Wednesday, November 28, 2007

5Q Movie Review: Michael Clayton

Q: Who IS Michael Clayton, anyway?
A: Since you ask, he's one of those big-shot "fixer" attorneys that gets anything and everything done. Do fixers like this exist in real life or only in movies and TV? Seriously, I don't know. But Clayton is good at what he does, though he has some demons and some issues to work through. You know what, though, part of the intrigue of the film is that we don't really know all that much about him at first. In fact, with most of the characters, we get just enough info we really need to know, with a lot withheld, for plot considerations but also for the overall atmosphere.

Q: Clooney has talked about the desire of director Tony Gilroy to make a seventies-ish thriller. Did he succeed?
A: The movie does indeed play like a smart, moody adult-oriented thriller, the kind movie critics and people who see a lot of movies say they wish Hollywood produced more often. Gilroy does a fine job of creating that dark, tense atmosphere with the camerawork, editing, and use of sound. Scenes become more unsettling and realistic with long takes or silence.

Q: Ah, so Clooney didn't direct this one? Gee, the way this was promoted, you'd think he did. That's all I was hearing about with this one, is Clooney this, Clooney that.
A: Hey, he is a movie star, after all, and that's how they sell the movies. Clooney is front and center in the marketing of this picture, and by all accounts, he did play a key creative role in the making of it, so it's no big deal. Gilroy sure seems to know what he's doing, though. But isn't it interesting to note the possibility that people see the name "George Clooney" and EXPECT an intelligent film?

But give Clooney credit for a fine performance of his own--check out the way he handles a scene with Tom Wilkinson, a colleague who jeopardizes the firm's huge deal by apparently going nutso in the middle of a deposition, explaining himself. His reactions show conflicted emotions, restraint, frustration...I really enjoyed Clooney's nontheatrical but intense acting in this movie. Long way from the classic head tilt/rakish grin combo used so often on "ER."

Q: This is one of those "fracture time" screenplays, huh? Is this a convoluted, gimmicky story?

A: At this point, it takes more balls to just tell a story in order than to "play with time." At times I can't help but feel "Michael Clayton" is doing this to spice up what is ultimately a rather standard plot. The machinations of Corporate America don't provide fresh villainy here (with one exception I'll get to in a minute), and the story just doesn't grip the way you'd like to. I think the movie features stellar craft and acting, but I was disappointed by the plot and particularly the cheap denouement (though a fantastic final shot salvages the overall ambiguous tone and nearly makes you forget it).

I do give credit to Tilda Swinton, who plays a shady suit with a startling vulnerability. Kudos to the filmmakers for showing a person who does some unsympathetic things in a multifaceted light. Much time is spent, for example, showing her practicing a presentation, sweaty and anxious. Plus the character's storyline is resolved in a way that really surprised me because it's not often you see it happen to a realistic female character. Academy, are you searching for actress nominations? Here you go.

Q: Shouldn't Sydney Pollack be in every movie?
A: Yes, he should. He instantly raises the credibility of anything he's in. Here, as Clayton's boss, he doesn't even DO all that much, when you reflect on it, but move the plot forward a few times and generally be authoritative. But, oh, how he sells that authority. Very few movies could not use a touch of that. Maybe Spider-Man 4 could be redeemed by Sydney Pollack as some kind of crime boss.

Saturday, November 24, 2007

This Week in DVD

Yes, just a few days before Black Friday, a day when retailers tried to lure shoppers in by discounting some recent DVDs, the studios gave us some brand-new discs, including the following:

Live Free or Die Hard: Wow, I saw less movies this summer than I have in probably over 10 years. Case in point: This fourth installment in the series, a movie which I really did want to see even though I feared it could never live up to the first two and that it could, in fact, very well suck. But I didn't see it, so I have nothing intelligent to say about this one. I can, however, report that my dad saw it last week and thought it was pretty good.

Hairspray: You know, that "didn't see many movies" excuse may not hold up because while I didn't get around to seeing the Die Hard flick...I did see this one! Hey, don't judge me. It was Date Night with my wife, OK? Besides, this was an enjoyable musical that did exactly what it set out to do: provided a few hours of feel-good entertainment without burdening folks too much with the Serious Message underneath it all. If you're into musicals, 60s dance shows, or Travolta in drag, check this one out.

Rescue Dawn: Acclaimed director Werner Herzog received fine critical notices for this gripping wartime rescue drama...but 5 years from now, it'll still probably be remembered as the movie in which Christian Bale ate bugs for real.

Love, American Style Season 1 Part 1: This will be a rental for me, not a buy, but I'm sure glad Paramount is putting it out there. I wonder how big this anthology show's profile is today, when it's not syndicated and if people remember it, it's likely for the fact that it gave us a "Happy Days" pilot and for its catchy theme song ("truer than the red, white, and blu-hoo-hoo!"). I barely remember the reruns, but I do know this: One of the episodes in this set features both Harrison Ford AND Norman Fell. 'Nuff Said!

Dr. Katz: The Complete Series: Hey, great move to get the rest of the episodes out there...except for the fans who already bought the first two seasons.

Mission Impossible Season 3: Hey, you guys know about these releases, right? The episodes look great and are uncut. Presumably they're selling well enough for Paramount to shell out for a few extra features. Come on, guys!

Friday, November 23, 2007

Things to be UNgrateful for

This week, we hear a lot of talk about the things for which should be thankful, etc. To that, I say, Bah Humbug! And if you think I'm too early with THAT one, you missed the memo, bub, because judging by the streets I drive down, Christmas Season now starts November 1.

