Tuesday, January 31, 2006


UPDATED 1/31/06 12:19pm: Blaaagh has noted that I left Adam Baldwin off my list of pleasurable performances for his work in Serenity. That oversight has been corrected...

UPDATED 1/31/06 9:42 am: Click on the link to see how my Oscar guesses matched up with the actual list.

As I begin writing this post, we're about eight hours away from the announcement of the nominations for the 78th annual Academy Awards. In the days before the dawning of the age of the Internet, I would probably be in bed by now. Because back then I actually had to get up-- actually looked forward to getting up-- at 5:30 a.m. to watch on TV as the nominations were announced by the likes of Arthur Hiller or Frank Pierson or Robert Rehme and whoever it was that won the Best Supporting Actress the previous year (this year, Mighty Aphrodite herself, Mira Sorvino, returns, accompanied by current AMPAS president Sid Ganis). I'd then have to wait until a late edition of something called a newspaper, or perhaps even the next morning's early edition, before a list of the nominations would be available, and then only major papers like the Los Angeles Times, The New York Times or one of the trade papers, like The Hollywood Reporter could be relied upon to provide an accurate and truly complete list.

Of course, in these more enlightened times (and in case the link didn't completely sell it, I was trying to be ironic), the Internet provides instant access to the complete roster of nominees straight from Oscar's mouth. So, alas, no more need to get up even earlier than my rambunctious daughters just to hear the vaunted press gasp and applaud, as if they never would have guessed they'd have heard it, when Heath Ledger's name is announced. And oh, how I'll miss hearing breathless junket whore Sam Rubin and whoever KTLA has chosen to chirp alongside him as they ramble on and on about their own knee-jerk reactions to those who made the final five and those who did not, warming up for when they can really cut loose and embarrass themselves properly on the red carpet during the Oscar pre-show, and filling precious pre-dawn minutes that could instead be devoted to agricultural reports and who's coming to visit Aunt Tillie on the farm in Santa Monica this weekend. But maybe, just maybe, I won't even think about all this tomorrow morning, as I luxuriate in the precious couple of hours of sleep I would have lost had I gotten up to catch the Oscar nominations the old skool way.

So instead, I thought I'd make some 11th-hour predictions for the acting and directing categories, based on nothing so scientific or inside as the methods undoubtedly employed by Entertainment Weekly as they have methodically pored over and updated their own predictions leading up to tomorrow morning. (I'm pretty sure these pop culture gatekeepers started predicting this year's winners sometime mid-Governor's Ball, just after the conclusion of last year's ceremony.) No, where EW has computers and panels of experts and reams of insider information, I have only my own (quite prodigious) gut to rely upon. This year's abdominal resonations have been a whole lot less distinct than ever before, owing to the fact that the crop of movies undoubtedly waiting to be lionized by the Academy this year hold much less interest for me as a whole-- A History of Violence is likely to have minimal representation among the nominees, but I'm not holding my breath in anticipation of anyone from 2046, Kung Fu Hustle, Grizzly Man or The Ice Harvest making waves tomorrow morning (King Kong will make its roar known, but only from the back of the room, where the Academy sticks all the technical award nominees.) And the one movie that I admire almost without reservation-- Good Night, and Good Luck, which I finally saw this past Friday night, and which I would retroactively place fourth on my Top 22 list-- will surely be nominated, but will likely end up the most recognizable body crushed under the speeding locomotive that is Brokeback Mountain. Where Brokeback looks weakest is, ironically, in its most high-profile category-- Best Actor. Until this past weekend, I would have be the sheep herd on Heath Ledger's chances to go all the way to the podium. But given the way the Screen Actors Guild awards shook out this past weekend-- no love for Ledger, much love for Philip Seymour Hoffman's portrayal of Truman Capote-- I have a feeling either Hoffman's Oscar's man this year or, in a situation where Ledger and Hoffman split off enough votes, David Straithairn, unflappable and awesome (in an admittedly less complex role than either of the other two) as Edward. R. Murrow, might be the beneficiary of some Oscar glory.

Here I am talking like I already know who's nominated and, of course, I don't. But I am willing to step out, risk looking stupid, and perhaps even fatally damage my street cred with the Access Hollywood crowd by taking a series of ridiculous wild guesses in these final hours. So, without any further fuss and muss, here's where I pin the donkey's tail on the six picture, actor, actress and director categories before the 78th Academy Award nominations are announced tomorrow morning.

Brokeback Mountain
Good Night, and Good Luck

George Clooney, Good Night, and Good Luck
Ang Lee, Brokeback Mountain
Paul Haggis, Crash
Terence Malick, The New World
Bennett Miller, Capote

Dame Judi Dench, Mrs. Henderson Presents
Felicity Huffman, Transamerica
Keira Knightley, Pride and Prejudice
Naomi Watts, King Kong
Reese Witherspoon, Walk the Line

Philip Seymour Hoffman, Capote
Terrence Howard, Hustle and Flow
Heath Ledger, Brokeback Mountain
Joaquin Phoenix, Walk the Line
David Straithairn, Good Night, and Good Luck

Maria Bello, A History of Violence
Diane Keaton, The Family Stone
Catherine Keener, Capote
Rachel Weisz, The Constant Gardener
Michelle Williams, Brokeback Mountain

George Clooney, Syriana
Paul Giamatti, Cinderella Man
Matt Dillon, Crash
Terrence Howard, Crash
Donald Sutherland, Pride and Prejudice


Okay, now that that filthy business has been taken care of, it's time to invoke the spirit of Siskbert and revisit those same categories, only inserting the names of the pictures, actors, actresses and directors I would include If Only I Nominated the Academy Awards...

A History of Violence
Good Night, and Good Luck
Kung Fu Hustle
The Ice Harvest

* I have bound myself by Academy rules and included only those movies that could actually be nominated in the respective categories. Therefore Los Angeles Plays Itself, number two on my year-end list, would not receive a nomination because it never received an official release, either last year or any year since its copyrighted date of 2003; also, Grizzly Man, number five on my list, would be in my hypothetical Best Documentary category, Tropical Malady-- retroactively, #6-- would be in the Best Foreign Film category, and Wallace & Gromit and the Curse of the Were-rabbit (the actual #6) would head up the short roster in the Best Animated Film category.

Kate Dollenmayer, Funny Ha-Ha
Rachel McAdams, Red Eye
Naomi Watts, King Kong
Reese Witherspoon Walk the Line
Ziyi Zhang, 2046

Johnny Depp, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory
Min-sik Choi, Oldboy
Philip Seymour Hoffman, Capote
Viggo Mortenson, A History of Violence
David Straithairn, Good Night, and Good Luck

Maria Bello, A History of Violence
Kerry Condon, Unleashed
Catherine Keener, Capote
Gena Rowlands, The Skeleton Key
Faye Wong, 2046

Clifton Collins, Jr., Capote
Ralph Fiennes, Wallace & Gromit and the Curse of the Were-rabbit
Oliver Platt, The Ice Harvest
Andy Serkis, King Kong
Mathieu Amalric, Munich

Stephen Chow, Kung Fu Hustle
George Clooney, Good Night, and Good Luck
David Cronenberg, A History of Violence
Werner Herzog, Grizzly Man
Wong Kar Wai, 2046

And now finally, in the waning hours before there is instituted an official embargo on talk of anything released in 2005 that is not on the Academy's invite card to the Kodak Theater, I just wanted to take a moment to remember one last time the names of the actors, some renowned, some unknown, who gave me pleasure at the cinema in the past year. These were almost all folks who stood not a chance in hell of being recognized by such an august body as the Academy, yet the moments and performances they gave to me, to us, last year were every bit as good and fully rounded and lived-in and exciting, sometimes even more so, than the ones given by the nominees whose names will be announced in about five and a half hours. They were (in no appreciable order whatsoever):

Tony Leung, Gong Li 2046

Ed Harris, Asthon Holmes, William Hurt, A History of Violence

George Clooney, Frank Langella, Ray Wise, Good Night, and Good Luck

Stephen Chow, Kwok Kuen Chen, Qui Yuen, Siu-Lung Leung, Zhi Hua Dong, Kung Fu Hustle

Helena Bonham Carter, Peter Sallis and the entire voice cast of Wallace & Gromit and the Curse of the Were-rabbit

Banlop Lomnoi, Sakda Kaewbuadee, Tropical Malady

John Cusack, T.J. Jagodowski, Connie Nielsen, Bill Noble, Randy Quaid, Mike Starr, Billy Bob Thornton, The Ice Harvest

Jack Black, Adrian Brody, Thomas Kretschmann, King Kong

Andrew Bujalski, Funny Ha-Ha

Brady Corbet, Joseph Gordon-Leavitt, Mysterious Skin

Eric Bana, Lynn Cohen, Daniel Craig, Ciaran Hinds, Mathieu Kassovitz, Geoffrey Rush, Ayelet Zorer, Munich

Morgan Freeman, Bob Hoskins, Jet Li, Unleashed

Bradley Cooper, Rebecca De Mornay, Isla Fisher, Henry Gibson, Rachel McAdams, Vince Vaughn, Christopher Walken, Owen Wilson, Dwight Yoakam, Wedding Crashers

