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Saturday, September 27, 2008

Movie News: Paul Newman - Movie Star, Philanthropist, Race Car Driver, Political Activist, Dead at 83

Paul Newman, a movie star who straddled the end years of golden Hollywood and the new Hollywood era of anti-heroes, has died after a battle with cancer. Newman was one of the great iconic actors in film with classic roles in films in every decade through the 1990s. He was an actor who transcended his own great looks to find great depth, humanity and emotion in role after role - never succumbing to the easy Oscar bait or vanity project that could so easily have been a stock in trade. Not every movie was great, but he was great in every movie.

As a philanthropist he set up Newman's Own to sell the salad dressing he used to make for his family to the wider public - with hundreds of millions of dollars of proceeds going to charity. The Hole in The Wall Camps were set up for children with serious medical needs and both are to continue on.

As a race car driver and teamowner of the legendary Newman/Hass Team Newman was greeted with grudging respect at first and then admiration as he proved himself to be a gifted driver. Last month he set out for a lst few laps at Lime Rock race track in Connecticut, fitting for a man who won dozens of races -- most recently the 1995 IMSA GTS Class at the 24 Hours of Daytona when he was 70.

As a political activist he worked on behalf of antiwar Democrat Gene McCarthy in the 1960s and when he found himself on President Richard Nixon's enemies list declared it "...the single highest honor I've ever received..."

Back to his film work anyone loking to start to appreciate the work of the man has many places to start. 1954's Somebody Up There Likes Me showed Newman inheriting a role and a bit of an acting style from James Dean as boxer Rocky Graziano in a very traditional biopic. Newman is hot in every sense of the word in The Long Hot Summer a pulpy Faulkner adaptation that united him for the first time with future wife Joanne Woodward. His troubled brooding was center stage in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof as the Palinesquely named Brick, black sheep chafing under the control of Big Daddy in Tenessee Willaims hothouse melodrama.

After a few more smoldering hunk roles and a try at something meatier in Preminger's flawed Exodus Newman raised his art to a new level as poll shark Fast Eddie Felsen in The Hustler in 1961. Newman was always willing to show you the fatal flaw in his charismatic creations and Felsen's pigheaded cockiness was his first great example. With that in mind 1963s Hud was a ballsy bid to scotch his pretty boy image by playing an uregenerate bastard, a swaggering rapist and con man. Audiences loved it. It would be his third Oscar nomination for best actor.

The flawed detective flick Harper was followed by the flawed Hitchcock of Torn Curtain but then came Cool Hand Luke in 1967, a prison drama that cemented Newman's new status as one of the first of a coming wave of antiheros in tune with the anti-establishment 60s. His brilliant performance challenging the prison authorities and by inference society at large is indelible.

In 1969 came his first pairing with Robert Redford in the delightful Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid a new style Western that prefigured both the the buddy movies of the 80s and the blockbusters of the 90s. Another western of sorts, John Huston's 1972 quirky The Life and Times of Judge Roy Bean was less succesful in every way but a great central performance by Newman.

By 1973 and a string of mixed films he was ready to reteam with Redford in the terrific period flick The Sting, a romp full of double and triple crosses and cons galore. He worked with Robert Altman in 1976's polemical and fascinating Buffalo Bill and The Indians.

In 1977 Newman did Slap Shot, one of my personal favorites and one of the best sports movies ever as the star of a rustbest hockey team a few games away from total insolvency.

1981 gave two strong performances, Fort Apache, The Bronx as a good cop in a bad precinct in an even worse part of a bad borough of New York and Absence of Malice a somewhat silly prestige production enlivened by Newman and co-star Sally Field. The following year delivered Sidney Lumet's The Verdict with Newman excelling as an alcoholic lawyer ina screenplay by David Mamet.

In 1986 Martin Scorsese was able to entice Newman back to the Felsen character from The Hustler this time as mentor to cocky young Tom Cruise (who doesn't approach Newman's abilities at any point). Newman would win his first Oscar for the film.

In 1989 he was randy and salty as Louisiana governer Earl Long in Blaze.