Sure, I have many great things going on in my life, and I also appreciate many of the finer aspects of pop culture, the treasures that make my leisure time so enjoyable. But there are a lot of factors that certainly deserve griping about. Here are some items I am NOT grateful for:

*Movie ticket prices seem to rise twice a year now.
*The prospect of studios holding back on DVD content to save it for a "high-def" format.
*Studios still, in this day and age, selling movies in full-frame format that doesn't reflect the original aspect ratio.
*For that matter, TV stations showing butchered versions of movies...and getting away with it.
*The music industry still doesn't seem to know how to get its act together and just consistently give me decent albums at reasonable prices.
*The fact there are no decent record stores around anymore.
*Television networks cluttering their screens with station ID bugs, animated ads, and other garbage that prevents me from focusing on what it is they're showing.
*That despite the obscene amount I pay for cable TV, most of those channels still recycle the same crap programming all day, then fill the schedule out with infomercials.
*The continuing decline of once-great cable channels like AMC, TV Land, and VH-1 Classic.
*That there is no classic television equivalent of Turner Classic Movies: A 24-hour network devoted to showing uncut, commercial-free TV of the past.
*Comic book prices are way too high.
*The "write for the trades" system prevalent at the major comics publishers that dictates stories stretch over 5 or 6 issues.
*Websites that load up with elaborate graphics and bells and whistles--usually to support ads--as if users all had superfast Internet connections.
*The ugly threat of censorship hovering over so much of the media these days...along with the hypersensitivity of interest groups looking to gain publicity by launching a "hit" on someone who says something with which they disagree.

Cheery holiday to you, too, eh? Hey, these are just SOME of the things that bug me. Maybe you have some of your own. If so, let 'em fly. Just because it's Thanksgiving doesn't mean we have to be thankful for everything.

Wednesday, November 21, 2007

First Impulse: Top 50 TV Icons

OK, so last week Entertainment Weekly and TV Land unveiled their list of the top 50 TV icons in a two-hour special, with 100-51 posted on the web. As soon as the project was announced, I had a feeling the result would irritate me, yet I knew I'd end up watching it.

I was correct on both counts.

I know there are people at EW with a sense of history, and I know there USED TO BE people at TV Land that thought the same (back before "Extreme Home Makeover" was deemed worthy of their schedule), and these are supposed to be the top icons of all time. But the list seems heavy on more recent, arguably less enduring personalities and characters.

I know I'm a grumpy old man in a not-really-that-old body, so I am supposed to bitch about this sort of thing. But my wife is neither grumpy old nor not-really-that-old nor old at all, and before I even said anything to her, she saw the cover of the EW issue that contained the magazine story and told me, "I don't think JENNIFER ANISTON is one of the top 50 icons of anything."

Exactly, my dear. Exactly.

So before I looked at the mag or looked online for the list (and I still haven't done either), I watched the TV show. Number 50 was Larry Hagman. That's fine. J.R. Ewing is one of the best characters in TV history, and besides, his segment gave them a chance to run an old "Sea Hunt" clip. Of course, this had the effect of making me with TV Land would show stuff like "Sea Hunt" again instead of "Designing Women" and "Just Shoot Me."

But when I saw #49, I couldn't help but echo it with an anguished yell: "Calista Flockhart!?" Absurd. I jokingly took the remote and stopped the recording, acting like I was gonna leave the couch and stop watching. My wife and I had a chuckle, and then I restarted the special.

Cue #48. Cue me: "Jimmy Smits!?" My wife grabbed the remote before I could stop the recording again.

As the list went on, most selections made sense as significant icons, if not their placement. I'm trying to remove my own biases here, but Carson #1? I don't think so. He's overrated, for one thing, and for another, he coasted for years. His influence was undeniable, but will it endure past this generation? I'd put him top 10, but not so high.

Oprah #3? No way. Most of the top 10 was at least a little more sensible than Oprah.

I expected to see a slant towards more recent personalities, and that did happen to an extent. Eventually, though, even TV Land and Entertainment Weekly had to concede that, yep, a lot of old people from black and white TV shows were important. Lucille Ball was #2, and I am not a huge fan, but I think she should be easily in the top handful. Jackie Gleason, who had a profound historical impact on the medium, is too low at 13.

Carol Burnett above Mary Tyler Moore? Not in my book. Henry Winkler at 32? Way too low. The Fonz will be an enduring icon for decades to come. Heather Locklear is 25, but Bob Denver is nowhere to be found? Kermit but no Big Bird? Arguable, perhaps. I didn't expect old-schoolers like Ernie Kovacs or Dave Garroway or Steve Allen (who, to be fair, was mentioned in the David Letterman segment), but how about Bob Hope? I wouldn't expect nods for acclaimed pioneering writers like Paddy Chayefsky or Sterling Silliphant, but how about a writer who became a TV star himself--Rod Serling? Barbara Walters but no Mike Wallace? What about Merv Griffin?

Where the heck is David Janssen? George Clooney seems included only because of his movie fame. His ER run wasn't even as long as one might think.

I could gripe for pages and pages, but the point is that the list reflects the decline of TV Land. At the risk of taking this basically frivolous two hours of light entertainment wayyyy too seriously, I have to complain. TV Land used to stand for TV history and heritage. Even if it was a marketing gimmick, it lived its gimmick and lived it well. Now it's a shell of itself, and we can't even count on it to provide a list-type show with integrity. Granted, there were some big nods to history on this list, but the overall package doesn't do justice to the medium.