Elizabeth Banks, Gerry Bednob, Steve Carell, Catherine Keener, Kat Dennings, Jane Lynch, Romany Malco, Shelley Malil, Leslie Mann, Seth Rogen, Paul Rudd, The 40-Year-Old Virgin

Christian Bale, Michael Caine, Morgan Freeman, Rutger Hauer, Katie Holmes, Gus Lewis, Cillian Murphy, Liam Neeson, Gary Oldman, Linus Roache, Ken Watanabe, Tom Wilkinson, Batman Begins

Hank Azaria, Shelley Berman, Mario Cantone, George Carlin, Pat Cooper, Wayne Cotter, Phyllis Diller, Susie Essman, Carrie Fisher, Gilbert Gottfried, Dana Gould, Dom Irrera, Paul Krassner, Cathy Ladman, Merrill Markoe, Michael McKean, Martin Mull, Taylor Negron, Trey Parker, Don Rickles, Bob Saget, Sarah Silverman, Matt Stone, larry Storch, The Aristocrats

Jayma Mays, Cillian Murphy, Red Eye

Helena Bonham Carter, James Fox, David Kelly, Freddie Highmore, Christopher Lee, Missi Pyle, Deep Roy, Noah Taylor, Philip Wiegratz, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory

Ginnifer Goodwin, Shelby Lynne, Robert Patrick, Joaquin Phoenix, Dallas Roberts, Walk the Line

Ralph Fiennes, Danny Huston, Bill Nighy, Gerard McSorley, Rachel Weisz, The Constant Gardener

Morena Bacarrin, Adam Baldwin, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Nathan Fillion, Ron Glass, Summer Glau, Jewel Staite, Alan Tudyk, Serenity

Micahel Angarano, Bruce Campbell, Dave Foley, Cloris Leachman, Kevin MacDonald, Danielle Panabaker, Kelly Preston, Kurt Russell, Steven Strait, Kelly Vitz, Mary Elizabeth Winstead, Sky High

Tobin Bell, Glenn Plummer, Shawnee Smith, Mark Wahlberg, Saw II

Nicole E. Bradley, Bill Chott, Brian Cox, Leonard Flowers, Katherine Heigl, Johnny Knoxville, Jed Rees, The Ringer

Brad Pitt, Angelina Jolie, Vince Vaughn, Mr. and Mrs. Smith

Dakota Fanning, War of the Worlds

Mos Def, Zooey Deschanel, Martin Freeman, Stephen Fry, John Malkovich, Helen Mirren, Bill Nighy, Alan Rickman, Sam Rockwell, The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy

Maria Bello, Gabriel Byrne, Drea de Matteo, Brian Dennehy, Laurence Fishburne, Ethan Hawke, Aisha Hinds, John Leguizamo, Assault on Precinct 13

Jessica Alba, Michael Ciklis, Chris Evans, Ioan Gruffudd, Julian McMahon, Fantastic Four

Nicole Abisinio, Jessica Lange, Jennifer Rapp, Sharon Stone, Jeffrey Wright, Broken Flowers

Maxine Barnett, Kate Hudson, John Hurt, Peter Sarsgaard, The Skeleton Key

Jessica Alba, Jude Ciccolella, Rosario Dawson, Benicio Del Toro, Carla Gugino, Jaime King, Clive Owen, Mickey Rourke, Nick Stahl, Bruce Willis, Elijah Wood, Sin City

Sasha Baron Cohen, Madagascar

Barry Corbin, Lynda Carter, Johnny Knoxville, Seann William Scott, Jessica Simpson, Willie Nelson, The Dukes of Hazzard

Georgie Hensley, Tilda Swinton, The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe

The Handsome Family, Jim White, Searching for the Wrong-Eyed Jesus

Michael Berryman, Ken Foree, William Forsythe, Sid Haig, Bill Moseley, P.J. Soles, The Devil's Rejects

Matt Dillon, Lindsay Lohan, Herbie: Fully Loaded

Jim Broadbent, John Cleese, Tim Curry, Ricky Gervais, Hugh Laurie, Ewan McGregor, Valiant

Steve Buscemi, Djimon Hounsou, Scarlett Johansson, Ewan McGregor, Shawnee Smith, The Island

Jason Statham, Transporter 2

Brendan Gleeson, Eva Green, Liam Neeson, Edward Norton, Alexander Siddig, David Thewlis, Kingdom of Heaven

Asia Argento, Eugene Clark, Land of the Dead

Diane Keaton, Rachel McAdams, Craig T. Nelson, Sarah Jessica Parker, Luke Wilson, The Family Stone

Tony Jaa, Ong Bak: The Thai Warrior

Jennifer Tilly, Saint Ralph

Ian McDiarmid, Ewan McGregor, Star Wars Episode III: Revenge of the Sith

And finally, in the year's worst movie, Duane "The Rock" Johnson, for bursting through a wall and uttering the year's most belabored tough-guy punch line ("Semper Fi, motherfucker!"), and Rosamund Pike, for exhibiting perhaps the worst, least convincing screams of terror ever heard in a "major motion picture," that MMP being, of course, Doom-- she sounds exactly like one of John Travolta's rejects in Blow Out, and you too, like Jack Terry in that film, will want to cover your ears.

UPDATED 1/31/06 9:42 am: Click on the link to see how my Oscar guesses matched up with the actual list.

Monday, January 30, 2006

THE FRIGHT CONNECTION, or How A Snarling Wolf and a Big "Gotcha!" Led To A Perfect Day

One of the most thrilling things about being a parent is seeing a new character trait emerge in one of your children that you can directly link to your own sensibility. I have many wonderful memories of taking both of my girls to the movies-- my oldest was just four months old when the missus and I took her with us in 2000 to the late, lamented Azusa Foothill Drive-in to see Mission: Impossible 2-- her very first visit to a cinema. She was not quite one year old when I took her to see Shrek indoors -- she hung in there for about an hour and then fell asleep, at which point we snuck out. And we had our first real father-daughter bonding experience at a movie when we saw Monsters, Inc. together for the first of what would be three times for her in a theater (I stopped counting when she received the DVD). Somewhere in the middle of the adventures of Mike and Sulley, my daughter reached up, hugged me around the neck and kissed me, then went back to watching the movie, as if to say, "Thanks, Dad, for bringing me here." I knew then that, whether she became a cinephile or not, going to the movies would still be something special for her, and maybe something that would provide a fond and lasting connection with dear old Dad as she got older and way too big to sit on my lap anymore.

The first real movie my youngest sat through with me, however, came in late 2004, when I took the two of them to see The Incredibles. A friend who was also there expressed amazement to me later that she could sit still for such a relatively long movie (two hours) and be obviously enjoying it, following along with it. But it was Pixar, after all-- no lack of wonderful things to see there, no matter what your level of life experience. I was just worried it might be too loud or scary for her, but even at just over two years of age I guess I needn't have worried about her at all.

There have been several since, most notably our return to see Charlie and the Chocolate Factory together in a hardtop, after having had to leave the drive-in early the previous week because my oldest got a little freaked out at seeing Augustus Gloop take that chocolate dive and get stuck in a gigantic vacuum tube. The movie's perversities and various levels of creepiness were lost on her-- she just liked the candy colors and the music ("Willy Wonka/Willy Wonka/The amazing chocolatier...") and the oversized wonder of the whole image-and-sound thing.

This afternoon I finally found the time to sneak away with my youngest daughter, age three, to a matinee of The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. What I'd read about Narnia suggested that there were some potentially scary images and some loud action sequences, and my wife had never supported the idea of the little one seeing it at all. Not much need to worry about whether or not it would be appropriate for our oldest-- she proclaimed her desire not to see it loudly and clearly, at every opportunity. In fact, she is still shaking off the effects of Wallace & Gromit and the Curse of the Were-rabbit, as genial and gentle a horror parody as has ever been made, but one in which she immersed herself in the trappings of the films being lampooned, taking at face value the "scary" conventions that older children might at least be able to accept in the context in which the Aardman Animation film offered them. (On the other hand, the little one saw it twice and loved it.)

Finally, my youngest repeatedly expressed enough interest in Narnia that my wife's resistance broke down, the implicit caveat being that if it was too frightening for her I would hustle her right out of the auditorium. So the two of us headed to our local movie emporium right after a (very) late breakfast. We arrived to a darkened theater, the Disney logo already on screen, made our way to our seats. It didn't take long for us to settle in and begin munching popcorn, my arm tucked around her right side, her pony-tailed head tucked under my arm, as we enjoyed the suspenseful build-up to the Pevensie children's discovery of that snowy world at the back of the professor's wardrobe. My daughter was enthralled; I was less so-- I thought the movie competently made, but too generically imagined to sweep me away. Director Andrew Adamson's imagery doesn't pop off the screen or seduce you with lush grandeur and lurid landscapes surging with evil, the way Peter Jackson's Lord of the Rings films (Narnia's obvious influence and raison d'etre) do as a simple matter of course. Besides, there was far more at stake for me in seeing her reactions to the movie's moments of loudness and children in peril than there was in whether or not I thought the movie itself was a complete success.