Two of my favorite late career perfs by Newman were in 1994. The Hudsucker Proxy had Newman as Sidney J. Musberger in the Coen Brothers big business romp and he amply adjusts his acting style to their exaggerated mileu to great affect. He was also the grounded center of Robert Benton's sweet drama Nobody's Fool as a repentant aging ne'er do well.

With the passing of Newman one of the film world's most iconic members is gone. The humanity he brought to every single role was matched by his love of humanity itself. What a loss.

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Live Music: Car Crash? Plane Down? Nah - It's My Bloody Valentine!

Overheard on the way out of Roseland last night: “That show reminded me of that time I was in a car crash and I almost died…” OK, so, not your typical Jonas Brothers show. In fact it was the long wished-for re-union of My Bloody Valentine, British godfathers of the shoegazer genre who both defined and defied the stereotype of insular guitar-scapes and shuffling beats that would follow in their wake (see Ride, Lush, Slowdive etc.)

After a little heard set of sunny debut EP's MBV mastermind Kevin Shields discovered the joy of effects pedals and massive feedback and used them to push his surprisingly catchy melodies off-center, scuffing up his band’s songs and laying on thick sheets of guitar on albums like 1988’s wonderful Isn’t Anything and their towering 1991 classic Loveless.

Loveless found them with growing acclaim but a crippling inability to deliver on a follow-up, going Axl Rose one better by helping to bankrupt their record label in the elaborate process of endless studio recording and tinkering. The last time the band had played live together before this year was in 1992 and they had long dispersed to other projects by 1997 without any of the abandoned studio work seeing the light of day.

So out of the mists of time comes My Bloody Valentine and nothing much has changed except the ability to now headline a barn like New York’s Roseland two nights in a row as well as the All Tomorrow’s Parties festival upstate, and some extra dosh to spend on a big light show and projected images.

What needs to be said here is this band is freaking loud.

Earplugs were handed out at all the ticket collection points and woe to the badasses who tried to go it nude of ear. The H.R. Giger-like stacks of amps cantilevered over the front of the stage ominously forewarned what was to come. As the guitars cranked up and numerous tiny hipster chicks were lofted upon their boyfriend’s shoulders to see I thought, “Well, this isn’t all THAT loud…” and slid one earplug out only to quickly force it back in against the assault of sound.

The light show, which even Shields (who kicked out a light petulantly mid-show) thought was a bit overbearing for the space, and the sculpted slabs of guitar noise made each song into its own fascinating slow motion plane crash- flashes of light, groaning metal, whooshing air. Juxtaposed on this are the melody and choruses that seem as inevitable as gravity. Even their poppiest song, "Soon", takes a jaunty Manchester beat and turns it into the sound of Happy Mondays being tortured by Al Pacino in Scarface (bathroom, chainsaw, ‘nuff said?)

Then of course came the climax, “You Made Me Realize” which devolves from mere song into what was 20 minutes (concert companion Joe Sofia was counting) of sheer rumbling, testicle jiggling, jowl flattening ever-shifting blare that can only be approximately described as the aural equivalent of tectonic plates making love. After awhile (5 minutes say?) you begin to hear notes that aren't even there in amongst the shifting swirling monumental texture. There was no encore. The only thing they could have possibly followed up with would have been to come out and do “Have You Never Been Mellow” accompanied on a xylophone- merely as a palate cleanser.

This is all to say it was a very good show indeed. Regrets? As Joe Sofia pointed out, the vocals are mixed so low as to be practically non-existent. This isn’t a band anyone goes to for the words but it still felt like an element was getting a little short shrift. The crowd was made up of a high proportion of boorish louts – surprising for a Tuesday. There was one moron who clearly hadn’t been let out of his cage for several years and felt the need to get into a fight and mosh and generally do all sorts of things that were probably slightly more amusing when he was 15 years younger. Then there were the asinine shouts of “Play Louder” from some audience members which received a delicate middle finger from bassist Debbie Googe.

Still, a few boobs weren’t enough to ruin a fantastic show and some of the worst offenders were probably the same folks who inflicted permanent hearing damage on themselves so it all ends well.

