Monday, April 06, 2009

10 films for the Aughts

Two of the film writers for the San Francisco Chronicle, Mick LaSalle and Peter Hartlaub, have published dueling "10 best films of the decade" lists.

To my way of thinking, it's a mite early for this. After all, the decade isn't over yet.

Then again, people get all squishy over lists, don't they? So, anytime is list time.

I use the word "dueling" above, not because Hartlaub and LaSalle hate each other (they may, but I don't think so — it's more an Ebert-Siskel rivalry), but because their lists have nothing in common. That's right: Two major film critics compiled lists of the best 10 films from the past decade, and not a single film appears on both lists.

(For your reference, here's Mick LaSalle's list, and then Peter Hartlaub's list.)

As a former professional film critic myself, I couldn't resist taking up this challenge, premature though it may be. I always preface these things with the caveat that "best" is a subjective and ultimately ridiculous concept when applied to the creative arts. So, let's call this...

My 10 Favorite Films from the "200x" Decade

1. Sideways

Funny, vulgar, touching, winsome, outrageous... I could keep stacking the adjectives, but none of them can completely express my affection for this film. Paul Giamatti's Miles is the person I would probably be if I drank. (Which is yet another good reason why I don't.) Virginia Madsen's soliloquy about the deeper meaning of wine may be the sexiest sequence in any film this decade — and she delivers it while vertical and fully dressed.

2. The Lord of the Rings trilogy

Peter Jackson's three-part cinematic thunderbolt may never be equaled, in terms of its sheer size, scope, and groundbreaking spectacle. As a longtime fan of Tolkien's magnum opus, I don't see how The Lord of the Rings could have been delivered to the screen any better or more faithfully — in spirit, if not in minute detail. (See: Bakshi, Ralph.) Perfect? Perhaps not. Seven levels of awesome? Heck, yeah.

3. Children of Men

No film I've seen in the past ten years moved me as powerfully as this darkly haunting slice of science fiction by Alfonso Cuarón. Children of Men strikes some of the same notes as Minority Report (another film I liked very much; surprising, since I'm not a fan of either director Steven Spielberg or star Tom Cruise), but it strikes them with more genuine emotion, and less hyperslick flash.

4. Memento

The first truly great film of the decade, Memento is noteworthy both as a dazzling achievement in cinematic storytelling (often imitated, but never approached) and as the revelation of one of the period's signature filmmakers: Christopher Nolan, who went on to direct Insomnia (an underrated flick, spoiled only by too hefty a dose of Robin Williams), Batman Begins, and The Dark Knight.

5. Spirited Away

Not only the best animated feature of the decade, but one of the finest animated films of all time. Hayao Miyazaki is sometimes referred to as "the Walt Disney of Japan," but this astounding, heart-wrenching film demonstrates just how inadequate that label is. It's not as much fun as many of Miyazaki's other pictures (it's hard to top Castle in the Sky, Kiki's Delivery Service, or the masterful Princess Mononoke in that department), but not every animated film has to be fun.

6. Best in Show

The funniest comedy of the decade, hands down. Will Christopher Guest ever make another movie this good?

7. Lost in Translation

I fully expected to hate this movie. I detested Sofia Coppola's pathetic attempts at acting, and her previous directing turn (The Virgin Suicides) left me cold. Plus, Bill Murray wore out his welcome with me way back around Ghostbusters. But its existential charm won me over.

8. Pan's Labyrinth

Like Jackson's LOTR, Guillermo del Toro's film sets a new high-water mark for technical achievement. More than that, however, it's an engaging and compelling journey into a world unlike any other. Many filmmakers are content to simply repeat the tried and true. Instead, del Toro chose to reinvent the fantasy film. Pan's Labyrinth defines the word "unforgettable."

9. Inside Man

I had a choice between two Spike Lee films here, Inside Man and 25th Hour. When in doubt, choose the movie with Denzel Washington in it. Especially if Jodie Foster and Clive Owen are in it, too.

10. Ocean's Eleven

Okay, okay. I'm allowed one low-brow selection. The true testament to Ocean's Eleven's greatness is that I've watched it more frequently than any other movie on this list, with the possible exception of Best in Show. I wish Steven Soderbergh hadn't followed it with two lackluster sequels (the middle film in the trilogy flat-out reeks), but that doesn't make the first one any less cool. Vegas, baby.

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Thursday, April 02, 2009

Quis custodiet ipsos custodes?

The literate souls among you know, of course, that it was Juvenal, the Roman poet, who posed the infamous question above. Although the words can be variously translated from the Latin, the most familiar English rendering is...

"Who watches the watchmen?"

In the case of the film of that latter name, the answer, apparently, is...

"I do."

This afternoon, I spent nearly three hours alone in a darkened theater (I was literally the only patron) viewing director Zach Snyder's Watchmen, the cinematic iteration of Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons's seminal 1985 graphic novel. At least, of Dave Gibbons's work — he's recognized in the film's opening credits as the book's "co-creator and illustrator" — as Moore, in a characteristic fit of auteurist pique, refused to allow his name to be mentioned in connection with Snyder's movie.

Although I avoided reading any in-depth reviews before seeing the film for myself, I'm aware from the chatter on various comic-related forums I frequent that comic fandom is of divided mind about Snyder's work. Some diehard Watchmen loyalists decried the liberties Snyder took in bringing the graphic novel to the screen. Others enjoyed — or didn't enjoy — the movie on its own merits.

For myself, I wasn't a fan of the original work back when it first appeared, and I haven't reread it in the 24 years since. (I own a copy of the trade paperback that I'm going to get around to eventually. I promise.) Thus, I was able to approach the film with no ax to grind.

And I kind of liked it.

Given that he was working from a byzantine story told in static visuals that had been widely believed unfilmable, I think Snyder delivered about as good a Watchmen movie as it's possible to make. He managed to be remarkably faithful to the book (to the degree that I remember it), while at the same time incorporating elements that lent themselves to more effective cinematic presentation. Watchmen has, in that respect, a great deal in common with Peter Jackson's The Lord of the Rings trilogy, which does an outstanding job at bringing Tolkien's story and characters alive, while also being savvy about where to deviate for the sake of good filmmaking.

I'm not saying, by any stretch of the imagination, that Watchmen is the equal of The Lord of the Rings. That would be like comparing an In-N-Out Burger with a sirloin of Kobe beef. One is clearly superior to the other, but they're cut from similar cows.

One of the key evaluative measures for me with any movie is what I call "the watch test." That is to say: Does the film hold my difficult-to-corral attention, or do I find myself glancing at my watch, wondering how soon the agony will end? Watchmen (no pun intended) passes the watch test — despite its daunting length, I only needed a single peek at the time (during a slow stretch about halfway through). Any film that keeps chronically distracted me engaged for two hours and 42 minutes with only a single momentary hiccup is doing a lot of things well.

Is Watchmen a perfect movie? Well, no. Some of the same elements that turned me off to Moore and Gibbons's original bugged me here — the intense, often graphic violence; the nihilistic worldview; the illogical (dare I say ridiculous?) behavior of many of the characters. And while I, unlike the hardcore aficionados, found the film's version of the story's dénouement an improvement over the book, it's still painfully silly. I also question several of Snyder's casting choices, especially the vapid Malin Akerman as Silk Spectre the younger (I'm sure she's a nice girl, but she can't act a lick), and Matthew Goode as an embarrassingly effete Ozymandias (about as imposing as Jonathan Pryce's media-mogul Bond villain in Tomorrow Never Dies, which is to say, not).

Those quibbles aside, a lot of the film works.

Jackie Earle Haley is brilliant as Rorschach, the most haunted of the Watchmen. Indeed, Haley's work here is every inch as strong as the late Heath Ledger's Oscar-winning turn in The Dark Knight, only Haley's performance has the added benefit of subtlety. (Not to mention the fact that he spends most of the film behind a CGI-enhanced mask.) I also very much enjoyed Patrick Wilson as Nite Owl — the only truly likable character in the main cast — and Jeffrey Dean Morgan as the vicious Comedian. Billy Crudup does what he can with the central, but ultimately thankless, role of the emotionless superbeing Dr. Manhattan.

In smaller roles, it was a treat to see the underused, underappreciated Matt "Max Headroom" Frewer as a former bad guy trying to go straight, and of course, I'd watch Carla Gugino (who plays the senior Silk Spectre, mostly under cover of old-age makeup) read the phone book.

The special effects are good, if not magnificent, throughout the movie. (One key annoyance: The CGI Dr. Manhattan, performed by Crudup with the aid of motion capture, never looks quite right. I never for a moment believed that he was actually in the frame with the other actors.) The costume and set designs, on the other hand, are outstanding, conveying the sensibility of the comic while adapting beautifully to realistic live-action.

And, in case the R rating wasn't a ginormous tip-off, Watchmen is most emphatically not a film for children. It comes replete with several scenes of close-up, grisly violence, one fairly explicit sex scene (albeit one that seems essential to the development of the two characters involved), and an abundance of full-frontal male nudity in the form of the naked, blue, and prodigiously endowed (albeit by way of CGI) Dr. Manhattan. Don't say I didn't warn you.

If you're a Watchmen fanatic, you've probably already seen Watchmen, or decided to stay home and page through your sweat-stained comics instead. I can't help you in either case. If, on the other hand, you're up for a dark superhero action flick that won't short you on your ten-buck admission, you just might dig it.

Uncle Swan gives Watchmen three-and-a-half tailfeathers out of a possible five.

Quis custodiet ipsos custodes? Maybe you.

Oh, yeah... one tiny continuity error in Watchmen drove me positively bonkers. In the novel, the junior Silk Spectre's real name is Laurie Juspeczyk. Throughout the movie, as well as in the closing credits, the character is referred to as Laurie Jupiter, suggesting that she adopted the pseudonym used by her mother and predecessor, who was known as Sally Jupiter. However, there's a scene in which Laurie tries on Nite Owl's high-tech goggles, which employ fingerprint-recognition software to identify anyone viewed through their lenses. When she looks at her own hand, the readout displays, "Laurie Juspeczyk."

Darn hear ruined the movie for me.

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Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Movies is movies, books is books

I've been reading with bemusement numerous online threads about the new Watchmen film released last week.

I haven't yet seen the movie, but I think it's funny how many diehard fans of Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons's graphic novel are up in arms about changes that director Zach Snyder introduced into the film version. It's identical to the furor that arose among Tolkienistas when Peter Jackson's Lord of the Rings trilogy debuted, or among Marvel Comics aficionados over the first Spider-Man and X-Men movies.

From my perspective, these arguments are ridiculous.

Last night, I finished reading Rex Pickett's novel Sideways, upon which Alexander Payne based his Academy Award-winning motion picture. Sideways the film is one of my favorite movies of the last decade. It is, however, markedly different in many key respects from Pickett's novel. Some of the adjustments are minor; others fundamentally alter the nature of both the major characters and the storyline.

And that's okay.

You know why that's okay? Because a novel is a novel, and a film is a film. They are different media, with different requirements and different approaches.

Peter Jackson understood that when he adapted Tolkien's work. As much as he loved the original novels, Jackson realized that certain aspects simply wouldn't work as well on screen as they did on the page. So he changed things. Not out of disrespect or hubris, but because changes needed to be made to effectively translate the overall story into cinema.

Sam Raimi faced similar challenges with Spider-Man, so Peter Parker got organic webshooters instead of mechanical ones. Bryan Singer faced them with X-Men, so Wolverine became a strapping six-footer in black leather instead of a burly five-footer in yellow spandex.

Whatever tinkering Zach Snyder found necessary in bringing Watchmen to the screen, I'm sure that the issues were of like kind.

In case you suppose that my indifference to cinematic alteration is directly connected to my feelings toward the source material — my lack of enthusiasm for Alan Moore's oeuvre, and Watchmen in particular, is well documented — I assure you that it is not.

You'd be hard pressed to find anyone who loves Spider-Man more than I have over the past four decades, but I was perfectly fine with the built-in spinnerets and the armor-clad Green Goblin. Those changes made sense in a film context. In the same way, although I considered myself an ardent Tolkien admirer in my younger days, none of Jackson's twists and tweaks troubled me in the least. I didn't even miss Tom Bombadil.

I understand the passion that fans of a published work have for their favorite stories and characters. Those fans, in turn, need to understand that telling a story in moving pictures and sound is not the same as telling that story in written words (or in static words and pictures) on a printed page. Different media, different ballgame.

In other words, get over it.

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Monday, March 09, 2009

I'll be home for Purim

A joyous Purim to all my friends of the Jewish persuasion!

For the benefit of my fellow goyim, Purim commemorates the events depicted in the Biblical book of Esther, in which a young Jewish woman marries the king of the Persian Empire. Using her influence on her powerful husband, Esther ultimately saves her people from a genocidal government official named Haman.

Which reminds me...

If you haven't seen Christopher Guest's film For Your Consideration, you should. It's not one of Guest's familiar "mockumentaries" (i.e., Waiting for Guffman, Best in Show, A Mighty Wind, and the Rob Reiner-directed, Guest-scripted film that launched the genre, This is Spinal Tap), but it features most of the same cast and is almost as funny.

For Your Consideration centers around the production and release of a low-budget film starring three hapless actors played by Harry Shearer, Catherine O'Hara, and Parker Posey. When the trio are nominated for Academy Awards, everything in their lives changes.

The original working title of the film-within-a-film is Home for Purim. (Its plot revolves around a Jewish family in the Deep South during World War II, whose adult daughter — the Parker Posey character — comes out as a lesbian.) When pressured by an anti-Semitic studio executive (British comic Ricky Gervais), Home for Purim's producers are compelled to "tone down the Jewishness" and retitle their movie Home for Thanksgiving.

If you and your family celebrate Purim this evening, I hope that you enjoy a grand and memorable celebration.

Don't tone down the Jewishness for anybody.

Memo from the Did You Know? Department, Old Testament Division: Esther is one of two books of the Bible that never mention God. (The Song of Solomon is the other.)

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Monday, February 23, 2009

My awards show has a first name...'s O-S-C-A-R.

A few notes from last night's 81st Academy Awards ceremonies:
  • Pleasantly innocuous hosting job by Hugh "Wolverine" Jackman. The producers tailored the show to his strengths — he's a song-and-dance man, not a stand-up comedian. Jackman's style seems a better fit for the Tony Awards, which he's hosted several times, than for the Oscars, which attract a larger, more diverse audience. I doubt that the Academy Powers That Be will invite Hugh to host again, but I'm equally sure they're not sorry that they invited him this time.

  • I almost liked the smaller, more intimate set design. Having all of the nominees seated together and close to the stage worked well, especially for reaction shots when the winners were announced. The set-up did, however, give the event a confined, cramped feel. The Oscars need to be larger than life, not smaller than a breadbox.

  • Jackman's opening number with the cheesy props and Anne Hathaway — who is not a cheesy prop, despite her unsettlingly gargantuan eyes — was kind of fun. Billy Crystal has done similar openings to better effect in previous years.

  • Memo to Ms. Hathaway: If you have a preternaturally pasty complexion, a white evening gown is not your friend.

  • Memo to Nicole Kidman: Borrow Anne's memo when she's done reading it.

  • Best idea of the night: Using previous winners of the major acting awards to introduce the nominees. Some of the intros meandered on for a bit too long, and some of the choices didn't work as well as others. Overall, however, this was a gimmick worthy of repeating in future years.

  • Second-best idea: Queen Latifah singing "I'll Be Seeing You" over the traditional "Folks Who Croaked" montage. It added a touch of human warmth to an exercise that often just feels creepy and maudlin.

  • Among the winners, I was happiest for Kate Winslet, who has deserved to win at least a couple of times previously and came up empty.

  • Man, those people from Slumdog Millionaire were genuinely happy to be there.

  • Eddie Murphy seemed an out-of-left-field choice to present Jerry Lewis with the Jean Hersholt Humanitarian Award. They're both comic actors, but was there any other connection? Usually, they get someone who's a close friend of the awardee to give these special honors away. Maybe this was a sign that Lewis doesn't have any friends left in Hollywood.

  • What was up with the preponderance of dresses that looked like wedding gowns? Was someone getting married, and I missed my invitation?

  • Joaquin Phoenix is still wondering why Ben Stiller — and everyone else on the planet — is making fun of him.

  • Didn't win, but looked terrific anyway: Best Supporting Actress nominees Viola Davis and Taraji P. Henson. A couple of classy ladies right there.

  • Didn't win, but frightened small children anyway: Mickey Roarke and Tilda Swinton. At least Tilda comes by her looks naturally.

  • Hey, Amy Adams: Is that a necklace, or did you string together every bauble and bead at your local craft shop? You're lucky you didn't break a clavicle with that ginormous weight around your shoulders.

  • Speaking of ginormous: Angelina, please. The green stones. They are too large.

  • After seeing how much fun John Legend had singing "Down to Earth" surrounded by all of the Bollywood festivity of the two nominated songs from Slumdog, I'll bet Peter Gabriel feels like a moron for refusing to perform. And well he should.

  • I'll bet Bruce Springsteen would have enjoyed doing that bit too, had his song from The Wrestler been nominated, as it should have been.

  • Will Smith stumbled all over his TelePrompTer trying to give away the technical awards. Will, that Scientology foolishness is turning your brain into pudding.

  • Sean Penn, you are only about a third as cool as you think you are.

  • Am I the only one disappointed that Heath Ledger couldn't be bothered to show up to collect his Best Supporting Actor statuette? Hmm? He's what? Oh. Never mind.

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Thursday, February 19, 2009

Birth? Day.

I've commented before about the odd coincidence of nature that resulted in my wife KJ and my now six-year-old goddaughter in Maine sharing a birthday.

Well, it's time to mention it again.

Happy birthday, girls!

And, while we're at it, happy birthday to:

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Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Just another Friday the 13th

Did we really need a remake of Friday the 13th?

I mean, the past three decades have foisted umpty-zillion (okay, ten) sequels to that pitiful chapter in Kevin Bacon's résumé on the movie-going public. Now, New Line Pictures is remaking the original?

If the new flick is successful, will New Line remake each of the sequels too? Will we see fresh takes on such cinematic classics as Friday the 13th: The Final Chapter, Friday the 13th Part VIII: Jason Takes Manhattan, and the ever-popular Freddy vs. Jason?

Heaven help us.

Or perhaps that's the wrong phrase.

At any rate, the incessant commercials for the updated Friday the 13th put me in mind of the only facet of the Friday the 13th franchise worthy of revisiting...

Friday the 13th, The Series.

Those of you sufficiently long of tooth to have experienced the 1980s firsthand (and you know who you are) may recall this minor trifle of syndicated television history, which aired for three seasons beginning in 1987. Interestingly, Friday the 13th, The Series had nothing whatsoever to do with Jason Voorhees of hockey mask fame. Aside from the common title, the only connection between the film franchise and the TV series was the producer behind both: the semi-legendary Frank Mancuso, Jr.

When first he decided to bring his horror stylings to the idiot box, Mancuso, Jr. didn't intend to call his latest venture Friday the 13th. With partner Larry B. Williams, Mancuso developed the show under the title The 13th Hour. At some point before the series hit the airwaves, however, Mancuso decided (doubtless with a nudge from Paramount Pictures, which distributed the first several Friday the 13th movies) that it would be a shame to waste all that built-in branding, and thus Friday the 13th, The Series was born.

The show's plot revolved around the adventures of cousins Micki (erstwhile model and pop singer wannabe Louise Robey, billed only by her last name here) and Ryan (John D. LeMay, who would complete the circle by starring in Jason Goes to Hell: The Final Friday), who inherit their late uncle's antique shop. They soon discover that their uncle had sold his soul to the devil, and all of the objets d'art in the shop bore a Satanic curse. Micki and Ryan, aided by a magician and occultist named Jack, make it their mission to round up all of the already-sold curios before supernatural disaster befalls the people who now own these accursed items.

Needless to say, this mission often fails. Because, after all, horrific consequences are what Friday the 13th is all about.

And in truth, the events instigated by the bedeviled antiques were about as gruesome as anything on television prior to the advent of CSI and its spinoffs. With only a handful of exceptions, the people who came into contact with the haunted articles in each week's episode met grisly ends. (Because the show ran in syndication rather than on network broadcast, and was typically shown in the late-night, post-primetime hours, Mancuso and company were granted almost cable-like leeway to display graphic violence.) Even the show's protagonists were not immune: Ryan was written out of the series at the beginning of the third season, when he is de-aged into a young boy by one of the store's wares.

Although shot in Canada on a limited budget, Friday the 13th: The Series offered consistent entertainment for horror and fantasy fanatics. Familiar C-level character actors occasionally turned up as guest stars, and such talented directors as David (The Fly) Cronenberg and Atom (The Sweet Hereafter) Egoyan directed episodes.

Friday the 13th: The Series still turns up on cable and independent stations now and again, and I'm sure it's available on DVD. (These days, what isn't?) Fans of the current CW series Supernatural, which bears certain superficial resemblances, would probably enjoy checking it out.

It's got to be better than yet another Jason movie.

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Thursday, December 25, 2008

Catwoman's last groove

Not to rain a bummer down on your Yuletide or anything, but...

Eartha Kitt died today.

You young whippersnappers know Ms. Kitt as the voice of Yzma in The Emperor's New Groove, one of the best Disney animated films of the past decade, and its spin-off television series, The Emperor's New School.

Those of us with a few miles on our odometers knew that the multitalented Ms. Kitt possessed many facets. She was an actress; nominated for two Tony Awards, she was a favorite of actor-director Orson Welles (on and off the set, or so the whispers tell). She was a singer; ironically, given her death on Christmas Day, her best-known musical number was the original rendition of the pop-jazz carol "Santa Baby." She was a social activist; her scathing remarks condemning the Vietnam War at a White House function reportedly reduced Lady Bird Johnson, the then-incumbent First Lady, to tears.

Eartha Kitt broke barriers in a number of ways, perhaps most memorably in 1967, when she took over the role of Catwoman in the hit Batman after Julie Newmar left the show. "Color-blind" casting is relatively common today — think of Denzel Washington in the remake of The Manchurian Candidate, to cite just one recent instance — but in the '60s, it was practically unheard of that an African-American actor would be cast in a role written for a Caucasian.

Kitt's turn as the Felonious Feline was all the more remarkable in that the character's race was never made an issue. No one on Batman ever seemed to notice that the new Catwoman was black. Again, unheard of in mid-20th century Hollywood.

Kitt's tradition-shattering portrayal opened possibilities for countless other actors to be chosen for roles for which they might never have been considered — such as Halle Berry in the title role in Catwoman.


Let me think of a better example.

How about Michael Clarke Duncan as the Kingpin in Daredevil?

Yeah, that works.

Back to Eartha Kitt...

In addition to her work behind the Disney microphone (for which she earned her second Daytime Emmy just a couple of months ago), the legendary star spent her later years performing her popular cabaret act, acting in the occasional stage production (she toured as the Fairy Godmother in the national company of Cinderella a few years back), and battling colon cancer.

She died less than one month shy of her 82nd birthday.

As the great Ms. Kitt might have said herself... meow.

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Thursday, December 18, 2008

The L. Ron Hubbard School of Mathematics

Just in case anyone still needed proof that Scientology rots the brain:

In an interview published in the December 8 issue of Newsweek, Will Smith extols the virtues of his boon companion Tom Cruise, whom the Fresh Prince of All Media describes as "one of the most open, honest and helpful people I've met in Hollywood, or really anywhere."

Reporter Allison Samuels follows up: "No one else gave you that kind of support in all your years in the business?"

To which Will responds: "Well, Eddie Murphy and Bill Cosby reached out and really helped me back in the day, but they were older. Tom is my age..."

Umm, Will...

Tom Cruise is your age, but Eddie Murphy is "older"?

Will Smith was born September 25, 1968. Save the grab for your calculator: He's 40.

Eddie Murphy was born born April 3, 1961. He's 47. Okay, so he's older than Will — not as much as Bill Cosby, who's 71, but still, a few years older.

Tom Cruise was born July 3, 1962. That makes him 46... just one year younger than the apparently ancient Eddie Murphy.

Will: Put that copy of Dianetics down now, before your skull implodes.

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Wednesday, October 22, 2008

I know Damone

You've seen Fast Times at Ridgemont High, right?

Remember the scene when Mark Ratner finds out that his best friend Mike Damone has "done the deed" with Stacy Hamilton, on whom Rat has a serious crush?

There's that classic moment when Rat confronts Damone in the locker room:
I always stick up for you. Whenever people say, "That Damone, he's a loudmouth" — and they say that a lot — I always say, "Hey, you just don't know Damone."

When they call you an idiot, I say, "Damone's not an idiot. You just don't know him."

Well, you know something, man? Maybe they do know you pretty good. Maybe I'm just finding out now.
I think I just had that conversation with someone.

Only without the deed-doing part.

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Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Dolemite has left the scene

By way of my friend The Real Sam Johnson — the undisputed king of bloggers in Savannah, GA — comes the sad news of the death of comedian, actor, and entertainment personality Rudy Ray Moore.

That name might not trip any bells for those of you too young to have experienced the swinging '70s, but readers of a certain age (and those, to be frank, who have the complexion to make the connection) will recall Moore, first as one of the premier purveyors of what we called "party records" back in the day, and then as the lead in several blaxploitation flicks, most notably playing the outrageous pimp-slash-action hero known as Dolemite.

Moore was, first and foremost, a stand-up comic and raconteur who worked the so-called "chitlin circuit" in the 1960s. Like many African-American comics of that era, he produced inexpensive record albums featuring his down-and-dirty, profanity-and-graphic-sexuality-laden routines, targeted specifically at black audiences. (Although I've been surprised over the years to discover how many of my Caucasian acquaintances also grew up listening — mostly in secret — to these "party records," so dubbed because people often played them as entertainment at adult gatherings.) Richard Pryor, Redd Foxx, Pigmeat Markham, and ventriloquist Willie Tyler were among the leading practitioners of the genre.