But today, during Narnia, came one of those parental moments that made my heart soar, one that really connected me with my daughter, one where a special character trait seemed to pop up out of nowhere, like a roadside sign that assures a driver that he or she is not lost. And my daughter has no idea that it even occurred. There is a sequence where Edmund Pevensie, the boy who will betray his brother and sisters to the White Witch, is creeping through what appears to be a desolate, snowbound garden of statues, granite figures posed in various stages of battle and configurations of distress. The music hits all the right sustained notes and chords as the camera tracks Edmund making his way through this strange and inexplicable museum.

Then, midway through vaulting over what he (and we) takes to be a large rock, the audience is treated to a very effective "gotcha!" moment as the rock turns out to be the hunched figure of a very scary wolf, one of the White Witch's secret police, who leaps toward Edmund (and out toward us in the audience as well), snarling a murderous, meat-eating snarl, read to rip and tear away at Edmund's young flesh. The "gotcha!" made both my daughter and I jump several inches back and out of our seats, and it immediately occurred to me that I didn't ever remember seeing her have that visceral a reaction to a movie before-- most of the stuff she routinely sees at home is pretty genteel. So I turned to her, ready to be the concerned father and head her toward the exit. But before I could say anything, she looked up at me and said, "That scared me!" And then I noticed she was grinning. And then I heard she was laughing. And then I knew that this truly was my daughter, and that I loved her so much more than I could understand, and I began to hope that someday she and I would be looking at scary movies together and laughing as our hearts got caught in throats time and time again.

We left the theater, and my daughter was beaming with excitement, as if she understood on some level that she'd just seen something with a little more meat on it, in terms of what it required of her as a viewer, and what it put her through too, than anything she'd yet seen in her very young movie-going life. As we walked underneath the stained-glass dome that caps the courtyard entryway to the multiplex where we'd just seen The Chronicles of Narnia, my youngest daughter, whom I was carrying, put her arms around my neck, gave me a kiss and said, "That was fun! Thanks, Daddy, for taking me to the movies." I had to choke back more than one tear as I told her how glad I was that she wanted to come. We stood looking up through the dome, marveling at the colors and patterns, and it occurred to me that this had become a perfect day.


Last year I implored the Almighty to rain down blessings upon film critic Matt Zoller Seitz of the New York Press for being one of the only critics I knew of to sing the praises of Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy on his year-end "best" list. This year I'm again grateful to Seitz, this time for his new blog, The House Next Door, an excellent addition to anyone's daily reading list. In particular, his enthusiasm for Terrence Malick's The New World has, to use his imagery, really poured some gasoline on the smoldering fire of my interest in the film, as well as thrown light on some pretty intriguing conversation about the movie and just how much critical respect this movie seems to be building.

Seitz declares, in his "Just Beautiful" post, that The New World "is this era’s 2001: A Space Odyssey — a musical-philosophical-pictorial charting of history’s slipstream and the individual’s role within it... It is nothing less than a generation-defining event. When your descendants ask you to describe the popular art called movies, this is one of the titles they'll ask about."

That, to me, is walking out on a limb, critically speaking, with only your real convictions to gird that limb, inviting real discussion, and perhaps derision from those who would dismiss the reaction as an emotional oversell. But, to look a the list of smart writers that Seitz provides in the "One World" post who have written eloquently about Malick's film, it appears he's not as alone as all that after all. Not that it would matter if he was, though. Seitz's fervor for The New World exemplifies the kind of criticism that I think is most valuable-- he makes infectious the power of his experience and articulates it with uncommon eloquence and a reliable foundation of close familiarity with the history of film. And he does so without feeling the need to denigrate other works or attempts at artistic expression in the process.

One of the common traps that dog film critics, especially when they first start out (and especially during those periods when there's not much good cinema to consider in the first place), is that writing about what you like is often harder than dashing off some smart-ass remarks about a film that may not even be worth getting angry or frustrated over. I've rediscovered, in writing on my own blog, the joy of expressing enthusiasm for a work and articulating how it goes about doing what it does, something that was always much more difficult for me to do than delineating just how a film failed to work. Of course, expressing the worth of a great film is a much more fulfilling achievement as well, for the reader and the writer, especially when the writer gets it right. And even before having seen The New World myself, I can tell that Seitz has, for himself, gotten this one right. Before reading his review and the subsequent pieces he's posted on his blog, the film was much further down on my list of must-sees. In fact, based on my rather indifferent response to Malick's The Thin Red Line, I had even thought that it would't be so bad if I missed it in theaters and instead caught up with it on DVD. (An asinine thought, I know-- good, bad or indifferent, Malick's movies demand to be seen theatrically.) But having witnessed just how moved Seitz was by the film, through his expressive talent as a film critic, I'm now fully excited to get to a big screen and then join in the discussion about The New World myself. I don't know what my own reaction will be, but I can guess that even if it's closer to how I felt about The Thin Red Line than my appreciation for Days of Heaven, I'll still have had a more enriching time than anyone who sat through Big Momma's House 2 this past weekend. Who says film critics can't make a difference? Who says film criticism is irrelevant? Not me. Critics like Seitz put the lie to those presumptions with almost every column. I look forward to following his thoughts throughout the year, and I hope you will too.

Thursday, January 26, 2006


UPDATED 1/30/06 2:26 pm: Over at Dodger Thoughts, Jon Weisman joins in the chorus celebrating Charles Lane's birthday and cites his favorite moment from Lane's multitude of TV and movie appearances.


My apologies for posting this item so late in the day, but I have to pass along reader Snake Plissken’s “hijacking” this evening of the comments thread for “Tropical Malady and the Tiger in the Wind.” Snake dropped this happy shocker on SLIFR at around 6:00 p.m. PST:

“I absolutely must note that the legendary character actor MR. CHARLES LANE IS 101 today.

You will recognize this man from about a million (give or take a few hundred thousand) movies and TV shows from the 50s through the 90s. He's played the crotchety old SOB in almost everything you've EVER seen. You grew up with him. Unlike your gin-soaked, cookware-flinging parents, he's ALWAYS been there for you. If you're over the age of 40 (give or take a few), Mr. Lane's image is in your brain almost as indelibly as Dig-Em the Sugar Smacks frog or Bobby Sherman's black choker.

I just had to mark this major milestone. One-hundred-and-one freaking years on this earth, for crying out loud!

Congratulations, Charles Lane! Here's looking forward to another 101!”

Snake is right on the money: Charles Lane is about as ubiquitous and recognizable a “skinny, hatchet-faced, bespectacled” American character actor in television as there has ever been. (Description courtesy of those sensitive souls over at IMDb.) For those of our age group (that increasingly undesirable demographic that casts its net anywhere from the late 30s to the early 50s), the television shows of our youth just would not have been the same without the presence of the forever crotchety Lane, who played almost every known variety of family lawyer, prosecutor, process server, bank manager or cantankerous CEO that could possibly have been played, on, without much exaggeration, almost every TV show that ever aired. Take a look at the shows on which Lane appeared as a guest character (many of them multiple times): The Real McCoys, Perry Mason, The Lucy/Desi Comedy Hour, The Bob Cummings Show, I Love Lucy, Maverick, Mister Ed, Dennis the Menace, The Lucy Show, 77 Sunset Strip, Make Room for Daddy, Petticoat Junction, The Andy Griffith Show, Get Smart, Honey West, F Troop, Gomer Pyle USMC, Judd for the Defense, Green Acres, The Flying Nun, The Debbie Reynolds Show, The Beverly Hillbillies, Nanny and the Professor, Bewitched, Temperatures Rising, The Odd Couple, The Rookies, Rhoda, One Day at a Time, Chico and the Man, Maude, Soap, Mork and Mindy, Lou Grant, Hunter, St. Elsewhere and L.A. Law. He also appeared in the popular TV movie Sybil.

And that’s just the TV stuff. As increased exposure to classic American films will have revealed to anyone who was paying attention, Charles Lane’s 40-year TV career came after he’d already been acting in films for 20-some years, in much the same size and type of role with which he would become so familiar on the tube. He played hotel desk clerks and luggage room clerks in his first six films, moving up to “Shoe Salesman” (uncredited) in Employees’ Entrance (1933). He also had uncredited bit parts in 42nd Street (1933) and Golddiggers of 1933 (1933). His first credit in a “major” motion picture came in Howard Hawks’ Twentieth Century (1934), where he appeared on screen as Charles Levinson—and his character had, for one of the first times, a name instead of a job description (Max Jacobs).