Here's a hint of what the twenty-minute section of "You Made Me Realize" sounded like - just a hint mind you:

...and here's "When You Sleep" both from earlier this year:

Monday, September 22, 2008

Music News: Rock Hall of Fame Ballot Has Worthy Contenders, Shows Fragmentation

As the eligible nominees inch up into artists who first recorded in the 1980s, the fragmentation of rock is becoming more of an issue with two acts better known as leaders in other genres up for the ballot for this year's Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Those two acts are so monumental and had such a far reaching effect that their inclusion ought to be a matter of course. Chic and Run-DMC defined the artistic peak of disco and early rap respectively and both caused quite a bit of backlash in their day from the rock community.

In hindsight quite a bit of this insular reaction had a racial tinge to it. Chic would heavily influence the disco dabbling of bands like the Rolling Stones and Chic and Nile Rodgers would produce artists from Duran Duran to David Bowie to Madonna. Run-DMC had their biggest hit by collaborating with Aerosmith with a cover of the latter band’s “Walk This Way.”

Also up for inclusion is the long overdue Stooges, a seminal punk band led by Iggy Pop. The Stooges made three albums before imploding in the mid 70s and in that time were massive influences on Bowie, T. Rex, The Ramones, and the entire punk and indie rock explosions of the 70s, 80s, and 90s.

The other nominees are guitarist Jeff Beck, singer Wanda Jackson, Little Anthony and the Imperials, War, Bobby Womack and Metallica.

Metallica is a shoo-in and well they should be – the hard cold edge of speed metal whilst hair bands ruled they sold millions of albums with zero radio play before finally hitting the mainstream with 1991’a Black Album. One of the very few hard rock bands to be embraced by metalheads, grungesters and even math-rockers their latest album proves that they can still go at it pretty hard.

Bobby Womack is a frickin’ genius, a disciple of Sam Cooke who has been name-checked by dozens of stars like Mick Jagger. He’s more r&b than rock but I wouldn’t begrudge him a place in the hall. Jeff Beck has a rep amongst the guys who used to hog the stools at Guitar World with pockmarked skin and dead red-rimmed eyes but he’s never done much for me, his stint in the Yardbirds notwithstanding. The cat could play, natch, but that’s about it.

War were one of the greatest funk bands in the world. The rock connection is a bit tenuous coming as it does through an album with Eric Burdon with one big hit “Spill the Wine” and a horribly named album Black Man’s Burden. Still with hits like “Why Can’t We Be Friends” “Me and Baby Brother” and “Low Rider” they found their way into a lot of rocks fans music collections.

Wanda Jackson and Little Anthony are a little more sketchy to me, especially in light of the fact that for yet another year – no Shangri-Las’s! What’s up with that?

At the end of the day only 5 will be chosen – out of this batch who’s in my five?

1) 1) Metallica
2) 2) Chic
3) 3) Run-DMC
4) 4) The Stooges
5) 5) Bobby Womack
I can already hear the moaning at including Run-DMC and leaving off Jeff Beck, but tell it to The Replacements, Black Flag , The Minutemen, and The Shangri-La’s – all not even nominated this year.

Sony BMG are a bunch of morons who have disabled embedding on YouTube so no promo for Run DMC here, unfortunately.

Metallica - "Enter Sandman"

Chic - "Le Freak"

The Stooges - No Fun

Bobby Womack - "Looking for a Love"

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Music News: Norman Whitfield - Motown Legend - Dies

Norman Whitfield - a key member of Motown's late 60s assembly line as a writer/producer, is dead at age 65. At Motown he co-wrote classics like "I Heard it Through the Grapevine", "Just my Imagination", "Ball of Confusion", "Papa Was a Rolling Stone", "Cloud Nine", and "War" pushing the staid label into more socially conscious territory. This was echoed by his production work which took on a funkier thicker density as the 70s dawned. Away from Motown he would score hits like Rose Royce's "Car Wash" in 1977.

Monday, September 15, 2008

Music: Flashback! The Best Music of 1978

Continuing with our best of 1978, here's the best music of the year all in a convenient playlist for your pleasure. It's on random so just press play to enjoy the punk, pop, disco and funk that made the Carter years so damn special.

