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Tuesday, July 29, 2008

DVD Review: The Savages -- More Flight Than Bite

Review by Noah Mallin

Tamara Jenkins made the charming Slums of Beverly Hills ten years ago – a film that kind of sank without a trace despite some fine performances that include one of Marisa Tomei’s best turns and a typically solid Alan Arkin. Cut to last year and her long awaited follow-up film, the considerably more noticed The Savages. Like Slums, The Savages has an ace cast – could you do any better than Phillip Seymour Hoffman and Laura Linney as siblings? Both films also have strong autobiographical elements so it’s tempting to see the aging father Lenny in The Savages as Arkin’s character in his twilight years, just as the brother and sister duo in her first film have grown to internalize the nomadic dislocations of their childhood.

There is a tonal difference between the two films that is appropriate to the time that’s passed for both the characters and the director. While the travails of a teenage girl in the 70s growing up in a dysfunctional family run by a big-talking loser is played for sweetness, pathos, laughs and a tinge of nostalgia in Slums, the story of two emotionally stunted siblings in the present day dealing with the dilemma of what to do when they have to take care of their rapidly declining father who didn’t take care of them as children is melancholic if sometimes bitterly funny.

The sibling's names - John and Wendy - have a fitting Peter Pan feel and in each of their own ways they live in a neverland of stunted emotions and lives. Though this lacks the acuity of a film like Linney-starrer You Can Count on Me which tackled similar brother-sister issues, the real dilemma of what to do about a parent who not only can't take care of themselves but who weren't there for their kids way back when cuts deep.

It's a sometimes touching film that finds most of it's pleasures in the interplay between the two stars. What undermines it a bit is the episodic nature of the story and an ending that comes off as a bit too pat and unearned. Yet we do come to feel for these two screwed up adults, and laugh with and at them. The Savages is a less than perfect film but like the nursing home they settle on for dear old Dad it has it's own comforts -- if just the enjoyment of seeing Linney goof on Hoffman's ridiculous neckbrace or Hoffman's icy response to Linney's married boyfriend.

So, not a classic and it is a bit of a downer but it's also nice to see an American film that savors the small bits of real life rather than explosions and jump cuts.

Sunday, July 27, 2008

Film: The Dark Knight -- BatBush, CheneyFace and Osama Bin Joker

"What the...who left gum on the floor?"

Film Review by Noah Mallin

There are some spoilers ahead so if you're still a Bat-virgin and don't want to know what awaits... don't read!

The Dark Knight
, Christopher Nolan's blockbuster follow-up to 2005's excellent Batman Begins, is perhaps the darkest and strangest film to ever have a Pizza Hut tie-in pizza. In Nolan's hands Batman becomes a tough noir crime story -- if not Godfather II as some critics have suggested its at least the equal of The Departed, The Untouchables or even Reservoir Dogs and packs some of Scorsese's visceral wallop. The Spiderman films are saccharine kid's stuff by comparison.

A great deal of attention has been given to Heath Ledger's performance as the Joker -- a nightmarish romp that leaves Nicholson's version in the camp dust with Cesar Romero's TV portrayal of the role. Ledger is a force unto himself and he elevates every scene he's in. His untimely demise is easily pushed aside by the force of his striking work here. Like Javier Bardem in No Country For Old Men (another genre-defying film that The Dark Knight shares some kinship with) , backstory is irrelevant -- The Joker is chaos, pure and simple. His shifting explanations as to how he earned his trademark scars are a clever character development in themselves -- as is the literally lip-smacking relish with which Ledger conveys them.

This is not to slight the rest of an excellent cast. Christian Bale continues to find the pleasure in playing a smirking asshole playboy by day and a hard-ass lone avenger at night. Gary Oldman gets substantially more to do in this installment and as always he makes it count. Morgan Freeman and Michael Caine both get to put more meat on their character's as well and Maggie Gyllenhaal is a tremendous improvement over Katie Homes' wan perf as Rachel Dawes.