As the blaxploitation boom was sweeping the film industry, propelled by such hit movies as Shaft and Superfly, Moore began looking for a way to cash in. His ticket into cinematic legend was Dolemite, a character that had long been a feature of Moore's stand-up act.

The on-screen Dolemite was a flamboyant cross between every stereotypical cliché about urban pimps and a hard-charging street fighter of the kind then being portrayed by Jim Kelly, Fred "The Hammer" Williamson, and other blaxploitation stars. (Think Huggy Bear, with an R-rated vocabulary.) When the 1975 film Dolemite became a cult hit, Moore reprised the character in The Human Tornado the following year. In 1978, Moore unleashed his other signature character, Petey Wheatstraw, the devil's son-in-law. (I kid you not.)

Moore's movies, made on budgets that you could probably scrape together from loose change you found beneath your sofa cushions, were not high cinematic art. Indeed, it's fair to say they're the kind of flicks that Ed Wood might have made if he had been a black comic in the 1970s. But the films connected with their intended audience, so enduringly that Moore and his Dolemite persona evolved into hip-hop icons, appearing on several popular rap recordings and in numerous videos.

They definitely don't make 'em like Rudy Ray any Moore.

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Saturday, September 27, 2008

Behind blue eyes

I awakened this morning to the sad news that Paul Newman had passed away.

Almost immediately, I began thinking about my favorite Newman films. After considerable dithering, I narrowed the list to a baker's half-dozen.

1. The Sting. An easy selection, as it's one of my ten favorite films of all time. Newman is perfect as dissolute con artist Henry Gondorff, who teams up with tyro Johnny Hooker (about a decade too old for his youthful role) for one last big score. The scene in which a faux-drunk Gondorff fleeces mobster Doyle Lonegan (Robert Shaw) at the poker table is a classic.

2. Cool Hand Luke. One of the films of the 1960s that pioneered the antihero archetype that would become ubiquitous in the following decade. Newman's free-spirited convict with a knack for escape defined a generation of maverick leading men.

3. The Hustler / The Color of Money. Made 25 years apart, these two films chronicle the early and late stages in the career of a small-time pool shark. As "Fast Eddie" Felson, Newman compelled audiences to rethink their concept of the traditional sports hero. The return of an older, more settled, and mostly wiser Eddie won Newman his only Academy Award for acting. (He won a career retrospective Oscar in 1986, and the Jean Hersholt Humanitarian Award in 1994.)

4. The Verdict. Paul Newman speaking David Mamet dialogue — what could be better? Although I rate the preceding films more highly overall, Newman's portrayal of a morally conflicted boozehound attorney is, in my opinion, the finest performance of his career. Ironically, Mamet wrote the lead role for Newman's friend and collaborator Robert Redford, who ultimately turned the part down.

5. Harper / The Drowning Pool. This pair of detective dramas are more sentimental choices than anything else. I was an avid reader of Ross Macdonald's Lew Archer novels when I was in high school, so I never missed an opportunity to catch either of these films — based on Macdonald books, albeit with the protagonist's surname changed to reflect Newman's success in films whose titles began with "H" (i.e., The Hustler, Hud, Hombre).

6. Torn Curtain. Neither Newman nor director Alfred Hitchcock liked the way this Cold War suspense thriller turned out. I personally think it's one of Hitch's better late-period films, and Newman gives an interesting, somewhat atypical performance opposite Julie Andrews.

Yes, I know — you were waiting for Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. Funny thing: As much as I love The Sting, I'm not a real fan of Newman, Redford, and director George Roy Hill's earlier team-up. My preferences in '60s Westerns run toward Sergio Leone — thus, like Roger Ebert, I find Butch and Sundance too flimsy and lightweight for my taste.

In addition to being a consummate actor, Paul Newman made his mark on the world as a philanthropist, entrepreneur, sportsman, and political and social activist. He and his wife, fellow Academy Award winner Joanne Woodward, celebrated their 50th wedding anniversary in January of this year — an accomplishment as noteworthy as any in Newman's amazingly full life.

The world will be dimmer without Newman's crystal blue gaze.

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Tuesday, September 02, 2008

In a world without the Movie Trailer Guy...

Shocked, stunned, and saddened I am this morning to learn of the death of voiceover superstar Don LaFontaine, better known to millions of television viewers and movie attendees as "the Movie Trailer Guy." He was 68 years old.

LaFontaine's booming, gravelly, sonorous-yet-compelling voice graced literally hundreds of motion picture trailers and advertisements during his lengthy and lucrative career. And when I say "lucrative," I'm not just tossing around random adjectives. LaFontaine was recognized by the Screen Actors Guild as the single busiest actor in the history of the union, meaning that he fulfilled more contracts for acting work — and yes, voiceovers are acting — than any other member of SAG, an organization whose membership is 90 to 95 percent unemployed at any given moment.

The guy was so huge in the industry that he was driven in a chauffeured limousine to his voiceover jobs. Now that's stardom.

LaFontaine's celebrity grew to the point that Geico Insurance recently featured him on camera in one of its quirky commercials, in which he stood at a microphone in a woman's kitchen, providing his trademark commentary behind her tale of "Geico to the rescue." It was a fitting affirmation of the ubiquity LaFontaine had achieved in 21st century American popular culture.

Around our house, we often referred to LaFontaine as "the 'In a world...' guy," because so many of his trailers began with that trademark phrase... "In a world where evil triumphs..." "In a world where man fights for survival..." "In a world where life is cheap and death is expensive..."

The irony of LaFontaine's passing at this particular moment in time is that I've been listening to his work extensively in recent months. I haven't discussed this here much (if at all), but I'm currently studying voice acting, with a view toward a new career as a voiceover artist. Because LaFontaine resided at the pinnacle of the profession, I've been reviewing his demo reels (along with those of dozens of other voice actors) to learn the subtleties of his inflection, expression, and timing.

What I soon learned is that while LaFontaine was blessed with a magnificent natural instrument — you can't just pop over to Wal-Mart or Target and buy a voice like that — it was his skills as an actor that gave him transcendence. He understood how to turn a phrase perfectly, how to lean into (or back away from) a word to enhance its meaning, how to add character or clarity to his tone at just the right time and in just the right way. At the end of a Don LaFontaine trailer, you wanted to see that movie — and getting you to buy tickets was, after all, the man's job.

A few years ago, LaFontaine teamed up with four other voiceover artists who specialize in film trailers (John Leader, Nick Tate, Al Chalk, and Mark Elliott) for a fun bit of business entitled "Five Guys in a Limo." This hilarious short film offers both a clever slice of self-parody by LaFontaine and his colleagues, and a dramatic testimonial to the evocative power of the human voice. If you've never seen it, dash over to YouTube this very second and check it out.

In a world where true talent often struggles to be heard over the cacaphony of mediocrity, Don LaFontaine was The Voice. I admired his work. And I'll miss him.

(This post is not yet rated.)

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Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Lord Bowler's final frame

I was sorry to read just now that actor Julius Carry passed away yesterday, reportedly from pancreatic cancer.

Fans of genre cinema will remember Carry as Sho'Nuff, the self-styled "Shogun of Harlem" in Berry Gordy's The Last Dragon, the cult classic action flick that swirled together martial arts, hip-hop, and one-time Prince main squeeze Vanity. Sho'Nuff's shtick was asking the members of his criminal posse such questions as "Am I the prettiest?" or "Am I the meanest?" so the gang could holler back, "Sho'Nuff!"

My favorite Carry role, though, was the colorful bounty hunter Lord Bowler (so dubbed because he always wore a bowler hat) in the all-too-short-lived science fiction Western The Adventures of Brisco County, Jr. (Think The Wild, Wild West with a '90s sensibility and no Will Smith.)

Carry appeared opposite the legendary Bruce Campbell — veteran of numerous Sam Raimi films (including the Evil Dead trilogy, in which he played wisecracking antihero Ash Williams) and currently the costar of USA Network's outstanding spy series Burn Notice — as the title character's skeptical sometime-partner in his search for the outlaws who murdered Brisco's U.S. Marshal father. Brisco was also obsessed with finding "the coming thing," the discovery he believed would usher in the modern age.

If you missed Brisco County during its original run in the nascent days of FOX, it's well worth checking out on DVD. Both Campbell and Carry are excellent in the series, which also featured TV veteran John Astin (the original Gomez in The Addams Family). It's a unique blend of genres, and one heck of a lot of fun.

Hope you found the coming thing, Lord Bowler.

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Wednesday, June 18, 2008

Hey, Hulk: Smash this

Yesterday, while basking in the glow of a rare break in my midday schedule, I saw The Incredible Hulk.

I was underwhelmed.

First, you have to understand that I was one of the few comics fans who actually enjoyed Ang Lee's Hulk film of five years ago. It wasn't a perfect film by any stretch — the grand climax of the story, while innovative, simply didn't work for me. Still, I found Lee's Hulk a well-crafted and thoughtful reimagining of the venerable Marvel Comics character.

I can also understand why hardcore Hulk fans didn't care for Lee's film. That's probably the reason why we part company in our evaluation of it. Although I've been reading Marvel comics for more than 40 years, I've never really been a Hulk fan. Even though the Hulk costarred in one of my favorite comic series of the 1970s, The Defenders, the book read better (in my opinion) after the Hulk and the Sub-Mariner — another character I was never all that crazy about — departed the team in favor of C-listers like the Valkyrie, Nighthawk, and Hellcat. The fact Lee tried to do something different with the character, therefore, helped it resonate with me more than if he'd simply followed the formula of the original comics, or — heaven forfend — the execrable TV series from the '70s.

Which brings me to Louis Leterrier's movie, which wants so desperately to be both of those things. Only louder, longer, and more expensive.

Let's try a point-by-point view.

Bruce Banner: Eric Bana vs. Edward Norton. Physically, Norton has the edge in replicating the Bruce Banner of the comic books — he's lean, wiry, all rabbity intensity and nervous energy. The brawny Bana, by comparison, is practically Hulkian, without any aid from the FX department. Norton is by far the superior thespian — Bana is no slouch, mind you, but Norton is one of the four or five best film actors of his generation. Oddly, though, Norton's performance sounds too many of the same notes again and again — as much as Bana's Banner (I love the sound of that) was criticized by some as being too flat in affect, Norton's spins too far in the opposite direction. I could believe Bana as a detached, self-absorbed, hyperbrilliant scientist. Norton just seemed like a computer nerd on a caffeine jag. Winner: Bana, by a nose.

Betty Ross: Jennifer Connelly vs. Liv Tyler. That pretty well sums it up, doesn't it? You simply can't replace Connelly's warmth and vulnerability — to say nothing of her Oscar-worthy acting chops — with Tyler's dewy-eyed, Bambi-in-headlights vapidness. As Stan Lee himself would put it, 'nuff said. Winner: Connelly, in a rout.

General Thaddeus "Thunderbolt" Ross: Sam Elliott vs. William Hurt. Neither Elliott nor Hurt much resembles, either in appearance or personality, the over-the-top Ross of the Silver Age comics. Which is a good thing, in both instances. Elliott, though, found a richness and multifaceted humanity in the role that is utterly lacking in Hurt's peculiarly downbeat take. Elliott's General Ross is perhaps too decent a man to make a compelling villain; Hurt's is just too boring to care about, one way or the other. Winner: Elliott.

Whacked-out bad guy: Nick Nolte vs. Tim Roth. Now, I like Roth's work a great deal. I believe that in his character's fleeting nanoseconds of thematic development, he does a nice job with his obsessive super-soldier turned Son of Godzilla. But the script doesn't give him anything at all to work with... much like the other actors involved. Nolte, on the other hand, took a similarly underwritten role and flat-out blew the roof off the sucker. People laughed when Nolte nabbed an Oscar nomination for his razor's edge turn in Hulk. I thought the man deserved... well, if not an Academy Award, then maybe a year in an outpatient clinic. Winner: Call this one a tie.

Director: Ang Lee vs. Louis Leterrier. Let's see... Sense and Sensibility; The Ice Storm; Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon; Brokeback Mountain. Or... Transporter 2. If you want a film with grace, sensitivity, and psychological depth, you hire the first guy. If you want stuff blowed up real good, you get the other guy. Leterrier's not a bad action director; as the "artistic director" on the first Transporter film (he settled for a lesser credit behind lead director Corey Yuen due to since-changed Directors Guild rules), he showed a flair for hyperkinetic violence. But comparing him to Ang Lee is like comparing a talented amateur to Rembrandt. Don't even try. Winner: What are you, kidding me? It's Ang "The Fang" Lee, baby.

Special effects: Excess vs. wretched excess. This is, after all, where the purple pants hit the street, correct? For all the advancements in CGI technology over the past five years, I thought the Hulk looked more Hulk-like — that is, more in line with the depiction of the character I most remember from my Marvel fanboy youth; the Herb Trimpe-Marie Severin Hulk — in the earlier movie. The new Hulk seems strangely proportioned, with a too-small head and too-sharp features. (I realize that the CGI animators in both cases used the lead actor's face as a model for their work. I'm just saying that Eric Bana's features made for a more realistic Hulk than Edward Norton's.) The FX in Incredible Hulk also suffer from Transformers syndrome: too much frenzied motion, too much splatter, too much too-muchness. At least in Ang Lee's film, the eye could always follow the action without the brain getting left three steps behind. Still, if you dig spectacle for spectacle's sake — and that appears to be what the teeming hordes who hated Lee's Hulk wanted — Leterrier delivers what you crave, in spades. Winner: The accounting department at Marvel.

Is the new Hulk film good or bad? That depends on your tastes. If all you want from your Hulk is sound and fury, signifying major league box office, The Incredible Hulk may be just your cup of gamma-irradiated tea. If you prefer a little more meat for the cerebellum with your Hulk-smashed potatoes, you'll probably leave the theater jonesing for earplugs and a hit of antinausea medication.

Either way, if you buy a ticket, you'll have the folks at Marvel seeing green.

Personal postscript: For me, the funniest moment in The Incredible Hulk was the scene in which Edward Norton's Bruce Banner encounters a security guard played by Lou Ferrigno, the champion bodybuilder who Hulked out in a fright wig and verdant makeup in the old TV series. (Ferrigno also provided the Hulk's vocalizations for the new film's soundtrack.) When Norton and Ferrigno shook hands, I half-expected Ferrigno's manager to leap into the frame and demand that Norton pony up a Jackson for the privilege of clasping Lou's giant mitt. Anyone who's ever seen Ferrigno shilling his photos and autographs at a comics convention has witnessed that sequence of events, and knows exactly what I'm talking about.

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Thursday, May 29, 2008

Now go do that voodoo that you do so well

At the risk of alienating SSTOL regular Scott, who was just chiding me about all the talk of death around here...

The great Harvey Korman has passed on.

It would be impossible to discuss Harvey Korman's contributions to comedy without starting with The Carol Burnett Show, where he shone as the leading sketch comic in Burnett's repertory company. Korman paired especially well with Tim Conway — almost every week, a sketch on the Burnett show would devolve into barely restrained hilarity as the two veteran comedians cracked one another up in front of a live audience. Korman won four Emmys — and was nominated for an additional three — for his work on Carol Burnett.

For me, though, Korman will live forever as Hedy Lamarr — "That's HEDLEY!" — okay, Hedley Lamarr, the scheming villain of Mel Brooks's nonpareil Western spoof, Blazing Saddles. Korman steals pretty much every scene in which he appears, breathing joy into his over-the-top portrayal of a conniving government official hell-bent on stealing a tiny frontier hamlet out from under its residents so that he can make a killing building a railroad through the site.

As Lamarr, Korman is at turns pompous, vain, agitated, simpering, serpentine, and pure evil, but he is never not funny, not for even a millisecond of screen time. It's not the kind of acting that wins Academy Award nominations — despite Korman's plea for same during the film's denouement — but I guarantee that no one who's ever seen Blazing Saddles can hear the name "Hedy Lamarr" without hearing Korman's exasperated "That's HEDLEY!" from deep within the cerebral cortex.

Korman delivered numerous other hysterical performances, especially in Brooks-directed films. He was a masochistic psychiatrist in High Anxiety; a slick French politician, the Count de Monet, in History of the World, Part I; an asylum superintendent who becomes a reluctant vampire hunter in Dracula: Dead and Loving It.

Given that Blazing Saddles is my favorite cinematic comedy, and one of my five favorite movies of any genre, it's his role in that film that will keep Harvey Korman fondly etched in my memories.

Rest in peace, Hedy Lamarr.

"That's HEDLEY!"

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Monday, May 05, 2008

Sometimes I feel like a bullet in the gun of Robert Ford

Just a warning to the world...

Uncle Swan is cranky today.

The kicker is that I have absolutely no reason for being cranky. I had a spectacular weekend.

On Friday, KJ and I dined at my favorite lunch joint, then caught the premiere of Iron Man at our local cineplex. If you didn't already contribute to this Marvel-ous film's $100 million gross domestic earnings, get off your rusty rump and go see it. Even if you're not into the whole comic book superhero thing, go see it. KJ loved it, and I don't know anyone less enthused about comic books than she is. Robert Downey Jr. might be that rare actor who picks up nominations for major film awards from a role in an action blockbuster. Best of all, Iron Man restores to its title character all of the charm and joie de vivre that Marvel Comics has leached out of Tony Stark during the past decade.

I can't be cranky about that.

On Friday evening, and all day Saturday, I was with my chorus at our annual intensive workshop. In addition to the guidance of our nonpareil musical staff, led by one of the most respected choral conductors on the planet, we were whipped into championship froth by our legendary choreographer and presentation coach. I sweated off enough salinity to replenish the Salton Sea, and I'm a better man for it. If we continue to build on everything we developed this weekend, we'll be a force to be reckoned with in Nashville on the first Friday in July.

I'm definitely not cranky about that.

Yesterday's sermons both went about as well as I'm capable of presenting them. I struck the chords I wanted to strike, with both cogent argument and appropriately engaging delivery.

No crankiness there.

This morning's coffee was excellent. The bagels were awfully good, too. We have delicious tamales and guacamole awaiting consumption for Cinco de Mayo dinner.

Nothing to be cranky about about there, either.

In today's mail, I got a stunningly attractive new T-shirt from Woot. Also, on Saturday, I received a long-awaited artwork I'd commissioned months ago, and was beginning to think the artist had forgotten about. (He hadn't, and it's gorgeous.) So I can't even be cranky at the United States Postal Service. And if you can't be cranky at the USPS, you can't be cranky, period.

I have no idea what I'm cranky about.

But it doesn't change the fact that I'm cranky.

So watch yourself, buster.

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Friday, May 02, 2008

Amazin' armor

Tomorrow — Saturday, May 3, in case you're stumbling into the room a trifle late — is Free Comic Book Day.

Your participating local comics retailer will have on hand a selection of comic books from which you're welcome to choose, absolutely free of obligation. (If your retailer is really cool, he or she may even allow to pick up more than one.) The choices run the gamut from superheroes — the kind you've actually heard of, most likely — to kids' comics featuring Gumby or Disney characters, to Japanese manga. Such popular franchises as Superman, Archie, Transformers, Sonic the Hedgehog, and X-Men are represented in this year's offerings. You'll even find some stuff that's next to impossible to categorize. Whatever your taste in fantasy fiction or humor, you'll find something to like.

Do yourself a favor. Whether you're a long-time comics reader, or you haven't read a comic in a long time, or you've been on Earth for a long time and have never read a comic, swing by your participating local comics retailer tomorrow and snag a free comic or (if your retailer is really cool, like my local comic shop is) two. When you find one that interests you, take one more step: Ask your retailer, "If I like this, what else do you have that I might enjoy?" Then let her or him show you some options.

If you have a kid or two to accompany you, take 'em. What could it hurt? Worst case scenario: The kid gets a free book that ends up in the recycling bin. (You recycle, right?) Best case scenario: You've opened a door for a young person to experience the joys of reading, and visual storytelling, and sequential art appreciation.

Your Uncle Swan thinks that's not such a bad outcome.

Speaking of this weekend...

Tony Stark makes you feel
He's a cool exec with a heart of steel.
As Iron Man, all jets ablaze
He fights and smites with repulsor rays!
Amazing armor, he's Iron Man!
Ablaze in power, he's Iron Man!

Yes, the cinematic version of Iron Man premieres today, as you certainly know unless you've been living among the Amish for the past several months.

How excited am I about this? Excited enough to do something I never do — go to a theater on a film's opening day. Everything I've seen and heard about the film suggests that Iron Man will rank among the better cinematic representations of superheroes in recent years. The trailers have looked incredible, and Robert Downey Jr. couldn't be more perfectly cast as industrialist-slash-playboy Tony Stark, the man inside the famous red-and-gold supersuit.

As I related on a previous Comic Art Friday, Iron Man was one of my favorite Marvel heroes in my earliest days of comics reading. I still own the little hand-carved Pinewood Derby slot car, hand-painted gold with red accents, that I made nearly 40 years ago when I was a Cub Scout, that I nicknamed Iron Man.

Over the years, my enthusiasm for old Shellhead has dimmed considerably. Marvel's editorial department has seemed bent of late on destroying everything that made the character interesting and likable, in favor of portraying him as a ego-consumed, monomaniacal chump. I liked Tony a whole lot better when he lived in acute awareness of his own humanity, and didn't think he ruled the world.

Still looking forward to the movie, though!

An Iron Man film and a Free Comic Book Day... could a weekend get any better than this? Actually, it can.

My chorus, Voices in Harmony (currently ranked third internationally by the Barbershop Harmony Society) begins its annual weekend retreat — we call it an Advance, because we never "retreat" — this evening, in preparation for this year's competition cycle. Three days of grueling work, but great fun nevertheless. (Have I mentioned yet that our first concert of 2008 is only a month away, on Saturday, June 7? Great seats still available!)

And that's your Comic Art Friday.

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Thursday, April 17, 2008

Quoth the Raven, "Nevermore"

Sad news for the Famous Monsters of Filmland crowd: Hazel Court has died.

Yes, for real this time.

Hazel Court was an English actress who enjoyed a lengthy, if largely unspectacular, career in motion pictures and television. In the early 1950s, Court discovered her true calling, acting in low-budget horror films. She appeared as the female half of a young couple who move into a haunted house in 1952's Ghost Ship. This led to her legendary turn in the 1954 classic Devil Girl from Mars — Court played the ingenue, not the title character, in case you were confused. She was again cast as the innocent young heroine in Hammer Films' seminal The Curse of Frankenstein in 1957, and a scream-screen star was born.

In the early 1960s, Court costarred in several films produced by Roger Corman's American International Pictures, based on the twisted works of Edgar Allan Poe: The Premature Burial, in which Court played the duplicitous lover of scholarly Ray Milland; The Raven, which paired Court with a callow Jack Nicholson (yes, that Jack Nicholson) opposite terror titans Boris Karloff, Vincent Price, and Peter Lorre; and The Masque of the Red Death, perhaps Corman's most memorably Poe-etic opus, and almost certainly the best picture in Court's filmography.

Although she wasn't, to be brutally frank, an accomplished thespian, Court was attractive in that stereotypically wan, upper-crust English sort of way. Her porcelain beauty — and impressive displays of quivering cleavage — lent a certain austere charm to the films in which she starred. Without question, her performances garnered her a minuscule yet dedicated coterie of devotees, as this comprehensive fansite demonstrates.

Some years ago, when I was writing reviews for DVD Verdict, I brandished my critical pencil at an MGM double-feature disk showcasing The Premature Burial and The Masque of the Red Death. You can check out my review of these two Roger Corman masterworks (*ahem*) here.

In an odd touch of irony, just as I sat down to memorialize Ms. Court this afternoon, this T-shirt arrived in my mailbox, courtesy of the good folks at Woot!

I can't imagine a more fitting tribute.

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Sunday, April 06, 2008

Go down, Moses

Now that the man has shuffled off this mortal coil, I can admit this:

I'm a huge Charlton Heston fan.

Not the rhetoric-spewing, rifle-waving reactionary Heston of his later years in public life. And not even so much the more rational, compassionate Heston of earlier times, who marched alongside Dr. King and was an ardent, vocal supporter of civil rights long before it was socially acceptable. Although I did kind of admire that guy.

No, I mean the Heston of all of those classic Hollywood films. The man who stepped in front of a camera with those chiseled features, that piercing gaze, and that booming baritone, and wrestled the silver screen to the ground.

I loved that Charlton Heston.

The man had such intense, compelling presence that he, with his blond-haired, blue-eyed self, could play an endless string of Hebrews (Moses in The Ten Commandments; Judah Ben-Hur in Ben-Hur; John the Baptist in The Grestest Story Ever Told), Latins (Mexican narco agent Mike Vargas in Touch of Evil; Spanish conqueror Rodrigo Diaz in El Cid), and Italians (Michelangelo in The Agony and the Ecstasy; Marc Antony in both the 1970 edition of Julius Caesar and the Heston-directed Antony and Cleopatra in 1972), and make you believe in them.

Heston's charisma was so palpable that he could remain concrete and genuine in the midst of the most embarrassingly hackneyed disaster film (Skyjacked, Airport '75, Earthquake, the submarine-sinking Gray Lady Down) or kitschy science fiction knock-off (The Omega Man — based on the same source material as the recent Will Smith epic, I Am Legend — or the insanely off-kilter consumerism-as-cannibalism future shocker, Soylent Green), and made you believe in those, too.