Lane would appear in over 200 movies between 1933 and 1954, when he first appeared on television, and though a lot of them were programmers of little note, a bunch of them were considerably more than that. Peel your eyes and you’ll recognize Lane in not only Twentieth Century, but also Mr. Deeds Goes to Town (1936), You Can't Take It With You (1938), Mr. Smith Goes To Washington 1939), Arsenic and Old Lace (1944), It's A Wonderful Life (1946) and State of the Union (1948) for director Frank Capra, as well as I Wake Up Screaming (1941; H. Bruce Humberstone), Tarzan's New York Adventure (1942; Richard Thorpe), Ball of Fire (1941; Howard Hawks), The Farmer's Daughter (1947; H.C. Potter), Call Northside 777 (1948; Henry Hathaway), Mighty Joe Young (1949; Ernest B. Schoedsack) and I Can Get It For You Wholesale (1951; Michael Gordon). And even after he’d established himself as a reliable character player in the early days of television, he kept on appearing in feature films like It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World (1963; Stanley Kramer), John Goldfarb, Please Come Home (1965; J. Lee Thompson), The Ghost and Mr. Chicken (1966; Alan Rafkin), The Gnome-mobile (1967; Robert Stevenson), Get To Know Your Rabbit (1972; Brian De Palma), Movie Movie (1978; Stanley Donen), and two well regarded revisionist horror films in the mid-80s for director Michael Laughlin (and soon-to-be Oscar-winning screenwriter/director Bill Condon), Strange Behavior (1981) and its follow-up, Strange Invaders (1983). And though I would have sworn he did before looking at his extensive credits, Lane never did appear in any of the Disney/Medfield College/Dexter Riley series of sci-fi comedies, such as The Absent-Minded Professor, Son of Flubber or The Strongest Man in the World. His last appearance in a movie or television show came, however, in 1995, in a remake of the first Kurt Russell/Dexter Riley comedy hit, The Computer Wore Tennis Shoes.

All that said, I can do little more than join Snake and the multitude of others who may not know Lane by name, but who certainly know him by his (hatchet-faced or, if your prefer, as I do, angular) mug, in wishing him all the best on his 101st birthday. Mr. Lane, you’re the face of small-minded bureaucracy to many of us, but I’d wager you were a whole lot more to those who were honored to know and work with you over your long and impressive career. May you indeed see the ripe old age of 202.

(And thanks, Snake, for pointing out Mr. Lane’s birthday to me and all of us. This must be what it’s like to have a stringer! And you’re getting paid as much to be one for SLIFR as I ever was when I did it occasionally in radio. That’s called the big time, sir!)

Wednesday, January 25, 2006

TROPICAL MALADY and the Tiger in the Wind

The Santa Ana winds have been raging in Los Angeles this week, looking for trouble, roaming the Basin like a restless beast, toppling trucks and tearing off roofs with almost instinctual abandon. On the freeway one morning a day or so ago, I moved along at a somewhat slower speed, my hands grasping the wheel a little more firmly than usual, buffeted by air blasts from both sides. The big gust, unexpected, of course, and shocking, lifted the minivan slightly, the weight of the vehicle's body rising off and rocking on the suspension system. Though the wheels likely never left the ground, it felt as though I would surely be upended by the air velocity equivalent of a body slam from a 300-pound line defender. The winds never really stopped, and they only gained in insistence and fury as the sun went down. From my office desk, I could hear mysterious, loose sections of the building continually crashing, helplessly caught in the jaws of the beast, as evening became nighttime, became morning. On the slow drive home, the city still in darkness, I dodged debris on the road and watched from behind the wheel as leaves and branches and trash swirled and lifted off into the star-dotted black. And as I arrived in my driveway, I had to wonder if I wasn't finally hallucinating slightly from a too-long workday. Was that really a gigantic branch torn free from the oversized tree along the north end of our house, fallen (harmlessly) to rest in our front lawn, the wounded end still propped up against the trunk of which it was once a part, the branches fanned out on the lawn looking like God's own leafy-green feather duster? (I wasn't, and it was.)

The next evening saw no relief from the drying, chaffing, noisy gusts, but there was a brief respite from work-- a good time, as it turned out, to settle in and begin catching up with some of the past year's films that had still managed to elude me. First on the list: Apichatpong Weerasethakul's Tropical Malady, a languid, lovely and unadorned romance that accumulates a quiet power almost by sleight of hand. In telling the story of Keng, a Thai soldier (effectively, a forest ranger on a fire watch crew) and his growing fondness for Tong, an aimless, slightly ethereal young man who works at an ice factory, the director teases out layers of sensory meaning and texture from a dense, invigorated Bangkok and its rural surroundings through which his protagonists meander as they while away summer days talking and laughing and slowly falling in love. There's a barely hinted-at mysticism underlying the lazy days that pass between these two, which, at first, seems almost found. They eat, talk, play and imagine a future together, and the first half of the movie has a seductive ordinariness about it; it sparks you to wonder how long Weerasethakul intends to keep these balls in the air before one inevitably drops onto the dusty street. But then the two encounter a cheerful woman who tells them a parable of a young monk, two roadside travelers and rocks that turn to gold and silver, and then invites them along to explore with her the darkest recesses of a open cavern. She tells them stories, which may or may not be true, about past explorations of the cavern ending in suffocation and other fearful experiences. The soldier is seized with an inexplicable fear, born not of claustrophobia but instead something far less tangible, which prevents him from proceeding.

That fear is also a prefiguring of the strange turn the movie will soon take-- the folkloric mysticism, which has been up till now quietly pulsating under the movie's lush surface, takes center stage when Tong literally disappears into the thick night and Keng, who has taken to the jungle in search of him, comes to believe Tong may in fact be the incarnation of a shape-shifting Khmer shaman responsible for the disappearance of cattle and some villagers. Tropical Malady surrenders its second hour to Keng's search, a near-wordless submersion into the dense, wet, living texture of that jungle which brings him closer to the sensually mysterious object of his pursuit, and to a aching, primal version of himself. The jungle not only cloaks the beast, it's a living system that facilitates the beast's hidden movements through the very fiber of its harsh environment-- through the mud, the rain, and the pounding, swirling, wind-swept trees that seem to bear up both pursuer and pursued toward a fateful meeting charged with eroticism, fear and divine magic. Weerasethakul's unwavering conviction, his sureness of purpose as the movie glides effortlessly from the casually observational to the sublimely insinuating and ineffable, is genuinely awesome. The director conjures drama from encouraging the viewer to reach back and draw connections between the parable of the monk, Tong's own increasingly tactile, nonverbal presence, and Keng's desperate desire not only to reconnect with the man he loves, but for that man to be something else, to have taken a step into another consciousness that he may be too afraid to make himself. As Keng moves closer to his mystical encounter, underneath trees that move and wave and twist, inspired by an insistent, perhaps sinister wind, it's easy to get caught up in the soldier's heightened, breathless awareness of every sound, every tiny creature (often ones found sucking blood from his calves), every leaf brushing up against his muddied face.

I could hear the giant willow trees surrounding my house being whipped and tormented mercilessly by the Santa Anas as I became entranced by the last hour of Tropical Malady, and if ever there were a perfect confluence of nature and art, home theater-style, this was it. While Weerasethakul's jungle vibrated and pulsated off my big screen, and through my speaker system, the howling of wind and concurrent loud rustling outside, augmented by my memory of that fallen branch and the fear that more might soon come crashing down, made for the most spectacular, and strangely mournful, 6.1 surround sound experience in my recent memory. I thought of those that have gone missing from my life and allowed myself to believe, as Keng believed, that the winds causing so much havoc and inconvenience to the city at large (and to the citizenry's sinuses) could, perhaps for just this one hour, carry their spirits back to me as well. The movie, so alive to wonder and terror, and to the hypnotic allure of the absolutely ordinary as well, invites you to jump around in it, get muddy, feel what it has to offer, and encourages you to take a strange journey for which you are only modestly prepared. The tiger in its wind will finally come to rest and, as it does Keng, stare you down through the underbrush and ask you, silently, inarticulately, some simple, fundamental questions. The movie will live in your mind for days, the memory of its haunted, lovely textures swirling, undulating, giving you all the time you need to think about your answers.

Wednesday, January 18, 2006

ME AND THEM AND EVERYTHING ELSE I HAVEN’T SEEN: My Top 22 Movies of 2005, and other tidbits

For me, 2005 was a year in which I was in perpetual catch-up mode, and as a result there are easily 20 or more films available right now, either in theaters or through the magic of DVD, that I have yet to see for the year, including some titles, like Brokeback Mountain, Capote and Good Night, and Good Luck, that look to figure pretty significantly in the Academy Award nominations, to be announced Tuesday, January 31. But the reality is, my paying job is keeping me pretty busy these days (to the tune of about 50 hours a week, and even more during the last couple of months of the year), and in addition to my beautiful family and a couple of burgeoning outside interests, finding the time to write for SLIFR is an increasingly difficult task, one that I must achieve due to the fact that writing this blog has become an addictive part of my life. And so finding the time to see movies to write about is even more challenging. And I have not done a journalist’s thorough job of it as the year came to a close, I freely admit. That is why what follows should not, cannot in any way be mistaken for a list of the year’s best. Even some film critics who are paid to do what I’m doing here for the love of it can’t see everything that’s available for them to write about. What you’re about to read is even more subjective than a list like this usually is, due to the incompleteness of my movie-going year. These are my favorites, the best 22 movies (and change) out of the 60 or so 2005 releases I managed to get to this year (out of a possible 250 or so released in American theaters). I missed a bunch, but I saw an awful lot that I liked too…

1) 2046 (Wong Kar Wai) A supremely gorgeous, elliptical meditation on love, memory, loss and muted passion, the movie shimmers and undulates and expands in the imagination like a timed-release capsule filled with sense memories triggered by the faint scent of perfume and cigarette smoke. That expansion was, for me, definitely enhanced by a recent encounter with Wong’s previous film, In the Mood for Love, but on its own 2046 succeeds as a perfect expression and summation of the director’s obsessive romanticism, even as Wong seems to flirt with disappearing into his own navel. The swoon factor here is incomparably high (Tony Leung representing the XY chromosome, and Faye Wong, Gong Li, Maggie Cheung and, most memorably, Ziyi Zhang making a very strong case for XX), but the question that resonates after 2046, regarding Wong, is, where does he go from here? Will the train to 2046 bring Wong Kar Wai back?