The film is chock full of ideas and surprises, all of which is welcome in a summer which has had its share of better than average poporn flicks (Iron Man and Wall-E come to mind). It's astounding that a debate is now raging in the Wall Street Journal and the Atlantic over whether Bush is in fact like Batman is in the film -- fighting a remorseless terrorist and sometimes having to bend the law to do so. Batman is willing to take on the opprobrium of Gotham knowing that he has to operate outside the law to get things done, just as smirking asshole playboy President Bush is a world pariah for breaking a few eggs in making his eggshell-y Iraq omelet.

This argument, which the WSJ seemed to find flattering to Bush, is actually indicative of the low regard some neo-cons have for the Presidency. One of the central points of The Dark Knight is that Batman understands the importance of the law, and that being an unelected vigilante has a different set of responsibilities than being an elected public official. Batman himself chooses which lines to cross and the weight of the responsibility of having no check or balance on him is staggering -- he wants it to end. The Joker becomes his check, the lawless criminal to the lawless vigilante. Andrew Klavan, in writing his editorial betrays the neo-con conception of the white house as an imperial Wayne Industries with no need to answer to anyone. Bush didn't choose to wear the mantle of an outcast, it was thrust on him by a disgusted public.

Which brings us to Aaron Eckhart as District Attorney Harvey Dent. Both Batman and Gordon see Eckhart as a white knight (pun intended) official response to Gotham's lawlessness, a crusading public official who will do the right thing and act as a symbol of the power of the law. Eckhart finds the tinge of self-absorption that powers the man perfectly while also making him genuinely heroic and likable. Like Batman, Eckhart has a code but its a bit more slippery and in the end permeable. His cute coin-flipping trick (both sides have heads so he wins either way) speaks to an underlying my-way-or-the-highway ethos and becomes darker and more sinister as the movie goes on. In the end, this man who has represented hope becomes deformed and twisted by his battle with chaos, turning into a perversion of the steadiness of justice he once upheld, his coin now akin to the one Javier Bardem used to such menacing effect in No Country. Now that sounds like Bush. Only Eckhart starts out likable.

Michael Caine is quoted in this week's Entertainment Weekly as saying, and I'm paraphrasing, Superman is how Americans see themselves and Batman is how the rest of the world sees America. This may be a bit much but there is something to this. Nolan's film stirs up a little bit of everything that has made Americans and the rest of the world so uneasy about the so-called "war on terror"-- Batman uses cellphones to spy on everyone in Gotham to the outrage of Freeman's character, there are a few scenes that explore the limits of torture and a memorable sequence with two boats full of doomed passengers that seems to question the old "attack them over there so they don't come here" doctrine.

For all the polemical bromides Hollywood has tried to get viewers to chew on about the war in Iraq, it may actually be a Summer popcorn film that raises the most questions, and leaves viewers with the most uneasiness.

There are flaws here to be sure. As in Nolan's first bat-outing, some of the editing in the action sequences is overly hyperkinetic. There is a lingering feeling that despite how exciting some of those action sequences are (the one with a semi versus Batman's Tumbler is a doozy) the filmakers want to get back to the scenes with people in them. Indeed, a few more of those scenes would add depth to some of the third act's twists, including Dent's transformation which satisfies thematically but still feels a little underbaked. Granted the movie is two and a half hours and more time with Eckhart could slow down what feels like a well-paced film.

The production values are brilliant, using even more of Chicago to break out of the setbound feel that these films tend to have. Where Spiderman 3 seemed to take place inside a video game with last year's graphics card this has a gut punching realism, particularly in the aerial shots.

It's too early to add this to the pantheon as some critics have already done -- no it's not The Godfather. It is however the best superhero film ever -- with depth, some wit, and a lot of unsettling ideas and images that keep the mind chewing for quite some time afterwards.

Wednesday, July 23, 2008

TV: Estelle Getty, Salty Irascable Golden Girl, Dies

An Appreciation by Noah Mallin

Estelle Getty, who donned a white wig to play Sophia Petrillo on The Golden Girls in the 1980s and practically stole the show from her three better known castmates, has died. Getty portrayed the mother of Bea Arthur's character though in real life Arthur was actually older. Getty's broad zinger fueled performance netted her seven Emmy noms and one win. In the long years before her Golden Girls success and her initial Broadway stardom in her 60s, she worked as a secretary to make ends meet. Getty has the distinction in starring in one of my prize Thanksgiving turkeys from last year with Sylvester Stallone, Stop! Or My Mom Will Shoot.