I mean, the man starred in an Aaron Spelling-produced soap opera so cheesy that it was actually named after cheese — the mid-'80s Dynasty spin-off, The Colbys — and he was even imposing and awe-inspiring in that. If you can shine in an Aaron Spelling production, you've got serious chops, my friend.

Of course, my favorite Heston turn was his role as time-warped astronaut George Taylor in the first two films in what eventually became the Planet of the Apes franchise. If Heston had never done anything in his cinematic career other than break into bitter tears before the ruined shell of the Statue of Liberty — one of the most iconic scenes in the history of the movies — or blow up the entire world with his bloody hand on the detonator of a doomsday bomb, his place in popular culture would be forever sealed. But of course, he did those things, plus all of the aforementioned as well.

What a monumental career.

It would be a shame if all that people remembered about Chuck Heston was the ultra-conservative political animal he became late in life. (Unless you're a rebel-yelling, monster-truck-driving, pistol-packing gun nut yourself — in which case, I guess that will be what you remember. And to that, you're entitled. Different strokes for different folks, as Sly Stone and Gary Coleman used to say.) The man left behind a treasure trove of unforgettable screen performances, to be savored for generations. Keep your paws off my DVDs, you d--n dirty ape! (Sorry. Couldn't resist.)

Sadly, I never had the opportunity to tell Mr. Heston how much I enjoyed his cinematic oeuvre. I did, however, sit next to his daughter Holly during a course in American Political Humor at Pepperdine University one semester. (Nice girl. I lent her a ballpoint pen once. She returned it. I didn't use it again for at least a week afterward.)

Mr. Heston was 84, and had suffered from Alzheimer's disease for the past several years. I share the sorrow of his family, his friends, and his well-earned legion of fans.

(Pssst... Soylent Green is people. Pass it on.)

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Wednesday, March 19, 2008

They've killed Kinch!

Ivan Dixon, the talented actor-director best known to teleholics of a certain age as Sgt. James "Kinch" Kinchloe, the technical wizard POW on Hogan's Heroes, has died at age 76.

Dixon's Hollywood career began in the 1950s, when he served as Sidney Poitier's double and stand-in on such films as The Defiant Ones, and later as Poitier's costar in Porgy and Bess and A Raisin in the Sun. He became one of the first black actors to appear in a regular, nonstereotypical role on an American TV series when he was cast in Hogan's Heroes in 1965.

Dixon mostly set acting aside after leaving Hogan's at the end of the show's fifth season. (It remains one of TV's enduring mysteries that Hogan's Heroes stayed on the air for six years.) His two notable roles in post-Stalag 13 life were as Lonnie, the tough-yet-compassionate ex-con straw boss in the classic '70s film comedy Car Wash ("I got to have more money, Mr. B.!"), and as courageous Dr. Alan Drummond, a leader of the resistance movement in the Cold War drama Amerika.

Instead, Dixon refocused his career behind the camera, becoming one of TV's busiest directors throughout the '70s and '80s. He helmed the canvas chair for dozens of episodes of series television, most frequently on The Rockford Files (nine episodes) and Magnum P.I. (13 episodes), but also on shows as diverse as The Waltons, The Greatest American Hero, and Quantum Leap.

After retiring from directing, Dixon owned a radio station in Hawaii for a number of years. (I guess all those years as Colonel Hogan's communications guy finally paid off.)

His career honors included one Emmy nomination (Best Lead Actor in a Drama for the 1967 CBS Playhouse presentation The Final War of Olly Winter), four NAACP Image Awards, the National Black Theatre Award, and the Black American Cinema Society's Paul Robeson Pioneer Award.

As résumés go, that's a pretty darned good one.

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Monday, February 25, 2008

No viewers for old Oscar

I would like to tell you how enthusiastically I enjoyed last night's telecast of the 80th Academy Awards.

I would also like to tell you how closely I resemble Denzel Washington, and how my fiscal holdings almost exactly mirror those of Warren Buffett.

All of the above would be equally true.

Oscar really has turned into a snoozefest — tepid, tedious, and annoyingly time-wasting. You'd think that after 80 years, the Academy would have cooked up a formula that worked. But they haven't.

To be fair, one of the key problems with this year's show was out of the Academy's hands, as well as those of the producers of the Oscarcast. There was little, if any, suspense inherent in any of the major awards, largely because many of the films nominated weren't popular blockbusters with a built-in rooting interest, and quite a few of the actors up for the big prizes weren't household names in any households other than their own. I'll be honest, I had to hit Wikipedia and IMDB more than once to find out what other film projects a nominee had done. Embarrassing admission for a pop culture maniac such as myself, but we're all about the honesty here at SSTOL.

Jon Stewart's return as host didn't help much. In his own realm on The Daily Show, Stewart's a sharp, funny guy. But in his two stints as Oscar MC, he's seemed off his "A" game. As Chris Rock discovered a few years back, it's tough to strike that delicate balance between edgy and off-putting. Stewart appears to be taking the path of least resistance here, but that isn't really what people who enjoy his incisive brand of topical humor want to see or hear. He's certainly better than the terminally laid-back Steve Martin or the uncomfortably frenetic Ellen Degeneres, but not an awful lot better.

As I've noted in past years, I still believe that the best hosting Oscar has had in recent seasons was served up by Whoopi Goldberg in her four outings. Whoopi — who, to be frank, I prefer in small doses — exhibits all the right tools for award night success: a quick wit; a brilliant sense of timing; a willingness to push the envelope but sense enough not to push it too far; and best of all, her own personal Oscar cred as a two-time nominee and winner of one gold statue (Best Supporting Actress, 1990, Ghost). It's clear, though, that Whoopi has somehow landed on the Academy's blacklist (no pun intended) — when clips of former Oscarcast hosts appeared on last night's show, the Whoopster was mysteriously absent.

Anyway, I'd continue talking about the broadcast, but just thinking about it is hitting me like a double dose of Ambien. So let's just hope Little Gold Guy finds a little more action next year.

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Monday, February 11, 2008

My dinner with George (Lucas)

Okay, full disclosure...

I didn't actually have dinner with George Lucas.

Or lunch.

Or breakfast.

I've never even met George Lucas. (I did once ride the Jungle Cruise at Disneyland with Maclean Stevenson, but that's a story for another time.)

I did, however, spend last Saturday in the mammoth soundstage recording studio at Lucas's fabled Skywalker Ranch, tucked away in the hills of bucolic western Marin County. My chorus, Voices in Harmony — northern California's premier men's a cappella chorus, just like it says on my official coffee mug — is enjoying the privilege of recording our debut CD (entitled Now and Then, and available for advance purchase, if you're so inclined) at Skywalker Sound.

Over the years, I've known a number of folks who worked at the Lucasfilm complex — none of whom are either space aliens or robots, so far as I can tell — so I was aware going in that the Skywalker Ranch experience would be nowhere near as visually amazing as the kajillion-award-winning film and recording output of the place might suggest. Just to quell a few rumors:
  • The security guard at the front gate does not wear a Stormtrooper's white armor. (I did, however, use my Jedi mental powers to persuade him that my van's passengers and I were not the droids he was looking for.)

  • The crosswalk signs do not read, "Caution: Wookiee Zone."

  • The soundstage does not resemble the Imperial Hall of Alderaan — from the exterior, it looks like a decrepit old winery — and, sad to tell, is not staffed by slave girls in gold metal bikinis. (Although it was Saturday, so the slave girls might have had the day off.)

  • Our audio engineer did not carry a lightsaber, or wear a rebreathing helmet.

  • The only Ewok in evidence was a diminutive, furry-faced fellow standing in our baritone section, and I'm pretty certain he came with us.
Prosaic accoutrement aside, our initial recording experience was still powerful and awe-inspiring. Anyone who loves the cinema couldn't help but "feel a stirring in the Force" while standing in the vast hall where so many memorable orchestral scores have been performed. Looking up at the studio's great movie screen, I could imagine our voices — like a Greek chorus of the Aristotelian period — providing dramatic background for some epic battle sequence between the defenders of truth and the purveyors of evil. (Or perhaps Spaceballs: The Musical.)

The last time I recorded with a chorus, we were 40 men crammed into a narrow bandbox of a joint tiled with carpet remnants. We were lucky to create two or three usable takes in a day's labor. On Saturday, the 85 of us — under the guiding hand of one of the world's most accomplished choral conductors — generated celestial sound that, I'm sure, had angels harmonizing along. We laid down half the tracks for a 16-song CD that would be an insane bargain at five times the cover price. (Hint, hint.)

As we departed the legendary confines of Skywalker Ranch at the end of an exhausting yet productive and enormously gratifying day — our voices weary, our lower extremities in agony, but with rapture in our hearts — I reflected upon the wonder of our communal experience. Making music with a group of talented and like-minded folks truly delivers an ineffable satisfaction to the inner being. I wish you all could have been part of it.

I wish Mr. Lucas could have been part of it, too, but I'm guessing that he was otherwise engaged. His organization is currently busy filming the third Raiders of the Lost Ark sequel. (I think it's called Indiana Jones and the Comfortable Recliner.) Had he been present, I'm certain that he would have been moved.

I know I was.

Is that a tear in my eye...

...or just the sunlight reflecting off the ice fields of Hoth?

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Tuesday, February 05, 2008

"They think he's a righteous dude."

Here's a thought for your Fat Tuesday...

Do you know what someone should do? Someone should make a sequel to Ferris Bueller's Day Off.

I'll even get it started.

It's 20 years after Ferris's infamous day off. Ferris has settled into life as a prosperous marketing executive with a major Chicago-based corporation. One morning as he's on his way to work, he stops for a latte at a Starbucks in the ground floor of his office building. By cosmic coincidence, the customer in front of him in line is Sloane Peterson, his high school sweetheart, whom Ferris hasn't seen since they both went off to different colleges nearly two decades earlier.

Ferris and Sloane strike up a conversation over that fine Starbucks java, recapping the events of the past 20 years for one another. As they're talking, they see a homeless man standing outside the window, cadging change from passersby. Imagine their shock when they realize that the scruffy mendicant is their old chum Cameron, whose life has taken a hard left turn over the cliff of despair.

There's only one thing for Ferris to do: Take Cameron on another wild outing through the sights and sounds of Chicago, to help him regain his mojo.

The title: Ferris Bueller's Day Back.

Someone should make that movie.

And if someone makes it without giving me proper screen credit and a sizable renumeration, I will go to their home in the Hollywood hills and puncture their kneecaps with a power drill. Metaphorically speaking, of course.

While they're at it, someone should make a sequel to Bull Durham, too. But I'll save that pitch for another Mardi Gras.

Oh, and don't forget, kids...

For some of us, every Tuesday is Fat Tuesday.

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Monday, January 28, 2008

Yes, I SAG, and I'm not ashamed

It would have been criminal for pop culture vultures not to watch the Screen Actors Guild Awards last night, if only because it may represent our only taste of Hollywood glitz all spring.

The SAGs received a special dispensation from the striking Writers Guild of America, eliminating picketing that would have prevented WGA-sympathetic actors (pretty much everyone in SAG) from attending, and allowing WGA members to write for the awards show without reprisal. The lack of such a waiver resulted in the cancellation of the Golden Globe ceremony earlier this month, and continues to threaten the Academy Awards.

As entertainment, the SAG Awards (called "Actors," despite the potential for ribald humor were they to be nicknamed "Saggies") usually fall somewhere between the Golden Globes and the Oscars. The SAGs lack the liquor-lubricated club atmosphere of the Globes, while being slightly less self-important and pompous than the Academy Awards. Because all of the SAG recipients are actors — no writing, directing, or technical awards here — most of the presenters and awardees are familiar faces, thus lessening the tedium somewhat. (I'm glad all of the anonymous behind-the-scenes folks get their just due at Oscar time, but I don't especially care to watch them get it.)

The SAG show always begins with several stars facing the camera and delivering brief and (supposedly) humorous summations of their careers, ending with the tagline, "I'm [STATE YOUR NAME], and I'm an actor." Some of the better riffs on this theme came this year from Sally Field ("I was in my first play when I was 12..."), Kyle MacLachlan ("I've ridden giant sandworms and tracked down Laura Palmer's killer..."), and the former Mrs. John Stamos ("I spent three films painted blue... I'm Rebecca Romijn, and I'm a model turned actor"). One of these years, I'd love to see them get a more refreshingly honest admission: "I'm Ben Affleck, and I'm stealing money pretending to be an actor."

None of the results were surprises. The cast of The Sopranos, taking their final collective bow, swept most of the TV honors. Oscar favorites Daniel Day-Lewis, Julie Christie, Javier Bardem, and Ruby Dee snagged the major film nods.

The one puzzle for me was the awarding of the Lifetime Achievement Award to Charles Durning. I mean, yes, the man has been around forever, and he's appeared in roughly half a million films and TV shows over his lengthy career. But was Durning really the most worthy possible recipient? Anyone at SAG ever heard of Nicholson, Streep, DeNiro, or Pacino? Then again, considering Durning's obviously frail condition last evening, maybe those other folks aren't close enough to death's door yet.

Speaking of death, it was nice to see that the show's producers managed to shoehorn the recently departed Heath Ledger into the annual "Everyone Who Died Since Last Year's Show" tribute montage. The Academy Awards has occasionally drawn criticism when a celebrity has passed away within a few days of the program, and the Oscar producers haven't altered the already completed memoriam, forcing the fans of the newly departed to wait an entire year to see their favorite memorialized.

For a year in which awards shows may be slim pickings, I was taken aback to see that more of the stars didn't bust out their most exciting evening wear for the SAGs. Instead, this proved to be a fairly conservative and sedate year for red carpet fashions. Viggo Mortensen outflashed most of the men in his black-with-red-pinstripes tuxedo, which, combined with his scruffy beard, gave him the air of a dissolute English pimp:

On the distaff side, Sandra Oh's strapless parachute affair, with its humongous magenta bow across the chest, probably drew the most quizzical stares:

Now let's see whether the WGA strike will resolve in time for the 80th Oscar show.

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Tuesday, January 22, 2008

I know how to quit you, Heath Ledger

KM and I were driving KJ home from her latest hospital stint when we heard the stunning news about the death of Heath Ledger.

As sorry as I am to admit it, my first reaction when I heard the radio headline was, "I'll bet it had something to do with drugs." And indeed, the initial report by the New York Times and other media outlets indicates exactly that. A shame, a pity, and a tragic waste.

Although it was probably his least demanding role, my favorite Ledger performance was his turn as the youthful jousting wannabe in A Knight's Tale, a picture that a lot of folks disliked, but that I thoroughly enjoyed through repeated viewings. It was in that film that Ledger's natural boyish charisma really shone. I was not as impressed as some others were with his more dramatically challenging work — I found his much-acclaimed clenched-jawed acting in Brokeback Mountain, for example, excessively mannered and affected, to the point of weirdness.

When Heath was cast as the Joker in Christopher Nolan's upcoming Batman Begins sequel, The Dark Knight, I couldn't imagine for the life of me how that was going to work. Ledger seemed far too lightweight for a role with that much darkness and venom in it. The trailers, however, won me over, and I was looking forward to seeing the full impact of Ledger's portrayal. I still am, though the experience will doubtless be bittersweet now.

Another successful young talent devoured by the demons of fame and fortune, or so it appears.

And that's no joke.

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Thursday, January 03, 2008

What's On My Desk? 2008

KM and I just completed our annual post-New Year foray to our local shopping mall, to raid the calendar kiosk during its closeout 50%-off sale.

This year, my desk will be showcasing this calendar:

I haven't had a movie calendar on my desk in a few years, so this will be a pleasant change. In 2007, I reverted, after a hiatus of several years, to The Far Side, which released an authorized desk calendar for the first time in a while. The previous year, if I recall correctly, I used a sampler of "Stupidest Things Ever Said." (I was relieved to note, at year's end, that I had not been quoted.)

In case you're curious, the highlighted film for January 3, 2008 is Monty Python and the Holy Grail. (Memo to George W.: You can't expect to wield supreme executive power just 'cause some watery tart threw a sword at you.)

For completeness' sake, KM's new 2008 wall calendar features the cast of Heroes. Save the calendar, save the world.

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Thursday, December 06, 2007

Thursday's blog has far to go

Autumn has finally arrived here in Wine Country. As the rain pitter-patters on the roof overhead and a William Friedkin-directed episode of CSI blares from the idiot box, let's check out the happenings in the rest of the pop culture world.

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Wednesday, November 14, 2007

Curse you, Matt Damon

Well, it's happened yet again.

I've been passed over by People Magazine for the annual Sexiest Man Alive honors. This year, Matt Damon got the nod.

I'm so much sexier than Matt Damon, it's not even funny. Matt Damon looks like the dweeby kid brother of your best friend from high school. He's Good Will Hunting, for pity's sake.

That's the problem with America: No one knows real masculine pulchritude when they see it.

Anyway, here are the rest of the girly-men People thought were sexier than I was this year:

2. Patrick Dempsey (McBoring)
3. Ryan Reynolds (sounds like a Marvel Comics secret identity)
4. Brad Pitt (he's so two years ago)
5. James McAvoy (the wimpy doctor from The Last King of Scotland? really?)
6. Johnny Depp (is weird sexy?)
7. Dave Annable (I'll confess — I had to Google him; I'd never heard of the guy)
8. Will Smith (he got Jada's vote)
9. Javier Bardem (not fair; he's got that Latin Lothario thing going)
10. Shemar Moore (okay, yeah — he could play me in the SwanShadow biopic)

Ah, well. There's always next year.

Unless Clooney resurfaces.

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Monday, November 05, 2007

Find a line, and picket

Although I'm not a member of the Writers Guild of America (I'm a writer, but not that kind of writer), and am not especially a big fan of unionized work stoppages, I empathize with the POV of the WGA in its latest dispute with film and television producers.

Writing is the invisible magic of media. Practically everything you see on a screen, large or small, is written by someone — more often than not, someone drastically underpaid when compared to the so-called talent on camera. The wit and wisdom of the people you see actually springs from the minds of people you don't see — people who work hard at their craft and deserve their fair share of the revenue their efforts help generate.

The problem is that writing is a deceptively simple-looking talent. Everyone thinks he or she can write — why, even a chimpanzee can sit at a keyboard and bang out strings of characters. Yet very few people can write exceptionally well, with clarity and verve and energy and imagination. Producers (and trust me, this is as true in the advertising/marketing world as it is in show business) always undervalue the contributions of writers, mostly because they think "anyone can write."

In a word: Balderdash.

The current WGA walkout reminds me of my tenuous connection to the union's last major strike in 1988. The beginning of that strike coincided with the taping of my original five-game run on Jeopardy! Although there were picket lines in front of Hollywood Center Studios, where the show was then based, on the days my shows taped, Jeopardy! itself was not directly affected because the show's writing staff weren't members of the WGA.

As the contestant coordinators explained the situation to us, game show writers were considered production assistants rather than screenwriters, and thus ineligible for WGA membership. I don't know whether that's still the case 19 years later, but all of the news accounts I've read seemed to suggest that game shows and other reality programming won't be directly affected by the strike unless other trade unions honor the WGA picket lines.

I wish there could be a less divisive method of resolving the impasse between the WGA's membership and The Powers That Be in Hollywood. But here's hoping that the writers get an honest shake before it's all through.

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Saturday, November 03, 2007

And the boss don't mind sometimes if you act a fool

A woman in Syracuse, New York, spent three days in a hospital after her dentist broke a drill bit in her skull while dancing to the theme from Car Wash.

Needless to say, litigation ensued.

As patient Brandy Fanning was undergoing preparation for an emergency tooth extraction at the Syracuse Community Health Center, the dentist — Dr. George Trusty — got his Rose Royce groove on. According to Fanning's lawsuit, Dr. Trusty "performed rhythmical steps and movements to the song 'Car Wash.'"

The boogie-down continued until Dr. Trusty (who, at least on this occasion, was not) snapped off the tip of his drill into the roof of Fanning's mouth. Trusty's efforts to extract the drill bit with a metal hook only succeeded in jamming the bit deeply into the sinuses behind Fanning's left eye socket. Emergency surgery saved the eye, but the patient continues to suffer "facial swelling, nerve damage and chronic infections," according to the lawsuit.

Meanwhile, in the afterlife, Richard Pryor is laughing his head off over this.

Car Wash is one of those "traffic light" movies for me. I've seen it dozens of times, but anytime I'm surfing the tube late at night and it's playing on some cable channel, I can't help but stop and watch, at least for a few minutes.

Although the music and styles in director Michael Schultz's now 30-year-old flick show the ravages of time, the many humorous moments remain as funny as ever, with the cast of colorful characters still engaging:
  • T.C. (stand-up comic Franklyn Ajaye), the lovestruck dreamer with the humongous Afro who imagines himself a superhero called The Fly...

  • Lonnie (former Hogan's Heroes costar Ivan Dixon), the senior employee struggling to rebuild his life after a criminal past...

  • Duane — pardon me... Abdullah (actor-director Bill Duke), the angry Muslim who attracts constant ridicule from his less-serious coworkers ("Say, brother... is ribs pig?")...

  • Lindy (Antonio Fargas, mack daddy Huggy Bear on Starsky and Hutch), the flaming gay stereotype...

  • Floyd and Lloyd (Darrow Igus of the '80s sketch comedy show Fridays, and Dewayne Jessie, the unforgettable Otis Day in National Lampoon's Animal House), who imagine themselves the second coming of the Temptations — despite the fact that they are undermanned and undertalented...

  • Marsha (Melanie Mayron, who went on to a successful career as a director), the lonely cashier who's having an uninspiring affair with the car wash's married owner (character actor Sully Boyar)...

  • The cabbie (comedy legend George Carlin, added to the cast to give the film more name recognition), who wanders through the movie looking for the "tall, black, blonde hooker" (Lauren Jones) who skipped out on a fare...

  • Dueling pranksters Goody (Henry Kingi, founder of the Black Stuntmen's Association and one-time husband of Bionic Woman Lindsay Wagner) and Chuco (Pepe Serna, sidekick Reno Nevada in The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai)...

  • ...and of course, money-grubbing televangelist Daddy Rich (Pryor, who later admitted that he was coked out of his gourd while filming his only scene) and his backup singers, the Wilson Sisters (the real-life Pointer Sisters).
Who'd ever guess that this hip urban screenplay was written by the terminally Caucasian Joel Schumacher, who went on to direct such varied films as the classic horror spoof The Lost Boys, the biopic thriller Veronica Guerin, the Vietnam War drama Tigerland, and the screen version of The Phantom of the Opera — as well as such abysmal dreck as 8MM, Bad Company, Phone Booth, and the synapse-dulling Batman & Robin?

Brandy Fanning probably thinks that Dr. Trusty is a refugee from a film Schumacher had nothing to do with: Marathon Man.

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Tuesday, October 23, 2007

What's Up With That? #54: Care to handle my wand, Mr. Potter?

Before we get started: The first one to crack a "headmaster" joke has to sit in the corner until this post is over.

My reaction to the big "Dumbledore was gay!" revelation by J.K. Rowling takes the form of an classic Chicago song (back when they were good, before Peter Cetera turned them into yawn-inducing elevator music for baby boomers):

Does anybody really know what time it is? Does anybody really care?

Seriously — the sexual orientation of a fictional character in a series of fantasy novels? Who's getting worked up over this?

He doesn't exist, people. Simmer down.

I'm not even sure what Rowling's purpose was in outing the ancient wizard, who was played on film by Michael Gambon and the late Richard Harris. The Harry Potter series is done; Rowling has repeatedly declared that herself. She's not going to write any more Potter books. So it's not as though Dumbledore's practice of the Love That Dares Not Speak At Hogwarts is going to impact future events in the Potter storyline, because there aren't going to be any.

If Rowling wanted to make a statement, and include a gay character in her books, why didn't she, you know, include a gay character in her books? I'm not a Potterite myself, but I understand that old Albus's sexuality never raises its head — so to speak — in the stories themselves. If it wasn't important enough for Rowling to characterize Dumbledore as gay when she was actually writing the books, what possible difference could it make now? How does it add anything to what she's written if it isn't on the page?

This whole business reminds me of the final episode of Law & Order in which Serena Southerlyn, the assistant district attorney played by Elisabeth Röhm, appeared. In her exit scene, Serena asks her soon-to-be-former boss Arthur Branch (in the guise of future GOP Presidential contender Fred Dalton Thompson) if he's firing her because she's a lesbian. (Arthur says, "No, of course not," because no Republican would ever fire anyone because he or she was homosexual. Ahem.)

In the four seasons Serena had appeared on the show, there had been not one whit of implication that she was gay; if anything, the several mentions of her previous relationships with men would have suggested that she was straight. It was as though the writers, as they wrote Serena's last line of dialogue, suddenly decided, "Hey, wouldn't it be cool if she were a lesbian?"

The French have an expression: esprit d'escalier, "the spirit of the staircase." The Germans have one like it: treppenwitz, "staircase wisdom." Both refer to that flash of genius we all experience when it's too late for it to matter; the brilliant riposte we only think to throw back at an opponent after we've already walking down the steps toward the door.

I suspect Rowling's notion about Dumbledore's preference for the fellows is, like that of the Law & Order scripters, a classic case of staircase wisdom.

Sorry, girlfriend, but Albus has already left the building.

If not the closet.

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Friday, October 19, 2007

The pact is: To avenge!

Today's Comic Art Friday is dedicated to comic art legend Marie Severin, one of the few women to make a lasting mark in the industry during comics' Silver Age. An acclaimed colorist for EC Comics in the 1950s, and later an illustrator, art director, and character designer for Marvel Comics, Marie was inducted into the Will Eisner Comics Hall of Fame in 2001.