I expect better from you, Entertainment Weekly, even though you seem to gradually be dumbing down your magazine. I've pretty much given up on TV Land.

Tuesday, November 20, 2007

5Q Movie Review: Gone Baby Gone

Q: Ben-Lo is directing a movie? Puh-leez. What does that lunkhead know about directing a movie?
A: Hey, the guy hasn't dated J-Lo for years. He's moved on, married Jennifer Garner, and had a child with her, and I suggest you do the same. At least the moving on part.

Affleck is an easy target due to all the crap movies he's been in, but if he is pretending to be the sincere filmmaker he comes off as in interviews and in shows like the late, lamented "Project Greenlight," then he's one hell of an actor. With "Gone Baby Gone," Affleck creates a fine movie, guiding a veteran cast to great performances, successfully navigating a complex story, and providing vivid atmosphere. I'll look forward to seeing what he directs next.

Q: This sounds like a pretty dark movie, one in which a private dick tries to find a kidnapped baby. Is this the dark noirish thriller it sounds like?
A: I'm not familiar with the source material, Dennis Lehane's novel of the same name, but while this one starts out as that kind of gritty crime film I was hoping for, it actually transcends that somewhat. It never loses its authentic grimness, but it ultimately engages you with moral questions and becomes far more thought-provoking than you could imagine after reading a simple synopsis--unless you read something that delves into the plot and spoils it for you. I ain't gonna do that here.

Q: Did Affleck choose to adapt this particular book only because it's set in Boston? A: Maybe. But his passion for the city and for bringing it to the big screen is evident, and it validates his choice. It's that atmosphere I mentioned earlier. We've seen Boston and its sports teams and their often-insufferable fans all over the media landscape recently, but arguably not the way it is presented here. This isn't the Hah-vahd, wine and cheese, donates hundreds of thousands of dollars to John Kerry Bahstan. It's a more menacing urban environment, and in this case, it's white, not particularly "ethnic," and decidedly working class. Many of the faces you see in this movie are not the kind you normally see in Hollywood pictures. Affleck also makes good use of many small, not-so-well-lit cramped interiors to show us the confinement one can feel in a lower-class urban environment, as well as a sense of claustrophobic menace facing the characters.

Q: Well, I can at least rip on Ben for casting his brother in the lead, can't I? Come on, at least give me that.
A: Nope, sorry. I hadn't been much impressed by Casey Affleck before seeing this film, but he shines in Gone Baby Gone, giving an emotional performance that seems rooted in reality. He vividly depicts moral anguish without the twitches of, say, Giovanni Ribisi. And while your first reaction might be that Casey, who plays a private investigator hired to investigate the missing baby; and Michelle Monaghan, as his girlfriend, will be blown off the screen by heavyweights like Ed Harris and Morgan Freeman...well, that's kind of the point. Their characters are young and a little foolish and in over their heads.

And even if you aren't wowed by the youngsters, you have Harris and Freeman and even John Ashton in a smaller but crucial role. And the real standout is Amy Ryan as the baby's mother. She is an accomplished pro, but someone like me who knows her mainly as Beadie on The Wire will be stunned by how she inhabits such a hard-edged character. She should be recognized come awards season.

Q: If this is so good, how come nobody saw it? It was in theaters for, like, two weeks.
A: Ah, because people are idjits?

Well, I don't know how much of a push this got, but it is a grim drama without an obvious marketing hook except to Dennis Lehane fans. Don't worry about box office numbers. Adult movie fans should enjoy this. Director Ben Affleck does a fine job, turning this movie--at about the time of a well-placed false finish--from a solid crime thriller to a meditation on morality. The overall product compares favorably to Clint Eastwood's acclaimed Lehane adaptation of a few years back--"Mystic River."

Sunday, November 18, 2007

Journey into DVD: The Paul Lynde Halloween Special

Sure, this post may be a few weeks late for Halloween, but really, is it ever too late for Paul Lynde? I think not, and that's why on this Journey into DVD I report on my experience watching this 1976 kitschfest, recently extracted from the bootleg circuit and given a legit release by S'More Entertainment.

When you put this disc in, you see a disclaimer stating that the special was long thought lost, someone found it, and now you're going to see it, but it's in crummy condition, so don't write the company asking for a refund. Well, not in so many words, but since the visual quality is somewhat akin to a third-generation VHS dub, S'More is a bit defensive. I doubt this looks much better than most of those bootlegged copies that circulate, but, hey, why quibble? This is a piece of history, and whoever supposedly "found" it should be hailed as the pop cultural Howard Carter he is, not jeered because he couldn't come up with a pristine copy.

You are either willing to sit down and watch something called The Paul Lynde Halloween Special or you are not. Modern TV audiences aren't exposed to the prime time network variety special much, but back in the day, it was quite common to see a celebrity play host to musicians, comedians, and other performers, often in a winking fashion. In this 1976 ABC TV special, Paul is supposedly at his home, preparing for Halloween, when some kind of goofy plot sets him out with his housekeeper to her sister's house. Guess what? His housekeeper is Margaret Hamilton, and she and her sister are...witches! Halloween ensues.

This is not just of interest for Paul Lynde fans, but for fans of the entire decade of the seventies--all couple hundred of you. Maybe you hated the seventies and need a reminder or you relish the chance to mock that period again. If so, here's enough ammo to last you until the latest of that era's several dozen revivals goes away again.