The Golden Girls
which in re-runs is one of the only watchable things on Lifetime was a proto- Sex in The City with frank talk about sex, relationships, and aging from a women's perspective. Getty, who was integral to what made the show so funny was a genuine TV pioneer.

Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Music News: Make a Romantic Mix for Your Favorite Cellmate the Old Fashioned Way

Jerry Lee Lewis: "They don't call me the killer for nuthin'..."

By Noah Mallin

Back in the old days I was known as something of a mixtape maven, making knees knock in the lunchroom with inspired pairings of, say, James Brown and Camper Van Beethoven. It turns out that lost art is alive and well and like Michael Jackson choreography - at its height behind bars.

The New York Times by way of Billboard, Reuters and a side route through BoingBoing among others report on one music distributor that isn't staggering around at death's door.
Granted they specialize in pre-recorded cassettes and not mixes but their business is expanding when big record companies are contracting -- and with an "obsolete" format no less. Why? They market to America's ever-growing prison population. Nothing says "Be my bitch" like some homemade hootch and an Anne Murray cassette.

Why not CDs? It's simple, CD's can be broken into handy little neck-threatening shards. If you've ever tried strangling someone with cassette tape you'll know it's not terribly effective. According the the nation's paper of record:

"Best-selling current titles include Lil Wayne's "Tha Carter III," Mariah Carey's "E=MC2," Usher's "Here I Stand," Rihanna's "Good Girl Gone Bad," Nickelback's "All the Right Reasons," Leona Lewis' "Spirit" and Lyfe Jennings' "Life Change."

Perennial sellers include Al Green's "Greatest Hits," Linkin Park's "Hybrid Theory," Michael Jackson's "Thriller," Pink Floyd's "The Dark Side of the Moon" and a best-of collection by the Stylistics."

Hey, prisoners listen to the same crap as the rest of us!

Wednesday, July 16, 2008

Film: Best Review EVER -- Old Guy Finds Decline of Everything in The Dark Knight

By Noah Mallin

Was it only last week that Christopher Nolan's latest batflick The Dark Knight was riding high at 100% fresh on Rotten Tomatoes? Well, the rest of the reviews are in and the bat has been knocked down to 92% -- hey wait, that's still pretty darn good. But Armond White of The New York Press is determined to blame the decline of western civilization, nay, the end of the universe as we know it, on Heath Ledger's last full performance. Seriously, his review says more about him than about the flick.

Choice bits? Coming right up:
"After announcing his new comics interpretation with 2005’s oppressively grim Batman Begins, Nolan continues the intellectual squalor popularized in his pseudo-existential hit Memento. Appealing to adolescent jadedness and boredom, Nolan revamps millionaire Bruce Wayne’s transformation into the crime-fighter Batman (played by indie-zombie Christian Bale), by making him a twisted icon, what the kids call 'sick.'"

Ah yes, the kids come in for quite a drubbing at the hands of White.

"Ever since Frank Miller’s 1986 graphic-novel reinvention, The Dark Knight Returns, pop consumers have rejected traditional moral verities as corny. That might be the ultimate capitalist deception.

A bleak Batman entraps us in a commercial mechanism, not art."

Holy commies Batman! Of course by crapping all over Batman Begins, Memento, The Dark Knight Returns and even There Will be Blood White actually overplays his hand and makes me want to see the freaking thing anyhow. Damn you capitalist lackeys!

Sunday, July 13, 2008

Films of the 80s: Weekend at Bernie's

An Appreciation by Noah Mallin

The 80s were a time of innocence, joy, and philandering bosses of vague sexuality that rip off their companies for mucho dinero. But enough about Michael Milken . The film at hand is Weekend at Bernie's, a 1989 sort-of classic that strains hard to be a Blake Edwards type farce about two nudniks who get invited to the boss's place on "Hampton Island", a sort of amalgam of the Hamptons and Fire Island, only to show up and find him dead. Plot contrivances lead to them faking his continued good health. Hilarity ensues.