2) LOS ANGELES PLAYS ITSELF (Thom Andersen) A supremely entertaining work of film criticism which teases out, explicates and analyzes the representation of Los Angeles as it has appeared throughout the history of cinema. Positing the best uses of Los Angeles in fiction films as geographical documentaries (Kiss Me Deadly and H.B. Halicki’s original Gone in 60 Seconds are cited as key examples) and convincingly refuting the reputations of some established classics (Chinatown, L.A. Confidential), Thom Andersen’s three-hour essay will make you laugh, make you think of the city through a different prism, and make you argue back with the director’s contentions, even as it inspires you to make a list of movies you need to see, or see again...

3) A HISTORY OF VIOLENCE (David Cronenberg) Ostensibly a hired hand on this film, Cronenberg fashions a surface-straightforward narrative from John Wagner’s graphic novel that artfully straddles the line between a critique of the inevitable legacy spawned by violent behavior and a hard-boiled, Phil Karlson-esque noir that implicates the audience in that critique. In other words, he’s taken what could have been fairly routine material and teased out the concerns in its intertwining veins and musculature—he’s made it a David Cronenberg film. Bleak, frightening, and often funny, the movie features flawless work from Viggo Mortensen, Maria Bello, William Hurt, Ed Harris, and Ashton Holmes as Mortensen’s conflicted son, as well as two of the most revealing, effective and erotic sex scenes seen in an American film in years and an ambiguous conclusion that left the audience I saw it with stunned, and somewhat confused—they got the release they were looking for, but they weren’t prepared for the bitter lump in the throat that came after. Bull’s-eye.

4) KUNG FU HUSTLE (Stephen Chow) Gravity can be overrated, and there is no clearer proof of that absurdism than the evidence put forth in this insanely entertaining, delirious action comedy. Packed with enough clever and organic cinematic references to make Quentin Tarantino or Joe Dante blush, the movie is nevertheless something wholly original. Chow has taken Tex Avery, Chuck Jones and the whole Warners cartoon sensibility, through outstanding stunt choreography, a vivid sense of exactly where to place the camera for maximum zing, and the most clever application of computer-generated imagery yet seen, and translated it into a live-action universe where gravity and physics are not only overrated, they’re practically afterthoughts.

5) GRIZZLY MAN (Werner Herzog) Timothy Treadwell, an outcast from society as much through his own will as by circumstances, lived in the Alaskan wild for years, interacting with the native grizzly bear population and, some would say, repeatedly crossing an invisible line between man and beast that would lead to his death. Herzog, not a director unfamiliar with demagoguery in face of nature’s unbending will, uses Treadwell’s own videotapes to reveal rhe activist as both benevolent wildlife protector and, increasingly, a man consumed by instability and rage, and the director meticulously contrasts Treadwell’s insistent worldview with his own rather more grim assessment. Somewhere between Treadwell’s naive anthropomorphism and Herzog’s dark forest of the soul lies the truth, and the art of Grizzly Man acknowledges the extremes while mapping the thorny terrain in between.

6) WALLACE & GROMIT AND THE CURSE OF THE WERE-RABBIT (Nick Park, Steve Box) In a year that showcased so many entries in the animation field, from the dregs of Robots to the vivid stop-motion wonders of Corpse Bride, Aardman Animation’s impossibly delightful feature stood tall over all others, not least because it bears the unmistakable stamp of being hand-made (those visible fingerprints in some of the clay figures are a tonic and a sharp rebuke to the gleaming surfaces of a soulless contraption like Robots). But the movie’s brisk, happily inventive story, a riff on Universal and Hammer horror thrillers, as well as a tribute to the indefatigable spirit, and absurd obsessions, of post-WWII Britons, is a ripping achievement in itself; it resonates with top-drawer wit, low-grade puns and an infectiously giddy humor.

7) THE ICE HARVEST (Harold Ramis) Amongst all the year-end award-mongering and rampant blockbusterism, Ramis’ adult-oriented crime thriller crept like a thief in the night, and got about as much notice. But audiences who took a chance on this astringently funny, seductively seedy picture were rewarded with Ramis’ sharp timing and respect for their intelligence, as well as career-best turns by John Cusack, as a shady lawyer looking to bust out of Kansas City during a freak ice storm after stealing $2 million from a local crime boss, and Oliver Platt, as an alcoholic pal trapped in a frozen marriage to Cusack’s ex-wife. As critic Dave Kehr put it in an early rave, in its solid professionalism, which harkens back to the glory days of film noir and amoral action pictures like Don Siegel’s Charley Varrick, The Ice Harvest isn’t trying to be awesome, which is precisely why it is.

8) KING KONG (Peter Jackson) The current poster boy for movies that are “needlessly long” (thanks to Caryn James for solidifying this minor quibble into a blanket dismissal, the latest in jaded water-cooler conventional wisdom). In reality, Peter Jackson’s Kong was precisely as long as it needed to be. Funny, what some folks will luxuriate in on a DVD special edition, they just can’t seem to endure in a movie theater. My suggestion: drink one less 48-ounce soda during the show and allow yourself to sit still for a blockbuster that sidesteps almost every trap the format routinely indulges. Every time I felt the movie beginning to sag slightly—perhaps a little too much of, say, the Bronto stampede for my taste—Jackson turned around and unleashed a sequence like that triple T. rex battle, which ends up taking place in mid-air amongst a thicket of hanging vines, Kong and the beasts suspended above ground, Ann Darrow swinging like a pendulum back and forth toward the jaws of the giant dinosaur—as spectacular, witty and thrilling an action sequence as has been filmed in the CGI age. The 2005 model Kong is so full of riches that complaining about a sore ass, insufficient bladder or wandering mind seems especially silly-- Naomi Watts’ superlative and emotionally direct performance as Ann, and even the usually dismissed Jack Black, channeling 21st century attitude (and the spirit, if not the letter, of Orson Welles) into Depression-era survival instincts as driven filmmaker Carl Denham; the expansive, fresh, thematically resonant script; and Jackson’s undeniable gifts as a director, his ability to tap into the reserves of reverence he has for the original film and translate that into a vision that pulses with dread, wonder, surging emotion, and life. He has made a movie worthy of being held in comparison to the source material, and also one that doesn’t live or breathe on besting the original simply because the technological means to do so are available at hand. And I know it’s fashionable in some circles to knock the verisimilitude with which this Kong has been created, the implication being that the relative innocence (and ignorance) regarding gorilla behavior in which Willis O’Brien created the Kong effects in 1933 was a sort of sainted state—duplication of the results of that state would, of course, be deemed arrogance or insensitive folly, or at least misguided, yet at the same time some would have us believe that using knowledge of primates available in 2005 is supposedly evidence of lack of imagination, or the good folks at Weta Digital resting on their prodigious techno-laurels. (Never mind that a bit of action that gets one of the film’s biggest laughs, when Kong breaks the jaw of a T.rex and then toys with it quizzically, is a direct lift from the animation of Willis O’Brien.) The truth is, those who created this new Kong, from Andy Serkis, who gave the beast a human template, (much as he did Gollum), to the CGI geniuses who allow us so much suspension of disbelief, to Watts, who reflects a character in her eyes who was never really there, should all be happy in their brilliant achievement. And audiences should be happy to be able to revel in it, a giant movie worthy of the legacy of Willis O’Brien, Merian C. Cooper and Ernest Schoedsack, and worthy too of the old movie palaces (like the one I saw it in) that used to routinely show movies like King Kong (1933), and the underrated Dino DeLaurentiis King Kong (1976), and, now, King Kong (2005)—you know, the kind of movies they don’t make any more. One of the glories of Jackson’s rousing adventure movie is the discovery that it turns out they sometimes still do.

9) FUNNY HA-HA (Andrew Bujalski) An unexpectedly charming comedy of 20-something indecision. The movie is anchored by Bujalski’s teasing, unpretentious style, the near-lyrically halting curlicues of the dialogue that disarmingly dance around their true meaning and intention, and the lead performance by Kate Dollenmayer, who conveys more in a single nervous glance than two out of the last three Best Actress Oscar winners (watch out, Halle and Charlize) could ever hope to put across. All that, plus the most perfect ending of a movie since The Station Agent.

10) MYSTERIOUS SKIN (Gregg Araki) A tough film that lurches, rather than glides, along the connective tissue holding together the separate stories of two teenagers, a gay hustler and an asexual boy prone to nosebleeds who believes he was once abducted by aliens, who share a terrible secret—abuse at the hands of a Little League coach when they were both eight years old. Ambivalent and sometimes difficult to endure, the film’s devastation lies in the realization that the moment where redemption might come in a lesser work is instead the moment here where the horror clicks in and each boy now finds himself faced with a future even more daunting and desperate and agonized than the past with which he's struggled to come to terms. Araki has retained the power of the shock tactics he so readily employed in earlier films, but has added a tenderness and reserve of emotion that carries the film far beyond a shallow flirtation with immoral violation to become an artful and devastating revelation, one of the best films I’ve ever seen about the tortured, tangled relationship between the abuser and the abused.