These are just some of the Seventies Hallmarks covered in the Paul Lynde Halloween Special:

*Lynde himself: While this isn't just for Lynde fans, you sure ought to be one if you want to watch this. He's not as sarcastic as he in on Hollywood Squares, but he is--well, he's Paul Lynde. As the center of the special, though, he has to play more of a--pardon the expression--straight man. Everyone even then knew that Lynde was, as Peter Marshall puts it in a DVD extra, "obviously, um, gay," but even without that level of awareness, the sequence where he plays a Rudolph Valentino type seducing Florence Henderson is so good it's bad--even if it knows it's bad. All that irritation we jaded audiences get today at excessive irony and winking goes out--way out--the closet when seeing vintage Paul Lynde.

*KISS: This appearance is amusing on many levels. The thought of KISS fans tuning into a Paul Lynde special isn't even as funny as the thought of KISS fans, years later, actually making efforts to obtain copies of the special. It's hardly surprising, though, that a band that actively markets a KISS coffin would hustle its albums by popping up on this kind of show. And really, while for many bands it would be odd to follow a square dance number by playing engulfed in fog in a witches' castle, that's par for the course for these guys. I got to admit, though, the fact that they sit around and chat with Paul and Margaret Hamilton--yeah, that's kind of odd.

*Truckin': Any self-respecting trendwatcher who was around back in the day knows you can't Keep on Truckin' without a cool handle and a CB radio. Lynde lives up to our expectations, appearing in one segment as a truck driver named Big Red. His convoy is big enough for guest star Tim Conway, and I swear that's not meant as a euphemism.

*Roz "Pinky Tuscadero" Kelly: Those who didn't grow up in the Seventies will be hard-pressed to understand exactly what Roz Kelly's appeal was. Those who DID grow up in the Seventies will, uh, be equally hard-pressed to explain it. Well, she was sassy. She gets to sing, dance, and be sassy with Paul in this special.

*Bruce Vilanch: OK, not really a Seventies Hallmark, but I feel obligated to mention his involvement as a credited writer.

If that's not enough far-out grooviness for you, consider the references to Bugsy Malone and to something being "too much Alice Cooper, not enough Alice Faye.

We're not missing much of the Seventies here. Presumably skits about gas shortages and Vietnam were considered but didn't make the cut. Fear not, though, watching The Paul Lynde Halloween Special will not put you in a general malaise. I recommend you pick this one up, poor video quality and all, and supplement the Great Pumpkin with the, I'm not going there.

Kudos to S'More for filling out the 50-minute special with some extras to add value to the DVD. The best is an enlightening 12-minute audio interview with Hollywood Squares host Peter Marshall covers that game show, thought to be the pinnacle of Lynde's career. There's a still gallery of Paul's life for those who are into that sort of thing. It's presented as a "scrapbook," which makes the pictures a little too small and harder to appreciate than they should be.

Also on there is a selection of Lynde quotes and a "Name That Quip" challenge in which you're given the setup in the form of a Hollywood Squares question, then must choose which of 3 zingers Paul gave. This one goes on and on and on, and I eventually bailed out after about 30. For the record, I scored about 75%, and while I don't know if that's any good, I have a vague feeling I shouldn't be admitting it in public.

This is a must-see DVD for fans of Paul Lynde, fans of the 1970s, and fans of megacheesy pop culture. I imagine there's a lot of crossover among those groups. They'll all be happy with this one.

Saturday, November 17, 2007

This Week in DVD

Well, since the two highest-profile new DVDs this week are threequels, have I told you lately about Spider-Man 3? Just kidding! I'm done griping about that one for a while. And since I haven't yet seen Ocean's 13 or Shrek 3, I suppose it would be poor form to gripe about them.

I just didn't get around to seeing those threequels. Each has a bloated All-Star cast. Each follows a disappointing sequel. Each has a special larger-than-life animated character who promises to make the whole thing worthwhile. In Shrek's case, it's Puss in Boots; in Ocean's 13, it's Al Pacino. If some wizard figures out a way to put those two showstoppers in the same movie, I'm THERE, and I'm sure not waiting for video. Until, I could wait for video.

Also out this week:

Golden Boy: Now, here's a treat: A fine boxing yarn from 1939 with Bill Holden, Babs Stanwyck, and a stellar supporting cast; plus--this is Sony, mind you, so pardon my enthusiasm--EXTRAS. At a time when some studios seem to be scaling back or ignoring bonus features, Sony may be stepping it up. Rumor has it that they are committed to releasing more vintage material on DVD, and supposedly future 3 Stooges sets will have some goodies. Well, Golden Boy may give credence to that talk because it contains a rare cartoon, an old TV episode starring Stanwyck, and a film short with SHEMP HOWARD! Well done, Sony.

Black Books Series 3: Another set of the quite funny Britcom. Has this season been shown on BBC America yet? It's impossible to follow what's going on on that channel, and this show is pretty much an afterthought when it IS on American Beeb. This DVD release is another reason to give up on BBC America.

It's a Wonderful Life "Yet Another" Edition: The wizards at Paramount have taken the recent 60th anniversary edition and slapped on a new colorized version to entice fans to buy it again. Colorized movies? Still? I thought that went out with cigarette smoking.

Wrestling Society X Season One: Remember when MTV had its own pro wrestling promotion and gave it a half-hour show? Well, it was only months ago. Let's just say of all the things that make Vince McMahon worry these days, this is not one of them.

Friday, November 16, 2007

True Confessions: Heart's "Never"

I'm just come right out and say it: I heard "Never" by Heart on the radio the other day, and, yes, I kind of rocked out to it in my car. That alone might be embarrassing enough, but my True Confession involves my descent into The Three Circles of Shame. More specifically:

The First Circle of Shame: In which I kept the station on there and actually turned the volume up, all the better to hear it in all its Big 80s sonic glory. In this stage of shame, I feel sufficiently awkward to be hesitant to post this info in public on this blog.