Music News: Pink Floyd Keyboardist Rick Wright Playing The Great Gig in The Sky

Rick Wright, a founding member of British rock band Pink Floyd, died today of cancer. He was 65. Wright was a versatile and innovative keyboardist with an influence that ranged beyond Floyd's progressive rock into techno and electronica.

Wright co-wrote several Floyd songs including the classics "Us and Them" from 1973's Dark Side of the Moon and "Shine on You Crazy Diamond" from the 1975 Wish You Were Here album. He also wrote the stirring gospel tinged track "Great Gig in the Sky" on Dark Side. "Diamond" was a tribute to Pink Floyd's original leader Syd Barrett who left the group in the late 60s having spiraled ever downward into a debilitating mental illness. Barrett died in 2006.

Wright wasn't immune to the interband tension between Roger Waters and David Gilmour. After walking out of sessions for The Wall in 1979 he returned to play live shows on the subsequent tour as a session musician. He was re-instated as a fulltime Floyd member after Waters was kicked out of the band.

"The Great Gig in The Sky" live from 1973

"Us and Them" live from 1988 (a tour I saw them on)

"On the Run" live from 1973

"Shine On You Crazy Diamond" live from 1994

Sunday, September 14, 2008

Books: David Foster Wallace Dead of Suicide - Doesn't Leave 8,000 Word Note with Footnotes

Hyper-referential post-modern author David Foster Wallace ended his own life this weekend. Best known for his half-ton Pynchon in a blender Infinite Jest he also wrote a number of short story collections and essays. My own favorite is one my wife had to entice me to read, A Supposedly Fun Thing I'll Never Do Again an essay collection that suggested that new journalism and non fiction were perhaps the richest vein in Wallace's repertoire.

Though I found Infinite Jest relatively impenetrable it did have some very funny passages and wonderful turns of phrase as did all of his published writing. It also helped to usher in, for better or worse, the McSweeney's phase of literary stardom with fellow writers Dave Eggers, Nick Hornby, Jonathan Lethem, and Michael Chabon among others.

Thursday, September 11, 2008

Books: Fletch, Flynn Creator Gregory Mcdonald Dies at 72

Author Gregory Mcdonald who created the characters of investigative reporter Irwin Maurice (I.M.) Fletcher - better known as Fletch - and Boston's own Inspector Flynn - has died of cancer. Fletch was a sensation when he was introduced to readers in 1974, spawning numerous books and two films starring Chevy Chase. Chase caught the hip deadpan intelligence of his character's literary origins but added the silly disguises and aliases that marked the films.

Inspector Flynn was a family man police inspector and a bit of an enigma - his mysterious past and Irish brogue setting him apart even in that most Irish of American cities - Boston. Flynn was introduced in the book Confess, Fletch and soon merited a few books of his own.

Both series petered out a bit in quality by the 90s and it's only recently that they've been re-issued. The 70s-era titles are well worth reading for fans of offbeat mystery.

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Sarah Palin: Double Standard Sarah Wants Special Treatment - But Just For Her

Remember when Republicans used to criticize Democrats for playing "identity" politics? Well the shoe's on the other foot. VP candidate "Double Standard" Sarah Palin sets the gold standard for "Do as I say, not as I do." Here's the very abbreviated list - I'm sure there's more!

Right to Choose
1) Palin is against a woman's right to choose, even in cases of rape or incest. Yet she describes her daughter's decision to keep her child as a "private choice." Only Double Standard Sarah's daughter gets to choose - yours won't if she gets elected.

The Double Standard Family
2) About that "private" bit -- Palin has been out there railing at the media for covering her family's travails. Then at the GOP convention the entire brood is trotted out as a living mosaic of "small-town family values"- including pregnant teen daughter and McCain photo-op participant fiancee Levi. Only Double Standard Sarah gets to exploit her family.

Animal Comparisons
3) Palin can compare an entire made up female demographic to dogs but when Obama dares to call out the McCain Bush policies for what they are - Lipstick on a Pig - her tender feelings are hurt. Could he mean her? Here I thought she was supposed to be a tough pit bull. Double Standard Sarah can Dish it out but she can't take it.