Unfortunately, Marie suffered a stroke recently, and is now recovering in a rehabilitative facility. I wish her a swift and successful return to health. She's one of the great ones.

I'm sure that, given the nature of obsessive fandom, there must be people (read: adult males in an arrested state of emotional adolescence) who are even bigger fans of the film Heavy Metal than I am. (I'll identify one for you at the conclusion of this post.)

However, so far as I'm aware, I'm the only comic art collector with an entire gallery of commissioned art featuring the movie's most memorable character — the mysterious, silent swordswoman known as Taarna the Tarakian.

Why Taarna? I can't answer that question definitively, any more than I can explain why I prefer vanilla to chocolate. Part of the reason is my admiration for Heavy Metal itself, which I believe is one of the great neglected classics of animated cinema, made all the more remarkable by the fact that the film was made on a modest budget under an unrealistically tight schedule. The list of talents whose work is represented in the movie reads like an international Who's Who of fantasy art legends: Jean "Moebius" Giraud, Richard Corben, Berni Wrightson, Neal Adams, Howard Chaykin, Juan Gimenez, Angus McKie, Chris Achilleos, and Mike Ploog, just to name a few.

Another reason is Taarna herself. I'm a sucker for strong female characters (as regular Comic Art Friday readers will affirm), and Taarna is as strong — and as female — as they come. Plus, she's a terrific visual. Designed by Howard Chaykin, a comic book creator renowned for his striking depictions of women, Taarna has influenced the look of dozens of female characters in the quarter-century since she first appeared.

The Taarna artworks we're featuring today were both created by artists associated with other noteworthy female characters. Earlier this year, I was offered the opportunity to commission Mel Rubi, a veteran comic artist most familiar for his work on Dynamite Entertainment's Red Sonja series. Given Mel's intimate familiarity with sword-wielding woman warriors, I knew he'd deliver a fantastic Taarna... and he did.

Aside from the beauty and clarity of his linework here, I was especially delighted that Mel chose a unique pose for his drawing. It's eye-catching, it's dramatic, and most importantly, it's completely in character. According to Mel's art representative, Ruben Azcona at Comic Book Art Gallery, this was one of the first commission projects that Mel accepted. I hope he enjoyed it, because I have a feeling that he'll be asked to do many more.

Our second Taarna artwork roars forth from the pen of Matt Martin, who has drawn numerous covers for the Lady Death series published by Avatar Press. Like Mel Rubi, Matt has built his considerable reputation on his facility with dramatic female figures. He puts that skill to excellent use in this cover-quality illustration.

My favorite feature of Matt's Taarna is the powerful emotion with which he interprets the character. In her segment of Heavy Metal, Taarna remains stoic, never speaking and rarely revealing any inner feelings. Here, Matt strips away her implacable veneer and shows us Taarna's wrath-filled heart of vengeance. That curled lip, those flashing eyes... priceless.

If you're interested in a more detailed presentation of this quintessential heroine, check out superfan Adam W. Smith's incredible tribute site, Celebrating Taarna. Adam provides extensive background details about Taarna and her development, as well as his personal musings about what the character means to him.

Remember: October is National Breast Cancer Awareness Month. To find a cure: This is the pact.

And that's your Comic Art Friday.

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Wednesday, October 10, 2007

Eternal nausea of the spoiled mind

It's Wednesday already, and I haven't touched SSTOL since the work week began. High time, don't you think?

Let's take a tour of the past few days' pop culture madness. You know the drill: Uncle Swan rips, you read. Onward:
  • Pretty, maybe; sexy... meh: Esquire Magazine has pronounced Charlize Theron the Sexiest Woman Alive. She doesn't do much for me (skinny and blonde is a fatal combination in my aesthetic), but I'll agree with the divine Ms. T on one thing: Reindeer Games, in which Charlize costarred with Ben Affleck, is a bad, bad, bad movie. Just knowing that the great John Frankenheimer — whose preceding film, Ronin, is one of my all-time favorites — directed this low-rent piece of trash makes Uncle Swan cry.

  • As if Oprah didn't have enough money: Oxygen, the women's cable channel cofounded by the ubiquitous Ms. Winfrey (you know, the one not called Lifetime), is being purchased by NBC Universal for $925 million. Stedman, as usual, was unavailable for comment.

  • Hey there, people, I'm Bobby Brown: Whitney Houston's ex is recovering from what's being called a "minor heart attack." That, apparently, is the new medical term for "crack overdose."

  • From the Unclear on the Concept Department: 20th Century Fox has fired director Xavier Gens for making his upcoming film Hitman — based on the gruesome video game of the same name — too violent for the studio's taste. Umm... what did they think a video game flick called Hitman was going to be like? The Many Adventures of Winnie-the-Pooh?

  • Stop me if you've heard this one before: Tom Sizemore says he's giving up drugs for good this time. "I'm not trading my whole life for some powder," says the actor, who's inhaled more dust than an army of coalminers. Yeah, I'll believe that right up until Sizemore's next arrest. Any minute now.

  • America's Got Liquor: David Hasselhoff fell off the wagon yet again. Everyone guard your cheeseburgers.

  • 48 is 24 times two: Kiefer Sutherland accepted a sentence of 48 days in the slammer following his recent DUI arrest. The deal brokered by the 24 star's legal team allows him to serve the first 18 days of the sentence during the show's holiday break in December, then the remaining 30 after the end of the season's shooting schedule. Could be worse, I guess: Kiefer's character Jack Bauer was a heroin addict a couple of seasons ago. Or was that Tom Sizemore?

  • Like a Band-Aid on the hull of the Titanic: The San Francisco Giants, still reeling after a 90-loss campaign that ended with the team mired so deep in last place they couldn't see the rest of the National League West with the Hubble Telescope, have dismissed hitting coach Joe Lefebvre and first-base coach Willie Upshaw. Given the Giants' anemic offensive production this season, I can understand firing the hitting coach. But the first-base coach? His entire job consists of swatting players on the butt when they reach base. Darn it, Willie: I warned you not to squeeze.

  • This just in: Marion Jones is marrying O.J. Simpson. She might as well — she's been doing The Juice for years. Thank you! I'm here all week!

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Thursday, September 06, 2007

He'll be the Law & Order candidate

Is he an actor, or a politician? Is he a politician, or an actor? Is he a floor wax, or a dessert topping?

Apparently, Fred Thompson is all of the above.

The erstwhile Law & Order star (and former U.S. Senator from Tennessee) made it official last night on the Tonight Show, tossing his commodious hat into the 2008 Presidential ring. Comparisons were immediately made to the late Ronald Reagan, whom Thompson resembles most in that (a) Reagan also was a conservative Republican; and (b) Reagan couldn't really act, either.

Of course, I live in a state governed by Conan the Barbarian — heck, I even voted to reelect the guy — so I'm probably not in a position to cast aspersions. (Which is okay anyway, because the elbow on my aspersion-casting arm has been giving me fits of late.) Lest we forget, however, we in this fine country have a long and storied history of electing entertainers to public office. A few examples, some of which you may recall:
  • George Murphy, a Broadway veteran and musical film star who served a term as president of the Screen Actors Guild, was a Republican Senator from California in the 1960s. Tom Lehrer even waxed poetic in song about the guy: "At last we have a Senator who can really sing and dance."

  • Fred Grandy (assistant purser Burl "Gopher" Smith on The Love Boat) was a Republican Representative from Iowa for eight years, beginning in 1986. He narrowly missed being elected Governor of the Hawkeye State in 1994.

  • Ben Jones (goofy mechanic Cooter Davenport on The Dukes of Hazzard) was a Democratic Congressman from Georgia from 1988 to 1992. He was defeated in a Virginia Congressional race in 2002.

  • Jerry Springer, later a notorious tabloid TV host and Hasselhoff foil, was the Democratic mayor of Cincinnati in the late '70s.

  • Sonny Bono, the less talented half of the popular musical/comedy team Sonny and Cher, served two terms in Congress as a Republican representing Palm Springs (after serving as the city's mayor) before a high-speed encounter with a tree on a Lake Tahoe ski slope ended both his political career and his life.

  • Professional wrestler Jesse "The Body" Ventura was elected Governor of Minnesota in 1998. (Ten years later, I still snicker when I type that.)

  • Sheila Kuehl, who as Sheila James played nerdy Zelda Gilroy on the classic '50s sitcom The Many Loves of Dobie Gillis, has been a prominent California state legislator since 1994.

  • Former Green Bay Packers quarterback and TV actor Alan Autry (deputy Bubba Skinner on the long-running drama In the Heat of the Night) is currently the mayor of Fresno.

  • Film legend and Academy Award-winning director Clint Eastwood served a much-publicized term as mayor of Carmel, California, in the mid-'80s.
Just so we're clear, though: The day Britney Spears gets elected to public office, I'm buying a beach house in Greece.

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Wednesday, September 05, 2007

Why do they call it Hump Day, when most people make love on the weekends?

So I'm rifling through the news on this sultry Wednesday morning, and here's what leaped off the screen at me...
  • Speaking of sultry, Raquel Welch is 67 today. You gentlemen of a certain age will understand what that means. You gentlemen younger than a certain age... well, you should have been there, is all I'm saying.

  • Again speaking of sultry, Halle Berry is expecting her first child at age 41. I might be going out on a limb here, but I'll bet that's going to be one good-looking baby.

  • Former FOX and MSNBC anchor Rita Cosby's new book, Blonde Ambition: The Untold Story Behind Anna Nicole Smith's Death, alleges that Anna Nicole's baby-daddy Larry Birkhead and her attorney-slash-boyfriend Howard K. Stern were gay lovers. Lawsuits will ensue. Bill Cosby — no relation to Rita — recommended that all parties involved enjoy a Jell-O Pudding Pop and have a Coke and a smile.

  • Speaking of allegedly gay fellows named Larry, the distinguished gentleman from Idaho has decided that he may want to keep his Senate seat after all. That thud you just heard was the Republican National Committee fainting en masse.

  • Speaking of way-past-allegedly gay fellows named Larry, the Wachowski brother formerly known as Larry (as in the Wachowski Brothers of The Matrix fame) is now also formerly a Wachowski brother. He's now officially a Wachowski sister named Lana. I believe Matrix star Keanu Reeves said it best: Whoa.

  • Good to hear that Paula Cole is touring and recording again (with Mandy Moore, no less), after nearly a decade away from the music business. She's a terrific talent, and I hope her comeback brings her much success. That said, if I never had to hear "I Don't Want to Wait" again in this lifetime, that would be just dandy with me. It's tough being the father of a Dawson's Creek fanatic.

  • Not so good to hear that Kelly Clarkson is attempting to jump-start her aborted tour, previously canceled due to overwhelming ennui on the part of ticket-buying America, by playing smaller halls. You are so over, Miss Thing. Maybe you and Justin can still hang out.

  • They still love him in France: Jerry Lewis took another stumble down the long, dark road toward oblivion during his annual Labor Day telethon for the Muscular Dystrophy Association, when he dropped the f-pejorative in a joke about a cameraman's gay family member on live TV. This is the same Jerry who, in a televised interview following the death of entertainment icon Merv Griffin, opined that Merv "deserved to die" from prostate cancer, because he didn't seek earlier and more aggressive treatment. Can you arrange to let him keep the change for his kids?

  • A friend gave the following report about Mary-Kate Olsen's recent adventures at a trendy New York nightclub: "Mary-Kate was wearing a see-through green dress. She was completely wasted, she was humping and grinding against a column with another girl. Then she was flailing all over the dance floor. Later, Mary-Kate made out with various questionable men while friends took pictures. She then fell over onto a table and proceeded to break every glass on the table before toppling over onto everyone sitting behind her." See what happens when you don't eat properly, kids? Your brain turns into Cream of Wheat.

  • This couldn't possibly be a worse casting decision: Nicolas Cage as Magnum, P.I.?

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Monday, July 16, 2007

My date with the Mitchell Brothers

Someone said to me recently, "The older I get, the more dead people I know."

Although it would be a stretch to say that I knew the notorious Mitchell Brothers, Jim and Artie, I did meet them once.

Now that Jim has joined his brother in the Great Beyond — Jim having sent Artie to his demise with a rifle bullet back in 1991, then passing away himself this past weekend, just a few miles from my house — I can regale you with my sordid tale.

Actually, the tale itself isn't all that sordid.

In 1983, when I was a student in the Broadcast Communication Arts Department at San Francisco State University, I once interviewed the Mitchell Brothers in their native habitat, the world-famous O'Farrell Theater.

Here's how it all went down. (Figuratively speaking, of course.)

When I was assigned to write a term paper on alternative media, I thought it might be interesting to do a piece on the pornography industry. Since the Mitchell Brothers were headquartered right across town, this intrepid budding journalist called the O'Farrell and asked whether Jim and/or Artie would be willing to give a college kid a few minutes of their time to further his... umm... education. (What could it hurt, right? All they could say was "No.")

Not only were the brothers willing, they invited me over to their digs to chat with them live and in person. So, I hopped the Muni Metro "M" line to downtown San Francisco, and hiked the few blocks up to the O'Farrell. True to their word, Jim and Artie had given my name to the guardian of the front door, and I was directed upstairs to their office. I didn't even have to pay the cover charge.

For two pillars of the smut business, Jim and Artie Mitchell seemed astonishingly normal — two regular Joes from the East Bay who had made themselves a modicum of fame (and, I suppose, a few bucks, though they were reluctant to discuss the actual finances of their empire) producing sex films and running their glorified strip joint. (Although there were porno movies on view in the main screening room, the majority of the O'Farrell's clientele appeared to be more interested in the various live nude performances available.)

Jim did most of the talking during our interview session, Artie being more intent upon chatting up (and quaffing brewskis with) the constant stream of scantily garbed female employees who wandered in and out of the office during my visit. Since my paper was about media, our conversation focused on the Mitchell Brothers' film career, hallmarked by the infamous Behind the Green Door, starring former Ivory Snow cover girl Marilyn Chambers. (Sadly, Ms. Chambers — with whose softcore oeuvre I was intimately familiar, from late-night cable TV viewing — was not on the premises at the time.)

I was surprised to learn from Jim that the Mitchells had produced what was at the time the most expensive porn film on record — a magnum opus entitled Sodom and Gomorrah, which, according to Jim (no relation to the much-later sitcom starring John Belushi's little brother), had cost upward of a million dollars. I couldn't understand then how one could spend a million bucks shooting a cheap sex flick, but I'm just reporting what the man told me.

What struck me most about the Mitchells (Jim Mitchell, at least) was that they seemed to fancy themselves true cinematic pioneers. Make no mistake, they understood that their bread and butter was in showcasing nekkid people doing various permutations of the procreative act, but they considered their works legitimate art. At least that was their story, and they stuck pretty closely to it.

I chatted with Jim and the semi-present Artie for roughly 45 minutes — taking copious notes as rapidly as my fevered hand would scribble — before taking my leave. They graciously offered me the run of the O'Farrell's entertainment offerings for the rest of the afternoon, but I begged off. (At least that's my story, and I'm sticking to that, too.) I then ducked out into the cold gray San Francisco daylight and scrambled back to the nearest Metro station before anyone I knew could see me.

What happened between the Mitchell Brothers several years later has been well chronicled in the press, as well as in a 2000 film entitled Rated X, starring real-life Hollywood siblings Emilio Estevez and Charlie Sheen as Jim and Artie.

I, of course, saw no hint of discord during my brief interface with Jim and Artie. All I saw was a couple of guys who seemed to be serious about their chosen profession... and who appeared to be having tons of fun surrounding themselves with unclad women. (Not that there's anything wrong with that.) They were unfailingly pleasant and polite to the nervous, goggle-eyed college kid who stumbled into their establishment one breezy afternoon.

And now, I suppose, they're reunited.

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Thursday, July 12, 2007

And you thought this only happened to Katie Holmes

Call it Identity Theft, NC-17.

A Houston woman named Kristen Syvette Wimberly is suing her former high school BFF, Lara Madden, who has built herself a tidy little career in adult films using the nom de porn Syvette Wimberly.

I think you can see the problem here.

The faux Syvette Wimberly (pictured above, in a rare fully clothed moment) has appeared in about a dozen motion pictures "for more mature audiences" made by porn entrepreneurs Vivid Entertainment, also named as defendants in the lawsuit. Predictably, Vivid management declined comment on the pending legal action.

The real Syvette Wimberly claims that the misappropriation of her handle for lascivious purposes has resulted in "humiliation, embarrassment, loss of enjoyment of life, emotional distress, mental anguish and anxiety."

Not to mention 20 or 30 blind dates, and numerous proposals of marriage.

I guess I'm fortunate that, to the best of my knowledge — not that I've done extensive research in this area, mind you — no male porn star has ever used my name as a pseudonym. That would be a huge burden to bear. So to speak.

Let this be a lesson to you expectant parents: If you give your child a name that sounds like a stripper or a porno queen — say, Syvette Wimberly — expect to see it splashed across a lurid DVD case someday.

Just hope that the photo next to the name isn't your daughter's.

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Thursday, June 21, 2007

AFI's 100 Greatest American Films

I only caught the last hour of last night's American Film Institute special spotlighting the 100 greatest American moviesSo You Think You Can Dance being a summer staple around these parts — but I was intrigued this morning to review the entire list.

It's especially enlightening to compare this new list with the one AFI compiled 10 years ago (when the Institute started the whole "100 Greatest..." thing), to see which films have come and gone from the list during the past decade, as well as noting how certain pictures have either risen or fallen in stature, at least in the minds of film critics.

Citizen Kane remains, as well it should, at the top of the heap. Kane is one of the rare films that grows and changes every time one sees it. There's always more to be discovered within Orson Welles's cinematic masterpiece, which continues to set the standard of greatness more than 65 years after its release.

The big surprise in the updated Top 20 is Raging Bull, which leaped upward from 24th ten years ago to fourth today. It's hard to argue, though — there's not another film in the Top 20 that I'd say ought to be Number Four instead. I'm not as shocked that Chaplin's City Lights rocketed from 76th to 11th place — it's always been a favorite of film scholars — as I am to see The Searchers jump from 96th to 12th — as much as I enjoy Westerns and believe they don't always receive their critical due (although Eastwood's Unforgiven moved up 30 spots from 98 to 68, and deservedly so), I've always found The Searchers infuriatingly dense.

As a Hitchcock fan, I'm pleased to see that the Master of Suspense now has two works in the Top 20: Vertigo (9) and Psycho (14). Personally, I'd reverse the two, as I think Psycho is far and away Hitchcock's best film, but Vertigo certainly deserved a much higher placement than the 61st it received in 1998.

I'm glad that Do the Right Thing cracked the Top 100, though I'd have had it a few notches higher than 96th. Most definitely, it ought to rank higher than The Sixth Sense (89), whose very presence in the Top 100 makes the list suspect. M. Night Shyamalan is easily the second most overrated filmmaker of the past half-century. (The first? George Lucas, whose trite, tedious, and hammy Star Wars came up two spots, from 15th to 13th.)

For whatever reason, Fargo dropped off the list entirely, after placing 84th a decade previously (when it was still relatively fresh in voters' minds). I know that the Coen Brothers have delivered little of lasting interest since then (in fact, the CoBros' last few films have been outright stinkers), but Fargo is a singular achievement — a film sufficiently adept at melding opposing elements that it rates as both a great comedy and a classic thriller. I'd place it at least in the upper two-thirds of any Top 100 list.

Other observations:
  • AFI rightly ditched Close Encounters of the Third Kind, 64th in 1998, from the Top 100. Although technically brilliant, especially for its time, Close Encounters is as stupidly written and as poorly acted as any blockbuster has ever been. Good riddance.

  • Another welcome omission: the stupor-inducing Doctor Zhivago, 39th a decade ago and nowhere to be found on the new list. A memorable, haunting theme song alone does not a great film make.

  • Toy Story (Number 99) joins Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (34, up from 49) to represent the animation arts. Too bad there wasn't room for Beauty and the Beast as well. (Personally, I think Toy Story 2 is a much better movie than its groundbreaking predecessor. But AFI didn't ask me.)

  • Aside from the undeserving Sixth Sense, only three other films released in the past 10 years cracked the Top 100. Titanic (yawn) arrives at Number 83; Saving Private Ryan comes aboard at Number 71 (higher than I would have it, but nonetheless worthy); and The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring lands at Number 50 (in truth, a nod to the entire LOTR trilogy, as was the Best Picture Oscar awarded to the third film in the series, The Return of the King).

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Monday, June 18, 2007

65 thumbs, way up

The entire SSTOL crew sends a laurel and hearty handshake to the dean of American film critics, Roger Ebert, on the occasion of his 65th birthday.

As most of you know, Mr. Ebert has been struggling with serious health challenges in recent times. Complications from a series of surgeries to combat salivary gland cancer have robbed the Pulitzer-winning writer of his ability to speak, forcing him to temporarily (we hope) relinquish his television duties opposite fellow critic Richard Roeper to a parade of guest reviewers.

Recently, Ebert returned to the public eye at his annual film festival, still unable to speak but flashing his trademark "thumbs up" to his fans. He's also back at the keyboard writing film reviews, as only he can.

Were I to list the writers who have most inspired and influenced me, Roger Ebert would occupy a place near the top of said list, if not indeed the very pinnacle. I don't always agree with Roger's opinions — heck, I don't always agree with my own — but I never question his scholarship, his communication skills, or his boundless passion for the medium of cinema.

Happy birthday, Uncle Roger. Be well.

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Friday, May 11, 2007

Listen, bud — he's got radioactive blood!

A few gazillion dollars later, I believe it's now safe to report that Spider-Man 3 is the monumental motion picture hit of 2007.

How apropos, then, that Comic Art Friday seizes this opportunity to share the Spidey love that currently bathes the universe.

Fans of the movie series know by now that Spider-Man's lady love is one Mary Jane Watson. It wasn't always so in the comic books. At the beginning of the Wall-Crawler's existence, back in the early 1960s, Peter Parker had a crush on Betty Brant, the secretary (that's what we used to call administrative assistants in those politically incorrect times) of Peter's boss at the Daily Bugle, J. Jonah Jameson. Later, Peter fell headlong into love with picture-perfect blonde Gwen Stacy. He ping-ponged back and forth between MJ and Gwen for years, until Gwen's untimely death at the hands of Norman Osborn, the original Green Goblin. (Both Betty and Gwen turn up in the Spider-Man movies, but Betty is merely a background presence — never a romantic interest — in the series, while Gwen, who debuts in the latest film, resembles her comic book incarnation only in name and physical type.)

In this rough pencil sketch by Comic Art Friday regular Al Rio, Spidey and MJ take a swing through the streets of New York City.

One of these days, one of my favorite inkers is going to take this piece in hand and transform it into finished art. (He just doesn't know it yet.)

Next, our friendly neighborhood arachnid goes solo in this dynamic drawing by Space Ghost artist Scott Rosema.

In recent years, Marvel has published a number of series set in what is popularly referred to as the "MC2 Universe," a possible alternate future (about 20 years from the Marvel Universe "now") in which Spider-Man is retired from superheroics. In the MC2 version of what's to come, Peter and Mary Jane Parker have a teenaged daughter, May (nicknamed "Mayday"), who has inherited her father's arachnid powers. Mayday Parker fights evil — much to the chagrin of her parents, who fear for her safety and wish she'd content herself with normal adolescent activities — as The Amazing Spider-Girl in a thoroughly enjoyable book by that title. Spider-Girl, written in rambunctious Silver Age style by former Marvel editor-in-chief Tom DeFalco, and capably rendered by the veteran team of Ron Frenz and Sal Buscema.

In the drawing below, another artist named Ron — Ron Adrian, best known for his work on such DC Comics titles as Supergirl, Flash: Fastest Man Alive, and Birds of Prey — presents the female offspring of Spider-Man in all her web-slinging wonder.

Meanwhile, back in the "real" Marvel Universe, there's another former paramour of our favorite Wall-Crawler prowling about. Felicia Hardy — better known to the world at large as the Black Cat — enjoyed an on-again, off-again relationship with Spidey for decades, usually coinciding with those dramatic moments when Peter and MJ were on the outs for one reason or another. A former cat burglar (like you would never have guessed that) and career criminal, Felicia reformed through her association with Peter, and became (more or less) a force for good. These days, she's a member of the super-team Heroes for Hire, in the current Marvel series of the same name.

Here, pencil artist Jeffrey Moy (best known for his run on Legion of Super-Heroes) and Jeff's longtime inking partner W.C. (Cory) Carani give us an eye-popping look at this tempestuous twosome.

And that, Spider-Fans, is your Comic Art Friday. Consider yourselves webbed.

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Wednesday, April 04, 2007

They oughta shoot somebody's eye out

Benjamin "Bob" Clark, the movie director who gave the world the holiday classic A Christmas Story — as well as the infamous romp about libidinous teenagers invading a Florida brothel known as Porky's — died early morning in an automobile crash in southern California. Clark's 22-year-old son Ariel, a budding jazz composer who studied music at Santa Monica College, also lost his life in the incident.

The drunk driver who killed both Clarks, 24-year-old Hector Velazquez-Nava, escaped with minor injuries.

That's the kind of news that burns my biscuits.

I consider myself a forgiving individual, but I hold no empathy for intoxicated drivers who kill or injure innocent people. In my view, vehicular manslaughter resulting from alcohol or drugs should be prosecuted and penalized to the same level as first-degree murder. If you're enough of a heartless barbarian that you would rather risk the lives of other human beings than call a taxi, society is better off with you permanently behind bars.

The reason drunk drivers are not so prosecuted and penalized can be directly attributed to the power of the liquor lobby. That, and many leading politicians — including a certain presently serving Commander-in-Chief — are among the folks most likely to grab the steering wheel while under the influence. Big money and runaway egotism make for dangerous bedfellows.