This was quickly followed by my entry into...

The Second Circle of Shame: In which I sang along--at high volume--to the song. "We can't go ooooooo---ooooo--nnnn just running away, if we stay any longer, we will surely never get away..." Once I have reached this circle, I am ashamed to admit my behavior even to close friends and loved ones. It's difficult to confess this activity to my wife.

Things only got worse, though, as the next stop was the end of the line, the place from which there is no easy exit (insert Iraq joke here)...

The Third Circle of Shame: In this circle, I am so apalled by my own actions that I can't even relive them in my own mind. I am in a constant state of denial, refusing to believe I could be capable of such disgraceful deeds. This Third Circle of Shame is truly a private hell, and since I entered, living with myself is a constant struggle. But since my idea behind True Confessions is cleansing my slate and hopefully overcoming my deep-seated feelings of shame, I will now reveal what I did to earn my spot in this Third Circle.

At one point during the song--OK, several points--I actually did the Nancy Wilson rock and roll head tilt that she does in the video.

Even when she does it, it looks lame today, but she has the advantages of 1) being in a band, 2) being in a video, 3) holding a guitar, 4) being a chick, and 5) having really big hair. I offer none of these qualities, of course, making what I did in the car inexcusable.

What was I thinking? Well, that's the point. I wasn't thinking at all, I was rocking. Sure, 1980s-era Heart is kind of goofy, but "Never" has a great sound, slick as it is, and it's just tough to turn away when it comes on. Does this excuse me going so far as to plunge into The Third Circle of Shame? No, it does not, but I was caught up in the moment.

If you want to share in my shame, check out Nancy's head tilt at about 34 seconds into this clip
Just don't blink. She did this in a lot of her videos, as I recall, and it looked pretty cool when she did so. Not so much when I tried it. Hey, in my defense, at least I didn't do a random high leg kick, as she does about a few dozen times in this clip. Then again, if I hadn't been driving...

5 Question Movie Review: Eastern Promises

Q: Hey, great, a sequel to A History of Violence! Is this as good as the first one?
A: Whoa, whoa, whoa. Yes, this movie reunites director David Cronenberg with star Viggo Mortensen, and, yes, it explores the nature, causes, and effects of violence. But it's a completely different movie, with different characters in a new setting. Incidentally, it's not quite as good. but if you don't try to saddle this one with the comparison, it's a fine film.

Q: Got to ask about that bathhouse brawl scene that got all the pub, the one in which supposedly you see all of Viggo in action. is that as disturbing as it sounds?
A: Well, many might not find the idea of Naked Viggo disturbing, but there is nothing erotic about that brutal showstopper of a fight scene. It is extremely rough in a "realistic" sort of way. It's desperate, frantic combat without hyperstylized editing or a loud video game soundtrack to prod you into an adrenaline rush. And Mortensen is indeed naked the whole time and quite vulnerable, and all guys in the audience will cringe each time the blade involved is flashed.

That said, as a hetero male, as tough as this was to watch, as devastatingly vicious as it became, it STILL was much, much easier to take than the nude wrestling in "Borat."

Q: Is this movie as grim and unrelenting as all that? History of Violence was pretty intense once it got going.
A: Actually, despite several excessively violent scenes and a general sense of evil--Cronenberg even ups the stakes by resorting to putting a baby in jeopardy--there are signs of hope here, many coming from Naomi Watts. Watts is excellent as a nurse who becomes involved in the dark underworld of the Russian Mafia in London but never loses sight of her principles and her sense of right and wrong. It's an admirable performance--both strong and tender, with Watts going a relatively less glamorous route--in a movie landscape that is often lacking in good female roles.

Q: Aha! So there are people involved in this besides Viggo and Cronenberg?
A: Yes, there are, with vivid support from cast members like Armin-Mueller Stahl and Vincent Cassell. But while he wasn't the only actor in the film, Viggo Mortensen clearly owns it, delivering a mesmerizing performance that is arguably even more impressive and memorable than his work in History of Violence. I find that Eastern Promises lacks some of the depth and thought-provoking quality of that one. This is not due to any lack of trying by Viggo, though, as he brings subtlety and some ambiguity to his role.

Q: Does this movie really take us inside the world of the Russian Mafia?
A: It's not like Scorcese, but Cronenberg depicts that environment quite vividly in some ways--the tattoos, the food, the language. In other ways, he emphasizes how separate it is from what we think of London culture. The placement of the gangsters' realm in, say, an unassuming (from the outside) family-owned restaurant on a low-key downtown street creates that sense of a unique world that is apparently detached from the larger reality yet also lurking right within its heart. Inside these urban areas, these men dominate, but in outdoor scenes, they stick out, not just as "foreigners," but as criminals. It's a fascinating dichotomy that gives "Eastern Promises" a fresh slant on the familiar concept of organized crime.

Sunday, November 11, 2007

5 Question Movie Review: Across the Universe

Q: Is this a total disgrace to the Beatles' legacy or what?
A: No, that would be the Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band debacle from 1978. Across the Universe is no turkey. However, it's no big success, either. It's faint praise to say it's pleasant and doesn't embarrass any one (with perhaps one exception noted below), but that's probably the best I can do for it. Beatle fans that might appreciate the references the most might also be the ones who would rather just hear the original music.