Wasteful Spending
4) Palin blathers on about how she's a fiscal conservative. On what planet? She took a small town from a surplus to $60 million in the red as mayor. She continues to lie about the chef she had as governor who continues to draw a paycheck and was never fired. Then there is the recent revelation that she had taxpayers pay her a per diem for staying in her own house at night - more than 300 times. Only Double Standard Sarah deserves earmarks and special payments for staying at home - wasteful spending.

Add your own Double Standard Sarah moment in the Comments!

Tuesday, September 9, 2008

Movies: Flashback! The Best Movies of 1978 - Part Three

Our final installment of the Best Movies of 1978 finds us grappling with the supernatural and downright horrific. 

11) Invasion of the Body Snatchers
One of the very few remakes that may be even better than the original, Philip Kaufman's remake of the Don Siegel 50s frightfest takes place in 1970s San Francisco. Where Siegel's film was a veiled take on McCarthyism and anti-Comunist paranoia Kaufman is interested in the 70s self-help EST driven search for self that ultimately found a bunch of numb alienated people (or just plain alien pod plant people) going through the motions. Donald Sutherland plays the hero, Leonard Nimoy is terrific as the turtleneck wearing "I'm OK You're Ok" shrink and Jeff Goldblum does his neurotic schtick while it was still fresh. Don't miss original Body Snatchers star Kevin McCarthy and director Siegel in cameos.

12) Dawn of the Dead
Ten years after Night of The Living Dead George Romero was ready for the sun to rise. Where his original zombie fest was an attack on racism during the peak of race riots and American civil unrest, Dawn of The Dead took us to the heart of zombieland - the capitalist utopia of the mall. The enuui of the Carter years transmuted into pure terror.

13) Halloween
Producer/Director/Screenwriter/Composer John Carpenter kicked off an entire genre of slasher picks with this low-budget b-movie left field hit. Jamie Lee Curtis, a stalker in a mask, Donald Pleasance and that famous piano score and yet the movie's depiction of teenage life in the late 70s rings oddly true and nostalgic from here. Other than the crazed slasher who won't die. Spawned 328 sequels.

14) Heaven Can Wait
Ernst Lubitsch's 1943 film Heaven Can Wait starred Don Ameche as a rake who dies and goes to Hell where Satan demands some proof of his Hellworthiness before entry. Ameche obliges with a recounting of his lusty adventures. Perfect for a remake starring famous cocksman Warren Beatty right? Well same title, but this Heaven Can Wait is actually a remake of a different 1940s film, the much sweeter Here Comes Mr. Jordan. No matter as Beatty is great as deceased football star Joe Pendleton who dies thanks to a mixup from inept angel Buck Henry. Pendleton is inserted into the freshly murdered body of a jerky millionaire to the surprise of homicidal wife Dyan Cannon and her lover Charles Grodin. Even more surprised is real-life Beatty paramour Julie Christie as the environmentalist protesting the rich guy who turns out to have a heart after all.

15) Superman: The Movie
This is where the superhero blockbuster started. Hokey, tongue in cheek and with effects that have aged this is still a hoot. A lot of the pleasure comes from a crackerjack cast - Christopher Reeve as the man of steel/Clark Kent, Margot Kidder as hardboiled Lois Lane, a magnetic Gene Hackman as Lex Luthor, and spitcurled tubster Marlon Brando as Jor-El. Don't discount the big setpieces though - the helicopter crash, the earthquake, Luthor's lair below Park Avenue. Sheer escapist fun.

Part 1 of the Best Movies of 1978

Part 2 of the Best Movies of 1978

Monday, September 8, 2008

Movie Review: Woody Allen Puts Together a Hot Foursome in Vicky Christina Barcelona

Another year another movie from the Woodman. Even the prospect of another delightful performance by Scarlett Johansson is hardly enough to fight the built-in ennui at the thought of another Woody Allen flick. Indeed the movie doesn't start promisingly. A narrator (not Allen) immediatly begins sketching in the background of Johansson (delectable as always) as Christina and gawkily pretty Rebecca Hall as Vicky who have just arrived in - you guessed it - Barcelona.