The Second 12:

11) MUNICH (Steven Spielberg) In a recent comment about the film, George Jonas, on whose book Vengeance the movie was based, drew a distinction between the two works, claiming that his book was about the moral distinctions between a terrorist act and an act of retribution, whereas Munich is based upon the premise that terrorism and state-sponsored “vengeance” are morally equivalent. He’s right about the film, but not about that equivalence being a deficiency. Spielberg attempts to grapple with the questions the film raises through character and drama, not by posting easily read signs, and his assurance as an pure action director (despite some late, murky cutting between an Israeli assassin’s reunion with his wife and the 1972 Munich massacre) make Munich a thrilling, agonizing, intelligent thriller worth chewing on.
12) UNLEASHED (Louis Letterier) Another stunning piece of action cinema, and an emotional ambush as well—I was unprepared for how deep these filmmakers would go into the heart of this grim, yet openly sentimental tale of a man (Jet Li) trained by a Scottish thug to become a deadly attack dog who discovers a normal life, and the secrets of his past, through his friendship with a blind piano tuner (Morgan Freeman) and his daughter (Kerry Condon). The best thing Luc Besson (here, the screenwriter) ever put his name on.
13) BATMAN BEGINS (Christopher Nolan) A franchise revitalized, artistically this time… and I liked the new Batmobile too.
14) OLDBOY (Park Chan-wook) Revenge spurred by madness, and madness brought on by revenge…

15) THE WHITE DIAMOND (Werner Herzog) Herzog’s other brilliant documentary of 2005, an impressionistic, ethereal portrait of cockeyed achievement haunted by death and indifference; some of the most offhandedly beautiful imagery of any documentary film…
16) THE ARISTOCRATS (Paul Provenza, Penn Jillette) The art of the dirty joke, and its peak, courtesy of Sarah Silverman…

17) RED EYE (Wes Craven) Terror delivered in close-up; what better eyes in 2005
than those of Rachel MacAdams and Cillian Murphy?
18) UP FOR GRABS (Mike Vranovics) While sports talk radio hosts fell all over themselves promoting the ghastly remake of The Longest Yard this past summer (and, like Dan Patrick of ESPN Radio, promoting their own cameo appearances in it), this entertaining, incisive documentary, about the legal battle over Barry Bonds’ 73rd home-run ball was ignored by everyone, most egregiously the very audience who would have appreciated it most…
19) HOWL'S MOVING CASTLE (Hayao Miyazaki) Surreal and ethereal, even by Master Miyazaki’s standards…
20) WEDDING CRASHERS (David Dobkin) and 21) THE 40-YEAR-OLD VIRGIN (Judd Apatow) The best and biggest laughs of the year, and in the case of Virgin, surprising sweetness as well…
22) SKY HIGH (Mike Mitchell) Without a doubt, the biggest, most disarming surprise of 2005; if only its sly intelligence and absurd humor were the new template for Disney pictures, instead of the happy exception it more likely is…

In a perfect world, there would be no need to say I still need to see THE NEW WORLD, THE SQUID AND THE WHALE, CRASH, CAPOTE, GOOD NIGHT AND GOOD LUCK, SYRIANA, SARAH SILVERMAN: JESUS IS MAGIC, KINGS AND QUEEN, TROPICAL MALADY, LAST DAYS, TONY TAKITANI, BROKEBACK MOUNTAIN, ME AND YOU AND EVERYONE WE KNOW, CAFE LUMIERE, SYMPATHY FOR MR. VENGEANCE, ENRON: THE SMARTEST GUYS IN THE ROOM, NOBODY KNOWS, MURDERBALL and MILLIONS, but, unfortunately, I do. I’ve got Kings and Queen, Last Days and Tropical Malady in house courtesy of Netflix right now, so if I get a chance to see any or all of them in the next week, it’s entirely possible my top 10 might swell to 13.

The Bottom 10 (in descending order):

THE FAMILY STONE (Tom Bezucha) The tyranny of the progressive, done up all cuddly and symmetrical, and frustratingly well-acted…
STAR WARS EPISODE III: REVENGE OF THE SITH (George Lucas) What now, Mr. All-I-Really-Want-To Do-Is-Make-Avant-Garde-Cinema?
CHICKEN LITTLE (Mark Dindal) Breathless, spastic and wit-free…
ONG BAK: THE THAI WARRIOR (Prachya Pinkaew) Tony Jaa’s athleticism is inarguable, but there’s no movie there…
THE EXORCISM OF EMILY ROSE (Scott Derrickson) You got courtroom drama in my horror flick! No, you got horror flick in my courtroom drama!
SAINT RALPH (Michael MacGowan) Deadly earnest sports drama made by people who come off as if they’ve never heard the way real kids act and speak… and a criminal waste of Jennifer Tilly too…
THE LONGEST YARD (Peter Segal) A bubbling pot of incoherent action, relentless fag fear and laugh lines that drift off into dead air; Robert Aldrich’s terrifically entertaining, cynical, bone-crunching, hyper-masculine original looks downright enlightened by comparison…
THE RING 2 (Hideo Nakata) Listless, condescending and absent a single decent shiver; an inexplicable, ostensibly creepy attack on our beleaguered heroine and her Shyamalan-esque son by a pack of CGI deer bucks is instead the year’s nadir in dumb special effects…
A DIRTY SHAME (John Waters) Anarchic sexual expression is good… Refusal to buy into movie's wacky premise, proof of your own repression? The satire here is pitched to the choir (at this point, Waters and who else, exactly?) who might find this wacky ribaldry bracingly honest and funny. Could it be that pop culture has finally caught up with John Waters? The convincing evidence is in just how hard he has to work to seem "shocking," and in how desperately far he falls short of the mark. The man who made Pink Flamingos finally seems conventional. This is Waters' worst movie.
DOOM (Andrzej Bartkowiak) Could be the last nail in the coffin of the lingering Stallone/Schwarzenegger imprint on the American action film… Well, I can hope, can’t I? Semper fi, motherfucker…!

Worst Movie I Saw in 2005 (regardless of year of release)

THE ROOM (Tommy Wiseau) Do yourself a favor: click on the link, and if you’re not yet a registered IMDb member, become one immediately and read some of the hilarious user comments (some 45 and counting) regarding this stupefying cinematic achievement—they’ll convey the experience much better than I can at this point, as I’m still, some two months after seeing it, still reeling. Writer-director-star (and crafts services guy, for all I know) Tommy Wiseau is a one-of-a-kind auteur; we honestly may not have seen his like, his unique blend of the sincere and the utterly, heartbreakingly inept, since the halcyon days of Edward D. Wood, Jr. and Glen or Glenda? I must stop now, before I say too much. If you find the user comments intriguing at all (and how could you not?), pack yourself off to one of the midnight screenings you can find in various cities around the country, or better yet, rent the DVD-- it’s available right now! (O Lord, we can only hope for an audio commentary!) There’s simply no further excuse— drop what you're doing and get thee to The Room!

Mr. and Mrs. Smith, the first movie I ever saw at the Mission Tiki Drive-In

Experiencing Once Upon a Time in the West and The Good, The Bad and the Ugly, both on the big screen, surrounded by Leone-minded friends…

And seeing Showgirls again, for the first time…

The Ringer, Saw II, Mr. and Mrs. Smith, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, Assault on Precinct 13, Fantastic Four, The Dukes of Hazzard and The Skeleton Key (the movie I’m most embarrassed about walking out of when I initially saw it; a second chance at the drive-in proved to me what a clod I’d been)

Even though I like it a lot (and it’s number 19 on my list), Howl’s Moving Castle didn’t live up to Spirited Away or even Kiki’s Delivery Service, despite all the insistent voices claiming that it did; also, War of the Worlds, Broken Flowers, Sin City and, most heartbreakingly, for me, Land of the Dead (though I do see a second shot on DVD in my future…)

The Family Stone, because the actors in it, particularly Diane Keaton, Rachel MacAdams, Luke Wilson and, in isolated moments, Sarah Jessica Parker, are as good and funny and inspired as the script and direction are pat and formulaic and smug and overly tidy…

MOVIES FOR KIDS (and their parents)
I’ve already mentioned the wonders of Wallace and Gromit and the most-welcome surprise of Sky High, but two other features made taking the girls to the movies this year supremely pleasurable and offset the grim task of sitting through Chicken Little, Robots and My Little Pony: A Very Minty Christmas (don’t laugh—my teeth are still aching). Tim Burton’s perversely inventive Charlie and the Chocolate Factory scared my six-year-old right out of the theater, but when I took my three-year-old a second time, to see what we missed when we had to leave the first time, she reveled in the candy-colored wizardry of the movie’s ever-so-slightly-twisted vision; and I loved Johnny Depp’s freakishly funny Wonka and the inspired work turned in by Deep Roy as the multitude of Oompa-Loompas (in grand, catchy Bollywood-style production numbers fueled by Danny Elfman), and the bubbling-under-the-surface bitchery of the World’s Most Frightening Stage Mom, Mrs. Beauregarde, as essayed by fearless actress Missy Pyle. Both the girls and I also had a surprisingly good time at Disney’s lovely purplish pastoral, Pooh’s Heffalump Movie, a delightful cartoon (and delightfully short too, at 68 minutes) that, in its lavender color scheme, its narrative argument against preconceived notions and its plea for tolerance and acceptance, is the best defense Tinky Winky never got. Put that in your oversized bag and repress it, Jerry Falwell!