It would be unkind to use this moment as an opportunity to point out that, with the exception of the aforementioned A Christmas Story, Bob Clark directed a raft of heinously bad movies, including the aforementioned Porky's (and Rhinestone, and Turk 182, and From the Hip, and Loose Cannons, and Baby Geniuses). So I'll refrain.

Instead, I'll mention the one movie in the Bob Clark oeuvre that I really did enjoy: Murder by Decree, which pitted Sherlock Holmes and his sidekick Dr. Watson (played here by two veteran scenery-chewers, Christopher Plummer and James Mason) against Jack the Ripper. If you like mysteries, or Holmes, or both, you owe it to yourself to scrounge up the DVD of this film, and check it out. It's a genuine classic, featuring supporting appearances by such talents as Donald Sutherland, Genevieve Bujold, David Hemmings, Susan Clark, and Anthony Quayle. (Fascinating background trivia: Clark originally cast Peter O'Toole and Laurence Olivier as Holmes and Watson respectively, but the two actors hated one another with such a passion that the director ended up having to replace them both just to get the movie made.)

We here at SSTOL extend our condolences to the Clark family upon their devastating double loss.

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Monday, April 02, 2007

Serenity best? Joss say no!

The British movie magazine SFX has released the results of its recent poll to determine the best science fiction film in cinema history.

In a stunning upset (I've always wanted an opportunity to use that phrase), SFX readers chose Serenity as the all-time greatest sci-fi flick.


I mean, Serenity was indeed pretty darned good. I even wrote as much in this very space a while back. But the best science fiction film ever? Hmm.

In case you're curious, here's SFX's complete Top Ten:
  1. Serenity. Again, you can check out my previous post to see what I thought of this one.

  2. Star Wars. I've never been a fan, either of the original or its increasingly tedious sequels and prequels. When Star Wars debuted back in the day, I actually paid to see it twice, not because I was enamored with it, but because everyone I knew was so ecstatic about it that I figured I must have missed something the first time. I didn't.

  3. Blade Runner. I didn't care much for Blade Runner the first time I saw it, but it's grown on me through subsequent viewings over the years. Certainly, it's as influential a film, visually speaking, as has ever been made in the genre. More than Star Wars, even.

  4. Planet of the Apes. A sentimental fave. I was a huge Planet of the Apes fan as a kid. On at least two occasions that I can recall, I sat in a theater through marathon showings of all five of the original Apes films. The Tim Burton remake, however, stank on ice. Banana-flavored ice.

  5. The Matrix. Like Blade Runner, The Matrix influenced almost every genre film that followed it. The sequels got a little bit outré and self-indulgent for my taste, but the original still rocks.

  6. Alien. This would probably be number one on my personal list, even though it's really more of a horror film in a sci-fi setting than pure sci-fi. Sigourney Weaver's Ripley remains one of the most awe-inspiring heroines in the history of the movies, genre or no genre.

  7. Forbidden Planet. Incredibly influential for its time — there would have been no Star Trek without it — but it's embarrassingly dated if you watch it today. Still, this futuristic retooling of Shakespeare's The Tempest has earned its place among the classics.

  8. 2001: A Space Odyssey. I know I'm in the minority on this one, but I find 2001 — like the entirety of Stanley Kubrick's cinematic oeuvre — pretentious, ponderous, and worst of all, boring. I remember walking out of the theater as a kid and asking myself, "That was it?"

  9. The Terminator. James Cameron's breakout film isn't high art, but it's wicked cool nonetheless. Strictly in terms of quality, however, Terminator 2: Judgment Day is a much better movie. Who'da thunk that hulking mass of humanity with the undecipherable accent would someday be running my home state?

  10. Back to the Future. Shouldn't really count, in my opinion. Back to the Future is a comedy with a fantasy (not science fiction) premise. It's a fun movie, but it doesn't belong on a list of great sci-fi films.
Now the important question: Why isn't Heavy Metal on this list?

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Monday, February 26, 2007

Departed: All hope of Oscar excitement

Was that the most boring Academy Awards telecast in history, or what?

I almost need a major jolt of cat poop coffee to wake up after that snoozefest. Great gravy, McGee. I had thought Oscar couldn't get any more dull than last year's low-energy ceremony, but last night's show was like mainlining Lunesta.

To the commentary, quickly, while we're all still reasonably coherent:
  • Ellen DeGeneres once again solidified her reputation in my mind as the least funny big-name comedian I've ever seen. Ellen seems like a charming person, and I'll bet she'd be a delightful best friend and boon companion, but she doesn't make me laugh. A show as big as the Academy Awards needs a huge, room-filling personality at its center. That's why Bob Hope and Johnny Carson were so terrific with the hosting duties. Next year, bring back Whoopi.

  • Oh, and Ellen? Lose the red velour tuxedo. You were just a bow tie away from a barbershop quartet in that getup.

  • Did Jack Nicholson and Britney Spears visit the same hairdresser?

  • I thought the opening film by Errol Morris was fun, but it sure could have used captions so that viewers could identify the participants without a scorecard.

  • What the heck was that huge red bow doing on Nicole Kidman's shoulder? Did she not learn from Charlize Theron's similarly ridiculous outfit last year?

  • When the annual "Dead People" montage concluded, my parting thought was, I'll bet the Academy is darn glad they didn't wait another year to give Robert Altman the Lifetime Achievement Award.

  • That, and — man, Jodie Foster looked smokin' awesome introducing that segment. She and her stunning blue gown deserved a cheerier slot in the program.

  • Speaking of Lifetime Achievement Awards — for pity's sake, people, if you're going to give (a well-deserved) one to Ennio Morricone, and you know that the man doesn't speak much English, hire a presentable interpreter. Don't embarrass him, or a two-time Best Director honoree, by leaving them both to flounder onstage, fishing for the grace note.

  • Good for Martin Scorsese, finally winning a Best Director Oscar. Scorsese is a masterful filmmaker who just happens to make movies that aren't generally to my taste. But as with a great opera singer, I can appreciate the artistry even if I'm not partial to the vehicle. Go back in time 25 years: Who then would have guessed that a quarter-century later, Clint Eastwood would own two Best Director Oscars to Scorsese's one?

  • For that matter, who'd have guessed that Scorsese's editor, Thelma Schoonmaker (who won her first for Raging Bull, Scorsese's breakthrough film), would own three Oscars to his one?

  • Although seeing Eddie Murphy — he of Velvet Jones, Mr. Robinson's Neighborhood, and "Buh-Weet" — win an Academy Award would have been a hoot of the first water, I was glad that Alan Arkin got one while he's still around to enjoy it. Thirty-seven years between nominations is a painfully long time.

  • Forest Whitaker should win something at every awards show, if only because his acceptance speeches this season always perfectly bridged the gap between thoroughly prepared and genuinely heartfelt. Nice guys should finish first more often.

  • Michael Arndt, the guy who wrote the screenplay for Little Miss Sunshine, gave a nice acceptance speech, too. Hopefully, that wasn't the only award-worthy script he had in him. Was he really Matthew Broderick's personal assistant?

  • Props to Jennifer Hudson for having the presence of mind not to thrust her Oscar at the camera and scream, "Suck THIS, Simon Cowell!"

  • Props also to Al Gore, for having the presence of mind not to snatch the Best Feature Documentary Oscar from producer Davis Guggenheim's hands and run off with it. You know, the way George W. did with Al's 2000 presidential election.

  • J-Hud has the pipes, and Beyoncé the publicity, but if you ask me, the hottest of the Dreamgirls is Anika Noni Rose. (Memo to J-Hud: Either get a red bra that matches the gown, or make 100% sure the off-white one you choose doesn't creep into your décolletage, girlfriend.)

  • I haven't yet seen Happy Feet, the winner for Best Animated Feature, but it's tough to imagine that it could be a better movie than the amazing Monster House.

  • Those little interludes where the shadow mimes formed themselves into visual references to the year's major films were weird, but at least they only lasted a few seconds each.

  • I can't help wondering how Helen Mirren's referring to the Queen as "Elizabeth Windsor" went over at Buckingham Palace.

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Monday, February 19, 2007

Taking good care of the English Patient

Now we know why Qantas was Rain Man's favorite airline.

Giving new meaning to the term "Down Under," a female Qantas flight attendant proved to actor Ralph Fiennes that her idea of passenger service included more than a bag of pretzels and a magazine. Former police officer Lisa Robertson joined Fiennes in the lavatory and welcomed the two-time Oscar nominee to the Mile-High Club during a January 24 jaunt from Darwin, Australia, to Mumbai.

Says Robertson — who has since been terminated by the airline — "I was a bit shocked that he didn't wear a condom."

If that's the only thing that shocks you, Lisa, you must not have been paying attention. Of course, the fact that Fiennes went to India specifically to promote HIV awareness suggests that perhaps the prophylactically deficient Ralph hasn't been reading the literature.

When the story of her celebrity coffee-tea-or-me first broke, Robertson told Qantas officials that she had rebuffed Fiennes's water closet advances, and that nothing really happened between her and the lecherous Lord Voldemort. Now, Lisa admits that "she was the sexual aggressor," according to Fiennes's publicist.

In case any of you ladies were curious, Robertson reports that King Ralph "is a great lover." That's handy to know, in the event that you, as I, have dozed off during any of the somnolence-inducing flicks Fiennes has starred in over the past decade.

At least we know the man can generate a little excitement, given the right circumstances.

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Friday, February 16, 2007

Stump the artist!

Today's Comic Art Friday is dedicated to fantasy novelist Peter S. Beagle, author of — among numerous other works — the popular The Last Unicorn. The animated film based on Beagle's famous novel is celebrating its 25th anniversary this month, with a newly remastered DVD presentation from Lionsgate Entertainment.

What you may not know is that for the past quarter-century, Beagle has been involved in a legal dispute with the producers of The Last Unicorn over his rights and royalties. Although the movie is widely considered a classic — it was one of the first American animated films to be animated in Japan, and many of Japan's best-known animators worked on the project — Beagle has never received a dime of profit from the production.

Beagle's U.S. publishing representative, San Francisco-based Conlan Press, has struck a deal with Lionsgate to directly purchase copies of the new The Last Unicorn DVD for resale. Conlan's even offering autographed copies, hand-signed and personalized by Peter Beagle himself, for an extremely reasonable price. For every DVD Conlan sells, Beagle receives about half the funds. So now, at long last, there's an opportunity for Beagle — who's experienced some tough times over the years — to recoup some financial benefit from his most famous creation.

My daughter KM received her autographed copy in yesterday's mail. I've ordered another autographed copy that will soon be winging its way to my goddaughter in Maine. And it wouldn't hurt my feelings one iota if you, friend reader, dropped over to the Conlan Press Web site and ordered up a copy of The Last Unicorn for yourself, or someone special. In fact, I'd be thrilled if you dropped a note in the comments section to let me know that you did. It's a delightful film, and if you buy your DVD directly from Conlan, the money goes where it should have gone all along.

I thank you, and Peter Beagle thanks you.

I'm sure that as a fantasy writer, Peter Beagle is often asked the question, "Where do you get your ideas?" I get that same query about my Common Elements art commissions. And I answer in the same way that I imagine Peter Beagle does: "I make them up." In fact, concocting ever more mesmerizing combinations of unrelated comic book heroes tied together by some arcane connection is the second-greatest thrill — aside from admiring the art itself — I derive from my comic art collecting obsession hobby.

My greatest thrill? Coming up with a Common Element even the most expert of comic mavens can't decipher. Because I'm devious like that.

On today's featured Common Elements project, I managed to stump even the artist who drew it. I'm as giddy as a schoolgirl with a new DVD of The Last Unicorn, personally autographed by Peter S. Beagle.

Starring in this Common Elements spectacular are two of the lesser lights in the DC Comics universe: The Huntress, seen swinging into action at center stage, and Deadman, reeling into the foreground. This phenomenally designed and beautifully executed drawing sprang from the fertile mind and pencil of artist Luke McDonnell, most famed for his tenures on Marvel Comics' Iron Man and DC's Green Lantern, but a favorite of mine thanks to his work on one of my best-beloved comics from the late '80s and early '90s, Suicide Squad.

After this artwork was completed, Luke e-mailed me to ask: "The common element of this team-up escapes me; care to divulge?" After shouting "Yes!" and pumping my fist into the air in imitation of Tiger Woods, I was only too happy to fill Luke in.

The two leads in this little action drama are the only two superheroes of whom I'm aware whose first names are state capitals. Out of costume, the Huntress is Helena (as in Montana) Wayne, daughter of Bruce (Batman) Wayne and Selina (Catwoman) Kyle in an alternate timeline in which those two legends hooked up. (The current Huntress, who appears DC's Birds of Prey series, has a different backstory and surname, but she's also named Helena.) For his part, Deadman's real name is Boston (as in Massachusetts) Brand.

And before you wags write in, Black Lightning — real name: Jefferson Pierce — doesn't count. His middle name is not "City." Nor do any of the numerous superheroes whose last names are state capitals — i.e., Roy (The Human Bomb) Lincoln; Kyle (Nighthawk) Richmond. Jean (Phoenix) Grey doesn't cut it, either.

Although, now that I think about it, I believe there might be a superheroine whose first name is Madison. But I can't remember who she is.

Luke McDonnell, however, got the last word on this conversation. He stumped me with the villain who's tussling with Deadman and the Huntress here. For the record, it's the Lizard, Spider-Man's reptilian nemesis. But I didn't figure that out until Luke told me.

Well played, Mr. McDonnell.

And that's your Comic Art Friday. Remember: Save the unicorn, save the author.

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The Verdict Is In: Memron

One of my favorite subgenres of film is the mockumentary, the comedy-as-faux-documentary style pioneered by director Rob Reiner in the perennial classic, This Is Spinal Tap, and perfected by Tap cowriter and star Christopher Guest in such works as Waiting For Guffman, Best In Show, and A Mighty Wind. The format has even been used to decent effect by a few folks not named Reiner or Guest, as evidenced by a decent little flick entitled ...And God Spoke.

If you're a fan of any of the aforementioned films, you will want to avoid — at all costs — a newly released mockumentary called Memron.

Indeed, if you value your sanity and sense of humor, you'll dash right over to DVD Verdict and check out my just-published review of this embarrassing travesty. After reading my scathing commentary, you will pity me. But you'll be glad that it was I who endured this experience, instead of you.

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Monday, February 12, 2007

The stuff that dreams are made of

Paging Sam Spade: The Maltese Falcon is missing once again.

Okay, so it's not the actual Maltese Falcon from the legendary 1941 Humphrey Bogart film of the same name. It's a replica of identical vintage, used originally in publicity stills for the movie. The stolen statue most recently resided at John's Grill, the venerable San Francisco restaurant where Falcon author Dashiell Hammett held court decades ago.

The filched Falcon was birdnapped sometime last weekend, along with several books autographed by Hammett, from a locked cabinet on the second floor of the eatery. The replica bears the signature of actor Elisha Cook Jr., a San Francisco native who played a nervous gunsel named Wilmer in the film.

Kasper Gutman was unavailable for comment.

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Friday, February 09, 2007

All our hopes are pinned upon you

Sad news this week for us Wonder Woman fanatics: Joss Whedon — creator of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Angel, and Fireflyannounced that he is no longer attached to write and direct the proposed feature film about our favorite Amazon.

Apparently the bone of contention between Whedon and Time-Warner (which owns DC Comics and its pantheon of superheroes, including the Superman and Batman franchises) was Warner's insistence that the film be a light-hearted period piece set in the World War II era — like the first two seasons of the Wonder Woman TV series from the '70s — whereas Joss envisioned a modernized, iconic representation.

In announcing his departure from the Wonder Woman movie project, Whedon confirmed what many of us had heard via the comics industry rumor mill: He had intended to cast Canadian actress Cobie Smulders (of How I Met Your Mother fame) in the title role.

(You'll just have to envision Ms. Smulders in a golden-eagle bustier and star-spangled briefs, unless you have mad Photoshop skills.)

Alas, what might have been. But we can dream, can't we?

Since we're all now thinking of Wonder Woman — which, given that it's Comic Art Friday, is a fine subject for consideration — let's eyeball a few images from our Temple of Diana.

In this powerful drawing by Brazilian pinup specialist Alex Miranda, the Amazing Amazon goes premedieval on the pillars of an ancient temple.

Here, Miranda provides a more contemplative take on our heroine. Nice detail work by the artist in this scenario.

The next two images both flow from the pencil of artist Scott Jones, who works his magic under the nom de plume Shade. A couple of years back, I commissioned Scott to create a Wonder Woman image, using a couple of my favorite costume modifications — a skirt (Diana has never actually worn a skirted uniform in the comics; the skirt, however, recalls the bloomers that formed the lower half of her original outfit, back in the early 1940s) and shoes that lace up the calf (worn by Diana in the comics throughout the 1950s).

The drawing above was Scott's first attempt at this assignment. I thought the piece turned out just fine, but for whatever reason, Scott was dissatisfied with the results and offered to redraw it. His second attack produced the beauty you see below.

Now here's the exercise: Stare at each of today's images one by one. Then, quickly close your eyes and try to envision that same scene, only with Cobie Smulders in it.

I know it's a poor substitute, but it's the best I can offer.

And that, my fellow Themyscirans, is your Comic Art Friday.

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Wednesday, January 31, 2007

Dude, your grandma's hot — which, for the benefit of our North American readers, is the European equivalent of Netflix — polled its site visitors to determine the sexiest screen stars over the age of 50.

In a mild upset, Helen Mirren (age 61) edged perennial favorite Sophia Loren (72) and runners-up Meryl Streep (a relatively fresh 57), Judi Dench (72), and Diane Keaton (61) in the distaff race. Among male stars, Jack Nicholson (69) topped his fellow sagging stallions Sean Connery (76), Robert Redford (70), Clint Eastwood (76), and Danny Glover (a mere pup at 60).

What I find interesting about the ladies on this list — you knew I'd focus there, because that's how I roll — is that with the possible exception of screen siren Loren, all of these women have always been more widely recognized for their acting talents than their pulchritude. For example, Meryl Streep may well be the greatest American actress in cinema history, but she wasn't considered a sex goddess even in her younger days. (Anyone who ever saw Streep opposite Robert De Niro in Falling in Love — perhaps one of the worst romances in movie history — knows why.) The same could be said of Judi Dench on the other side of the pond.

Had I voted in this poll, Annette O'Toole (Superman's girlfriend-turned-mom is 54, in case you were curious) would have been at the top of my ballot. That Michael McKean is one lucky fellow.

Oh, by the way...

Annette asked me to remind you that today is National Gorilla Suit Day.

A little hot monkey love would not be inappropriate. Especially with someone over 50.

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Monday, January 29, 2007

Not to be confused with the Perky Awards

I always chuckle — for two reasons — when the Screen Actors Guild Awards are handed out each year.

Reason One: The SAG Award is formally known as the "Actor." This is, without contest, the least imaginative award title in an industry that prides itself on cleverness and invention. Hmm... an award given to actors, by actors, for acting. What the heck — let's just call it the Actor, and be done with it.

Reason Two: The SAG Awards are pretty much the only occasion when you can use the word "sag" and have women take it as a compliment. In fact, given the universal eschewing of brassieres by the female attendees, they might as well call the awards the Saggies. Not only would the title fit, but it would look as though someone involved had a sense of humor.

Right, Marg Helgenberger?

What makes the Saggies — I thought of it, I might as well put it to good use — interesting to watch is the fact that, because all of the awards are given to actors, we only have to see the people onstage whom we tune in to watch. Let's fact it — no one outside of the winners' immediate families enjoys seeing some writer, producer, or composer pick up a statuette at the Academy Awards. It's the actors — of both male and female varieties, dressed to the nines — we want to check out. The SAG Awards give us all of the meat with none of the filler, so to speak.

The SAG Awards also are the only Hollywood honors that acknowledge the collective talents of an entire ensemble of actors. To win Best Picture at the Oscars, a film has to hit on all cylinders — great cast, great script, great direction. At the Saggies, since only the acting counts, a film or TV show can be recognized for the overall excellence of its cast, even if the other facets of the production aren't up to the same lofty standard. (Hence the Saggie for the actors in Little Miss Sunshine, a picture that no one in his or her right mind believes will win the biggest Oscar prize.) It's a concept I'm surprised that neither the Oscars, nor the Emmys, nor the Golden Globes have embraced.

So who won the individual Saggies, you ask? All of the frontrunners for the Academy's film acting categories picked up hardware: Helen Mirren, Forest Whitaker, Jennifer Hudson, and Eddie Murphy. Could this actually be the year that three of the four top acting Oscars go to African American performers?

In the television categories, the favorite suspects — House's Hugh Laurie, Ugly Betty's America Ferrera, and 30 Rock's Alec Baldwin — bagged three of the four Actors. The one wild card was Chandra Wilson of Grey's Anatomy, who seemed as stunned as anyone else in the room when her name was called for Best Female Actor in a Drama Series.

The Lifetime Achievement Actor (also known as the "Aren't You Dead Yet?" Award) went to Julie Andrews — who, thankfully, neither removed her top (anyone remember S.O.B.?) nor attempted to sing.

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Thursday, January 25, 2007

Thinking Thursday

It's a nippy January Thursday, and as is often the case, I stand appalled by the activities of my fellow humans...
  • The Ford Motor Company reported today that they lost $12.7 billion — that's billion with a "b" — last year. How does that happen? How do you lose $12.7 billion? There are entire countries that don't have access to that level of cash flow.

    Ford says that about $9.9 billion of the loss can be attributed to its newly established company-wide cost-cutting program. Guys, I'm no Milton Friedman here, but I don't think that program is working.

  • Responding to questions about the White House's insistence on pursuing its intended troop increase in Iraq in the face of a Senate resolution against the idea, Vice President Dick Cheney said:
    The fact is, we can complete the task in Iraq. We're going to do it.
    What's the weather like on your planet, Dick?

  • Scandal is brewing Down Under, where the city council of Melbourne hired private investigators to gather evidence against illegal brothels by having sexual relations with the masseuses at government expense. Said one detective:
    The girl is naked. The investigator is naked. You receive an oil massage and, at the end of it, you receive hand relief and that's it.
    Sounds like they take the term "private investigator" literally down in Kangaroo Country.

  • Caucasian students at Tarleton State University in Stephenville, Texas displayed the redness of their collective necks by throwing an MLK Day party featuring fried chicken and malt liquor, Afro wigs, and costumes imitating black rappers and Aunt Jemima. (You can check out the photo array over at The Smoking Gun.)

    Perhaps someone thought MLK meant Mindless Losers for the Klan instead of Martin Luther King.

  • At the Oakland Raiders' press conference introducing new head coach Lane Kiffin, owner Al Davis took offense when a reporter from the San Jose Mercury News referred to the Raiders as "a black hole for coaches." Darth Davis raged:
    This isn't a black hole for coaches. It's a great opportunity for coaches. We know how to win here.
    Hey, Al: Your team was 2-14 in the NFL season just concluded. If the Raiders know how to win, you're keeping that knowledge more secret than the whereabouts of Osama bin Laden.

  • Ellen DeGeneres's ex-squeeze Anne Heche is dumping her husband of five years in favor of her Men in Trees costar, James Tupper. I guess Anne's decided to give the old hetero thing one more whirl.

    In apparently unrelated developments, Heather Graham and Bridget Moynihan will play lesbian lovers in the upcoming film Gray Matters, while former Friends costars Courteney Cox and Jennifer Aniston get in a little girl-on-girl action in the March 27 episode of Cox's new series, Dirt. So maybe the old hetero thing just isn't for everyone.

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Tuesday, January 23, 2007

Academy Award nominations: Dreamgirls need not apply

For the second year in a row, a film many pop culture observers expected to contend for the Best Picture Academy Award was denied even the courtesy of a nomination.

Last year, the Johnny Cash biopic Walk the Line was dealt a surprising shutout from Best Picture (as well as Best Director and Best Screenplay) consideration. Today, Dreamgirls, the hit musical based on the Broadway show suggested by the career of Diana Ross and the Supremes (say that three times fast), missed the top Oscar cut, despite being nominated for eight other awards (three of which are Best Original Song, and none of which are Best Actor, Best Actress, or Best Director). This despite Dreamgirls' Best Film, Comedy or Musical victory at the Golden Globes earlier this month.

Of the five nominated films, Babel, the Globes winner for Best Film, Drama, has to be considered the early favorite. Interestingly, Clint Eastwood's World War II drama, Letters From Iwo Jima, which won the Golden Globe for Best Foreign Language Film (the dialogue is in Japanese), isn't nominated in the corresponding Oscar category (mostly because of different rules for choosing the category's nominees), though it did make the Best Picture field.

It's a remarkably diverse Oscar ballot this year, perhaps more so than in any other previous award season. The nominated performers include five black actors — Best Actor candidates Will Smith (The Pursuit of Happyness) and likely statuette awardee Forest Whitaker (The Last King of Scotland); Supporting Actor nominees Eddie Murphy (Dreamgirls) and Djimon Hounsou (Blood Diamond); and Supporting Actress nominee Jennifer Hudson (Dreamgirls) — two Latina actors, Penélope Cruz (Best Actress nominee for Volver) and Adriana Barraza (Best Supporting Actress nominee for Babel); and an Asian actor, Babel's Rinko Kikuchi, nominated in the Best Supporting Actress category.

Add Best Director nominee Alejandro González Iñárritu (Babel) and Best Original Screenplay candidates Guillermo Arriaga (Babel), Guillermo del Toro (Pan's Labyrinth), and Iris Yamashita (Letters From Iwo Jima), and one could almost be fooled into thinking that the Academy is becoming color- and culture-blind in its dotage.

