spots, and it wouldn't have been half as funny or as pointed had it aired at any time other than exactly when it did.

Oh, yeah, the game was kinda sloppy, but it got very interesting there at the end, and would have been even more so if not for that fat lob of an on-side kick that the Eagles offered up to the Patriots in the last two minutes, and of course Donovan McNabb's final intercepted pass (he threw three) that proved to be the loud slam of the door on this year's NFL season. Don't get me wrong-- I'm not an Eagles fan, any more than I am a Patriots fan. I'm not a fan of the NFL at all, actually-- the first games I watched all season were the ones two weeks ago that got these teams to Jacksonville, Florida for today's overamplified spectacle. I just liked the drama of the final three minutes or so of this game and wanted to see it extended, no matter what team won. But now Tom Brady has Super Bowl trophy number three, and I guess McNabb still has his Campbell's Chunky Soup endorsement, along with the promise of next year to provide ample motivation.

As for me, I have only my memories of another misspent Sunday enjoying my beautiful girls to sustain me through the guilt of putting off my writing-- my youngest is very daddy-centric these days, which could change at any moment, so I'm soaking it up while I can. And, of course, there was the leftover bean dip to put in the refrigerator before it transmogrified into something even more unspeakable than the form that it bore when the vacuum seal on its container was first popped. But all that's taken care of now, I've finished my other work-- you know, the kind for which I actually get paid-- and now I'm just noodling around, turning over ideas in my head for the big piece that I promise will get finished and posted tomorrow, trying to type off the effects of that 16 oz. Diet Rockstar energy drink I quaffed about two hours ago. (That stuff is a little bit of liquid magic, but annoying as hell at a moment like this one.)

But before I go, a tip of the hat to my friend Doug who, without solicitation of any kind, lent me the DVD of Stacy Peralta's Riding Giants last week. Peralta is the director of another documentary you may have heard of, about the origins of the Venice skateboarding scene, called Dogtown and Z-Boys. That movie was energetic, engaging and showcased a roster of interesting characters, but since Peralta was one of them, and the movie documented, as part of its story, his connections to the business end of this now-huge empire and its mythology, it ended up with an inescapably self-aggrandizing edge that took the shine off of the fun for me. Riding Giants documents another history, that of the surfing movement that began in Hawaii and migrated to California, and back again to Hawaii, and it is a stunning well-made and exhilarating ride. Peralta uses extensive footage shot by these surfers in the 50s and 60s-- it's amazing, and fortunate for Peralta and us, that these guys were so self-aware and took so much 16mm film of themselves-- and augments it with hilarious and vivid interviews featuring seminal figures like Greg Noll and Jeff Clark, two guys who may have known they were pioneers of sorts, but did not surf because they were breaking ground (or waves), but because they needed to, because they had to, because they finally simply didn't know what else to do.

The movie follows the sport's development-- men catching waves previously thought to be unsurvivable, and the inevitable tragedy that followed (the drowning loss of well-known surfer Greg Yoo)-- through to its modern "extreme" incarnation at the hands of men like Laird Hamilton, and it comes as close as I would think possible to translating and making understandable the obsessive core of the surfing lifestyle to someone like myself, who has trouble staying upright getting out of the bathtub. Peralta uses computer-enhanced imagery that turns some of the incredible photography of these men and the waves they conquer into dioramas that the camera weaves into and through, at times giving the movie a kind of heady disorientation, a palpable approximation of being on the water, and a more visceral appreciation of the physics and the grandeur of what it is these guys are doing. But even the conventionally shot footage is dynamically assembled, with a keen and incredible sense of the geography of landscapes that are never still, always undulating, changing shape.

I was grateful for Peralta's giving what is essentially a straightforward chronology the kind of energy he does through simple enthusiasm and conviction. And he's lucky that his interview subjects convey the same qualities-- every time Noll pops on screen, for instance, is a profane delight, and the movie's already substantial energy spikes. Riding Giants knows its subject can hold its own and serves it well, and it never devolves into the kind of wacky anecdotal diversions that ended up derailing last year's sporadically fascinating but far less successful Step Into Liquid. Peralta's movie is the real deal, steeped in reverence for the sport, but also an appreciation of the slightly cracked sense of propulsive grandeur that seems common amongst all these men. It also has, for a movie that has as one of its interview subjects the blowhard film director John Milius, who immortalized his own obsession with surfing in his film Big Wednesday, a blessed sense of perspective-- it never tries to sell you on its protagonists as misunderstood seekers of spiritual truth or wisdom gained by skimming down the face of a 30-foot curl. But the vision of these guys tackling these great moving mountains of water speaks for itself; the overwhelming sensory experience Riding Giants offers in these moments clarifies rational fears about nature but also allows for the possibility of the kind of unarticulated enlightenment that may be, for some, integral to why they challenge the waves, fully knowing the dangers, but also knowing the potential each new one offers.