Q: So what's wrong with it?
A: Director Julie Taymor has her cast singing Beatles songs as they represent the happenings of the sixties. Some of the musical numbers are quite simple, with just one of the cast singing the tune, while others are elaborate !extravaganzas! But throughout the movie, I never got a sense of emotional uplift. I personally find the Beatles' music fun and exciting. Even the sadder songs in their catalog make me feel GOOD about feeling sad. Here, Taymor has her cast members do rather sedate, downbeat versions of songs like "Something" and "If I Fell," and it robs the story of the excitement it might have had with more exuberant versions. I found that the best music had the least inspired visuals, while the best visual sequences often accompanied the less effective music.

Simply put, there is a wealth of cool images, but not much narrative momentum or build. There is a climactic sequence that takes place on a rooftop, and even that doesn't have the emotional impact Taymor is striving for--and it's a rooftop concert! Come on, you should be able to make that work in a Beatle-inspired story.

Ultimately, Across the Universe reminds you of that NBC miniseries "The 60's." It's just young people going through all the cliches of that decade, only with a unique twist on the soundtrack. The leads are a little too bland to carry it. Who woulda thunk Marilyn Manson's girlfriend would be "bland" on screen? But there you go.

Q: Are there any Beatle cameos?
A: I didn't catch any, but there were famous cameos, usually not faring too well. Joe Cocker does a good job, but his presence is distracting, given that he is already known not just for being a rock star, but for doing memorable Beatles covers. Bono is trying as Dr. Robert, but he comes off like he's doing a weak Robin Williams impersonation. Worst of all is Eddie Izzard, though, he makes an ass of himself by plodding through "Being for the Benefit of the Kite." I imagine the movie's creative team shares the blame for this, but Izzard is about the only performer who doesn't appear to respect the source material.

Q: What stand out as the best songs in the movie? The worst?
A: I mentioned my dislike of Izzard's number. I enjoyed the "rock"-ier versions done by Dana Fuchs and Martin Luther as Sadie and Jo Jo, respectively--including "Helter Skelter" and "Oh Darling."

Q: In your Fall Movie Preview, you said something about the trailer and Salma Hayek in a nurse's outfit. I don't have a question here. Just please confirm for me this made it into the movie.
A: Oh, if only her scene were longer--much longer. The brevity of her appearance is the only thing disappointing about it. Taymor stages a dizzying dreamlike number in which a wounded soldier is tended to by multiple Nurse Salmas to the sounds of--who cares what the song is? Multiple Nurse Salmas! It may be a long autumn and winter ahead of us, but that image should get many of us through the cold months.

Saturday, November 10, 2007

This Week in DVD

Just to recap from my previous DVD post: Spider-Man 3 is an awful movie, and I don't care if the DVD actually includes webshooters, don't buy it. If you're one of the few dozen who didn't suffer through it in theaters, trust my Sucky Sense on this one.

Now on to brighter news, and that's this week's DVD releases. I feel good already looking over the release schedule for this week.

I Now Pronounce You Chuck and Larry: And just like that, the dark clouds return. However, since I didn't actually see this one, I'm not gonna rip it. But come on. We all know.

Ratatouille: Hey, here we go, a movie we can all be proud of, something that will surely be in my top 10 even if half the movies coming soon turn out to be as good as I hope they will be. It's a wonderful Pixar animated feature--no surprise there--but, Disney, what's up with the extras? With this and "Cars," one is tempted to think you're holding back for Blu-Ray or Special Edition double-dips. Hmm...

Seinfeld Ninth Season: For a while, my perception has been that the show got increasingly self-indulgent as it went on, with this final season without Larry David the clear bottom rung of the series. But now, this DVD set comes out, and I'm looking at the list of episodes, and I see quite a few that make me say, "Hey, I wouldn't mind seeing that again," even if it's just for one scene or for one line. Fans don't need me to make up their minds for them on this one, though.

Wings Fifth Season: For a while, my perception has been that the show was OK at best and a pleasant enough diversion, but never more than a poor man's "Cheers." But now, this DVD set comes out, and I'm looking at the list of episodes, and...yeah, I pretty much feel the same.

Chinatown Special Edition: I have to at least mention this classic neo-noir because a lot of people have been waiting for it. Trustworthy DVD reviewer DVD Savant endorses this edition as a big upgrade on the previous disc. Me, I've never liked this one as much as I feel I should, but this new release might be a good excuse for me to check it out again.

Thursday, November 8, 2007

Cultureshark Remembers Fabulous Moolah

You have to hand it to the Fabulous Moolah, who passed away last week at 84, for being so successful for so long in such a male-dominated realm as professional wrestling. She may have used some cutthroat tactics to do so, and as a performer she was a notorious villain, but in her ripe old age, she hit a late career stride doing comedy segments on WWF television. It was often surreal seeing the inappropriate and tasteless situations her and fellow retiree Mae Young would be placed in on "Raw" each Monday, but then, her whole career was pretty surreal to me.

As a child of the 1980s, I grew up on the rise of the WWF as Vince McMahon brought showbiz and professional production values to his wrestling promotion and took it national on the strength of superstars like Hulk Hogan, Roddy Piper, and...well, Moolah, sort of. Somehow, the Fabulous Moolah, who was already in her early 60s at this point, was STILL the face of women's wrestling as the WWF went national, then global in the middle of the decade.

Oh, she had a rival for a while in Wendi Richter, a young woman with a real "eighties" look who seemed destined for a push as the female equivalent of the Hulkster, but she never panned out. Besides, Richter's foil (and the foil of her temporary "manager" Cyndi Lauper) was Moolah.