Good luck to all the nominees when the gold-plated naked guys are distributed on Sunday, February 25.

Okay, all the nominees except Sacha Baron Cohen and crew, whose Borat picked up an inexplicable nod in the Best Adapted Screenplay category. Diversity doesn't have to be quite that diverse.

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Tuesday, January 16, 2007

Do you take one Golden Globe, or two?

Just for the record: My globes are not golden — they're frozen.

It's 24 degrees Fahrenheit this morning, here in what's supposed to be balmy northern California. Yes, I realize that those of you in the Midwest who have icicles dangling from your noses are thinking that 24 degrees sounds like a vacation in Jamaica. But for us warm-climate pantywaists, this is wicked cold.

Speaking of 24: Is there a compelling reason why the second half of the four-hour season premiere always gets scheduled opposite the Golden Globe Awards? Someone in Hollywood hates me. (Not you, Trebek. We have an understanding.)

At any rate, those funloving folks at the Hollywood Foreign Press Association handed out their annual Golden Globes last night. Among the highlights of the mutual admiration society banquet:
  • The easiest win of the night had to be Forest Whitaker's triumph for Best Actor in a Motion Picture, Drama. When two of the other nominees in an acting category are Leonardo DiCaprio (for both Blood Diamond and The Departed), the third is Peter O'Toole in a movie no one heard of, much less saw, and the fourth is Will Smith — an underrated actor, but no Forest Whitaker — heck, I could have won if I'd made a movie last year.

  • From the What Were They Thinking? Department: Sacha Baron Cohen winning Best Actor in a Motion Picture, Comedy for Borat. I'm guessing it was because Cohen was essentially playing a member of the Hollywood Foreign Press Association.

  • Is it just my imagination, or does Renée Zellweger always look as though she smells something nasty?

  • I know they've both won practically everything it's possible for an actress to win, but it still felt good to see Meryl Streep and Helen Mirren pull down the Best Actress awards for film comedy and drama, respectively. Nice to see that someone recognizes that talented women remain worthy of great film roles past the age of 35.

  • So how do you feel if you're the great Jack Nicholson, nominated for Best Supporting Actor in a Motion Picture, Drama, and you lose to Eddie Murphy? Knowing Jack, you're probably too blotto to care.

  • Speaking of saucy Jack, his daughter Lorraine served the honors as Miss Golden Globe. (Every year, the HFPA selects a second-generation starlet to hand the trophies to the presenters on stage. Such later luminaries as Laura Dern, Joely Fisher, and Melanie Griffith started their careers as Miss Golden Globe.) A word of advice to young Ms. Nicholson: No matter what Dad's ex-girlfriend Lara Flynn Boyle tells you, hon, a cheeseburger now and again ain't gonna kill you.

  • Congratulations to former American Idol also-ran Jennifer Hudson, who netted what will surely be the first of multiple awards for her performance in Dreamgirls. Take that, Simon Cowell!

  • Clint Eastwood's Letters from Iwo Jima won as Best Foreign Language Film. Later, California Governator Arnold Schwarzenegger hobbled out on crutches to display his award-winning form as Best Foreign Language Politician.

  • Warren Beatty received the Cecil B. DeMille Lifetime Achievement Award. Mr. Shampoo gave a ludicrous, rambling acceptance speech — I think he'd been chugging cocktails with Paula Abdul before the show — that seemed to last a lifetime, or at least as long as a Cecil B. DeMille spectacular.

  • House's Hugh Laurie capped his memorable acceptance speech from last year with yet another brilliant spiel when he returned for his second Best Actor, TV Drama trophy. They should let Laurie win every year, just to see whether he can keep topping himself. The guy should hire out to coach the other nominees on how to deliver a killer speech.

  • Nice to see both Kyra (One Degree from Kevin Bacon) Sedgwick and America (the Beautiful) Ferrera snag the TV Best Actress awards. Not only because they're talented performers who deserve the accolades, but also because it gave them the opportunity to step out of their plain-Jane TV roles and let the world see how gorgeous they really are. Both Sedgwick and Ferrera seemed genuinely excited and grateful to have won, and I, for one, was happy for them.

  • On the subject of America Ferrera, was I the only person in the audience not surprised that Ugly Betty scored the Best TV Comedy award? Remember who the voters in this venue are — foreign journalists. Ugly Betty is based on a telenovela that's been a huge hit in Latin America. It was probably the most easily relatable show in the category for many members of the HFPA.

  • Three of my favorite current TV series — Heroes, Big Love, and the aforementioned 24 — were nominated in the Best TV Drama category. All lost to the pretentious soap opera claptrap that is Grey's Anatomy. I told you Hollywood hates me.
And now, we present SSTOL's annual Golden Globe Fashion Awards:
  • What's Up With That Dress? Award: It's a tie! Our first honoree is Cameron Diaz, who not only dunked her head in a bucket of Shinola before the event, but also came disguised as either a Swiffer duster or a marine tube worm, I'm not sure which.

    Not to be outdone, nominee Rinko Kikuchi (Best Supporting Actress for Babel) appeared in a frock that looked as though she was preparing to stuff an truckload of pink aspirin bottles.

  • What's Up With That Suit? Award: Jeremy Irons, who apparently could not be bothered to change out of his bathrobe and pajamas to pick up his Golden Globe.

  • The "She's Not My Granddaughter, She's My Wife" Award: Media mogul Rupert Murdoch, proving yet again that a fat wallet and Viagra trump youth and good looks any day of the week, and especially on the red carpet. The hand that robs the cradle is the hand that rules the world.

  • Giving New Meaning to the Term "Golden Globes" (also known as the Drew Barrymore Award): We'll let the people decide. Dreamgirls' Beyoncé Knowles?

    Or Heroes' Ali Larter?

    Oh, what the hey — let's make it a two-fer.

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Wednesday, January 10, 2007

Lily Munster rejoins the undead

I don't know whether the role of a vampire on a television sitcom was the legacy by which actress Yvonne De Carlo would have wanted to be remembered.

But it's the one she's stuck with.

Ms. De Carlo, who portrayed Lily Dracula Munster on that hoary chestnut of '60s TV kitsch, The Munsters, died today at age 84. Fans of big-budget spectacle and/or religious cinema will also recall her as Zipporah, the wife of Charlton Heston's Moses, in Cecil B. DeMille's The Ten Commandments.

Before the roles in which she gained her dubious immortality, Ms. De Carlo (real name Peggy Middleton, which not only lacks a certain je ne sais quoi, but also would have been easily confused with Penny Singleton, who played Blondie in a series of popular films in the 1930s and '40s; Penny Singleton's real name was Dorothy McNulty, which would not have been easily confused with Yvonne De Carlo) was a contract player at various Hollywood studios, where she tended to be cast in the sort of ethnically ambiguous sex symbol parts that often went to such actresses as Dorothy Lamour and Maria Montez (whose real names were Mary Leta Slaton and María de Santos Silas, respectively... but I digress).

Aside from her two best-known roles, Ms. De Carlo toiled busily in dozens of mostly B-level productions during a lengthy film and television career, ended by age and ill health in the early 1990s.

Truth to tell, I was always a Morticia Addams man anyway.

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Friday, January 05, 2007

The Verdict Is In: Step Up

It's another Crappy Movie Friday at DVD Verdict, and although I didn't exactly think Step Up was all that awful, my review of the latest hip-hop dance teen romance is available at the Verdict today.

To summarize briefly:
  • If you long for the days of Flashdance, but don't need to see Jennifer Beals wielding a welding torch or shimmying out of her undergarments beneath a bulky sweatshirt...
  • If you wish that Julia Stiles would Save the Last Dance for you...
  • If your six degrees of Kevin Bacon come from having seen Footloose that many times...
  • If you know that The Forbidden Dance means "lambada"...
  • If you felt the Electric Boogaloo during Breakin' 2...
Step Up might just be your plate of oysters.

The only way you'll know for sure is if you read my review.

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Thursday, January 04, 2007

Actors and actresses we miss

On New Year's Day — seems like an eternity ago, doesn't it? — Peter Hartlaub of the San Francisco Chronicle published an excellent article on the recent trend of actors who, having dropped off the face of the show business map, resurface to acclaim and applause.

Among Hartlaub's examples were Jackie Earle Haley, the former child star (Bad News Bears, Breaking Away) who'll probably be nominated for an Oscar for Little Children, and Thomas Haden Church, the former sitcom actor (Wings, Ned and Stacey) who had more or less retired before his costarring turns in Sideways (one of my favorite films of the current decade, incidentally) and the upcoming Spider-Man 3.

Actors vanish for lots of reasons. Child actors outgrow their cuteness — and their talent — or have difficulty gaining acceptance in adult roles. (Right, Wil Wheaton?) Female actors reach "that certain age" at which Hollywood stops creating good roles for women — although that's changing incrementally, especially as the Baby Boomers age — or leave the spotlight to raise families. Actors of every description simply find that their phones stop ringing, often for reasons that are entirely mysterious. Sometimes they don't get work just because it's been a while since they've had work. Out of sight, out of mind — it happens in show biz as in real life.

All of which got my brain to percolating. Who are some actors I haven't seen in a while, that I'd enjoy seeing making a splashy (or even drippy) return? I've spent random moments over the past few days jotting down a list. For some of these folks, I know why they disappeared — the reasons may appear in the preceding paragraph. For others, I haven't a clue. Some haven't ever completely evaporated, but don't seem to get choice roles anywhere near as often as I think they should, or as they would if I ruled the entertainment industry. (Which I don't. So if your name's on this list, don't call me. I can't help you.)

I did, just for safety's sake, check to make certain that no one I'm about to mention has died. Because that would be embarrassing. As well as a perfectly valid reason for not working.

Phoebe Cates. The stunning young starlet who made red bikinis famous in Fast Times at Ridgemont High married fellow actor Kevin Kline in 1989, and dropped out of acting in the early '90s to raise their kids.

Deborah Foreman. She made Valspeak chic in Valley Girl and limo driving fun in My Chauffeur. Didn't have Cates' range as an actress, but worked the cute perky thing pretty well.

Paul Zaloom. I used to watch his wacky science edutainment series for kids, Beakman's World, with my daughter when she was preschool age. Am I the only one who remembers this show? And whatever happened to Zaloom, who played the title character?

Pamela Sue Martin. Ah, Nancy Drew! (Or Fallon Colby Carrington, if your tastes run more to soaps than sleuthing.) I was reminded of her recently while watching one of those I Love the '70s flashback shows on VH1. Back in the day, I thought she was going to be a huge star. Never really happened, despite an infamous Playboy pictorial.

Michael Paré. A lanky, laconic actor in the young Clint Eastwood mold, he starred in one of my favorite films, Walter Hill's Streets of Fire, as well as the reasonably entertaining Eddie and the Cruisers. Another actor I thought would develop into a megastar, but he's spent most of his career toiling in wretched low-budget action and sci-fi dreck.

Michael Beck. Probably best remembered (not coincidentally, in my case) as Swan, the leader of the title gang in another Walter Hill classic, The Warriors, he costarred with Michael Paré in a decent mid-'80s TV buddy-cop drama called Houston Knights. Like Paré, he never totally vanished, but hasn't worked with the consistency or prominence his early roles suggested.

Jim Kelly. One of the major stars of early '70s blaxploitation, his best role came alongside Bruce Lee in the greatest martial arts film ever, Enter the Dragon. Not merely an actor, but also a genuine karate champion. I keep waiting for Quentin Tarantino to resurrect his career.

Karen Allen. The most amazing pair of blue eyes in the history of cinema, with talent far exceeding the requirements of most of her better-known roles (Katy in National Lampoon's Animal House, Marion Ravenwood in Raiders of the Lost Ark, Jenny Hayden in Starman).

Thomas Carter. Never left show biz, just moved into a different and more stable role. After costarring in the '70s TV series Szysznyk and The White Shadow, Carter became a successful director, first in television (Fame, Hill Street Blues, numerous other series), then in feature films (Save the Last Dance, Coach Carter). He was such a talented actor, though, it seems almost a shame to lose him in front of the camera.

Kim Richards. Grew from playing the cute kid in such Disney pictures as Escape to Witch Mountain and No Deposit, No Return to a starmaking turn as the streetwise adolescent in Tuff Turf. Then... nothing. Why didn't she evolve into the second Jodie Foster? Maybe being Paris Hilton's aunt had something to do with it.

Linda Fiorentino. Longtime SSTOL readers knew I'd get to my favorite actress eventually. Yes, I understand she's supposedly hell on wheels to work with. But how can someone with her prodigious talent — she would likely have won the Best Actress Oscar for 1994's The Last Seduction, had not a quirk in Academy rules prohibited the film from being nominated — have made only one film (Kari Skogland's little-seen, but compelling, Liberty Stands Still) in the past seven years?

Stacy Carroll. Her only feature film credit is the thankless role of Corbin Bernsen's scorned wife (who engineers a one-night stand with Charlie Sheen as vengeance on her philandering spouse) in the '80s baseball comedy Major League. She's also one of the most memorable aspects of that movie. I wonder whatever became of her. I hope Bob Uecker didn't scare her off.

Feel welcome to add your forgotten favorites to the comments section.

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Thursday, December 28, 2006

Riding a Blazing Saddle to Fargo

Two of my favorite films in cinema history landed on this year's list of 25 inductees to the National Film Registry of the Library of Congress. By virtue of selection, these films are deemed national treasures, guaranteed to be preserved in perpetuity for future generations to appreciate.

Blazing Saddles is a long overdue choice, especially given that two other Mel Brooks films, The Producers and Young Frankenstein, are already in the Registry. For my money, Blazing Saddles is both the funniest comedy in film history (it's Number Six on the American Film Institute's list of great American comedies) and the cinema's most incisive satire on the subject of race. Originally, Richard Pryor — who cowrote the script — was supposed to star, but he was serendipitously replaced at the last moment by the brilliant Cleavon Little. When I was a kid, if I couldn't grow up to be Spider-Man, I wanted to be Sheriff Bart.

Fargo is an unusual film, in that it can be viewed either as a comedy punctuated by gruesome violence (it's #93 on AFI's list of funniest comedies), or as a neo-noir thriller with inescapable comedic overtones. However you choose to classify it, Fargo is terrific moviemaking by the Coen Brothers (whose films I don't always enjoy). The lead performances by Frances McDormand as Marge Gunderson, the pregnant police chief of Brainerd, Minnesota (no, the film doesn't take place in Fargo, except for the first few minutes), and William H. Macy as Jerry Lundegaard, the hapless car salesman whose get-rich-quick scheme launches the story, have to be regarded as two of the most memorable of all time.

Other interesting picks among this year's Registry selections:
  • Red Dust, starring the all-but-forgotten sex goddess Jean Harlow. Harlow, who died of kidney failure at the tender age of 26 just as her career was taking off, was Marilyn Monroe before Marilyn even hit puberty. To see Harlow on screen is to fall in... well... desire with her. She was truly one of a kind.

  • Halloween, John Carpenter's horror classic that launched a thousand slasher flicks. Halloween isn't Carpenter's best film — Starman is — nor his most entertaining — that's a tie between Escape From New York and Big Trouble in Little China — but it's certainly his most iconic work. Is there a good reason why Rob Zombie is remaking it?

  • Groundhog Day. Not a favorite of mine, frankly, but a film that has pervaded popular culture in much the same way that Halloween has.

  • sex, lies and videotape, Steven Soderbergh's breakout film, is another peculiar if perfectly reasonable selection. In my estimation, Soderbergh is one of the four or five best directors working today, and this film illustrates most of the reasons why. A stellar performance by James Spader — a highly underrated actor — makes this odd material come together.

  • Notorious. One of Hitchcock's best — I was actually surprised to learn that it hadn't been chosen previously. You put Hitchcock together with his favorite leading man, Cary Grant; a sublime leading lady, Ingrid Bergman; one of cinema's great character actors, Claude Rains (who won the Oscar for Best Supporting Actor); a slinky script by a legendary writer, Ben Hecht — how could it not be wonderful?

  • Rocky. Two words: "Yo, Adrian!"

  • The T.A.M.I. Show, which — by an ironic and altogether appropriate twist of timing — showcases a sensational performance by the recently departed Godfather of Soul, James Brown, among other music icons.

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Friday, December 22, 2006

The Verdict Is In: The Bedroom Window

Just like every Friday is Comic Art Friday here at SSTOL, over at DVD Verdict, every Friday is Crappy Movie Friday. The Verdict's dedicated staff watches this trash so you don't have to, but can instead have fun reading as we dissect Hollywood's mistakes and missteps.

This week, I endured a preposterous, credulity-straining plot, Isabelle Huppert's indecipherable mangling of the English language, and Steve Guttenberg's naked white butt in The Bedroom Window, director Curtis Hanson's hit-and-miss 1987 foray into film noir, made ten years before he finally got it right with L.A. Confidential.

Go check out my review of The Bedroom Window. Meanwhile, I'll attempt to scour the image of Guttenberg's pasty glutes out of my mind's eye.

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Wednesday, December 13, 2006

Putting on his final Ritz

Peter Boyle is dead.

No, really.

I say, "No, really," because Boyle's death has been reported in error before.

As proof, I hold in my chubby fist a copy of Danny Peary's book Cult Movie Stars, published by Simon and Schuster in 1991. On page 70 of this otherwise fine reference work, Peary states that Boyle died in 1990, as you can see in the scan below. (Click on the image to expand the text to actual size.)

Of course, if that were true, I'd have no idea who that guy was who played Ray Romano's wiseacre dad all those years on Everybody Loves Raymond — a show that debuted in 1996, six years after Boyle slipped the surly bonds of earth, according to Peary's book. Or who won an Emmy that same year for a guest-starring appearance on The X-Files.

Since I reject the notion of human clones and doppelgangers outside of comic books and other fantasy fiction, I have to believe that Peary was mistaken, and that Boyle indeed survived until last evening.

(Here's what I suspect happened: Boyle suffered a massive stroke in 1990, which left him partially paralyzed and speech-impaired for several months. Danny Peary and his editors were probably sending Cult Movie Stars to the printer right at the time of Boyle's stroke, and given the severity of the attack as reported in the entertainment press, supposed that the actor would not survive. Rather than have the book appear immediately dated by the time it hit bookstores, they decided to roll the dice and reflect Boyle's death in his biographical sketch. Then, as fate would have it, Boyle not only pulled through, but he recovered fully and went on to costar in a long-running TV series — making Peary look like a colossal idiot.)

Like most movie fans, I'll always think of Peter Boyle first and foremost as the friendly monster in the classic Mel Brooks comedy Young Frankenstein ("That's Frahnkensteen!"). The scene where Boyle wanders into the home of a blind man, played to perfection by a heavily disguised Gene Hackman, remains one of the truly inspired comedic moments in the history of cinema. But he was also excellent as Robert Redford's campaign manager in The Candidate, as Robert DeNiro's fellow cabbie in Taxi Driver, as Billy Bob Thornton hostile invalid father in Monster's Ball, and a host of other roles I could cite.

An interesting character on- and off-camera, Boyle spent three years as a Catholic monk in his young adulthood. Later, he became close friends with John Lennon and Yoko Ono — according to some of Boyle's obituaries, Lennon was the best man at Boyle's wedding.

Sadly, this time, the reports of Boyle's death are not exaggerated.

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Tuesday, December 05, 2006

The Verdict Is In: Tracks

I haven't written any new reviews for DVD Verdict in a while — how does the time get away? Today I'm rectifying this lapse with a fresh look at Tracks, director Henry Jaglom's symbol-laden experiment in psychodrama.

In Tracks, a Vietnam veteran (played by Dennis Hopper) escorts the remains of a slain comrade on a cross-country railroad odyssey. The subject matter is rife with opportunity for gripping cinema. Do Jaglom and Hopper deliver? You'll have to check out my review to uncover the answer.

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Tuesday, November 21, 2006

Robert Altman (1925-2006)

Perhaps one of the most recognizable stylists among American film directors, Robert Altman took his newly minted honorary Oscar and vacated the premises yesterday, at the age of 81.

Whether you liked Altman's films or didn't — to be honest, I wasn't a major fan — you had to give the guy credit: He made the movies he wanted to make, the way he wanted to make them. Altman never seemed to give a fig whether his films attracted big box office or wowed the critics. Indeed, he often made films that defied any chance of accomplishing either. (Was there ever another big-name, highly regarded director with as many commercial and critical flops on his résumé as Altman?) But you always knew an Altman film when you saw one, and to the director himself, that was what mattered.

Altman was an actor's director. In stark contrast to, say, Hitchcock, who governed his players with tyrannical control, Altman's approach was simply to let the actors create the performances they wanted to create. He valued improvisation and freedom in front of the camera, which was why so many talented actors leapt at the chance to participate in an Altman film, even though he generally worked from modest budgets and delivered only the occasional hit.

As noted, I wasn't especially partial to Altman's films. In my opinion, his work often lacked focus and narrative drive — a failing I'm willing to accept in certain directors (I love the films of Christopher Guest, even though his directing is so laid-back that his movies threaten to slide off the screen), but which didn't resonate for me in most of Altman's pictures. My favorite Altman film, without question, is Gosford Park — an atypical work that found the director using a more structured approach. M*A*S*H remains a monumental and influential picture. The Player, Altman's scathing peek inside Hollywood, is as effective a satire as M*A*S*H, and in my judgment, a more effective film. And whenever I stumble upon it while channel-surfing, I always stop to enjoy The Long Goodbye, even though Altman's snarky approach did complete violence to author Raymond Chandler's gritty noir Los Angeles milieu. Although I've yet to check it out, I'm looking forward to someday seeing Altman's final film, A Prairie Home Companion, which a number of friends have recommended to me.

When Altman was due to receive his honorary Academy Award earlier this year, Hollywood was abuzz with trepidation about what Altman would say to the industry that snubbed him for so long and with which he often appeared at odds. When the moment came, Altman showed class, grace, and more than anything, gratitude for the career he had been afforded.

I'm glad that's the final public memory of Altman that lovers of film will have.

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Friday, October 13, 2006

Your one-way ticket to midnight

Today's Comic Art Friday is dedicated to the memory of artist and animator Ed Benedict, the longtime Hanna-Barbera stalwart who designed such iconic characters as the Flintstones, Yogi Bear, Quick Draw McGraw, and Huckleberry Hound. Benedict passed away in August at the age of 94, but news of his death only reached the media this past week. Like Alex Toth, who died earlier this year, Saturday mornings would not have been the same without the work of Ed Benedict.

Speaking of animation...

We're focusing today on the loudest, nastiest, most hellbent-for-leather animated film ever created — the movie that brought together fantasy comic art and cutting-edge animation in a way that no film had before and few films have since.

That's right: I'm talkin' Heavy Metal, baby.

When it exploded into theaters in the fall of 1981, Heavy Metal marked the end of an era in which animation was viewed strictly as entertainment for children. It ushered in a new age of adult-focused animation that continues 25 years later.

Part of the film's genius stemmed from the fact that it was conceived by people (specifically, producer Ivan Reitman, then best known for such live-action comedies as National Lampoon's Animal House and Stripes) with no previous experience in animation, who therefore were unburdened by preconceptions of what could and could not be done. Heavy Metal brought together an impressive a dazzling array of animation talent spanning five cities on two continents, incorporating original art and stories by some of the most innovative creators in the field at that time, under the oversight of veteran animation director Gerald Potterton (best known for his work on the Beatles' Yellow Submarine). Its effects upon animation cinema, and the fantasy genre in general, continue to resonate even now.

But mostly, Heavy Metal kicks major butt.

In case you've never seen Heavy Metal — and if you haven't, don't feel bad; a lot of people haven't, for reasons I'll explain later — the film is a series of animated vignettes representing a variety of artistic styles, nominally linked together by a common thematic device: namely, the Loc-Nar, a glowing green ball of evil that wants to destroy the universe. (Hey, this is fantasy were talking about.) Several of the individual stories were adapted from material originally published in the illustrated fantasy magazine Heavy Metal, hence the film's name. In order of appearance, Heavy Metal takes us through these startling new worlds:
  • Soft Landing (directed by Jimmy T. Murakami, from a story by writer Dan O'Bannon and artist Thomas Warkentin). An astronaut exits an orbiting space shuttle in a vintage Corvette convertible, reenters Earth's atmosphere, and drives to his house (which eerily resembles Norman Bates's abode in Psycho) in a deserted countryside.

  • Grimaldi (directed by Harold Whitaker of Halas & Batchelor Animation). The astronaut Grimaldi gets disintegrated by the Loc-Nar, which he has carried home from space in a briefcase. The Loc-Nar begins a conversation with Grimaldi's preteen daughter, setting the stage for the rest of the film.

  • Harry Canyon (directed by Pino Van Lamsweerde, with designs by comic artist Juan Gimenez). A cab driver in a futuristic version of New York city rescues a young woman from a gang of robbers at a museum. It turns out that the woman is the current owner of the Loc-Nar, which the gangsters are determined to possess for themselves.

  • Den (directed by Jack Stokes, from a story by popular fantasy artist Richard Corben). A teenage nerd discoverers a glowing green meteorite — in reality, the Loc-Nar — which transforms him into a powerfully muscular warrior and teleports him into a primeval world.

  • Captain Sternn (directed by Paul Sabella and Julian Szuchopa of Boxcar Animation, from a story by comic artist Bernie Wrightson). A roguish starship captain gets his comeuppance in a galactic courtroom, when a janitor he had hired as his patsy turns against him in a most surprising way.

  • B-17 (directed by Barrie Nelson, with designs by comics artist Mike Ploog). An ill-fated bomber pilot encounters the Loc-Nar during a World War II mission, and finds his slain crew members transformed into zombies.