Hall gets stuck with a lot of the most typically Woody neurotic dialogue and at first she seems to struggle with it as many actors have before her. Yet she finds her way through it and builds a charcter of her own, her wide expressive mouth telling you as much about what she's feeling as her eyes.

Then in rolls Anton Chigurrh or rather, Javier Bardem, with sex appeal and charisma to burn. With smoldering eyes he purringly asks the girls to join him for a weekend of living - sex, wine, an airplane ride - and the movie takes off.

You see the engaged Vicky is the proverbial uptight good girl who sees love as security whereas Christina is the wannabe free spirit who is always seeking a transcendant love and never finding it. Bardem is the sexy artist who shakes them and the movie up and then Allen pulls one last trump card - the spectacular Penelope Cruz as Bardem's crazy ex/muse. She very nearly hijacks the rest of the film.

Allen and his cinematographer Javier Aguireesarobe show Spain in it's best light. Just about every Allen movie functions as architecture porn and this one is no different, feasting on fantastic country villas, Gaudi creations, and vintage amusement parks.

In between the lives and complicated loves of the cast seem to be on the verge of unraveling only to bring our two women back to where they started - which I found fascinatingly sad. My wife disagreed, feeling that they had gained some insight into themselves from their summer in Spain but I wasn't so sure.

What I was sure about was how nice it was to see an Allen film that could be such a pleasure and spark such an interesting converstaion at the end of it.

Sunday, September 7, 2008

Movies: Flashback - The Best Movies of 1978 Part 2

In the first part of our series the Best Movies of 1978, we got real heavy man with a bunch of 'Nam and Women's Lib flicks. There's some strong stuff here too but there's also fun to be had-- it was the 70s after all.

6) National Lampoon's Animal House
Just as there was a desire to look back at the recently concluded war in Vietnam in 1978 there was a desire to go back even further - in the case the early 1960s and the wildest frat on campus. The campus comedy is so debased these days that it's hard to believe the story of the outcast frat house versus the preps and the school administration could be fresh and new. Setting a new standard for "vulgarity," this was the Something About Mary of the late 70s but don't discount the winning performances by John Belushi,Tim Matheson and Peter Riegert and all-too-briefly, Karen Allen. Toga! Toga!

7) Grease
Grease was another 70s nostalgia trip, this time to high school in the late 50s. By 1978 musicals were staggering around looking for oxygen but this adaptation of a successful stage play was a big hit. Vinnie Travolta that is, shows us where he got those sweet Batusi moves from and Olivia Newton-John is winning goody-two shoes. The supporting cast is where a great deal of the action is with Stockard Channing terrific as bad girl Rizzo and future Celebrity Rehab star Jeff Conaway as Kenickie. There's also the score which marries 50s style songs (inclluding the surprisingly bawdy "Greased Lighting") to 70s disco moves and production. You're the one that I want indeed.

8) The Buddy Holly Story
Like Grease, this one is set in the late 50s and features a future screwed up celebriality TV mainstay - in this case Gary Busey. Unlike Grease it's a true story and isn't a musical though it features copious thrilling performances of Holly's hits. It's hard to know these days just what Busey is famous for other than being a nutjob but this film got him a well-deserved Academy Award nom for his incredible acting as Holly - a man who he normally resembles not at all. Busey even went one step further and does all the singing as well. This is one of the great rock bio pics of all time, telling the story of one of the greatest pioneers of the music.

9) Straight Time
Busey also showed up in Ulu Grosbard's underatted gem Straight Time, playing simpleminded best bud to paroled con Dustin Hoffman in this quirky study of how darn hard it is to go straight. Hoffman gives one of his best performances as theif Max Dembo, who wants badly to assimilate into the ideal American dream only the penal system doesn't seem to want him to. M. Emmet Walsh does his creepy bit as an overbearing parole officer, Harry Dean Stanton is at his iconic, laconic best as one of Hoffman's old buddies and young Teresa Russell is breathtaking as a woman who loves Hoffman but begins to discover what price she might pay for that.