Said nudniks are played by Jonathan Silverman as the uptight Mathew Broderick-y Richard and brat pack supremo Andrew McCarthy as icky conniving buddy Larry. McCarthy's performance is the more startling of the two, a full on Ratso Rizzo-voiced concoction of sleaze in a sport jacket that seems ported in from a distant acting class in Queens.

Really, the French do this sort of tasteless farce better. When you're reading subtitles you don't have time to think about things like oh, it's a hot weekend and isn't the dead guy starting to stink? or what, no rigor mortis? Terry Kisor who tellingly gives the standout performance as the titular dead boss, Bernie, lolls and drapes his way through the film like a pile of rags - marvelously hard to do. He probably would have chosen to play him as more of a stiff if he had known he would have to do the same routine in the sequel, Weekend at Bernie's II. Yes, it was that big a hit. The sequel was, of course, D.O.A.

Wednesday, July 2, 2008

DVD Review: Fuller's Fulfilling First Films

Review by Noah Mallin

I've been on a Sam Fuller kick lately, partly from being engrossed in his lively autobiography. This underrated American director has a thriving cult and I suppose I can be counted as a member. You could do worse as an introduction than Eclipse's The First Films of Sam Fuller, out now on DVD.

The budget priced set consists of his first three films (duh) and like many multi-film sets the overall quality varies. None of the three are stinkers but only one is a mind-blowing lost classic. Let's dispatch with the others first.

I Shot Jesse James (1949) is a fine debut for the novelist soldier turned screenwriter/director. The relation to real life history is Hollywood scant as John Ireland plays Robert Ford as a petulant lovesick asshole and Reed Hadley plays a Jesse James full of backslapping bonhomie. The titular shooting takes a backseat to the rivalry between he and prospector turned sheriff John Kelley for a lady singer. There are several good scenes here, like Ford taking part in a staged re-enactment of the shooting in a rapt theater full of slack-jawed patrons but the pacing is gummy and scenes that are meant to build tension barely skirt unintended humor.

His second film, The Baron of Arizona (1950), is yet another unhistorical history piece and is hampered by a poorly conceived framing device. Vincent Price is the scheming land grabber who creepily finds a young girl, fakes her royal bloodline, and then waits till she's barely old enough to marry her and become the Baron of Arizona. Price is at his hammy best and there are several sequences that find him plumbing the wry humor inherent in going undercover as a Franciscan monk to forge records that are kept in the Abbey. Still, Fuller still hasn't caught the fine art of pacing.

It's on his third film, The Steel Helmet (1951), that his genius emerges from the very first shot of Sgt. Zack emerging from a field of dead bodies. It's no accident that this is the film of the three that is clearly drawn on Fuller's own harrowing experiences in World War II, experiences he would bring to The Big Red One which made my list of the best war movies ever. The Steel Helmet could easily find a berth on that list. Set during the then-current Korean War, this is a brutal unsentimental anti-war film that never stoops to preaching. It also happens to rip the guts out of the rampant racial prejudice that existed in the first war in which American troops were fully integrated. The scene in which a captured North Korean tries to turn a Japanese-American and a black soldier against their own country is incendiary stuff indeed for 1951 -- neither American soldier can dispute the facts of racism at home, even as they love what America stands for.

At the heart of The Steel Helmet is the relationship between gruff cigar-chomping Sgt. Zack and a young South Korean boy he nicknames Short Round. No this isn't the prequel to Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom but you can see what inspired Spielberg and Lucas with this pairing and how woefully inept they were at creating the same chemistry in their 80s homage. This Short Round may correct Zack by saying "I'm not a gook, I'm a South Korean!" but the vet still throws the kid down to the ground several times when the enemy fire starts to the immortal line "Eat rice kid!" The unknown actor Gene Evans, who plays Zack, is magnificent and utterly believable as the seasoned war weary dogface.

The gorgeous black and white cinematography by Ernest Miller and a strong ensemble cast all do their part to make this a bleakly exhilarating film from beginning to end, a must see. Eclipse is Criteron's no-frills budget line so aside from a pristine transfer their aren't many extras, not that you need them. At the affordable list price, consider the first two films as the extra and spring for The Steel Helmet.