  • So Beautiful and So Dangerous (directed by John Halas of Halas & Batchelor Animation, from a story by science fiction artist Angus McKie, with character designs by comics artist Neal Adams). A secretary at the Pentagon finds herself kidnapped by drug-snorting aliens from outer space, and falls in love with a robot.

  • Taarna (directed by John Bruno — now a major Hollywood special effects guru — based on the Arzach stories by French artist Jean "Moebius" Giraud, and with design work by such talented artists as Mike Ploog, Howard Chaykin, Chris Achilleos, Phillip Norwood, and Charles White III). On a bleak, faraway planet, a peaceful civilization is destroyed by a band of marauders transformed into invincible warriors by the Loc-Nar. Their murderous rampage is thwarted by a mysterious, silent female avenger riding a pterodactyl-like beast.
As anyone who has seen Heavy Metal can attest, the segments vary in tone from sublime (Taarna) to ridiculous (So Beautiful and So Dangerous), from terrifying (B-17) to hilarious (Captain Sternn). It's sophomoric and aggressively puerile at times, yet when it works — which, for me, is more often than not — it's rough magic.

An additional segment, entitled Neverwhere and directed by Cornelius Cole, appears only on the DVD release. Sadly, Neverwhere — which traces the history of evil on Earth from prehistory to Nazi Germany — was deleted from the film's theatrical cut due to time considerations, depriving a generation of viewers from a piece of the most emotionally powerful animation ever created, and certainly the most brilliant visuals created specifically for this film.

For years, the entire film was little-seen — outside of midnight movie screenings and occasional, brutally edited airings on late-night cable — as a result of licensing issues over the soundtrack, which features songs by numerous hard rock hitmakers of the early '80s. (It also contains some of the greatest work ever recorded by legendary film composer Elmer Bernstein, whose score is considered a minor masterpiece by some aficionados, yours truly included.) Because of the legal wrangling, no legitimate home video version of Heavy Metal existed until nearly two decades after the film's release.

The Taarna segment is Heavy Metal's centerpiece, occupying roughly the final third of the film's running time, and boasting its most spectacular artistic achievements. Given that I'm a fan of rotoscope animation — a process in which footage is shot initially with live actors, then animated over — Taarna remains one of my giddiest pleasures in all of cinema. All of the scenes featuring the title character were created from live action footage of an actress named Carol Desbiens, who only slightly resembles her animated counterpart, but lives and breathes in her every movement. The DVD release contains several snippets of the Desbiens footage, and it's fascinating to watch the transition from live actress to ink-and-paint superwoman.

Given my fondness for Heavy Metal — and for Taarna in particular — it should surprise no one that I have a few pieces of original Taarna art in my collection, two of which you're about to view.

First, here's a classically styled Taarna pinup, drawn by master "good girl" artist Mitch Foust.

Next, artist Michael Dooney places Taarna in her element in this stunning drawing.

By the way, Heavy Metal, the magazine that inspired the film, is still going strong today. It's now owned by comics creator Kevin Eastman, who with fellow artist Peter Laird spawned the ever-popular Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. (Michael Dooney has worked extensively on TMNT projects over the years.) Eastman even produced an embarrassingly wretched "sequel" to Heavy Metal the film, called Heavy Metal 2000, mostly so that his centerfold-queen wife Julie Strain could serve as the model and voice actress for the new film's heroine. If you ever have the opportunity to see Heavy Metal 2000... pass.

If, however, you get a shot at the original — and you're an adult who isn't easily offended — by all means check it out. It would be the perfect way to end a Comic Art Friday, especially on Friday the 13th.

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Thursday, October 12, 2006

The ink is black, the page is white

The entertainment biz has been abuzz of late with the news that Halle Berry has signed to star in the upcoming DreamWorks film Class Act. The movie is based on the real-life story of Nevada schoolteacher Tierney Cahill, who ran (unsuccessfully) for Congress in 2000 to give her sixth grade students firsthand insight into the inner workings of a political campaign.

I know, that doesn't sound like earthshattering news. The reason for all the conversation, however, is the fact that Tierney Cahill is of the Caucasian persuasion...

while Halle Berry is... well... otherwise persuaded.

In the words of Lance the Intern in Undercover Brother, it's about to get racial up in this piece.

So-called "colorblind" casting — the concept of casting the best available actor in a role, even if the actor's ethnicity differs from the character as written — is a relatively recent phenomenon in Hollywood. A few examples that come immediately to mind:
  • Morgan Freeman as Red, a character conceived by author Stephen King as Irish-American, in The Shawshank Redemption.
  • Michael Clarke Duncan as Wilson "The Kingpin" Fisk, a character drawn as a white man throughout 40 years of comic book continuity, in Daredevil.
  • Louis Gossett Jr. playing characters originally written as Caucasian in both the film An Officer and a Gentleman and the television series Gideon Oliver.
  • Denzel Washington in the recent remake of Man On Fire — the lead character was played by Scott Glenn in the original film.
  • Will Smith reprising the role made famous by Robert Conrad in the film version of Wild Wild West.
I could cite a dozen more examples, but you get the idea.

The difference, however, in Class Act is that Tierney Cahill is an actual living person, where all of the instances noted above involve actors portraying fictional characters.

Historically, when producers and casting directors have selected actors to play recognizable real-life public figures, they've made an effort to cast people who at least passably resemble the public figures in question. (Often with an abundance of help from the makeup department.) On the other hand, when casting roles involving real-life people whose faces are less familiar to the general public, Hollywood many times throws doppelganger concerns out the window. Julia Roberts, for instance, looks nothing like the actual Erin Brockovich, nor does Tom Cruise resemble the real Ron Kovic (Born on the Fourth of July).

The case of Tierney Cahill would seem closer to the latter examples. Had I not just turned up the above photograph of Ms. Cahill on the Internet, I wouldn't had known whether she looked more like Halle Berry, Holly Hunter, or Hilary Duff. Given that the story Class Act will tell about Cahill has nothing directly to do with her race, I doubt that the casting of Berry will make any difference in the way the movie presents its protagonist — as opposed to a film about, say, the life of Leni Riefenstahl.

Since Tierney Cahill appears to be all right with the choice, I don't suppose anyone else has standing to argue. Hey, if Hollywood wants to make a movie about my life, and they decide to cast a tall, muscular, attractive actor to portray short, portly, moon-faced me, more power to 'em. (My vote? Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson. Just in case they happen to be casting this week.)

But the most interesting point in the Class Act debate, at least from my perspective, has less to do with the fact that Halle Berry is playing a woman who in real life is white than with the common assumption that Berry is somehow inappropriately cast in a role that is ostensibly other than black.

Lest we forget, only one of Halle Berry's parents, her father, is of African descent. Her mother is an English-born Caucasian woman from Liverpool. Assuming half her DNA derives from either parent, isn't Halle as much white as she is black?

Not in America, she isn't.

I note this because, like Halle Berry, I am what we today fashionably call "biracial." (In case that's a new word to you, it does not have sexual implications of any kind, thank you very much.)

Although I was raised in an adoptive family by two African American parents, my biological mother was a Caucasian of predominantly German heritage, while my biological father was black. I was conceived and born in 1961, at a time in our nation's history when my biological parents committed what was by law a crime in many juridictions, in the very act that gave me life. In several of these United States, they could not have legitimized my parentage through marriage even had they been so inclined.

As I was growing up, I always identified myself as "black" — remember, kids, this was back in the day before we were "African American," and when we only just beginning to get over being "Negro" — mostly because that's what my adoptive parents were. (The story is actually much more complicated than that, but we'll tell that lengthy tale another day.) This despite the fact that my ethno-external characteristics are slightly more vaguely defined than those of Ms. Berry, leading to a lifetime of oddly personal questions and interesting ethnic misidentifications. During my 44 years, I have been presumed, at various times, to be:
  • Black.
  • Mexican.
  • Native American.
  • Asian Indian.
  • Cuban.
  • Filipino.
  • Hawaiian.
  • Puerto Rican.
  • Korean.
  • Chinese.
  • Various flavors of Central or South American.
  • Jamaican or some other flavor of Caribbean Islander.
  • Samoan.
  • Tongan.
  • Guamanian.
  • Malaysian.
  • Australian Aboriginal.
  • Eskimo.
  • "Mixed," whatever that means.
And those are just the ones people were brazen enough to voice aloud in my presence.

(True story: I actually had a buddy of mine in college get angry with me — albeit momentarily — when he discovered that I was not, in fact, Puerto Rican as was he. I think the primary reason he had befriended me was that he thought he had found a kindred soul in our lily-white university environment.)

Thankfully, my daughter — whose mother is Caucasian, but whose features and coloring are similar to her dad's — is growing to adulthood in an environment where being ethnically indeterminate is at least somewhat less the stigma it was when I was her age. Indeed, it brings a smile to my face sometimes when I drop her at school in the morning and she's greeted by her two best friends — a fair-complected European blonde and a dark-complected girl whose family came originally from India — and the three of them walk onto campus together as their own little human spectrum.

I hope that someday, all three will be able to play whatever roles they choose to play in life...

...and no one will question whether they're right for the part.

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Wednesday, September 20, 2006

"...And they was right."

That action-comedy star Jackie Chan confesses to having performed (if you'll pardon the expression) in a Hong Kong porn film 30 years ago is not particularly funny.


Costarring with Chan in the aforementioned porn film?

Sammo Hung.

Sometimes the jokes write themselves.

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Monday, August 21, 2006

What's Up With That? #35: Scarier than Snakes on a Plane

Speaking of large, scary beasts — and we just were — pity poor Samuel L. Jackson.

Sam and his wife LaTanya Richardson just paid out $8.9 million to buy Roseanne Barr's mansion in Beverly Hills, only to have Roseanne tell them afterward that she has hidden nude photographs of herself all over the house.

That sure seems like something you should be legally required to disclose before the sale, doesn't it? I mean, suppose someone should stumble across one of those pics accidentally, without prior warning? No human heart should be subjected to that kind of shock, out of the blue.

Of course, it could be worse.

Roseanne could have hidden recordings of herself singing the National Anthem.

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Wednesday, August 16, 2006

Yes, he could

I was sorry to learn that character actor Bruno Kirby passed away yesterday due to complications from recently diagnosed leukemia. He was 57.

Bruno Kirby — the son of another fine (and still actively working) character actor, Bruce Kirby — was one of those "that guy" actors. You might not have known his name, but you lit up a little when he appeared on screen: "Oh, that guy is in this." The younger Kirby will likely be best remembered as one of Billy Crystal's pals in both City Slickers and When Harry Met Sally, and as Robin Williams's uptight senior officer in Good Morning, Vietnam. He also costarred as lawyer Barry Scheck in the TV miniseries An American Tragedy, based on Lawrence Schiller's best-selling book about the O.J. Simpson trial.

My favorite Bruno Kirby appearance is his tragically truncated role in This is Spinal Tap, wherein Kirby plays a Frank Sinatra-obsessed limo driver named Tommy Pischedda. While transporting Spinal Tap to their hotel, Tommy observes band member Derek Smalls (Harry Shearer) reading Sammy Davis Jr.'s autobiography, Yes, I Can. Tommy tells Derek that Sammy's book should have been titled, Yes, I Can, If Frank Sinatra Says It's Okay. "Because," says Tommy, "Sinatra called the shots for all those guys."

Although it didn't make the film's final cut, there's a hilarious deleted scene included on the Spinal Tap DVD in which Tommy gets loaded on marijuana during a party in the band's hotel suite. He proceeds to belt out a passionate rendition of Sinatra's "All the Way" — clad only in his underwear and socks — before passing out.

I'm certain that's how Mr. Kirby would have liked to be remembered — as an actor who dared to go all the way.

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Monday, August 14, 2006

Candice Rialson (1951-2006)

What a bummer, to read over at Mark Evanier's excellent blog, News From ME, that Candice Rialson, a fondly recalled starlet from 1970s cinema, has died. Apparently, she passed away due to natural causes back in March, but the news is only now making the rounds.

The name Candice Rialson may not ring a bell to many of you, but for those of us who were hyperhormonal teenaged males during those wild and crazy '70s, Ms. Rialson's face — and her... ahem... other attributes were an essential element of our adolescence.

Although she made brief appearances in several major studio mainstream films, including the sci-fi epic Logan's Run and the Clint Eastwood thriller The Eiger Sanction, Rialson was best known for her work in such cheap, sensationalistic Grade Z fare as Hollywood Boulevard and the cable TV staple Candy Stripe Nurses, which teamed Candice with future soap opera queen Robin Mattson.

Candice stood out (no pun intended) in these flicks, not just because she was pretty in a stereotypical California blonde kind of way, but because she actually had a smattering of acting talent, coupled with a generous dose of sharp comic timing. Despite the fact that most of her films were drive-in fodder designed to appeal to horny high school boys and raincoat-clad adult men, Rialson defined the old cliché, "She was better than her material."

Hollywood Boulevard was probably Rialson's best shot at a starring role, though I'm admittedly partial to Moonshine County Express, in which Rialson costars alongside such industry superstars as John (Enter the Dragon) Saxon, William (Jake and the Fat Man) Conrad, Maureen "Marcia Brady" McCormick, and the legendary Claudia (Gator Bait) Jennings. It's '70s white-trash cinema at its... umm... white-trashiest.

It's a tribute to Candice's legacy that Quentin Tarantino intended Bridget Fonda's pharmaceutically impaired, sexually hyperactive character in Jackie Brown to represent a composite of Ms. Rialson's screen roles. If you've been spoofed in a QT opus, your place in film history is secure.

Candice, Claudia, Cheryl "Rainbeaux" Smith... all gone to that big drive-in theater in the sky. (Or somewhere.)

My long-departed adolescence can't withstand too many more losses like these.

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Tuesday, August 01, 2006

I wish I knew how to quit you, Caped Crusader

Heath Ledger as the Joker in the next Batman film?

Let the "Brokeback Batman" jokes commence.

Maybe I'm wrong, but I haven't seen much in Ledger's work to date to suggest that he can pull off the kind of scenery-gnawing, over-the-top performance the Joker calls for. The character has to be, at turns, both broadly comic and horrifyingly menacing. Ledger's resume doesn't contain a single example of either quality, much less a deft combination of the two.

We'll just have to see.

As only a nominal Batman fan — I liked the character better in his The Brave and the Bold incarnation of the 1960s and '70s than the twisted psychotic he's become since Frank Miller got his slimy mitts on him in the mid-'80s — I'd rather see the franchise take Batman in a different direction than reviving the Joker. Anyone who plays the Joker on film will always be compared with Jack Nicholson in the first Tim Burton-directed Batman movie, even though I didn't think much of Nicholson in the role (too much "Jack," not enough Joker).

Batman has been around long enough to have a gigantic rogues' gallery of villains that haven't yet been exploited by the film series. Christopher Nolan's selection of Ra's Al Ghul and the Scarecrow as the Dark Knight's antagonists in Batman Begins illustrates how well bringing new/old characters into Batman's cinematic mythos can work. Why not continue that pattern by showing us Batman heavies we haven't already seen?

For example, how about Ra's Al Ghul's former acolyte Whisper A'Daire? Or Harley Quinn, who's already familiar to viewers of the various animated Batman TV series of recent years? Cast Scarlett Johansson in either of these roles, and the next movie will practically make itself.

Or, if Warner Bros. prefers to maintain the film franchise's darker edge, why not use the superhuman zombie Solomon Grundy (I can more easily envision Heath Ledger as the shambling Grundy than as the razor-witted Joker), or the terrifying Man-Bat? Either would translate effectively to the screen, and at the same time offer us filmgoers something we haven't already seen.

Just so we don't get the Governator as Mr. Freeze again.

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Sunday, July 23, 2006

Movies I don't need to see

Want to know how I can save money at my local cineplex? By not shelling out my hard-earned simoleons for a ticket to any of the following:

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Thursday, July 20, 2006

What kind of wood doesn't float?

Natalie Wood...

...who would have celebrated her 68th birthday today, had she not drowned in a still-mysterious boating incident in 1981.

(And yes, a quarter-century later, that morbid joke still draws a laugh. We're sick creatures, we humans.)

An interesting tidbit about the late Ms. Wood is the fact that, in her younger days as a Warner Brothers contract ingenue, she was frequently called upon by the studio to "play the beard" for closeted gay actors, being seen on public dates with them to alleviate any suspicions about their orientation. Among the stars for whom Wood served as a just-pretend girlfriend: Raymond Burr, Nick Adams, Tab Hunter, and her Rebel Without a Cause costar, James Dean.

Wood was one of the few child stars (Miracle on 34th Street, anyone?) of her generation to go on to acclaim and success as an adult actor. She was nominated for seven Golden Globe Awards, winning two (Most Promising Newcomer in 1957; Best Actress in a Television Drama for From Here to Eternity in 1980), and also earned three Oscar nominations.

Although universally beloved by her colleagues on and off camera, Wood had a reputation for being somewhat difficult with the press. The Hollywood Women's Press Club twice tagged her with their annual "Sour Apple Award" as the least cooperative actress in Hollywood.

My favorite Natalie Wood performances, beyond her best-known roles, are her two costarring stints with Robert Redford, Inside Daisy Clover and This Property is Condemned. She was also probably the best thing about Paul Mazursky's notorious (although relatively tame by today's standards) mate-swapping comedy, Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice. (Wood played Carol, in case you were wondering.)

Hollywood doesn't produce stars like Natalie Wood anymore. (Catherine Zeta-Jones is probably the closest.) But then, that's why God created DVD.

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Thursday, July 13, 2006

Red Buttons (1919-2006)

Red Buttons died today.

The comedian and actor. Not the clothing embellishment.

In his heyday, Red Buttons (whose real name was Aaron Chwatt, and yes, I'd have changed it too) was everywhere: TV, movies, nightclubs, live theater. Although primarily known for comedy, Buttons was also adept in dramatic roles, winning a Best Supporting Actor Academy Award in 1957 for Sayonara. As recently as last year, he was still making periodic guest appearances on ER.

Oddly enough, my most distinct recollection of Buttons's work was one of his least commercially successful. In the mid-1960s, at the height of the James Bond phenomenon that spawned such TV fare as The Man From U.N.C.L.E. and Get Smart!, Buttons starred in a short-lived sitcom entitled The Double Life of Henry Phyfe. The comic played a mild-mannered accountant (aren't they all?) who just happened to look exactly like a notorious Russian spy code-named U-31. When U-31 dies in a traffic accident, the U.S. intelligence agency drafts Henry to impersonate the Russian and infiltrate the KGB. The show's opening theme song told the whole story:
A foreign spy arrives
By the name of U-31
On his first day in
He's done in by a hit-and-run
(Henry's boss) Gotta find a man with the same face as 31
But who?

Henry Phyfe!
He swears him in and gives all the info to Henry Phyfe
He must never talk to a soul
Of his secret life
(Henry's boss) You are now a spy
You must now lead a double life!

(Henry) Who, me?
Henry Phyfe!
Henry Phyfe wasn't any better than it sounds, and it only lasted half a season on ABC (as bad as then-perennial-third place ABC was in the '60s, that speaks volumes for about the program's quality, or lack thereof). But because it ran incessantly on Armed Forces Television when I was an overseas Air Force brat in the early 1970s (probably because it was cheap to license), I probably saw every episode of it at least a half-dozen times. Enough that, 35 years later, I still can hear that stupid theme song in my head.

Thanks a lot, Red Buttons.

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Monday, July 03, 2006

Thumbs up, Uncle Roger

Roger Ebert, the dean of American film critics — the only writer ever to win a Pulitzer Prize exclusively for film criticism — is recovering today from emergency surgery, necessitated by complications from a cancer-related operation two weeks ago.

I don't believe I'm overstating the case when I say that Ebert has been my single greatest influence as a writer. Although many Americans know him primarily as the avuncular cohost of the weekly TV show he began with the late Gene Siskel and continues with Richard Roeper, it's as a master of the written word that I appreciate Ebert the most. His reviews form an integral component of my daily online information-foraging. In particular, his essays about cinema's greatest films are classics of analysis — they should be required reading for everyone with even the slightest interest in motion pictures as a communication medium.

Our opinions don't always coincide (although we're in agreement that Alex Proyas's Dark City is one of the truly great films of the past decade) but I always feel that I've learned something valuable — about film, or writing, or both — after reading one of Ebert's reviews.

Get well soon, Uncle Roger.

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Thursday, June 15, 2006

Keep your Sunny side up

Today is Helen Hunt's 43rd birthday.

Not that this is of great moment to anyone except Ms. Hunt and those close to her, which I am not. I can't honestly even say that I'm a huge fan of her work, even though I can recall the days when she was a budding child star and folks in certain quarters were touting her as a sort of poor man's Jodie Foster, whom Helen somewhat resembles.

The occasion of Ms. Hunt's birthday does, however, bring to mind one of those only-in-Hollywood stories.

Back in the 1990s — you remember the '90s, right? the No Style Decade? of course you do — Helen Hunt crossed paths with one of my favorite novelists, Robert B. Parker. (For the uninitiated, Parker writes the perennially best-selling Spenser mystery novels, on which the '80s TV series Spenser: For Hire and its offshoot TV movies were based. He's also responsible for the Jesse Stone novels, which CBS has adapted into a string of popular telefilms starring Tom Selleck.) I'm not privy to all of the circumstances, but it appears that Helen is a fan of Bob's work, and Bob of Helen's, and the two of them expressed a common interest in working on a movie project together.

As the story goes, Bob agreed to create a new female protagonist in the general mold of Spenser, specifically so that Helen could buy the film rights and star as the new character. The character Parker came up with was a private investigator named Sonya "Sunny" Randall, who just happened to be blonde, thirty-something, slightly built, and reasonably attractive, not unlike a certain actress bearing the initials H.H. Like Spenser, Sunny plies her detecting trade in Boston, where she interacts between clues with her supporting cast: ex-husband Richie, whose family is comprised of gangsters; best friend Spike, a muscular gay man who's handy with firearms; and dog Rosie, a bull terrier. (Parker is fond of dogs. His protagonists almost always own one.)

Parker's first Sunny Randall novel, Family Honor, made its way to print in 1999. Parker followed it with (so far) three additional Sunny adventures: Perish Twice (2000), Shrink Rap (2002), and Melancholy Baby (2004). Although the Sunny books appear to sell fairly well, and have been positively reviewed for the most part, to date there hasn't been a Sunny Randall film or television vehicle, starring Helen Hunt or anyone else. With Ms. Hunt graduating into her mid-40s — right about the age at which decent leading-actress roles begin to evaporate in Tinseltown — I'm guessing we never will see her in the role Parker created for her.

Sarah Michelle Gellar might not make a bad alternate choice. Not that anyone asked me.

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Tuesday, June 13, 2006

Episode XIX: Revenge of the Swan

I finally got around to watching — nay, enduring — the final chapter in George Lucas's Star Wars prequel trilogy, Episode III: Revenge of the Sith, on HBO last night.

All I can say is: Ouch.

It's almost as though Lucas gave up trying to make his movies interesting, or emotionally engaging, or even fun. Beginning with Episode I: The Phantom Menace, and continuing apace through the latest debacle, the series devolved into a morass of ponderous and predictable plot, insufferably witless dialogue, incompetent acting, and not-as-special-as-George-apparently-believes special effects.

The pundit who once observed that an infinite number of chimpanzees pounding on an infinite number of typewriters would eventually produce Shakespeare was mistaken. Instead, they'd produce the scripts to the last three Star Wars films.

Lucas's lumbering screenplays and ham-fisted direction have become so oppressive that even excellent actors like Ewan McGregor and Samuel L. Jackson look like community theater amateurs trying to navigate their way through them. People who can barely act to begin with — Hayden Christensen and Natalie Portman, I'm pointing right at your sorry hides — didn't have a prayer.

Now, I have to be frank here. (If your name is Frank, I'll give it right back at the end of this post.) I was never a fan of the Star Wars franchise, even back in the day when its components were more or less entertaining, if not necessarily intellectually stimulating. I remember seeing the original installment in the theater twice, just because all of my friends were so enthusiastic about it I was afraid I'd missed something the first time.

I hadn't.

Star Wars was trite, derivative, pseudo-science-fictional claptrap, with ideas stolen from sources both as diverse and familiar as Edgar Rice Burroughs and Marvel Comics. Its two successors were more of the same, although The Empire Strikes Back at least had the virtue of a pair of quality writers (Lawrence Kasdan and Leigh Brackett) working on the script, and a veteran director (Irvin Kershner) at the helm. When Lucas returned to the screenplay duties with Return of the Jedi, his penchant for silly pretension (Ewoks, anyone?) evaporated the previous film's goodwill.

It's sad to think of the $350 million (or thereabouts) that the anal-retentive Lucas squandered on his precious prequels — money that could have gone into the hands of passionate, original filmmakers who actually gave a fare-thee-well about what they were doing.

But not as sad as thinking about the countless hours of life humanity will never get back, having wasted it on King George's cinematic white elephants.

Let's pray that Lucas never gets around to making his long-rumored third trilogy. Enough is enough, already.

In a tangentially related sad note, artist Tim Hildebrandt, who in tandem with his twin brother Greg created the iconic poster for the first Star Wars film, passed away on Sunday.

Those of us who grew up reading fantasy in the 1970s recall the glorious illustrations the Brothers Hildebrandt, as Tim and Greg were collectively known, created for J.R.R. Tolkein Lord of the Rings calendars and assorted merchandise back in the day. They also contributed art to various Marvel Comics projects.

Mr. Hildebrandt will be missed, but his art survives.

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Friday, June 09, 2006

The Verdict Is In: Bye Bye Havana

DVD Verdict's editoral staff has had me on a bit of a Cuban kick recently.