10) Days of Heaven
This film, following his 1973 debut Badlands, established Terence Malick as one of the foremost portrayers of land and sky in cinema. His lush long shots almost threaten to swamp his actors and his storytelling but that is part of what makes them watchable. Richard Gere, Brooke Adams, and playwright Sam Shephard register mostly as visual elements in the glowing cinematography of Nester Almendros and Haskell Wexler and yet it's impossible to look away. This would be Malick's last film until 1998's The Thin Red Line. I can only imagine how long it must have taken to shoot a film that looks as if it took place in the "golden hour" between day and dusk.

See the Best Movies of 1978 Part One here.

Politics: Triumph At (but not of) the GOP

Looking for the best coverage of the convention? Look no further than Triumph the Insult Comic Dog and his man, Robert Smigel:

Thursday, September 4, 2008

Politics: The Double Talk Express as Explained by Jon Stewart

Thanks to Dr. Klahn, here's a clip of Jon Stewart showing Repulicans flip-flopping like fishes in an effort to defend moose-dresser Sarah Palin. Too bad they contradict everything they've said previously but never mind what we said then, listen to us now! The clip:

Wednesday, September 3, 2008

Movie Revie: Thunder Lumbers - Too Few Laughs in H-Wood Farce

Poor Ben Stiller. His big budget action spoof Tropic Thunder is a high-concept spoof that centers around a hollow, one-dimensional actor who is paired with a far more talented method type who seems to be stealing the movie they are starring in out from under him. As in life.

Stiller directs and stars in this loud Rambo send-up but the movie belongs firmly in the hands of the incredible Robert Downey Jr. - in blackface no less. Stiller creates the idea of a character but he rarely gets deeper than a few set beats - there's barely anything there to relate to let alone laugh at. Most of the chuckles he gets are visual rather than intrinsic character-based laughs. Most of the time he simply looks like a constipated greyhound. The difference between his performance here and the execrable Heartbreak Kid is Stiller's wide-eyed innocent boob routine.

Downey on the hand chomps on his character of an Australian uber-Method actor who dyes his skin in service of playing a Jim Brown-esque Seargeant just like he chomps on his prop cigar. His commitment to the character of an actor who's commitment to character is total Where Stiller expresses emotions by either scrunching or smoothing is forehead Downey is all about the eyes. There's a scene in which his entire head is covered and all you see are those orbs and he makes it funny, just with what he communicate ocularly.

Some other reliably funny folks like Jack Black as a rotund cross between Eddie Murphy and Larry the Cable Guy and Steve Coogan as a hapless first-time director have to make the best of some pretty spotty material.

There's also been a great deal of chatter about Tom Cruise in the film, who plays a vulgarian Hollywood executive of the sort that keeps moving Valkyrie around the release schedule. It's a funny, creepy character but it hardly needs the screentime. It is a nice change for Cruise who essentially plays the same asshole redeemed by his sense of community in every damn filmbut it adds little to the movie. I did mention it's creepy right?

A good microcosm of the entire film can be found at the beginning with a series of fake previews that had the elderly couple behind me fooled ("Boy there sure is a lot of crap coming out this fall") . Stiller's is kind of standard issue action sequel parody- not much more than a sight gag. Black's is chucklesome - fart humor to the nth degree with a sprinkle of condescension. Downey's is utterly brilliant, with he and Tobey Maguire as monks in a Brokeback Mountain wink.

It would have been interesting to see Downey rather than Black take a page out of the Eddie Murphy playbook. I believe he could have played all the characters in Tropic Thunder and squeezed more juice out of each role. As it stands the film is mildly amusing but little more.

Tuesday, September 2, 2008

Politics: McCain - A Big Pussy

Larry King: "What the hell do I do with all this bamboo... I need some fingernails..."