The fact is, at a time when Vince McMahon was pushing young musclebound stallions to the moon on the men's side, the face of his women's division had more wrinkles than an episode of Lost. Moolah was not one of those freakishly fit seniors you see hawking vitamins or exercise equipment, either. The announcers would hype the fact (which wasn't) that she had held the title for umpteen straight years, and maybe that gave her credibility with some folks, but in fact, she looked like she couldn't beat anything stronger than a parking ticket. She didn't exactly have "Rock N' Wrestling" charisma, either. It was hard to imagine her dancing anything hipper than the Charleston.

I still don't know exactly why Moolah was given the keys to women's wrestling for so many years, but I know she's one reason I never cottoned to the ladies' division. Even years later when I saw the athletic, superior work of Japanese women, something had been ruined for me, and I think it was the ridiculousness of the legend of the Fabulous Moolah. I like "technical wrestling" as much as the next fanboy, butMoolah wasn't wrestling, she was RASSLIN'. She was hair pulls and stall holds and the kind of low-impact stuff I associate with clips from the 1950s and 1960s--no wonder considering she WAS in her 50s and 60s. I just couldn't suspend disbelief as I could with the men (and I could just barely do so there in the 1980s WWF).

Still, Moolah had a hell of a run. Years later, when the WWF began just giving up on teaching wrestlers to be entertaining female personalities and started teaching centerfolds to wrestle, Lillian Ellison, bless her geriatric, possibly mechanically enhanced (as opposed to chemically enhanced) heart, was stealing the show on national television just by being old. If she didn't redeem women's wrestling for me, she at least made me feel good that there is still a place for senior citizens in even the most youth-baiting of professions.

So the news of her death is a shocker to me, as when I was young and getting into wrestling, she was already ancient. Who knew she was mortal? When Keith Richards finally goes, I'll be less stunned than I was last week...but not as stunned as I was in 1985 when the Spider Lady beat Wendi Richter for the championship. Spider Lady then took off her mask to reveal herself as the Fabulous Moolah. I still don't get it, but then some things are just not meant for us TO get.

Tuesday, November 6, 2007

Last Week in DVD

OK cut me some slack because I have important DVD news I just can't withhold due to some technicality, like the fact it's no longer last week this week.

The big DVD news is: Fans, it's safe to buy Three Stooges DVDs! Finally! After years of half-assed, double-priced collections from Sony, the studio has apparently decided to do right by the comedy team and release their shorts unedited, restored, and in chronological order. Volume One contains 18 shorts from 1934-1936, and they look great. There are no extras this time, but word has it future sets will have some cool supplements. So, fans, buy 'em up so we get more. I know Sony has attempted to hoodwink you before with ripoffs, colorized travesties, and other time wasters, but this is the real deal.

See why I couldn't just pass that over?

Oh, another reason I have to talk about last week's DVD releases is that I just have to take the opportunity to bash Spider-Man 3. Yeah, yeah, it made a lot of dough this summer, and maybe the video is flying off shelves, but I stand by my opinion that it's franchise killer. At least, it should have been. I am totally sick of the Sam Raimi-Tobey Maguire connection, and their third effort eliminates the good things about the previous two while amping up the bad things, like unlikable characterizations and nonsenical scripting. And all this while paying homage, intentionally or not, to Superman II, The Mask, The Nutty Professor, and maybe even Saturday Night Fever. Why? Why? Each of these crappy superhero movies (this one is even worse than Superman Returns) makes what Christopher Nolan is doing with Batman seem even more brilliant.

Please, folks, don't buy this DVD and encourage someone to back up the armored truck and empty a pile of cash onto Sam Raimi's porch to do a fourth one. He's done enough to the character.

There WAS some other good stuff last week, though. For example, Warner Brothers released yet another Looney Tunes box. Each year, a beautiful package of classic cartoons with tons of supplements comes out, and though I'm still behind on the other Looney Tunes sets I own, I don't want to take this for granted. Kudos again to WB.

Now back to the crap: License to Wed. Seriously. License to Wed?

There was also a Barbara Stanwyck collection and the promising Talk to Me with Don Cheadle, but the main message for last week: Stooges good, Looney Tunes good, Spider-Man 3 terrible.

Sunday, November 4, 2007

First Impulse: Green Lantern Movie

It's First Impulse, where I give you my early thoughts on a new project or development.

Last week, a Green Lantern movie, featuring the Hal Jordan version of the character, was announced as a go. In some comic book fandom circles, any kind of comic-to-movie announcement brings much rejoicing, but as you can tell from my last post (in which I bashed Spider-Man 3), I'm getting kind of tired of being let down by weak superhero flicks. I'm a little more skeptical.

Certainly the news that the head honcho on this Green Lantern film is Greg Berlanti does nothing for me. The guy's been working on Brothers and Sisters, Everwood, and Dawson's Creek--not the kind of resume that inspires confidence. Some may say, well, Fox tabbed Tim Story from Barbershop to do the Fantastic Four movies. And I would say, yeah, and those movies are lame. One could also point out the apparently unconventional choice of Wedding Crashers David Dobkin to do the proposed Flash movie. To that, I say, here's a bonus First Impulse: That idea stinks.

Back to Berlanti, though--and, hey, that sounds like the title of Jean Claude Van Damme direct-to-video. Nothing against Everwood or Brothers and Sisters (plenty against Dawson's Creek, but that's not a battle for today), but they just aren't pluses for me.

So I can't say I expect great things from this, even at this early stage. However, I do think this movie could fill a real niche if it goes in a certain direction, and that is a cosmic one. These superhero movies of the recent boom period have been earthbound and not all that spectacular. Even the Silver Surfer came down to Earth to meet the Fantastic Four, not the other way around.