My most recent review for the site covered a film set at the time of the Castro revolution, Cuban Blood, also known as Dreaming of Julia. My latest contribution, published today, is a review of Bye Bye Havana, a documentary examining everyday life in Cuba 45 years into the socialist experiment. It's an interesting piece of filmmaking, directed by former advertising executive J. Michael Seyfert.

Enjoy the review. If you eat a Cuban sandwich as you read it, you'll enjoy it even more.

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Tuesday, May 30, 2006

The Verdict Is In: Cuban Blood (Dreaming of Julia)

One of the entertainment marketing tricks that really burns my bacon is the random retitling of a film for its DVD release. Take, for example, the charming little picture Dreaming of Julia. The title refers to the fantasies of the main character, a young Cuban boy coming of age during the time of the Castro rebellion. Our hero is befriended by — and develops a crush on — a beautiful American woman named Julia, who reminds him of the heroine of the Doris Day thriller Julie. The film is a gentle, warm-hearted slice of life, told in semiautobiographical fashion by first-time director Juan Gerard.

Some nudnik at Velocity Home Entertainment decided that more people would be likely to purchase Dreaming of Julia on DVD if the title were changed to Cuban Blood — a title that would be fine for a Miami gangster picture, but is wholly inappropriate for this film.

You'll get more of this rant in my review of Dreaming of Julia... I mean, Cuban Blood. But you'll also learn more about an unheralded cinematic treasure you just might enjoy. Please check it out if you're so inclined.

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Saturday, May 27, 2006

The Verdict Is In: I Love Your Work

There's a classic Steely Dan song that includes the line:
Show business kids makin' movies 'bout themselves
You know they don't give a [expletive deleted] about anybody else...
I Love Your Work is the movie those kids made.

If you're into Hollywood angst melded with arthouse pretension, I Love Your Work may be your cup of cappucino. My review will help you decide.

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Wednesday, May 24, 2006

Putting the X in X-Men

The following item may very well define the expression "Too Much Information."

Hugh Jackman, who plays the razor-knuckled Wolverine in the X-Men films, claims that his wife likes for him to wear his superhero costume during intimate moments.

And Hugh thought the world needed to know that why?

Besides which, it seems like those claws would... well... never mind.

Let's hope this revelatory trend doesn't spread to the rest of the X-Men: The Last Stand cast. I really don't want to hear that Kelsey Grammer's wife is turned on by blue fur.

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Tuesday, May 09, 2006

The Verdict Is In: Rumor Has It...

You've gotta admit, Rumor Has It... is a clever idea for a movie.

Suppose you (you being Jennifer Aniston, in this case) found out that a famous novel and Hollywood film (the novel and film being The Graduate, in this case) were based on events that occurred in the lives of your mother and grandmother (your grandmother being Shirley MacLaine, in this case) before you were born?

As I said, clever idea. Is the movie itself as intriguing as its premise? Go check out my review of Rumor Has It... at DVD Verdict and you'll find out.

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Tuesday, May 02, 2006

The Verdict Is In: Fun With Dick And Jane

As a general rule...

I'm not fond of remakes, and I'm not fond of films starring Jim Carrey.

Neither of these is the reason I was not fond of Fun With Dick And Jane.

I was not fond of Fun With Dick And Jane because Fun With Dick And Jane is not funny.

Neither is the review, particularly. But at least it will help you avoid wasting your time and hard-earned cash on the DVD of a dreadfully mirthless comedy.

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Monday, May 01, 2006

The Verdict Is In: Dreamer: Inspired by a True Story

What could be better than a movie about a girl, her dad, and the horse they both love? If you ask my daughter, not much.

As movies of this sort go, Dreamer: Inspired by a True Story makes for two hours of fine family entertainment, with all the stuff you want and nothing you don't. The review I published today at DVD Verdict will give you all the skinny.

As I noted in the review, it's rare that a film can be described as predictable, derivative, simplistic, and saccharine, and also be described as a good movie. Dreamer is, however, one such film. My review of Dreamer isn't predictable, derivative, simplistic, or saccharine, but it's still a good article. Take a peek when you have a moment.

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Wednesday, April 26, 2006

This Judge is a real Payne

In case you don't get your fill of pop culture snark right here at SSTOL — and Lord knows, we try — there's a new Judge in town dishing the dirt on all things Hollywood. If you like what we do here, you'll doubtless appreciate the work of the merciless Judge Payne at Cinematic Justice.

You can tell him your Uncle Swan sent you.

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Tuesday, April 25, 2006

The Verdict Is In: Aeon Flux

Tuesday is New DVD Release Day, the day each week when fresh DVD product hits the shelves at a fine retailer (or a Wal-Mart) near you. One of the hot properties on today's release slate is Aeon Flux, a science fiction adventure starring Academy Award winner Charlize Theron in the title role.

Aeon Flux generated a firestorm of controversy in the fan community, as the live-action motion picture takes wholesale liberties with the animated series on which it is based. Peter Chung, the animator who created the original Aeon Flux short films and subsequent series for MTV back in the 1990s, has been vocal in his condemnation of the movie version. (Although, as I noted in my review, Chung's hostility toward the film project apparently didn't prevent him from accepting the royalty checks.)

Whether you are or aren't a fan of Aeon Flux the animated series, my review of Aeon Flux the motion picture should help you determine whether the film might appeal to you. Hey, it's Charlize Theron in spandex — what's not to like?

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Saturday, April 22, 2006

The Verdict Is In: Faith

No, my latest review for DVD Verdict doesn't have anything to do with the classic 1987 pop album by George Michael. Considering the trouble old George has gotten himself into of late, that's probably a good thing. (That was a pretty decent album, though, even if what we've learned about Mr. Michael's predilections in the intervening years does cast songs like "Father Figure" and "I Want Your Sex" in a wholly different light.)

Not a particularly good thing is the veddy British political intrigue miniseries Faith. Although a few of the characters do have something in common with George Michael, if you know what I mean, and I think you do. (Not that there's anything wrong with that.)

Please check out the review anyway. The staff of DVD Verdict thanks you.

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Friday, April 14, 2006

The Verdict Is In: Extreme Dating

Over at DVD Verdict, we usually review the truly awful films every Friday. My latest review examines a film so sucky that it was the featured review on today's Crappy Movie Friday. (Not to be confused with Comic Art Friday, which is never sucky.)

You'll enjoy reading about Extreme Dating a lot more than you'd enjoy watching it. I did, so you didn't have to. Go feel my pain.

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Tuesday, April 11, 2006

A chimp among men

Here's a belated birthday shout-out to Cheeta the chimpanzee, who celebrated his 74th birthday yesterday.

Cheeta, who appeared in a dozen Tarzan films back in the 1930s and '40s, is now retired, living in Palm Springs, and listed in the Guinness Book of World Records as the oldest chimp on earth. He enjoys painting, automobile rides, and sugar-free cake.

Lord Greystoke himself was unavailable for comment.

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The Verdicts Are In: G and How to Lose Your Lover

Today I have two new reviews posted at DVD Verdict. Why? Because it's Twosday, that's why.

G is a modern-day take on F.Scott Fitzgerald's classic novel The Great Gatsby, with a predominantly African American cast. Everyone in this film is way too good-looking.

How to Lose Your Lover was originally titled 50 Ways to Leave Your Lover. I'm guessing that Paul Simon wanted beaucoup bucks for the use of his trademark. Kind of like Kodak did when Simon wrote his hit song "Kodachrome." What goes around comes around, eh, Paul?

Head on over to the Verdict and grab yourself a double shot of my ever-popular DVD reviews, as well as great stuff by the rest of our talented team of critics. You can tell the bailiff I sent you.

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Tuesday, April 04, 2006

Hello, Jocasta

Sometimes the present casts a peculiar light on the past.

In the 1987 romantic comedy Cross My Heart, Annette O'Toole delivers this line to Martin Short during a love scene between their characters:
"I don't like to mention another man in bed, but you're like Superman."
In 2006, Annette O'Toole plays Superman's mother on Smallville.


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Tuesday, March 28, 2006

The Verdict Is In: Stay

Today's new review at DVD Verdict takes a look at Stay, which didn't stay long in your local theater despite the presence of some heavyweight acting talent — including Ewan McGregor, Naomi Watts, and Bob Hoskins — and the director of the Oscar-winning Monster's Ball.

When a $50 million film languishes in the studio archives for a year before release, that generally means the marketing department has no idea of how to sell the picture to the moviegoing public. In the case of Stay, the final solution was to market it as a horror movie, which it isn't. The result? People who saw the film thinking it was a fright flick were disappointed, and people who might have enjoyed the dark psychological thriller it is stayed away in droves. That's how you turn $50 million into $4 million in six weeks.

Maybe Stay just isn't a good title for a movie. You'll enjoy the review, though.

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Monday, March 20, 2006

The Verdict Is In: Separate Lies

What better way to celebrate the first day of spring than with a new film review by yours truly at DVD Verdict?

Okay, so you're thinking: A winning Powerball ticket would be better. So would a hot date with a sexy movie star. Or a letter from the Internal Revenue Service permanently exempting you from federal income tax.

In comparison with these things, my review of Separate Lies, a film written and directed by Julian Fellowes, the Oscar-winning screenwriter of Gosford Park, and featuring the exceptional acting talents of noted British thespians Emily Watson, Tom Wilkinson, and Rupert Everett, doesn't seem like all that much.

But since you don't have that Powerball ticket, or that hot date, or that tax exemption letter, perhaps this review will be a tiny blossom of brightness in your otherwise mundane Monday.

You'll never know unless you go read it.

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Friday, March 17, 2006

The Verdict Is In: You Stupid Man

When I tell you that my latest review for DVD Verdict covers a film entitled You Stupid Man, you might wonder whether the editorial team at the Verdict was trying to insinuate something about yours truly.

Not to worry. I requested the assignment. Mostly because I just had to see what kind of bizarre marketing strategy would name a romantic comedy You Stupid Man, which has to set some kind of record for the most off-putting title in the history of cinema. Next to I Spit On Your Grave, that is.

Besides, Denise Richards is in it. Who plays stupid better than Denise Richards? Or makes men act more stupid?

Anyway, check out the review, you stupid man. Or woman. Or whatever.

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Wednesday, March 15, 2006

I'm ready for my sex scene, Mr. DeMille

Europe's leading DVD rental service, Lovefilm (think Netflix with an accent), has released the results of its latest poll, in which film fans were asked to choose the sexiest scenes in film history.

As a public service — because he's civic-minded that way — your Uncle Swan counts down the top 10, along with his expert opinion on each of the finalists. (Expert on film, of course. What did you think I was an expert in?)

10. The Hunger. Catherine Deneuve and Susan Sarandon in what most likely is the most famous lesbian vampire make-out sequence in the history of the movies. Sarandon may well be Hollywood's sexiest major actress, and Deneuve one of Europe's all-time beauty queens. Vampire women aren't my cup of aphrodesiac, especially — how turned on can you be by someone who wants to drain the blood from your body and transform you into one of the undead? But if that's your kink, you couldn't go far wrong with these two.

9. Mulholland Drive. Naomi Watts and Laura Elena Harring steam up the screen. I'm beginning to detect a pattern here. Must be something about seeing two beautiful women getting jiggy that really ignites viewers' fantasies. Male viewers, I presume, though I may be wrong about that. Personally, I thought the film was overrated, but Watts and Harring (she of Lambada: The Forbidden Dance) are definitely memorable.

8. The Fabulous Baker Boys. Michelle Pfeiffer sings "Makin' Whoopie" while crawling on her belly like a reptile all over a grand piano. This one would be at or near the top of my personal list, despite the fact that I don't find Michelle Pfeiffer all that attractive. She wrings every ounce of seduction out of that song, though. And that red dress should be in the Smithsonian.

7. Rear Window. James Stewart is awakened by a passionate kiss from Grace Kelly. You wouldn't necessarily think of Hitchcock and sexy in the same sentence, but this scene does the job. Hitchcock had a legendary fetish for icy blondes, but there's very little frigid about the future Princess Grace here.

6. Wild Things. The infamous car-washing scene featuring Denise Richards and Neve Campbell. In the words of Austin Powers, "Yeah, baby!" If Denise Richards could act, she'd be dangerous. She can't, of course. But what if?

5. Cruel Intentions. More girl-on-girl smooching, this time with Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Selma Blair. Cruel Intentions — a latter-day Brat Pack retooling of Les Liaisons Dangereuses — is the kind of film that makes you want to shower before you watch it, while you're watching it, and after you've watched it. The characters are so thoroughly reprehensible that finding any of them sexy overextends my tolerance for ickiness. And this from someone who enjoyed both Valmont and Dangerous Liaisons, which are based on the same material. Adults behaving like sexual vultures is one thing. With teenagers, it's altogether different.

4. Betty Blue. A scene starring French actress Beatrice Dalle. I must confess that I haven't seen this one. But then, I'm not much for Francophilia.

3. Out of Sight. George Clooney and Jennifer Lopez locked together in a trunk. Another that would be on my list. It's not even a sex scene — it's literally two people talking as they're locked in a trunk. The way Clooney and J-Lo play it, though, it's smokin'. Out of Sight is, incidentally, a terrific film, and remains my favorite of Clooney's screen roles despite my fondness for Ocean's Eleven.

2. Brokeback Mountain. Heath Ledger and Jake Gyllenhaal give the expression "cowboy up" a whole new twist. I haven't seen this yet, but I've seen plenty of other films starring either Ledger (I'm one of the rare film snobs who actually likes A Knight's Tale) and Gyllenhaal (who will always be Donnie Darko to me). Nothing in any of those movies makes me long to see these two guys engrossed in a liplock. But then, I'm funny that way. Or not. Depending on how you look at it.

1. Secretary. Speaking of Gyllenhaals, Jake's sister Maggie takes top honors getting her fanny spanked by James Spader. Brilliantly written, acted, and directed though it is, Secretary may be the most disturbed mainstream film (if indeed it can be called such) I've ever witnessed. What does it say about modern society that the scene considered the sexiest in cinematic history depicts a pathologically submissive woman being physically abused — albeit willingly — by a dominant male authority figure with sadistic tendencies? Wait... don't answer that. I probably don't want to know.

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Tuesday, March 14, 2006

The Verdicts Are In: Blood and Wine and Irish Jam

Today at DVD Verdict, I'm premiering two — count 'em, two — new reviews.

The first examines a tasty modern noir thriller, Blood and Wine, which features three superlative cinematic talents: Jack Nicholson, Michael Caine, and Jennifer Lopez's rear end.

The second takes a critical view of a genuinely lousy comedy called Irish Jam, which stars Eddie Griffin in a film he'll be pleased to have omitted from future filmographies. It'll remind you of rear end, but not in a good way.

In life, you've gotta take the bitter along with the sweet. Today at DVD Verdict, you can have both. Lucky for you, the reviews are succulent even when the films are nasty.

Why are you still here? Go check 'em out, already.

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Wednesday, March 08, 2006

Repairing Uncle Oscar

Over at The Watchtower of Destruction, that amazing blogging machine known as "The Ferrett" offers his suggestions for improving the Academy Awards telecast. I agree with a couple of Ferrett's ideas, such as expanding the Best Film category to include subgenres such as Best Drama and Best Comedy (as the Golden Globes does), and eliminating the film clip montages except for the "In Memoriam" segment.

Herewith, a few suggestions of my own for the Academy:
  • Find a decent host, and stick with him/her. I know Bob Hopes and Johnny Carsons are in severely limited supply these days, but there has to be a talented comic with world-class master of ceremonies skills who can pull off the Oscars. Identify that person, and give him or her a long-term contract to become the public face of the Oscarcast. Jon Stewart might even be that guy, if the Academy and the network would take the shackles off him and let him do his thing.

  • Spend more time on the nominees, and less on meaningless filler. Since the majority of people watching the show haven't seen most of the nominated films and performances, make more of an effort to showcase representative clips. Invite Roger Ebert and other top-level critics to record brief segments explaining why these films are significant, and why these achievements in acting, writing, directing, and so on are worthy of recognition.

  • Streamline the acceptances. This shouldn't be so hard. Seat all of the nominees where they can reach the stage quickly. (You can still put the big stars in the center, but have the other nominees close to the stage on the wings.) Limit the acceptors to one representative per award. Limit the speeches to a drop-dead 30 seconds, after which the microphone goes dead, the stage lights go down, the camera shuts off, and the director cues the host to keep the show rolling.

  • Only invite presenters who can do the job. That is to say, no one who can't read a cue card smoothly gives an award away. No matter how famous he or she might be.

  • Dispense with the presenter shtick. The presenters shouldn't have to do anything more elaborate than read the list of nominees and say, "The Oscar goes to..." Don't try to turn actors into stand-up comedians or narrators.

  • Make more extensive use of captions. Anytime someone is on camera, the audience should be told who he or she is. Not everyone reads People magazine. Pop-Up Video-style captions could also be employed to convey interesting facts about the nominees. And no film clip should ever be shown without (at the very least) identifying the motion picture from which it came.

  • Only award Best Song when there is a song worthy of the award. Only the winning song gets a production number — prerecorded and cued up for playback when the announcement is read.

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They say this cat Parks was a bad mother...

I have to echo the sentiments of my correspondent Janet from The Art of Getting By: What's up with all these well-known folks kicking the bucket during the past couple of weeks? It's like an epidemic out there.

Now film director, writer, and photographer Gordon Parks has passed on at the age of 93. Okay, so when a guy's 93, it's not exactly a shocker. But still.

Gordon Parks began his singular career as a photojournalist for Life magazine, where his stunning images of people — from impoverished African-Americans in the South to heavyweight boxing champion Muhammad Ali — made lasting impressions on the American consciousness. He then exploded into cinema in 1969, writing, directing, and even scoring the film adaptation of his bestselling novel, The Learning Tree, becoming the first black artist to helm a major studio movie. Twenty years later, The Learning Tree became one of the first 25 motion pictures to be preserved by the National Film Registry.

Although he hated the term "blaxploitation," Parks became the founder of a new cinematic genre with his 1971 film Shaft and its sequel, Shaft's Big Score! He also directed a brilliant biopic entitled Leadbelly, about the life of folk and blues singer Huddie Ledbetter. Parks's son, Gordon Jr., directed the seminal urban thriller Superfly.

Gordon Parks was one cat who wouldn't cop out. And thus another legend departs.

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Monday, March 06, 2006

It's hard out here for an Oscar viewer

Was it just me, or were the 78th Academy Awards the most ennui-inducing award ceremonies in the history of Hollywood? Where was the excitement? The intrigue? The humor? The outrageous fashion? You know... everything that usually makes the Oscarcast must-see TV?

Being a dutiful pop culture blogger, I propped my eyelids open with broken toothpicks long enough to record the following thoughts. For your consideration:
  • Jon Stewart as host? Maybe a B-. It really felt as though Stewart, who cheerfully rips into anyone and everyone on The Daily Show, was on a suffocatingly tight leash for the Oscars — likely due in part to the beautiful people's adverse reaction to Chris Rock's freewheeling performance last year. That doesn't work, though. The whole reason to hire a guy like Stewart is so that he can deliver what he does best — caustic, incisive, topical comedy. Either unchain him and accept the risk that he might offend someone, or play it safe and bring back the deadly dull Steve Martin.

  • My favorite recent Oscar host is still Whoopi Goldberg. Whoopi gets great jabs in, keeps the show going, is adept at making things up on the fly, and has the credibility of being an Oscar winner herself. I know she rubs some viewers the wrong way, but there's no accounting for other people's lack of taste.

  • Speaking of tight leashes, did the Academy issue a warning memo to the fashion community this year? I can't recall ever seeing so many stars wearing straitlaced, plain-vanilla formalwear, except for the ceremonies that most closely followed 9/11. Half the fun of Oscar Night is seeing what people wear, but this year, it looked as though everyone shopped out of the same conservative closet.

  • The one humongous fashion faux pas of the evening: Charlize Theron in a bizarrely constructed gown that made her look as if she had a Siamese twin growing out of her left shoulder. She looked like Ray Milland and Rosey Grier in The Thing With Two Heads. Runner-up: Naomi Watts wearing a dress that appeared to have been ground up in a garbage disposal before she put it on.

  • Nice to see George Clooney pick up an acting award (Best Supporting Actor, for Syriana). I didn't realize that he had never even been nominated before. I think the guy is one of the most underrated talents in the current crop of stars, in part because his acting style isn't flashy like a Sean Penn. Great comment, too: "I guess I'm not winning Director."

  • Would it have killed somebody (pun intended) to squeeze Don Knotts, Darren McGavin, and Dennis Weaver into the "Dead People" segment? I know they all passed away just a week ago, but how much extra work would that have taken?

  • Didn't dig the song itself much, but I had to love seeing the Oscar go to a number entitled, "It's Hard Out Here For a Pimp." No community in America appreciates big pimping more than Hollywood.

  • I don't generally care much for Jennifer Garner, but I thought she recovered gracefully after tripping over her hem as she walked out to present an award: "I do all my own stunts."

  • Could we possibly have done without the endless film clip montages? The show is tedious enough, people.

  • I'll admit it: I don't understand the appeal of Reese Witherspoon.

  • Someone whose appeal I do understand: Rachel Weisz. Of the several pregnant and recently pregnant stars, she was the most luminous.

  • As usual, I haven't seen most of the nominated films yet, but I was glad to see Crash take the big prize. A lot of terrific and talented people were involved with that film, not the least of whom is writer-director Paul Haggis, who deserves to be known for something other than as the creator of Walker: Texas Ranger. When in doubt, I always root for the guy named after a boiled sheep's stomach stuffed with oatmeal and suet.

  • I'm sure there were some nervous Academy bigwigs in the crowd when Robert Altman accepted his Lifetime Achievement award. But they need not have been — Altman was both gracious and grateful for the recognition the Academy has long denied him. And who would have guessed that he'd had a heart transplant?

  • What was up with the concept of having the orchestra playing during the acceptance speeches? I hate as much as anyone listening to folks prattling on, but that was simply rude. Give people their 30 seconds of glory, then drum them off the stage.

  • I can't remember a year when so many of the supposedly comedic bits fell flat. Ben Stiller pretending to be working in front of a greenscreen? Will Ferrell and Steve Carell in atrocious makeup to present the makeup award? The filmed pieces about pre-Oscar lobbying? Who wrote that stuff? And why didn't anyone tell them it wasn't funny?

  • I dig Philip Seymour Hoffman, but dude — get someone to help you with your presentation skills before your next acceptance speech.

  • Speaking of Philip Seymour Hoffman, I was disappointed that Felicity Huffman didn't win, so that they could have had David Letterman introduce the two big acting winners at the afterparty: "Hoffman, Huffman. Huffman, Hoffman."

  • When will they learn? If you're going to ask Jack Nicholson to present an award, keep him away from the liquor cabinet before the show.

  • Two words: Stuffed penguins.

  • Now, please, for the love of Liberace... leave the "Brokeback" jokes alone.

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Saturday, February 25, 2006

Mr. Chicken has left the henhouse

Now this is sad news:

Don Knotts has died.

Nerds, geeks, dorks, and dweebs everywhere are mourning the loss. As a self-confessed nerd myself, I'm verklemt.

Before Napoleon Dynamite, before Revenge of the Nerds, before Pirates of Silicon Valley, before Star Trek and comic book conventions, Don Knotts showed the world that you could be a geek and still be cool. Knotts's apoplectic portrayals of maladroit sheriff's deputy Barney Fife on The Andy Griffith Show and wannabe ladies' man Ralph Furley on Three's Company formed a template for generations of intelligent but awkward, socially inept but well-meaning guys trying to make their way in a world that never understood or fully embraced them.

My favorite memories of Don Knotts, actually, are from his film roles, not his iconic TV characters. Throughout the 1960s, Knotts starred in a series of hilarious comedies playing endless permutations of his signature mild-mannered, fumbling, hyperactive, rebel-without-a-clue character. Knotts was consistently brilliant as:Knotts was the rare comic actor who could repeat the same shtick again and again and get away with it, simply because he carried it off so well. He was the lovable underdog with whom we could all identify. Even now, long after his heyday, if you mention the name Don Knotts to most people, they immediately envision his face, his voice, and his appealing milquetoast persona.

Don Knotts was truly an original, and one of a kind. You don't see his like in Hollywood often. I'm sorry to see him go.

Somewhere, even Scooby-Doo is shedding a tear.

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Friday, February 24, 2006

The Verdict Is In: The Boy In Blue

With the Winter Olympics about to wind down, I think it's appropriate that the new review I've published at DVD Verdict today should cover a film about a world-class athlete. The Boy In Blue stars a young Nicolas Cage as Canadian rowing champion Ned Hanlan.

Okay, so rowing isn't a Winter Olympic sport.

Just go check out the review, and quit your grousing. (Please?)

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Friday, February 17, 2006

The Verdict Is In: American Women

If you've dropped around for Comic Art Friday, hang loose — I'm preparing a report on my excursion last week to WonderCon, the big, boffo comic book convention in San Francisco. It'll be worth the wait, trust me. (And you know that anytime someone says, "Trust me," you can take that to the bank.)

Meanwhile, I've published a new review over at DVD Verdict. The film is entitled American Women. Actually, no, it isn't. Its true title is The Closer You Get. But apparently the marketing department at Fox Home Video didn't think that was juicy enough, so they saddled this sweet-natured (if not especially entertaining) film with a new, sexier title, and corresponding keep case artwork that makes it look like a low-grade, low-class sequel to Porky's. If that isn't redundant.

So go scope my American Women review, then hie yourself back here later this evening for your weekly dose of Comic Art Friday. You'll be thanking yourself all weekend.

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