Herbie Fully Loaded

The Island (evidence: the continued relevance of Logan’s Run)

Serenity (still waiting to explode and become something other than a browncoat phenomenon) and, for reasons obvious, and not so obvious, 2046.

Ed Harris, A History Of Violence

Werner Herzog listening to the tape of Timothy Treadwell’s gruesome demise, but not allowing the audience to hear it, and then advising Treadwell’s friend to not only never listen to the tape but to, in fact, destroy it (Grizzly Man).

Kong’s slow fade off the top of the Empire State Building, of course, but also Lumpy the cook’s slow ingestion by one of those impossibly grotesque vagina dentata slugs, in King Kong. (And kudos to Andy Serkis who, by both providing the human template for Kong’s movements, and by also playing Lumpy, is the first actor I can think of to die twice, and so memorably both times, in the same film.)

Ewan MacGregor, Hayden Christensen, Star Wars Episode III: Revenge Of The Sith

Land of the Dead, the sushi bar scene in Oldboy, and just how yummy all those carrots and cabbages looked in Wallace & Gromit and the Curse of the Wererabbit

“Joe Franklin raped me.”—Sarah Silverman, The Aristocrats

The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy

Funny Ha-Ha, The Devil’s Rejects

I think I’ll take my cue right there. Good night, and good luck!

Saturday, January 14, 2006


Some of you were done with Kevin Smith after Mallrats. For others, Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back was the final nail. And I know one or two Smith fans who saw Jersey Girl as a limp concession to the mainstream. (Smith has original "indie" cred, sure, but has he ever really been anything other than mainstream? And by the way, I find that short-cut word "indie" really annoying...)

Personally, I found Mallrats much more interesting the second time around-- it may be the only movie in existence to have actually been almost completely redeemed by a DVD, specifically a DVD commentary track. I know that at times Jay and Silent Bob Strikes Back is almost unbearably broad and self-referential, and in those moments of desperation the movie makes you feel that Smith has perhaps gone back to the trough one too many times with these characters. But the movie is head-spinningly silly, disarmingly nasty and, yes, frequently hilarious as well, attributes which, for a filmmaker like Smith, can paper over a lot of cracks and bumps. And as for Jersey Girl, I know the View Askew acolytes probably didn't know what to do with Smith in sincere (PG-13) mode. But I also know new fathers (like me), as well as folks without children, who appreciated the movie's relatively sentimental (but still sometimes barbed) trajectory, and who found that the movie worked far better than some of the cliched situations (like Ben Affleck racing to make it in time for his daughter's school performance, for instance, and fighting off all conceivable manner of roadway obstacles) would seem to allow.

But now Smith fans, as we did in 2001 when Jay and Silent Bob struck back, must again face the question: is it possible that Kevin Smith may have run out of things to say? And if the movie is funny, will it even matter? These questions, and a few others, may tumble around in your head as you take a look at the new teaser for Smith's upcoming sequel Clerks 2. Hard to tell from the trailer itself whether the original, much funnier title-- seen above-- has been abandoned. And whether or not there are any jabs at Mel Gibson, religious mania, or religious movies within Smith's sequel is (at least by me) unknown. However, the new movie looks to be candy-bright, just like Jay and Silent Bob, apparently jam-packed with familiar faces in (presumably) cameo appearances, and it features new (and always lovely) cast member Rosario Dawson, almost never a bad thing (not even in Men in Black II.) It is strange to see Randall and Dante, a little older, a little wider (that's not a typo), still hanging around Jersey, but now in living color. And who knows-- the movie may be the final nail for a few more Smith fans, maybe even me. But then again, it might just be funny as hell, and that, even as we look back at the peaks of Chasing Amy and Dogma, might still be enough. (Thanks, Sal, for the link!)

And while we're talking about trailers, this one almost drove my wife insane with glee when she stumbled upon it this evening. I'm not sure how Steven Soderbergh's Bubble (to be released simultaneously January 27 in theaters, on DVD, and on-line) could possibly live up to the zany cubist cornucopia of the trailer, which depicts the various stages in the construction of a child's doll (a whole lot of them) scored to a hysterical, contrapuntal classical track that layers in a veneer of sinister purpose to the inexplicably funny imagery. But then again, I've not yet seen Schizopolis...

Wednesday, January 11, 2006


One of the major bonuses of living in the DVD/home theater age is the relative ease of revisiting films from our past which we remember with fondness, or sometimes more accurately, those for which we have fondness that we don’t remember so well. It’s a chance to confirm and re-experience what it is about the film we loved so much in the beginning, and see what time has added to that experience. And, of course, sometimes it’s an exercise in demonstrating how time and the events of our own lives will serve to subtract from a film’s overall effect and its hold on our sensibilities.

But in the recent past I’ve begun to discover that, opposed to reapproaching beloved films, it’s often even more interesting and rewarding to go back and have a look, divorced as one can render oneself from the attendant hype generated by the distributing studio and filmmakers, as well as the ossified consensus (which only grows more rigid with time) arrived at by the entertainment press and even the general critical community, at a film which one felt pretty strongly about in the negative upon the first (perhaps only) viewing. I recently took up a challenge from a fellow writer whom I respect who has always loved Body Double, a film by a director (Brian De Palma) whom we both admire which I had always found repellent, ill-advised and deficient, both from a narrative and visual standpoint, given the filmmaker’s usually high standards. Revisiting the movie, I still found it largely ill-advised and lacking in both narrative and visual consistency, but also not nearly the misogynistic crime it seemed in 1985. My admiration for Body Double hadn’t increased significantly, but it was a valuable opportunity to test my own sense of how a movie “changes” in one’s mind over the years.

In fact, I suppose it’s not all that uncommon to revisit a reviled movie and have one’s initial reactions confirmed. And I’m never too surprised, whenever I take another look at a beloved film from my past, if it either holds up well against my memory, or even if it is revealed as less than what I once thought, as merely an ethereal byproduct of my nostalgic imagination or fond recollections of the time and place in which I first took it in, or colored by thought processes that have been perforated and exposed by the passage of time.

The rarest circumstance, however, at least in my experience, is one in which I choose to revisit a movie that I hated upon first viewing, and then see it again some years later, only to have my eyes opened, my blinders stripped away, in order to discover the terrific movie that was there all along. The most obvious occurrence of this phenomenon in my moviegoing life was my complete turnaround on Nashville, a film I hated (and one which I was not equipped to comprehend) when I saw it at the tender age of 16. A couple of viewings later, during my university days, and Nashville quickly became my favorite film, one which I saw three times in one day my senior year of college, one which held that “favorite film” status for 26 years (it was finally bumped down a couple of notches by Once Upon a Time in the West this past summer).

But that experience with Nashville could be chalked up to simple immaturity. How often does it happen that you revisit a film by which you were initially repulsed as an adult, your critical faculties presumably alive and engaged and ready for bear, only to find out that you were completely and utterly wrong, that you were either a victim of or a willing participant in a smothering groupthink that seeped into your mind, forming unshakable preconceptions and preventing you from seeing the movie that was right in front of your eyes?

Most people, I’d wager, who comprised the meager audiences that turned out in theaters for Showgirls when it was first released in the U.S. in September of 1995, were fully aware of all the brouhaha over the NC-17 rating, director Paul Verhoeven’s previously announced intentions regarding the project (something about fully erect penises on view—or was that Basic Instinct?—and a no-holds-barred look at Vegas show life), and screenwriter Joe Eszterhas’s reputation as an overpaid sleazemeister, and by the time the first print actually screened the film’s early critical reputation as a notorious bomb, a reeker on the order of Myra Breckenridge or Plan Nine From outer Space-- a candidate, in other words, for Worst Movie Ever—became generally accepted as fact. (After its U.S. debut, it trickled out all over the world over the next few months, into January 1996—in fact, on this very day, 10 years ago, it made its debut in Verhoeven’s homeland The Netherlands, by which time negative reaction to the film had become a toxic fogbank of conventional wisdom. (Peet, did you see the movie when it was first released in the Netherlands? What do you think of Showgirls?)

I didn’t see it myself until it arrived on laserdisc, sometime in 1996. By then that fog bank was mighty thick, and my initial reaction wasn’t so much repulsion as boredom. Verhoeven had made a movie that was as packed with nudity as I’d ever seen, but rather than getting me excited about all that flesh constantly on display, Showgirls had succeeded, through sheer visual repetition and matter-of-fact presentation, in numbing me to its presence. I was repulsed, however, by the berserk, feral presence of Elizabeth Berkley, or more accurately by the use to which she was put—completely unmodulated, in-your-face attitude and (surprising to me) an entrenched hostility shoved front and center within that big Panavision frame. (That rape scene, and the subsequent violent reprisal it inspires, was no pretty picture either.) Of course, I saw Verhoeven’s Vegas as a tawdry condemnation of the values of show business and, by extension, American taste, and I’ll admit I got my back up about someone from another country, to whom America had been quite generous, from a career and financial standpoint, making such a bold and corrosive “statement” about the tackiness and bad taste of the entire nation, especially when the statement was apparently being made by Verhoeven and Eszterhas, two men never known for subtlety and nuance. (At least Verhoeven made his movie in America-- right, Mr. Von Trier?)