Green Lantern spends a lot of time flying around in space and doing cool hero stuff on other planets. If the movie pulls that off with any semblance of credibility, it will give it real distinction in the now-commonplace world of comic book adaptations. GL's power ring creating funky shapes and doing wild stuff might look great on screen with some decent effects, but if Hal Jordan spends all his time on Earth, it could be a missed opportunity to do something special and take this genre to the next level.

Saturday, November 3, 2007

Should You Watch: Back to You

I didn't think too highly of most of this fall's new TV shows, and that was even before I saw them. But I had at least middling hopes Fox's Wednesday sitcom "Back to You" would be worthwhile. I like Kelsey Grammer, I like Fred Willard, and I don't lose control of my faculties when Patricia Heaton comes on the screen. Plus, the whole package was put together and executed by a group of seasoned old pros like director James Burrowes.

But maybe everyone was involved too seasoned, because Back to You played out to me like just another tired TV show. I know many people are so starved for sitcoms nowadays they rejoice at the sight of any traditional kind of TV comedy, but really, folks, we can't give a pass to stuff like this just because it's not a reality show.

I laughed a few times during the pilot and thought Grammer's character--an arrogant news anchor coming back to the "small market" of Pittsburgh to co-host the local newscast--had potential. Then at the end of the episode came a maudlin plot twist involving the daughter he never knew he had, a child who, by the way, belongs to his former colleague and current co-anchor. Oooookay, that's contrived enough, but the sappy way this was handled really worried me, and not just because it was totally out of place with the ribald 20-some minutes that preceded it. No, it looked like Back to You was already straining not just to entertain us, not just to be funny, but--and this can be trouble, folks--to have heart.

With reservations, I came back for the second episode. That sentimental streak was gone, but it was replaced by a terrible plot. See, Kelsey's anchor wanted to prove to Heaton's character that he was now responsible enough to take care of a child. So he wound up making a big show of petsitting a goldfish and--see this one coming?--the goldfish died, so hijinks ensued as he tried to hide that from her.

Seriously, wasn't that plot done before in...every single TV show with a regular character under 15? And "Back to You" didn't mine laughs out of the hoary premise by emphasizing how silly it was that an adult was in this situation. It just gave us a silly situation. That was enough for me, and I haven't come Back to It.

But maybe there's something in it for you. You should watch "Back to You" if:

*You love so-called traditional sitcoms. You've never actually seen any of them, so you won't mind seeing them all rehashed, but you just know you love 'em.
*You love seeing Patricia Heaton exchange risque barbs and then calling her a hypocrite because of her well-known conservative politics.
*You've been around the country and relocated several times, but you've never found any city quite as warm and charming as Pittsburgh.
(*The fact that the show says it's in Pittsburgh is enough local flavor for you.)
*You'll watch Fred Willard in anything, even if he's only 4% of the whole thing.
*You feel Mary Tyler Moore left a lot of unanswered comic questions in its portrayal of local news.
*You treasure your complete run of Comedy Central's Man Bites Dog that you transferred to DVD this summer.

Friday, November 2, 2007

Cultureshark Remembers Robert Goulet

I feel sort of embarrassed for saying this, but I won't remember Robert Goulet as the Camelot star and singer. No, I will remember the later Robert Goulet, the eternal Special Guest Star who was always good for a comic turn, often at his own expense. I was jarred recently to see the young Goulet as heelish evangelist Brother Love in a "Big Valley" rerun. He was quite entertaining, so much that he even stole the show from fellow guest star Gavin McLeod.

OK, I'm being facetious, but it was a good episode, and there was more to Goulet than standards and show tunes, and that's what stands out for me.

The classic Goulet cameo was his spot on "The Simpsons." Many celebrities had their classic cameos on that show, but who can forget "$pringfield (available on the Season 5 DVD), with Goulet, game and suave even in Simpsons animated form, singing in Bart's treehouse casino?

"Jingle Bells, Batman smells, Robin laid an egg..."

Then he accidentally hits Milhouse as he swings the microphone, and the way he says, "I'm sorry, kid," cracks me up every time.

My all-time favorite Robert Goulet is another example of his poking fun at that slick image. When he and Leslie Nielsen faced off in The Naked Gun 2 1/2, it was two seasoned pros going at it like Ali-Frazier, or like some other tired boxing analogy that isn't used as much, only it inspired you to laugh instead of writing rapturous prose about The Sweet Science.

Nielsen's Drebin crashes Goulet's Hapsburg's swank soiree, leading to a hilarious deadpan battle of wits. Goulet's reactions to Nielsen's nonsense are outstanding. In fact, R.G. makes a great comic villain throughout the movie.

"Lieutenant, I don't recall seeing your name on the guest list."
"It's nothing to be embarrassed about. I sometimes go by my maiden name."

"Que sera sera. You do speak French?"
"Unfortunately, no...but I do kiss that way."

Maybe I shouldn't have been surprised that Goulet was such an entertaining actor. The man starred in one of the lost acclaimed TV shows of the 1960s: Blue Light, an espionage series featuring Goulet as an American pretending to work for the Nazis. I've read several times what a great show this was, and it seems like a forgotten gem. A movie made up of several episodes, "I Deal in Danger," was released on DVD earlier this year. I think in tribute to Mr. Goulet, I'll try to get my hands on that one. In the meantime, I can think of no finer tribute than to enjoy his stunning work as Quentin Hapsburg.