There - I said it. I have tried hard to keep the politics off this blog so far - there are plenty of good commentators out there. Yet once crow-like crypt-keeping Larry King gets dragged in I have to comment. Apparently one of CNN's people dared to ask McCain's manager some tough questions about Sarah Palin's readyness to be Vice President - and follow up. For the transgression of picking apart Mr. Bounds tissue thin reasoning McCain is punishing the entire network by refusing to be interviewed by professional gladhander King. Not a lot of balls for a guy who bases a great deal of political capital on his war record. Pathetic! Here's slick Tucker Bounds getting filleted on some pretty basic stuff:

Appreciation: Don LaFontaine - The Man, The Voice, The Legend

Famed voiceover star Don LaFontaine has died. LaFontaine is the ubiquitous rumbling gravelly voice of countless movie trailers. He's most famous for the magic formulation of "In a world where..." which bracketed so many trailers for films good and bad.

Appreciation: Jerry Reed Dead at 72

Jerry Reed, an amiable country star who hit it big with tongue-in-cheek novelties like "Amos Moses" and "The Bird" in the 1970s before transitioning to roles in movies like the Smokey and The Bandit series has died. Reed's hangdog style, lightning guitar playing and drawling singing style were a welcome presence on country radio and his low-key acting radiated an authenticity that "professionals" have a hard time matching.

Here's some of the best of Jerry:

Monday, September 1, 2008

Flashback: The Best Movies of 1978 Part One

Our flashback series takes us to 30 years ago, 1978, and the best movies of the year part one.

1) The Deer Hunter
Three years after the fall of Saigon, Americans seemed finally ready to grapple with Vietnam head-on in several films. The Deer Hunter was the longest and arguably weightiest of these - an epic visual poem. Director Michael Cimino had three rising stars at his disposal - Robert DeNiro, Christopher Walken, and Meryl Streep - all of whom would get Oscar noms. There have been nitpicks over the years over the accuracy of what's onscreen - particularly the Russian roulette sequences - but this isn't meant to be a documentary. It's a tortured exploration of war, community, and friendship, and manhood.

2) Coming Home

The second big 'Nam film of the year starred Hanoi Jane herself as the wife of a Captain, played by Bruce Dern, who is on his way over to serve in 1968. She's unquestioning in her support of the war and her husband. His absence leads her to start to think for herself and take a job helping at the local VA hospital where she encounters hunky paraplegic Jon Voight. Fonda's dawning consciousness about the the war parallels her discovery of herself as a separate person from her husband and the stifling military society they live in. Fonda and Voight are terrific, with Voight giving one of his best performances as an angry, sensitive man trying to channel his rage into something constructive. The ending is truly haunting and director Hal Ashby, an oft-overlooked genius of 70s filmmaking, knows just when to cut and when to linger. The soundtrack is full of great 60s chestnuts including lots of hard-to-clear Beatles and Stones songs.

3) An Unmarried Woman
A more contemporary exploration of a woman finding herself came in this Jill Clayburgh film directed by Paul Mazursky. Clayburgh plays a woman who thought she had a perfect marriage until sucky yuppie hubby played by Michael Murphy ditches her for a younger lass. With the help of her therapist she discovers the joys of singledom and casual sex before meeting up with lusty but sensitive he-man artist Alan Bates. In the end she has to decide whether her burgeoning career and independence are more important to her than her love of Bates. While the "choice" may be a false one it certainly mirrored what many women were feeling as they moved through the professional ranks while often being expected to put their lives on hold for the men they loved.

4) Blue Collar
Paul Schrader, the man who wrote Taxi Driver, made his directorial debut with this, one of the best American films to directly address race and class. It's not polemical so much as it's deeply felt and imbued with the grit of the assembly lines in which it takes place. Richard Pryor was never better than he is here as Zeke, along with Yaphet Kotto and Harvey Keitel. As Union members who scheme to rob the fatcats of their own union the trio form a tight onscreen bond that unravels against greed, violence, and the American way of doing business.

5) Fingers
Another talented writer taking a turn behind the camera for the first time was James Toback, here directing Harvey Keitel as a man torn between the family business of organized crime and his innate talent for classical piano playing. It's a more abstract character portrait than you might think judging from the plat and even some of the Scorsese mannerisms of the camerawork but it's an engrossing piece of work. Remade as The Beat My Heart Skipped.