I had been quite comfortable ignoring Showgirls after that screening, relatively assured that my reaction, although strong, was justified. Then, in March of 2004, Charles Taylor, then still in place as a senior film critic for Salon, published an appreciation of the film (unattached, as far as I’m aware, to any DVD release or other Showgirls-themed event that would have sparked a synergistic impulse in his editor’s mind) that, despite my initial insistence on eyeball-rolling, resisted my condescension though the sheer clarity of his response and argument for the film. His argument was reasoned, reasonably pitched, and convincing. But how convincing would it be after having actually watched the film a second time?

Nearly two years after Taylor’s piece, which pricked the skin of my interest in revisiting Showgirls, I got an invitation to write a piece which would stand as a commemoration of the 10-year anniversary of the movie’s Netherlands release date (January 11, 2006), a commemoration intended to extend over as many blog sites as wished to participate. There was no stipulation as to the attitude of the piece, negative or positive; it only had to be about Verhoeven and Estzerhas’s notorious spectacle. I printed out Taylor’s article, vowed not to read it again until after I’d seen the movie, settled in on my couch a couple of evenings ago, at the end of a very long day, and invited Showgirls into my home theater one more time.

What an embarrassment. And I’m not talking about the movie. I’m talking about having to face up to perhaps my most egregious misread of a movie since dismissing Nashville. Showgirls turns out not to be a work of found comedy, of two sleaze merchants pitching an earnest drama and missing the plate by a mile, but an uninhibited melodrama that dares to not condescend to its subject matter—the backstage milieu of Las Vegas, where sex (or at least nudity and the trappings of sex) are ritualized (or choreographed into routine) and funneled into gaudy stage productions. I really wonder how many of the people who have made a point of slamming Showgirls over the past 10 years would think nothing of plunking down big dollars for a Vegas weekend, perhaps one centered around a “classy” topless show like “Goddess” (the show that makes Berkley’s Nomi Malone a star), take the whole package at face value and enjoy the hell out of themselves. Well, by modeling their story on the backstage musicals of the ‘40s (Brian over at Hell On Frisco Bay provides some excellent context for those jumping-off points in his Showgirls entry), as well as inverting All About Eve and telling their tale of show business back-stabbing and rivalry not from Margo Channing’s perspective, but from the conniving Eve’s, the filmmakers do just that—they provide a narrative context in which to observe the everyday goings-on in the world of these splashy nightclub productions, through which Nomi, the film’s protagonist, attempts to outrun her mysterious past and redefine herself.

But in the process, Verhoeven thankfully forgets to skimp on the vulgar amusements that are one of the defining elements of Las Vegas itself, the neon buzz that fuels Nomi’s frenetic dancing, her relentless ambition, and he doesn’t hold that ambition to anyone’s standard but Nomi’s. As Taylor observes, Verhoeven doesn’t hold her feet to the fire either and insist, per the familiar formula of such tales, that she pay for her ambition and misdeeds. Indeed, Showgirls recognizes that Las Vegas allows Nomi to become, through her ascendance to stardom within this strange show business microcosm, exactly who she seems destined to become, and Verhoeven assures, by acknowledging the charge, the dirty thrill she gets from performing and becoming a part of that world, that any value judgments placed on that ascension will come from the audience, not from him.

Unlike my initial reaction to Showgirls, I came away from my most recent brush with the film thinking that Verhoeven is not condemning Las Vegas or Americans for reveling in bad taste. On the contrary, he’s reveling in it himself, drawing parallels between himself, as a participant in American show business, and the characters on screen, and he’s not making any excuses for anyone’s behavior. But he’s doing so in a much less obvious way than, say, John Waters has in the past, and therefore he runs the risk of being dismissed as a simple vulgarian or a crude camp satirist. I don’t think he’s exclusively either, though to suggest that Verhoeven here is not vulgar or exhibiting a satiric sensibility would be to, again, miss the point. In Showgirls, Verhoeven the visual stylist, with only the slightest exaggeration, heightens the melodrama of Eszterhas’ script with gleeful sexuality (and vulgarity) and deranged life by presenting Vegas as the new model microcosm of the American dream, and Nomi as one of its prime dreamers, and encouraging us to experience the city and its milieu through those wide brown orbs hidden, as they almost always are, behind glitter-encrusted eyelids. (Not one single close-up of Nomi or any of the other women in full production regalia allows us to back off of the extremity of the costumes and makeup—in this movie, you see just how exaggerated, how scary, and yet at the same time how sexy these women can look from five feet away in sparkling getups designed to dazzle the back row of the theater. At times Berkeley’s overreaching lipstick and pancake makeup applications make her resemble nothing less than a slimmed-down R. Crumb cartoon come to life, or a Nick Park creation with pumps and a G-string.)

Seen through Nomi’s eyes it makes sense that nudity and sexuality would be seen as everyday, that it would be made routine, less than special, even numbing. Verhoeven and Esterzhas, despite what you may have heard, aren’t too interested in fueling male fantasies much beyond the lap dance Nomi gives to Kyle MacLachlan’s Zach Carey, and Nomi most certainly isn’t. Showgirls is far more concerned with tracking how this hostile girl with a hair-trigger temper sees the world in which she’s chosen to navigate—she attacks everything from dancing to eating fast food to having sex with the same violent, clipped, unfocused energy, and she has very little patience with anyone who doesn’t, can’t, or won’t play with the same energy. (Her impersonation of a boat propeller during the infamous swimming pool sex scene with MacLachlan is ridiculous, but intentionally so, a parody of porn excess.) She even moves up the ladder into the top spot on the “Goddess” show by literally pushing its star, Cristal Collins (Gina Gershon), down a flight of stairs. Yet again, Charles Taylor correctly observes that she’s never punished for her transgressions because they are recognized as part and parcel of survival in the movie’s brutalizing show business world—Cristal herself is revealed to be every bit the schemer Nomi is by her hospital bed confession (and subsequent reconciliation with Nomi, her “friendly” archenemy) that she grabbed the spotlight for herself in exactly the same way Nomi has.

Nomi’s past, however, and her attempts to closet it, add an extra element of uncertainty about her which works in the movie’s favor and provides a little more context for her seemingly relentless hostility. At one point Carey dangles her criminal record in her face—prostitution, possession of narcotics, assault with a deadly weapon—and I thought to myself, “And that’s just what she got caught doing!” As played by Berkley, Nomi comes across as potentially homicidal at times, so much so that when she puts the stiletto heel to craven pop star Andrew Carver (William Shockley) after he facilitates and participates in the gang rape of her best friend, Molly (Gina Ravera) I had no trouble believing that, if she didn’t feel she couldn’t escape the charges, she’d have no problem putting one through this guy’s eyeball and being done with it.

Too bad Elizabeth Berkley never had the opportunity to dispatch some of her harsher critics in the same way. She, of course, ended up taking the brunt of the abuse for the box office (and perceived artistic) failure of Showgirls, and her brash, unseasoned performance, which is exactly what the movie calls for, however you feel about the level of rage with which she imbues the character, was an all-too-easy target. Any reasonable viewer ought to be able to see that Verhoeven saw the raw ambition in her that was perfectly realized in Nomi, and that Taylor probably rightly suggests was a source of inspiration, and fear, for Berkeley herself. Why wouldn’t an actress, known mostly for a supporting role on a kids’ TV comedy (Saved by the Bell), who suddenly found herself the focal point of a big budget (but at $40 million, not that big) movie that was itself being held up as the litmus test for the success or failure of the NC-17 rating, feel a little pressure? Fair enough. But heaping blame squarely on her shoulders for what became the Showgirls debacle seems patently unfair, based on what’s on screen, especially when what’s on screen has itself been pretty shamefully misjudged from the word “go.” If Showgirls ever got as fair a shake upon its initial release as it is getting today, through the network of bloggers who are attempting to reshape opinion, frame honest reconsideration in some small way by singing its praises, or perhaps even continue the negative appraisals in the clear light of day, then we probably wouldn’t be gathering forces like this to celebrate the existence of one of modern cinema’s most (unjustly) reviled totems of excess.

I’m really glad Showgirls is out there. I’m glad for Charles Taylor standing up for it from the beginning, and for writing a terrific piece that led me to my own reappraisal of the movie. I’m exceedingly glad to have been invited to participate in this forum (even though my entry is a tad late in the day). And I hope that by reading this, or one of the many great pieces that are available on line through this celebration, that someone else might at least be able to take another look, with fresh eyes, without the pressure of insistent and official opinion ringing in their ears, at a genuinely terrific movie that has been cloaked in ignominy and derision for 10 years. As Eric Henderson stated in his outstanding article about the film, “I'd probably be a lot more worried about the possibility that I'm overselling Showgirls if it wasn't already patently clear that most people have already closed themselves off to the pleasures the film has to offer.” In that spirit, I invite you to check out Showgirls again on DVD, and if you’re like me and you didn’t before, do it this time with eyes wide open. You might not like what you see, but then again you might.